Growing an online community is a daunting task. It requires a huge time investment to get up and running. You can do everything by the book and there is still no guarantee that you will succeed.

As the co-founder of a community analytics platform, I have started to notice concrete traits that all healthy, fast-growing communities have in common. I’ll be sharing four of these in this post.

What better community to highlight these trends than by using the CMX community, which contains more than 3,980 members at the time of writing this article.

1. Welcome New Members

Nothing is more discouraging than posting your first comment in a community and hearing crickets. One of the best ways to encourage new members to post is to welcome them individually. Sounds straightforward and obvious enough, right?

Yet most communities don’t do this. Some communities have an “introduce yourself” section, which doesn’t really work since it separates newcomers from the rest of the group. Many others have no introductory experience at all. CMX, on the other hand, does something really simple that has proven to be very effective.

Every Monday, David posts a welcome thread with a few paragraphs and three conversation-starter questions that new members are encouraged to answer. Then, he tags all the new members in the thread so they get notified on Facebook.

Here is a small sampling of the most engaging posts from CMX in the last year. Every single one is a Monday welcome, which bring together new and veteran members:

CMX post data June 2016

These posts consistently generate high levels of engagement. They encourage new members to post and many existing members chime in and welcome these new members.

David has managed to generate 467 first-time participations through these posts with just 40 welcome posts in the past year.

The best post converted 18 lurkers to participants.

2. Listen and Respond for 30-60 Minutes Per Day

Just like new members want a response to their first comment, so does everyone else who posts a comment. If everyone in your community is talking but no one is listening and responding, it’s quickly going to fall apart and turn into a ghost town.

One way to mitigate this is to pay attention to both participation and response rates.

If there are a large chunk of comments that routinely go unanswered for more than 24 hours, you should invest the resources to reply to those comments once you’ve given others a chance to step up first. You can slowly train your community to answer these questions by being the model community citizen yourself.

While it may seem like a waste of time on the surface, community professionals should spend an average of 30-60 minutes each day looking at and responding to unanswered posts.

This leads to two important outcomes: First, members in your community are going to be more inclined to participate again since they got a response in a relatively short amount of time. Secondly, you are leading by example in the community. Many members will start to respond to others too and then you can naturally scale back the number of responses that you give to avoid dominating the conversation.

It should also be noted that your internal team will need to remain active and exemplary members of your community, even years after its launch. In the past week, we see that all three CMX team members are still in the top 10 of contributors even two years post-launch; a managed community is a happy community.

top members

3. Look for Member Retention through Regular Cohort Analysis

Every community is different. There are no “industry benchmarks” that will work for every community. All you can do is establish your own healthy benchmarks. That’s why it is really important to analyze your data on a regular basis, ideally at least once per month.

The data that you really want to look at will depend on the goals of your community. For example, the specific KPIs for a customer support community will look very different from the KPIs of a brand awareness or beta community. The goals of each community are completely different. One is about increasing sales and the other is about decreasing costs.

While the KPIs that you identify and track in your community are going to differ from community to community, one specific tactic that will help give you a larger overall picture of your community is conducting regular cohort analyses.

Setting up cohorts allows you to segment and compare different groups of members. For example, you can compare the activity levels of new members who joined in 2014 versus those who joined in 2015. Or you can get more granular and compare at the quarterly or monthly levels.

In the CMX community, 57% of the people that posted in May 2016 were already active in 2015. This strongly indicates that CMX has a healthy, engaging and (dare I say) addictive community.

The staying power is also reflected in the fact that each cohort brings new people that stay for a long time. Cohort graphs like the one below, with a slightly gradual decline and a strongly built foundation are a clear sign of a healthy, thriving community. They show that a core group of members in each cohort are sticking around and remaining active. CMX active members community analytics June 2016

4. Online Communities with Offline Events Scale Faster and Thrive Long-Term

CMX Summit Q&A

You can build an engaged, healthy community online. However, it’s much harder to develop and retain trust online.

It gets a little easier to do so when you add offline events to your community programming, such as meetups and conferences. In the case of CMX, this can be found in CMX Series events (member-hosted events throughout the globe) and through their twice annual conferences, CMX Summit in NYC and SF.

In addition to learning and sharing new information in the community, these offline events further build trust and relationships between members. After all, there is nothing that can build a relationship faster than a sincere look in the eyes and a hug.

Another perk of hosting offline events is that often you will see a spike of online activity right before or after an event, often with a lull in online activity while the event is happening.

Simply Start, Right now

Whether you are starting a brand new community or looking to scale an existing one, using these four strategies will set your community up with a strong foundation.

It’s tempting to read an article like this and start implementing and testing all the things right this second. Then, you get discouraged a few weeks later when you realize that you can’t keep up with all these experiments or aren’t seeing the results that you want right this minute.

One way to combat this feeling is to start small. Choose one strategy or one tactic from this list, and run a small experiment. These experiments should be small and generally last 30 days. Remember to track and measure against the results you wish to see.

Why 30 days? There’s a couple of reasons. First, it gives you a large enough sample size to be able to start to draw some real conclusions. Secondly, studies show that 30 days is about the time it takes to turn a regular action into a new habit. At the end of your first experiment, evaluate what worked and what didn’t work. Then, run another experiment. Keep rinsing and repeating.

Your community strategy should always be evolving. When you think of your strategy as a series of small experiments, you’ll be able to see real, sustainable, long-term results.

Cover Image via #WOCinTechChat.

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Bas van Leeuwen

Bas van Leeuwen | @LeeuwenVanBas

Bas van Leeuwen is a community manager and entrepreneur based in Amsterdam. Annoyed with the lack of standard metrics in the community space, he has started a company to fix this. Bas is terrible at picking creative names: his community analytics company is called Community-Analytics.com and his Twitter handle is @LeeuwenVanBas. As a hobby, he likes to pretend he's an avid runner.