What Motivates Community Members To Stay Engaged In Online Communities?

At some point, almost everyone looks at their community and wishes they could increase engagement. This usually leads to clever ideas that members might find interesting, but soon the novelty wears off and engagement returns to the same level.

The problem is a failure to properly diagnose why engagement decreased. Much like medicine and engineering, it’s far harder to diagnose the problem than to identify the solution. If you properly diagnose the problem, the solutions usually present themselves.

Diagnosing Your Community Engagement Problem

The diagnosis begins from a motivation perspective. You can use our membership motivation model below. This identifies why people don’t visit the community, why people initially participate in a community, and what leads to healthy long-term participation in a community. You should be able to use this to diagnose the problems you need to overcome:

If Your Audience Doesn’t Visit Your Community

The most common problem is people simply aren’t visiting the community. This usually breaks down into four buckets (by descending order of priority):

1) Lack of awareness. No-one can visit your community if they either aren’t aware or have forgotten it exists. You can diagnose this by asking or surveying a random sample of your total audience. Ask them to name any communities they have heard about and see what percentage mentions your community. If it’s less than 5%, you have a big awareness problem.

2) Low value perception. This is when the audience is aware the community exists, but they are not especially motivated to visit. This means your community concept isn’t right.

Ask your audience what challenges they are tackling today and check if this matches the discussions and activities taking place in the community today. You might also want to check Google Trends and other tools to see what terms and topics people are searching for today. Is your community aligned to match?

3) Trust. Here your target audience understands what the value of the community is supposed to be but doesn’t trust you to deliver it. This happens most often when people have visited the community once but didn’t see enough value to visit or participate again. You can diagnose this by asking members if they did visit the community to highlight what advice/value they got from the community.

4) Competitor groups. You’re probably not the only community in town. Members might participate in other groups as well. Their ties to those groups might be hard to break and other groups might be better at delivering on this value than you are. This usually requires focusing on a unique, growing, niche you can dominate (if you’re smaller), or fear of missing out (if you’re the bigger community). This can also be diagnosed by asking your audience what other communities members participate in today.

These are all fundamental problems. You need to have a constant source of new visitors, a relevant community concept, to deliver value, and compete effectively against other groups.

Why People Join And Initially Participate In An Online Community

Once you’ve tackled the fundamentals, you also need to ensure it’s easy for members to make their first contributions to the community. People make their first contributions to an online community for five key reasons. These are to ask a question (or solve a problem), improve their expertise, increase their status, be part of a group, or explore a topic with a group of likeminded friends.

You can reverse engineer this to diagnose why people don’t participate in a community they visit (e.g. why do people only lurk?).

This boils down to:

1) They don’t feel they can ask a question. They either don’t have a question to ask or don’t feel comfortable asking it. The latter usually because of fear about their personal reputation or fear of getting a negative (or no) response.

2) They don’t have expertise to share. People don’t respond to questions or write blog posts because they don’t have the expertise to share or comfort to share their expertise. This happens in many fields where there are a lot of newcomers and the experts are hard to persuade to participate.

3) They don’t feel participating will increase their status. This occurs when the cost/benefit of participating isn’t worthwhile from a status perspective. This means they don’t feel their contributions will get alot of good responses and help increase their status.

4) They don’t feel they will be left behind. In many communities there is no danger of being excluded from a group by not participating. There is no urgency to participate now or fear of missing out.

5) They are not passionate about the topic. Another reason is they aren’t interested enough in the topic to explore it with others. This comes up again when we talk about healthy, long-term, participation.

You can interview or survey people who visit to see what’s preventing them. Alternatively, you can test different ideas from those listed above until you come up with an effective solution. Tip: it’s usually best to work from the top down.

Why Most People Don’t Become Regular, Active, Members

Usually the level of participation declines rapidly after the first contribution to a community. You can see this in our data below:

There are three big reasons for this.

1) They aren’t curious about the topic. They might participate when they have to (for work or to resolve a frustration), but they aren’t motivated to learn more about the topic beyond this level.

2) They don’t enjoy participating in the community. They don’t feel a part of something special when they do participate in the community. They don’t feel they have much control or ownership. They don’t feel it’s a part of their peer group where people like and respect them.

3) They don’t enjoy helping others. They don’t get much joy from helping others. This occurs most often when they don’t receive gratitude for contributions or don’t feel much of a connection to other members. It also arises when they are answering the same questions repeatedly within the community.

All of these tie back to the three root causes that you can work on. These are:

1) Limited sense of competence. If members don’t feel their abilities are growing, have opportunities to demonstrate their abilities, nor have any control over the site, their motivation is sharply reduced.

2) Limited sense of autonomy. If members don’t feel they can participate the way they like, in a way that aligns with their values, and give input into the direction of the community, they are less likely to enjoy participating there.

3) Limited sense of relatedness. In short, they don’t feel liked and respected by other members. There is no larger sense of community forming around the topic that gives people their social identity.

The key here is to gradually increase this sense of competence, autonomy, and relatedness by designing specific journeys you take members through. There are no shortage of tactics here.

Ultimately, to sustain long-term, regular, participation the community ultimately has to offer more than just solutions to problems. It has to offer members the chance to feel really smart, to feel they can finally behave as best aligns with their values, and the opportunity to build strong relationships.

Always Diagnose The Problem First

Before you move on to testing any tactics, properly diagnose the problem. Once you diagnose the problem the solutions usually present themselves.

Good luck.

Comments

  1. Matthew Mezey says:

    My engagement situation is probably a bit of a ‘social density’ nightmare. We already have a couple of dozen separate groups on a Buddypress site: [https://q.health.org.uk/get-involved/online-q-groups/]

    We’re giving lots more offline groups an online space at the moment, so by the end of next week we’ll have around 40. The overall community is relatively new, and the groups mostly small (but growing).

    I decided that the single 5am ‘Daily Digest’ notification that Buddypress offers is not the greatest way to encourage responsiveness and engagement in a group.

    I tried changing the notifications to ‘All’ (a message whenever there’s a new post) with one small group and it clearly helped.

    I think I’ll do it with all of them, unless a group lead doesn’t want to. None of the groups are getting so much activity every day that it would become irritating - and if I did get to that situation we could always change the group default. (And individuals who don’t like notifications can always change their own, even to ‘no e-mail’).

    Does shifting the notifications to show all content as it happens (while the groups are still small-ish) seem sensible?

    Matthew Mezey
    (London, UK)

  2. Richard Millington says:

    We tried this briefly as I remembered, I think it did have an impact but it
    caused some complaints so we stopped doing it. A better option is always to
    give members the opportunity to ‘opt out’ - and make it VERY clear how they
    can do that.

    I’d say though if there are a lot of inactive groups, you might want to
    take a more drastic step of shutting some of them down and following a new
    approach similar to Nextdoor/StackExchange for group creation. Making sure
    that each group is thriving before moving on to the next. My take at the
    moment is you probably have too many groups.

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