How Many Members Do You Need To Build A Million Dollar Online Community?
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.