Originally published December 8, 2014

My colleague, Lee Romero, recently presented a study we did on ESN (Enterprise Social Network) groups and business value, answering the question “Does size matter?” with “Yes.” We found that groups with 200 or more members tended to be more active and provide better business results than smaller groups. You can view Lee’s slides and read the Twitter chat transcript.

In an online discussion following Lee’s presentation, Curtis Conley asked if the size requirement for activity depends on the type of group. I replied that I see four main types of ESN groups:

  1. Community of Practice: work-related community, e.g., project management, open to anyone who specializes in or who wants to learn more about the subject
  2. Community of Interest: non-work-related community, e.g., running, open to anyone who is interested
  3. Organization: mostly top-down communications targeted at everyone in a formal organization
  4. Team: collaboration within a project team, work unit, task force, or similar — limited to those people who are assigned to the team

Group size is almost always the key determining factor of activity. Even a small, energetic team with high trust will not necessarily post to a group. They can benefit from having a closed team site to share information, but they will likely either talk to each other or email each other when they wish to interact.

In the Communities Manifesto, the 7th principle is “Communities need a critical mass of members. Take steps to build membership.”

  • In a typical community, 10% or fewer of the members will tend to post, ask questions, present, etc. If a community has only 10 members, that means that only one person will be doing most of the activity. In a community of 50, you can expect around 5 people to be very active, and that is probably the minimum number for success. As the community grows in size, it becomes more likely that experts belong, that questions will be answered, and that a variety of topics will be discussed.
  • The greater the number of members in a community, the greater the potential benefit. A community benefits from a broad range of perspectives. If it has only a small number of like-minded members, it is unlikely that innovative ideas, lively debates, and breakthrough thinking will result.
  • The rule of thumb is that 10% of the members will participate at all, and only 1% will regularly be active in discussions and presentations. In small communities, 1% can be rounded to zero. If only a handful of people speak up, that will not usually sustain momentum.
  • The larger the membership, the more likely that any question posed to the community will be answered. By including as much of the available expertise as possible in the community, its ability to respond increases accordingly.
  • Increasing the size of a community yields more potential speakers at community events and conference calls. It results in greater leverage, since for the same effort, more people realize the benefits. And it helps more people to become comfortable in the community model, which can lead them to join other communities, recruit new members, and launch related communities of interest.

In Community Management: The 90–9–1 Rule is Dead, Sam Fiorella wrote that the new number is 70–20–10. I haven’t seen this for communities which are not brand or marketing focused. In fact, I see more evidence of 95–4–1, even in groups focused on knowledge management and collaboration. For example, there are over 550 members of the SIKM Leaders Community, but we usually get only 20–30 people on calls. This is despite my attempts at active community management. For more on this, see 90–9–1 Rule of Thumb: Fact or Fiction?

There is nothing wrong with the 90% passive participants, as long as they read, listen, and pay attention. But if they don’t, then they are not getting value from the group, and the organization misses out on their personal development and/or their contributions to the other members.

A recent LinkedIn post I wrote attracted a large response: 13,561 views, 1,648 likes, and 108 comments. This seems like a lot, but when you look at the LinkedIn Channel in which it appeared, Leadership & Management, there are 9,759,914 channel followers. This means that only about 0.1% of those followers viewed my post, 0.01% liked it, and 0.001% commented.

If you can generate a higher percentage of active group members, that’s great. For internal communities, this usually depends on factors outside the direct control of the community manager, such as senior leaders who are active and who get others to follow their example. However you go about it, the more people who join a group and pay attention to it, the better.

One way to increase membership is to encourage both communities of practice and communities of interest. When I joined Digital Equipment Corporation over 30 years ago, there were online communities called VAX Notes Conferences for both business and non-business topics. I believe this was a good strategy, because those who joined one for the New England Ski Club could get used to the tool, and thus were more likely to use it for other topics like VAX/VMS. For more about this, see The Camelot of Collaboration by Patti Anklam.