When Data Disproves Community Building Myths

April 10, 2012Comments Off

Many of the things believed about community management aren't true. 

They've been disproven by data and studies. 

For example:

1) Lurkers are unlikely to ever become active members

We recently posted about the value of lurkers and how to use data to ensure lurkers are immediately engaged.

We based that post both from our experiences and proven studies (below). This post upset some community managers. They believed that all members begin as lurkers. As lurkers learn more about the community, they begin participating. 

This is the social learning theory of lurking.

It's one of three theories.

The other two are the personal trait theory (some people are born lurkers regardless of the community) and the other being situational disposition (lurkers will be engaged depending upon what the community does to engage them). 

This study by IBM stongly refutes the social learning theory of lurking.

There is no data to support that lurkers will gradually learn more about the community then participate, just a handful of anecdotal stories. 

Yet we still have conference talksengagement models and a huge number of community managers believing this is the case. 

Sure, this study is not all-conclusive, but given the choice between relying upon a handful of anecdotal stories or looking at studies, what do you want to use to guide your actions?


2) Game mechanics is only effective when members already know each other

Data can tell you other things. For example, game mechanics is only effective when members already know each other

Which means it's only worth adding game mechanics to existing communities with high levels of social capital. 

3) Ensure a newcomer's first contribution gets a good, quick, response

Another study suggests that the quality response to a member's first contribution is the determing factor in whether a new participant becomes a regular member. 

So whenever you see a newcomer with a 1 post next to their name, take special care to give them a quality response (and respond quickly!)

4) A branded community can increase customer sales by 19%, but rarely cultivates advocates

What about ROI? Well there are studies for this too. An interesting study suggests that online communities encourage customers to spend 19% more, but rarely develops advocates.

Using studies like these you can put together a very good idea of the potential ROI for your community. 

Even if you disagree with any of these findings, you can use a similar process to see what works in your community. 

These are just a handful of studies that refute things we widely believe about our field. There are many more.

Some studies will imply that most community managers jump in to resolve conflicts either too early, or too late. Others will tell you that your community doesn't have a hope of succeeeding because the strong common interest isn't relevant enough (and explain how to test it).

And there are many that will tell you what you need to do to get the community off the ground. There are even some cool predictive models you can use. 

The point isn't about the studies, but about the professionalization of our discipline. 

The Professionalization Of Community Management

For years, community management has been intuitive, adhoc, and reactive.

In the very near future, this will change. 

We have enough data now to know what does/doesn't work.

Community development is becoming data-driven, proactive, and based upon proven theory from social science. 

This is a terrifc thing, it makes our work more reliable. It's a win for both community managers and their employers. It makes us all better at what we do.

But it's going to worry people who are bored by data, reactive to their communities and are blissfully ignorant that some of their deeply held beliefs are very wrong. And they should be worried. 

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