Community is currently exciting and powerful. Deep down inside, most of us understand that beyond the buzz that surrounds the word, community can be special. I could happily talk all day, perhaps everyday, about community and how amazing it is for creating impact and change. I would probably even go as far as saying that community has the potential to solve all of the world’s problems. We can save that for another time though.
However, talk does not necessarily create results or clarity. One aspect we need to get better at as an industry is understanding and demonstrating the value that community brings. In community, this can not all be measured with metrics; we have to back up the successes and failures with the intangible, too.
Community is love
Community is precious and sacred. It carries real meaning and connection for the people involved. The impact it can have on us as organizations and individuals can last a lifetime. Let that sink in for a second—this is not some quick ad campaign. In community, we seek to create value with and for the people. Often, the impact lives on in people’s hearts and minds.
That is powerful.
In addition to this, we live in a capitalistic society. Many of us love the jobs we do and we are always looking to improve or move forward as professionals. We work on businesses that matter and create impact in the world. We seek to collaborate and become better people together. We need to learn from one another to survive and thrive.
From a business perspective, community is a newer kind of beast – a young one – that needs evolving and understanding. Yes, the principles of good community building remain the same, but we can not deny the underlying mechanics and strategies that need constant reviewing. On one hand, execs truly believe and are often willing to invest in the value of community. On the other hand, they often can not resist measuring as much as possible, and as soon as possible.
Community in business does not need to create friction
The need for specific community results can often create friction between business leaders and with those who are building—the people on the ground, those building relationships, those looking for opportunities, and those trying to create value. They are experimenting. Failing sometimes, and succeeding in others.
" We often communicate community growth in a way that does not actually happen in real life."
As community builders, we know there is so much love and value in community, yet it can be hard to know what to report back to the business. The value, failures and successes are often not reflected in the metrics. We have to hunt them down, sometimes guided by the metrics, but also by intentionally looking for them as we are building.
Let’s dive into a few ways of thinking about this from both quantitative and qualitative perspectives.
EXPERIMENTING IN COMMUNITY
I like to see community building as a creative process. We should always be experimenting with new ideas and opportunities with a goal to serve our people. When we are starting community, it is likely that almost everything we are doing is an experiment. As a community grows, we find that consistency and the need to experiment is less.
From that perspective, when we experiment it can be especially difficult to measure meaningfully over a long period of time. We will likely need to back up simple community growth stats, such as the number of members or attendees alongside community stories.
In this experimental context, what can be measured often feels superficial, like it does not tell the real story, or the data set is not big enough to be meaningful. It is hard to measure anything when there is no reliability and consistency.
At this experimental stage we are looking for positive signs of love and life.
" Data will ultimately tell the truth on whether people show up, give, and receive value."
Habits, processes and consistency are core vital signs within communities. When we think of metrics we need to be looking for upwards pointing trends in the things we create. Examples of these could be events, newsletters, content, course attendance, traffic and conversations.
Upwardly pointing trends should only be part of the story. We should back this up with meaningful feedback and stories. Typically this should focus on searching on whether we are creating value within the community. In a marketing environment they may use surveys. In a community context we should be having conversations or gathering snippets of conversations online that prove that we are on the right track.
There is an art to community and this includes the art of designing activities that bring value to the community. We should be looking to set expectations of what kind of impact makes sense. Yes we want to ensure there is growth in essential vital signs, however equally important is the need to be creating impact and value for your people. It is harder to prove this with quantitative metrics, for this we need real conversations, feedback and stories.
MEASURING VS. HOW IT HAPPENS
Data and metrics are great. They give us information and clues about the overall picture to help us figure out and tell the whole story.
One way to think about this is how we measure and share growth results. For example, we often communicate community growth in a way that does not actually happen in real life.
Both of the above are correct. The hockey stick graph is quantitative, it shows the journey over time in numbers. The flywheel is qualitative, we can get insight into the moving parts. They both bring value and insights. We can love them and use them both in harmony.
Growth charts are great at showing trends, and that we are heading in the right direction. As humans, we love and need stories. We should back up our charts with meaning and with evidence and experiences we have had.
We can highlight:
- Conversations we have had with our members
- Capture relevant feedback in one location
- Business opportunities spotted
- Bridge connections made
- Note the highs/wins and lows/failures
- Our team challenges
- Seasonal cadences
This helps educate everyone on the work we are doing in community. It is not just a numbers game. It is a people game. We are creating value, helping people, and changing lives while also seeking to create value wherever possible for the business.
USE THE DATA TO TELL A STORY
One aspect of community that I am super excited about is the ability to use real data to help us make better community decisions.
In the case of tools like Orbit, we intentionally capture key community activities in a member’s journey. With a long-term view, we can use this data to help us make better decisions.
We can start building pictures and stories based on real data, not personas, or customer interviews that are often filled with unintentional lies, à la the “Mom Test” from Rob Fitzpatrick—people often answer with what you want them to answer with, rather than the truth.
Real data can empower community builders.
Understand the first community activities: This is not what you think members will do. Not what members say they will do. This is what members actually do. By tracking core points in their community journey we can build up a real picture of what members are doing. This can be helpful to give the community team confidence in designing community activities for the future.
The relationship between member and the business: Do you know the paths or the contributions that members can take within your business? At what points do they become customers? Do they give insights and feedback that benefit the business too? Being able to understand and pinpoint these activities could be crucial to validating the power of community.
Segmenting people to understand them better: Who are the types of people who actively engage in discussions? And what about the people that tend to lurk? Comparing people in different ways, based on their actual community contributions could provide the actionable data that we need.
In community -– and life in general – people vote with action. We all have good intentions. I think many of us truly want to be a part of many communities. The reality is that we can not. We have to choose wisely and carefully.
The data will ultimately tell the truth on whether people show up, give, and receive value. This is perhaps the most powerful tool we have access to: real stories to help us make better decisions.
MEASURE WHAT BRINGS GROWTH
The lure of scaling is not only distracting, it is dangerous. Scaling in community means going for big growth in numbers-—traffic, signups, conversations, event attendees, and more. We all love a good spike in activity. Not all scaling community activities are bad; the problem is that they are often confused with community growth.
In community, real and sustainable growth comes from stronger ties and community bonds. Sometimes scale can eventually lead to some of this. Most of the time it does not and it just gives a false sense of hope.
How can we focus on measuring growth over scale?
From a quantitative perspective, we may look at:
- Are members showing up on a regular basis?
- How many events are people attending?
- Are members pulling in other members?
- Inbound links referencing community work published
- Number of discussions
From a qualitative perspective, we may look at:
- Thank you’s
- Member wins
- High quality discussions
- Members helping each other out
There are two sides to every community measurement story
Community is never going to be easy to measure. Whatever stage your community is at, we will always need to be mindful of both quantitative and qualitative measurement tactics. Community is far too human to view it through one lens.
The challenge we have as community builders is to practice the art of communicating the value we are bringing to both the members and community. Right now, it is even more important as we are not only responsible for figuring it all out—we also have to educate those around us.
Believing in community is not enough. We have to prove that it can work.