I have a simple question -- how many users do you need to be a successful, active community? We talk often about engagement, onboarding new members, ensuring ROI -- all important issues to discuss -- but what about basic numbers?
First, let’s quickly define what I mean by ‘success’ in this post. Each organization has unique needs and definitions of success for their particular community. That’s as it should be -- communities are helpful in a variety of ways and can thrive in all types of organizations. In this post, I’ll broadly define success as an active community with regular, sustainable engagement.
More People Doesn’t Equal More Engagement
We used to think that the bigger community, the more engagement. At first, this makes sense, right? It just seems like simple math -- more people, more discussions. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Think about Twitter. At first, it looks like someone with 25,000 followers should have a lot of klout in their circle. But what is their engagement like? If most of their tweets don’t have favorites or retweets, then their Twitter community probably isn’t that strong. No one is interacting with them. That’s why someone with only 1,500 followers may actually have more klout if their followers actively engage with them, favoriting and retweeting.
The same principle holds true with your organization’s community. More people doesn’t necessarily mean more robust conversation. It is better to have a smaller community with higher engagement than a large community with mostly lurkers. There isn’t a silver bullet or a specific number of members everyone needs to achieve the highest level of engagement. It’s a mix of factors, including community culture and maturity. Creating engagement can also mean starting small, with a handful of truly dedicated people, rather than opening the floodgates for everyone.
The Big Picture -- Creating a Community Ecosystem
That’s why the big picture is important. Numbers and volume are helpful, but they’re not the determining factor in success. Ask yourself, what’s your organization’s history with online engagement? If your customers or members aren’t used to interacting with each other online, you may need more people before it becomes engaging. Or if your organization wants to be very hands-off and can’t commit very many resources, we find it's better to go with a much broader all-inclusive community rather than a small, niche community.
Here’s an example of what I mean. If you are migrating your community over from an active listserv, it's much easier to be successful in a full-featured community platform since people are used to interacting with each other online. Be careful, though -- it isn’t necessarily an easy slam dunk. If you don't have community champions or a dedicated community manager (or, preferably, both) and have very few resources dedicated to nurturing the community, then you typically need a much larger membership to achieve success. It’s not just about numbers -- culture is an important piece to the puzzle.
Our Higher Logic User's Group (HUG) is another good example of how important the big picture is for achieving success. Our membership is not particularly high, but we have the right environmental factors for it to be a successful community -- we have an organizational commitment to the community, a culture of transparency and dedicated resources to ensure every message is responded to (usually the community will respond, but if not, we ensure someone on staff responds).
Every organization has unique quirks that will shape the community’s engagement. Another piece to consider when deciding on metrics for success is, what kind of organization are you? A software company with customers? An association with members? Something else?
For example, we’ve found that trade organizations typically require about twice as many people as professional associations to be successful. On the other hand, a software user group requires fewer people to be robust.
Your community’s launch is also a key ingredient to success. Even if you have an engaged group and all the environmental variables are in your favor, if your launch is poor, then you could doom your community from the start. I have some horror stories I could share … but that's for another time. We have a whole set of best practices around how to launch in a way that will stimulate continued, self-sustained, high quality ongoing engagement.
Measuring Engagement and Defining Success -- From Both the Organizational and Member Perspective
There is a general misconception that a successful traditional in-person community translates to a successful online community. This really isn't the case. When you look at what makes each type of community successful, it’s usually for very different reasons. For example, success for an in-person community might be measured by the quality of sessions and the number of attendees during your annual conference. On the other hand, the success of an online community is often measured by the number and frequency of contributions on a weekly, monthly or yearly basis. In the traditional community, people seldom interact with each other, while it should be frequent online -- yet both are seen as ‘successful.’ See how there could be a disconnect when bridging the two?
Another common problem is for an organization to measure success from its point of view, rather than the member or customer’s perspective. For an organization, success may look like 100 unique messages each month. But are those messages all in one group, or is there activity throughout the community? If all the posts are in just one or two discussions, many members probably won’t see much activity and won’t consider the community successful. Members typically don't have the luxury of seeing the bigger picture in the same way staff do. That on-the-ground perspective is important to keep in mind.
Defining what success is for your unique community is an important place to start. Once you have that definition, it’ll be easier to know if you’re on the right track or not. As you inch closer to that 1,000 member or customer mark, check in with yourself and ask, is that the magic number or do I need to adjust?
How do you define success in your community? Do you have a magic number of members or customers?
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in April 2013 has been updated for accuracy, relevance and freshness.