Community Success Factors 8: Critical Mass

Posted on: December 28, 2009

This, finally, is Item 8 of my 8 Critical Success Factors for Virtual Communities post.

Critical mass is vital to the sustainability of a virtual community: it is only members that can make participation interesting and worthwhile for others. Therefore member acquisition, conversion and retention are crucial.

Acquisition: referrals, content and user experience 

  • Ideally awareness of a website will come from positive word of mouth, however targeted marketing activity can help keep an online community supplied with a stream of potential members. 
  • Lurking occurs when a visitor appreciates a community site and what it has to offer, but is not currently participating. It is likely there will always be far more lurkers in a community than active participants. In common with any type of repeat visits to a website, lurking is reliant on interesting content and satisfactory user experience.

Conversion: Registration, user paths, metrics 

  • Conversion between first-time visitor, repeat visitor (or lurker), member and active member are key metrics for critical mass.
  • Membership can be cultivated by paying due attention to encouraging sign-up and being constantly mindful of visitor to member conversion.  However to encourage users to develop loyalty and join, the following should be considered for every page they may land on:
    • Making it clear the site has members
    • Link to register – including stating how easy, quick and safe it is
    • Displaying the benefits of membership
    • Using testimonials / choice quotes from existing members extolling the benefits of participation
    • Giving users a variety of public and private means of contacting the site and showing that such feedback is being heard and responded to
    • Making clear how highly member contributions are valued – for example showing that a members’ input has influenced product development, policy formation or site content. 
  • A community site needs to be able to identify how many of its visitors are registering and the path they are taking to do so. Goals and funnels can be set up using any good analytics package  to identify conversion rates and areas for improvement (Google Analytics is free).

Retention: Listening, experimenting, adapting  

Communities flourish when they are able to grow or maintain an optimum size by attracting new members but also by retaining existing ones.

Many sites are expert in drawing traffic via Search Engine Optimisation, online advertising and PR.  Users are drawn in by cleverly constructed headlines, special offers, or product and services they were intending to use anyway. But this ‘traditional digital’ way of generating numbers does nothing to foster community loyalty and allow intimacy to flourish.  What makes people stay is very different to what brought them in the first place. 

This element of websites can often be neglected as it is the newest and most complicated part of online interaction: intimacy is so much harder to measure than ‘hits.’ However, if a virtual community has reached the level of sophistication where it is prepared to look at the entire user cycle – from first visit to involved, active, community member, it should:

  • Experiment with different ways of allowing members to contribute.
  • Measure and adapt these initiatives according to feedback and the level of participation they generate.
  • Showcase member contributions on the site’s home page / community page / blog or community blog.
  • Recognise valuable contributions by recording them on a users profile. 
  • Make members feel valued by thanking them for their participation in private.
  • Provide the means for members to encourage and thank others. 
  • Never stop listening and learning from users at every stage – including if someone stops participating or asks to be taken off the membership list. It is vital to ask why a user is leaving and use what is learnt to hang onto the rest, even if that particular member cannot be regained.

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