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How do you know if your community is leaking?

5 minute read
by Alex Hillman

How much of your energy is focused on growing your community by adding new members?

If the answer is “most of it”, you’re used to feeling overwhelmed. A big part of that overwhelm is likely the feeling that you can’t add new members fast enough, or that your hard work doesn’t seem to be paying off.

It’s easy to focus on increasing the headcount, meanwhile forgetting about the critical factor that can put a strangle-hold on all of your growth projections: retention.

Retention is the community metric that describes how long a member is actively participating. And like everything in communities, the value of retention is in noticing patterns to predict the health of your community.

How to measure community member retention

Community member retention can be measured most simply by choosing the most valuable factors of “first participation” and tracking the start date (like first attendance, first signup, first post etc), then subtracting the start date from the related “last participation” date.

Note, the “last participation date” doesn’t mean that they’ve necessarily ended their membership – that date could be the most recent participation (with the assumption that they are still active).

You might be tempted to work with more detailed member stats, like the exact number of days between their participation start and end – it’s useful to have this data but it can create distracting, confusing patterns.

Unless you’re adding thousands of members or more a day, tracking members activity statistics within a given month will provide more valuable insight because you can group people within monthly cohorts which will give you more data to sample into a meaningful average.

Keeping this calculation simple will give you an average membership lifetime for your community, which will provide context for your other membership metrics.

Don’t forget about churn

Churn is specifically focused on the “turnover” of members during a period of time.

If you look at your entire community as a bucket of water, members joining the community is like adding more water to the bucket. But what if that bucket has a hole in it? Depending on the size of the hole, water will leak out at a certain rate.

If water is leaking at the same speed you’re adding it, the two cancel each other out but you’re still doing the work of adding water. If the water leaks out faster than you can add it, the bucket will never stay full no matter how hard you work. The only sustainably leaky bucket is one that leaks slower than you add more water to it.

The truth is that your community is a leaky bucket. You can work harder to add more member to the community but if you don’t know the “size of the hole”, a.k.a. the rate at which members stop participating, you don’t know if your work is being cancelled out or negated completely.

The only sustainable way to grow a community for the long term is to make sure that you’re increasing participation faster than you’re losing it.

What measuring retention can tell you

Working to increase membership lifetime – effectively, increasing the average duration that a member participates – is like patching the hole in the leaky bucket.

Everything your invest (your money and your energy) into adding a new member to the community becomes a more valuable investment the longer that member continues to participate.

Retention can seem like a complicated variable to address in the community growth formula because it’s not always clear why people drop off.

“They’re already gone – how am I supposed to find out why they left?”

The fact is that if you’re waiting until after people have gone, you’ve waited too long to address community member retention.

How to fix a leaky bucket

Here are 2 proven techniques to address community member retention long before people are looking for the door:

1. Shorten the time it takes for a new member bond with two other people who are active participants.

People are more likely to stay active when they have a relationship with another active member. If you notice a lone wolf joining the community, look for ways to help that person bond with two already active participants.

Why two? Because in their eyes, forming a bond with one person in the community could be an accident. By the second person, they notice a trend in their ability to bond with people in the community and will more likely continue that trend on their own.

2. Eliminate unnecessary short-term benefits of being a member.

Members who join for access to “stuff” are more likely to end their participation when they no longer need for the “stuff”.

It might be tempting to use benefits that play to the short-term wants of community members (a.k.a. extrinsic motivators) to draw them in, but those members are unlikely to stay active in the first place. But worse, the presence of these short-term benefits actually decreases the sense of fulfillment that people who came for the participation will get.

How Cookies Ruined a Coloring Book

Here’s a quick case study in extrinsic motivators: Do you know any children? Do they like coloring books?

Back in the 70’s, researchers asked two groups of children to spend time with their coloring books.

The first group was promised a reward for their work – a cookie – while the second group was simply given the assignment – no incentive or benefit for their participation. Both groups were given the same coloring books and crayons, and the researchers watched the results.

The same groups returned a second time, but this time – no rewards were offered to either group. New coloring books and crayons were handed out, and the researchers watched the results.

During the second session, the children who had previously been rewarded for their drawings spent significantly less time on their drawings compared to the children who’d never been rewarded.

The truth is that extrinsic motivation is simple and often effective, but in the Community Builder Masterclass it leads to a community anti-pattern we call “The Honeypot”. The problem with The Honeypot is that it has a predictable result that stems from focusing people on the reward rather than the action. When the reward is no longer available or of interest to them, they’ll stop the participating because the sense of fulfillment tied to the action itself has been dulled by the short-term benefits.

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Hey, thanks for reading!

Alex Hillman I am always thinking about the intersection of people, relationships, trust and business. I founded Indy Hall in 2006, making us one of oldest fully independent coworking communities in the world. This site is packed with the lessons and examples I’ve learned along the way. You can find me on Twitter, too! 🐦 Say hi.