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Why most online communities are failures

January 18, 2012: 10:27 AM ET

Plenty of smart companies and organizations have put together their own online communities. Some are pulling this off brilliantly; others, not so much.

By John Hagel and John Seely Brown, guest contributors

FORTUNE -- As anyone who has started their own blog certainly knows, it takes all of an hour (if that) to create your very own space to share your most brilliant ponderings for the entire world to see. But when it comes to building a space online that people want to visit regularly and contribute to, well, most of us never get there, and for good reason. It's really hard.

Plenty of smart companies and organizations have put together their own online communities. Some are pulling this off brilliantly; others, not so much.

Take AARP, for example. True, the organization's website has a sizable amount of free information on member benefits and its advocacy work. But AARP also offers members the opportunity to participate in an online community where they can connect with others who have common interests. At first, participants share ideas and information with each other. Anyone, member or not, can register to join topic-specific groups such as "retirement planning" and "seniors as entrepreneurs" or start a new group.

As participants' relationships deepen, they begin to move from a conversation to actually working together. For example, single travelers in one AARP group have moved from exchanging tips to planning trips together. At this stage, they are not randomly connecting but collaborating.

The term "online community" is often used loosely and includes any sites that aggregate customers or an audience even though there is very little contribution by the participants or interaction among them. We use the term in a much more specific way, to highlight a potentially very powerful form of ecosystem that businesses can organize and nurture. These communities require extensive and sustained interaction among a growing number of participants to function well. More

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