The Community Engagement Ecosystem

It’s common for organisations to have entirely false predictions about the level of engagement they should have in their communities (and how best to influence that level of engagement).

This diagram outlines how we think about engagement in a community:

The simplest way to increase engagement is to increase the number of interested visitors while reducing the rate of churn. However, we can go deeper into each aspect of this.

By order of importance, these are the biggest factors affecting your level of engagement right now.

Potential Audience
The ultimate level of engagement in a community is limited by your potential audience. This is the total number of people who could feasibly become a member of the community with its current scope (you can expand the scope, but that’s a separate discussion).

The potential audience is the outcome of:

  • The number of people interested in the topic (or no. customers). This includes anyone who is realistically interested in the topic (or, when considering a brand community, a customer).
  • The number or percentage of people within that audience with questions. This is important, if people have no questions to ask, they usually have no reason to visit the community.
  • Less the number of people already churned. If a member has already experienced your community and left, they’re no longer in the potential audience (we’ll cover this group soon). This is extremely important for employee communities where you can burn through an audience really fast.

The biggest error when predicting engagement, by order of magnitude, originates from a poor understanding of the total potential audience.

Interested Visitors
The next biggest factor influencing engagement is your ability to convert a potential audience into an interested visitor. This is sometimes who is visiting the community out of an interest. This ratio depends upon the following factors:

  • Search traffic. When people search for related terms and topics, do they land upon your community? If you’re not well optimised for search, your engagement will be limited. If your community is private, engagement will be drastically reduced.
  • Outreach / promotion. This covers both the medium and the messages you use to promote the community. Many organisations don’t effectively develop powerful messages to their audience or use all the tools at their disposal to drive people to a community. This covers email to members, placement on your homepage, paid search, integration with the product, federated search, and any other tool.
  • Word-of-mouth. Are members mentioning and talking about the community elsewhere? Are natural algorithms working in your favour? Are employees/colleagues talking and sharing community content on social media channels?
  • Less competition. If there are other more convenient, quicker, or better places for members to satisfy their needs for information, they will use those channels instead. The intensity of competition creates a downward pressure upon the number of interested visitors.

As the community grows, you benefit from positive feedback loops with more search traffic and word-of-mouth.

The Community Experience
Once people visit or join the community, you have the power to manipulate the community experience in several major ways. These include:

  • The Technology Experience. This is the platform you use, how members experience and feel about the platform, and everything connected to the means through which members engage with one another. This includes the configuration of the platform, number of groups, discussion setup and layout, gamification etc…
  • Benefits. This is the value your community creates. Is it a support or success community? Is it a place members ask questions and leave or stick around and stay engaged? Is it a sense of exclusivity and feeling of importance? The value you position the community to deliver to members and how effectively you deliver it is critical in the community experience. If there are lots of unanswered questions or poor-quality advice, people won’t stick around for long.
  • Top Member Program. This is your ability to nurture a small group of top members to drive participation in the community. Can you motivate a small group of people (the right people) to volunteer their time to make the community thrive? Your program for making this work is a critical part of the experience. When staff are responding to most of the questions, a failure to develop a top member program is usually the reason.
  • Community Management. This is your ability to stimulate and sustain discussions, directly engage members, moderate the community, and keep the discussions lively and engaging for the audience. Your skillset here is a critical part of the community experience.
  • Onboarding (or newcomer experience). Many communities do a terrible job at attracting and satisfying the needs of newcomers. Developing the right journey and helping newcomers have a welcoming, engaging, and exciting experience is a key part of retention.

Rate of Churn
How well you design the community experience has a major impact upon your rate of churn. Your community experience can be configured to retain members. Members will stick around if your community offers the following

  • Relevance. Does the community remain relevant to their needs? The biggest reason why members depart is they have no further questions that need to be solved. The community stops being relevant to their daily needs so they leave.
  • Satisfaction. Does the community satisfy the needs and wants of members? Do members feel they get information that actually helps them? Did they feel satisfied with the experience they had in the community? Did they get what they wanted? You should be measuring this.
  • Convenience. Is the community experience convenient for them to use? Increasingly the security requirements put in place by organisations are driving members towards other platforms which are easier to use. If members can’t quickly and easily find what they want, they depart. The speed of response, quality of response, and level of effort required to get the response are critical factors here.
  • Fun and fulfillment. Did members find the experience fun and fulfilling? This is critical for smaller communities that aim to foster a sense of belonging and for retaining the very top members of a community.

The better you configure the community experience, the less the rate of churn.

Long-Term Inactive Members
By far the biggest waste of your time is to try and re-engage your long-term inactive members. This is the audience least likely to become regular participants in your community again. This is because it’s hard to change the fundamental reasons why members become inactive. This includes:

  • Poor community experience. They had a bad experience with the community and no longer want to return.
  • Lost interest in the topic. They’ve changed careers or moved on in life and are no longer interested in the topic. Coincidentally this is the biggest reason why people unsubscribe from a mailing list.
  • Joined a competitor. They discovered another place that can satisfy their needs better than your community.
  • No needs the community can help with. They simply don’t have any reason to visit the community. They have no pressing needs which a community can solve for them.

If increasing engagement is a goal for your community, work through the system above optimizing each stage of the process in turn.

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