Asking People Why They Don’t Participate (and deciphering answers)

Here is a fun task. Keep a notepad next to your laptop. Any time you participate in an online community (or even an online discussion) write a quick note to yourself about why you did it.

What was your motivation? Be honest.

If every answer is ‘to help people’, I don’t believe you.

Next ask your colleagues why they don’t participate in your brand’s community. Assume any answers about ‘not enough time’ are about the utility of the community (i.e. the community isn’t relevant or useful enough to their work).

Ask what communities they do participate in and why.

Now ask some members why they don’t participate (try not to do this via survey).

Classify your answers into categories like:

  • Utility (usually ‘not enough time’ or ‘too busy’).
  • Competence (usually variations of ‘nothing to say’).
  • Fear (worried about ‘looking bad’ to someone).
  • Fun (no friends there, didn’t like the experience, didn’t enjoy the experience).

This isn’t a definitive list. Now look to see where most people cluster around. This highlights what you need to work on next. For example:

Utility Increase the relevancy of the community to daily challenges. Increase the speed of responses. Improve the quality of responses (i.e. recruit experts to answer questions from members or ensure each question does resolve the problem).  
Competence Ask people to share if an answer solved their problem. Create an educational guide on the major topics. Set opportunities for people to show their progress. There are no shortage of tactics to increase competence.
Fear If it’s fear then create a more welcoming environment. Have an area to ask beginner questions and get help. Focus on guiding those first contributions. Let people share their biggest challenges. Consider making the community exclusive or allowing members to participate anonymously.
Fun Make the culture more personable. Initiate more lighthearted discussions. Use off-topic areas more frequently. Looking for universal discussions you can promote.

You might be surprised what your research reveals about why members don’t participate. Most of these problems are easy to tackle with a little effort.


  1. Rob Nicholson says:

    I occasionally help people but it’s always prompted by me researching my own problems. So if I come across an associated post, I will reply as long as it doesn’t take more than a few minutes.

  2. Anton says:

    I personally participated in discussions at FeverBee with the hope to find some solution to monetisation of my Ukraininan goat-farmers community. As it can be seen, once discussed the topic in need, I stopped participating in discussions (but I’m still reading occasionally, but only topics of interest). Pretty fair, isn’t it? :slight_smile: There hasn’t been anything enough motivating for me to write more here.

    … as for this particular topic, the motivation is: I’d like to see what motivates others, but I can see the topic is not so active, so I decided to make it more active by submitting a reply.

  3. Sarah Hawk says:

    That implies that other peripheral motivating factors (e.g. relationships) are missing.

    Sometimes I think that’s to do with the individual (are they a good cultural fit for a community? are the conversations that take place in language they can relate to?).

    Sometimes I think it’s a timing thing for the individual (did you find the community while you were procrastinating on a work task and looking for something else to do, or are you super busy and just need an answer to a question?) or for the community (has a healthy sense of community been reached, is there critical mass?).

    If I had done my job effectively when you first signed up, I would have connected you with others that are in similar situations, in the hope that you’d form a stronger bond here. I also could have followed up and called you back to see how your goat farming community is going and whether you have new challenges. How is it going?

    Out of interest, are you competitive?

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