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A new trend in online community engagement?

A guest blog by @EthanOhs on starting an online community of practice

I remember first coming across the 90:9:1 rule around 2008. At the time the organisation I was working for was building their own online community. As the recession of 2008 took its toll and restructuring occurred I found myself learning about online communities and supporting a colleague as he started ours.

In my mind our online community was doomed from the start – largely because there wasn’t a good reason for people to log on and interact. In the years that have followed I have often advised other organisations to avoid building or creating separate web platforms to engage audiences. It’s not that online platforms do not work, it is that without a ‘driving’ purpose they tend to fizzle out, and what drives the creator rarely drives the user.

I surprised myself in mid-2016 when I began researching platforms to start a new web based community – What changed?

I was working with the Society of Chief Librarians to develop a community of practice and we needed a safe space to interact. The community was dispersed across the UK and could rarely if ever meet face to face. We required a space for interaction, storage and record keeping. Pushed by need and a deadline I somewhat arbitrarily chose some free online software and went to work. Over the past year, the community and I have worked together to engage and learn, utilising our online home to share ideas and information.

12 months later our community has experience 400% growth and this blog comes as I try to compare our levels of interaction with other online communities to see how and where we may need to change tact to achieve maximum engagement.

Most of the communities has joined in the last six months. With the greatest numbers having been added in the final quarter of the fiscal year (ending March 2017). As I prepared to report on our growth and our engagement I was slightly worried that our engagement might appear low because of the number of new members in the community.

Hoping for some comparative data I began to look online to see what others had found. I was surprised how little things seem to have changed since 2008 as the 90:9:1 rule still featured heavily in my results. So I kept digging and came across an updated figure 70:20:10 – where someone looked at their clients to see how engagement might have changed.

With both stats in hand I began to crunch my numbers, and what did I find: our community’s engagement looked dramatically different at 41:38:21.

41% of the group were lurking in the background and hadn’t done anything compare to 90% or even 70%.

38% of people had done something and even made up to 4 comments/online interactions compared to 9% or even 20%.

21% of people made 5 or more comments/interactions compared to 1% or even 10%.

I also found that true to form the top 20% most active users accounted for 82% of all posts/contributions.

Knowing I needed to report back on engagement to my client I could breathe a sigh of relief at seeing these figures. Even with a very large and new group of members, we could retain high levels of engagement, but of course now I needed to examine what was helping us do this. After some thought and discussion, the following have been identified:

Launching the community – as part of the creation of this community I was determined that we would launch the community and use that process to build a group and create a shared culture and understanding. What this has done is built trust amongst the founding members and helped them build a culture that encourages sharing.

Clear ground rules – we chose very specific ground rules, and I say we because these came from the group and I simply helped write up their words into something specific for others to read. This means the group feels ownership of the rules and culture they have created.

A thorough induction – new members are welcomed into the group. The first hundred or so members received one to one or small group telephone inductions. This became un-tenable for me. As a result, we trialled a video induction. This had been successful so far and members who have joined after watching it have jumped right in to participate.

Collaborative decision making – it is not always easy to do, but it is important that the group is involved in and responsible for helping to make crucial decisions about the future. Without them we cannot succeed.

Clear expectations – everyone is told they need to participate. From their first expression of interest it is their job to opt into the community which has increased their buy in, a bit like charging a small fee can improve attendance records at events.

The community is still young and has plenty of work it needs to do to remain relevant and viable. Our first year’s success could quickly evaporate. The hard work, commitment, and careful curation of the group has helped it grow sustainability so far and I look forward to helping the group manage its own growth as it becomes increasingly independent.

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