How to measure community engagement and effectiveness?

The first thing (and in most cases the only thing) I tend to see on online communities is forums or discussion groups. Which has led me to really think about the question –

What are the key metrics to measure an engaged online community?
What do you really need to get a community to be vibrant,
thriving and engaged?

First lets draw some boundaries so this does not end up being a post about what a community is overall.

1. The question should not be to be looked at from the perspective of technology alone.
2. Discussing social needs or psychology of why people need to form communities or social networks is also not the subject of this discussion. Those are much deeper discussions.

So then what all do you need to ensure that your community is engaged? Here are some ideas:

1. An engaged community invites and encourages new members or converts to “get religion”. Measuring new members in a community will not tell you whether a community is engaged. There is a need to track referred community signups. The additional need is to figure a way to make sure offline (word of mouth mentions) referrals are also tracked.

2. Time to find information. I have seen metrics from several consulting organizations that talk in glowing terms about the “amount of time” spent in the community by its members. If the community’s objective is to find and support users quickly (for customer service communities) then the more time spent by members would indicate they are not getting what they want quickly?

3. Community Contribution Value: At the end of the day if one simply looks at revenue generated for a company or costs saved, then there is a need to track precisely how much in actual $ was generated or saved. This is the most tricky part that I have seen no company do so far. There is new research around this area that promises exciting ways and means to track it.

Categories of social communities

Talking with Scott Campbell of Jive Software (who BTW presented a very good overview of their new products via a webinar) got me thinking about categories of social communities.
Here are the various categories and types I have seen so far. More on the best within each category in a moment.

1. Communities by companies for their primary audiences:

  • Customer (Members, Users, Patients, Consumers, etc.) communities – E.g: Mother and Baby
  • Partner (Reseller, VAR, Supplier) communities E.g: Red Hat Partners
  • Employee (internal) communities – Multiple reside

2. Communities for a specific products or brands E.g: Pampers P&G

3. Communities by audience type

  • Developer communities E.g: Sony Ericsson Developer Site
  • User communities E.g: Autodesk
  • Internal audiences – HR , Engineering, Sales etc.

4. Communities by type of functional objective

5. Online social (consumer)

6. Blog communities: Not sure we can really call this a community but several people have been doing so. Especially highly rated blogs such as Seth Godin or Guy Kawasaki tend to have communities of people following them.

7. Communities to achieve a specific goal or objective (these tend to have waxing and waning of interest) also exist to:

  • Research new offering community
  • Understand trends around communities

What do you think? Are there many other types of communities that we can categorize?

Blogging Communities: How valuable are they?

I have started to notice several blogging communities. These are essentially a blog with several contributing bloggers. Future of communities is one such blogging community. I have been following it for several weeks and here is my take on what’s good and not so good about this approach.

The Good:
1. Instant credibility: Since there are multiple and very respected bloggers (with their own blogging community), these blogs get immediate exposure to the blog readers of the individual readers themselves.

2. More frequent postings since there are several authors: One of the biggest issues with being a single blogger is getting the time to write something insightful and do it with some level of frequency. Since Future of communities has 20 bloggers, there are atleast 2-3 posts daily.

3. Single place for several (sometimes differing opinions): Tara Hunt had a good post on Where is my community, talking about the mis-alignment of the original objectives of the blog to its recent posting. I love this. The very essence of multiple bloggers in one place is the ability to get different opinions and read about both sides of the story.

The not so good:
1. Inherent conflict of individual versus group: The way this manifests itself is that the common objective of the blogging community is not always aligned with the individual bloggers interests. It becomes obvious when some of the bloggers promote their own agenda and adding really no value – they do add value in their own blogs, but that leads me to the next point.

2. Same blog posts on both their own blog and the group blog: Each of these bloggers on Future of communities has their own blog.
Some of them have been posting the same entry on their individual blog. What’s really the point of that? Well I understand that some of their own users dont visit the community blog, but still there is little value in saying the same thing multiple times in different places on the web. I can understand if it was a physical medium like a seminar or conference, but all you have to do is to link to your posting on the community blog. Done!

3. No value from the 1+1 is greater than 2: There are also no blog posts feeding of other blog posts, which creates (akin to a good movie) sub plots and bylines. Each blogger is off on their own route.

My suggestions on what do to to make it better:

1. Create a common blog manifesto – what should people write about, the main topics, the challenging questions ahead and the things that are worth talking about as group of bloggers.

2. Require “original” content of the blogging community. No cut and paste.

3. Get bloggers to build on story lines and blog posts instead of posting tangential and orthogonal information that leaves the user feeling like this is a news / blog aggregation site.

Building engaging communities: Key services vendors

In a discussion with a customer that I had around building engaging Business Communities, the obvious question came around who they could use to build communities. Here are some providers and our key take on their position in the market. The obvious alternative is to build your own community and hire the right people to grow and manage it, or use my company (Canvas Group) but here are some alternative options:

1. Solution Set is based in Palo Alto, CA and has built several communities for clients including Autodesk, Electronics for Imaging and TiVo
2. WebCrossing based in San Francisco, CA has built & managed communities for New York Times, Salon and Edmunds
3. Lithium, based in Emeryville, CA has customers communities with Nokia, Cingular & Dell
4. Communispace based in Waltertown, MA has managed communities for Bank of America, Avon and Charles Schwab
5. LiveWorld based in San Jose, CA has managed communities for Kraft, TV Guide and Land Rover
6. Informative, out of San Francisco has customer communities for Lego, Wegmans and Kodak
7. Big in Japan from Dallas, TX offers strategy and implementation services. Not sure of customers yet.
8. eModeration, based in London has moderated communites for GE, Nokia and Wetpaint.
9. Citizen Agency in San Francisco, provides strategy and design services for communities for Ma.gnolia and Scrapblog.
10. Full Circle Associates based in Seattle, WA has done work for AARP and University of Washington Human Services Policy Center.
11. Mzinga based in Woburn, MA has customers in Webex, Pearson Education and Sextant Search Partners.
12. Headshift based in London, has offices in New York, Australia and Switzerland.

I am sure there are lots more and we will add as we run into them.  We will look at the software options and the vendors in the space of community development and management.

The point of this blog

This is my personal blog with a focus on a) online communities b) social networks c) technology in general d) the US and Indian stock market and e) everything marketing. I used to focus only on online communities but I decided to broaden this blog to all the things I really care about and enjoy discussing. (Oct 2007)

To find, review, analyze and share information about online communities, social networks, startups, technology and everything new and fun.

Join the discussion and please suggest communities to profile using the comments or email me.

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Cell phone’s the best way to contact me at (650) 353 7680. I am in US Pacific Time. Email: mukund at thrisha dot com. I enjoy the strategy, planning, development and operational elements of business communities. I have been fortunate to run, and help many companies build thriving and engaging customer communities and love to share my experiences and learn about new ways to get communities more profitable for business.

The personal blog of Mukund Mohan