Perhaps inevitable given the popularity of content marketing, the long-established importance of branding in the life sciences, and the growing propensity of companies to look for novel ways to create social marketing-style engagement, online communities are becoming all the more popular. Manufacturers, services provides, and distributors in the life sciences can’t be faulted for finding them all too appealing. They can be easy to create; a savvy web designer can have a branded, albeit basic, forum up and running in a few hours. The rewards are clear, especially to companies who already perform content marketing; an online community can provide a far larger audience for your current content marketing efforts and can build brand value through topic leadership / thought leadership. They’re also potentially great for SEO – lots of content. They can also be very easy to manage; a vibrant online community will grow and monitor itself with little effort from the sponsoring company. With so many benefits, why wouldn’t a life science tools company want to start an online community?
. . . Because it’s difficult at best.
People like to rhetorically benchmark against big, successful brands. All too many people who’ve built an online community want it to be the Facebook of [whatever]. That’s a recipe for failure. There already is a Facebook, it’s pretty darned good at this whole social thing, and just because you have a community that’s branded to target a niche demographic, that doesn’t mean that people will use it. It’s also a bad idea to assume that because some megacorp did it that you can, too. Fortune 500 consumer brands have tens or hundreds of millions of customers – many times more customers than there are life scientists in the entire world. To reach the critical mass necessary to create a vibrant online community they need 0.01% of their customers to use it. As a small or mid-size life science tools company, you probably have well under 100,000 customers. Although you can try to reach out to more than just your customers, the difficulty inherent in doing so will likely render you marginally successful in that effort at best. For your community to be successful, you need a much higher participation rate, and therefore your community has to be that much more compelling.
I hate calling companies out publicly, but to give my point some gravitas I’m going to do it here. If you need any proof that an online community is difficult to build and sustain, look no further than EpiExperts. New England BioLabs, a great company with a reasonably large customer base as far as our industry goes, set it up last year as “a scientific social network for epigenetics experts” with the “hope that [scientists] will use E3 as a communication platform to aid progress in the frontier of epigenetics”. It’s been around for about 10 months now. Aside from an NEB employee and a freelance writer who have the paid job of blogging, the site is pretty much dead. They still get a trickle of new sign-ups coming in, but no one feels compelled to do anything. The forum is effectively unused. People can form groups, but there’s only one created. You can add others as “friends”, but the overwhelming majority haven’t done so. Profiles have walls that people can post to, but almost all are devoid of any posts. The worst part about all this is that when someone goes to a community site and sees that it’s unused, that’s a disincentive for them to use it, so that makes it even harder to turn around the community into a vibrant one.
It’s a shame, really. There’s no reason EpiExperts shouldn’t have been successful, except that there’s no reason that it should have been.
Asking people to join a community is asking them to devote a piece of their life to it. In other words, the community that you create needs to have enough value that scientists are willing to repeatedly spend time on your community’s site rather than doing anything else with their time. In order to do that, your community, just like your products or services, have to be differentiated. In fact, it’s even more important that your community be differentiated on value than a product because an online community can’t be differentiated on price since it’s free. Before you decide you want to build an online community, you need to many similar questions that you would in product development, and more:
- What needs do our scientist-customers have?
- How will this community address those needs?
- Will this community be sufficiently differentiated?
- How will we create continuous value for the users? (so they keep coming back)
So how do we create success when building online communities? Thoroughly answer the above questions and you’ll be pointed squarely in the right direction. This post, however, is already too long so we’ll have to take the topic up more another day. Feel free to use the contact form below if you have any questions or you feel like I left you hanging.