In the community building space, we spend a lot of time talking about return on investment (ROI). It makes sense, after all - community platforms are a big investment, from purchasing the software to implementation and upkeep. You need to make sure there is a major return on this investment so that the platform is beneficial for everyone involved - from users to admins to the entire organization.
But we need to be honest: at the beginning, your online community’s ROI will probably stink.
Just because your community ROI will probably be negative when you start doesn’t mean you’re bad at your job or the community is doomed. Like any movement or community endeavor, it takes time to build up a critical mass.
Lindsay Starke, senior community manager at Higher Logic, said it’s like building up an audience for your blog: “You may not have a ton of leads coming in from the blog when you just start, but as you begin to write more, you begin to see what works and what doesn’t work.”
Once your successes start adding up, your community ROI and engagement will begin to take off.
So what do you do in the meantime - before you can prove your community has a positive ROI - and how do you make sure your community is heading in the right direction?
Creating a solid base is crucial for your community’s success. Without members who truly care, it’s going to be tough getting your community off the ground - so focus on the foundation.
That’s why you shouldn’t be afraid to start small - as Lindsay said: “all roads lead to ROI.”
Not familiar with cooking risotto? Here are the basics: as you cook the rice (a main ingredient for the dish), you need to add it slowly while stirring. If you dump all the rice in at once, it will clump and your dinner will be a mess. Get where she’s going with this metaphor?
It’s important to have big, lofty community goals, but it’s easy to blaze ahead too quickly (i.e. dump in all the rice at once). Think of Rachel’s risotto idea and start small. Rather than opening the doors for anyone to join at the same time, ask a small group of already dedicated members who understand community basics to participate and establish community norms and rules. Once your base is solid, you can open the community for everyone. And that solid base and dedicated first generation members will directly contribute to your positive ROI goals.
Just because you’re building up your foundation doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep your eye on the prize - a positive ROI. Even if you’re main work is on creating that critical mass, or helping your community members create community norms, continue to connect each action to positive ROI.
For all the tech world’s talk about ‘big data’ (which is very valuable in the right circumstances), people often overlook the power of ‘small data’ - those little details that are often, and easily, overlooked. One of the most famous examples of small data has to do with IKEA, the infamous furniture company. Even after IKEA’s wild success, the founder was known to spend time manning the cash register so he could get a first hand look at what his customers bought and ask questions if he was curious.
In a way, that’s what you should do - get on the members’ level and see what’s going on and how they use the community. If you can’t prove a positive ROI at the moment, look for signs of it. Did someone mention in a post that they joined because a current member referred them? Follow up and learn more about that particular interaction. Did another member mention that they renewed because they find value in the community? Interview them.
Sure, small data isn’t nearly as accurate as ‘big data’ is - just because one person renewed doesn't mean everyone did - but learning about those interactions can be incredibly helpful.
But let’s look beyond data - these are examples of qualitative versus quantitative measurements. Just because you can’t stick a number on a qualitative measurement doesn’t mean it’s not valuable - storytelling and ROI aren’t mutually exclusive.
Lindsay framed it this way:
“Before you can see those big numbers, I look for little stories of that happening as proof of the ROI initiative that we’re going for. If your big ROI goal is business intelligence, then at some point you may find a time when a customer says something really meaningful or useful and you, as community manager, pass it along and the end person implements it. If you see things being implemented and they were originally the suggestion of the community, then that is a microcosm.”
Throughout all your work, remember: online communities are a long term investment. It takes time to build up momentum and proof that the platform was worth the investment. As a community builder, part of your job is to remind your organization of the long term goals while you strategize and work to make it pay off.
Lindsay recommends gathering little data points - that small data - and see where they lead you. Once you have enough stories and examples, those small data points will begin painting a clearer picture of what’s going on - and where you should go.