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Too Big to Engage? Why the Size of Your Online Community Matters

By: Stephanie Pelch 29 Apr 2016

size of an online community
photo: Mario Purisic

Size of an Online Community
Is there an ideal size for a sustainable, engaged online community? If so, how can your organization define that threshhold? Is there a way to manage it without disturbing the community's organic stamina?

You don’t want to lose the personalization, intamacy and trust that comes with a smaller community. Conversely, you want your community to grow so your content reaches as many people as possible.  Both of these objectives can be achieved with smart community software selection and member management.

As far as exact size, unsurprisingly, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. But there are questions to consider that will lead you down an effective path of planning. Questions revolving around Limits, Intention and Growth on the size of your online community.


Limits vs. LIMITS

size of an online community
photo: Gili Benita 

Limits, and the contradictory concept of limits, are all around us. We’re told to challenge to them to achieve our dreams while simultaneously adhering to them to play along with social norms. We live in a precautionary society that tells us to avoid risk while also being championed not to be “limited” by a fear of failure.

In nature, limits are much less subjective. There are temperature limits at which water freezes, boils or vaporizes. A tectonic plate can only withstand so much pressure before an earthquake occurs. And there is even a physical limit to how large humans can grow until our skeletons can no longer support us.

As for limits in the size of an online community, it seems that those would fall into that former subjective, often contradictory category... 

Get size of an online communitymore members! But limit that to the right types of members. 

Alright, so focus on the right types of members. But don't alienate new types of members! 

Focus, but Evolve! Concentrate, but Disrupt!

You can avoid the frustrations that come with these idealistic contradictions by planning for sustained, strategic growth in your online community. And most importantly, you need to lay the groundwork for these plans before you have an organizational crisis on your hands and your reputation with hundreds or even thousands of members is at stake. 

Preserving meaning in large online communities

Having too many members may sound like a luxury problem, but it’s something organizations need to contemplate when setting up an online community structure. The taxonomy and structure of the community should be well established from the get-go, but there ought to be specific rules in place for how to manage sustained growth that makes sense for the community both quantitatively and qualitatively.

You want to avoid becoming one large, nebulous community that crumbles under its own weight.

There is no such thing as “too big to engage,” but there is such a thing as “too unorganized to engage.”

A lack of organization in your community isn’t just bad planning, it points to lack of knowledge on the different types of members and your understanding of what makes them tick. By having a well-defined, organized community, you can also remain immune from  the "Catch-All Community Conundrum."

Science weighs in: Dunbar’s number

size of an online community
photo: Brian Mann

Humans are not the only species who rely on community to thrive. Anthropologists have studied the phenomenon of “ideal community size” in the wild in order to gain insight on our own social structures. Robin Dunbar proposed a notable theory in the 1990s involving a correlation between primate brain size and the average size of sustainable social groups. He applied this theory to humans and created Dunbar's number. Dunbar’s number claims that when it comes to quantifying a maximum number of members in a community made of stable, cohesive social relationships, we as humans can ideally sustain 150 members. 

Of course, this number is referring to actual physical communities, and most online communities surpass 150 members. But Dunbar's number plays into the relevance of online community planning in its observations of trends and requirements when those communities begin to grow. 

Implications for online communities

Defining and regulating groups
Supporters of Dunbar’s number are quick to point out that when the community size grows above 150, relationships can still be maintained, but only with additional “rules, laws and enforced norms.”

That is to say, this thought-provoking social theory confirms the need to clearly define our online communities and the roles and rules within those communities as their numbers increase. 

Grooming the bonds of community
Dunbar also commented on how such an ideally-sized community is only successful if it maintains the connection between members with the use of social grooming. Furthermore, he states that a successful social group spends approximately 42% of its time on social grooming.

For primates, this often literally means grooming each other. For humans in physical communities, social grooming refers to activities such as preparing and eating meals together, sharing customs and group rituals, managing and organizing a defined group structures (politics and government), etc. In the anthropologic sense, social grooming requires close personal contact, but this concept also applies to grooming and engagement in online communities. Grooming in an online community might include: 

  • Reminding members of rules and guidelines on a regular basis
  • Holding digital or in-person events to reinforce member bonds 
  • Initiating regular responses to posts and questions 
  • Genuine interactions between members in both public forums and private messages 
  • Communicating in a style that upholds the culture and ideals of the community 


Don’t control numbers. Organize interest.

Strategy depending on the size of an online community is not about plotting to maintain a finite range of members. It's about sustainable growth and maintaining a healthy ratio of members, leaders and resources.

Taking ownership of a sustainable growth plan should be a joint effort between your Marketing, Membership and Community Management teams.  Laying the groundwork for meaningful and powerful growth allows you to engage with each and every member of your community, whether that includes 200 members or 20,000 members. 


Stephanie Pelch

Written by Stephanie Pelch

29 Apr 2016 in strategy, engagement, online community

Staff Writer at rasa.io

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