Online communities are multiplying like crazy, but most people prefer to keep it simple and just use them to keep in touch with friends, according to a new study in Germany. They're not interested in fancy features.
No matter what your hobby is, there's probably an online community for it
There are Internet communities out there for new mothers, dog lovers, lacrosse fans, amateur photographers and just about any other niche group you can think of. Web portals are easy to set up and they're rapidly multiplying around the world.
Most users join to communicate with friends. But many of the other possibilities -- like evaluating books, adding to blogs or commenting on photos, for example -- are rarely taken advantage of, said Internet expert Jens Boecker from the Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University of Applied Sciences.
In a survey of online community members, Boecker took a deeper look at user behavior. He found that providers misjudge their customers and often offer functions that the users aren't interested in.
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"The abundance of features overwhelms the user," he said, comparing online portals to fancy cell phones with hundreds of functions. People are looking for a community that is easy to navigate so they can find information quickly, added Boecker -- whether it's parenting tips, pictures of poodle haircuts or diagrams of leg stretches for lacrosse players.
One of the most beloved online features, according to the study, is a virtual birthday calendar. Seventy percent of those questioned said it was, alongside the protection of their private sphere, one of the most important elements -- a result which surprised the researcher. These two features ranked ahead of search functions and current content on the home page.
So why don't all the providers just get rid of the superfluous features if they don't interest users? On the competitive market, said Boecker, the providers use a kind of shot-gun strategy to set themselves apart from the others with special traits, even if they go unused.
"It's a matter of trial-and-error," he said. "The providers throw a whole pile of possibilities at the community and then they have to see what actually works."
Users want virtual contact to real people
The average user has one priority, according to the study: keeping in touch with friends -- that is, real-life friends. They're not necessarily interested in making new acquaintances.
StudiVZ, Germany's version of FaceBook, for example, mainly serves as a way for users to come in contact with old friends from school or college. Reporting some five millions users, the portal has become extremely popular.
Most portals require setting up a personal profile
While StudiVZ may have picked up on this one market demand, Boecker said he thinks other providers overestimate their users' interest in meeting new people.
Members turned off by fees and ads
Apparently, many portals also go down the wrong path when it comes to earning money. The smaller ones, often managed out of the founder's home, tend to charge a fee for membership. Sixty percent of those surveyed said fees were a no-go criterion for them, which leads Boecker to believe that these portals won't last long.
The larger ones are usually financed by advertisers, but many users said they weren't particularly keen on blinking ads and annoying pop-ups. Even StudiVZ recently came under fire for allowing personalized ads.
Boecker said he doubts whether the giant portal will survive over the long term for this reason.
But even if some communities are short-lived, others will learn from their experiences and continue to fill the mass demand for entertainment with niche products. The study director said online portals may even become more popular than television at some point.