Community Strategy Insights

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

A Model For Getting People To Join and Participate In Your Online Community

Richard Millington
Richard Millington

Founder of FeverBee

Over the next few weeks, I want to share some of the models we use to grow communities and how you might be able to use them. 

This model explains why members aren’t participating in communities and how to get them more engaged.


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The secret to getting people more engaged in a community lies in engendering members with increasing levels of competence, autonomy, and relatedness (the tenets of Self-Determination Theory).

The more members feel they have improved their abilities since being a community member, feel increasing levels of freedom to act how they choose, and develop strong relationships through the community, the more they participate.


The majority of your target audiences are amotivated about your community.They have absolutely no desire to join or participate. There four possible reasons behind this. They don’t know you exist, don’t care you exist, don’t trust you, or have conflicts that prevent them from joining.

You can work to overcome each of these.

1) Do the people you are trying to reach even know your community exists?

The majority of struggling communities have an awareness problem. The people they’re trying to reach don’t know they exist. What percentage of your target audience will have heard of your community? 

If it’s less than 10%, you have a big awareness problem. You can take three paths to overcoming this. First, have a more clearly defined target audience. The more clearly defined, the quicker you will grow. You can tackle specific needs and penetrate through existing social networks. You need an audience where you can reach at least 10%.

That means narrowing the focus to a group of people that meet two qualifiers e.g. accountants [qualifier 1] that live in San Francisco [qualifier 2]). If you’re just getting started, you want to begin with 50 founding members you’ve gotten to know through the CHIP process.

Take the time to create content, host events/activities, interview key people, and participate in existing communities. If you’ve done this and it’s still not working, you need to do more outbound promotional work. That means pitching story ideas and forging partnerships with groups outside of your network.

Co-producing webinars, events, and resources are a great way to do this. They provide the audience and you provide the useful material. Until you tackle this awareness problem, nothing else you do matters. No-one can join a community if they don’t know you exist.  

2) Do the people you are trying to reach care that you exist? 

If people know you exist but still don’t join, you usually have a value problem. Prospective members don’t see a clear reason to join and participate. If your prospective members say they don’t have the time to join or participate, they’re really saying they don’t see value in the community.

We make time when we see the value. This is where nailing benefits that matter to members is important.  Benefits come in two forms; sociable and non-social. Non-social benefits include solving big problems, offering new opportunities, and pursuing passions. Sociable benefits include enhanced status from being a member, not being left out, and satisfying ego needs.

You can test all of these with different landing pages or split-testing e-mail messaging until you find the most effective benefit. Your audience analysis will give you possible ideas, testing will tell you which is most effective. You need to test this on a large volume of people, not 100 members.  

3) Do they trust that you can deliver on the value?

If prospective members recognise the value of the community but don’t join, you have a trust problem. Your members don’t believe that your community is the most effective means to get the benefits they seek.

Most of the communities created by brands achieve great awareness, sometimes deliver great value, but struggle to get over the natural distrust we have of organisations. You need to promote your success stories to non-members, create a sense of momentum, share data on current membership, undertake research (people associate research with reliability), and use symbols to communicate authenticity.

Your community can’t be a place that offers a clear benefit, it has to be the best place to get that benefit.

4) They believe you but still won’t join. 

This happens when you’re competing against existing communities. Members are unlikely to leave their existing networks and friends behind to join you. Many might see you as the enemy attacking them. They might personally not want to support a new ‘player’ disrupting the scene.

You can only tackle this by micro-focusing on building stronger relationships with fewer people. The more you peel away from existing groups the easier it becomes. You can work through the existing social networks of existing members.

Ask existing members to recommend other people they think should join and work your way through. Once momentum is clearly on your side, members will flock to you.


Members tend to join and initially participate in a community for one of six reasons. Each needs a little explaining.  

1) To tackle a problem they’re aware of (or intuitively feel).

There are two parts of this. First, you need to tackle a problem that requires them to frequently participate. Single-topic problems don’t work well. Tackle a bigger life issues. That problem has to be part of a bigger puzzle.

This will usually be something that affects our health, wealth, or happiness. Members might ask about the best running shoes in a community about running shoes, but ask most questions in a fitness community.

Second, members must already know they have this problem and want to solve it. It’s almost impossible to make members aware of a problem they don’t already know about.

The problem must be something that matters to them. If you ask members about their biggest challenges and they don’t mention the problem, don’t build a community around this topic.  

2) Take advantage of an opportunity they believe exists.

A growing number of communities are catered to helping members take advantage of an opportunity that may now exist. BackpackingLight is an example of this.  Every backpacker knows there is new technology out there to lighten their backpacks, they just need a place to go for it.

Many members of our CommunityGeek join because they know they could be doing more to use psychology and data to grow communities.

Opportunities usually come from changes in the political, economical, social, or technological sectors (PEST Analysis). These create new opportunities people need to make sense of.

They usually are places where you want to do something quicker, cheaper, faster, or better. But members have to be aware of the opportunity first. You can’t create the opportunity, but you can use Google Trends to identify rising opportunities and encapsulate them as the basis for your community.

3) Pursue an existing interest.

People join communities if they want to learn more about a topic they’re fascinated by. Most hobbyist/enthusiast communities fall within this category.

Many brands try to create communities in this field but soon realise their brand isn’t nearly as fascinating as they might expect. 

These communities are very hard to create. The majority of them already exist. New ones, provoked by PEST, may come about but these opportunities are rare and difficult for organisations to facilitate.

You can identify these by asking what % of a member’s free time do they spend engaged in that activity. Anything more than 3 hours per week might be a winner.

4) Be a part of a known exclusive group within the field.

We seem to be very much wired to join exclusive groups within our field. If there’s an exclusive group, especially an exclusive group that most people in the sector know exists, we’re very keen to join it.

Secret, exclusive, groups can still work but are less effective. The most effective exclusive groups are those most people know exist but can’t join. If you have an exclusive group, it’s a good idea to promote it. When you promote it, don’t just promote the composition of its membership too. List it on the homepage of that community.

5) Group norms – and fear of missing out

Once a community has achieved critical mass and beyond, an increasing number of people join not to be left behind. This happens in communities such as Reddit and ProductHunt that achieve super high levels of growth and participation. 

Soon everyone wants to join to ensure they’re not missing out. At this stage, it’s a good idea to promote the high levels of growth, success stories, and the community’s metadata.  If your community is wildly successful, promote the success.

6) To satisfy personal ego needs.

A lot of people join a community to satisfy an immediate ego need for validation or efficacy.

They join to write a provocative remark. They aim to see an impact and know they have efficacy within the community and agency over their actions. Others join to share a useful piece of advice. They want to be congratulated and feel validated that they have expertise in the topic.  

These are usually the least healthy communities. YouTube comments might be the most obvious example here. These are specifically the kind of members and activity you don’t want in a community.


At the very top are healthy levels of participation. This is where members participate for intrinsic reasons. The quantity and quality of posts will be higher from members that participate for intrinsic reasons.

These members will also participate for a longer period of time. When intrinsically motivated, members participate for genuine interest, enjoyment, or satisfaction of helping others.

  1. Genuine interest. Members participate because they have a genuine interest in the topic and want to explore it as much as possible with other members. 
  1. Enjoyment. Members participate because they genuinely enjoy the act of interacting with one another. You might meet up with friends at a bar because you enjoy their company. The same is true with communities.
  1. Genuine Satisfaction. You might participate because you enjoy helping other members. You’re not participating to increase your own reputation or esteem, but because you truly enjoy the satisfaction you get from helping other members.  


Motivation theory has shifted a LONG way since Maslow looked at a group of rhesus monkeys and predicted (but never studied) what would motivate us. It’s shifted towards a field known as Self-Determination Theory; our level of competence, autonomy, and social relatedness affects our motivation.

If you want to move members from short-term extrinsic motivation to healthy long-term participation, you need to increase their sense of growing skill, autonomy, and relatedness. A big part of this is changing the messages you send to non-members/newcomers from those you send to existing, participating, members. 

1) Skill.

As someone participates in the community, they get better at the topic. As they get better they get at the topic, the more they enjoy it.

The more they enjoy the topic, the more they participate in the community. If you can increase the skill of members in your community, they participate more. Once someone has learned or solved one problem, you can guide them to other problems/solution that many members found useful.

For example, after a member has posted their first question, why not send them an automated message highlighting the biggest challenges facing members (along with places to find the solution). You might also ask members to share their best piece of advice/knowledge. This increases their perceived level of competence.

The challenge here is to design a relatively automated system (in large communities) or use a good CRM system (in small communities) that will prompts members to learn and share at the right level. As members become more advanced, you can guide them to places that are more technical/specific.

You can also set up an online resource that documents the best knowledge and ensures members that share great information can see it documented in an online wiki.

2) Autonomy.

Autonomy is the freedom to act in line with one’s true beliefs. This means being free from control such as being forced/told/co-opted to perform a task. Tools like gamification undermine this sense of autonomy. 

As members participate more, we want to offer higher levels of autonomy that means greater freedom to do what they like. For example, this might mean having their own groups, columns, and powers within the community.

This isn’t quite the same as volunteering roles. Members might begin in relatively restricted roles, but as they participate more you need to give them greater freedom to do as they like within the community.

User levels is one option, so is letting members know when they have reached a level where they can have more freedom. You might also want to regularly be in touch with members to see if they like would take to take full responsibility for their own sections of the community.

This isn’t free labour; it’s freedom from your interference. This also means showing support for the actions members have taken. Unexpected praise also works very well here.   

3) Relatedness.

Relatedness is the number of high-quality relationships we develop within a community.

The more people we not only recognise, get to know, but feel genuinely close to influences our level of participation and satisfaction within the community. This is also where the ‘sense of community’ comes into play. The greater the sense of community, the more members participate.

As members join and participate, you need to ensure they get to know other members of the community. There’s plenty you can do to increase the sense of community. One useful option is to have a growing system for members to get to know one another. Having members meet in person is a useful idea, as is finding ways to encourage higher levels of self-disclosure from members.

It’s good to have a place for members to share their biggest achievement, biggest challenge, and other problems.


If you’re managing a sub-1000 MAM (monthly active members) community, you can do much of this manually. You can adjust the appeal and concept, individually contact members to make more skill-based contributions, offer more autonomy, and introduce them to other members.

If you’re managing a 1000+ MAM community, you’re going to need design systems that involve autoresponders and automatic filtering/integration with CRM systems to do this. That’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of trial and error.

But it’s also the key to ensuring that every possible members becomes as active as they can be.

Good luck.

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