I’m surprised people haven’t pulled me up on this yet – I often state that member count isn’t a reliable indicator of the success of an online community; but nobody has asked me what numbers are better to use. Here, I’ll offer you some suggestions.
This is a tricky one. On the one hand, an increasing number of new members implies that your community is attractive to outsiders. You need to bear in mind though, that the faster you attract new members, the more diluted your community can become. A sudden increase in new members can actually damage an online community – so be careful.
Without activity, you have no community. There are many ways you can measure contributions to your online community; number of posts per member, overall posts per day, number of posts per discussion thread, etc.
Generally speaking, the more contributions to your community, the more value it gives (and receives). However, not all contributions are equal – is a 5 word post worth as much as a 100 word post?
Don’t assume that the higher the number of posts per day, the better your community is – those posts could be abusive or contain little in the way of value.
Your site’s bounce rate shows how many of your visitors leave without clicking through to any other pages of your website. For example, if the bounce rate of your homepage is 50%, it means that half of your visitors leave your site as soon as they arrive.
You need to be careful here, though. Remember that not all traffic arrives via your homepage – so don’t rely solely on the bounce rate of your homepage as an indicator of how attractive/relevant your community is to visitors. Monitor the bounce rate of the most popular landing pages of your site. Also bear in mind that a sudden influx of traffic will almost certainly increase (worsen) your bounce rate – for example, if a page hits the homepage of Digg, you’ll typically see a huge influx of traffic to that specific page but very little in the way of visitor exploration of your site.
I’d suggest that if your bounce rate is consistently above 50%, you need to work on the site – either you’re not explaining the community’s purpose, you’re not offering anything unique, you’re advertising in the wrong places, your community is too hidden, or you’ve gone for form over function. I don’t think you could go more basic than the homepage for Just Chat – and its bounce rate is only 20%.
Be careful on this one – measuring the health of your online community with pageviews can easily be a deceptive ego stroke, like member count. If you want to double your pageviews overnight, you can simply edit your forum configuration to hold 10 posts per page instead of 20, or edit your blog configuration to display only 10 blog comments per page instead of 20.
However, as long as you’re aware of the potential pitfalls of using pageviews as a metric, it can still be useful. Not only do pageviews reflect how engaged your visitors are, they can show you where any bottlenecks may be. Are there a high number of pageviews for a specific section of your site? Look to reduce them – bring more content onto the page.
People don’t like clicking ‘next’ over and over again – that’s why you’ll see people jump into a forum discussion thread at page 30 with a comment like, ‘I couldn’t be bothered to read the previous 30 pages, but…’. Sure, even if all the content is spread over fewer pages, you’ll still have people skip over the content, but you’ll be more likely to see them skim some of it. It’s all about making it easier for the visitor.
Time on site
Pretty simple this one. Basically, the longer a visitor is on your site, the more engaged they are. You want this number to be high, and to increase over time (as the amount of content in your community increases and relationships get stronger).
Your community depends on its members returning to get involved in discussions. Fresh blood is good, but your community won’t get anywhere unless people stick around and form relationships. The more repeat visitors your online community sees, the healthier it is.
This is a good measure of just how addictive your online community is. If visitors are only dropping by once a month, then it isn’t interesting enough. If people are visiting multiple times per day, they’re hooked.
People don’t recommend rubbish to their friends – they only recommend stuff that’s good. Every time someone uses your ‘tell a friend’ form (you do have one, right?), it’s a vote of confidence in the community. Make sure you are measuring the use of this form.
Do you offer a link for visitors and members to share content from your community? The more content is being shared, the more engaging and interesting it is.
Newsletter response rate
Most email newsletters are done wrong – they are used as a way of broadcasting messages to subscribers. Instead, they should be seen as conversation starters. Don’t send emails from a ‘donotreply’ address – use a real, live email address. Encourage people to hit the ‘reply’ button. You want to encourage conversation, not discourage it.
If people are simply reading your newsletter and not clicking any links or getting in touch, then something is wrong. Either your community is boring, or your newsletters are.
Incoming links and online mentions
Buzz is good. The more people talking about you, the more attention your community will attract. Not all mentions are guaranteed to be positive, though – so don’t just count a mention as a vote for your community. If you do something bad, you might get thousands of mentions; is that a good thing?
I’d keep track of all mentions and incoming links and divide them between negative, neutral and positive and see how they trend.
* Be wary of playing the numbers game *
In this article, I’ve listed 10 ways you can use numbers to measure your community’s progress – but at the same time I’ve shown how they don’t always reveal the true picture. When it comes to online communities, numbers aren’t everything. A community is about relationships – and relationships are subjective, not objective. Don’t forget this key fact.