If you build it, they won’t come

The Business Technology blog over at WSJ reports on a recent study of more than 100 corporate social networks. Ed Moran, a Deloitte consultant, found that:

Thirty-five percent of the online communities studied have less than 100 members; less than 25% have more than 1,000 members – despite the fact that close to 60% of these businesses have spent over $1 million on their community projects.

Moran’s conclusion is that companies get seduced by the technologies involved without understanding the terrain. These sites fail, he believes, because companies don’t invest enough money or manpower in supporting them, and because the things the companies measure don’t really align with their professed business goals.

The title of the article – “Why Most Online Communities Fail” – is misleading, since Moran is talking specifically about corporate social networks, and the very premise of these sites is flawed if you ask me. I haven’t seen the list of companies he looked at, but I would guess that most of them actually have thriving online “communities” whose activities just happen to be distributed across the Internet. People are twittering. They’re posting about those 100 companies on their blogs and MySpace pages.

I understand the urge that companies have to contain this activity, but it’s a pipe dream. You can build the snazziest playground in the world, and most of your community still won’t show up. If you want to connect with them, you have to do it on their turf. If you want to quantify their effect on your brand perception or your sales numbers, you have to find tools that can do that.

That’s what my most recent venture, Scout Labs, is aiming to provide, and that’s why I believe in their product. Companies are willing to spend millions on the fantasy that they can bring their communities to them because they don’t have very good ways of tuning in to the communities that are already out there.

But that’s changing.