The Community Lifecycle – Converting theory to practice as a community manager

In this post, CSCCE Director Lou Woodley takes a look at the four-stage lifecycle model as presented in Rich Millington’s book, “Buzzing Communities,” and how it can inform the work … Continue reading “The Community Lifecycle – Converting theory to practice as a community manager”

In this post, CSCCE Director Lou Woodley takes a look at the four-stage lifecycle model as presented in Rich Millington’s book, “Buzzing Communities,” and how it can inform the work of a community engagement manager.

Building online communities can be hard. Maybe you start a discussion and nothing happens – silence. Or maybe last week saw lots of conversation but this week you’re back to worrying that you’re talking to yourself. Combine that with the lack of training and resources for community managers and you can be left confused about what to do to help your community activate and grow.

One of the resources that we’ve used a lot is the four-stage lifecycle model presented in Rich Millington’s book, “Buzzing Communities”. Millington’s model is based on a systematic review by Iriberri and Leroy which synthesized the results of 27 papers about online communities to create a model for how online communities progress. This lifecycle model is key if you’re a community manager because it explains clearly what to expect at each stage – and what you should be doing to move things along to the next.

We’ve now used this model in exercises for our internal Community manager journal club, for our Community Engagement Fellows training and even for a staff lunch and learn event. Read on for some key takeaways about the lifecycle model.

Takeaway 1: The community lifecycle has 4 distinct phases

Millington’s model describes four distinct phases of a community:

Inception – this is when your community is just starting out. Activity will be low and you’re probably going to wonder more than once whether you’re on the right track. While this is normal for a few long months, if you’re still in this phase after 9 months it’s a sign that something’s not right. Either your topic isn’t resonating, you’ve not invited enough people, or there’s something else preventing people from diving in.

Establishment – this is when things start to look up. Community members will be more engaged and you’ll begin to feel less like you’re doing all the work. However, this isn’t yet a mature community – just one on the path there. This can be the time to hire a junior community manager to help with scaling of activities as the community grows. Or begin thinking about how volunteers could help.

Maturity – at this stage, the community becomes much more self-sustaining. You’re definitely not creating all the content anymore and can typically switch from one-to-one or micro-level tasks to more group-based or macro-level programming.

Mitosis – sometimes a community will become too big or dispersed to really feel like a single group any longer and this is when mitosis may occur. A positive outcome of this could be the creation of child groups – smaller sub-communities with more focused goals. Not all communities progress to this stage.

Takeaway 2: You can determine which phase of the lifecycle you’re in using three parameters.

At each stage of the lifecycle, keep your eye on three key parameters:

  • How is the growth of the community occurring?
  • Who is creating the content in the community?
  • Do community members feel any sense of belonging to the community?

Typically, growth of the community comes mainly from the community manager in the inception phase, shifting to the community itself as the group reaches maturity.

The same pattern is seen with content creation. In phase one, more than 90% of the content creation comes from the community manager – with the inverse true for mature communities.

Sense of belonging is typically highest in the mitosis phase of a community before it fragments – and takes time to build through the establishment phase. Typically this is assessed via member surveys.

Takeaway 3: What you do as a community manager changes as your community progresses through the lifecycle

Inception – Before you even start your online community, you should make sure you’ve done some strategic planning. Do you know what the goals are for your community? Do you have a list of key contacts to invite to help get some of the conversations going? What is your content strategy for the first three months?

Then you’re ready to dive in – creating regular content and nudging your connections via email to encourage them to respond. There’s a lot of one-to-one interactions at this stage and persistence is key.

Establishment – Once your community is in the establishment phase you need to start paying close attention to metrics – and adjusting your content and activities accordingly. It’s also important to resolve conflicts and reinforce the norms for the community as it grows.

Maturity – At this stage, the majority of activity in the community is initiated by community members. You’ll be focusing on macro-level activities such as organizing events or promoting the community externally to raise the profile of the community. Volunteers or additional staff will be handling the micro-level activities such as welcoming new members.

Mitosis – If your group does get as far as mitosis, the key is to identify relevant subgroups and ease their creation. You’ll also need to train and manage leaders for those new groups – and then start promoting the groups!

Hopefully, now that you’re armed with the community lifecycle model, the task of launching a community doesn’t feel quite so daunting. We welcome your feedback in the comments. Feel free to reflect on communities you’ve run or belong to and let us know how this model does or doesn’t fit your experiences.

About the Author

Lou Woodley is the Director of the Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement (CSCCE). Prior to her current role at CSCCE, Lou spent more than five years at AAAS, where she launched the Community Engagement Fellows Program and led other community-focused initiatives.