This post was partly prompted by Andrew's discussion of lurkers here.
Next week, the IDeA will be hosting an online conference on online facilitation - Facilitation Now! . ( I'm really pleased to be a contributor on Thursday the 25th in a session on online conferences.) I'm really looking forward to the conference because even though I'm an old hand at community management, there is still so much to learn. And in particular, I'm keen to explore how to help people make the transition from community consumers to active contributors.
We at the IDeA have a keen interest in such things as we have our own social networking site - Communities of Practice (CoP) which we manage on behalf of local government in England and Wales and in partnership with Improvement Service for councils in Scotland.
What the numbers tell us
Like many online networks - there's a 90-9-1 rule of participation that we assume as standard. Ninety percent of members are observers (often known as lurkers in the trade), 9% may comment on or rate content and about 1% are content producers. So on our standard set of metrics that any member of communities of practice can view, you can make a quick assessment of the health of a community. For some of the communities I've been involved with as a facilitator:
Policy and Performance: 2, 911 members, 409 contributors - 14% participation rate
Social Media: 1317 members, 182 contributors 13.8%
These are slightly higher than the rule of thumb, but not unusual for our platform. The Facilitator's community of practice has a greater than 50% participation rate. The Communities of Practice platform recently added Google analytics capability which provides an incredibly powerful way of measuring online activity. This has only been available for a week so I'm really looking forward to getting into the numbers in much greater depth, particularly as we start to get going with the Efficiency Exchange. (If you manage a community on the CoP you can find information about how to do this in the community FAQ. It's slightly fiddly, but well worth doing - and the sooner you get started the sooner you'll have a rich data set.) Some of these numbers will help us figure out how many active "lurkers" we have and how many people just register and run.
What the numbers don't tell us
As usual with statistics, there's a lot more to this story. For example, Policy and Performance has always had a reasonable level of activity, but lately there's been a real upswing in the quality of contributions. For example, the partnerships governance thread started with a straightforward question and a number of practitioners have responded with really solid advice and have uploaded examples from their own councils. Or this one on managing plans and strategies (no easy task in local government) has had 49 responses and a workshop is planned to support a group of practitioners looking into how this can be supported to the sector's mutual benefit - saving time and money and reducing duplication of effort and this one on internal PM training has a number of locally developed resources uploaded that any member of the community can use and share. The thread isn't that old, but has already had 749 views - a considerable observer/'lurker' presence.
You might expect the Social Media community to have a higher participation rate, but the story behind that one is that until recently it hasn't been actively facilitated. And most of the people who are deeply into the subject are networking among themselves via Twitter and through blogs, many of which have been handily aggregated by the community's founder Dave Briggs. I took it on only about six weeks ago because I think it's a potentially useful resource for those who a) don't have access to Twitter at work or b) maybe are just starting out. It's also an extremely useful collection point for sharing plans and strategies, codes of conduct and tips that can be used as a sector-wide resource - and we've already seen a number of contributions on that score.
Numbers can never tell us the story behind why a community is taking off (or not) and that's what the in-depth knowledge of an experience community facilitator can bring you.
Points win prizes
Another new facility on the community of practice is the Everyone Loves a Sharer campaign. New contributors will be awarded a heart on their profile badge and over time there will be levels of 'hearts' which correspond to numbers of contributions. Steve Dale has explained the concept here. GovLoop - which is more or less the American version of Communities of Practice has had a ranking system in place for some time. Neither of these are what drive participation, but I think they bring a kind of fun element to your participation. But it also is a way of measuring your own contributions - a crude way perhaps - but useful nonetheless. If done properly, the can be a stimulus to completing your profile, making connections with others on the network and sharing documents. This is sort of like the profile percentages you see in LinkedIn or now on the CoPs. I do pick a bone slightly with the profile settings on the CoPs - my 'networking' status is only 50% complete because I've chose not to link my CoP platform status with some of the other networks I participate in - e.g. Flickr. Yes, I have an account and it's probably my favourite social network, but it's personal. I link my work blog, but not my personal blog. And I don't think I'm ever going to fill in my Facebook link because that's personal. Yes, I do connect with some colleagues on Facebook - but no I don't push my Facebook presence at work.
One of the reasons that I'm an active contributor on Facebook is because I have a large extended family that is separated by an ocean, not to mention my treasured network of friends from my life in America. Facebook allows me to interact and share with them as a group, sharing the sometimes 'trivial' aspects of my life - people in England are unlikely to care that I had cornbread and black eyed peas at New Year, but for my friends and family in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama it signifies that I'm still sticking with time-honored traditions of my culture even though I live in London. And it's fun.
CoPs aren't that fun. But they are incredibly useful. I know I get a buzz out of providing useful information to people in local government and I suspect other contributors feel the same way. CoPs are a great space to learn from others, bring problems to get help with or even promote the good stuff you've been doing. I think one of the things that helps flip lurkers to contributors is recognising the usefulness of contributions and helping the community as a whole to understand that your contribution doesn't have to be perfect to be useful.