How Many Subscribers to Achieve Success in an Online Community?

By Andy Steggles posted Apr 03, 2013 09:38 PM


Private online communities are a frequent topic of conversation on the American Society of Association Executives' (ASAE) private online community (disclosure: ASAE is a Higher Logic client). Recently, an ASAE member posed the following question on ASAE Collaborate: "How many members does it take to have a successful Community of Practice (CoP)?"

Terrance Barkan, Chief Strategist and Business Architect of GLOBALSTRAT, chimed in and suggested that it takes a CoP with approximately 1,000 members to be successful-- with the added caveat that there are lots of environmental factors which must be taken into account. Based on the success of Higher Logic’s approximately 90,000 communities (yes, that many!) we generally agree that 1,000 is a decent number but only if the CoP has historically been successful with online engagement and there are existing member champions who are accountable for the success going forward (or a good community manager).

For example, if you are migrating your CoP over from an active listserv, it's much easier to achieve success in a full-featured community platform (although you will need good change management). On the other hand, if you don't have great champions or a dedicated community manager and have very few resources dedicated to nurturing the communities, then you would typically need a much higher number of subscribers to achieve success.  Our Higher Logic User’s Group (HUG) is a good example of this.  The number of subscribers is not particularly high, but we have the right environmental factors for it to be successful: an organizational commitment to the success of the CoP, a culture of transparency and dedicated resources to ensure every message is responded to (usually the community will respond but if not, we ensure someone on staff responds or finds an appropriate person to respond). Here is a recent snapshot of the number of participants on HUG as well as recent posts and files shared in each community.

More People = More Engagement

It's simple math really. The more people you put into a single community, the easier it is to make it successful since there is a greater chance someone will have a question to post.  For associations that have never had a listserv or bulletin board, want to be very hands-off and are not prepared to commit any additional resources to making the community successful, we find the smaller CoP's don't work and it's better to go with a much broader all-inclusive CoP. For individual based organizations, we find the magic number is anywhere between 5,000 and 15,000 people for a single community.  Note, our largest single community has 55,000 members - we don't typically recommend this, but it can work. Usually these types of broader communities would be a single community for the entire organization (not counting the smaller committees, etc).  With that being said, we also have some organizations with CoPs that have just a couple of hundred people, but they are incredibly engaged and beyond successful.

Environmental Factors (Trade Associations vs. Professional Societies vs. Franchises vs. Software User Groups etc)

As previously mentioned, there are many environmental factors to take into account.  For example, trade organizations typically require about double the number of people than professional societies do to be successful. A software user group or franchise requires much less people to be successful. The launch strategy and/or content strategy are additional key ingredients for success. Even if you have an engaged group and all the environmental variables are in your favor, if you launch it poorly, then it could very well be doomed from the start. I have some horror stores I could share...but that's for another time. We have a whole set of best practices around how to launch in a way that will stimulate continued, self-sustained, high quality ongoing engagement (I'd be happy to share a copy; ping me if you're interested).

Measuring Engagement and Defining Success

There is a general misconception that a successful traditional in-person CoP translates to a successful online CoP.  This really isn't the case.  When you look at the success criteria for each, it is usually very different.  For example, an in-person CoP might have a track at your 4-day annual conference and the success might be measured on the quality of sessions and the number of attendees.  On the other hand, the success of an online CoP is often measured by the number and frequency of contributions throughout the year.

When an organization measures success, it is typically one-sided. Let's take this hypothetical association as an example:

  • Association Type: Professional Society
  • Number of Members: 10,000
  • Number of CoPs: 20
  • Previously had a Listserv: No
  • All members auto-subscribed to their primary CoP: Yes

In this example, what would your predefined success metrics be for the first three months after the launch? Often an association would say something like: "Let's aim for an average of 100 unique postings per month," which seems reasonable for an initial launch with the above factors. Three months later they measure their success and, indeed, they have met the goal of achieving an average of 100 messages per month. The problem is there is a misalignment between the staff's perception of success and the member's.

To help explain this misalignment, let's assume member's are subscribed to the daily digest format of their respective CoP (so they just receive one email per day with all the messages from the previous day).  What you might find is that, yes, there were 100 messages posted in a given month; however, the 100 messages were spread out over 20 CoPs so that means the average member has received just five messages in a given month (since they are typically only subscribed to their primary CoP), which would likely have been consolidated into just one or two daily digests.

From a staff perspective, the CoP is successful as it has generated an average of 100 messages per month during the first three months.  From a member perspective, it is a dismal failure as they've received only two emails from their peers in the same period of time.  Members typically don't have the luxury of seeing the bigger picture in the same way staff do.

Bottom line: A successful in-person Community of Practice does not necessarily equate to a successful online Community of Practice.

Note: Putting how the communities are segmented aside for one moment, if the example organization above were successful after a year, you could expect the average number of messages per month to be around 700+ (we have a crazy amount of data to support this). ASAE is a good example of a successful community. They have about half of their membership subscribed to at least one discussion group (13,227 unique subscribers) and have generated 1,278 messages in the past 30 days and 16,060 in the past year. This gives them an average of about 1,338 messages per month (a 10 to 1 subscriber to posting ratio - this doesn't mean that one in 10 subscribers post message though, far from it). Although this is a significant increase from their previous platforms, there is definitely room for improvement (FYI - stats shared with ASAE's permission).