The Value of the First Reply, and Other Online Community Metrics

A provider of online community software dug into the data for about 250 of its client associations. Here's what it says about how members are engaging in those communities.

I’m beginning to think that, if I were an online community manager for an association, there’s one metric I’d track above all else: The percent of discussion threads with zero replies.

Here’s why:

Avg number replies to group or sender

The chart above is derived from data shared by Andy Steggles, president and chief customer officer at Higher Logic, at the company’s user group “Super Forum” last week. He and his colleagues looked at 2013 activity data from the online member communities of more than 250 Higher Logic client organizations—comprising about 1.8 million enrolled users and 238,000 discussion threads.

When there is a response, the response is great.

Across all discussions, the average number of replies (to the group or privately to the sender) per discussion thread was less than two, but that number is a mushy one, because it includes the 61 percent of messages that got zero group replies. Among the 39 percent that got at least one group reply, the average number of responses to the group or sender was 4.4.

In other words, as Steggles put it, “When there is a response, the response is great.”

No one wants to hear virtual crickets when they post to a community. That’s a bad experience that turns people away. But even in bustling online discussion forums, it can be hard to guarantee that every post will be seen by the right people, at the right time, and that those people will be comfortable responding. This is where the community manager can be a catalyst. For example, Kelly Flowers, principal of GrowthVine consulting and manager of the online community for the American Academy of Periodontology, shared in a Learning Lab at the 2014 ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo that she has enlisted a team of engaged AAP members that she can reach out to whenever a post goes unanswered, to ask someone to respond.

As the Higher Logic data shows, that small action can have a snowball effect, as at least one reply visible to the group correlates to even more replies. And so, the percentage of threads with no replies looks to be a useful indicator of a community’s health. You likely could never get it down to zero, but, like golf and cholesterol, the lower the better.

Other Findings

Steggles shared a few other findings from the study. First, though, a disclosure and sidenote: Higher Logic provides the platform that ASAE’s Collaborate forum runs on. And, while it’s worth keeping in mind that this analysis is based on the communities built on one specific software platform, the big-picture themes may apply in other platforms as well. Or, at the very least, they should provide some ideas for data you should try to get for your association’s community, in whatever platform you’re on.

Small associations have greater participation among members in their online communities than large associations do. Steggles broke down some of the data by association size. Small associations enroll more members into their online communities (some associations auto-enroll members and some don’t, while others may allow nonmembers in, so Higher Logic calls enrolled users “subscribers”), and a higher percentage of those users write posts (“contributors”).

size comparison charts(Click image to enlarge.)

A completed user biography is a stronger indicator of engagement than a profile photo. Community users who have filled out the bio info on their profiles are 22 percent more likely than the average user to post a discussion message, while those who have uploaded a profile picture are 5 percent more likely than average to do so.

Real-time email messages from community discussions have a higher open rate than daily-digest emails. For subscribers who opt to receive an email for every new message posted to a discussion, the open rate is 34.13 percent. Among daily-digest recipients, 26.9 percent.

Associations with active online communities appear to have higher overall membership renewal rates. Higher Logic partnered with Marketing General, Inc., to examine the renewal rates for its client associations that participated in MGI’s Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report. Erik Schonher, vice president at MGI, stressed that the sample size was too small to be confident in the statistical significance of the findings, but they indicated a 5-point boost in retention rates among associations with active communities compared to all associations in the MGI study. Even if that’s not a concrete correlation, it should at least encourage you to compare renewal rates among your members who are active in your online community with those who aren’t.

How do these findings align (or not) with the activity in your association’s online member community? What other data do you measure and find particularly valuable? Please share in the comments.


Joe Rominiecki

By Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki, manager of communications at the Entomological Society of America, is a former senior editor at Associations Now. MORE

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