Most folks didn't get into community to crunch numbers. But whether you're a data whizz or not, navigating the world of community building without being guided by metrics likely means you're going in blind.
In an established community, your community strategy is the map, but your metrics are what will help you rework and refine that map as you explore uncharted territory.
"When crafting community strategy, it can often feel overwhelming trying to balance what you want to build while reconciling that with business goals," says Commsor Chief Community Officer Alex Angel.
"It may not be intuitive how everything ties together, and it's critical for you to be able to craft the story of how, for example, onboarding new members in cohorts and doing fun activities with them translates to measurable business value."
When it comes to justifying your efforts — not to mention your budget — it's important to be able to speak the same language as the decision-makers at your organization, she adds. "And, more often than not, that shared language is metrics and data."
To simplify things, Community Education Manager Noele Flowers likes to divide the plethora of community metrics available into three different buckets.
It's worth noting at the outset that not all these categories are created equal, Noele says. "Community-business metrics are hard to track, but really impactful. On the flip side, engagement metrics are super easy to track but not as impactful."
Ready to get tracking?
These outcomes, especially retention and acquisition, are probably the most closely tied to how the company is making money — getting more customers in, or keeping those that you already have.
"When we say that tracking retention and acquisition matters in a community context, we're really talking about the community program's influence on the business's retention and acquisition," Noele says. "We mean using the community as a lever to retain existing customers and acquire new ones, rather than retaining and acquiring new community members."
Retention usually takes the form of a cohort comparison between your average community member versus your average non-community member customer on dimensions like churn, MRR (Monthly Recurring Revenue), LTV (Lifetime Value).
Here's an example:
"You could get even more granular here by using cohorts of your most engaged community members, say those who contribute every week, or those who attend every event," Noele says.
In the community realm, acquisition refers to community-qualified leads. Just as you would track how many leads you got from other marketing channels (say, email or social media), you will track leads via this channel. Over time you may wish to compare your conversion rates from this channel vs. another channel, or begin to track retention for these leads vs. leads acquired another way.
Your company may have a custom metric or multiple metrics that are considered to contribute to "customer health." Community typically has the power to influence these types of metrics. Again, measurement here usually means comparing community members to non-members.
They show correlation, not causation. For example, your metrics may seem to indicate that your community members are more likely to stay paying customers for longer — but what's to say that this is not simply because your best customers (i.e. those already the most likely to remain) are the ones joining the community in the first place?
It's tricky to say which factor is causing the other, but you can be more exact if you track the same customer before and after they joined community.
In some community circles, engagement metrics are treated as the Holy Grail, while others will dismiss them as 'vanity metrics'. We'd argue that there is value in these numbers, but only if taken in the context of a 'then what'. For example, you know that on average 30 people respond to a post within your community. Then what? What does that mean?
"There's a fine line between flashy and useful, and engagement metrics are most impactful when you can derive actionable outcomes and insights to drive forward your business objectives," Alex says.
"It's not helpful to just know that 30 people have responded to a post within your community. You need the added context around that number — if your community has 10k members that means a lot less than if your community only has 100," she points out. "And once you know what that means, what do you do with it, and how does it impact other data points you're tracking?"
Let's view engagement metrics with that in mind.
In other words, of all the people currently in your community, what percentage of those people have taken any action within the last 30 days? Depending on what tool or platform you use, 'taking action' usually means commenting, writing up a post, attending an event, or even just logging in. MAU tracks the relationship between overall community membership and engagement.
This value tells you when to optimize for growth vs. retention and engagement within your community
30-70% is normal and healthy, but the actual percentage matters a lot less than the stability of the percentage. "This range might be even wider, especially for enterprise instances," Noele says.
Here's an example:
In community A:
In community B:
There is a huge amount of variation within your MAU binary in terms of the actual level of engagement. Added granularity into engagement levels, and how these map onto business outcomes, can also be incredibly helpful if you are able to track at this level. For example, you may track engagement personas and be able to tell that getting someone to the next engagement level has a business outcome.
Unlike MAUs, granular reports on specific interactions aren't really useful to report outside of your direct team. While these are often tracked in community teams, they are widely considered to be "vanity metrics" because they lack a "then what."
However, they can be useful in certain situations:
Membership growth is important, but like everything else, has to be taken in context, Noele says.
"I don't like to see teams pushing on membership growth for the sake of it before they've dialed in their strategy and started to measure business outcomes," she says. "But, if I know that my community is impacting customer retention or support, then I would definitely be keen to grow membership as quickly as I could while keeping the community healthy."
However, this might seem like an important target to chase for exec or leaders with your organization. "I'd always encourage community builders to push back on this to get to the bottom of the 'why' or the 'then what' of growing membership — what's particularly important about tracking this metric?" Noele adds.
A good way to do that be might be to reverse-engineer from business goals. For example, "We want to produce three community-sourced case studies this quarter. We assume that only 10% of all members will make posts throughout the quarter, and only 10% of posts will be high quality enough to produce case studies. We assume only half of those we ask will agree to participate in case studies. Therefore, we aim to grow the community to 600 members this quarter."
This bucket of metrics is specifically tied to business operations — in other words, what kind of effect does the community have on other parts of the organization?
"Collaborate cross-departmentally to understand what goals each team is trying to achieve," Alex says. "Where are there opportunities to not only dig into the numbers on how community already is impacting those goals, but to also adjust your efforts accordingly to have even greater impact?"
It should be enough to set goals and cadences with these departments and stick to them — i.e., measure yourself based on the binary of meeting or missing objectives. However, it might be helpful to extrapolate the actual business cost of some of these efforts if you work with a leadership team that will only see the value if communicated quantitatively.
Metrics take time and resources to accurately track, Noele says. "Keep your ideal metrics in mind as you design your community — even if you don't have the ability to track them right now, make decisions that enable you to do so in the future."
They also take time to normalize, she adds. For example, MAU will be almost useless in your first few months after a community launch.
The concept of leading and lagging indicators can be helpful for community builders, Noele says. "Does the metric you're looking at predict an outcome, or measure an outcome? For example, event registrations vs. attendees; engagement rates vs. reduction in churn."
And last, but certainly, not least: "Metrics can't necessarily be transplanted from one instance to the next," Noele says. "Community pros will always need to do some legwork to figure out what's relevant to them."