Community Strategy Insights

The latest insights on community strategy, technology, and value by FeverBee’s founder, Richard Millington

To Get More Members, You Need To Give More Autonomy

Richard Millington
Richard Millington

Founder of FeverBee

We chose to join and participate in social groups that support our autonomy.

In self-determination theory, we feel autonomy when we can act when we wish without external pressure. If we’re being paid, pressured, or forced to act in line with group norms, for example, we’re not acting autonomously.

[tweet_dis]We can design any groups to support or thwart autonomy.[/tweet_dis]

Members feel autonomous when they feel understood and accepted, when they are given options, when they can openly express how they feel, and when they are encouraged and supported to act in line with their beliefs.

Now while this sounds suspiciously like fuzzy social jargon, in reality it’s a hard, practical, science. One we can use to increase activity.

The more a group supports your autonomy, the more you participate in the group. Not only do you participate more, the quality of your contributions is higher.

Why We Accidentally Create Autonomy-Thwarting Systems

What happens when you join a social group today (online or offline)?

Too often, it’s one of three things:

  • You’re told to do something you would rather not do. For example, you’re told to introduce yourself or complete your profile and list all your interests.
  • You’re given a list of things to do. This happens online at a lot. For example, ‘bookmark this page’, ‘follow us on twitter’, ‘like us on facebook’, ‘introduce yourself’ etc…
  • Nothing. Nothing happens. No-one speaks to you. No-one gets to know you. No-one tries to understand you. You’re expected to find your own way. Sometimes you do, usually you don’t.

We also go wrong when we drop rewards and recognition systems on to a successful community. Last week at CommuniCon, one attendee asked the best way to reward your most active members.

The simple answer is, you don’t need to. If they’re the most active members, their needs are already being satisfied. When you start rewarding them, you’re inadvertently creating a reward-thwarting environment.

Five Steps To Designing An Autonomy-Supportive System

Designing an autonomy-supportive system comprises of six steps:

1) Measure the current level of autonomy.

2) Recruit volunteer greeters.

3) Ensure members feel understood.

4) Provide members options to participate.

5) Encourage members to feel open.

Step 1: Measure The Current Level Of Autonomy

If you’re managing an online group, what you see might represent the actions of a few core members, not the entire group. This is why we need to begin with a survey to members of the group.

autonomy - 3

Use to replicate and adapt this survey (register first, then replace the word instructor/manager with community – or change to suit your group). Send the link to a random segment of your mailing list of members (don’t post it in the community, only the most active people will reply).

The results from this survey give you both a benchmark of where you are today and highlight key areas for improvement. If you have an existing process, you can identify the areas with the lowest score (e.g. members don’t feel understood) and design an intervention to tackle it (e.g. have volunteers try to understand motivations of all new members).

If you’re designing a system from scratch, this will tell you if the new system is having any impact.

Step 2: Recruit Greeters

The core essence of autonomy is feeling understood and accepted.

If members don’t feel understood and accept who they are, they can’t ever feel autonomy. This will almost always involve direct, personal contact. In smaller groups (or communities) that personal contact is from you. In larger groups, you’re going to need to help make that happen.

First, issue a call for community greeters. These are people who would like to welcome and meet newcomers that arrive in the community. One person can probably be responsible for 10 to 15 newcomers per week. If your growth rates are higher than that, recruit more.

If that’s not possible, accept that you won’t reach some people. Don’t spread the greeters across too many people, this work becomes too emotionally draining.

Second, assign the greeters to people that join on either a particular day or a particular time of day. I prefer the former. e.g. anyone that joins on Thursday is the responsibility of a specific greeter. It’s the simplest system.

Step 3: The First-Contact System

The ideal option is the greeter will send newcomers a personalized note when they join the community. An example is below:

“Hi {Name},

I’m one of the greeters from {community name}.

I must admit, I was happy to see someone from {location/job field} has joined the group. It would be interesting to get some of your experience in the discussions we’ve been having about {topic}

Just curious, what motivated you to join? Is there anything here that you’re particularly looking for?

{Greeter Name}”

The purpose of that second line is to prove it’s a personal message. This requires research. Typically that means searching for their name or e-mail address, finding a Twitter/LinkedIn profile, and quickly learning a few more details about them before you send the message.

The alternative way is to use mailchimp (or other e-mail platform) to send an auto-responder message 1 to 3 days after someone has joined. The e-mails go out from a specific volunteer, so when people reply it goes to the volunteer to follow up.

autonomy - 1

The overall goal of these message is to begin a discussion that allows the volunteer to uncover an individuals motivations and beliefs about the topic.

This is also going to involve expert listening.

There are two levels of listening. The first is simply to hear what someone is saying. This doesn’t help you much.

The second is to hear what the person is trying to convey to you. That’s usually not just in the words, but the context in which someone is saying the words.

For example, someone talking about how great of a job he did on a recent project, is probably saying he’s trying to impress you. That might mean he’s worried about his status compared with yours. If other people are around, he might consider you a rival for another person’s attention or resources. The key here is to really train the volunteers to listen to what the other people are trying to communicate, not just what they say.

This is going to take 2 to 3 exchanges to really get a sense for what each person believes in and what they want to achieve within the group.

This allows us to enter Step 4.

Step 4: Provide Options to Participate.

Once we have identified the beliefs and goals of someone that joins the group, we can design options for them to participate. These are custom options.

If someone is looking solely to enjoy themselves, you can guide them to discussions where members are sharing their funny stories on the topic, ask if they know of great places to get images related to their field, or otherwise design options specifically for them.

Don’t tell people to do these things, present these as simple options which they can choose to do.

We usually want to offer 3 options at this stage.

Step 5: Encourage Members to be Open

At this stage we can set ‘follow up’ opportunities for 2 to 4 weeks later to ask how they’re finding the community. Specifically, we want to know if there’s anything they don’t like about it or we could improve about it?

The answers are useful to you, but they also show you truly want people to be open within the group and with you. This feeling that the group encourages you to state your emotions or genuine beliefs about the topic is an important part of autonomy.

autonomy - 2

You can use Google Inbox to set simple reminders. Other systems might allow you to do this as well. You can set follow-ups with each individual member at increasingly longer intervals. First 3 weeks, then 3 months, then 9 months etc…

Crucially, in the later follow-ups, you want to invite the person to become greeters themselves. This helps the system to scale.

The Autonomy Principle

Always lean towards providing increasing levels of autonomy. Autonomy, more so than competence and relatedness, is the critical element in sustaining long-term participation in any group.

Most conflicts and problems arise when a group of individuals perceive a threat to their autonomy. Most solutions are those which provide greater levels of autonomy. The more autonomy you give, the more participation you get.

p.s. We’re now just 27 days away from our FeverBee SPRINT event. If you want to learn a lot of advanced community skills from 14 world-class experts and ourselves, I hope you will join us at:


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