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3 Reasons Why Your Next Online Community Idea Will Fail

By Wayan Vota on July 13, 2015


As the initiator of three successful websites, EduTechDebate, OLPC News, and ICTworks, I am often asked to help others create online communities. Now they can be communities of practice, user communities, or constituent communities that well-meaning people want to develop in online conversations to achieve a logical and beneficial goal.

However, almost all of these communities are doomed to failure. I know this because while I may have succeeded with 3 communities, I have failed with at least 8 others, and I am sure I’ll fail with a few more soon too. Bottom line: online community building is damn hard. Impossible even, if you don’t take into consideration these three needs:

You need a vibrant offline community first

Online communities don’t just spontaneously form. They start when people who already know each other, connect around a shared focus, then attract others with the same focus. So you have to start with an already existent community, preferably one that meets in-person and has a common desire and connection to others geographically dispersed, and is willing to overcome the limitations of online communication to make and grow those shared topics and connections.

For example, EduTechDebate rose out of conversations with educators and technologists who wanted to debate key themes in ICT4Edu. They mostly already knew each other and wanted an online platform to talk about these issues with their far-flung colleagues. Participants recommended their friends for lead discussant roles and then would forward around their posts, growing its influence beyond the official website readership.

You need a laser focus on their needs, not yours

Too many people try to start communities in order for people to talk about the community manager’s pet topic. This is where too many development programs fail. They expect potential constituents to wake up one day and want to talk about improving government-led capacity building for the Sustainable Development Goals. Good luck with that. Instead, start by asking community members what they want to talk about that doesn’t have an existing online platform for debate. Then build what they want, regardless of your desires.

For example, when I started OLPC News, I wanted to keep it a blog. However, once OLPC became a global cause célèbre, the blog format couldn’t handle the demand, and I launched a forum so people could talk amongst themselves. Did you know I hate forums? That the form was a resource drain on me financially and technically? Neither mattered. The audience wanted a forum, so a forum I delivered. I also opened up the OLPC News blog and accepted guest posts from anyone – even those I disliked or had viewpoints contrary to my own. The community’s needs mattered, not my own.

You need patience, patience, patience, and even more funding

No community is successful overnight. It takes years of hard work to build a high-quality, high-demand community, a time commitment we often don’t realize when writing the online community proposal. The first issue is content. You may think people will jump forward to contribute, but time and again there is a clear 1/9/90 ratio: 1% of users are creators, 9% of users are commenters, and 90% of users are observers. Expect to pay that 1% in either attention, benefits, or straight up cash to keep them engaged. Best if you can employ a full-time community advocate/manager.

For example, we started ICTworks in 2008, expecting the blog and the forum to take off with the Inveneo Certified ICT Partner program participants. It didn’t. I wrote the majority of posts for both, and in the 2014 redesign, we killed off the ICTworks Forum for lack of interest. Luckily, the blog did take off with the wider ICT4D community, and today a majority of posts are written by others, and read and debated by over 8,000 subscribers. Yet that took 6 years and an immeasurable numbers of hours of effort. Even then, ICTworks would die tomorrow if Jana and I stopped pushing it forward daily.

Sadly, both EduTechDebate and OLPC News are already dead. I may have an inherent, insatiable need to blog, but not even I can keep more than one community alive at time.

Update – Resources

If you are thinking of starting an online community or looking for resources to reinvigorate one you already started, here are two recommendations:

  • Follow FeverBee, an excellent blog on how to do online communities right
  • Download and read HC3’s great guide to Modern Communities of Practice: Recommendations for Building, Maintaining, and Measuring Impact

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Written by
Wayan Vota is a digital development entrepreneur and the co-founder of ICTworks. He also co-founded ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, Technology Salon, JadedAid, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things.
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10 Comments to “3 Reasons Why Your Next Online Community Idea Will Fail”

  1. Mireille Nsimire says:

    I agree with you Wayan , I can add a fourth think to be considered is also a physical meeting of community member. You need to plan at least a yearly physical meeting among active community members. This is help to consolidate your online work and move forward with fresh inspiration and motivation from team.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Totally agree with the need to keep offline meetings going too. The online connections need to have regular reinforcement in multiple ways to keep them strong and vibrant.

      With OLPCNews I helped form a DC meetup and helped others to launch clubs in their regions. For ICTworks, you all see how many offline events we advertize.

  2. Good points, Wayan, all of which (& more) we/HC3 have shared in our brief/white paper “Modern Communities of Practice: Recommendations for Building, Maintaining, and Measuring Impact” (http://www.healthcommcapacity.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/COP-february.pdf).

  3. Hi Wayan and thanks for this post. Another resource from Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs is an eLearning Course on online CoPs:


  4. Thanks Wayan.

    As someone who has mobilized a community (and failed at others), there is more wisdom in your words than most can possibly know.

    Thanks for sharing


  5. Dave Algoso says:

    Wayan, I would expand on your mention of a full-time advocate/manager, because I think that’s so critical. Self-organization is a lovely ideal, but it doesn’t work at small scale in a virtual world. (On a large scale, of course, you have what’s happening at Reddit recently.)

    For most professionally oriented online communities, the community is an afterthought for members and secondary to their “real” job. Having someone focused on keeping those other people engaged and building community becomes that much more important.

    • Another important point is that the technology supporting online communities needs to be developed WITH the community and not for them by experts who are not community members. Wayan, you already imply this in your point number two about community needs. But, the point bears repeated specifically about the initial tech development. When donors are willing to fund online communities they rarely have supported an agile approach to development that leverages how community members already interact with each other and use technology. Moonshot Global just finished a 9-month assignment helping The MasterCard Foundation and Arizona State University develop a prototype for an online community for MasterCard Foundations Scholars. We were lucky enough to have the resources to apply a design thinking approach to co-create features and functionality with users and then run mini-pilots to test whether users would actually use the features and functionality they seemed to demand…long before the development phase. Also, gone are the days when community members will visit websites and search for what they want. It is possible and proven to be effective to deliver customized content and keep users engaged through game mechanics that play upon their intrinsic motivations to contribute content.

  6. Wayan’s post is right on target, and previous comments have added important points and resources. Depending on the community and objectives, incentives can also play an important role in success. Years ago a brilliant colleague worked with the Foundation for Local Government Reform in Bulgaria to develop an online community for local government innovators in the country. The online community revolved around an Innovator of the Week and an annual award for innovation, selected by the community. There was an annual in-person awards event. This community and the awards programs remained active many years after the project ended that had helped to create them.