Sample size is a fixation in research. We fret about it, argue over it, and generally have very little to back up the relevance we ascribe to it. Rather than thinking about the outcomes and goals, we get hung up on the n, sometimesusing it as a weapon to bolster a preconceived belief rather than identifying points of interest. And when thinking about online communities and panels, even when the focus is qualitative research, this fixation becomes almost manic. So does size really matter?
The anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar focuses on the number 150. Dunber had the idea that as humans we can only comfortably maintain about 150 stable relationships before intimacy and connection is lost. Whether online or off, 150 is about all we can really handle and still have meaningful exchanges.
Over the years I have managed communities as small as a dozen to as large as several thousand. Each has been successful in its own way, because at the center of these samples is what we really want and are striving for – a community, meaning the people involved all have a shared interest or experience. That said, the ranges produce very different results. That isn’t bad, but it does mean you have to think very carefully about what you want from your community.
The primary thing to consider is quality first over quantity. After all, you only get out as much as you put into it, so we should strive to make our communities more dynamic, interactive, stimulating, and engaging. That simple truth is what leads to the best insights – the kinds of insights that drive change. There are exceptions to the quality over quantity argument – it’s called doing a quantitative study. If you need to conduct quantitative research with your community then of course you are going to need to have a larger sample. Additionally, you may also need to ensure that you have sufficient numbers of sub-groups or segments accounted for too. But on the whole, the strength of an online community lies in the qualitative richness that emerges as members become closer, share more, and engage regularly.
Having a larger community this doesn’t mean that you have to lose the human touch / connection with your members and it has become the norm for us to invite sub-groups or segments to take part in communities of smaller size. The intention is to foster discussion, debate, and innovation. It is about looking at the edges of the bell curve rather than at its center.
Whether as a sub-group or as part of the general population, focusing on a smaller sample ensures that we don’t lose sight of those things that drive strong community connections purely for the sake of hitting a number. Regardless of the size it is a best practice to be appreciative of your members by showing them you are listening, to encourage and facilitate discussion, and most importantly to show them that we value them. That’s exceedingly difficult to do with hundreds or thousands of people.