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Taking Your Online Community from the Trough of Sorrow to Success

By Michael Norton.
2023-12-11 09:28:40
Unicom Recap 2

Online communities have become the backbone of knowledge-sharing, collaboration, and innovation within the Public Sector. However, the journey from launch to success is a nuanced one, often marked by challenges that lead communities into what's known as the "Trough of Sorrow." Recently addressed at the Unicom event by our expert, Michael Norton, this blog post delves into the complexities surrounding online communities.

Explore the concept of the Trough of Sorrow, unravel the reasons behind post-launch struggles, and uncover effective strategies to guide your community towards lasting success. 

Understanding the Trough of Sorrow

The trough of sorrow is a stage where an online community experiences a significant drop in user engagement, interest, and activity. It can be a challenging time for community managers and members alike. Several factors can contribute to the community entering this trough:

  • Inadequate Community Management: If a community is not properly managed, it can quickly become unwelcoming and chaotic. Effective community management is essential to maintaining a positive and engaging environment.

  • Poor Purpose and Unclear Guidelines: If community members don't know what the community is about or what is expected of them, they are less likely to participate. Providing a clear purpose and guidelines is crucial for member understanding and engagement.

  • Lack of Initial Engagement and Activity: If a community doesn't start off with a lot of activity, it can be challenging to attract new users and keep existing ones engaged. Initial engagement and activity are critical for community growth.

  • Failure to Meet Member Expectations: If a community doesn't provide the content or features that users are looking for, they are likely to move on to other communities. Meeting member expectations is key to retaining and growing your community.


Common Pitfalls to Avoid

Sometimes it's just as important to know what not to do. Here are some common pitfalls that can lead to online community failure:

  • Inviting Non-Participating Members: While having a large member count might look impressive, inviting people who you know will never participate can be counterproductive. Focus on quality engagement over quantity.

  • Uploading All Content at Once: Dumping all your content on the first day and never adding to it or responding to comments can deter members. Content should be fresh and evolving.

  • Direct Emailing of Content: Sending documents and content directly to members might make them less likely to visit and interact with the online community. Encourage them to engage on the platform.

  • Inadequate Support for Community Managers: Neglecting community managers, especially inexperienced ones, can lead to poor community management. Support your team and provide them with the tools they need to succeed.

  • Lack of Post-Launch Plan: Not having a plan for discussions, events, or content after the initial launch can leave your community directionless. Plan for ongoing engagement.


Moving Toward Success

To move your online community from the trough of sorrow to success, consider the following strategies:

Option 1: Simple Strategies

  • Revisit the community's purpose, objectives, membership, and guidelines.

  • Revitalise the community by identifying what members want and what they can offer.

  • Reinvigorate engagement by hosting community events and trying new initiatives.

Option 2: Conduct a Thorough Community Review

  • Plan your review by deciding what information you need and how to collect it.

  • Collect data through member surveys, self-assessments, and other means.

  • Analyse the data to gain insights into the community's strengths and weaknesses.

  • Use the data to create a final report and disseminate the findings.


Implementing Effective Community Management Techniques

Effective community management is crucial for success. Consider the role of a community manager and the time they should spend on various tasks to maintain a thriving community.

Depending on the type of community, the platform it is hosted on, the size of the membership and the number of community managers.  Having an understanding of how much time you will have to look after the community will help you identify the realistic types of activities that you can do to support the community.

Based on research that we have conducted as part of a project with Historic England to build an online community of practice review toolkit, we noted that the communities we worked with spent different amounts of time with their communities based on the tool used.

Facebook - 30 hours a week

Email list - 11 hours a week

Knowledge Hub - 4 hours a week (based on previous research)

Whereas estimates that a professional full-time community manager will spend around 40 hours a week facilitating and managing their community.

We all know that engagement is a key factor in a thriving community, and community managers need to employ various tactics to foster engagement and participation. The time spent on different tactics and their frequency can significantly impact the community's success. Understanding the time and resource requirements for these tactics is essential for creating a successful community management plan tailored to the community's size, purpose, and objectives.


Importance of Continual Fine-Tuning

Staying on top of your community's health and members' needs is an ongoing process. Regularly reviewing community metrics, personalising content for members at different stages of their career, gathering member feedback, and maintaining a consistent approach to community management are all key to maintaining the community for the long term.

We always recommend that you also join relevant communities and networks to keep up with the latest trends and to spot types of activities that could also be tried in your own community.


To recap

Online communities may encounter the trough of sorrow, a stage of reduced engagement and activity. To move from this phase to success, you must address common pitfalls and implement effective community management techniques. Regularly fine-tune your community to ensure its long-term success. Remember that the journey to a successful online community is ongoing, and with the right strategies, you can create a thriving and engaging place for your members.

Don’t miss out on being a member of groups that are relevant to you.  Register on Knowledge Hub to find groups of interest. Can’t find the relevant group? Why not set up a group that works for you and your colleagues?

Check out more resources

The ultimate guide to understanding using cubes

Michael Norton.

About The Author

Michael Norton.

Michael supports clients through the set up and implementation of online communities across the Public Sector. Bringing 18+ years experience as a knowledge management professional. With expertise in community management, Knowledge Management strategy and delivery, open-source technology (Liferay), social media, online and offline training, online collaboration, project management and digital marketing. Michael also co-leads the Knowledge and Community LinkedIn Network, is a proud friend of the Henley Forum and previously facilitated the Communities of Practice Special Interest Group at the Knowledge and Innovation Network (KIN) and Association of Project Managers, Knowledge Special Interest Group.

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