The Inexplicable Like: is there a minimum population for an online community?

Around 2003-2004 (i.e. a few years before social media took off), I helped start and run a forum for hobbies and entertainment in Singapore – Katoots. By 2007, it reached 5000 registered members and was one of the largest and most active of its kind in Singapore. It is now defunct, but the experience taught me quite a few things. One of the observations I made was that it takes about 20 active users for an online community to truly come and feel alive. Regardless of the number of registered members you have in your online community, the important number is this active user number.

If I recall correctly, we had something like 200 registered members, of which the key, or core, 20 active users are part of. This means that 10% of the membership was active. Interestingly, this conforms to the rather old 1:9:90 rule – that is, 10% of the total community are the ones that actively create and contribute. More recently, there are also observations that the post-2010 ratio should be 10:20:70 now that people are generally more active online.

Diagram from “Is the 90-9-1 Rule for Online Community Engagement Dead?”
Posted by Paul Schneider (click image for link to his article).

It could be said that in the end, it’s still the 10% that matters, in either case.

Below 20 active users, your site may not display enough activity to pique the interest of new visitors, i.e. potential new members. It will probably display  No Reply Syndrome.  Below 20 active users, the site may not feel alive, and in this way does not encourage revisits.

You will notice that based on the old 1:9:90 rule, you should theoretically need 100 registered members to get your 1st active creator user. Let me tell you that that’s not really enough. You see, that active creator user is likely to be none other than you. :)

Working backwards, to achieve 20 active users, you would need to get at least 200 registered members. At least. Your mileage will vary according to the nature of your community, especially its topic and focus.

The Active Threshold
Anyway, in the above example, the 200 figure is what I call Active Threshold. It is the minimum number of registered (in whatever form) members needed for the community to come alive. Once you achieve this number, you have to observe if your Active User Group has manifested, i.e. 20 active users. If it doesn’t seem like it has appeared, your Active Threshold may be bigger.

In modern, i.e Facebook, times, I have learned, consulted about, and observed the Active Threshold for Facebook Pages on a handful of occasions. PR/Marketing agency Conversion Hub once observed to me that the figure to aim for is 10,000 fans.

This sounds like it should not just generate 20 active users, but 1000 (10%). But you know of course that Facebook pages don’t work that way. There are theories and reports that Facebook’s Edgerank “hides” fanpage posts from the majority of your fans, either in the name of filtering newsfeeds for relevance….. or because they want brands to pay for eyeballs. There are also more considered suggestions that despite the lower quantitative reach, the qualitative reach (or real engagement) is preserved or higher.

That aside, the point is that Facebook Pages have their own form of Active Threshold, a much higher number than forums. In a recent conversation I had with Damien Cummings, Regional Marketing Director, Digital & Social Media at Samsung Asia – he cited a range of 5000 to 10,000 fans as the active threshold. It’s a range that I nodded in agreement with.

But it still depends on the nature of your community’s topic or interest. For example, a page that I worked with which had no product, but sold an ideology, did not come alive at 10,000 fans. I observed that its active threshold was closer to 16,000. The less apparent your product offering or value to the fan, the more fans you need to gain traction.

The Inexplicable Like
What was it that I observed actually? I mean, how do you determine when you’ve reached the active threshold? My answer would be: when everything that you post on the page gets a response without prompting. Sometimes within minutes. Say, when posting even a somewhat bland status post on the page, on a lazy Monday afternoon, gets an inexplicable like (yes the sort that makes you wonder why a fan liked the post, even though you’re grateful for it).

skittles camel post
The ultimate in Inexplicable Likes. Don’t try this at hom… I mean, unless you have the clout of the Skittles Facebook Page.

This means you have a target
What all this means is that you now have a target, if you’re still in the journey of building an online community. You have a target to tell/show/commit/over-promise (haha) to your management, which is really a good thing. You shouldn’t be growing a community without a target, even a quantitative one like this is helpful as a reference milestone.

Would anyone like to share what your active threshold experiences are/were?


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