Participation vs. Engagement
One of the recurring themes at the conference was social media paranoia, particularly the threat that Facebook, Twitter and other sites are monopolizing people’s time and are doing a better job at engaging users.
There is plenty of evidence that participation in interest-based communities is continuing to grow, and at the conference vBulletin shared some stats illustrating that the top 2,000 interest based communities’ growth has outpaced growth of the internet as a whole.
We think that much of the paranoia over Facebook’s threat to all other platforms stems from the confusion between engagement and participation. High participation rates don’t equal high engagement rates. Engagement is an emotional attachment to something. We all connect to the power grid everyday but we never think that we are engaging with it.
Forum communities do need to be doing a better job at integrating with social platforms but they should always remember that what they have to offer is allowing people with a common interest to come together and build something meaningful. When your audience participates in the building of your community and create its unique culture, they are truly engaged.
Whenever a community gets migrated to Vanilla, we experience engagement first hand. Some members love the new functionality while some are upset that things have changed, but it’s rare that members are indifferent. Contrast this to feature changes on big social platforms. Apart from Timeline, it’s rare that anyone except perhaps a few pundits care. Users of social networks find the sites highly useful and gladly participate but they are not engaged in a community. Social networks are just big monolithic utilities. Like the power company.
It’s not an accident that forums and forum software providers like Vanilla haven’t jumped onto the social media bandwagon by rebranding ourselves as social networks. The big social networks are enormously useful and keep people coming back but they haven’t been successful at fostering engagement (emotional attachment) and community (common interest). Forums, as online communities, deliver on the web’s great promise of bringing people together around common interests, where a unique culture can evolve. It’s that unique culture that gives community members a sense of ownership and it’s what should guide your decisions surrounding your forum software, your site design, moderation rules and encouraged behaviours.