Miraculously, I was right –

detergent is detergent

and consumers aren’t interested in forming a community around the stains their detergent removes.

It only took a Deloitte Services study to figure out what some people (myself included) have been saying for quite some time.

Based on the information from Deloitte’s 2008 survey, entitled “Tribalization of Business Survey,” most online communities run by companies can be classified only as complete and utter failures.

The survey (which can be viewed here) “measured the responses of over 140 companies, including Fortune 100 organizations, which have created and maintain online communities today.”

The result?

“A majority of the communities have fewer than 500 active members.”

To be specific, 34% report fewer than 100 active members and 27% report 101 to 500 active members. Only 25% report more than 1,000 active members.

Do note that there is no definition provided for “active member” and different companies almost certainly define “active member” differently.

In my personal experience, community operators are fairly loose with how they count “active members” and thus I’ve found that these numbers typically get exaggerated, which does not bode well here since the reported numbers are already unimpressive.

Unfortunately, instead of raising the possibility that consumers simply don’t want to build a community around a brand of detergent or toothpaste, Deloitte appears to want to fight common sense.

Despite observing that “a disturbingly high number of these sites fail,” Deloitte’s Ed Moran claims:

“Communities can extend the edge of the corporation in truly transformative ways — tapping into new talent, helping design products and services, providing customer support and, most importantly, building the brand with the customer.”

He goes on to argue:

“The survey data points to some growing pains, but companies are starting to see that online communities should be nurtured and leveraged for real business gain.”

Right.

Things only get more goofy from there.

According to Deloitte, 35% of the companies surveyed “have seen an increase in word-of-mouth for their brands,” 28% “have seen their overall brand awareness increase” and 24% think online communities are “helping companies increase customer loyalty and bring outside ideas into the organization faster“.

Notwithstanding the fact that these still represent a minority of those surveyed, I would ask the following question: If only 25% of the companies surveyed have communities with more than 1,000 members, how exactly do 35% and 28% of them think that their communities have boosted word-of-mouth and overall brand awareness, respectively?

Clearly, the Tide community on Facebook for “America’s Favorite Stains,” for instance, which today still has less than 400 fans and looks like a ghost town with 12 photo albums and 19 wall posts, isn’t realistically going to boost “word-of-mouth” or “brand awareness” for one of Proctor & Gamble’s most recognized brands (Proctor & Gamble has a market capitalization of just under $200bn and generated over $76bn in revenues in 2007).

As I’ve pointed out many times before, if you’re a big company, it takes a lot to “move the needle.” A “community” of even 10,000 isn’t likely to do it.

So what gives? Is there something funky with Deloitte’s numbers? Or is it simply possible that marketing folks at many companies are hesitant to admit when their investments aren’t fruitful?

I suspect it’s probably (primarily) the latter.

That aside, in a sane world, a firm like Deloitte would probably follow the data to a logical conclusion, and suggest the possibility that there are relatively few brands that consumers want to build communities around. And that for those brands, an “official” community probably isn’t needed because unofficial ones already exist in abundance.

Yet we don’t live in a sane world, so Deloitte’s study spins the results in a fashion that just so happens to fit the agendas of the survey’s collaborators.

One collaborator, Beeline Labs, bills itself as a “marketing innovation firm” that “specializes in creating Marketing 2.0 strategies and programs.” The Beeline Labs website says it all – “Marketing Innovation for the Social Media Age.

Beeline Labs partner Francois Gossieaux stated:

“The survey reveals that there are several disparities between companies’ goals, how to measure success, and appropriate investment. The companies that commit the dedicated talent and resources to driving customer centric communities will be the winners.”

Translation: you’re not seeing results because you need to redefine ROI and you need to invest more money to make things work.

Of course, this has become the standard position of many social media marketers and proponents.

Not-so-coincidentally, one Beeline Labs partner, Lois Kelly, will be giving a workshop entitled “Online Customer Communities that Connect and Thrive: Creating the Right Mix of Purpose, Passion, People, and Platforms” at the upcoming Web 2.0 Expo in New York.

Amusingly, the description for the workshop states “we’ll share the results of a new industry study of 150 companies who are successfully using communities” despite the fact that the numbers demonstrate quite conclusively that the majority of the companies surveyed aren’t successfully using communities.

It’s also worth noting that the other collaborator was the Society for New Communications Research.

Itself founded by “new media” types, it was previously involved with a study that praised Dell’s social media efforts, despite the fact that Dell’s social media “expert” Richard Binhammer was directly involved with a member of the team that conducted the study.

Frankly, I find that the “

Tribalization of Business Survey

” is yet another prime example of just how difficult it is to implicitly accept “

research

” as credible on face value alone, no matter how prominent and “

reputable

” its source because sadly, it seems today that so many are willing to cast aside their reputations to support the vested interests of partners, collaborators, etc.

Apparently, Deloitte has no problem telling others that companies that have more often than not found their commercial community initiatives to be failures by any reasonable measurement simply “have not yet harnessed the true potential of these communities.”

For the rest of us, detergent remains detergent.

I think it may be time for me to conduct my own survey entitled “The Vaporization of Money.”

I suspect some of the 6% of companies surveyed by Deloitte that have spent more than $1m on their community initiatives may find it interesting.