A bulk of my personal experience as a full-time online community manager was spent developing sizable communities of practice. It offered a great vantage point, because the years of quantitative and qualitative data available allowed me to uncover patterns of audience behaviors and interests, as well as corresponding community development processes, over time.
What did I learn? The most notable lesson was that somewhere in the success of the online communities we had grown, we got carried away - we physically grew the communities too much.
The largest online community had over 600 discussion forums. Not only was this number just plain daunting for the end user, it wasn't scalable. In order to get a handle on the situation, my team and I did a data analysis of each forum. We compared age, activity and engagement metrics and, in the end, discovered that over 75% of the forums had passed their heyday—the audience was no longer interested in their topics.
This was an example of poor social density. In online communities, social density is defined as the mass of total active members in a defined social space.
Ideal social density occurs when a critical mass has been reached â€“ the number of active participants concentrated in one defined social space is high enough to provide a constant flow of activity, but low enough that the level of activity doesn't feel inundating. Or, for an offline perspective, it's the balance between standing in an empty room and getting caught in a mosh pit—just the right amount of human interaction. At that time, the community had too many "empty rooms."
The key takeaways of our analysis were to:
How did we solve this issue? Essentially, we had to contract the size of our online community. By the time we finished consolidating forums—a long process that involved collecting feedback, mapping a large number of old forums to a small number of new forums, and emailing each group of forum subscribers about the benefits of the change â€“ the online community contained around 140 discussion forums. What a difference, right?
Over the course of the next year, we continued to track how activity in our reconfigured discussion forums changed. The results were remarkable. Reply rates skyrocketed and we solved engagement problems in sub-communities we had struggled to crack the code on for years.
Don't assume that "If you build it they will come." Talk to your target audience first and get dedicated buy-in. When considering topics for discussion forums, keep it broad. Wait to build out your community until you notice specific topics start to repeatedly prevail in community-lead discussions. This might mean starting with just one general forum.
Review data on your discussion forums regularly. If you notice reply ratios going down, a decline in active members and/or a slowdown in new subscribers (or your sample data is so small you can't even reasonably measure any of these key performance indicators) consider minimizing the number of forums in your online community in favor of higher social density in fewer spaces.
Conversely, if you notice discussion forums that have an extremely high level of activity and, likely, an increase in members unsubscribing, consider breaking out the forum into multiple spaces. Be sure to reach out to a sample of active forum subscribers to validate your plans before making any changes.
Most online communities that I have assessed build to a size greater than the demand of their audience, then wonder why they have trouble getting engagement. If this sounds like an issue affecting your private online community, don't be afraid to evolve. Listen to the voice of your online community's majority by looking at behavior-based data and getting direct feedback. Not everyone will accept change easily, but the benefits tend to far outweigh the cons.
Katie Bapple is a senior online community strategist at Higher Logic. She works with businesses and nonprofit membership organizations to develop effective customer community strategies and implement online community management and growth plans.