Member count: Not a measure of community building success

by Martin Reed on 10 March 2009 in Articles

Community building by numbers

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.

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Angela Connor March 10, 2009 at 11:25 am

People who throw member count around are stroking their own egos. I am not saying it’s irrelevant because I am happy to see my member count grow. But I know that it really means nothing and it certainly doesn’t tell the story of how well I’m doing my job as a community manager. I have seen members of my community raise money to keep a fellow member from being evicted, help a disabled vet build a fence around his property so he wouldn’t leave his dogs. They most recently created signs for a yard sale which was held on an early Sunday morning with all of the proceeds going to members who have recently lost their jobs. When things like that happen, you are doing something right.
Also, I think time spent and conversations are crucial metrics as well. Great post!

Kerry March 10, 2009 at 12:20 pm

This is an excellent article, after doing my best to build a community site, I get quite dismayed at the number of people who go on endlessly about how many members they have, what they dont realise is that probably most of those are spam bots creating accounts, anyway just wanted to thank you for the post.

Rona March 10, 2009 at 12:36 pm

Yeah, I have to agree that the quantity does not automatically gauge the quality of the community. Sometimes, the fewer members you have, the better produce you give…even if the old cliche would say, more heads are better than one…

Jeremy L. March 10, 2009 at 1:58 pm

Just had this conversation with a friend of mine who runs a new online community for woodworkers. He has plenty of competition, but that doesn’t mean he can’t build a better community or offer members something that the “big guys” don’t offer.

The internet is HUGE, we all ought to be able to play here.

Good article!

Vernon Harleston March 10, 2009 at 9:50 pm


I stopped caring about the numbers I was chasing on Twitter and Blog Talk Radio about a month ago. Now I’m comfortable with slow growth and taking the time to personally connect with all the people who express a desire to connect.

When I’m in community building mode all the marketing tactics & strategies don’t even matter & frankly I get more people to look into other things I’m doing.

Love the analogy about te pub at lunchtime. That’s what I’m talkin’ about. Community!

Mike P March 11, 2009 at 8:19 am

The age-old question, quality vs. quantity. It is something that every Community team deals with on a daily/weekly/monthly basis. While we all understand that quality is of utmost importance, the “higher-ups” are always looking at the numbers.

It is very important when running a community and working for a larger corporation that you become the internal advocate to your company. Design and build your reports to reflect the appropriate measurements. Evangelize what your goals are, so that everyone understands where you are headed, and do not focus on just the #’s.

Mike P / @nhscooch

Mr Woc March 11, 2009 at 8:37 am

Hi there

Nice post, and i agree totally, numbers are not important, its easy for people to see value in the amount of registrations they have, when really if they are people that just registered once and never came back, usually a sign something isnt right.

I liked the bit at the bottom where u said, keep your eye on the competition, and dont worry about their site, I feel this is good advice as many people often look at other sites and wonder why that site is doing better than mine, this is just wasted energy, just use this to motivate yourself to work harder to make ur site better, eventually you will get to where you want to be !


Malber March 11, 2009 at 9:35 am

Thank you for posting this Martin!

I have been looking for some new engagement metrics to track the health and success of my community, and this provided just what I needed. Cheers!

Nicole Price March 11, 2009 at 10:46 am

There are those who worry about quantity and those who do about quality. I belong to the latter school. It has been my experience that if you take care of the quality, the quantity will be an almost certainty to follow by itself.

GregR March 11, 2009 at 4:36 pm

I agree there is no short cut to a meaningful community. Building a community is not speed dating.

Edward March 12, 2009 at 2:27 pm

Great article, as always.

I think it’s a good idea to create an engagement metric. It’ll be different for each community and is based on what you consider a valuable contribution, but it’s a good way of gauging real community involvement. Always a good idea to take abandoned memberships into account too – these will drive your metric down and make you focus on why these people aren’t returning.

jennifer March 14, 2009 at 7:44 pm

Great points. It’s better to build a solid foundation rather than a quick tall tower than can crumble to easily.

Albert March 15, 2009 at 8:13 pm

Does anyone know how to put any visitor metric stuff into vbulletin like statcounter or google analytics? how can i keep track of how many pms or what kind of searches are being made? thx

Dustin March 20, 2009 at 1:23 am

This was a very big eye opener for me. Just a short while ago, I set out to bring in 1,000 members to my community (currently around 150). I started up advertising campaigns, redesigned the site, started up social networking, and several other things. I think what I was doing most, was neglecting my members. Instead of focusing on bringing new members to my community, I should focus on my members. If they are happy with the community, I’m sure they’ll bring in new members. Thanks for showing me the light. :)

~Dustin Tigner

Niall Harbison March 21, 2009 at 12:42 pm

I agree with this 100% percent. It is like people who have 1000s of followers on Twitter but do not engage with them. I have had posts RT’d by people with over 20,000 followers and only seen a trickle of visitors. I think it is all about engaging with the people in yur community and I would rather do that than start looking for new members.

Adam Jenkins April 5, 2009 at 8:31 pm

Nice article I totally agree with you. If I can just up something, First of all building a internet community is not an easy task. It takes one dedication and a lot of hard work. Treat each member with respect not just giving promotions or like a photo contest or something spend time and conversation with them and next thing you know your community is growing.

Paul December 1, 2009 at 6:49 pm

Having a lot of members may help you get more members because you seem like the premier community that particular niche but thats about it. If noone participates, all the members in the world won’t help you.

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