3 Common Barriers to a Successful Online Community — and How to Overcome Them

business people sitting at table with screens

Building an online community is no easy feat. Even the most seasoned professional will run up against common barriers to success, and we’ve put together three solutions to set you and your community up for long-term growth and health.

Since the beginning of 2021, I’ve spent time researching corporate alumni programs across companies and industries, after managing one myself for the last five years. I’m often asked why are alumni relations important and what the return on investment (ROI) for a community is expected to provide, or how to prove it. Tracking the success of an online community isn’t a straightforward endeavor — it’s a combination of quantifiable and qualitative metrics analyzed over time. These fall into two categories:

  • Day-to-day community health and engagement metrics
  • Broad goals connected to business drivers

The day-to-day metrics are the “easy” ones, as they represent the actions taken on your online platform — things like registrations, profile updates, event attendance, communication stats, etc. You can easily count these numbers monthly or quarterly, and they essentially just prove that people are showing up and interacting. This is still important baseline data, as the overall goal of an online community is to encourage member engagement and foster a sense of belonging. This is also how to attract alumni to join.

However, the business drivers — the goals executives use to justify investment in a program — are more difficult to measure because you must dive deeper to prove their value. As you become more senior in managing a program, data plays a much larger role.

For an alumni community, these goals consistently include talent acquisition, business development, and brand advocacy. In other communities they may be something like product sales, customer support, or client retention. In our research at PeoplePath we found that most alumni communities (over 80%) are measuring these day-to-day metrics, but less than half are tracking their broader business goals.

This made me wonder: Why are so many tracking community engagement, but not the goals that demonstrate fruitful connections, networking, and relationship building?

After more than a decade in community building, I’ve identified three common barriers to successful online communities and solutions for overcoming them.

Barrier 1: Lack of a Single, Clear, and Meaningful Objective

Do you know what’s important to senior leaders? Oftentimes a program or community manager will jump in blindly, set a few arbitrary goals, work hard to achieve them all, and end up spreading themselves thin — all while managing to overlook stakeholder priorities and business needs.

Solution: Align with leadership to define a primary goal

Take the time to discuss your goals with those of your boss, department heads, and senior leaders. After you’ve done your due diligence, assemble the team and present the strategic plan, outlining the new primary goal and explaining how you will achieve it over time with their help. Schedule this meeting quarterly or biannually to maintain stakeholder buy-in and keep objectives top of mind and on track.

For example: If your primary goal is talent acquisition, then monitoring how many people in your alumni community return to the company is important. After all, rehires save money in recruitment and training costs. Clearly defining this goal helps focus your efforts on the right activities. You’ll need to work with your human resources and IT teams to connect the HRIS system with the alumni platform, allowing you to track talent acquisition through rehire dates. Then you can create content and events that support career development, referrals, and anything else that encourages former employees to return to the company.

Barrier 2: Lack of Colleague Motivation and Support

It takes a village to raise an online community, but inspiring the villagers to help can be a challenge. Unless the community is core to the business (like Airbnb, for example), most employees will not see it as a top priority. They need to understand why the community exists, how it operates, their role, and the impact it has on the organization. Mutual success should be defined.

Solution: Establish a cross-departmental steering committee

Assemble a team comprised of key employees across all departments, so that each business area of your organization is represented. Schedule regular meetings to discuss community initiatives, assign responsibilities, ensure accountability, and celebrate successes.

For example: If business development is the primary goal, you need systems in place that allow for alumni connections and referrals to be acknowledged. You’ll need to work closely with your marketing or finance departments, uncovering information inside of the company’s systems to track how many new clients or business deals are generated through alumni community connections. The steering committee will help ensure these departments come together and see that initiatives are carried out successfully. The community manager can then step in and train departments about the community, the norms, and how everything is connected.

Barrier 3: Lack of Awareness

Some truly wonderful things happen in a thriving online community. Friends are made, old colleagues reconnect, projects get developed, new businesses are formed, personal achievements are celebrated, and so much more. But if no one knows about these things, a truly valuable opportunity is being missed.

Solution: Become great at storytelling

Getting those stories out of the community and into the company will help encourage more interaction and evangelism for the program.

For example: 62% of companies encourage their employees to partake in the alumni program (with 16% more planning to do so in the future). Therefore, a key partner in the success of your program will be the person who manages internal communications. Supply that person with content like alumni stories, employee event information, helpful tips for using the platform, or new job opportunities (internal or external). Put this content onto an intranet or into an employee newsletter to build the community brand internally. These storytelling efforts will have the added benefit of educating employees about the alumni program, so they’ll be eager to join when they become alumni.

The Bottom line: Teamwork is Everything

Some of these barriers are easier to overcome than others, but by working together with teams across your organization to achieve shared goals, the ROI on your community will be bountiful and obvious.

What other barriers exist for you?


Originally written on LinkedIn.

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