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Leveraging Online Community Data for Strategic Planning

By: Christian Britto 15 Sep 2016


online community data

Data is transforming everything we do. Specifically, the ways that we identify, collect and manage the colossal amount of information generated by life everyday.

And it's a two-way phenomenon. Data changes the way we view the world by enriching our perspective on a simultaneously massive yet granular scale, and in turn, it also transforms the world around us by informing the actions taken by governments and organizations.

This already mammoth industry of data management is gaining momentum. Every day there are new strategies, tools and open source information to help us get better at optimizing the ubiquitous cloud of data we're all living in.

But big data is not just for big corporations.

Associations small and large can gain a ton of insight by tapping into the fertile data possibilities that exist in the content and interactions of online communities.

This doesn't mean you have to hire a data expert or spend a ton of money on software. It just means that modern technology and tools are presenting you with the opportunity to make smarter decisions. And you should take it - datasourcing your online community is an effective strategy to understand your members and your impact in more complete, quantitative ways.

Opportunity-centric and scalable 

The first step to this process is the most counterintuitive and the most important - forget about the data. Like a moth to flame, it's easy to become fixated on the data itself and forget the real goals that you're actually aiming for in the first place. 

Start by asking your team what kind impact you want to make - the theory you want to confirm or the solution you want to construct.

This could be a business problem you want to solve or a strategy you've tried but can't measure effectively. Think primarily about what you want to know, and why. Doing the opposite and wondering what your current data can tell you is a tempting and common trap.

By facing your business question head-on, you will have a much easier time down the road selecting, gathering, consolidating and managing your data (no small feat). 

Finding statistical significance in your online community 

To come at this from yet another angle - what problem would you want to solve if you had ALL the right data? What does that translate to for the problem you're trying to solve, and what information would specifically inform that decision? Asking yourself questions like this will help you paint a picture of what type of data you should be focusing on extracting from your community and what type of data is realistically attainable. 

But this isn't about wiping clean your current analyses and starting from scratch. You should also take stock of the data that you already have access to and currently measure in your community. It might require some strategic reorganization, but don't count out legacy systems and data you already have a handle on, which you can always look at from a new solution-based perspectives or input into new models.

Remember not to take everything you have at face value. It's easier than you think to skew data collection strategies in a way that will favor one hypothesis over the other. In the end, you get what you measure. 

Gauging interest and predicting behavior

Using your online community as a testing ground for different types of content and initiatives is an easy play with incredible potential. Of the many ways that an online community can be used as a measurement and forecast tool, one of the most important is to gain valuable member insight. For example: 

  • What topics interest people most? Which discussions generate the most activity?
  • Which groups or sub-communities have the most activity? What type of activity or micro-engagements are most common within those groups?
  • Are there any controversial topics or dividers between certain types of members that you haven’t pinpointed in the past?
  • Which types of members are the most active in certain types of groups? 
  • Does commentary point to any gaps in the services or benefits you provide them?
  • What is the flow of traffic from external sites? Which social media platforms are your strongest referrals? 

More actionable strategies for community data

You can translate online community data into the following strategic actions:

  • Refining buyer and user personas (Yes, these could very well be two different personas, especially if you're implementing an Open Garden content structure.) 
  • Resource allocation for future engagements based on the level of online activity leading up to and the day of an event.
  • Measuring how online activity correlates with how people buy products or decide to renew membership.

It's important to remember that you don't want to have data just to have data.

You should be identifying the core questions you're trying to solve, gathering the data that informs the answers to those questions, and drawing conclusions based on your findings. Not every data set will point to a clear strategy, but at the very least, you should be tuned into and measuring the huge amount of useful data available in your online community. 


Christian Britto

Written by Christian Britto

15 Sep 2016 in strategy, data

Christian is the Operations Manager at rasa.io

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