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 3: Maturity
The maturity phase of the online community lifecycle begins when members of the community are generating 90% or more of activity/growth, and there is a limited sense of community. This is measured through growth, activity, and sense of community metrics. The maturity phase ends when the community has a highly developed sense of community, but the level of activity or sense of community amongst members has plateaued.
Most of the familiar online communities are in the maturity phase of the online community lifecycle. They are established, highly active, and have a highly developed sense of community. They also merit a lot of attention within their ecosystem. This final element, external attention, is common amongst mature communities. They become the definitive place for those interested in that topic. Mumsnet is the definitive community for parents in the UK. Techcrunch is the definitive community for the start-up companies. 4Chan has a thriving online community for online hackers/pranksters.
By this stage, you should only rarely be initiating discussions, prompting people to participate, or engaging in any micro-tasks besides those that facilitate relationships with members/volunteers. You should only do this to fill in the gaps (i.e. when there is a lull in activity, it makes sense for you to prompt a few discussions). Now you should be focused solely upon macro-level activities that have the biggest long-term impact upon the majority of members in the community. This includes scaling processes, events/activities, content, optimizing of the platform, developing a strong sense of community, increasing the profile of the community outside of the platform. Your volunteers or additional staff should now be handling the micro-activities undertaken in the previous stages of the lifecycle (e.g. conflict resolution, removing spam, responding to member queries). You need to focus on the bigger things.
During this phase, there will usually be a plateau in growth. This is the natural consequence of the community reaching its maximum potential. There are only so many people who can be interested in the community’s topic. Once this figure has been reached, further growth is not possible. In addition, there will eventually be a plateau in activity. This occurs when members are as active as they can possibly be. This is the outcome of members that have a strong sense of community and dedicating as much time to the topic as they possibly can. The goal at this stage is to sustain this high level of activity and increase the sense of community amongst members.
A plateau is not a major cause for concern. It is the natural and final evolution of a successful online community. You should only be concerned when there is a decline, especially a sustained decline. We cover this topic in the mitosis phase of the community lifecycle.
During this phase, all growth will come from referrals/word-of-mouth activity (such as sharing content/discussions, networking at events, or generally being a well known community within the sector), and potentially major promotional activity undertaken by the organization. The community manager helps facilitate the latter gaining publicity in major outlets and by developing a system by which all members feel a sense of ownership over areas of the community.
This will involve ensuring the community is frequently mentioned with regards to its sector and also making the community have influence within its realm. For example, by releasing regular statements related to relevant issues within the sector, working with influencers to implement desirable change within the sector. Mumsnet, for example, frequently campaigns on behalf of its members. Mumsnet proactively runs campaigns on issues its members care deeply about. The success rate is remarkably high.
The level of activity per member will peak during the maturity phase of the community lifecycle. The community will become highly responsive and you should focus upon optimizing activity. This will involve reviewing what areas of the site are used and optimizing the most used features. In the maturity phase of the lifecycle, the level of activity is extremely high and the community is well known in its sector This will also include closely analysing the process through which a newcomer becomes a regular and taking steps to optimize that process. This is a data-driven process, not a haphazard series of actions.
Sense of community
The activities undertaken at this stage blur the lines between growth, activity, and sense of community. Releasing statements on behalf of the community, for example, achieves all three. It promotes the community, it increases activity from members talking about the issue, and makes members feel a greater sense of community from the influence their community has upon its ecosystem.
The objective at this stage is, counter-intuitively, to hit the plateau. The goal is to reach the point where the community has reached its initial maximum potential. Everyone in the sector should know it, your members are highly active within the community, and there is a deep sense of community amongst members.