I have noticed a lot of talk recently about how long it takes to build a strong, successful community. My response is always the same. The quicker a new online community grows, the weaker it is. Stop looking at your member count to determine whether your community is successful, and don’t expect (or even ask for) rapid growth. Real relationships take time to develop, and if you want a real community based on real relationships, you need to be in it for the long haul.
Member count is a distraction
Your focus shouldn’t be on membership numbers. As soon as this becomes your primary aim, you have lost focus on what makes a community and what will make yours unique. Yes, you may well see competitors launch and attract 10,000 members in their first month – but do you really think that community is stronger than yours that is six months old and has 500 members who consider each other friends?
If you are obsessed solely with the number of members you are attracting, you’ll probably end up spending too much money on advertising, spending too much money on flashy features and technology, spending too much money on a beautiful site design and spending too much money on competitions with high ticket prizes.
Money means nothing when it comes to online community. Just as you can’t buy real relationships offline, you can’t buy genuine relationships online, either.
Yes, it’s great if your community has 10,000 members – as long as your community has scaled effectively. If you only have a couple of hundred active members out of those 10,000 then your community isn’t scaling. Start up groups – have communities within your community. Have different categories. As your community membership grows, your community needs to grow, too. You need to keep your community relevant to your members.
Community building metrics
So, how do you measure the success of your online community? It all boils down to how well you have met the goals you set for the community. Try to avoid basing this on member count, though – that’s too superficial. It doesn’t demonstrate the strength of your community. It’s an ego stroke that is just a distraction.
Here are a handful of more accurate metrics for measuring the health of a community:
1. The number of posts within each discussion topic or thread
The more posts in a discussion, the more engaged the community is. You can take this further, too – how many members are getting involved in each discussion? If it’s just the same two or three, then maybe your power members are actually damaging your community. Work to encourage your quieter members to get involved.
2. The overall number of new contributions
If your community is seeing 500 new posts per day, it’s probably more vibrant and engaging than a community that is seeing only 10 new posts per day. It’s not that clear cut, though. Perhaps those 500 new posts consist of spam, scams or abuse? Is it worth pushing your community into the gutter for the sake of a few extra posts? Always weigh up quantity with quality.
3. The length of user contributions
Once more, this depends on your own individual goals. However, I personally feel that longer member contributions often demonstrate increased engagement and passion towards the community. Members who aren’t engaged with the community aren’t going to waste their time writing a 500 word post. If you see a lot of these, you are on the right track (as long as the content itself is acceptable, of course).
4. The amount of time members spend on your community
If a member spends ten seconds in the community and then leaves, you have a problem. Either you don’t have compelling content or your site is just too difficult to use. Yet another reason why you should focus on usability rather than bells and whistles.
5. The number of searches taking place in your community
Do you measure the use of your internal search engine? If people are searching your site internally, they are looking for your community to fulfil a need. Did they find what they are looking for? If so, great – maybe you should make that content more prominent on your site. If not, maybe that’s an area of the site you can expand upon. Visitors who don’t think your community is for them won’t bother with your search facility. Those that like what they see and want to know more about what you have to offer, will. Don’t let them down.
6. The number of conversations taking place in private
Don’t be upset when members communicate in private. Just because they aren’t creating public content for your community doesn’t mean they aren’t adding value. When members communicate privately, they are building a more personal relationship with other members. This is good. Keeping things private from time to time shows that members want to discuss issues of a more personal nature. This is a sign of growing trust and true friendship.
7. The number of search terms being used to find your community
I hope you are tracking how visitors are finding your community. It’s valuable information. How many different search terms are being used? The more search terms, the more depth there is to your community’s content.
8. The number of links your community is picking up from external websites
The more links you pick up, the more interesting your content or community is. Don’t treat this as gospel, though. Perhaps you have a niche community, perhaps you have a private, closed community. Generally speaking, though – if your community is being spoken about externally, it’s a positive sign.
9. The frequency/extent of moderator intervention
Ideally, you want your members to be able to sort out their own disagreements – that’s the sign of a really strong community. The more often you or someone with moderator powers needs to step in, the weaker your community becomes.
10. The subject matter of discussions
This will often be influenced by the subject matter of your community, but not always. If members are willing to discuss subjects of a more personal nature in your community, it’s a sign of trust. Trust is a critical component of a strong community. This is harder to quantify, but still relevant.
Be patient and don’t compare
It’s all too easy to compare your community to others within your niche. Don’t do this, though – it’s distracting. Besides, you don’t want a community just like those belonging to your competitors – you need to offer something unique. Sure, keep an eye on your competition but don’t copy them. Don’t even worry about them. Just focus on what you are doing.
Forget about the number of members your community has – it doesn’t reflect how strong or successful your community is. Ride the New York City subway at rush hour. Hundreds of thousands of people down there – not much interaction going on, though. Not many relationships being formed. Not much of a community.
On the other hand, go visit your local pub at lunch time. Maybe around 50 people are in there, chatting, drinking and eating. Relationships are being formed and strengthened. That’s far more of a community.
Grow slowly and grow strong.