When Building Online Communities, Smaller is Better

Last Updated May 20, 2010 1:54 PM EDT

When popular online dating site eHarmony sets you up with potential matches, you receive seven prospects per session. Why seven? Wouldn't 500 be better, giving you more variety to find your ideal mate?

No, and the reason is that seven choices makes you focus more on the people at hand. You find out more about each, and are more likely to actually engage with them rather than flitting from prospect to prospect. eHarmony may be on to something: the company claims to be responsible for 2 percent of marriages in the United States.

I thought of eHarmony while reading Harvard Business School professor Anat Keinan and collaborator Debi Kleiman on the common mistakes made by companies attempting to establish online communities.

Number 2 on their list: Don't believe bigger is better,

"Companies often believe that the bigger the online community, the better the insights, and so they build communities with thousands of members. In fact, large communities are less effective than smaller ones at nurturing relationships among members, and between members and the brand. They are more transient, less "sticky," and less satisfying all around. When the goal is deep customer insights, smaller, private communities (up to 400 members) are best for developing trust. What you're after is participation, not reach."
Read their full post on HBR.org, Don't Make These Mistakes with Your Online Brand Community.

Have you been attracted to an online brand community? What does it provide that caught your attention and remains of value to you?

(Webdate image by eflon, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.