Can Small Online Communities Survive?
In a world where behemoths like Facebook and Twitter dominate the social media landscape, I frequently run into the belief that small online communities are not viable. This is reflected to a certain degree in the 1-9-90 rule of contributors vs lurkers, which would seem to suggest that you need hundreds, if not thousands, of community members in order to have a handful of reliable contributors.
However, there are numerous examples of successful small communities. For example, Apiaries and Bees for Communities, based in Calgary Alberta, has a thriving online community consisting of about 175 members (and growing). In a recent blog post, Rich Millington of Feverbee (which is an excellent site for information and advice on managing online communities) talked about successful and unsuccessful hyperlocal communities, which by their very nature tend to be small.
So, small communities can be successful, but they can also be challenging. It’s important to recognize that the 1-9-90 rule is really about averages, not about individual human behaviour. In fact, a report from IBM, looks at the factors that affect an individual’s likelihood to contribute and how that evolves over time. What’s most interesting to me from this study is that a person’s greatest rate of contribution tends to be right when they join the community. This is the opposite of many people’s intuition that members often lurk at first and then slowly begin to participate. Another conclusion from the report falls into the “Doh!” category; people tend to contribute to communities that involve topics they are interested in.
So what does this means for small communities? I believe, and this is certainly consistent many of the communities that I have been exposed to through working with them, that success is primarily a matter of who you can attract to your community. Rather than trying to pile on as many members as possible to achieve the mythical “critical mass,” you need to seek out those individuals who have a deep passion for what your community is about. And I believe that you need to approach them as individuals. Don’t use a form letter to invite them. Find out a bit more about who they are so that you can make it clear to them why they would be interested in your community. Bringing on just a handful of these passionate contributors can be the difference between success and failure. And because contributions do tend to drop off over time, this is not a one-time effort, but something that you need to build into the ongoing plan for the development of your community.
I want to close off by noting that the issue of small communities often comes up for associations who are thinking about building an online community. Associations actually have an advantage in this area because they have always had to deal with the issues of volunteer recruitment and management. Taking advantage of those skills to bring “power contributors” into your community is surely a significant step on the path to success.