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The Key Metrics to Prove Your Online Community ROI

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Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Carrie Jones at CMX.

Any community professional can tell you the question they get asked most often by their colleagues is: “What is the ROI of community?”

While that question irritates many online community builders, part of our role is to measure our impact on our organizations. If we cannot do that, we risk being siloed, misunderstood, and unproductive members of our own organizations. That is too high of a price to pay. Fortunately, getting the right online community metrics is a challenge, but it’s simpler than many make it out to be.

If you’ve never measured community success before or you’ve started but you’d like to improve what you’re working with, let’s start now - together.

Community Drives Clear Business Value

Before doing anything else, take some time to carve out exactly what business value your community will drive.

Marketing drives adoption. Sales drives revenue. Community drives ______.

Unlike roles such as marketing and sales that have been deeply entrenched in the business world for decades, community is a little newer and thus seems a little more nebulous. But really there are only five values that community can drive. They are:

  • Support/Success: Your community is meant to help drive product success and help customers help themselves.
  • Product: Your community is meant to help refine your product or come up with new ideas and innovations.
  • Acquisition: Measure things like number of referrals, number of event attendees, sales driven by advocates.
  • Content: Your community is producing content, which is itself useful to your business, such as an open-source community producing plugins (like WordPress) or a developer community producing products with your API (like SendGrid, Twilio, or Estimote). This is also relevant when your product is itself a community, like a marketplace (Airbnb, Kickstarter) or a user-generated content platform (like Quora, Course Hero, or Reddit).
  • Engagement: Your community is a space where your customers and prospective customers can gather to talk about shared passions, in the hopes that members spend more money or stick around longer than non-members.

While you may currently be focusing on all of these, it’s important to step back and pick one to optimize first.

Once you’ve defined which of those exact values your community will drive, you can begin to see how your work will impact the bigger picture. We’ll return to that picture shortly.

Measure Content and Programming Efforts

Not everyone will care about every piece of content and programming (e.g. user groups, meetups, trainings, conferences) you produce in your community. A CEO likely will not ask you how your blog series of member profiles is going. But as an online community manager, you need to know this information and how it impacts community health.

You’ll need to answer questions such as: What posts are most effective in my online community? What events have the best turnout? What blog posts garner the most high-quality comments from return visitors?

At CMX, we put together a rough version of how this might work in an organization testing new content and offline events. Below is an example of a content and event tracker that could be updated once per month or once per week, depending on your role:

example-content-event-tracker

That success rating column can be determined by any number of factors, including attendance rate, number of responses, quality of responses, and more. The point there is to establish your own parameters for what success is (we like Kim Pham’s success matrix that she uses at Frontline Ventures). Depending on your role, this spreadsheet could track all forum post types or it could track all your meetups for a month or quarter.

The point here is to measure community content as a “project” and to establish what success will look like before launching that project. In that way, you can easily tell what works and what does not and plan accordingly.

Measure Community Health

Now, you need to determine how content and events affect your community’s health. You need the answers to questions such as: Who are your most active members and is that changing over time? Are your members churning? Or is the community growing steadily and retaining a hefty portion of its members?

Again, most executives won’t care about this information, but since your community is tied to a clear business value, the connection becomes clear: the healthier your community is, the more value it drives to the business’s goals.

This is where a live community health dashboard will come into play.

community-health-dashboard-example

A community health dashboard can incorporate metrics such as:

For inspiration, Moz shares all their community health stats once per month with their entire community.

Measure Your Impact on Your Organization’s Objectives

Now that you have a firm grasp on your content and programming’s effectiveness and your community’s health, you can tie those metrics back to the first step: defining why community is valuable in your organization.

These are the online community metrics that you will share with other teams and with your managers to prove your impact and alignment with overall company goals:

  • Support/Success: Key metrics can include call deflection, product usage, maturity of customers who are active in the community.
  • Product: Key metrics can include number of ideas from the community that were incorporated into the product, bug reports submitted and acted upon, number of pieces of feedback given to product team, speed in launching new features as a result of community input.
  • Acquisition: Key metrics can include number of referrals to paying members from ambassadors, number of events hosted by ambassadors, sales driven by advocates.
  • Content: Key metrics must include growth and quality of the community’s output.
  • Engagement: Key metrics can include sales and retention for members versus non-members, average three-month spending of an average customer versus a community member.

All three of these pieces can be stitched together to create a story of how the community has evolved through your content and programming to deliver real business results.

About the author:

Carrie Jones is the COO and founding partner of CMX, the hub for community professionals. CMX’s mission is to advance the community industry and help community professionals thrive. Prior to CMX, Carrie worked as a community consultant with brands all over the world and built community at Scribd and Chegg full-time. Hailing from San Francisco, CA, she now lives in Seattle, WA with her dog Bruce Wayne.

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