The 5 essential metrics for community engagement

Published 2018-11-06, updated 2023-03-10

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Summary - The arrival of social media brought with it a big shift towards community-based marketing. Discover the top 5 essential metrics for community engagement

The arrival of social media brought with it a big shift towards community-based marketing. And the companies who’ve benefited most are the ones who’ve really leaned into the community and lifestyle aspects of their products and services. Companies like Innocent, Red Bull and Sephora are strong evidence that building a community around your brand, business, industry or craft is the best way to build loyalty, trust and repeat business from a community of customers.

Just about every brand, product and service you can think of right now is building a community. Some are doing so with their Facebook Page. Some are bringing their communities together in real life with events and conferences. And some have created their own dedicated community platforms purely for the purpose of gathering and engaging their communities.

OK. But, what’s so great about community-based marketing?

Well, the key benefit, as we see it, is that you’re encouraging an open dialogue with your customers and helping them start conversations with each other. Rather than just pushing information to them at key times in their customer lifecycle, you’re gathering loyal customers into a space for them to talk about your brand, share great customer experiences and encourage further loyalty.

Further, as Forbes contributor AJ Agrawal notes, the “costs of marketing to new customers is six to seven times the amount as it is to market toward an existing community base”. So, building a community of repeat-customers and maximising the lifetime value of each and every one of them is a far more cost-effective way to grow your business than repeatedly finding and marketing to new one-time customers.

I could go on. For us, the benefits of community-based marketing are endless. And we’re finding it increasingly easy to prove that to new and potential customers of ours, just by showing them some of the data we’ve collected. Which brings me nicely on to who we are.

Disciple is a community media platform. We make it easy for brands, businesses and entrepreneurs to build their own interactive, social community apps designed to help them gather, build and engage their communities.

So, our key metrics for success are based around in-app and engagement activity. The metrics we’ll be looking at today relate to user interaction with online community spaces such as community apps, forums, social pages and groups.

Depth of engagement versus vanity metrics.

At Disciple, we’re all about depth and quality of engagement. We want to give our customers the metrics and insights they need to build a thriving, collaborative community in a space that they own and control. We focus on the metrics that give us a deeper understanding of how invested a community’s members are and whether they’re getting something of value out of the community. The metrics we care about are the ones that measure and indicate the quality and depth of a community’s engagement. Like how often members return to a community. Or how long they stay for when they visit.

Conversely, we don’t focus on the vanity metrics. The ones that sound great and make you feel good, but don’t necessarily give you any insight into the quality or depth of your community’s engagement. These are the one-dimensional, top line metrics like follower numbers or downloads.

So, with that said, let’s take a look at the 5 key metrics you should be tracking when building and engaging your community. Whilst these 5 metrics won’t tell you everything you need to know about your community, they’re a great place to start. We’ll break each metric down to give you a definition, an explanation of how we use it at Disciple and an idea of what it can do as well as what it can’t. Here goes...

1. Retention.


The percentage of your community who join or visit your community space and return within a specific timeframe.

Here’s what you’ll need to calculate your retention rate over a given period of time:

  • START - The number of community members you have at the start of the period
  • END - The number of community members you have at the end of the period
  • NEW - The number of new members who joined your community during the period

And this is how we calculate the retention rate for community apps on our platform:

(END - NEW) / START x 100 = Retention Rate (%)

For example, if you have 200 users at the start of January, 250 at the end of January and you’ve acquired 90 new users over that month, your retention equation would look something like this:

(250 - 90) / 200 x 100 = 80% Retention in January

What it measures:

So, as you can see, the retention rate looks at the number of community members that return to the community space within a specific amount of time, whilst excluding newly acquired members from the calculation. This is an essential metric for measuring depth of community engagement and determining whether your community is delivering something of value to its members.

If you have a high rate of retention, it means your community is delivering value to its members and offering them something that makes them want to come back. Conversely, if you have a low rate of retention, it means your community is not delivering value to its members, giving them no reason to come back.

How we use it at Disciple:

App analytics platform Mixpanel describes a community space with a low retention rate as a “leaky sieve”, which makes a lot of sense. You’re spending a lot of time, money and resources to spread awareness about your community and acquire new members. If those new users don’t find anything of value when they arrive, they won’t come back. And that’s a lot of wasted money and effort for you and your brand.

At Disciple, we always present this information to our customers on their own app retention dashboard, so they know whether their content and their community is delivering value to its members.

The limitations:

I’m not really sure how to say this, but there aren’t any reasons not to measure and depend on your retention levels. This one really is essential. So keep it in your list.

One thing to remember here though is that the retention period you choose to look at should fit with the cadence of new content and the level of activity you expect or hope to see in your community. For example, if your community content runs on a weekly cycle, you should be looking at a retention period of 7 days.

2. Daily, Weekly and/or Monthly Active Users (DAUs, WAUs & MAUs).


  • DAUs: The number of unique visitors who visit your community space on a specific day.
  • WAUs: The number of unique visitors who visit your community space in a specific week.
  • MAUs: The number of unique visitors who visit your community space in a specific month.

What it measures:

These are go-to metrics for any online product or service. They instantly give you a snapshot of the number of people who have interacted with your product, used your service or visited your community space within the time-period that makes the most sense for your community.

Using that information, you can get an important, albeit top line, insight into whether usage and visits are on an upward trend. In other words, is your community growing and gaining popularity? Or is interest falling?

Here’s an example. Tracking your DAUs every day will give you a graph that looks something like this one below.

Daily Active Users Barchart

At Disciple, we encourage our customers to think carefully about which of these three metrics they need to be tracking. For example, tracking active users on a daily basis won’t make sense for a community that offers a single weekly digest at the end of each week. Right? Because they’re not necessarily posting new information on a daily basis.

So, when you come to deciding which metrics to show on your dashboard, think carefully about whether you should be tracking MAUs, WAUs or DAUs. How often do you want your community members to visit your community space? How often are you delivering new information to bring them back into your community space?

The limitations:

Your DAU number alone won’t give you any understanding of depth of engagement. It won’t tell you how much time each unique user has spent engaging with your community, or what actions they completed in that time. So, when tracking DAUs, make sure you’re using those numbers in conjunction with other metrics such as session length and retention to get a better understanding of depth of engagement.

3. Average Session Length


The average amount of time a member spends in your community space in a single visit.

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What it measures:

Again, the logic here is simple: the more engaged your members are and the more they enjoy interacting with your community, the more time they’ll spend in your community space.

Your members are busy people. They don’t have enough spare time to spend it on things that don’t interest or engage them. So, the more time they choose to spend with your community, the more interested, invested and engaged they are.

How we use it at Disciple:

As with all of these metrics, we use average session length to gain some insight into the depth of engagement in the communities on our platform.

A longer average session length is a positive indication that members are finding something of value in their community. They may be creating and sharing their own content, thoughts and ideas. Or perhaps they enjoy reading other people’s content and interacting with posts, comments and messages.

A short average session length suggests that your members are not getting enough value out of your community. Think of it in the same way you think of a bounce rate. If visitors don’t find what they came in search of, they leave. Quickly. So, the shorter your average session length, the more people are bouncing, meaning they’re not getting the value they’re looking for.

The limitations:

The average session length alone won’t paint the full picture of your community’s depth of engagement. It’ll tell you how much time they’re spending in your community space but it won’t tell you anything about how that time is spent.

Regardless of how long your average session length is, you should use that information in conjunction with more qualitative data points to see how your members are spending their time. To do that, manually run through a randomly selected sample of 10 unique sessions to see what those members completed during their sessions.

4. Percentage of user-generated content (UGC).


The percentage of your community’s content that’s published by the community members.

Here’s what you’ll need to calculate your UGC rate over a given period of time:

  • UGC - The total number of posts published by community members in a specific timeframe
  • HOST - The total number of posts published by the community host in the same timeframe

And this is how we calculate the UGC rate for community apps on our platform:

UGC / (UGC + HOST) x 100 = UGC Rate (%)

For example, if you, as the community host, have published 100 times in February, but your community has posted 1000 times in February, your equation will look something like this:

1000 / (1000 + 100) x 100 = 90% UGC Rate

What it measures:

A key ingredient in any community is conversation. Communities are built around shared interests and things that people have in common. So, one thing you should be looking for when building your community is conversation and community involvement.

Are your members engaged, involved and invested enough in the community to spend their time publishing their thoughts and sharing their opinions/experiences with other members of the community? Are your members interacting with each others’ content?

How we use it at Disciple:

We always encourage our customers to enable the community-building elements of our feature set, which include a news feed space dedicated just to community members. Their own space to connect with each other and have those all-important conversations.

On average, across all live Disciple-powered community apps, 98% of the communities’ content comes from the members. Leaving only 2% of the content to come from the brands, businesses, influencers or people who are hosting the apps. So you can see just how important UGC is in terms of building a thriving, busy, exciting community space that’s filled with glorious, engaging content!

The limitations:

As with all of these metrics, they can’t just be looked at by themselves in a vacuum, out of context. And that’s especially true when it comes to UGC because you need to know what the content is.

On the one hand, a high percentage of UGC could mean that your members are posting well-thought-out, on-topic, engaging opinions and experiences. But, on the other hand, it could just be a whole host of mindless cat memes or, worse yet, inappropriate or toxic content that will inevitably drive other people away from your community space.

So, you should certainly be tracking how much of the community’s content comes from its members, but you also have to be keeping track of what that content is.

Which leads me nicely on to our final metric for today…

5. Number of posts reported as inappropriate.


The number of posts and comments that have been flagged as inappropriate by other community members.

What it measures:

In any community, content moderation is essential. And this metric will help you work out how much moderation you need to be doing. As a community host, you want to build a safe, welcoming environment for your members to feel comfortable and at home in. And, unfortunately, you can’t always rely on people to naturally build that by themselves.

Sadly, trolls, fake accounts and inappropriate content are all a part of online community building. But, by monitoring the number of flagged posts, you can take some steps to nip it in the bud and make sure inappropriate use doesn’t permeate throughout your community.

How we use it at Disciple:

We track any reports of inappropriate content and highlight that information to our customers in their app analytics dashboard. It helps us and our customers keep an eye on their community and whether anything is threatening their attempt to build a thriving, engaged community.

As we all now know, thanks to the much-reported recent stories surrounding Facebook and YouTube, fake users and inappropriate content can be devastating for any community. As such, internet users are increasingly calling for smarter measures to be put in place to detect toxic content and misuse before it ever reaches anyone else’s screens.

We at Disciple believe in building positive, safe, secure environments for communities of all shapes and sizes. So, we have a number of moderation features and tools that we use to detect and hide inappropriate content before it reaches any other member of the community. But, as a fallback and a safeguard, we always monitor inappropriate content and reported users. And you should too.

The limitations:

In some cases, users report each others’ content for the wrong reasons. The content may not be inappropriate, it might just present a conflicting view or opinion to those of the person who’s reporting the content.

So, this can sometimes skew the metric and make it appear as though there’s more inappropriate behaviour going on than there actually is. But, in our opinion, it’s always worth tracking it and checking it out for yourself. Just to be sure.

Quality over quantity.

OK, we know that’s a cliche. But when it comes to building a successful, thriving community, it really is all about quality and depth of engagement. Not just the number of followers you have or the overall size of the community.

Exhibit A: You have a community of 50 members. The members are all invested in their community and, on average, visit their community space four times a day. They spend a lot of their daily time collaborating with fellow community members and uploading on-topic, interesting information.

Exhibit B: You have a community of 500,000 members. The members are all mildly interested in the community but don’t feel invested enough to contribute to its overall growth and success. They visit once or twice a day, but only stay long enough to quickly look at the news feed and perhaps like a post from time to time. They rarely collaborate with other members or contribute any of their own content or ideas (and when they do, it’s mostly cat memes).

We know which community we’d rather be a part of. And which community we’d rather help build.

We’re not saying that a big community can’t be as successful as a small community. Or that smaller suddenly equals better. But, what we are saying is that audience or community size alone isn’t a key indicator of engagement or success.

The key to growing a thriving community is to constantly be tracking and measuring its depth of engagement using metrics like the 5 we’ve gone through in this article. When you see evidence of deepening engagement - such as as higher retention or more user-generated content - you’ll be able to identify the content, topics and strategies that worked well for your community so you can do it again. And keep doing it again and again.

Before you know it, you’ll have a repeatable, trackable process for growing and engaging a thriving, collaborative community.

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