The 50–500–5000 Principle

I was greeted today by headlines that Facebook turned 15 years old on this date. I feel old just saying that, especially when I remember also having Friendster and MySpace accounts.

Before Facebook became the enemy of the people undermining democracy and selling out their users, they were a company to marvel and admire. I remember distinctly the moment when I knew Facebook was going to take the world by storm.

It was fall of 2007 and I was in a bar somewhere in Massachusetts. A group of parents entered to wait while their kids were attending an event. I was not eavesdropping but it was impossible not to hear them talk about this new online network. The biggest question of the night? What was the etiquette of friending their children.

That was only a mere three years after TheFacebook launched. Three years to from a glorified online campus directory or something suburb parents were wringing their hands over. A year later Facebook hit 100 million users and another four years they reached 1 billion users.

We could debate the ethics of how Facebook runs their business. However there is no denying they got one thing absolutely right in those early days. They nailed engagement.

I often get asked by IT leaders how to build a similarly engaged and robust internal community. They would like a place where people can meet, exchange ideas, share content, and help each other. The reasons vary as to why, but usually it’s to improve productivity and the flow of work.

It is not for lack of trying that nothing seems to have worked. That was the grand vision of Lotus Notes, an platform for companies to collaborate more effectively. It was messaging, an app builder, and email all rolled into one. The software was cumbersome though, and having had to suffer their email program, I can attest that is lacked any form of usable user experience.

Companies then shifted to Microsoft and use Outlook, Exchange, and Sharepoint stack to build their vision of the connected workplace. One bank I worked with in the early 2000’s built their entire Intranet on Sharepoint. Even that however failed to win fans. If users were not forced to use the application, they would have gladly avoided it. It was adoption by corporate dictate.

Fast forward several years later, many of those same companies bought dedicated social collaboration suites. Some organizations have gone so far as to buy Facebook’s business offering as a way of nudging adoption. But as far as I can observe, most of these deployments merely muddle on without any real excitement or engagement.

Many think this is because of the “empty database” or “chicken-and-egg” problem. Inherently when these systems are deployed, there is not much, if anything, in there to draw users. The users have to contribute the content themselves. How do you go about doing that?

This was exactly the problem that Facebook cracked. They delivered something that was immediately valuable to users, a directory of students in the school where you could easily message people. It hit upon the innate need every student has in college, to make friends.

Nearly every deployment of collaboration / workspace platforms misses this critical ingredient. They neglect to address the innate “why” that would draw in people to use the tool.

If the “why” is the first challenge to solve, the second is scaling When Facebook launched, they did not open it up to everyone, you had to have a Harvard email address. When they conquered Harvard, they released it to certain schools with particular domains. Then it was all schools with the “.edu” domain. Then it was everyone in the US and later the rest of the world.

I have a concept I often share in talks called the “50–500–5000 Principle”. It is a structured way of scaling up a community by magnitudes, similar to how Facebook tiered their user growth.

At the “50” level, you only want your closest and most supportive users. You can trust this group to contribute, add content, engage with content, and discover ways of using the platform. They are not only creating content, but also setting the cultural norms of the community.

The “500” level is where you test the community with a larger set of users spread out across congruent groups. This is the proof layer to see if the community builds traction. If you did well “seeding” content with the group of “50”, then users should very quickly understand how to use the platform and what constitutes good content. You still want to keep this small though so you can monitor, tweak the adoption, and build up a repository of quality content.

Lastly, the “5000” level is when you release the platform to the community at large. This is when organic growth becomes viral growth. This is because of Metcalfe’s law, popularized by Robert Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet. It states that the value of the network grows by N squared with every additional node. This has carried over to the social networking world where each additional user is adding exponential value. In this case, by adding a large number of people into the community, the network generates an enormous amount of added value.

Of course, there are many more complexities faced in developing a vibrant internal community. Building community is hard! Getting people to share openly can be a massive cultural shift. If you optimize for the “why”, that will help hook users to want to use the site. Then you can scale using the tiered approach as outlined and dramatically increase your success. This is exactly the strategy Stack Overflow took to create new public Stack Exchange communities, which all launched through their Area 51 site.

What are some examples of internal communities that have worked in your organization? Are there tools or methods you used to grow the community?

Is there a traditional Chinese New Year greeting?

And as a bonus, do people in China say 新年快乐 at Spring Festival…

We help IT leaders in enterprises solve the cultural challenges involved in digital transformation and move towards a community based culture that delivers innovation and customer value faster. Learn more about our work here.

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