What’s Really Happening in Online Communities?

Just because we can produce a technological advance doesn’t mean we can implement it at scale or get widespread adoption.  That’s a fact of life that often gets lost when techno-enthusiasts announce the latest, great capability. This is why I appreciate any realistic assessment of what’s happening that I can find.  

As someone who has been thrilled by the potential of online collaboration for at least a decade, I have been confounded that my attempts in various client and volunteer settings never elicit the responses I want.  Associations, churches and other nonprofit organizations have put a lot of money and energy into building online communities. Aren’t we supposed to love this ability to stay in touch with each other 24-7?

Yesterday I watched Higher Logic President Andy Steggles share 2013 benchmarking results in a webinar.  Since Higher Logic is a leading provider of online community platforms, this study draws upon a large data set from 256 associations.  

First aha:  Only about half of association members subscribe to their association’s online community. The ratio is better for smaller associations at 84%.  This makes sense. There is probably more affinity in smaller communities where people are more likely to know and respect each other.

Second aha:  About half the posts never receive any comment.  Steggles explains this away as groups using the community to post announcements that don’t require response—not a practice Higher Logic recommends.  I am less certain that accounts for the full volume of silence.

Third aha:  The average number of replies to the group or sender hovers around 4.  Most topics fail to engage people.  We’ve all seen replies spike when something riles people, but why don’t we see a similar energy level without controversy?

Fourth aha: Analyzing the differences between top and low performers, Steggle says the associations doing well have the backing of leadership and a staff person dedicated to supporting the community.  It’s a myth that self-organizing groups will take these platforms and run with them.

Fifth aha:  Other engagement research demonstrates that members who take any action are more likely to renew.  The percentage of improved retention that seems to correlate with online engagement is about 5% in this benchmarking study. 

And these results come at a time when many association members have had enough experience with social media and online communities to be willing and avid users.  Even though I continue to be enthusiastic about the potential of connected reality, today’s reality is something far short of what we might imagine could happen.