How Healthy Is Your Community?

What do you think of when you think of a healthy community? Undoubtedly, your mind conjures up a group of passionate and engaged users who share best practices, ask and answer each other’s questions, and push each other to improve. The mood in this community is constructive and honest – when people share their achievements, others congratulate them; when people share difficulties, others support them; when people ask questions, others share; when people say something that others don’t agree with, others disagree.

We’ve written about maintaining health in your network here. But how do you know if your network is healthy? What are the key indicators for health? I am personally lucky in that I straddle external and internal communities and see similarities, as well as differences, in both.

One of my favorite works on community health indicator was published by Lithium and authored by the brilliant Michael Wu. In this study, focused on external communities, Michael lists the following key attributes of a healthy community: growth, useful content, popularity, responsiveness, interactivity, and liveliness. Let’s explore each one and see how they relate to internal communities.

Growth: To be successful, each community must have people in it. A community that performs well in this dimension, must have a solid initial burst of growth, as well as continue growth steadily. While everyone likes a big community, quality of membership is also important, so make sure you are inviting the right people. One key difference between growth of internal and external communities is that an external community could potentially involve anyone from a narrowly or broadly defined universe of members. If you run a customer community, it can always get bigger, as you get more customers. In an internal community, you have a natural ceiling of the number of people in your organization.

Usefulness: Usefulness is a key determinant of your community’s current and future health, as people come to your community to get help in doing their job, whatever it happens to be. In both internal and external communities, usefulness can be measured by explicit feedback, such as numbers of posts and comments and content ratings. In an internal network, usefulness can also be measured by implicit feedback, such as productivity gains from using the community’s information.

Popularity: Popularity of your community can be determined by visits to the community, number of members. It’s important to account for explicit engagement via unique posters, as well as active lurking. Unlike an externally open community, where traffic to your community can be linked to search results, in an internal community, you should be measuring numbers of posters, readers and subscribers.

Responsiveness: For people to want to contribute to your community, they should feel like doing so is going to get a result. You are much more likely to post a question if you get a response vs. not getting a response; getting a faster response is better also. Our research also shows that the speed with which a thread is answered highly correlates to the number of comments in that thread. In most networks, threads that get a response within 10 minutes receive 10% more comments than threads that a response within the hour, and 30%-40% more comments than threads that get a response after the first day. You are also more likely to share an experience, best practice, tip or news item, if you can be somewhat certain that it will get a response. In a previous article, we determined that 41% of new Yammer users come back and post if people comment on their content.

Interactivity: Going along with the point above, interaction between community members is a key determinant of community health. In an internal, as well as external community, interaction can be captured by looking at the number of participants in each thread, as well as thread depth (number of comments). Moreover, you should strive to ensure that each thread has as many unique participants as possible – i.e. a thread with 20 comments contributed by 2 people is less valuable than a thread with 20 comments contributed by 10 people. In an internal network, interactivity is a concept related to the goal of breaking down information silos. As a manager of internal community, your goal should be reaching across departments and encouraging people to contribute.

Liveliness & buzz: This is a subjective measure of how the community feels. Is it alive with buzz and conversation? All of the dimensions described above are directly responsible for the liveliness and buzz of the community.

Positive atmosphere: Another subjective dimension of the community’s health is the degree of civility that occurs between members. A healthy community welcomes disagreement and discourse; after all, if everyone agreed, that would be a very boring community. Our CEO David Sacks spoke to the New York Times about the culture of dissent that characterizes Yammer. Dissent is good for communities, because it allows for new ideas to rise to the top and for status quo to be challenged. However, it’s important to the health of any community to be civil and respectful, while engaging in discussion. Make sure you are cultivating this kind of culture in your community by creating and enforcing a code of conduct, as well as by encouraging discussions. In an internal network, a positive atmosphere is extremely important; how you are treated and responded to in a public work-related forum is going got contribute to your job satisfaction and engagement.

While growth and popularity are determined by where the community is in its lifecycle, the make-up of its members is directly responsible for usefulness, interactivity and responsiveness. Individual community members range in their levels of engagement from very active super-users, to occasional users, to active lurkers, all the way to inactive lurkers. One of our esteemed customers and community members Sue Gautsch from Pepperdine University contributed this engagement continuum that explores the actions that various users can take in the community.

So let me turn it over to you..  Do you agree with the dimensions outlined by Michael Wu? Where do you think your community ranks on the health index? What are some things that you can do to make it healthier?