“How do we get our members to participate?”
Countless organizational leaders have asked this question, pondering perhaps what combination of magic, behavioral economics, and persuasive techniques will convince people to become active community members. This is, of course, coercion; this is not community building.
A better question to ask is: “Under what conditions will our community be valuable enough to people that they want to participate in it?”
For this question, there is a clear and easy answer.
Communities must meet three specific criteria in order for participants to find value and want to become and remain active. These criteria are fundamental; if any are missing, you will struggle to motivate participation or do anything at all, other than motivate people to visit, get what they need, and then bounce from your online community’s pages.
Note: I’ll use the term “community members” to mean anyone who has opted in to participate in your community programs, but these three conditions must also be obvious to outsiders, visitors, and passive readers who are still considering if they should join your community.
Members must choose to participate. Ideally, they opt-in and give their enthusiastic consent to participate. The more friction you create to joining and ensuring consent, the more likely those who cross the friction points will participate. Sometimes that is not the goal, but if building a healthy and participatory community is your goal, choice and friction will be your best friends.
Take, for instance, this online community joining workflow from a political campaign, where volunteerism and participation are critical goals:
Acceptance message or sending to training or other work
Check-in after 6 weeks
This workflow ensures that people are choosing, each step of the way, to be a part of what you create.
For visitors, “choice” to join is communicated through a clear gateway between visiting and joining and, by not “voluntelling” people that they are in a community. Then, they can choose whether or not they should cross the gateway when they are ready. That creates strong, non-tenuous relationships built on a foundation of mutual trust and respect.
Community members must progress in some way toward becoming who they want to be. If they do not progress, they will not participate.
The central question that you should ask is: How do members meaningfully change by being part of your community?
If you run a Q&A community or support community, the answer to this question will vary by member type. Passive readers may become more effective at using your product or service. Active members may become more altruistic, expert, and respected by peers and colleagues.
The progress need not always be “lofty.” Further, it need not be outwardly stated. If the community is irreverent and silly, the progress might be too. But articulate it internally and encode that into the design and programming of the community. If you can’t articulate your members’ progress, your members certainly won’t know where they are headed with you.
Members care about connecting with peers, friends, family, mentors, and leaders. They may not know who they want to connect with yet. But the connection must fuel their progress in some way. If they can progress without the connection of a community, they are likely to do so without participating.
So ask: how does connection in the community fuel the progress our members want to make?
From there, all programs and invitations, design decisions, and copy should reflect the kinds of connections that matter to your members’ sense of progress in connection.
If you get these right, then you can begin to play with very specific aspects of your community, like wording your posts in certain ways or giving out awards. If you employ these “growth hacks” without a solid foundation for participation, those hacks will work momentarily, but you will then spend the rest of your time chasing empty engagement when you could have built something meaningful from the very beginning.
If you’re curious to learn more about these conditions, you can pre-order Building Brand Communities by Carrie Melissa Jones and Charles Vogl now.