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Do Online Communities Change Long-Term Behavior?

Richard Millington
Richard Millington

Founder of FeverBee

Your day to day work might consist of initiating discussions, replying to discussions, and creating content etc…

The desired end result is long-term behavior change. That means new customers, current customers staying for longer and buying more, people collaborating more, or reduced costs (let’s exclude hobbyist communities for now).

Unfortunately the day to day work is many layers removed from the value. Let’s imagine your daily work consists of initiating and responding to discussions, creating content, replying to discussions, and welcoming newcomers.

You probably do that because you believe the following happens:

  1. Your actions create activity.
  2. The activity creates a sense of community.
  3. The sense of community creates new social norms.
  4. Those social norms are valuable behaviors which benefit the organisation.
  5. Those valuable behaviors are sustained over the long-term.

This means the actions we’re taking today are 4 layers removed from value.



There are variations here. Perhaps participating in the community increases the sentiment towards the organisation which in turn increases buying behaviors. However, the broad principles hold.

Building A Community Is Inefficient

If this were an efficient system, where each action directly and efficiently caused the next, the layers between your actions and the desired value wouldn’t matter. Each action you took would cascade into the next level with no wasted energy.

But it’s really not an efficient system at all. Only a small % of activity helps foster a sense of community and there are many other variables which account for a sense of community. These include timing, demographics, the concept of the community, and pure luck…

It’s like this throughout the entire chain above.

Some of your actions will generate activity, some won’t. Some of that activity will just be a blip, some won’t. Some of those activities will help generate a sense of community, some won’t. Sometimes that sense of community will lead to new social norms forming, sometimes (usually) they just adopt the current social norms. Sometimes those new social norms lead to new valuable behaviors, very often you have little control over these behaviors.

And perhaps by the time you’ve achieved this, a new environmental factor has arisen that has made it all worthless. Imagine spending years building a community for Nokia or Blackberry just as the smartphone blew up the business?

So instead of having complete influence over the next level, we have a much reduced level of influence in each step along the way.

For example…


For example, not all activity helps create a sense of community (think of spam or fights as obvious token examples). I’d also argue anything that doesn’t deepen the sense of membership, give members a growing sense of influence, emotional connection, and fulfil their needs.

Most people participate in communities with complete dissipation looking to resolve an immediate problem. That’s valuable to them, but perhaps not to you.

Further down the chain we can see now all sense of community leads to new social norms, not all social norms are valuable to you and those that are might not be sustained over the long-term. I guessed the percentages and I think these are generous.

This also assumes that ALL your actions actually lead to a long-term boost in activity. We know that’s probably not true. I suspect around 20% do. So we can estimate your efficiency ratio is somewhere between 0.24% to 1.2% (and, I stress, this is being VERY generous with the influence ratios).

This means that up to 99.76% of your time is wasted.

The problem thus becomes that most of the actions we take to build our community have almost no impact on driving valuable long-term behavior change within our audience.

The difference between generating activity and intelligent engagement is the pathway to achieve the result. Generating activity takes the actions to drive the maximum possible level of activity. Intelligent engagement takes the best pathway to achieve that result.

The Multiple Pathways To Success

If you’re trying to change the behavior of any group of people, there are multiple ways to do that.

Building a community is one of many ways to change social norms which is one of many ways to change behavior.

Here are some alternative pathways to the same success:


Now we can see that behavior change isn’t just new social norms, but changing personal opinions en-masse and our immediate environment in which we perform the behavior. BJFogg alludes to each of these.

Each of these have long pathways leading back from them and their influence upon the behavior will vary wildly depending upon the audience and the behavior you wish to change. So 30% of the behavior might be driven by personal beliefs, 20% by perceived social norms, and 30% by the environment (with another 20% as random factors).

If we only focus on one strand, our impact is very much limited.


Let’s imagine you want your internal work team to share more information with one another. If you only build the platform and let people do what they like, you will end up with something like this. Limited participation – most of which is very cynical against the platform.

This means you need to change the opinions of the group to be favourable towards the community first. You need to create social norms at a small scale level. You need to make it easier to document information to and for each other.

But to even do the first of those tasks, you need to build a receptive audience , generate personal credibility, understand the audience’s worldview, craft persuasive messages, and find the right medium to deliver them at regular frequency. That is a lot of work in itself.

If we’re only relying upon social norms i.e. building a community to create advocates, you’re only affecting a fraction of that 30% of influence on behavior and won’t succeed.

A 3-Pronged Approach To Changing Behavior

If we want to change behavior, we have to take a proactive role in influencing the factors which thus influences behavior.

We have to think of ourselves less as community managers and more as behavior specialists – people who are proactively solving the puzzle to change the behavior of the audience. There is far more value in the latter than the former.

Try telling your boss you can build a community for the company’s employees instead of helping employees collaborate better. The difference in perceived value is huge.

This doesn’t mean building a community is doomed. It means building a community in isolation isn’t going to yield great results. The reason why we have so few community ROI success stories isn’t because we don’t know how to measure it, it’s because so few communities generate a positive ROI.

The case studies we have come almost entirely from customer service channels where every activity, by nature, leads to instant value. Which is great, but covers a small % of communities today.

A Broader And More Direct Route

The key then lies in getting smart about how we spend our time to ensuring we’re having the biggest impact upon behavior, not upon our community. The two aren’t the same and we have to choose which we want.

For example, you can spend 20 minutes initiating and replying to new discussions. Or you can setup paid social ads targeting members of your community with persuasive messages from credible people (Facebook Pixel is good for this). Those are serious decisions we get to make every day.

But we can’t just be narrowly focused on our community and assume that simply having a lot of activity within a community will lead to valuable behavior change. In our hearts, I’m sure most of us know this isn’t true.

We have to decide in every task we do is this the most direct route to change the behavior of the audience? This is how we move up the value chain.

For those of you managing communities of large organisations with a team of people already tackling each of the pathways to influence, you can keep doing what you’re doing and optimising in ever more minute-areas of community work. That’s going to be fun.

For those that don’t, it’s time to take advantage of the huge number of tools, knowledge, and resources out there to master the skills that will drive the behavior we need. That’s going to mean admitting to ourselves that a lot of our time and effort is wasted at present. It has a limited long-term impact. It’s going to mean opening ourselves up to the incredible opportunities out there today to drive clear results that benefit both us and our audience.

p.s. We’re launching Advanced Engagement Methods in 3 weeks. This isn’t a cheap freebie course. It’s an intensive course over 3 months to equip you with an advance set of skills to drive long-term behavior change. I hope you will join us.






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