There are two common ways to build a thriving community.
The first is to begin with a huge audience and promote heavily to build a core, small, group.
The second is to begin with a very small, very passionate, audience. It helps to have both, but this is rare.
Most big organizations take the first option. They have big mailing lists with millions of members. There will usually be a few hundred die-hard members in the group to get the community started. Most customer service channels work well here.
Most amateurs rely on their existing relationships/passionate followings. They launch the community with their friends/relatives/existing connections and grow from there.
Both approaches can work fine (and often yield similar numbers). But it’s very hard to launch a community with neither a big audience or a strong, passionate, following.
Predicting The Conversion Rate Of Big Audiences Into Active Members
A common misconception is the conversion rates of big numbers.
Audiences of millions quickly become communities of hundreds. Using a few rules of thumb, we can estimate the conversion rates of big audiences.
The conversion rate is influenced by 3 factors; size of existing audience, strength of relationships/reputation with that audience, and existing competitors.
What % Of Your Total Combined Audience Will See Your Messages?
Most of the members in your audience can't be reached. First, we need to establish the real reach you have among your audience. Here's a few rules of thumb, it will vary by audience.
- Facebook Fans * 0.05 (few people see the updates)
- LinkedIn connections * 0.01 (even fewer see the updates)
- Twitter connections * 0.01 (noisy)
- Mailing list * 0.15 (or open rates)
- Other channels * 0.15
- Web traffic * 0.05
- Personal connections * 0.5
Multiply this figure by 0.25 to account for overlapping audiences (e.g. usually the people on your Facebook fans are those from your mailing lists etc…).
For example, imagine you have
- 10,000 FB fans (10000 * 0.05 = 500)
- 7000 LinkedIn connections (7000 * 0.01 = 70)
- 20,000 Twitter followers (20000 * 0.01 = 200)
- 50,000 members on your mailing list (50000 * 0.15 = 7500)
- 7,000 people through other channels (Slideshare, YouTube etc…) = (7000 * 0.15 = 1050)
- 2000 web visitors (200 * 0.05 = 100)
Thus from the initial figure of 96000 you would be able to reach 2355 (9420 * 0.25).
That means just 2.5% of your total audience will even see the messages you send out (if you want to skip the maths, this isn't a bad rule of thumb to use).
But how many will actually respond or take action?
Whether they respond to your message depends both on the content of the message itself and the strength of relationships with this audience.
If the e-mail is good, assume 5% of the figure above will respond to your message. This varies based upon the quality of relationships you have with them, but 5% would be ok.
This gives you just 118 people (2355 * 0.05) to get the community started.
That's 0.12% of your original total combined audience
(again, not a bad figure to use if you want to skip the maths)
Will They Take Action? 3 Questions To Ask
Whether these 118 people will participate depends upon you, your company, and the community concept.
A passionate fanbase that loves you is clearly better than a customer list you’ve been sending discount offers to for years. Tim Ferriss is a great example of someone who can launch a thriving community in minutes.
If the audience loves the community manager, is passionate about their mission, and wants to associate themselves with the founder, they’re more likely to join and quickly participate. This varies by sector. B2C companies tend to do badly. Niche, focused, fields tend to do well.
1) Do they know and like you personally? Do you have a good reputation? I don’t have data here, but I’d guess 30% of strength is determined by your reputation.
2) Do they know and like your company and your company’s mission? I suspect this accounts for around 20% of whether people join and participate.
3) Does the community concept personify what they’re looking for? We have a detailed model for this. I’d estimate it accounts for around 50% of whether they join and participate.
Even if all these are really strong, only around 50% will become active members.
The rest are lost to a variety of factors you can't control (e.g. too busy).
This drops your figure of 118 to just 59.
Typically, the community manager isn’t well known (5/30), the organization is well known (15/20), and the concept varies – but let’s assumes 25/50.
This means 45% or 23 people will become regular active participants in the community initially. That's 0.02% of your initial reach.
The third factor is existing competitors. If there is an existing community in your sector, it’s far harder to persuade people to spend time in your community. Why join yours and not your existing competitor communities?
The crucial question isn’t whether you have competitors; it’s what % of the above figure participates in the competitor’s community. If it’s 1 in 20, that’s not a big concern. If it’s 1 in 2, that’s much more difficult to overcome. Your community has to be the only community of its kind.
Let’s assume 10% of the above audience participates in a competitor community. This leaves you with 21 active members.
How many People Do You Need To Start A Community?
Now you stumble across the big problem. Reaching critical mass usually requires at least 50 actively participating members. This sustains a high level of activity, lets members feel efficacy of impact, and is responsive enough to sustain activity.
For customer service channels, this will be easier. You can guide all members with a problem to the community to get answers. For others, it's a bigger challenge.
In this scenario (and this is the most common one) you simply don’t have the numbers to reach critical mass.
Of course, you could send out multiple messages to the audiences above to bring more people in, but the reach factors rapidly degrade by around 50% for each subsequent push.
To reach critical mass, you either need a bigger or more passionate audience.
The Core Challenge Is To Reach a >50 To Launch The Community
This is the core challenge that many organizations face when launching a community.
They simply don’t have a big enough or passionate enough audience to make a community succeed. There are all broad figures. I’ve tried to average most of the company’s that have approached us.
Our feedback is usually the same. Use the CHIP process (create content, host activities, interact with others directly, and participate in existing groups) to increase your audience size and your own reputation until the numbers are >50.
Community building begins long before you launch a platform.
It begins with building an audience that is willing to listen to you.
Everything else is easy if you have a big enough size or passionate enough members