The Lifecycle of Online Community Members

When building an online community from the ground up, you have to set your growth and adoption expectations accordingly. To do so, it is important to understand a bit about the lifecycle of a community.

When someone first discovers your online community, they are probably nothing more than curiosity seekers. It doesn’t matter if your community is of a hobbyist nature, a consumer nature, or a business-to-business (B2B) alignment. They may take a look around, and if they see enough value there for a possible future visit, they may possibly bookmark it. Future visits will either solidify that value for them, or convince them that there are better places to spend their time.

If they decide to visit periodically, they become what we call “lurkers”. These lurkers will rarely, if ever, post or publish anything within the community. Instead, they are content to simply view the musings of other community members. These lurkers are most often seeking a certain type of information, and are content to simply read the opinions of other members.

Eventually, some of these “lurkers” may progress into being regular participants. However, do not be fooled into thinking that you will have a meteoric conversion rate. Historically speaking, online communities have always had many more “lurkers” than regular participants. I have seen the ratio of unique lurkers to unique participants be anywhere from 5-to-1 to 25-to-1.

It is important to point out that the success or failure of an online community is usually determined by only a small percentage of the site’s audience. This loosely follows in the tradition of Vilfredo Pareto’s so-called 80/20 rule (also called the Pareto Principle). A study performed by Arthur Andersen found that only 5 percent to 15 percent of all members contributed frequently to the communities they visited. While there are always exceptions to this, the community-owner should strive to support those frequent contributors. This is the fast-track to expanding a membership base.


Using the above diagram, you can see the evolution from passers-by all the way through to evangelists. The typical member starts off in the passer-by/stranger quadrant, then moves over to lurker status once they start having repeated visits to the community. Once a lurker comes “out” of the shadows and begins participating they enter into the participant quadrant. This is where they are both showing up and participating. By the time a member reaches the “evangelist” quadrant, they are quite adamant in their support of your community – even fanatical at times. This is a good thing.

Consider the following graph, which shows the growth in total membership of a community site that I founded back in 1999. This shows the growth from 1999 to early 2004 (a five year span).

It is a little hard to tell by this chart, but at the end of the first year of operation (1999), we had a total of 210 members (pretty pathetic, really). At the end of the 2nd year, we had a total of 1,911 members. We concluded the third year with 5,509 members. So far, so good. Something happened in the fourth year of operation, however. We ended that year with 16,201 members. That’s a pretty nice bounce. We ended the fifth year with nearly 40,000 members – also a rather nice gain. By the next year (not shown on this chart), the membership had climbed to 65,000 members. This was all done with word-of-mouth advertising. Not one dollar was spent on traditional advertising.

Why did we experience such a dramatic jump in the 4th and 5th years? That’s how long it took for us to convert enough lurkers to participants, and enough participants to evangelists. Once you hit a critical mass of participants, a certain number of those folks will become evangelists for your community, and will go to some pretty unbelievable extremes to promote it. These evangelists represent that aforementioned small minority that will effectively make or break your community. If you don’t have people out there who are emphatically spreading the good word about you, then you are sunk – I don’t care how many marketing dollars you throw at the problem.

Once our evangelists started promoting the site using word-of-mouth (WOM) advertising, the community participation begins to scale up in an almost logarithmic fashion. Remember the old saying, “If you build it, they will come?” Well, that sounded great in the movie Field of Dreams, but it doesn’t work that way in the real world.

If you build it, they will not necessarily come. If you believe they will, then you are setting yourself up for a really nasty disappointment. Many communities fall by the wayside and close up shop because of this very reason. The owners of the community become frustrated with the lack of traffic or adoption, and lose interest. In a B2B community with a reasonable business model and value proposition, patience is a virtue that will have an ROI in the end, I promise you.

If you build it, and promote it, they will come, at least once. It is then up to you to give them a positive impression of your community through your content, tools, presentation, and policies. It is of vital importance that these areas be addressed early and often if you want to maximize your ability to attract and retain members, and subsequently, participation.

Growing a community is an iterative approach of repeated trial and error, but always keep your eye on the end game. It will most likely not flourish overnight. Do not become discouraged when you don’t have 100,000 members at the end of the first year. Keep your eye on the end game, which is quality content and the facilitation of dialog between your members.



  1. I found your article interesting. I started a social network related to coupons about 3 weeks ago. So far about 80 people have signed up but no one is really participating. I am wondering if I am doing something wrong—with the profile, etc. A lot of people didn’t fill out the profile. I have asked for feedback from people but no one really had any suggestions on how to improve the site. Any suggestions on how to have people participate? The site is



  2. Hey Cheryl, thanks for stopping by and dropping a comment.

    My initial thought is this (and of course, based solely upon what limited information I have about what you’re doing).

    Three weeks is a very small timeframe, even in today’s age of mass adoption. It can take time to really get up on the curve, so to speak.

    That being said, I noticed that your site is built using the service provided by Ning. Unfortunately (and this is just my opinion), a lot of times these cookie cutter social networks/communities can leave people feeling like “eh … what now?”. My personal opinion is that it is almost always best to launch something that is uniquely branded and provides functionality, tools, and information that is specific to the focus of the community, in your case, coupons.

    I’m not sure what your budget is, or what assets you can bring to bear, but I would give it some time to see how it plays out, and possibly explore creating a site that is unique to your particular community. The adoption rate will almost invariably go up when there is a sense of uniqueness and focus – functionality that they can’t get elsewhere, etc.


  3. Thanks for this article Scott. I’m continuously learning about online community building and your article reaffirms some of my beliefs, one of which is that, it takes time.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *