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Melinda Elmborg: How to Measure Community Performance

Building a community means building relationships, and relationships are famously hard to measure. If you’re a community leader scratching your head over the task of measuring your community’s performance, we feel you.

That’s why we turned to metrics expert Melinda Elmborg to ask how we can put numbers and insights behind our community efforts.

Melinda Elmborg is an expert in data-driven entrepreneurship. She’s seen plenty of early-stage projects that had a hard time measuring their growth, because they didn’t know what indicators they should be looking at.

When you want to know a room’s temperature, you look at a thermometer. Wouldn’t it be great if you had a thermometer for your community performance? Having clear community-related metrics is not only great, but absolutely necessary. When we interviewed 150 community leaders for last year’s State of Communities Report, we discovered that 65.5% of them had difficulties in measuring the impact of their community efforts. They were lacking the metrics needed to guide their decisions, justify their work and sync community performance to business KPIs.

This is the challenge we put on Melinda’s table when we asked for advice. Below is her guideline for defining community metrics, in 6 steps. Get ready to take notes.

1. Define the community journey

Before you can identify metrics for your community, you need to define your community’s journey, or how your members’ experience within the community evolves over time. The journey starts with someone discovering your platform and deciding to pay attention to what’s happening on the inside. It takes them through a growing commitment and participation, and ideally, in time, turns them into dedicated contributors to the shared mission. Map out this ideal member journey the way it unfolds for your community, and use it to identify  your best members. How do they relate to the group and the platform? How active are they? How long does it take for them to become actively involved?

2. Benchmark against yourself

Once you define the steps in your community journey, you can start measuring conversion rates: how many people who discover your community sign up? How many members participate with opinions or feedback on a monthly basis? How many show up at events? Still, these numbers mean nothing by themselves. You need to compare them to your previous performance. If your team is doing well, your numbers should be increasing every month.

Always have in mind your ideal member journey, and choose indicators that measure your community’s performance against the ideal. So in the case of Twitter, they would measure what percentage of new users started following at least 12 accounts within the first day.

3. Look for sticky contribution, not consumption

When measuring a community’s performance, participation is more relevant than consumption. When someone not only benefits from but also contributes to the resources and activities of the community, that shows a stronger alignment between individual member goals and shared community goals. Generally, your ideal members will contribute more than average members, so this is a great indicator to add to your ideal member journey.

Contribution can be measured in posts, comments, volunteered help or anything that makes the community a better place for all members. Try to define a critical activity that contributes to the quality of the community. This will be your north star, leading the way in your growth efforts. However, make sure you are measuring the right kind of contribution. To go back to the Twitter example, it took them a bit to realize that not all contribution on the platform was increasing the quality of their community. In 2018 they announced a new approach to measuring their performance, at the center of which they put a new metric: healthy conversation.

4. Create cohorts

Creating cohorts is a way of segmenting your members based on when they started using your platform. One cohort can be, for example, all the users who made their first contribution in June 2019. You then want to follow this cohort over time to notice behavioral changes, how many become loyal members, how many leave, how long it takes in each case and what triggers these behaviors.

The main indicator in the case of cohorts is retention. By following cohorts over time, you discover their retention curves. If your retention curves are good, they go downwards as little as possible. After a few weeks or months, they should become flat and stay even. That means that you’ve found a group of members who contribute and love your community.

If your retention curves frequently go straight down over a short period of time, you’re in a difficult situation, because growing your community depends on constantly getting new members in the door; or, better, on changing something in the community journey so people stop dropping out.

5. Visualize your data

All the metrics I’ve mentioned up to this point need to be checked regularly. You’ll use the data you gather to guide all your community-related decisions. But for numbers to become insights, you need to make sure you track indicators correctly, and that they’re easily accessible and understandable to your team. Take the time to set up real-time dashboards to visualize metrics. When your reporting is automatic, you can be sure that it always gets done. When you use a dashboard tool with data that updates in real time, you can be sure that the team is always aware of how the community performs.

6. Ask for help

So now you have some good rules of thumb for measuring your community performance. You can start gathering data and making decisions based on member insight. But if you still feel overwhelmed by all this, I’m here to help. I run The Insight Project to assist any startup, including early-stage communities, in adopting an insights-driven mindset and getting their analytics stack in order. Here’s more about how you can get insight into your members’ behavior.

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