Achieving Critical Mass: How Lessons From The Civil Rights Movement Can Be Applied To Forum Communities

In The Power of Habit author Charles Duhigg analyzes how social phenomena evolve from nothing into powerful movements. There are three phases:

  • Start. A movement starts because of the strong ties between close acquaintances.
  • Growth. A movement grows thanks to the habits of a community and weak ties that bind members of a group together.
  • Durability. A movement endures because it gives participants a sense of identity and/or a feeling of ownership.

“Usually, only when all three parts of this process are fulfilled can a movement become self-propelling and reach a critical mass,” Duhigg writes. In the book, he uses this framework to explain why Rosa Parks’ act of civil disobedience changed the course of history while others jailed for similar offenses prior to Ms. Parks did not lead to protests, boycotts, or sweeping social change.

Ms. Parks was unique because her friends and acquaintances spanned diverse social and economic circles. “She had what sociologists call ‘strong ties’—first hand relationships—with dozens of groups throughout Montgomery that didn’t usually come into contact with one another,” the author writes. Thus, when she was arrested many different people were upset.

As outrage over her arrest spread, peer pressure kicked in which unleashed the power of weak ties. “Peer pressure on it’s own isn’t enough to sustain a movement. But when the strong ties of friendship and the weak ties of peer pressure merge, they create incredible momentum. That’s when widespread social change can begin,” according to Duhigg.

The author goes on to explain how Dr. Martin Luther King helped convert participants in the Civil Rights movement into self-directing leaders. This created social patterns that, over time, “expanded to other places and groups of students and protesters whom King never met, but who could take on leadership of the movement simply by watching how its participants habitually behaved.” King and other leaders instilled a sense of identity and a feeling of ownership to participants in the Civil Rights movement (most notably through non-violent resistance) which strengthened the movement and helped it endure over time.

We believe this same frame work is applicable to forum communities. A successful forum often starts with a small close knit group of friends, grows into a larger and more diverse community, and eventually becomes a self-propelling “knowledge machine” that lives on its own accord, even after its earliest members move on.

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Why Does The Participation Rate Matter? (Hint: It’s All About The Network Effect)

They say “excellence” can be defined as a lot of little things done right. You could say the same thing about achieving a high Participation Rate. There are countless “little things” that draw users into a community. Some are obvious, like making the “sign up” button front and center. Some are more subtle, like making the user interface easy to grasp. Some are more meaningful, like concentrating activity so that prospective users can be assured of a reply. Countless little things just like those mentioned add up over time and make a big difference. But aside from sheer embarrassment, why does the Participation Rate matter?

The Participation Rate matters because of the “network effect”: the bigger the network, the more valuable it becomes. But the kicker is that the value doesn’t increase linearly; it increases exponentially. To understand this concept, it makes sense to examine the value of each registered user. To quickly determine the value of a registered user, we can use the following formula:

Average Revenue Per User = Monthly Revenue / Monthly Active Users

For a forum with 500 Active Registered Users, it is reasonable to expect revenue of $200 per month. This makes the Average Revenue Per Active User $0.40.

For a forum with 1,000 Active Registered Users, it is reasonable to expect revenue of $500 per month. This makes the Average Revenue Per Active User $0.50.

For a forum with 2,000 Active Registered Users, it is reasonable to expect revenue of $1,500 per month. In this case the Average Revenue Per Active User is $0.75.

The value of each Active Registered User increases as the network grows in size. In other words, each time a user registers, the Average Revenue Per User goes up. Thus, a new user today who stays engaged long term is significantly more valuable than a user that registers later on. For starters, it makes it easier to attract more users. Plus, it enhances the value of every user who came before.

These are just “back of the envelope” calculations but they’re important because they demonstrate how improving your forum’s Participation Rate (i.e., enticing more users to register, and keeping them engaged) can lead to exponential growth fueled by the power of the network effect.

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Overcome Participation Inequality With A “Bottom Up” Approach

A couple months ago we examined the Minimum Traffic Requirements For A Successful Forum. The economics of forum participation are downright brutal: only a certain percentage of users will click through to your forum from your main site, and only a certain percentage will contribute. This type of “top down” analysis is useful, and a good barometer that can predict whether or not a forum will take root.

Participation Inequality occurs because “power users” are rare, only about 1 in 100. “Intermittent users” are only 9 in 100. Therefore, a “top down” analysis indicates you need 500 users to capture just five power users, and 45 intermittent users. That’s a lot of traffic for a small number of users!

By contrast, another way a for forum owners to think about starting a new forum is to examine their user base from the “bottom up.” How many prospective “power users” are in your immediate network? You can invite these users to your forum to get the conversation started. A site owner that invites 50 highly motivated contributors (i.e., working from the “bottom up”) is likely to fare just as well as the site with 500 random visitors.

A good example is a site owner that leads a small sales team of 50 people, who are geographically dispersed. The sales team members are highly motivated and willing to help one another. While there is still going to some degree of participation inequality, each salesman has something at stake and is therefore likely to contribute. Another example is members of a paid subscription service. As paying members, they are bound to be highly motivated regarding the topic at hand.

These examples indicate that forums can work well, even for small groups when there is something to be gained by participating. (E.g., respect from colleagues, approval from boss, improved sales strategies, hints/tips/tricks, etc.)

Note: Thanks to Dan Ekenberg for the inspiration for this post!

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Forum Software, Variable Rewards, And Serendipitous Flukes

Last week we examined how Nir Eyal’s Hooked Model applies to forum software. We acknowledge the power of the Hooked Model and argue that as more and more users make a habit of using a given forum, powerful network effects occur that strengthen existing hooks which in turn attracts new users and keeps existing users engaged.

During his presentation, Nir said, “The unknown is fascinating.” He went on to explain that variable rewards (as opposed to constant or predictable rewards) cause users to increase focus and engagement. He presented findings from various studies that prove dopamine spikes in anticipation of random rewards. And what’s more is that variable rewards can be used to instill habits in users.

Variable rewards are meaningless if they’re devoid of any real substance. Imagine, for example, “winning” a search badge but not getting the desired search results. This is not a positive outcome. However, coupling variable rewards with whatever the user is seeking is a powerful and virtually irresistible 1-2 punch.

Let’s put variable rewards in the context of forum software. Some common rewards from participating in a forum include:

  • Answer to a question
  • Humor/entertainment
  • New friends
  • Satisfaction from helping others
  • Reputation points, badges, etc.

The reason these rewards are so appealing is that they are infinitely variable. There is no shortage of knowledge that can be gained, new people to meet, or ways to impress others. When these endless possibilities result in something new and fun and positive and exciting, we call them serendipitous flukes. A serendipitous fluke is a chance encounter that results in a net gain of some kind for all parties. As a forum owner and community manager there are few things more gratifying that engineering serendipitous flukes on a daily basis.

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Forum Participation And The Hooked Model

One of the highlights from ForumCon this year was the fascinating and engaging presentation by Nir Eyal. In Hooked: Harnessing the Power of Habit, Nir explained why certain technologies are habit forming and how to apply these concepts.

He noted that Facebook, Instagram, and other social media applications developed habit forming technologies. When they were introduced, these technologies did not address an existing pain in the traditional sense. Instead, they addressed an emotional need and, in turn, created a dependency among their users. “Habit is when not doing causes pain,” he said. Most people can relate to mindlessly checking Facebook on their phone, only to feel a shooting pain when their phone’s battery dies.

Nir explained that users can be hooked by crafting a user experience which cycles through four steps: Trigger, Action, Reward, and Investment. In the infographic below, we put the Hooked Model into the context of forum software.

The Hooked Model Applied to Forum Software

* External Triggers may include: ** Internal Triggers may include:
  • Link/advert on main site
  • Email Alert
  • Search engine result
  • Bored
  • Curious
  • Seeking connection

Internal triggers are more powerful than external triggers. But before tapping into internal triggers, forum owners typically need to activate an external trigger first. In a successful use-case scenario for an end user, external triggers eventually give way to internal triggers as the user becomes more deeply embedded in the community.

The Hooked Model explains why we at Ninja Post have put such emphasis on making the user participation rate as high as possible. Making forum software fun and easy to use, and rewarding users for their contributions, instills habits among individual users. When the habits of these individual users combine, a powerful network effect occurs which in turn creates more and more powerful hooks to attract new users keep existing users engaged.

The slides from Nir’s talk are included below.

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Minimum Traffic Requirements For A Successful Forum

Yesterday we discussed the Empty Restaurant Problem. So what are the minimum traffic requirements to launch a successful forum?

We have found that about 100 visitors per day are needed from Day 1 to safely guarantee a healthy forum.

Number of Forum Visitors Likelihood of Success
0-25 Very Low
26-50 Medium
50-100 High
100+ Very High

Bear in mind the economics of user participation are brutal: the click-through rate from a site’s landing page to its forum is likely to be 10-20%. Therefore, a site would need 500-1,000 visits per day to its main site to ensure healthy activity on its forum.

The above traffic requirements are only guidelines; general rules of thumb based on our experience. Some obvious exceptions include:

  • A small community with many “power users”, each of whom posts often.
  • A company’s “Help Desk” forum to solve customers’ questions.
  • A site that covers a very specific niche for which few, if any other forums exist.

It is easy to underestimate the volume of traffic needed to launch a successful forum. For sites with very little traffic it might make sense to wait until traction improves. However, by taking steps to maximize the click-through rate and getting power users to contribute, even sites with modest traction can launch successful forums.

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Traction Suggestion: Trivia Night

One way to get a lot of users interacting on your Ninja Post forum at the same time is to schedule a weekly trivia night. This is an excellent way to leverage Ninja Post’s chat-like functionality since threads update in real time without the need to constantly refresh the page.

Plus it’s a great incentive to get users to try Ninja Post in the first place, especially if there is a small prize up for grabs. Once users try your Ninja Post forum and get a sense for how fun and interactive it is, we expect them to revisit your site on a regular basis.


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Engaging Users And “Homefield Advantage”

Today Mashable posted “4 Easy Ways to Engage Your Facebook Fans”. This article refers specifically to Facebook, but the concepts are applicable to any online community and dovetail with yesterday’s post to the Ninja Post blog, “Traction For Your Forum”. The four methods to engage users described in the Mashable blog post are:

  • Ask Their Opinion
  • Test Their Knowledge
  • Pair Promotions with Content
  • Thank Your Fans

However, this does beg the question: if you can engage with your users on Facebook, why bother creating a Ninja Post forum? Well, Ninja Post is not designed to replace your Facebook fan page — it’s supposed to complement it.

By channeling users from Facebook to your site you will obtain a “home field advantage”. For example, user content generated thanks to a forum on your own site will increase your presence in organic search results which will drive more users to your site. In addition, there are other benefits to “holding the conversation” on your own turf: advertising revenue, user statistics, and control over the look and feel of the site.

In sum, continue to engage with your users on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere on the web. However, don’t underestimate the importance of “home field advantage.”

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Traction For Your Forum

Getting traction is a major hurdle for most online communities. One of the most effective methods we utilize with our clients to draw in quality traffic is to feature the forum prominently on the main page of the client’s site. Instead of including a small link to the forum in the main navigation, we recommend a large link accompanied by a catchy photo and a promise that users’ questions will be answered in a timely fashion.

Here are eight more strategies to garner users, gain traction, and develop your community:

1. Seed content. Remember: no goes into an empty restaurant. Therefore add “seed content” to give life to your community. Do what it takes to keep the seed content fresh.

2. Invite friends to contribute. This is the easiest and cheapest approach. And most obvious. Start by asking friends and colleagues to contribute. This may require a personalized invitation. Perhaps even repeated invitations. But friends are generally willing to help, especially if the topic is of interest to them.

3. Use social media. Use Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks to invite contributors that you don’t know personally. Ask these users for feedback on your product and/or service. Couple this with a interesting content such as a contest of some kind. (See #5 below.)

4. Advertise. Consider advertising as a way to draw in users. Just be careful to target the right audience. For example, seek a complimentary website or mailing list on a related topic that you could partner with to advertise your site.

5. Be interesting. Entice people to join the conversation by making things interesting. For example, create some provocative threads. You can also offer discounts or coupons or hold a contest as incentives for people to get involved. The contest would not necessarily requires prize per se. However, inexpensive prizes for the top three winners could be enough to get people involved.

6. Obtain celebrity endorsements. I use the term ‘celebrity’ loosely. Think: bloggers or Tweeters that can give you a good word and drive users to your forum.

7. Highlight user contributions. People generally love to see their name in bright lights. Therefore, highlight user contributions to the forum on your main site. To help achieve this goal we developed a WordPress plug in that displays the most recent threads on your blog. If you have a print publication in addition to your website, that’s even better. Use your print publication to highlight user activity on your forum and vice versa.

8. Stay persistent. It’s not easy to build a vibrant community. It’s something that takes time to develop. However, stay persistent. Continue to seek new users using social media. Continue to reward users for their contributions. Continue to seek endorsements from popular bloggers and other luminaries in your field. Continue to keep your content fresh and interesting.

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