The 3 Myths of Community KPIs

4 minute read

December 14, 2021

The 3 Myths of Community KPIs

Even organizations with endless resources struggle to measure and communicate the value of their community. But sometimes they often make that struggle more difficult than it needs to be. 

Often, KPIs feel like they exist in a black box that community leaders would rather not open. But avoiding the conversation around KPIs causes major problems for community builders and for the profession at large.

A few weeks ago, I worked with a community leader who led a team of 4 other community associates, serving about 30,000 members. We reviewed the bottlenecks in their work and goals for the new year. The leader candidly shared he felt the team wasn’t making as much progress as they hoped and that they were having trouble getting buy-in and respect within the product and sales teams. 

So I asked how he knew this was true, how he would assess the success of their work so far, and the community leader stopped for a moment. He gulped and replied, “Truthfully, we aren’t measuring anything in any meaningful way right now. I know we should be, but no one is asking for updates, so it keeps falling to the bottom of our priorities.”

This situation has come up in almost every community team I have worked with this year. In short, community leaders often make measurement their last priority and then get frustrated that other teams don’t understand their work or that they are uncertain of their progress. 

To begin feeling our success and communicating it to others, we have to work through—not around—the constraints of these other teams.

In my work, I find that there are three critical mindset shifts needed to do this effectively. Let’s dig into each of those today.

Myth 1: Quantitative measurement is antithetical to community building. 

Many community builders believe that quantitative measurement is antithetical to community building. They argue that it strips context and meaning from the work and places it into an extractive context, prioritizing profit over people. 

It’s true that the concept of KPIs derives from business literature. The term and its related language come from management consultants and researchers such as Peter Drucker, Robert Kaplan, and David Norton. 

It follows that KPIs (and business measurement in general) are a language created to communicate about — and a direct reflection of — the rational, analytical, and control-focused environments within which many businesses operate. By contrast, community building is best done in an environment that prioritizes the complex, contextual, relational, and intuitive. Within communities, many perspectives can be true at the same time and it is often impossible (or at least irresponsible) to boil down context into discreet pieces of information to be analyzed. 

Even when they use the same words, the language of business and the language of community building are, therefore, not interchangeable. As with any two languages, you must understand both in order to translate back and forth. To be clear, that does not mean you should disregard community principles or throw business metrics out the window when translating the value of your work. Instead, it requires that you define your terms clearly and apply them ethically in both contexts. 

KPIs are a powerful tool for community builders. No, they cannot tell you everything you need to know about your community, but they can illuminate specific aspects of your work, such as (but not limited to) if/how much members feel connected, if your events help members reach their goals, and if people return to create your critical core group of community members. 

Without a doubt, optimizing toward any one KPI can kill a community. If you’re not careful, they can be antithetical to community building.But when you select KPIs carefully, they not only help you translate the deep value of your work but also remind you that you’re doing great work.

Myth 2: If you are bad (or rusty) at math, KPIs will be impossible to determine and communicate about.

I still remember how, on the day of my first college-level statistics course, I sat in the back of the room, nervously awaiting a math lesson. It felt like I brought all my high school math anxiety with me right into that lecture hall. But the professor approached the podium and stated very plainly: Math is not statistics, and statistics are not math. So throw out what you think about your mathematical abilities. Throw it all away and start fresh. I sighed with relief. 

Whether statistics is a branch of mathematics or a type of mathematics or not mathematics at all is a long debate among statisticians and mathematicians, but it is beside the point here. 

What I want you to remember is that whatever you think about your math ability has nothing to do with your ability to understand, measure, and monitor statistics. And measuring and monitoring KPIs — especially when you are setting KPI goals or strategies to hit KPIs — involves statistics. So whether you aced your calculus exams or barely made it through algebra, you can do this. All you need is your basic math knowledge and some grace and patience. 

Myth 3: KPIs can’t ever tell us the value of community.

Let’s get something else crystal clear here: KPIs, no matter what they are, are not telling you “the truth” about your community’s value. Statistics, generally, are never telling us “truth”, just probabilities, and metrics are never giving us the full context of what they are meant to measure.

No one is claiming that KPIs or any metric you measure will accurately and reliably predict future performance or give an exact picture of past performance either.

We need to get into a new relationship with KPIs, to reimagine how benchmarks and goal-setting can make us better community leaders — neither micromanagers nor extractive operations consultants. 

KPIs can, in fact, make us much more effective leaders. They allow us to give our teams a compass and some directions instead of throwing a lot of random locations at them.

Want to get even deeper into KPIs with us, to get past the basics and feel ready to present them at several levels? Watch our webinar as we discuss how to more effectively measure and communicate about KPIs.

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Carrie Melissa Jones

Written by Carrie Melissa Jones

Carrie Melissa Jones is a community leader, entrepreneur, and community management consultant who has been involved with online community leadership since the early 2000s. As the founder of Gather Community Consulting, she consults with brands to build and optimize communities around the world.

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