How word of mouth grows online communities


This has been a great week at FreshNetworks for one of the online communities that we have built and manage for a client. The community had not yet been publicly launched, in fact it was in semi-private beta until the new year whilst we’ve been seeding some activity. Over the last two weeks we started to grow the community and this week that growth happened. In fact in a matter of days we saw an increase in members from just a few hundred to many thousands.

This growth was a result of the way we grow and manage our communities during these  early stages. A delicate time  when you are trying to get traction whilst also growing the community to meet the needs and adapt with every new member to join. We know that this is the stage at which you can really get things right (and of course get them wrong) and that this is a process where a great community management team really adds value. It’s why we believe that promoting community management is important, and indeed why it can often be best to seed a community before opening the doors publicly.

So what led to this week’s growth? The community in question is yet to be publicly launched and the exact nature and client isn’t important to the story except to say that the community attracts a mainly female audience, and a slightly older age-range.

When thinking of an online community we never think of it in isolation. It’s part of an online ecosystem and working with this is important. Other sites will be discussing the same or similar issues, there may be blogs and unofficial communities for the same brand, there may be Facebook groups or pages or presence on other social networks. All of these are valid places for discussion and each will have a unique proposition to offer. We never launch a community that we don’t think would work and spend a lot of time working on the positioning and value the community adds. After we’ve done this we can successfully work with these other parts of the ecosystem, joining conversations and seeding insights from our community. When a brand launches an online community it should be thought of as playing  a central role in this ecosystem, and the community manager promotes the community within this.

Of course it’s not just the community manager who does this. As was shown this week. The growth came from the constant and ongoing growth work that the community management team have been doing. But the final push came when another community member picked up on some of this activity and started to talk about our community on another site. We didn’t ask them to do this, they just thought we were offering something of interest to members of a very well read forum in the UK.

The result was immediate and notable. Overnight, our membership base increased five-fold and by the weekend we had a much larger number of members than we might have expected by the end of a full year of the community. And what was perhaps more important is that these new members joined the conversations and discussions on the site. Increasing number of members is fine, but what we really want to do is to increase the value of the community to all members. And this only really happens when people take part.

So this week proved a great reminder of the value of word of mouth. How a recommendation from a peer carries significant weight and influence. The impact of that post on the external forum was much greater than if it were us or our client who had posted the same content. And we didn’t ask the member to post at all. They did it because they thought it would be a valuable post to the other forum readers, and the resulting impact suggests that it was.

Perhaps this is why word of mouth carries such influence. The person giving the word of mouth wouldn’t do so unless they thought that those receiving it would benefit from it. They make a value judgement and put their own reputation on the line with their recommendation. They’ll only do it when they truly believe it’ll add value and be well received. We can plan or seed for this, but we can create an online community that makes our members want to do this. That’s where great planning and good community management really comes in.

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  2. Tom Vanlerberghe:

    Matt… would love to know what your thoughts are about the factor ‘luck’ in building communities. Luck’s not really the word I guess, but it seems that most sudden ‘growths’ are in part because of something uncontrolable.
    Word-of-mouth is something that by definition can’t be controlled, (you can steer it in some way) so how do you try to use it in your favour?
    Hope I’m making sense here… late at night… you know the feeling :)

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  4. Matt:

    Hi Tom,

    I’m afraid I’m not sure luck was a factor, at least not the over-riding one. Whilst it’s true that you can’t (and indeed shouldn’t) control the actions people take when spreading word of mouth, you can create and environment and encourage behaviours which are more conducive to this happening.

    Within an online community environment, you often want to create a space that people realise is part of a larger online ecosystem. They know that they don’t come to your community alone to discuss a brand or issue, but they might also be part of discussions on a similar theme in Facebook or other social networks, forums or blogs. Of course, your community strategy needs to establish exactly why people would come to your space and what they would do when they’re there, but it’s also important to work out how you will work with and benefit from the other communities in the ecosystem.

    When the online community is running it is the role of community management to continue to take advantage of this positioning. This works both ways - a planned and strategic process of outreach, working in these other forums and places online to benefit the community. But equally it is important to establish when it is right for people to go elsewhere. Maybe they’re discussing a topic that doesn’t really have a place on your community or want information you can’t give (medical advice perhaps) in these cases it’s about actively pointing people to other sites and places online.

    You design and build a community specifically to fit as part of an ecosystem rather than isolated from it. And then you manage your community so that it really behaves in this way.

    If you get this right I’m not sure that any word of mouth you generate is chance. I think it a realisation of a plan, community members doing what you’ve designed your approach for them to do and indeed copying the behaviours exemplified by the community management.

    So whilst the actual instance of somebody spreading word of mouth may be chance; the actual causes of it aren’t


  5. Tom Vanlerberghe:

    Hey Matt,

    Thanks for the reply, I really like reading your posts about online communities. It’s incredibly interesting reading from a mostly analytical point-of-view because that’s something I’m not able to do (but really should)

    While the definition of what a person is used to be created by a lot of social factors, online communities not being one of them, there are more possibilities now. More ways for people to define themselves and find likeminded people. So I’m trying to push ‘luck’ in as a less important factor (other than what most people think at first) because all the surrounding factors are more specified, more defined for people to identify themselves with it. And just because they’re so defined, it’s easier to trigger word-of-mouth when everything comes together. Online communities are in a way better defined than other historical communities/businesses where luck was/is a more dominant factor. (f.e. convincing customers to walk into a shop and buy something).

    So trying to create a community without proper analysis of your target demographic and without proper management to define and control it (where possible), it MIGHT work, chances are slim though compared to a setting where everything falls into place. The ‘luck’-factor diminishes because people tend to have a better understanding of who they are and what they want (the ‘me’ vs. ‘us’ or ‘social networks’ vs. ‘online communities’).


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