Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Size does matter: the secret sauce to building online communities

Why do we participate in online social communities? Well, to begin with, we are social animals and the social network provides us with a sense of affiliation, an opportunity to help and seek assistance; and finally boost our self esteem.

So what is the secret sauce to building a vibrant online community?

Mark Schaefer offers a formula to lay a good foundation for building an online social community: Connection + Meaningful Content + Authentic Helpfulness. If you feel connected with your network (sense of affiliation), exchange meaningful content and help each other (opportunity to help and seek assistance), then you are on track to build a successful community.

Well, then why do so many communities fail to deliver the promise? What goes wrong?

Groundswell classifies people into 6 different categories based on how they use the social technologies: Creators, Critics, Collectors, Joiners, Spectators and Inactives.

Most communities get started on the right foot: the members get to know each other and feel connected, they help each and offer meaningful content. Everyone seems to know each other and there is a healthy exchange of ideas. At this stage, most people are creators or critics with a few spectators. However, the problem creeps in when the communities become too big with too many diverse set of ideas, people and regions. Then it starts feeling like a waste of time.

Take any large LinkedIn or Yahoo group with thousands of followers and you will quickly realize that most of the people are either Joiners or Spectators or Inactives with a small minority of Creators or Critics.

So, my suggestion is to
  1. limit the size of groups (300-500 people): more of a manageable size.
  2. encourage likability: organize groups around a purpose or interests or themes; get people to know and like each other.
  3. give them a reason: give users a reason to keep coming back. Fresh and meaningful content, free exchange of ideas, seeking and providing assistance.
Diane Hessan, CEO of Communispace is a big proponent of small and interactive communities. In fact, she was the first person I started following on Twitter.

Finally, we need to look at a different set of metrics. We cannot simply look at the number of users or size of the community but have to consider the level of participation (percentage of users who are creators or critics), frequency of posts per user and length of posts (longer posts is directly correlated to more engaged users).

I am interested in your feedback. Please leave your comments


  1. Nitin,
    Thanks for the reference. I like this post and also make a connection between this article and the piece you wrote on hierarchy of needs. Interesting to explore how this fundamental model also applies to creating a successful online presence.

    Perhaps it was luck that these two articles followed each other, but you have me thinking!!

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Thanks Mark. I actually didn't think of the connection till you brought it up.

  3. In my point of view online connection and the so social communities is very nice job, In this way the peoples can contact to one another and share there problems.