What does the evolution of a successful community look like?
Lets use the East Dulwich online community as an example.
The community launched in July 2006 as a place for residents to gossip and make recommendations/requests. This is how it looked after 3 months.
After 3 months the community had 97 posts. That's around 1 - 2 posts per day. This isn't unusual for this stage.
Note how the community launched with a tiny number of categories. One for gossip, one for value and one about the community (Mark probably could have skipped this one).
After 6 months
After 6 months the community has received 1,374 posts. That's an average of 229 per month (or around 7 - 8 per day).
This is a little misleading. The number of posts per day is much higher at this point, but we're averaging since launch.
Another category has been added "What's on". The category suits the needs of the community. Gradually the category is populated.
Notice here that the response time begins to improve. In the previous screenshot, there could be days since the last post in a category. Now most discussions receive a reply within the past day.
After 1 year
Now the community hits the establishment phase. A "lounge" for off-topic chat is added. A sense of community develops. The number of posts rockets up to a total of 39,191.
That's a total of around 100 posts per day if we average since launch. But if we average between 4 days (using snapshots between taken four days apart), it's closer to 200 posts per day. Most of the growth is through The Lounge - the off-topic discussion category.
Note how much more responsive this community is too, most discussions receive a short reply. Another useful category has been added, Residential Property in East Dulwich.
After 2 years
Now it's 2008. The community has a total of 149,432 posts. The majority of these are in The Lounge (off-topic). This is a community in the maturity phase. The community now receives around 300 - 400 posts per day.
There is a strong sense of community. Response times are short. There is plenty of valuable content and a steady level of growth.
Present day (after 5+ years)
Today the community is thriving. The community gets between 500 - 600 posts per day.
It has also spawned a West Dulwich forum.
This sort of community evolution isn't the anomaly, it's the norm. If we look at the progression of a whole host of successful communities, we find similar stories. The community begins slow, with a small number of categories, and grows steadily.
You can use www.archive.org to track the progress of any number of online communities. The results will be the same.
The successful communities you see today took years to evolve, not months. They began with 1 - 2 posts a day, then went up to 7 - 8 posts a day. It took years to reach the 500 posts-per-day stage.
Lesson to learn
So there are some important points here.
- Be patient. Many brands would have considred their community a failure after 3 months and killed it. Don't panic if after 3 months your community is only getting 1 - 2 posts per day. Communities take time. Focus on slow, steady, growth. Imagine what it will be like in 5 years time.
- Use a simple platform. Seriously. Anyone that says forums are antiquated is missing that they're still the most popular community platforms around right now. How old is e-mail?
- Add new elements to satisfy demand. Gradually add new elements to the community as you need them. Don't rush the growth or include unncessarly elements/features.
- Embrace off-topic discussions. Off-topic discussions wont attract members to your community, but they will keep existing members highly engaged.