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Community Benchmarks - What You REALLY Should Be Looking At

5 minute read

February 4, 2021

It’s only normal to want to compare how we are doing to others. Frequently, I will hear from people new (and sometimes not new) to the community space and they want to know how they are faring to others communities in the same space. On the surface it seems like a simple business question. We do community and others do community - how are we doing comparatively? What should our numbers look like?

I’m always concerned by this question. No two communities are alike. If we want our character and brand flavour to shine uniquely, does that make a comparison possible? I don’t point this out to discourage measurement. Obviously there are things to measure and there are benchmarks in some verticals and some general trends, but I don’t want to focus on that in this blog. I want to focus on the things you should be comparing yourself to.

To make the point a bit more clear, let me compare looking at benchmarks like you would on working to become a better runner. You don’t worry about beating Usain Bolt in the 100M dash, or even the several other competitors in that race. You work on being able to run further each time you run, or maybe you try to improve your speed or beat your personal record. The benchmark is your baseline - and a percentage increase or decrease to that initial number is what matters most. Worrying about an Olympic World Record time is not helping you get better. This is precisely why you need to look at community benchmarks differently.

Some of you will tell me that you still want to know how you’re doing relative to your competition, but how does that really help you? Truly? Does that dismiss the good work you’re doing? Each person, like each community, has their own circumstances. If you are improving, does that matter? How does obsessing with what others do or aren’t doing help you?

So back to community benchmark metrics and the first lesson: measure against yourself and your own improvement over time. The goal is continuous improvement. We also understand that you need to know where to anchor yourself. Sure you can measure your progress - and make sure it’s going up, but how do you know it’s where you should be?

Welcome to the second part of benchmarking yourself. It’s a community lifecycle model. There are a lot of models out there, but none I was happy with. When I sat down to create this model (below is a handy chart), I focused on behaviours the communities I've worked with were seeing in each section. Being tied down to specific numbers is a fool’s errand - and I felt too many people were paying attention to that. It’s also not the point to hit on every item on this list - but to strive to the level up onto the next area.

community-lifecycle
(Click to enlarge)

To determine which lifecycle phase your community is in, it is important to consider several factors. These factors involve a careful assessment of your community state in seven key areas:

Phase: Where are you in the life cycle?
Key Tasks: What are the things you should be concerned, or be doing?
Graduating Tasks: What are the things, that indicate you are on the way to the next stage?
Team Composition: What is the makeup of the community team?
Executive Involvement: Who in the org at the executive level is involved (if at all)?
Key Leading: Things you can watch as they happen and react to
Key Lagging: Things you can only see after the fact and change

Once you assess where your community stands in each of the areas noted above, you will be able to determine which stage of the lifecycle your community fits in. This model of community is characterized by five distinct phases:

  • Development
  • Introduction
  • Growth
  • Maturity
  • Decline

Let’s dive deep into each

Development
The concept of an online community is the solution to the identified business problem(s). The concept, however, is not yet defined, nor the audience.

Questions to identify this:

  • Do you have a problem you feel a community can solve?
  • What is the concept of your community?
  • Have you tested this concept/idea with your potential membership?
  • Do you have a set soft-launch date?
Graduating Task:
Create a plan (See C.A.R.G.O), which includes a clear concept, how you will acquire and retain community members and finally how you’ll measure success for your goals and outcomes. It should be metric driven.

Introduction
Launch of your online community to the public with a core group of fans, influencers or selected customers.

Questions to identify this:
  • Is the majority of your content in your community seeded content?
  • Do you have categories created - but are still flexible to change if needed?
  • Do you have defined goals and KPIs you are measuring?
  • Within your organization is their interest/excitement in the community project?
Graduating Task:
You've launched, tweaked your categories, your gamification system and your team has opened up your community to the larger public - full launch, hitting initial baseline goals consistently.

Growth
Your community is operating and you are beginning to identify potential moderators and brand ambassadors. Things are growing organically for the most part from member content.

Questions to identify this:
  • Are you seeing continuous growth toward your goals and KPIs?
  • Are you adding headcount to your team?
  • Are you developing/ have developed a path for moderators to volunteer?
  • Are you developing/ have developed an ambassador program?
Graduating Task:
You've identified brand ambassadors. You have trusted moderators. You are ready to select another letter from S.P.A.N to complement your original choice. Community cultural norms are being enforced by the members with little interaction from you or your team. You are continually meeting community goals in a predictable way.

Maturity
The community manager is not involved in the day to day, but rather, is focused on policy and general tone. Managing the moderation team/ community team is the main focus.

Questions to identify this:
  • Is Community Management less content and reporting/policy focused?
  • Do you have a solid core of moderators and brand ambassadors?
  • Is community considered an essential channel for your company?
  • Are you maintaining the goals/objectives for the community?
Graduating Task:
Guard against falling interest, by ensuring you are innovating, listening to your audience, and doing more of the stuff they like, iterating and growing the community culture, to the point of self-sustainability. If community is being taken for granted and ignored by the organization you are in peril.

Decline
Traffic is declining, there are many uncommented/ unanswered discussions appearing, and active user numbers are dropping.

Questions to identify this:
  • Is there little to no excitement about the community within your organization?
  • Are you finding there are days when no one posts or has any activity in your community?
  • Are pageviews, time on site, and other key traffic metrics significantly down?
  • Are you finding it hard for you to get support internally to make your community better?
Graduating Task:
Restart and refresh. Reconnection of the Community Manager to the community, and seeing positive metric signs of increased participation ratio of discussions to comments at a better level.


As I mentioned before, you may not fit perfectly into answering each bucket - but the goal - or the benchmark, is that graduating task. How are you getting towards those goals? That is what you want to achieve.

Finally I know some of you still want the numbers. The reality is, most data is too specific to matter for your community, so do yourself a favour, and benchmark yourself against yourself and where you are in your community journey. It’s the most helpful and fairest thing you can do for yourself and your community!

Community

Adrian Speyer

Written by Adrian Speyer

Adrian Speyer is the Head of Community and Lead Evangelist for Vanilla Forums. Besides spending many years in digital marketing, Adrian has been building communities of all sizes for over 20 years.

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