A couple of years ago Feverbee introduced something we had been working on for years, our online community lifecycle. The lifecycle was based upon Iriberri and Leroy's initial work and our own research and experience.
It was the sum of everything we had learnt about communities until then. If there is one single thing every community manager should know about communities, the lifecycle is it. Using the lifecycle you can identify exactly where you are now and where you need to go next. In this series of posts, we're going to explain the full online community lifecycle.
If you take the time to read this series and watch the webinar, it will completely change how you approach your community. You will be more informed about communities than most community professionals you meet. Better still, you will be able to explain to your organization exactly what you need to do next and why.
The Online Community Lifecycle
The lifecycle consists of four stages, 1) inception, 2) establishment, 3) maturity, and 4) mitosis.
The names are less important than the activities that you need to perform at each stage.
* The sense of community is a score derived from the results of surveys.
The tasks you perform in the inception stage of the online community lifecycle will be significantly different from those you undertake in the maturity phase. You shouldn’t be doing the same job from one year to the next. Your role evolves with the community.
Stage 4: Mitosis
The mitosis phase of the online community lifecycle begins when the community is almost entirely self-sustaining and continues indefinitely (with a view to the community reforming around greater focused sub-groups).
Not all communities progress to this phase. For example, my friend Susan runs Park Slope Parents, a community for a few thousand parents in the Park Slope area of Brooklyn, New York. Her community is highly active, but will never grow so big it needs to split into multiple sub-groups. It has a much smaller potential audience than a larger community like Mumsnet. Mumsnet targets parents throughout the UK, Park Slope Parents is just for a relatively small area in New York. Mumsnet has a potential audience in the millions, Park Slope Parents has a potential audience of a few thousand (see total feasible audience size). Susan has seen this community through to the maturity phase of the lifecycle. She’s maximized the potential of that community. Therefore, it won't enter the mitosis stage of the lifecycle. If your prospective target audience is bigger than this, the mitosis phase of the lifecycle is more important.
Not all communities advance to mitosis. The message history for Park Slope parents shows a plateau since 2007 without any significant decline. If you have a large potential audience (or a large existing community), when the plateau has been reached you need to shift your role again from optimizing to facilitating multiple, smaller, online communities. The objective of this phase is to sustain and increase the level of both activity and sense of community.
During this phase of the lifecycle, the growth to the community as a whole should remain consistent, but the growth to the smaller sub-groups should be growing as per the inception stage. This means, initially, the co-founders of the sub-group will invite new members; these will usually be through existing contacts made in the community.
You may also have to stimulate this growth by mentioning new groups through content/discussions, and by hosting events and activities for these groups. Each of these sub-groups should endeavour to achieve a critical mass within the first three months of existence. You will need to train people to manage these groups and provide support when necessary.
The overall level of activity to the community should increase as members reform around stronger common interests (social circles, niche interests within the topic). Each group should be smaller, but more members will have the opportunity to be involved. In the short-term, there may be a brief dip in activity as members gradually move from the broad topic into a niche group based around their activities. You need to focus on identifying the potential sub-groups at this stage. This means identifying the topics or interests which have continually arisen within the community, then creating a group specifically for these individuals. This group might be a forum category or any other place within the community platform where people can interact.
In ScienceForums, members each have several sub-groups they participate in. The broad topic ‘science’ has been artfully broken into highly active sub-groups.
Alternatively, you may identify social groups that have developed within the community and build areas within the platform just for close groups of friends. These groups might be elders, newcomers, those that have attended particular events (events especially are a good place for members to bond). You might want to look at your original audience overview here to identify clusters of people that share the same demographic, habitual, or psychographics traits. These are ideal categories for developing sub-groups.
Sense of community
The sense of community at this stage will dip before rising considerably. Past a certain stage, it’s impossible for all members to feel a sense of connection with everyone. Breaking the community into smaller sub-groups helps sustain these connections. Fewer people are more active in the community. You should spend considerable time helping boost the sense of community in each of these groups. It is therefore important not to launch multiple groups at a single time, but to gradually increase the number of groups in the community.
During this phase of the community lifecycle, the community manager balances the role of sustaining a healthy community in the maturity phase with developing self-sustaining groups.
Note with the tasks below, as per the previous phases, there is a gradual shift from the maturity level tasks to the mitosis level tasks. This should not be an abrupt change. It may be possible not to split the entire community into sub-groups, just elements/people within the community.
- Identify and create sub-groups.
- Train and manage leaders of sub-groups.
- Promote and support sub-groups.
Whilst the number of mitosis task feels light, it is a highly repetitive process. This means, for instance, the amount of managing of sub-group leaders will steadily increase throughout the lifespan of the community (perhaps until you’re managing the people that manage the sub-group leaders).
As the community advances into the mitosis phase of the community lifecycle, an increasing number of successful niche groups/topics should begin to be visible within the community. These should be independently run with only small assistance from you. Over time, these sub-groups should be organizing regular events, maintaining a regular content schedule, and become relatively self-sustaining, close-knit, entities within the community.
As I mentioned earlier, it is common for community managers to let their community become too big and too active without proper structure. Beyond a certain level of activity and a certain number of members it becomes difficult for all members to believe they can influence the community. Past a certain number of active members in a community, it becomes impossible for a high level of familiarity to persist. Members will know fewer and fewer of the participating members. Therefore, the overall sense of community in the community begins to decrease. This often leads to less ownership over the community and eventually a lower number of participating members.
This is similar for the level of activity in a community. Once a community becomes too active, it becomes difficult for members to stay abreast of what’s new and what’s popular in the community. It becomes difficult to follow the overall narrative of the community. This is often referred to as ‘information overload’. A member that is used to catching up on 10 missed messages feels less motivation to catch up on 50, or 500 messages. It becomes harder to find the messages that will be of most relevant to that individual.
If you fail to use your data to recognise these situations, it can result in the number of members gradually declining to a small group who retain a limited sense of community with one another.
Another potential danger at this stage is top-down community planning. Instead of reacting to interests which have risen naturally within the community, those that have clearly gained a high level of participation, the community attempts a top-down approach to try and facilitate multiple groups at once. This approach is not suited to community development. First, creating multiple groups rapidly dissipates activity within the community. This can cause a sharp, uncontrolled, drop in the level of activity. Second, it can fail to develop any group to critical mass. Sub-groups need to be nurtured to advance past the inception stage. It’s important to develop these individually before making a huge change at this stage.
Master the lifecycle, master communities
If you've read this far, you now know how to measure the progress of a community and use those measurements to identify what you should be doing in your community.
Your goal, and the goal of every community manager, is to progress their community through the lifecycle.
If you achieve this, you maximise what your community can be, the benefit it brings to your organization, and the benefits that members gain from the community.