How to Diagnose and Treat Your Online Community
Let’s get started.
How to Define ‘Health’
Contrary to popular belief, the word ‘health’ isn’t built off the verb ‘to heal.’ If we trace the word’s etymological roots, we get back to the Old English ‘haelp,’ which means something like “wholeness, a being whole, sound or well.”
The basic idea of health, then, is proper function. To be healthy is to have all of your body’s systems working together in perfect harmony as they were designed to do. Disease, in contrast, is anything that disrupts that natural function.
Health presupposes a prior unity; a way things are supposed to be. The health of a car, we could say, would be the proper function of all its mechanical parts. The health of a company is each individual playing their part exactly as they’re meant to play it.
Communities are no different. Everyone—from the manager down to the newest member plays a specific role in the preserving and promoting the overall health of your community.
Finding Your Definition of Community Health
A few years back, one of the interns at Inbound.org set out to measure the health of their thriving online community. He began by focusing in on Inbound’s core mission:
“We want inbound.org to be the home for inbound professionals looking to get better at what they do and love and to connect with other driven professionals who share that goal.”
With the mission in mind, this intern began mining data to see just how well the community was performing. His exact results aren’t relevant here; what matters is that he began with the Inbound’s mission and allowed it to dictate his diagnostic method.
In other words, diagnosing the health of your community begins with fundamentals. Why does your community exist? What is it here to do? What do you hope to accomplish?
You can’t restore your community’s health unless you know exactly what health looks like.
Every community has its own unique mission. I couldn’t possibly write a post dealing with every single one. What I can do, however, is focus on how to diagnose and treat three key features that should exist in any healthy community.
A Quick Word about Doctors and Diagnosis
People aren’t machines. When a doctor treats a patient, they first meet a human subject with all its quirks. As they deal with that patient’s subjective problem (i.e., “my head hurts”), they probe beneath the surface to uncover the objective elements of their situation (i.e., “your blood pressure is too high”). When looking at community health, we want to follow a similar course, balancing between the subjective elements (“my community is growing too slowly”) and the objective (“our community rate of growth is stuck at zero”).
So How’s Your Growth?
Particularly in new communities, healthy growth rates are difficult to determine. Ask a manager how much they’d like to grow, and they’ll probably say something like, “as much as possible.”
We should consider growth both internally and externally. Externally, you can take a look at the performance of other communities in a similar space to get a sense of how well you’re doing. For our purposes, however, we’ll concern ourselves with internal growth rates—the measure of your community’s growth from one month to the next.
The London-based marketing firm FeverBee has done a brilliant job of breaking down the science behind community growth. We won’t look at everything they found, but the most important feature we’ll consider is the Reproduction Bell Curve:
“Community growth rate” here doesn’t refer to the number of new users who join your community every month, but the number of new users you bring in relative to last month.
So, if you add 150 members in January and then 175 in February, then your growth rate has gone up by 25. If, however, you only added 125, then your growth rate would be -25 despite the fact that you still added members that month.
What the graph shows is that, in the beginning, community growth rates spike. This is usually due to any number of marketing campaigns organized to start your community off on the right foot. Over time, however, the rate plateaus and begins to head back towards zero.
According to FeverBee, the growth rate for most communities is zero or less. While that may be fine for an established community, it could be the death knell for young communities.
The Treatment: Community Growth Hormone
What can you inject into your community to get its growth numbers up to where they need to be? Don’t worry; there’s no need to engage in any shady locker room dealing. Our prescription for community growth is perfectly legitimate: community advocacy.
We won’t get into the particulars of developing an advocate marketing program here. In broad strokes, however, an advocacy program takes your best members and incentivizes them to get out and spread the word about your community.
If your growth rate is consistently hanging around zero, then an advocacy program may be the boost that saves your community from dwindling into non-existence.
How Engaging Is Your Content?
High-quality, actionable content is the backbone of any solid community. Is the content you’re serving up worth your members’ time? If not, then the negative effects of low-quality content will eventually destroy the health of your online community.
This isn’t a question about how good you think your content is. What matters most is whether your members find it valuable. One way to find out is to ask them. Looking for something a little less direct? You could simply monitor the conversation around each new piece of content. If your posts generate meaningful discussion, then you’re on the right track.
The safest way to diagnose your content’s usefulness is through measurement… but steer clear of vanity measurements like page views, likes, and shares. To get a better sense of the health of your content, you need to go deeper than those superficial markers would allow.
Instead of page views, measure time on page. It’s one thing for someone to visit a page, it’s quite another for them to linger. Measure conversions as well. Every piece should steer readers towards something else—whether it’s one of your products or another opportunity to further engage. If your content isn’t compelling people to take action, then it’s ultimately falling flat.
Finally, look at the different types of content you share (videos, blog posts, webinars, etc.). Which pieces tend to perform the best? Evaluate your members’ engagement by content type. If you find that your members get the most out of video, yet video only makes up a small percentage of your mix, then your content mix is out of whack. Fix it.
The Treatment: Open Your Eyes and Ears
Using Google Analytics and a smart URL generator of your choice, you can easily track some deeper metrics to identify specific deficiencies. Here are a few deficiencies and the ways in which to address them:
No Discussion – Take the time to probe members about where their concerns truly lie. With each post, ask thought-provoking questions to stimulate conversation.
Short Time on Site – Improve and lengthen your content by incorporating more of your members’ specific interests. Develop a mix of short and long pieces, improving internal link structure to keep members engaged with your site for longer periods of time.
Low Conversion – Think strategically about what your content is supposed to do. Is the point of a blog post to merely inform your community about new developments or to steer them towards downloading your new report or attending your webinar?
Unbalanced Content Mix – Give your members what they want, even when they haven’t asked you for it. If videos get the most attention, then produce more videos.
Is Your Community Safe?
In a previous post, I talked about the four psychological factors that go into creating a community in which members feel like they can truly belong. They are:
- Membership – Everyone is a part of the community.
- Influence – Each member has the right to his or her own voice.
- Integration – Members trust other members enough to connect with one another.
- Collaboration – Shared experience binds the community together.
The baseline condition for all of these things is safety. Consider the social and communicative culture that exists within your online community.
- Are “stupid” questions ripped to shreds in your open forums?
- Do people feel free to ask basic questions?
- Do any of your users dominate the conversation?
- Are your members kind to one another?
- Is your community riddled with trolls?
These kinds of questions may sound soft and squishy, but they will go a long way in helping you identify whether your company has been affected by the rampant spread of malicious behavior taking place on the web.
According to YouGov, more than 28% of Americans have admitted to engaging in troll-like behavior online. Here are some of ways trolling has been described:
According to a survey conducted by Pew, 65% of respondents said they had been on the receiving end of this behavior. When the Atlantic asked more than 1,500 technologists about the future of internet trolling, 81% responded that the tone of online discourse would either stay the same or get worse in the next 10 years.
All that to say, internet trolling is spreading across the internet like a virus. If you don’t take steps to protect against it, this scourge will infect and kill your community.
The Treatment: Starve, Silence, or Slay the Trolls
Starve Them – Don’t feed the trolls. When you get down to their level and engage in the sort of negativity they’re slinging towards others, all you do is encourage them.
Silence Them – If you can’t persuade a troll to change their course, you’ll need to move on to moderation. Lean on your higher-level community members to act as administrators. Empower them to moderate unhelpful and abusive language in the community.
Slay Them – Not everyone can be converted. Give your team the tools and authority to permanently ban people who are committed to destroying the culture of your community.
To be sure, there’s a lot more to be said about the health of online communities. Still, a steadily growing community—chock full of useful content and invigorated by a culture of mutual enrichment—is the stuff of community managers’ dreams.
If you take what I’ve shared and keep working towards that ideal, I promise you’ll one day have the healthiest and most productive community in your class.