By Vanessa DiMauro founder and CEO of Leader Networks, the world’s premier B2B social business consultancy and a Strategic Advisor to Network Activator. 

 

Companies develop online communities for numerous qualitative and quantitative gains, from improving corporate communication and climate to enhancing customer service and gaining valuable user insight. Whatever the initial goals of the community, the tie between online communities and organizational strategies must be made clear in order to deliver maximum value. However, even if online communities are successful in terms of member engagement, their value can be difficult to translate when business stakeholders start asking for hard ROI metrics.

Consequently, and not surprisingly, reports concerning the community rarely satisfy leadership’s key questions:

 

1. What is the value of the community to the organization?

2. What is the value of the community to the customers?

3. Are these values aligned and, if so, how and in what ways?

 
Number of members, number of new members, length of time on site, number of posts, top 100 content sources visited, and the array of measures counted are all important to some degree, but they rarely tell the full story. This is because these metrics are too far removed from the business strategy and member needs to be meaningful.  If this distance remains and the value of the community continues to be misunderstood, community budgets can be cut, communities may be labeled as a cost-center, and staff may begin to receive additional responsibility outside of the community.  

This all-too-common tale of community woe can be avoided if you have a strong community to begin with, but struggle to articulate the ROI in a manner that can align business goals and objectives with community operations.  The real value of community can often be found by looking to the business’ definition of success and the member’s definition of success. Once you have looked at this and seen how the community works to support larger business goals and customer needs, you can determine in what ways they are aligned. 

For example, in a customer facing community, if customer retention is a core strategic goal, in what ways has the online customer community demonstrated or supported (qualitatively and quantitatively) alignment with this goal?  Have more customers been able to self-serve and resolve their problems using the forums? If so, they have avoided the call center, which costs the company money and rarely results in a pleasant experience for the customer. 

In an internal facing community, how has the employee community supported goals of reducing costs and improving work flow? Have discussions in the community alerted the company to a defect or issue in advance of a crisis and enabled product development to act quickly? Has increased knowledge sharing saved employees time that would have been spent searching for data or sitting in meetings?

These are examples of core business values that community can often support. Look to functional organizations such as marketing, product development, customer care, research and development, and sales to identify arenas where the community has provided clear, demonstrable support. Through discussion with these units, one will learn how they measure success today, e.g. problem resolution, new features, customer satisfaction. 

To support your gathering activities for community metrics, be sure to seek direct member feedback and analyze data streams to infer feedback and issues.  There is a wealth of data in the interactive areas of the community, and this information is just as powerful and important as the log data that provides fast numbers.  And, finally, don’t just measure the obvious - engagement indices are important and useful, but member value is the most important measure, e.g. lurkers can get high value!

Steps to successfully measuring your online community:

STEP 1:  Define the member experience and member value propositions which lead to metrics.

STEP 2:  Determine quantifiable measures (new product ideas, satisfaction with a solution, etc.) that align with the value proposition.

STEP 3: Communicate outcomes in clear, easy to understand language that is rooted in the business case and uses the metrics to support the suppositions.

 

The next time you need to prepare your quarterly community metrics report, take the opportunity to clarify the business value that your community is or could be bringing to the organization, and start your measurements from that position of strength.