Month: March 2018
Most of us believe we need thousands, maybe millions, of members to have a really valuable community.
Even those that don’t dream of making their community bigger and having more active members.
This is usually because we believe three things:
- More members makes the community better.
- Getting more members is a good use of time/resources.
- Getting more members improves the value of the community.
There is a grain of truth here. If you’re just getting your community started, you definitely want to grow quickly to reach critical mass.
But once you’ve reached critical mass, adding more members doesn’t help you build a million dollar community. What does help is getting the best out of the members you do have.
In this post, I’m going to outline how many active contributors you should aim for, what a typical breakdown of a community looks like and the numbers that go into creating a million-dollar community.
Most Brand Communities Have Far Fewer Members Than You Imagine
Two years ago, we began to suspect most branded communities had far fewer active contributors than we believed.
So we scraped a random sample of communities from Lithium below and analyzed the results (shown below).
It’s possible our scrape missed a lot of data (and there is plenty of activity behind closed doors). However, we broadly discovered most communities have between 51 to 389 active contributors at any one time.
But is Lithium reflective of most communities?
In the past year, we’ve worked with Community-Analytics and two academics to collect data from around 200 communities hosted on Discourse. The communities were broken down by size (no. messages) and the results are shown below.
Again, the number of active contributors varies wildly, but there is a clear trend within the 50 to 400 region.
Most branded communities really don’t have that many members.
Unless you’re an outlier (work for a brand with a massive audience, using a totally different platform, or have a really explosive idea), then you’re not going to get more than a few hundred active contributors during any given month.
This gives you some reasonable benchmarks to aim for:
- Bad = <100 – bad (unless you’re just starting out)
- OK = 100 to 200 active contributors
- Good = 200 to 400 active contributors
- Great = >400 active contributors
(of course, if you feel your community is an outlier, set outlier goals. Just be clear about why your community is an outlier).
But how valuable can a brand community be with just a few hundred active contributors? Extremely.
How Can A Community Be Indispensable With Only A Few Hundred Active Members?
This is a lot like asking how your customer call center or marketing team can be valuable with only a few dozen staff members.
It’s not the size of active members, it’s the multiplication of their contributions which matters.
For most benefits of a community, innovation, call deflection, customer success/support, you really don’t need that many active members. Instead, you need members to do valuable things which are seen by a far bigger audience.
But not all active members are equal. If we break-down participation habits and tenure of members within a community, we get the data we see below (from 139 Discourse communities):
I’d interpret this as community contributors tending to fall within three buckets:
- Single Posters. The single-poster group (typically people who have a question they need to be resolved), comprise around 43% of membership. They ask a question and then leave when they have an answer.
- The Irregulars. This is the 2 to 4% of contributors who stick around to either ask one or two more questions or answer a question. The community isn’t a habit and they tend to come and go sporadically.
- The 90+ Day Group (Top Contributors). This is the 16% of members whom have stuck around for 3+ months and tend to contribute most of the responses/replies to a community.
Pay careful attention to that 16% figure there. It means most of the value in branded communities is driven by only a few dozen (active contribs * 0.16) regular members.
That’s it….just a few dozen.
This might be the community equivalent of 1000 true fans. These few dozen are the critical group.
It really doesn’t matter how many active members you have, it matters how many true believers you have.
It ultimately matters how many people you have on the far right side on the member motivation model below:
I’ve seen plenty of communities struggling to succeed with a few hundred active members. The reason is simple, they don’t have any truly committed members creating real value. They just have irregulars and single-posters.
This is so important to understand. Almost all the truly valuable contributions to a community are coming from just a tiny group of active members.
This is the group you need to nurture through the motivation model above.
However this comes with the big caveat. These contributions only matter if you have a lot of people willing to read them.
The Lurker Multiplier
Lurkers multiply the value of your top members.
A single member might write a single post answering someone’s question, but if 10,000 people read it, it might deflect 10,000 calls.
It’s far better to have 100 members creating content read by 10,000 lurkers, than 10,000 members creating content read by 100 lurkers.
There isn’t much hard data on the number of lurkers most communities have. The client data we have varies between 99.80% and 95% of all visitors to the community. I wouldn’t be surprised if it stretched way beyond that for the larger communities too.
This is also heavily influenced by community type (esp. customer support) and community age (older = more lurkers). The bigger and older you are, the greater the imbalance of lurkers.
Let’s imagine you have a reasonable 1% ratio (99% of lurkers for every active member).
The median brand community will have around 162 monthly active contributors and 16,200 visitors.
This might not sound like much, but let’s start breaking down how valuable a community like this might be:
Imagine those 16,200 lurkers find the answer to their problem and don’t need to call customer service. At $3 to $5 per call that’s a cost saving of $48k to $81k per month ($576,000 to $972,000 per year).
Imagine just 5% of this group become customers. For a typical SaaS company with a $100 per month subscription, this could again be $81k per month ($972k per year)
Imagine if this 5% of these visitors become customers as a result of the community, again, we’re looking at $972k per year.
Imagine if you advertise jobs in the community and save $10k in headhunting costs per recruit or save $15k on every focus group project you used to run.
These aren’t fanciful made up numbers. They’re very real and very possible metrics that explain why just a tiny group of top contributors creating content read by a standard group of lurkers can be so valuable. But we haven’t even gotten to the big win yet.
The Big Win
As you grow, you want to align the community to achieve multiple goals.
You might begin with customer support and then also include feedback, lead generation, recruitment etc…
Now a community can quickly go from driving up to a million dollars return into several million dollars. All of it generated by just a core group of a few dozen active members.
You wouldn’t really need to think about trying to get as many members as possible, if your members are providing as much value as possible.
This is the incredible value that a seemingly small community with just a few dozen active contributors can provide to an organization. This is what makes a community the most cost-efficient way to achieve goals. It’s what turns a small community into an indispensable asset.
Putting It All Together
Ok, let’s put this all together into some key benchmarks and core principles:
1) Hit the upper quartile range for brand communities. This would be 163+ active contributors per month, 26+ regular members, and 16,300+ visitors. By all means keep optimizing search results, building partnerships, inviting people to join, and encouraging members to share material until you hit that number. Use the motivation model above to keep members active. Don’t let anyone bully you into trying to be Reddit.
2) Nurture your top contributors. Build strong relationships with each of them, connect them into their own tribe, deploy a super-user program, and guide them to make the best type of contribution they can make. This group needs to be as respected, connected, and as valuable as they possibly can.
3) Multiply the value of top contributors. This is the overlooked part. Make sure the best content is really easy to find. Drive a lot of traffic to it. You should see your visitor numbers steadily growing. Then align your community to achieve multiple goals (call deflection, feedback, retention, recruitment etc…). This is where you can double and triple the value of every member.
When most people think of a successful community, they usually think of the mega-communities and the big social networking platforms like (Reddit, Facebook, LinkedIn etc…).
But if you were to plot branded communities on a bell curve, you would notice the mega-communities aren’t just rare, they’re outliers. They’re statistical anomalies which bear no resemblance to the work you will be doing.
Ignore the big fish and focus on getting the most out of the members you do have, not chasing the members you don’t have.
Building A World Class Community Management Team: A System for Benchmarking Online Community Skills And Abilities
Imagine you decided to move into sales and on your first day, someone handed you a list of the organization’s top customers and responsibility for the entire CRM system.
No training, no support, no roadmap.
This is pretty close to what happens in community management today. Most people are suddenly handed responsibility for building a community from an organization’s top customers on an advanced technology platform.
Often they have limited training, support, or a detailed roadmap.
At worst, it leads to empty ghost towns or pointless casinos (communities with lots of meaningless engagement).
The level of training given to community teams today is abysmal. It’s the root cause of most of the problems you and your team are facing.
It’s important to make continual progress of your community team a priority. Your team, your members, and your organizations deserve better the best. In this post, we’re going to highlight how to benchmark yourself and your current team.
We’re going to identify the skills they need and how you can set reasonable targets for each of them.
Benchmarking The Community Team
We sometimes receive emails asking if one of our courses is right for a participant.
This is a hard question to answer without knowing someone’s ability. Most people don’t know how good they are because they have no benchmarks to measure themselves against. They use the size of their community rather than their own abilities.
We benchmark community professionals along five attributes (adapted from our friends at the community roundtable). These are below:
1) Strategy. This is the ability to develop and execute a community strategy which deploys the organization’s limited resources to maximum impact.
2) Engagement. This is the ability to proactively engage, nurture top members, and build systems to improve the overall participation environment of the community.
3) Content. This is the ability to create original content and drive high-value contributions from other members.
4) Technical. This is the ability to select, implement, and optimize a community platform. This includes resolving technical problems and managing vendor relationships.
5) Business. This is the ability to build allies throughout the organization, measure value, run a community team, and gather more resources for the community.
We break each of these down by four distinct levels ranging from ok to world-class.
You should strive to gradually upgrade yourself and the community team to a world-class level in each of these areas.
This is subjective, but I recommend copying and adapting our benchmarking resource below.
Score each member of staff between 0 to 4 on each of the five attributes.
We’re going to break down each of these levels below:
1) Strategy (or strategic thinking)
When benchmarking someone’s strategic abilities, you want to track their journey from thinking strategically to having a codified and invaluable strategy everyone understands and supports. This increasingly relies on research, metrics, and project management skills.
Strategy is about allocating resources to have maximum impact. It’s not about trying to do as many things as possible, but deciding what’s worth doing and allocating maximum resources to ensure success.
Or, to use an analogy, it’s not about dividing resources evenly to fight every battle, but about deciding which battles are worth fighting (see this big wins talk).
The first level is to ensure all staff members are thinking strategically about how they spend their time. Are they constantly using available data to reviewing which activities they undertake are driving results and pursuing those which are most effective?
As your staff progress, you want them to be proactively researching what members want and using that data to improve the community. They should know how their tactics serve a strategy which serves an objective which serves a goal.
At the more advanced level, you want them to become great at segmenting members, ensuring members are making their most valuable contributions, establishing benchmarks, and pursuing reasonable community goals. The strategy should be internalized here throughout the entire community team with modeling of different inputs to achieve goals.
Engagement skills are the core abilities of the community team to create the perfect environment for every member to make their best possible contribution to the community.
This begins at the lower levels with being a terrific community member.
Do your community staff resolve and escalate problems well?
Can they remove the bad material quickly?
Do they build positive relationships with community members?
As they move up the chain, they should focus on building systems which build a powerful sense of community and nurture superusers among the group. They should get better at building and optimizing the journey which turns newcomers into regular, active, members.
At the highest levels, you and your team need to be able to improve the resolution rates, address legal/brand issues, and ensure all staff know how best to engage members in the community.
Content is one of the areas where everyone considers themselves an expert (aren’t you a great writer?). Content is essentially the ability to develop and facilitate the creation of valuable long-form educational or entertaining content across blogs, webinars, videos etc…
At the simpler levels, all members of your team should be able to synthesize great content from existing work and member contributions. This should be nicely designed and implemented across multiple platforms.
As you improve, you should be able to optimize web copy and improve conversion rates, increase search traffic, and build an editorial calendar. This requires reasonable copywriting and SEO abilities.
At the higher levels, your team should be able to ensure an editorial calendar is adhered to (surprisingly hard), develop automation campaigns, edit contributions of other members and persuade top experts to create great content for your community.
Finally, a great community professional should be able to commission ‘big win’ content projects (e.g. our platform selection tool) which goes far beyond a simple blog post or video. It brings in a unique, viral, idea to attract great search traffic, and has a unique design/development.
Far too many people in this field profess to ‘not being technical’. This isn’t good enough when your entire work depends upon being adept at managing a technology platform and what happens within it.
At the basic level, this requires knowing how the features of the platform work and being able to diagnose any potential problems which arise. Your staff should be able to learn this by testing things, experimenting in the community, and asking around in the vendor’s relevant communities.
Beyond this, you need your team to be able to resolve most issues independently, run SQL queries to get the data you need and make improvements to the structure and design of the community without help. This kind of knowledge is best gained through peer support.
As you reach the more advanced level, you want to know more about the platform environment, using data to improve the speed and functionality of the platform, and using the best features from any third party platforms to build the best community possible.
Finally, you want to be able to take responsibility for the entire vendor process and address legal/privacy/security issues which can arise.
Business skills are the link between the community and the organization. This is about you being able to make the community indispensable to the organization. This begins with knowing how the community is supposed to help the business and the resources available to develop that community.
As you get better, you should become more adept at acquiring more resources by building a strong internal narrative and persuasively winning over any skeptics and key stakeholders within the organization.
Finally, this evolves into being able to attract and retain world-class community talent, build career maps, and build a community-first culture among the organization. The very best people I know have a pipeline of people eager to work for them. This doesn’t happen by accident, it happens by doing what one friend calls ‘building pipe’, constantly showing up, making connections, and knowing what talent you’re looking out for.
Set A Target To Improve Every 3 To 6 Months
Now you have your benchmarks, you can begin to set reasonable targets of improvement for each member of your team.
A reasonable level of progress is an increase in 1 level (of 1 attribute ) every 2 to 3 months at the first two levels and usually 3 to 6 months at the upper levels.
This gives your team a clear focus and lets you build a roadmap of what you expect over 6 to 12 months. This, in turn, lets you identify what kind of support you need to provide the community team to help them reach each level.
Avenues for Progress
Courses aren’t the only method of improving your community team or improving your own abilities. There are multiple channels available here, each can work in different situations.
- Professional courses. I’d recommend our Strategic Community Management and Psychology of Community courses for strategy/engagement development.
- Books. Focus on specific topic areas, not pop. business books. This tends to be good for content skills and some marketing/growth abilities.
- Conferences. This is good for content/SEO skills, some engagement skills, and some highly focused areas. It’s good for building relationships which can help in other areas too.
- Blogs. These are fantastic for most areas, especially psychology, marketing, SEO, and analytics. Find the right expertise here.
- Peer communities. Both industry sites like CMX, Community Roundtable, FeverBee Experts, but also communities in each unique field like technology, journalism, copywriting, marketing, SEO etc…Encourage your team to identify problems, ask questions, and get help. Small peer groups of people working in similar communities is also a good idea.
- Mentoring and support. This covers both informal mentoring and professional options. This is best for business skills, strategy, and some technical expertise.
- Experimenting. Especially in technical (use a sandbox!) and some areas of engagement. You can run small trials to see what does or doesn’t work.
This is a process that never ends. The goal is to set benchmarks, track progress, and push for ongoing, non-stop, improvement from every member of the community team. Set a skills roadmap for every person you work with and compel both of you to review it every 3 months.