When can online communities be declared a success?

by Martin Reed on 6 June 2008 in Articles

Making a successful online community

All community developers want their online community to be successful. What determines whether an online community is successful? When can you confidently declare your online community to be a success? This article will help you decide.

What are online communities?

Online communities are places where people come together to share thoughts, opinions and ideas in a virtual environment. They can take on many forms, including forums, social networks, chat sites and blogs. As soon as people start to interact in a virtual environment, an online community is created.

Just because you have generated interaction on your site, it doesn’t mean you have a successful online community. You need to ensure this interaction is sustained.

Online community success factors

There are a number of ways an online community can be judged to be successful. Here are a few ideas:

  • The number of members
  • The number of interactions (for example, in forums the number of posts)
  • The amount of revenue being generated
  • The value of the relationship being built between the community brand and its members
  • The amount of traffic the community is attracting
  • The buzz or brand image of the online community

These are only a few points by which some community developers will judge the success of their online community. It is important to remember though, that what is important for one developer will be completely different for another.

Someone new to the development of online communities may simply be looking to attract the largest number of members possible. Once they reach 5.000 members, they may consider their community a success. A large corporation developing a community in order to build a relationship with its customers will have completely different criteria for success.

What are your individual goals?

You will struggle to declare your online community a success if you don’t have any goals or targets. Only you can determine when your online community is successful, based on what you want to achieve. If you want to develop a site for a few passionate members to talk about a niche subject, then even if you only have ten members you can justifiably call your community a success.

A big brand looking to develop a positive relationship with its customers may have 100,000 members and a million posts, but if the content is full of negativity about the brand and its products, the community is a failure.

Don’t judge your community against others. Your community is unique. Your goals are unique. Your success factors are unique. Know what you want to achieve and strive to reach your goals. When you have, you can declare your community a success. Traffic levels, members counts and revenue are not the primary determinants of an online community’s success. You are.

Your thoughts

Is your online community a success? What makes your community successful? What are your individual goals? Do you think there are a generic set of accomplishments that every online community needs to achieve in order to be successful? Share your thoughts and opinions by leaving a comment below.

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Small Business Marketing Community (Joe) June 6, 2008 at 8:40 pm

I find that communities constantly evolve, many are successful by metrics, but a community manager has to look beyond and that consider the user experience. That is, how many people are engaged and discussing a variety of topics, how many complaints or instances of flammable threads get created.

Every community manager probably (and should) have different goals in mind. Definitely, if the goals are focused solely on profit, then ARPU and PVs are important. If the goals are to provide a solid community experience, then length of time on site and bounce rate are helpful indicators.

Amish Made Furniture June 7, 2008 at 4:29 pm

This is a loaded question. Successful in whose eyes? If it is for the owner of the blog, then the answer is obvious. If it is for the member, then the satisfaction that he/she gets out of the community in terms of “commun”ing in it, will determine whether the community is successful or not.

Mr Woc June 7, 2008 at 7:11 pm

Hi there

I think its a very difficult question to answer, as your goals constantly change as your website changes, I dont really set goals as such, I just do my best to keep my websites moving forward.


Simon Brown June 7, 2008 at 10:04 pm

When can cities be declared a success?

Amish Made Furniture June 9, 2008 at 12:42 pm

I quote Leon Krier in reply to Simon Brown. I think that the comparison is quite apt.
“Good urban planning does not mean creating distance between people in the manner of Frank Lloyd Wright’s ocean-to-ocean suburbs, but bringing people together in ways that enhance their enjoyment of the place where they communally are.”

Ronnie Carroll June 10, 2008 at 1:06 pm

“A big brand looking to develop a positive relationship with its customers may have 100,000 members and a million posts, but if the content is full of negativity about the brand and its products, the community is a failure.”

From my perspective, the online community itself (as described above) is still very successful. There are lots of members making posts and interacting with each other. Perhaps it’s merely the brand or product that’s unsuccessful. Even then, is the product really a complete failure?

Throughout the history of scientific inquiry or product development, most advancements aren’t made from a series of successes, but rather from a series of “failures,” each one a stepping-stone or greater impetus towards improvement. Failure isn’t a finish. It’s a line to be crossed.

So, when something isn’t working, or doesn’t work, rather than taking a dim, fatalistic view of its overall “success,” focus on how to correct the “failures.” The successes will then take care of themselves.

Smiley June 10, 2008 at 1:44 pm

I don’t think member count should be considered when it comes to deciding whether the community is a success or not.

You can have 8,000 members, none of them are spambots, for the safe of this post we’ll see they’re 8,000 genuine people who have found the site and registered…… but if you only have a few thousand posts, you’re in trouble.

If people see such a high member count with such a low post count.. they’re going to think there’s something wrong with the community and they should stay away.

Yes, I believe in quality over quantity…. but there’s a line to be drawn! There has to be a balance.

I consider FC to be a success. Sure, it’s a few years away from being taken seriously by mainstream sites in terms of chat numbers, but the two dozen or so chatters we do get in simultaneously at peak times now fall inlove with the site, within hours they’re posting away on the forums like they’ve been there for years, because they’re made to feel at home, they fit in.

There’s no cliques, no perverts, no abusers.. we get the odd spammer, the odd pervert attempting to get in, but they don’t last for long.

My members feel safe, they feel at home, they feel important, too, I have my ways of making them feel like they’re the ones calling the shot. I sort of represent myself on there rather cleverly as a ‘puppet’, sort of like Her Majesty the Queen of England — I have all the power in the world, but my subjects are the ones that tell me how to use it.

The troublemakers aren’t even that much trouble. I must have one of the most polite troublemakers I’ve ever come across. He actually PM’d me asking me if I wanted him to calm down as he was ruffling a few feathers.. I of course told him to keep up the good work.

heh heh.

It’ll be great to make a nice, comfortable profit in a few years, but I get exactly what I want out of FC; satisfaction. That really, really nice feeling you get when you receive e-mails telling you how amazing the site is, how they’ve been searching for just the kind of site, and posts in the forum’s comments section thanking you and praising you for your work.. seeing people have fun, fall in love, make new friends, laugh and most of all.. feel safe and when you see them feel like they belong… I wouldn’t trade that indescribable feeling I get for all the revenue in the world.

To feel like that about your community, to me, is considered a success.

If you don’t feel that sense of pure euphoria about your community, but you have loads of people and loads of revenue, is it really a success if you’re apathetic or discontent about the community its self?

Smiley June 10, 2008 at 1:47 pm

God, loads of typo’s. Been on a huge binge all weekend, can barely see straight still! You’ll have to excuse the muddled-up words. Sorry.

Ecard Lover June 12, 2008 at 6:43 am

If a Social network move forward, by analyzing the people need and cater them in an easy and crisp manner with a new style, will make the network a success. However I guess it is impossible to define some generic set of accomplishments that every online community needs to achieve in order to be successful.

Nicole Price June 13, 2008 at 3:54 am

That is a tricky question, because what constitutes success is different for everyone. One person may regard sustained interaction as the only constituent of a successful community, while another may regard that as an extraneous consideration in the absence of revenues to back it up. However it would be safe to say that if a forum meets more than half the criteria on that list of yours, most people would judge it as successful.

webpage tutorial June 17, 2008 at 4:21 pm

It depends on the site. For example you might create a website about about sports cars with 50.000 people registered and active. That would be a very successful sports cars website. On the other hand if you had a social networking community, that same number would have doomed it, since you would need ten times that. Imagine facebook with 50.000 people. It would have been very-very unsuccessful. So depending on the nature and the target of the community different numbers define different levels of success.

Angela Connor June 19, 2008 at 5:46 pm

Isn’t an online community a work in progress? I mean, I feel successful one day and completely stumped the next. GOLO has been the biggest roller coaster ride for me. With nearly 8,000 members in one year, that is a success. But there are so many other factors that may not be a success because they aren’t exactly where I’d like them to be.

Chat June 24, 2008 at 12:50 am

I would say i would consider an online community a success when members are adding content to the website on a regular basis and you are covering your expenses.

Although everyone has a different opinion on what makes an online community a success.

UptakeInOH June 26, 2008 at 5:33 am

I am a member of a successful online community. It is an offshoot of a larger community that struggles to survive. It has more members, but has to prohibit certain topics due to the bickering that takes place. Our smaller offshoot does allows all topics to be discussed as long as it is done with respect.

Unfortunately, I have seen larger communities fade away from member leaving over issues that can have opposing views. If open communication is not encouraged, a lot of the discussion goes underground and soon there is a passive aggressive war taking place on the main front, fueled by anger that is taking place behind the lines. I think that open discussion and communication is the key and when solutions need to be found, they can be done so openly and with respect. Otherwise, the community starts turning on itself and eats its way from the inside out until there is nothing of substance left.

Martin Reed - Blog Author June 26, 2008 at 8:48 pm

Joe – You’re right; online communities are continually evolving as they take on new members and existing members become more comfortable. Goals and measures of success vary according to each community and the aims of its developer.

Ramana – That’s a good way of looking at it; if your members are happy, then surely your community is a success? Again though, it depends on the aims of the community developer.

Mr Woc – Good point. Goals do (and should) change as your community develops. If we take that train of thought, can a community ever be declared an outright success, or is it always a work in progress?

Simon – Ha! Touché!

Ronnie – I appreciate your view on this, however I would disagree. In this case, the community could do the brand more harm than good if it is full of negative comments about the brand and its products – even though it has 100,000 members and a million posts, it would still be a failure.

I am not discrediting failure – it can be a fantastic learning tool, and I accept that failure is very often a step we all need to take on the path to success.

Smiley – A lot of visitors do judge a community first and foremost by its member count and post count. This is a shame, as I have come across some fantastic communities that would be considered a failure by these metrics alone.

Success depends upon the aims and goals of the community developer. In your case, you want (and get) satisfaction from your community – therefore, it is a success in this regard.

Ecard – Just as an online community shouldn’t be generic, neither should it’s aims and goals; they need to be unique to that community and its developer.

Nicole – Exactly; what is a success for one person, may not be for another. I think the ideas I mentioned as determinants for success are just that – ideas. I don’t think they should be used as a checklist, and I wouldn’t argue that a community needs to meet a minimum number of them to be deemed a success.

Webpage – You make a good point; different types of online community require different membership levels in order to reach critical mass. Do membership number alone determine a site’s success, though?

Angela – Yes, an online community should always be considered a work in progress. The fact that some days you feel empowered by success and on others you feel a little lost is completely normal – it’s what makes you human!

Cody – That’s an interesting way of measuring success. After all, if you don’t have any interaction, you don’t have a community!

Uptake – You make a good point here by showing that a community with a large amount of members shouldn’t automatically be considered a success. In this case, although the community is large it is struggling to retain members, and will therefore struggle to grow and develop into the future.

You’re right that discussion and communication are the best ways of resolving conflict. Sometimes larger communities can become arrogant and forget this, and instead resort to rudimentary bans and over-zealous moderation.

website design June 27, 2008 at 3:11 pm

Success depends on the “Goal ,team members,ideas” of people who are the part of it. Other important things for success of an online community depends on the quality of persons using it.

TigerTom June 28, 2008 at 6:17 pm

“What determines whether an online community is successful?”

When the site owner is making a nice income from advertising revenue ;)

Karen July 2, 2008 at 3:17 pm

It can be hard to maintain an online community, especially forums. One particular challenge is getting your members to post and participate in the forum. I guess it depends on how well you rate your “people skills”

Breakdown Cover July 5, 2008 at 10:44 am

If I learn or enjoy, then it is a sucess.
I am part of a very small private community online, that just has people in my profession online.
I learn a huge amoount from this and fully enjoy.
However i am also a member of a very large well known one, that i get nothing from, but I know my kids love it.

So what is someones enjoyment, is someone elses waste of time.

We are all unique and want different things, even on the internet


Smiley July 9, 2008 at 2:39 am

Well, we have over 100,000 posts now so I think as far as member & post count goes, we’re reaching that ‘peak’ where people aren’t put off by it being a new community.

Martin Reed - Blog Author July 17, 2008 at 1:16 am

Website – I agree; success depends on the individual goals of the community developer and nothing else.

TigerTom – That’s a good way of looking at it, but how do you define a ‘nice’ income?!?

Karen – You can encourage people to post by asking questions and getting more involved in the community yourself. Give it a try, and let us know how you get on.

Mark – That’s a really nice way of looking at it. Many people forget that community development should be an enjoyable learning experience. What is enjoyable and valuable to one person, may not be to another. It is important to recognise this.

Smiley – That’s a great accomplishment. What’s your next target?

Vivian24 November 6, 2009 at 3:05 pm

What criteria or accomplishment is considered success? One man misery can be another man success story, who knows what people are trying to accomplished? For me, success can be as simple as create a decent living income online where I can support myself and travel vacation anytime I want.

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