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.
Let's look at the inception stage.
Stage 1: Inception
The inception stage begins when you begin interacting with the target audience and ends with the community achieving a critical mass of growth and activity.
Critical mass is a term from nuclear physics defined as the minimum amount of fissile material to sustain a nuclear chain reaction. This term has become co-opted by social scientists as a tipping point used to describe when any social activity becomes self-sustaining. For community purposes, the critical mass is the point at which the level of growth and activity in the community begins to take off without your direct involvement. This point is numerically defined as when more than 50% of growth and activity is generated by the community (as opposed to the community manager).
The sole goal of the inception stage is to achieve critical mass.
To achieve critical mass you need to cultivate a small group of highly active members in the community. This group becomes the foundations upon which to build the community. Every big community begins as a small community. Unless a small, active, group is established it is impossible to develop a successful long-term community.
During this phase of the online community lifecycle, you should focus upon micro-level activities designed to solicit a high level of engagement from a relatively small number of individuals. It is important to establish momentum, a sense of possibility, and a regular amount of activity from members at this stage of the lifecycle. During this stage of the lifecycle, you need to focus on performing a relatively small number of tasks many times. These are:
1) Invite members to join the community
You should be individually inviting people you have developed relationships with to join and participate in the community. These relationships should have been developed before you launch the community. These invitations will usually take place by e-mail, although personal invitations at events and in other channels are also acceptable. Directly inviting people you know is the most reliable source of early growth in online communities.
2) Initiate and sustain discussions
You will also stimulate activity in the community. First, you will be initiating discussions on topics that research has shown members are interested in. These can be scheduled in advance. Mix those which are designed to convey information with those that affect members on a psychological level, such as bonding/status-jockeying discussions. Second, you should be prompting members to participate in these discussions. This requires individually reaching out to members through the site or by e-mail and letting them know that their opinion on the discussion would be valued. The purpose of this is to get these members into the habit of regularly visiting the community to see the responses to their own efforts. It takes time for visiting a community to become a habit. Until the community becomes a habit, members need frequent reminders to participate. Automated reminders are not enough.
During the early stage of managing online communities, the community founder (you!) initiates most of the activity
3) Build relationships
At this stage you should also invest time in building good relationships with members. This requires individually reaching out to members and identifying ways to be of assistance or continuing to learn what members are most interested in. This ensures a steady flow of activity, feedback on current activities, and opportunities to initiate activities in the future.
Signs of development
As the community begins to develop, members will begin to invite others in their online and offline social networks to join the community.
A gradually increasing number of new members will arrive without you inviting them.
In addition, members will begin initiating their own discussions in the community. This number should steadily increase. Members will also begin replying to discussions without you directly promoting them. This shows that the community is beginning to become a habit.
At this point, you should continue to undertake the same activities as before (and at the same level as before). A common mistake is to begin shifting activities to more micro-level activities too soon. Until critical mass has been reached and sustained, you should have a precise focus upon the four tasks we have just highlighted:
- Inviting members to join the community.
- Initiating discussions members will be interested in.
- Prompting members to participate in discussions.
- Building relationships with members.
This phase can last anywhere from 0 to 9 months. Any longer that that typically indicates a development problem. It shows the community is not naturally taking off and there is either a conceptual problem or a tactical problem. If community members do not begin inviting others to join, nor initiating activity without you directly prompting them, this is a sign that either the community concept is wrong (the community isn’t about a topic members are interested in, for example), or you’re using the wrong tactics. This may be due to errors in your approach or not testing the different possible approaches. In the latter example, the way you interact with members, inviting people to join, or initiates discussions is wrong. Approaches that are too long, for example, or discussions which are not relevant enough to members, are unlikely to generate a lot of activity. In addition, in some sectors approaches that are too formal or feel pushy also fail to solicit the desired activity.