When most organizations try to measure success with regard to their online communities, they usually do so with an eye to specific KPIs that they've determined to be important to their particular org, rather than in comparison to other companies. I think this way of measuring success is more accurate and shows that success in online communities is not one-size-fits-all, but rather something an individual organization determines and works toward.
Tracking your own performance allows you to measure how well (or not) you're doing in a specific area. Especially with associations, there are vast differences when it comes to trade vs. professional associations regarding online communities, so a professional association looking to a trade association in terms of benchmarks for member-to-member interactions most likely wouldn't be a good comparison.
When trying to figure out what to measure, it's important to understand the primary objective of your community endeavors. Here are a few examples of how different orgs might measure success, based on what is important to them:
An organization which places high value on supporting its chapters might measure community success by the number of chapter websites which are created. Or perhaps they are focused on creating a centralized way for chapters to manage their events so all events appear in a global calendar - in which case, perhaps the total number of events or total number of attendees at chapter events is a measurement of success? The Society of Mechanical Engineers (SME) is a good example of this since their primary objective for the Higher Logic platform was not the more typical member-to-member discussions, but rather the support of their chapters together with a more consistent approach to branding, etc. To SME, success might be to have 50 branded chapter websites created with approx. 100 events posted in their centralized calendaring system within the first six months.
An org that wants to grow awareness for its mission or industry might focus on the number of publicly indexed pages in Google or other search engines as well as the amount of new traffic to its site. The Society of Healthcare Compliance and Ethics (SCCE) is a good example of this. They have opened up much of their member-to-member conversations so they are indexed by the search engines and so they can be found by prospects. They currently have about 30k pages of mostly user-generated content which is crawled/indexed regularly by the search engines and generates a lot of traffic from the long end of the SEO tail.
The Financial Planning Association recently launched their social mentoring platform. To them, success was all about the number of mentors and mentees who signed up and then ultimately the number of connections established.
When the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) launched its volunteer management system, its goal was to facilitate micro and traditional volunteerism. In this case, success can easily be measured by the total number of members which have signed up to be notified of volunteer opportunities and the total number who subsequently signed up for an opportunity.
If the org's objective is to improve member-to-member collaboration, then perhaps success is measured by the number of connections established in the member directory or the number of one-to-one messages posted. Perhaps the org has a "Find an Expert" directory with everyone who has a specific certification in it? Or perhaps a "Speaker Bureau" or "Buyer's Guide - whatever the directory, there are many opportunities to measure success and track value.
The most common measurement of success is usually focused around discussion groups. It's interesting how success in this area can be measured in different ways. For example, you might look at the ratio of members who have contributed at least one message each month or the number of unique contributors, combined with the number of messages posted. This might be tied in with the number of unique threads. I've looked at an incredible amount of data surrounding discussions and it can be quite overwhelming at first. But when you start to dig into it, you realize that it can be quite simple if you focus on the low hanging, high-level fruit. For example, each month you can track the following engagement metrics:
When you set your success goals, be sure they align with the interests and needs of members. For example, you may have met your goal of having 300 messages posted within three months of the initial launch. From a staff perspective, 300 messages posted would be a success. However, if the messages are split among 50 discussion groups and only 10 percent of your members have subscribed to at least one discussion group, then the members' perspective of success might be very different. If they were among the few who subscribed to a discussion group, they may have only seen five or 10 messages posted over a one month period to that specific discussion group. From their perspective the engagement level and, with it, the member value, is weak at best.
It's important to remember that every organization is different, so you can't just create a set of success metrics and simply declare the community a success or not within one time snapshot. Community takes time to build and success is not likely to be immediately apparent. It's also not a perfect science, and people are not puppets who you simply dictate a specific action you'd like taken and they immediately follow suit.
It's highly likely that you'll make some mistakes with your community on your path to success. Mistakes are good - as long as you learn from them and then adapt. For example, if you launch with 50 discussion groups and the engagement is so fragmented that the members are not seeing the value which you see, then change your model. Merge some/all of the groups. If necessary, take an extreme approach and try combining all groups into a single "member forum" which in turn will eliminate all fragmentation. Once you've achieved success with this design and the one forum becomes unwieldy, then consider a more informed approach to segmentation.
So now that you have some ideas around success and how to measure, what is your definition of success and are you meeting those goals?