Published in Business -

What to track when building an online community. And how the data can be used.

Building a community creates huge opportunities for certain types of organisations.

Depending on your focus, service or product, you can use a community to:

  • Glean real-time feedback from your supporters and hone or pioneer your offerings based on the information.
  • Connect with a wider range of supporters, members and prospects.
  • Bolster your prospective supporter base for the future—people may come to the community purely for the content and form a strong affinity with your organisation over time.

Securing any of these benefits is contingent on engagement with a sizeable number of community members. So the question becomes: how can you be sure that you’re building towards the right type of community and membership base?

Here are the things you could or should be tracking, and how you can use that data to your advantage.

Number of people who sign up to the community:

What it tells you: How frequently and how many people register as community members. Depending on the way your platform is configured, this could also tell you whether people are adequately incentivised to sign up, or whether most people explore the community anonymously.

If visitation numbers are drastically higher than registrations, you may not provide clear or compelling motivation for people to create accounts.

How you can use the data: Registrations are more valuable for you as the community facilitator, because they provide you with detail and a record of the people who visit. Depending on your marketing objectives, this information could help you qualify leads or categorise certain visitors in relation to other activities. For example, someone who has signed up for an account in your community forums, but who does not engage your organisation as a client, represents a qualified potential prospect.

There is an interesting decision to make here. Do you provide open free access to the content in your community and allow people to anonymously view content? On the plus side, this approach might promote greater engagement by virtue of fewer barriers to participate in the community. As a drawback, it’s harder to encourage people to sign up as members.

The alternative approach? Make registration a mandatory requirement for people to join the community. This creates an inverse scenario; there may be a challenge encouraging people to join the community, but every member is known to your organisation.

Total number of visitors to the platform each day:

What it tells you: How many people came to the community—whether to participate in creating content or passively read through material—on a specific date or throughout a specific time period.

How you can use the data: This information can help with resource allocation for moderation. If your visitation spikes on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, this might suggest it’s worth having resources available to instigate or participate in conversations with your community members on these days. Perhaps you can afford to automate moderation for period of lower traffic.

Alternatively, you could also use this datapoint to inform the release of new content or initiatives into the community. Perhaps you’re setting a new feature live, like an events calendar. Or maybe you intend to host a conversation where community members give you feedback on your products or services. These activities should be timed to coincide with the most activity on the platform.

How people arrive at the community:

What it tells you: The websites or pages people use before they arrive at your community. Do people Google the name or theme of your community? Do they come from links your existing members have posted to social media platforms? Do they type in the address of your community and arrive directly?

How you can use the data: This information can be used to inform your advertising and member acquisition activities.

If you know that a large proportion of people visit your community after searching for ‘forums for people with blindness or low vision’, you could run a series of Google ads based on similar or related search queries to connect with prospective new members, and bring them to the platform.

If you know that people come to your community from social media platforms, you could run a series of promotional ads to test whether this corresponds with a boost in registrations.

The articles, threads or content pages people click on most:

What it tells you: Which content and conversation topics are most appealing to the members of your community.

How you can use the data: There are many ways to use this information.

In the short term, this data can inform content strategy and ensure you produce material that aligns with the community’s main interests.

Longer term, this type of information could be used to prototype new service offerings.

For example, if you’re a disability support service provider and there is frequent ongoing discussion in your community about difficulty navigating the NDIS, that may be a sign to trial an NDIS support coordination service. By promoting the service within the community and asking for participation or feedback, you can hone the approach before launching it to the public.

How long people spend in the community:

What it tells you: When people arrive on a web page within your platform (also known as triggering a session), this datapoint will tell you how long they stay before leaving or becoming inactive.

How you can use the data: This can be a helpful indicator of the value of your content. If the majority of people only visit your community in very short bursts, that may be an indication that there is not enough compelling material to keep their interest. A higher average session duration could indicate people stay longer to read more, because the content in the community offers valuable insights.

If you have a high amount of visitation but a low average visit duration, that may be a sign to tweak some content and measure the impact.

This is particularly helpful when combined with the next metric below.

The number of pages or topics people view when visiting the community:

What it tells you: This provides an insight into how much of the community people are exploring. Higher numbers of pages or topics per visit can be an indication that people are interested in a broad range of content. It may be a sign that the community you’re building is genuinely engaged. The more people explore, the more likely the content is compelling.

How you can use it: Used in conjunction with other datapoints, particularly how long people spend in the community when they visit, this can be a helpful indicator of the value of your content. It can also highlight opportunities to make your content ‘stickier’. For example, if you have a large number of people visiting the community for long sessions—but they don’t view many different pages in each visit—that may be a sign for you to implement features that promote content discovery. This could include content suggestions based on behaviour, geography, or suggested or related articles.

Distribution of different ‘types’ of members:

What it tells you: Depending on the way you configure your community—and who it’s designed for—there might be different categories of members. Keeping with the example of a disability support services provider, you might have:

  • A network of administrators and staff from within your organisation
  • People who are already engaged and known to your organisation (for example, existing clients who receive support services)
  • People who identify as friends, family members or carers
  • Medical practitioners or clinicians who refer into your services

How you can use it: Put simply, if you’re able to identify the different member types within your community, then you’re able to segment. And segmentation allows you to compare between groups to determine differences in behaviour and interest. For example, it could tell you that your existing clients are particularly interested in content on upcoming events. With that information, you might decide to run more community events, post about events more regularly, or even look at automated notifications that let your clients know when an event post has been added.

The tone and temperature of the community:

What it tells you: The sentiment of what people are saying within your community. Are your members mostly positive or negative in what they say? How do they feel? Certain tracking tools can also analyse emojis and determine their intention within the context of a message.

How you can use it: This largely depends on the type of content in your community. Peaks or valleys in sentiment (typically categorised as being positive, negative, or neutral) could indicate a shift in opinion about your brand. This could be the catalyst for pivots or refinements in your approach to service delivery, or campaigns highlighting propositions to counteract any negativity.

Better data helps you make better decisions.

An online community is often a large, complex, and constantly changing environment. At its best, as with Guide Dogs’ Catchup, it can be a place where everyone feels welcome and comfortable from the moment they join.

But that ideal is difficult to reach and maintain if there’s no research or monitoring. Without careful tracking and observation, it’s difficult to know what exactly is happening in such a space and whether you’re you’re developing the platform, and the membership base, you want.

By judiciously gathering and analysing the data provided by members of your community—from simple quantitative information like visitor numbers to nuanced qualitative information like the tone of participant conversations – you can better understand how your community is evolving. And based on that picture, you can make decisions that will help you improve it in a variety of meaningful ways.

If you’d like to know more about user tracking, data analytics, or building online communities, we’re always keen for a chat. Drop us a line.