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.