The Importance of Active Community Management – Proved With Real Data

I think most community experts would agree that active community management and ongoing strategy are vital to a community’s health.  However, I don’t know if anyone has been able to fully quantify the impact using actual community metrics.

Until now – when I decided to analyze some of the 2008 data for my former community during the period of active management and the period of passive management.

I was the community manager for a professional community from January 2007 through July 2008.  During that time, the community grew from zero to 4,000 members.  We were rigorous with the tracking of metrics and updated community analytics weekly through a combination of our platform reports and Google Analytics.  I was laid off in July due to financial hardship of the community sponsor, but the community doors have remained open albeit with no community management or minimal upkeep.

During the time of my involvement, active community management and consisted of:

  • delivery of bi-weekly email update newsletters
  • production of monthly webcasts
  • active blog posting and blogger outreach
  • uploading of fresh content each week
  • continual promotion of the community in various forums through guerilla marketing
  • ongoing brainstorming and strategizing with respect to improving the community experience
  • priming of discussion forums, and
  • ongoing communications with individual community members

It’s interesting to discover that a neglected community will indeed continue to function without a dedicated community manager.  However, the results are lackluster and the picture are not ‘pretty’.

For example, this is a screen shot from Google Analytics graphing the number of weekly visits to the community from 1/1/2008 through 12/31/08:

Google Analytics - 1/1/2008 to 12/31/2008

Google Analytics - 1/1/2008 to 12/31/2008

Additional details from the metrics include:

Membership growth slows significantly – Community membership grew 62% from January to July at a average clip of 55 new members per week.  From July to December, the membership only grew 13% at an average clip of 20 members per week.  This is a fall-off of more than 63% on a week to week basis.

Number of visits drop 60% - The number of visits from January through July averaged more than 1,300 per week.  For the second half of the year, average visits dropped nearly 60% to an average of 522 per week.

Number of pages viewed per visit drops 22% - Not only did the number of visits drop, the number of pages per visit also decreased by 22% with the average pages per visit going from 3.76 to 2.95.

Time on site decreases by 33% – Driven by the fewer page views, the time on site in minutes during active management was 3:38 vs. 2:37 after July which is a 1:19 or 33% decrease.

Fresh activity on the site since August has been pretty nonexistant as well – just 10 new blog posts, 4 new file uploads, and less than 25 discussion forum questions or comments have been posted.  For some interesting reason, the activity on the related LinkedIn group has picked up and included 15 new discussions in just the last week.  This definitely is worth taking a deeper look in a separate blog post.

So what does this mean?  Clearly, the analysis proves that active management contributes significantly to the health of a professional community.  And that it is ultimately important to the success of a community.

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30 thoughts on “The Importance of Active Community Management – Proved With Real Data

  1. Well, the results aren’t surprising but it is sobering to see the argument for active and effective community management backed up with such hard data.

    I agree with you that online communities can (and should be able to) survive without community management – after all, it is the people that make a community, not the manager. However the community will suffer as a result.

    Thanks for taking the time to collect the data and post this article.

    - Martin

  2. Hi Tom,

    Interesting content, thank you for publishing this. As part of a presentation I’m putting together for the Online Community UnConference East in February, I’m bringing similar data out from our clients to expose some common myths about communities. May I use your data, referencing you in the presentation? Please let me know.

    Regards,
    Mike

  3. Tom,

    Good stuff there, nice case. “If you build it they will come”, but they will not stay. Members know when a company is paying attention. Companies that participate and actively manage their online communities will no doubt display both an increase in membership as well as in retention.

    Membership will provide content, and content will in turn attract members. The better the content, the better the membership.

    Mike

  4. Tom -

    Thank you so much for sharing – it is amazing how quickly things drop off and demonstrates 1) Your value! 2) That ‘build it and they will come’ is a really bad strategy

    Let’s here it for community managers – I see this first hand but have rarely seen it quantified which is very useful.

    Rachel

  5. Fascinating (and good for us community managers).

    @Martin Reed, I’m not sure I agree that communities could/should survive w/o community management. I do agree however, that active managment needs should in time drop off .

    If all goes well, the community manager should be looked at by members not only as the community manager, but a part of the community itself.

  6. Great post Tom. It’s compelling to see such solid evidence of the need for active community, especially “early” in a community’s life. Early is a relative term and to Marc’s point the management requirement should ease over time, as the members get more comfortable taking the reigns themselves. But that point varies greatly depending on the member profile, the tools in use and the goals of the community.

    Jim | @jstorerj

  7. Perhaps I should elaborate a little. When developing a new community, clear leadership and management is 100% required and necessary. However, it is part of the community manager’s job to develop a strong community that can survive without him or her.

    If a community cannot survive without its manager then perhaps that person wasn’t effective in their role.

    That being said, regardless of how well developed and apparently close-knit a community is, it will always suffer if there is no active community management.

    I agree that the community manager should be seen as part of the community – he or she just needs to be careful that they don’t become a celebrity within the community. Members are the celebrities – not the managers.

    - Martin

  8. Some amount of Community Management will always be needed, but the goal should be to reduce that over time. Here’s my take on how to achieve self-sustainability within a community (though my real life example was based just on forums): http://bit.ly/tK7I.

    The other thing that my blog entry mentions is that more advanced analytics/metrics beyond just page views and unique visitors are needed to accurately assess community activity (though I’ll admit that there’s natural correlation between “Web 1.0″ stats vs. “Web 2.0″ stats).

    Lawrence Liu

  9. Thanks for sharing these stats, Tom.

    My experience with online communities is that they need different levels of management at different times. I’ve studied offline group dynamics and found parallels to online communities. No surprise, we’re human after all.

    I’ve applied Bruce Tucker’s classic Forming, Storming, Norming & Performing model to an Online Community Lifecycle. I hope it helps!
    http://shannonswenson.com/online-community-lifecycle/

    Shannon
    http://twitter.com/shannonswenson

  10. These numbers are significant, but only prove proof of the need for community manager on a superficial basis. I am a community manager as well, but I think it is important for us to not just track hits and visits, but also figure out how these numbers lead back to actual income. ROI is such an unloved term in social media, but without income…most companies can’t survive. So if your a community manager I think it’s really important to understand the goals of the business first. Site visits and a thriving community are just a spoke in the wheel.

    Great article though. i don’t mean to sound negative, I just think we as community managers have a responsibility to ourselves to help teach each other.

    -keith burtis

  11. Not so fast everyone! The results do make interesting reading and I have no doubt that a community would be negatively affected by a lack of seeding and management.

    Two points to note, though, are that, firstly, blogs by their very essence require the owner to keep them up to date as a matter of course. Blogs won’t work if you just leave them, because blogs aren’t communities, they’re blogs. Even if your users post to the blog, it’s still basically just an editorial offering like a newspaper or magazine. You have to discount blogs in your findings.

    Secondly, forums always have a critical tipping point at which they no longer need your input. I suspect yours just never got there and so it would be obvious that when you weren’t there to provide the input, the forums would decline. Had you been there for 3 more months, or however long it might have taken to get to that critical point, your analysis might look significantly diffferent.

    Anyway, as I say, it does make interesting reading, but scientific it ain’t.

  12. Very interesting post–we need more of this kind of data for sure. Something I thought was interesting was that the spikes in traffic totally disappeared after the community manager position was abolished.

    What do the spikes represent? Emailed newsletters sending traffic, new blog posts, or something else?

  13. I had a good idea for what would be good community management a park internet kiosk were people could work on common goals and enjoy the nature at the same time this could work as a low risk investment and news letter this way people without job could make some money by gambling as a cooperative without investing an amount hedged on there own but to be apart of a college of ideas and diplomatics

  14. I really enjoyed reading your post, especially given its effort to provide data to clarify a central issue in communities, i.e., the degree to which an oversight function requires experts rather than peers. I tend to agree with Chester’s point about community maturity playing a part in the way your results turned out. However, unless I missed it, you didn’t note what the social structure of the community looked like. The empirical research I’ve seen tends to support the need for oversight in communities, but also adds that peers can be as effective at oversight as experts.

    If I understand Chester’s point, he is saying that it takes time to build the social structure of a community required to increase the robustness of peer oversight, and perhaps your community was not a mature one. Seems like a fair point. Did the community sponsor allow oversight permissions to peer members of the community?

    Sara Kiesler, Lee Sproull, and a few other researchers offered early empirical support to the overall point that oversight is needed in their SIGCHI presentation to ACM in 2005. In a paper titled “How Oversight Improves Member-Maintained Communities”, they performed a field experiment on the community existing around MovieLens, an online recommender system. They concluded that, “oversight increased both the quantity and quality of contributions while reducing antisocial behavior, and peers were as effective at oversight as experts.” There is a link to this paper from Kiesler’s website but it is not accurate. I read it in the conference proceedings. A google search on “Sara Kiesler will return a link to her publications page.

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  18. “…forums always have a critical tipping point at which they no longer need your input”

    I unfortunately have never seen this forum… got any analytics to back up this interesting proposition?

    Yes, self-determination and capacity-building should be very high values. No, unemployed people are as opportunistic and crazy as employed people, i.e. they aren’t The Solution.

    Interesting, Tom, thank you.

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  25. It’s something that I knew would happen, but didn’t have the data to prove, so through your experiences I can see something concrete. Thank you.

    Something like this forms part of the conversation to senior management on rationalising resources for community management.

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