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  Gauging Success?
What measures can I use to predict with a reasonable error margin the success of a new/young online community? What are the relevant indicators of future success? Growth Rate? Participation Rate?

Thank you for your great question. Measuring the success of an online community is both a qualitative and quantitative process. Fundamental to both methods are adequate measuring and reporting tools but gauging your community's success from both standpoints will give you the most comprehensive analysis of key indicators. Let's begin by developing questions and placing them under the headers of "Qualitative" and "Quantitative".

QUANTITATIVE

How many new registrations do you receive during a given time period?
This blanket measure will help you to gain an insight into the innate attractiveness of your community to its visitors, its promotional strength and also its ability to self-market. If you can make a comparison between visitors who do register and those who do not, then you will also be able to evaluate the success, for example, of your registration process. If there is an imbalance between visitors and registrants then perhaps your community is not achieving that ease of use or attractiveness to registrants that it could be. At this stage you should look in detail at your web logs of site traffic to see if you have an inordinate amount of aborted registrations, i.e. visitors who log off at the point of registering. Reviewing your forms or requests for personal data might be important in that respect to find out if maybe you are asking for too much or for information that might make a potential member uneasy.

Are registered members returning?
Being able to track members' repeat visits will provide you with an important measure as to the "stickiness" of your community as a whole. Using your community tools' log-in information, you can get a relatively good indicator of those repeat visits. Also, many of the community tools on the market provide you with some member statistics, such as when a visitor registers, how often they visit, when the last time they posted was, etc. These are great indicators to follow as well.

Is there a high level of interaction from your membership?
Aside from measuring the number of visits from returning visitors, it is also possible to make an assessment of what is sometimes termed user "conversion" to involved participant. Several message board software clients, for example, enable counts of message board postings for each individual in the community. This will help you to gauge how many people are joining your community versus how many are actually participating.

What is the number of message board posts during a given period of time?
Keeping tabs on the amount of posts received will assist in indicating how much traffic your community is experiencing. It is often best to decide when you will pull numbers, and consistently do so at approximately the same time to ensure that you are getting as accurate a view as possible of the posts being received. You can also use this information to make interpretations of the activities of your community participants based on changing numbers of users and changing numbers of message board postings. This is particularly important to you when considering the lag time between new users registering and their active participation.

How many people are visiting your chat room?
Similar to the boards, getting an overall view of the visitors in your chat room will assist you in gauging how many individuals are utilizing your chat facilities. One of the best ways to gather this sort of information is via your moderation staff. If you have moderators in place, it is helpful to ask them to keep track of the numbers of people participating in the chat at the beginning, middle and end of their shift. This will provide you with a useful average.

QUALITATIVE

What are the members conversing about?
One of the most important vehicles for measurement of success is the quality of conversation taking place within your community. Look for message board threads with consistent and positive activity, and also participation across the board not just in single threads nor from a single group of users. Also, check to ensure that indeed the conversations are as the site intended.

What are your members telling you about your community?
You should also be able to receive feeback from your community participants, either from contact forms, feedback areas or other forms of invited responses, or you should be able to gauge their feelings from their forum posts and comments in chat. Sometimes it's in these areas where you will truly gain the most information about your users and what they feel about the site. Be sure not to discount these places as indicators of your community's health and vitality. By listening to the members' feedback you will find out what their needs are and be able to grow your community and site accordingly

Best of luck to you!!

- Jon Nix and Pam Thomas
http://communityanswers.com
http://cornerways.com
http://cwlive.com
 
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