How to Calculate the ROI of Online Communities

By Richard Millington

ROI People

Now we know what stakeholders value, we need to know how best to communicate that value. This is more complicated than simply asking stakeholders how they like to receive information.

Very often, a CEO, for example, might ask for a monthly report containing the latest figures. The problem is this report lacks context and is placed alongside a dozen other monthly reports that appear at the same time but are rarely read.

More importantly, there is a huge difference between communicating metrics and establishing value. Perceived value is the degree to which each individual stakeholder believes the community helps them achieve their goals.

Perceived value needs more than just numbers; it needs to embrace the psychology behind persuasion.

Stakeholders, like everyone else, are influenced by more than just facts. We do not weigh up the balance of evidence before forming attitudes and opinions. Instead, we form attitudes based as much upon emotion (a sense of feeling about the issue) as we do upon logic.

This means that the manner in which we present value must appeal not only to logic but also to emotions. It is the emotions that form attitudes. This means that we need to operate on several levels in order to establish perceived level. Raw numbers should be kept to background material only. Instead, we need to focus on:

  1. Providing context for all data. At the minimum, we need to provide context. It’s impossible to determine if having 1,500 active community members is good or bad. It’s far better to say if 70% of your top customers are active in the community, or how the community compares against the communities of competitors. Also use metaphors to provide context. Did you have 380,000 visitors to the community last month, or the population size of Pittsburgh visit your community last month? Did members contribute 500k words last month, or add enough information to fill the entire office bookshelf?
  2. Trends. More important than context are trends. If the trends are heading in the right direction, never use raw numbers. Highlight continued growth in the values they care about. Also use current trends to make future predictions. Let the stakeholder taste the future success of the project. “If we keep growing at this rate, we’ll be twice as big as our nearest competitor in six months.”
  3. Emotive stories. Even better than trends are stories (or an encompassing narrative). These are clear stories that demonstrate the value the stakeholder wants has been achieved. This might include their boss making a positive comment about the community after hitting a success, or evidence of members deriving clear value from the community. Stories trump data every time. Stories that are based upon data are even more compelling. It is important to individually collect or ‘clip’ these stories in a tool such as Google Docs or using a tool such as Evernote to help create a convincing case for the community.
  4. Milestones. A final useful tool is to communicate milestones. These help shape positive association with the community. A milestone might be the 100th member helped, the 10,000th question, a prominent influencer joining the community, reaching call deflection parity with the customer service line (or half), etc.

All four of these play a powerful role in shaping the perception of value in the community. Do not rely upon regular monthly updates with metrics in a simple spreadsheet document. Add additional information that provides context, trends, shows success stories or highlights milestones the community has achieved.

You can work harder to build up a positive picture of the community. This might mean collecting quotes from staff members showing how the community has helped them, from customer service teams highlighting how calls have decreased, etc.

Act like a journalist uncovering the value of your community. Your job isn’t to deliver a data dump, but to show context, highlight new trends, reveal stories, and celebrate relevant milestones.

Medium is the Message

The method you use to communicate value also influences the efficacy of the message. If you send your value messages in the email, they will appear alongside a dozen other emails. If you only use text, they will be prioritized alongside other long text-based messages.

The worst format is traditionally regular monthly updates. These are ignored at worst and hard to remember at best. The best format is face-to-face, being able to highlight and explain the success of the community through stories, trends, and context.

Do not send high-value messages through email. Tell the stakeholder in person, via a call, or, at minimum, through a graphic that shows success.

Let’s take a stakeholder, perhaps our boss’ boss, and work through a possible example:

  • Your boss’ boss
  • Generating more profit than the sales team (worried about budget being cut)
  • Community generated 735 leads this month, sales team just 415 leads
  • Our product innovation webinar has been watched by more than all our current customers combined this month
  • Community profit increased by 17% more than sales team this month
  • In six months, community will be generating twice the profit of the sales team at 1/5th of the cost
  • Mentions of community increased by 13% this year compared with just 5% by brand mentions
  • Our three biggest customers said they stick with us because of the community
  • At a job interview, an employee from a rival company mentioned how jealous they were of our community (and kept trying to copy it)
  • Our 5000th lead this month
  • Now have twice as many mentions of our content as two rival brands combined
  • Casual lunch/hallway encounter
  • Provided with full data afterwards in a requested email
  • Graphics to prove trends


  1. Don’t send through metrics upon request; this is not an effective way of shaping the value of the community.
  2. Ensure all data adds context – How can people visualise or best understand the data you’re sending them?
  3. Use trends to highlight what happens if they keep supporting the community. Predict the future.
  4. Capture stories that show they are getting the perceived value they want.
  5. Collect milestones and send them through at infrequent intervals.
  6. Resist the urge to use email to send through value. Communicate value in real time with passion and excitement.



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