How to Calculate the ROI of Online Communities

By Richard Millington

ROI People

One of the biggest problems in communicating value is that the majority of the work is undertaken before you enter the room. This relates to your own credibility and relationships.

Many of the tactics we have suggested so far have worked on a simple assumption. This assumption is that stakeholders know you, trust you, and like you. Very often, this is not the case. Not many community professionals, for example, can schedule a meeting with their CEO to explain the benefits of the community.

It is not often smart to directly email senior executives to communicate this value. This is especially true in larger organizations, where such tactics would be seen as “going over your manager’s head”. This creates a problem. How can you communicate value if you can’t get a meeting with your boss’ boss?

A related problem is that, even if you can get the meeting or the attention of the relevant stakeholder, they still might not listen or accept what you tell them.

This is the credibility problem. A high-value message from a low source of authority has a weaker impact than the same message from someone deemed highly credible.

Very often, the community professional has neither the relationships, established credibility, authority, or personal gravitas to have the impact they need to have.

These situations leave you with one of three options:

  1. Build relationships with key stakeholders. For some stakeholders, this is possible to do. You can invite them to a lunch, give them a call, solicit their opinions and begin building a strong relationship. This becomes more difficult the larger the difference in seniority.
  2. Build personal credibility within the organization. If you are seen within the organization as an expert within that field, you are more likely to have the gravitas to reach the people you need to reach. In practice, this is difficult to achieve because everyone else is trying to achieve the same thing. You would need a clear, consistent track record of success.
  3. Find others who can deliver your message. This is usually the most practical route. You can find those who stakeholders will listen to in order to deliver your message. This involves an additional layer to stakeholder mapping. It means identifying who each stakeholder is most likely to listen to.

However, it is difficult to rely upon a third party to deliver a precise message. This means it is often important to either simplify the message itself into a core element that is not prone to miscommunication, or to put the message in a format that can be easily shared.

For example, you might put the data into an image or graph that would be difficult to edit. You might simplify complex customer sentiment feedback into a single story of a customer in the community.

Putting Everything Together

Now we can put both this and the how to communicate together to create a more complete picture of how we will communicate the value of the community to stakeholders. We can see this in action below.

Stakeholder type Specific person(s) Category Value How Who
Direct Management Your boss Engage Member satisfaction;

Looking smart;

Return generated

Major return milestones in meetings. Irregular updates via graphic format in email she can share/forward. Regular chats in office sharing latest member stories You + your team members
Community Members Most active


Engage Personal efficacy; group identity Irregular emails to highlight personal progress/give more access.

Solicit opinions frequently.

Create insider group to share regular updates/solicit ideas.

Direct Management Your boss’ boss Engage Generating more profit than the sales team Regularly solicit opinions. Major milestones in email format (to forward). Irregular updates in person (when we meet in corridor) Your boss + mutual friend at same level
Senior Executives Director of marketing Engage Promotion potential. No. of people reached.


Major milestone updates sent to boss to share showing people reached compared with other channels. Irregular updates via email list showing integration with new channels and help needed to improve this. Your boss
Senior Executives CEO Keep satisfied Look innovative Collect feedback from key customers/trade press for boss’ boss to share.

Major milestone updates to share with board on innovative approach.

Boss’ boss /key customers
Senior Executives CFO Keep satisfied Best use of funds Clear financial comparisons in spreadsheet. Milestones to be shared by friends. Friends in the finance department
Community Members Veterans/ volunteers


Keep satisfied Sense of power/ influence/ being respected Milestone update written by senior exec or CEO.

Invite to special event to share irregular updates.

Colleagues Team members Keep satisfied Saves time. Makes their team look good to others in the organization. Team success email sharing milestone update /thank yous. You/your boss
Colleagues IT/Tech Keep satisfied Not another waste of time. Milestone thank you note to IT for their help and how it contributed to the project. Your boss
Community Members Regulars Keep informed Group success. News post updates on important information/ mailing list highlight latest community successes. You
Colleagues Marketing/ PR Keep informed Generates a great return.

Taking credit.

Irregular updates in senior meetings highlighting how the marketing department helped the community succeed. Your boss
Vendor Platform vendor Keep informed Case study to attract other clients.

Long-term contracts.

Irregular updates on progress. Quotes they can use. You
Peers in the field Community professionals Low Success stories and tactics they can use. Pitches to speak at relevant events and emails to trade press with interesting community factors. You
Community Members Lurkers Low Access to more information. Monitor You

This table clearly highlights more work than we can take on. This is why we would begin with the stakeholders at the top and gradually work our way down to a minimum the stakeholders who hold high influence.


  1. You might not be the best person to deliver information of positive value to each stakeholder.
  2. The credibility of the sender determines whether the message will be accepted or rejected.
  3. Find out who stakeholders trust, like, and respect. Build relationships with this group to deliver the messages you can’t.
  4. Messages delivered via third parties need to be simplified to avoid confusion.



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