How do you determine the health of an online community? Well, it depends on whom you ask. With this issue at the forefront, Lithium Technologies, an online community platform provider, has sought to measure what makes a successful community and has introduced a means to do so.
In the latest release of Lithium's Insights platform, the company is including a new feature called Community Health Index. Users are sent a weekly report that breaks into rows and diagrams six health factors:
- Usefulness of content;
- Level of traffic;
- Degree of responsiveness;
- Interactivity; and
The characteristics are then aggregated to give the company an overall "health" score. Additionally, Lithium has engaged an automated system that, for every report, can look at the score and provide recommendations to improve the health of the community. For instance, if the score is lacking due to low responsiveness, the report provides tips for community managers to continue engaging members.
Lithium's cofounder and CEO, Lyle Fong, relayed that at a recent conference it was brought to light that the biggest problem with social media efforts is that there is no methodology for measuring them. Communities lack open standards, making it difficult for vendors and companies to determine the health of forums and sites. "Even though we compete on the vendor side, the one thing that we all agreed upon as the most important thing that will make it so this takes off, and so that companies start embracing it is to have a common way to measure," Fong says, explaining the issues addressed at a recent Social Web Conference led by Guy Kawasaki. "That's the one thing that's been missing—there's no way to compare one community to another."
In addition to the Community Health Index, Lithium announced an additional subscription service (the Health Index will be included in the standard platform edition) called the Lifecycle Benchmark Service, which helps a company compare its lifecycle with other communities. The service works with the customer before the launch up to minute of launch and subsequently out of the launch to benchmark activity against other models. "A lot of companies have no idea when they look at page views and look at their high score—it's some number. Is that good or bad?" Fong says. "With this service, the companies receive guidance that ‘You are doing better than average,' or, ‘Here's an area to watch out for,' or, ‘Here's when numbers will dip.'" Fong explains that especially with a forum like Lithium's Ideas (a community platform devoted to consumers submitting product and service ideas), there are patterns in participation and usage. There is typically a huge surge from the start, then it dips, and picks back up again.
What does a healthy community look like? What's more important—the content on the site or the number of users? Until now, this hasn't been established. "The rationale is that in looking at and interviewing customers, a lot [of them] were measuring things like posts and how many people were posting on comments and blogs," Fong says. "A lot of posts doesn't mean it's successful. It's the depth of threads and comments and how fast people respond and how useful is the content."
Matthew Lees, vice president and analyst with Patricia Seybold Group, describes interactions on online communities as "fascinating and complex," which can prove challenging for community managers and sponsors. "Sometimes you can do something you think makes sense that ends up having an effect you didn't expect to," Lees says. "While every community is unique, there are certain things that follow and people are the way they are. If you understand your customers, then you know their motivations and by having something like the Health Index and benchmarks, you can know which levers to pull much more reliably rather than ‘winging it.' "
Lithium community services are segmented into Ideas, Support, and Engagement. Ideas was released in October and is still young, so Fong says the adoption is split between Engagement and Support, but enterprises end up using a community for multiple reasons. He also points out that the company has seen new vertical interest. Traditionally, early adopters ranged from high-tech to media to online gaming to telecommunications. Now, however, he notes that there has been interest and uptake by financial services and less consumer-oriented brands.
The biggest takeaway from the release, Fong says, is the hope that the open methodology and metrics will get attention in the industry. He says he hopes Lithium's research and investment in providing what's been missing in online communities will lead "others to criticize and improve upon it and, as a whole, come up with something and agree on a standard."
Lees agrees that standards for communities need to be established. "By openly putting forward [its] Health Index, [Lithium is] taking a bold step in getting that conversation going beyond just Lithium's outward communities," he says. "For the industry, it's a good thing. They are sticking their chin out there a little bit."
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