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How Community Size Impacts Engagement Strategy in Online Communities

Expert opinions on how community size can change a key aspect of strategy, + some tactical insights to apply in your community



Engagement is one of the most commonly discussed topics for online community builders, both in professional communities and in thought leadership. But, as anyone who has tried to take an engagement strategy from another community builder or from a blog post to try in their community knows, engagement is also one of the most delicate aspects of community strategy. What works perfectly in one community can seem to have virtually no effect in another. 


There are lots of factors that influence why certain engagement strategies work in some communities and not others—from the community platform you’re using, to the style and objectives of the community, to the personal preferences of your community member persona. Keeping all of these these in mind can be challenging, and some degree of testing and iterating will likely always be necessary when creating a new engagement strategy for your online community. 


But, you can reduce trial and error somewhat and improve your first-draft engagement strategy by keeping one easy-to-analyze factor in mind: the size of your community and how that is likely to influence community engagement. In this blog post, I’ll focus exploring how effective community engagement will likely differ from the smallest micro-communities to scaled enterprise communities, with insights from community experts along the way.


How should we define different community sizes?


One thing that’s difficult in talking about approaching community engagement at different scales is creating a working definition for the community membership size ranges that generally will have something in common when it comes to strategy. In other words, what exactly do we mean when we talk about a “small” community, versus a big one? 


Putting this into practice is a bit squishy, for a few reasons: 

  • Differently sized communities will feel different based on the platform they’re hosted on, and the community architecture of the specific project 

  • Active engagement matters as much as (or more than) actual community size—in other words, a 10k person community with 5% Monthly Active Users (MAU) vs a 10k person community with 50% MAU are not interchangeable 

  • Whether the community is in a transitional or growth stage will have an impact. For example, an engagement strategy for a community that has 5k people in it because it is passing from 1k-10k will differ to a community that has a cap of 5k people and is intended to stay roughly that size over time.


But, if we keep those things in mind and think about defining community sizes as a starting point for discussion, the following definitions might be useful: 

  • Micro-communities: Fewer than 100 people. Communities that are either purposefully small (think: customer advisory boards, cohort-based-course communities) or in an inception phase (think: beta tests of larger communities, first-year entrepreneur communities). 

  • Small communities: 100-1k people. Often, communities of practice or mature paid interest communities fall into this bucket. 

  • Medium communities: 1k-10k people. Communities for startup products often fall into this bucket. Communities at this size tend to do a combination of support and practice oriented work. Often communities at this size are in a transitional phase and may eventually exceed this size.

  • Large communities: 10k-100k people. Enterprise communities for big, well-known brands often fall into this bucket. Communities at this size are often focussed on scaled support, with any practice-oriented stuff happening in break-outs.


Again, while these definitions are not perfect, hopefully they can help you think more clearly about what we’re discussing as we move deeper into the practical sections of this post. 


Themes in engagement strategy changes at scale: from the experts


This year, as I’ve launched a micro-community myself for my clients, has given me a crash course in how community size can complicate engagement strategy. I’ve noticed that some of the things that worked swimmingly in the 40k+ person community I ran for Teachable barely translate in my currently under-20-person client community that’s focussed primarily on group coaching and e-learning. Observing this difference and testing with it in mind is what motivated me to write this post. 


In preparation for writing this post, I also talked to other experts in the community space who, like me, had experienced running communities at drastically different scales. From those experts, a few themes emerged to look out for: 


1. The 90-9-1 principle applies in large communities, but not small ones


If you haven’t heard of the 90-9-1 rule: it’s a research-based idea in online community building that says that in online communities, on average 90% of members are lurkers who consume content but don’t contribute, 9% are intermittent contributors, and only 1% consistently create content. Professional community builders I spoke with tended to agree that this rule applies inconsistently across community sizes—they found it to be consistent with their results for what we’ve here called “large” communities, but not so much for anything smaller than that, where they tended to see much higher rates of active engagement. 


From pro community builder Sarah Greisdorf, who works both as a community manager for Squarespace (falls within my definition for large-scale communities) and also on a smaller community she founded herself for recent-grad women called Holdette (400 people): 


“I think the 90:9:1 rule is very present in the Squarespace community, but not as much in the Holdette community. Because each of our Holdette members feel more personally connected to the community (as a virtue of it just being smaller, 1:1 touches, stuff that doesn’t scale) more than 10% of them are engaged in our monthly programming. We see about 50-60% of members attending our Holdette community groups each month whereas in the Squarespace community we see a more traditional application of the 90:9:1 rule.” 


The takeaway: Expect engagement percentages to vary significantly as community sizes change. In other words, the size of your community will impact not only how you approach community engagement, but what's normal to show up in your measurement efforts. But, in any scenario, even in the smallest of communities, it’s still normal to have significant percentages of community members who don’t engage. Even in a fifty person community, 50 members doesn’t usually equal 50 active members. 


2. "Personal outreach" may be a preferred strategy, but it only grows so far


Most of the professional community builders I talked to agreed that although 1:1 outreach engagement styles can work incredibly well in smaller communities, like the Holdette community Sarah talked about, there is a point in scale where these strategies become impractical. 



A lot of the 1:1 outreach stuff you see working in smaller communities is just not scalable in big communities. Things like onboarding calls, more organic welcome emails (ie, not automated mass emails), just aren't feasible, scalable, or sustainable. Nor would we get the ROI needed to justify the people resources needed to sustain these types of strategies.” 


Jocelyn Hsu, who currently leads community at Supernova, echoed this sentiment, adding that the smaller communities she’s worked on have generally been more risk-tolerant, whereas the larger ones have more of a need to take cues from data and avoid expensive tests that might not work. Jocelyn also points out that in larger communities, logistical factors like time zones and language barriers were a consideration: 


When I worked at a company with a small, superusers-only community (300-400 people), we were a lot more open to testing and trying programming that was really hands-on and high lift (ie. art competitions, mailing out swag to every single member, virtual holiday event, etc.) Because the community was small and we only let in folks once a quarter, it was also easier for everyone to get to know each other. The community would often remember people's birthdays and life events and celebrate each other.


When I managed a huge community with tens of thousands of members across the world, it was more about figuring out how to provide access to programming in an accessible way (ie. time zones, languages), and there was more focus on making sure the effort we put in was worth the impact. I tended to lean more towards a-sync, text-based discussions, partly because that's what Khoros hosted best and partly because it gave more people the opportunity to participate. For both, we'd think about topics that resonated for different pockets of people and the purpose of each.


For those that do still host micro and small communities, though, they seemed to agree that relying on 1:1 outreach when it was still feasible was a preferred strategy. Victoria Cumberbatch, a community creator and coach, noted that her micro-community members seemed to respond best to recurring opportunities to connect casually in real-time, plus gamification and swag programs, all strategies Bejtlich agreed were effective but just not scalable.


The takeaway: if you're in a community that's small enough to make it feasible, go ahead and rely on tried-and-true personalized outreach strategies. But, if you're working with a medium or large sized community, expect those strategies that set you up for success at inception to not scale well with you. Instead, think about where you can automate effort, or programatize the things that worked best for you in a smaller community setting without expending as much energy on 1:1 outreach.


3. When communities grow too large, you can make them feel small again


Multiple community builders mentioned that when their communities did undergo massive growth, it was a common strategy to begin to break them up again, delegating leadership positions to community members, to make it possible to continue to use some of the more “personalized” engagement approaches that were popular in small communities. This is perhaps an argument for still using non-scaled approaches when you're in the small stage, so that you can build the strongest relationships possible with your future leaders, in turn showing them how these personalized outreach methods work.


Hsu noted that this strategy also helped solve some of the logistical pain points introduced by a large global community as it expanded the expertise and cultural competency of the community leaders. From Hsu: “With my larger community, we had a superuser program called"Community Champions" where they were trained to handle straightforward moderation issues like spam, flag more complex moderation issues, and facilitate conversations.


What I saw was that things varied a lot by region (ie. the folks in Japan did things very differently than the folks in France vs the folks in the States) and having Champions from those regions was super helpful because of those cultural nuances and preferences.” 


Gareth Wilson, who does phenomenal analysis work in the community space, noticed a similar strategy employed by dbt Labs as their community underwent expansion: 


I’ve been digging into the ways dbt Labs have been dealing with the growth of its community—it has doubled in size each year, and they now have 100k members. Their approach has been to establish ‘micro communities’ roughly targeting Dunbar’s number by creating a lot of subchannels within their Slack—so breaking down the community by things like location, industry, tool stack, seniority—and have dedicated channels for each, then directing members to them based on their intro posts and enlisting members to moderate specific channels.


Gareth’s notes are particularly interesting here as they point to a big difference between small and large communities: the fact that while in small communities a complex, topic-based architecture is not generally recommended, in larger communities this can become a necessary strategy to reestablish a sense of intimacy.


The takeaway: if you begin to grow into the larger community category and your personal outreach strategies are no longer working at scale, consider creating micro-communities where members take on leadership positions to help reproduce effective small-scale strategies in this new setting. Don't be afraid to expand and complicate your architecture if your community is truly large enough to call for it.


Arranging engagement strategies along a spectrum


Now that we’ve taken a look at some expert opinions on how engagement can vary at scale, let’s arrange some of these ideas into a tactical framework to help you use the community engagement strategies most likely to work in your instance. For simplicity’s sake, I’ve compressed small-scale and micro communities in this section.

 

Small communities 

  • Avoid launching a forum until your members beg for it—small communities might simply not have the critical mass to support an active forum. Start by leaning into live events and other forms of connection, and only launch a forum when it is highly requested and starts to feel necessary. 

  • Lean on personalized outreach strategies like 1:1 onboarding via video or personalized texts and emails 

  • Simplify community architecture as much as possible to not break up the conversation and raise critical mass for engagement 

  • Use instinct and observation to identify and reward highly engaged members 

  • In small communities, the juice often isn't worth the squeeze when it comes to large-scale data projects to direct action. Take advantage of the agile environment to lean on testing and iterating quickly rather than de-risking projects as much as possible before acting.


Medium communities 

  • Once you're satisfied that your community can support a forum environment, use a content calendar to build engagement there

  • Begin to automate previously personalized outreach strategies like onboarding sequences, and begin identifying members who can lead and oversee more personalized programs

  • Begin to build member-contributor programs that incentivize members to start to lead and initiate conversations in conjunction with your content calendar. For example, begin to hand off a weekly ritual for a member to initiate, or have a member host a video call in a different time zone.

  • Use a combination of observation and data to identify and reward highly engaged members, begin to automate this process 


Large communities  

  • Delegate a content calendar to members (it can work well to assign different content pillars to different member leaders) to spark engagement, or rely on organic engagement 

  • Use a combination of automated sequence and personalized outreach via training highly engaged members to step into positions of leadership 

  • Introduce more complex architectural schemes to break down larger communities by topic or location 

  • Rely primarily on significant data over a sustained period of time to identify highly engaged members, use personalized strategies to elevate them to leadership positions 


Want to take any of this a step further?


I hope this post has been helpful for you and helped you start to think about how your community size might impact your engagement plans. Sometimes just one extra layer of analysis can help you apply "best practices" in a way that is truly meaningful to your project.


That said, I understand that this can be complicated , and sometimes you need a hand to help put it all into practice.


I work with clients every day as a strategic coach for online community projects, and community engagement for your specific project and all its unique dimensions is one of the most common topics my clients want to discuss. If you would like to work together 1:1, you can learn more about how I work and get in touch here. If you're reading this during January 2024, I'm running a new-client special to help you get started—feel free to reach out with questions on this.



For folks who want to deepen their community work but don't have the budget to work with me 1:1, I also offer an online program called the On-Demand Coaching Core Bundle—it distills the most common topics I work with my 1:1 clients on into a self-paced format with videos, my most in-depth templates, coaching scenarios, and a client community with bi-weekly group coaching. All of that comes for a one-time purchase of $500 USD, less than the cost of 2 1:1 coaching sessions with me. You can learn more about that here or enroll now below:




You're also always welcome to shoot me an email at noeleflowers@gmail.com if you have questions, suggestions for what I should add to this or other blog posts, or anything else you'd like to discuss. I love hearing from readers—thanks again for being one!


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