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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.
Earlier, we looked at the inception stage. Today, let's look at the establishment stage.
Stage 2: Establishment
The establishment phase of the online community lifecycle begins when the community has reached critical mass. This is the point at which the community generates more than 50% of growth and activity. As the community develops, the level of responses to posts increase and members generate an increasing level of growth and activity. The establishment phase ends when members are generating over 90% of growth and activity in the community. There also needs to be a limited sense of community to advance to the maturity phase of the community lifecycle.
Once the establishment phase has been reached, your role gradually shifts from the micro-level tasks that focus on individual members at a time to more macro-level activities (tasks that affect several members at a time). These activities will include those that sustain growth, activity, and develop a sense of community. During this phase of the online community lifecycle, the number of tasks you focus upon will broaden and you need to shift your time accordingly. These tasks will include:
- Inviting members to join and keeping them active/engaged.
- Initiating discussions and prompting members to participate.
- Writing content about the community.
- Building relationships with key members.
- Initiating discussions and prompting responses.
- Organizing a regular event/activity.
- Recruiting volunteers.
- Promoting the community.
- Collecting and analyzing data.
- Resolving disputes/conflicts.
The objective of this phase is to continue increasing growth, and activity, develop a limited sense of community and provide the basis for sustainable development of the community.
This final point is important. It would be difficult, for example, for anyone to handle a community membership numbering over 100,000 active members without support. The processes that allow a community to scale must begin relatively early in the community’s lifecycle.
Referral and promotional growth
You should now gradually shift away from direct growth and encourage referral and promotional growth (members inviting their friends and coverage in media outlets read by the target audience). Referral growth tactics will include ownership/involvement level ideas that encourage members to invite their friends.
For example, you establish an event/goal that members participate in, increase a sense of ownership and thus invite other people in their social network to join the community. Or you might focus upon sharing content/discussions within the community. You will also spend more time converting newcomers into regular members of the community.
There will also be some promotional activities undertaken during this time. This might be outreach to bloggers/magazines, issuing statements on behalf of the community, hosting events that attract interests of your target audience.
Don’t leave growth to chance; you have to proactively stimulate it.
As the community begins to grow, it will be important to embed scaling processes. Most organizations allow their communities to grow until they become unmanageable. Don’t let this happen to you. Embed scaling processes early in the development lifecycle. Prepare to have a big community now. This will involve recruiting volunteers, developing the platform, and optimizing areas of the site. The community manager will also have to spend more time on moderation. This will involve resolving disputes between members, concentrating and dissipating activity (we will explain this later), removing spam/inappropriate material, highlighting the most popular discussions/activities.
Sense of community
At this stage of the lifecycle, you must begin to introduce elements which increase the sense of community felt amongst members. This will usually involve initiating events and activities as shared experiences, introducing a community constitution, securing the community promotion in other media, and documenting the community history. You need members to feel they are part of a community together. This sustains a high level of activity amongst members. In essence, it keeps people returning to the community to see what’s new, as opposed to only visiting when notified of a reaction to their own post.
In addition, content will play an important role in further developing the community. Content can help develop a community narrative, highlight the top members in the community, create a social order within the community, and (akin to a local newspaper) increase the sense of togetherness felt by members
Signs of development
During this phase of the lifecycle, the community should see growing levels of growth and activity. These should be closely correlated. Growth should increasingly come from referrals/word-of-mouth activity. This may not be easy to measure, but can be ascertained by asking newcomers how they heard about the community. In addition, the community should continue to generate an increasing amount of its own activity. The level of responses per discussion should continue to rise and the number of discussions initiated by members should also steadily increase.
A community in the establishment phase should show continued growth and development, in addition to a sense of community. This is often reflected in a growing amount of off-topic/social chatter. There should also be signs that a sense of community is developing amongst members. This may include in-jokes, a continuation of discussions beyond the immediate subject matter, an increasingly level of direct contact between members, higher levels of self-disclosure in debates and other signals of familiarity between members.
A drop in growth or activity indicates a potential problem for the community. If growth increases but the activity drops, then members are becoming less active than before or a smaller number of members are accounting for an increasingly larger share of activity. Tracking relevant data is important to spot these potential issues. Once this issue has been identified you can initiate activities designed to change this trend before too many members are lost. Once you enter a dip, it’s hard to avoid a death spiral (less activity begets less activity).
It is also common for community managers to switch roles too early. This means to go from micro to macro-level activities too rapidly as opposed to gradually shifting roles as the measurement of growth and activity shows progress.