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Stop Trying To Maximise Engagement, Find The Optimal Level of Engagement Instead

Richard Millington
Richard Millington

Founder of FeverBee

You Really Can’t Influence Engagement Much

We probably all know by now that if you’re measured by any engagement metric (members, posts, views), you’re in a battle you will eventually lose

Engagement simply can’t increase forever. 

Worse yet, you’re being held accountable for metrics over which you have limited influence. 

You can see this in the diagram below.

The level of influence you exert over engagement changes by stage in the community member journey.

You Have No Influence Over The Diving Forces of Engagement

The critical part of this diagram is stage one; the driving forces. This shows the total pool from which you can engage an audience. The smaller the pool, the fewer people there are to engage. These forces vary by community and they typically include:

  • No. people interested in the topic.
  • No. customers an organisation has.
  • No. customers who have a question they need an answer to.

Whenever any of these increases, engagement increases. Whenever they decline, engagement declines. There isn’t much you can do about this.

You Have Some Influence Over Conversion Ratios 

While you have no influence on the size of the pool, you do have limited influence over the percentage of that pool which engages in your community.

You can optimise for search, promote the community well, and ensure the community is properly positioned against alternatives. But you’re still working within a percentage of a fixed total.

You Have Some Influence Over Churn

Likewise, your influence over churn can be limited too. In a customer community, if you do a great job (all things being equal) engagement should decline!

If your community has answered most of the questions people have, fewer people need to ask a question. If your community has helped your product team surface and fix issues, fewer members need to ask questions. If your community has implemented the most essential product suggestions, fewer members might feel compelled to make suggestions.

Declining engagement can be a sign of success!

This highlights why using engagement as a proxy for success is absurd. Engagement going up or down can be a good or bad sign. It can reflect a bad community experience or it can reflect a terrific one.


You Have A Lot Of Influence Over The Community Experience

The value of community professionals shines most strongly once people do reach the community. This is where community professionals exert maximum influence. If they do a great job, as many people as possible will find the information they want, connect with the people they want to connect with and learn more about a topic etc…

If you do need to be held accountable to engagement-related metrics, they should be metrics you at least have some influence over.

I’d recommend a combination of

  • % of customers who engage in a community (vs. other customer support)
  • Answer rate of questions posted within the community. 
  • Average time to answer. 
  • Member satisfaction score (0 – 5).

These are far better than simply tracking the number of posts or members. 

Why You Should Never Try To Maximise Engagement

I once met a community professional who had a unique tactic to maximise engagement. She simply removed the spam filters. Mission accomplished!

I share this story to highlight the absurdity of pursuing engagement at the expense of the quality of engagement.

No one comes to your community looking for engagement.

They come looking to:

  1. Get answers to their questions.
  2. Find information
  3. Feel supported.
  4. Connect with peers.
  5. Make change happen.

Engagement is a byproduct of what people really want.

Past a surprisingly low level, more activity doesn’t help members achieve their goals. In many cases, it can reduce the likelihood.

People in a thriving community rarely wish it was bigger.

This is easier to understand if you visualise it in real life.

If you want to connect with close friends, do you want to walk into a crowded room? If you want to get an answer to your question, do you want to read through 20 similar questions or have as many people as possible sharing answers? If you want to find information, do you want a stack of books to read through?

The answer to all of the above is no. Increasing the volume makes it more difficult to accomplish your goals.

Online communities have some advantages of course (search being the biggest) and sometimes more engagement can increase the odds you get an answer that helps or you find a niche piece of information that was shared by members in the community.

But the principle broadly holds.

Additional Engagement = Additional Problems

Past a relatively low level, additional engagement reduces the odds of members accomplishing their goals and increases the number of problems you’re likely to experience.

The bigger your community becomes, the more staff you need to manage it, the more you have to pay your platform vendor, and the more you become a target for trolls, hackers, and spammers.

The relentless charge to maximise engagement causes harm if it isn’t also balanced against the needs of members. And, sadly, it’s rarely balanced against the needs of members.

What we need isn’t the maximum level of engagement, but an optimal level of engagement.

What Is The Optimal Level Of Engagement?

The optimal level of engagement is a point in a continuum of activity

Below this point, the community isn’t achieving its full potential. 

Above this point, more engagement causes more harm than good.

The optimal level of engagement in a community is the point where any additional engagement makes it less likely members will achieve their goals in your community.

How Do You Find The Optimal Level of Engagement?

Like most community professionals, you probably know engagement is a bad target but you might struggle to argue against it. 

If you’re not going to measure engagement, what are you going to measure? 

You quickly run into the problems described here

Often you might be debating with people who don’t understand the community well. 

You can ask what they believe the maximum possible level of engagement to be and what metric seems appropriate. If they don’t know, you are invited to discuss it together. 

A better approach, however, is to use data from members. It’s much harder to argue against what customers say about the community.

The Optimal Engagement Poll

Run a simple poll and ask your members to answer the following:

Which of the following best describes how you feel about the level of activity in this community?”

  • I wish there was more activity in this community.
  • The level of activity is about right. 
  • I wish there was less activity in the community.

You can replace ‘activity’ with (questions, posts, members or any metric which makes sense to you).

Track the results over time. You should get a good understanding of whether members want more activity in the community.

You can track the results over time and get a sense of when things begin to change. 

The Optimal Level of Engagement Survey

The problem with a poll, however, is it’s a blunt tool which hides a lot of nuance about why members don’t want more engagement.

If you have the capability, you can instead run a survey (in addition to or alongside a poll) which asks: 

  1. On a scale of 1 to 5 (with 5 being the highest), to what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statements: 
  • The majority of discussions are relevant to me.
  • I can usually find content that helps me achieve my goals.
  • I feel this community has high-quality conversations. 
  • I can easily find and connect with people like me. 
  • I can follow discussions that interest me. 
  • I frequently see the names of people I recognize. 
  • I’ve developed friendships with members of this community. 

You can then review the results over time to see if the weighted average is declining and incorporate this into your strategy.

It’s clear in the example above that events are a problem but otherwise the community can probably continue to grow for now without any obvious adverse impacts.

The Advanced Optimal Level of Engagement Survey

If you want to go one step deeper, you could ask each of the above as a separate question in a survey and let members choose between five options:

Nowhere near enoughNot enoughAbout rightSlightly too muchFar too much
The number of discussions is:
The quantity of content is:
The number of active members is:
The quantity of newsletters I receive is:
The number of notifications I receive is:

You can adjust the language and the items however you need.

The key thing is this lets your members tell you whether the level of engagement and activity in the community matches what they need. 

Your goal is to achieve the ‘about right’ level in each of the above. 

You can then use this to set targets which reflect the needs of members.

You can aim to raise or lower each metric aligned to what members are telling you they need in the community. 

Most importantly this will reveal whether you’re above or below the optimal level of engagement. 

Segment Results By Member Tenure

However, these results are still aggregate results. Newcomers and veterans, for example, might have very different needs. 

It’s usually a good idea to add a question about community tenure so you can segment the results by how long someone has been a member. 

This is useful because you can now start to identify why members might stop visiting the community.

Veterans, for example, are most prone to leave a community as engagement increases. So tracking the results by member segments highlights exactly which groups are experiencing which problems and lets you set more precise targets for each group. 

This is the essence of a data-driven community strategy. You let the data guide you to where you need to go. 

How To Interpret The Results

While the results are useful as a snapshot. The real value is to track the results over a period of time and notice as issues begin to arise. If you notice engagement is increasing but veterans are starting to give poorer scores, you’ve probably reached the optimal level of engagement. 

If you’re growing and not seeing a decline in these metrics; keep growing! You haven’t reached the optimal level of engagement yet. 

Aside: This works in the opposite too. If you’re launching a community, this is a good way to determine if your community has reached viability. Sometimes members can’t achieve their goals because there isn’t enough engagement. You have to use your own subjective criteria for this.

Next Steps

  1. Send your boss and colleagues a link to this blog post (or explain why you can’t be held accountable to engagement targets you can’t influence.
  2. Highlight the problems with maximising the level of engagement. It hurts the member experience and creates more problems. 
  3. Run an optimal engagement poll or survey. Ask members to decide what the level of engagement should be and track the results. 
  4. Segment the results by members over time. Let this guide your data-driven community strategy. 

If you want any more help, feel free to contact us.

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