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Why is Smaller Often Better When it Comes to Online Communities?

If you have been gauging the value of your online community by the size of its membership, or trying to grow your community in the hope of increasing the number insights, then you might want to reconsider your strategy and the assumptions that are driving it.

Clients often ask why we recommend communities of 300 – 500 people. The seemingly obvious proposition that bigger is better is a common misconception we encounter in the marketplace. A decade’s worth of experience and original research clearly indicate that the very opposite is true. When the goal is insight, smaller is better. Here are three reasons why and the data behind them:

  1. When the goal of a community is to generate insight it is the number of people talking that counts. So we measure engagement and unique contributions (versus page views) as a matter of course. For example, we have found that, on average, 64% of a community’s members contribute every month. Similarly, in a given month, it would take 200,000 visitors to a public community to generate the same number of contributions from a single 400 person community. These statistic and others are documented in our recent whitepaper and will be featured in our upcoming webinar next week. 
  2. You learn more when you are listening to the “right” people. As we explain in our seminal position paper, insights are more actionable when you know who they are coming from. You don’t need to hear from the universe of potential customers; you just need to hear from those who can help you solve your particular business issue. Private, invitation-only communities allow you to target specific groups, ensuring that everything you learn is relevant.
  3. Small, private communities give people what they want. What motivates community members to participate week after week? Our research shows that it is not money, but rather a complex combination of social needs. Because smaller communities feel exclusive, foster reciprocal relationships, and create genuine intimacy they do a better job of providing what it is that people are seeking when they go online in the first place—trustworthy information, validation, connection. As one of our community members put it:

“I think it is easier to get a better understanding of what mom’s are trying to say within a smaller community.  The larger the community, the more opinions and broader scope (which isn’t always a plus), and one usually has less communication range with the provider of the community.  In plain English, you just can’t be heard!” 

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