Forrester Report: Online Community Best Practices

Left: One of the 5 diagrams from the report: Successful online communities experience the following stages.

I spent a few months researching and preparing for this two-piece report series. I’m proud of my deliverable on Online Community Best Practices. Like a term paper, this report is based off research, interviews, insight, and data. I interviewed over 17 people (many community leaders that you know) to find out the commonalities between successful communities.

Many of you are new to analyst reports, (myself included) the document is written in a very succint, actionable, and clear way, and every line is defensible , as it’s based off findings. This blog, while sometimes has elements of a report, has more opinion and topics based off my sole experience rather than the research of industry leaders.

Here’s the executive summary of the Online Community Best Practices

Online Community Best Practices
Communities Are A Powerful Tool, As Long As You Put Members’ Needs First

“An online community is an interactive group of people joined together by a common interest. It’s also one of the most powerful tools a marketer can deploy for customer retention, word of mouth, and customer insight. To host a successful community, think of it as you would product development: Start by focusing on objectives, chart a road map, assemble the right team, and plan to be flexible. Then build your success by launching the community with the backing of your most enthusiastic customers and staying engaged as the community grows. Above all, remember that control is in the hands of the members, so put their needs first, build trust, and become an active part of the community.”

While the report is only available for Forrester clients (like your company has products, this is ours) I can share with you some findings that seem to be a problem for everyone. First of all, many companies have a hard time being successful with their community if they want to control it too tight. The most successful companies let go of the control and acted more like a host, rather than a policeman. Secondly, many companies had a hard time kick-starting a community, just because you build it, doesn’t mean they’ll come.

If you’re a Forrester client, you can access the full report at the Forrester site. Please leave a comment on the site with your feedback, or on this blog. Essentially, I’m like a product manager, and I hold my customer opinions very closely, if you’ve further questions, I’d be happy to talk further.

Here are some of the companies that I interviewed, ACDSee, AirTran Airways, Ant’s Eye View (Jake McKee), Avenue A | Razorfish, Carnival Cruise Lines, Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, Cnet TechRepublic, Constant Contact, Dogster, Intuit, Leverage Software, Microsoft,, Organic, Reuters AdvicePoint, SATMetrics, Telligent Systems, and you’ll even note that I credited Shel Israel for his definition of communities, I spearheaded this conversation on this blog, and in twitter. Each of these folks that were interviewed will receive a copy, stay tuned for an email.

Update: The report spread fast, really fast. Just a few hours after this post, one of the top German luxury car manufactures has requested a meeting today, to talk about online communities.

72 Replies to “Forrester Report: Online Community Best Practices”

  1. I’m very impressed with this document. It breaks down to clear and realistic expectations that brands should have when entering this space as well as important ground-rules to be aware of to encourage success.

  2. I am interested in a clarification about this research — in this report are you advocating that companies build their own communities or are you saying that IF you develop your own community, here are some best practices?

  3. Ted

    Thanks for this question: “Are we suggesting that companies build their own community, or are these overall best practices”

    Answer: This is an overall best practices document, it applies to companies that have built their own community platform, or those that have joined existing ones on Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, or others.

    The second document in this series is coming soon. it answers WHEN a company should build their own community platform, and WHEN they should join an existing one, and includes some very strategic recommendations.

    In the long run, companies will end up doing both, but for the next few years, expect some segmentation.

  4. I am lucky enough to be a Forrester client so I was fortunate enough to read the report in it’s entirety. It’s one of the best “best practices” documents in the market around online communities (surprise, surprise.) If you can your hands on a copy (legally of course,) I highly recommend that you read it!

    -Jeremiah, Charlene did something cool a few months ago. She had a deal with bloggers that if they promised to blog the report (without giving the farm away.) Maybe you could try something similar?

  5. Sorry – didn’t finish that final thought…

    RE: Charlene – if bloggers promised to blog the report, they could get a free copy of it. Although knowing you, you’ve probably already had this conversation with the head office. 😉

  6. Aaron thanks

    You’re welcome to blog what you thought (esp if you don’t agree) of the report, of course without giving away the sauce.

    Since I interviewed 17 community type folks, they will all get a copy of the report (standard practice) nearly all of them are bloggers, and many of them are pretty well known, like Jake McKee, Bill Johnston, Shel Israel, Connie Benson, etc.

  7. This slide at the top will defintely be circulated among my clients. Unrealistic expectations can really hurt any branded social network initiative (especially the often-doomed efforts that center around the brand, rather than engaging, utilitarian content). As usual, great stuff, JO and Co. Happy V-Day to you and yours.

  8. Just to check – does the report in any way address online communities for physical products (e.g. consumer electronics devices)? Would be curious to compare against some of the services we’ve offered…

  9. Thanks Jeremiah, this is indeed very interesting. I founded an interest group community in 2005, non profit. And you are indeed very right that;

    “First of all, many companies have a hard time being successful with their community if they want to control it too tight. The most successful companies let go of the control and acted more like a host, rather than a policeman. Secondly, many companies had a hard time kick-starting a community, just because you build it, doesn™t mean they™ll come.”

  10. Jeremiah,
    I was able to access the report through my MBA library. My question is that you talk about influencing senior management. Specifically you call to show management the ROI of an online community. My question is how to quantify such an intangible effect as building a strong community. I intuitively understand the benefits, but I am having trouble quantifying the benefits.
    I am thinking from the position of establishing a new online community strategy in a company that does not have one. It will be very hard to quantify in this situation, yet it will be one of our most important sells.
    Overall great effort! Keep up the great work!

  11. @Jeremy Toeman

    “does the report in any way address online communities for physical products”

    Yes. Since communities are about people first, it doesn’t matter what the products (or services are)

  12. @Trevor

    “Specifically you call to show management the ROI of an online community. My question is how to quantify such an intangible effect as building a strong community.”

    Great question, In the ROI section of the report, I spell out costs on left and benefits on right, you can make predictions on the values at the start of the project and fill it out in specifics as you move forward in real time.

    There comes a point in every company where online social communities will just normalize, and everyone will say ‘duh’ this is no-brainer, improving communication with customers is a core function of every company.

    It’s just like email a few years ago, scary at first, but we no longer measure the value of email, we just know it’s place and value.

  13. Jeremiah said:

    “There comes a point in every company where online social communities will just normalize, and everyone will say ˜duh™ this is no-brainer, improving communication with customers is a core function of every company.”

    This gets at a point I’ve been trying (somewhat unsuccessfully) to articulate for a few months – online communities are simply the next iteration of customer communications.

    Phone > Direct mail > Corporate Website > Email > Blog > Customer Community.

    The communications leap that comes with community is that it’s 3-way communications (Company to Customer, Customer to Company and Customer to Customer).

  14. ‘does the report in any way address online communities for physical products

    Yes. Since communities are about people first, it doesn™t matter what the products (or services are)’

    Uh, I vehemently disagree. Has your team specifically looked at communities for, say, devices? Ilounge, Slingcommunity, AVSForum, TivoCommunity, etc? They are *VASTLY* different than a Twitter community. They grow differently, they converse differently, they are very dissimilar, and should not be lumped into the same bucket, at all.

  15. Yes, we did look at Tivo Community for different research. Also, you’ll remember I started and managed the community for Hitachi’s Data Storage products.

    Can you give some specifics on how a product based community is different than any other community?

    They both have interactions, and people gathered around focused on similar interests.

  16. Jeremiah –
    Not to take the conversation in too far of a different direction, but I like the marketing aspect of what you just did. You’ve used the site to build an active following and for many old-school “info-media” companies done something anathema: given “content” away for free (your posts).

    Coming from one of those old-school info-media companies that struggles with this type

    It’s certainly been said before, but these types of activities (community building, free content) are going to be the future of marketing for many companies. Moving beyond the canned whitepaper or brutal cold-calling, customers are going to flock to companies that provide value as part of the conversation that results in a sale. These companies that paradoxically give things away are going to reap the benefits in increased sales.

    Out of curiosity – it’d be neat to see if your report’s two week sales outperform other new report’s over the same period (two weeks post launch).


  17. Thanks Tony

    The goal I’m trying to is to demonstrate my passion over this topic, I guess if folks need more help, they know they can always ask for my time as an analyst to really dig in.

    We’ve a whole team of social media experts standing by ready to help if need be.

  18. Keep up the passion! There is more to be learned about the process of socialization online, building great community and of course, establishing a great technology vehicle for it than you’ll be able to blog in ten years! It’s a really rich and fascinating topic.

    The branding and messaging value you describe is really just coming into view to the average enterprise. This idea has really just taken hold this year, so you’re on the cutting edge! A few years ago, the ideas you present just wouldn’t have made sense to many people.

    Great work!

  19. Hi Jeremiah – great report!

    I like the conceptual model of “Life Process of a Successful Community” and would add to that that the hockey-stick growth isn’t always so consistent. Most of the high-activity communities that I have helped to create have been more of an upward growth with large spikes of activity that were in direct relationship with major product and/ or marketing initiatives. Often, communities are unprepared to deal with increased community activity spikes and all of the associated needs that accompany it (site performance, moderation needs, spammers, increased support, etc).

    On the other side of the coin are companies that believe that “if we build it, they will come” and we know that successful communities require planning, management and marketing commitment.

  20. Jeremiah,

    I really appreciate the effort you take to review and cover the social media ‘space’. I consider myself a contrarian, meaning I’m more sceptical than most about the ‘upside’ to social media, at least from a commercial perspective. I do my own research into this space, with a specific focus on the Australian market (

    One concept I have developed is the Id Index, which categorises social media types, which in turn determines their effectiveness as an advertising/marketing vehicle.

    I would appreciate feedback from you or your readers re: this concept. I think we all have an obligation to question the validity of any technology, no matter how painful the findings.


  21. Thanks for the invitation to participate. I can’t wait to read the report!

    @24. Jeremy Toeman – while the technical and interaction dynamics of something like the Tivo forum vs. twitter vs. a blog might be different in various ways, at the core the social dynamics of people grouping up share more similarities than differences.

  22. Hello,

    My name is Emil Sarnogoev, I’m Skalfa eCommerce, a social tech

    I believe we just launched something your readers would like to know
    about – a free hosted social network site builder that allows to build
    a convincing community home within like 10 minutes.

    Feel free to take a look at

    Our coverage:

    As I noted in the post, the service is early beta and we are working
    on the overall integrity non-stop. There are also features to be
    developed. In current state though it gives a good idea of what we are
    about. Second look also demonstrates users’ benefits of managing their
    multi-network presence at one place.

    I would love to answer your questions if you have any. We want to
    improve so I appreciate any feedback, commentary, and analysis that
    your blog is famous for.

    Thanks in advance,

  23. Thank you for posting this information. I found that your heading “Communities Are A Powerful Tool, As Long As You Put Members™ Needs First” grabbed my attention more then anything else. I recently watched an interview with Fox Business and the president of a company called Mindshare. It was VERY interesting to me – and made me think a little harder on how important it is to create GOOD buzz from your customers, and not the negative buzz that seems to be everywhere as companies continue to downgrade their customer service.

  24. The Market Research SIG of the Washington, DC chapter of the American Marketing Association is considering a brown bag lunch about online communities. Would you or someone else from Forrester be available to share findings or provide a few case studies about success stories?

  25. The DC Chapter of the American Marketing Association has a Market Research Special Interest Group. In the coming year, we would like to host a brown bag or evening session about online communities for about 50 people. Would you or someone else from Forrester be able to present findings or case studies in such a forum?

  26. I appreciate the sharing of some of this report (I am not a subscriber). Can you provide any additional information about what metrics that were used to define “member activity”? Or do I need to buy the report?

    The specific metrics are key in my view – both in terms of measuring ultimate sucess but also to advance the community across the lifecycle stages. For example, which are the right metrics to target for each stage – e.g. # hits, # inbound links, # return visits, etc? And how does one set the right target values for a given community?

    Thanks again – happy to blog about.

  27. Ben

    We often measure by activity in the last 30 days. The specific metrics to measure your success will vary on your objective. You’ve forgotten to mention quite a few other attributes such as interaction, number of comments, influence, and perhaps very importantly: sentiment and tone.

  28. With respect to ROI, one of the great “soft” returns I usually point out are ways to move the needle in the right direction when it comes to colleague engagement. Many companies are struggling with poor Gallup scores year-over-year, and just engaging the workforce through community sites (social networks, blog/discussion forums, idea management sites, wikis) can be a great (and low-cost) way to increase engagement.

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