Yes, who doesn’t remember the infamous phrase that spawned a baseball field and propped up a whole film: “If you build it, they will come”. (What I can’t actually remember is who exactly “they” were). If only this were true for any kind of online community. Waiting for new members to show up and engage will only rarely succeed. Creating a successful, vibrant community requires a thoughtful, active approach to attracting, inviting, involving, maintaining and retaining members.
Engagement is much more than a numbers game based on visitors, visits and page views. The value of a community depends on both the quantity and quality of the information shared and contributions made, as well as on the strength of the connections created between members. High quality online collaboration needs recruitment of new members, encouragement of current members, and efforts to re-connect with inactive users.
Encouraging collaboration and participation is not a one-time start up activity, but an ongoing process, one that is primarily concerned with building and sustaining user behaviours and interactions. Along with pure activity measures and measures customer and member satisfaction, member engagement is a key metric for site success.
One theory that has more legs than Field of Dreams is the idea that community members have four stages of evolution. Each of these stages represents a greater level of member participation, involvement with community content and, especially, with other members.
- People who are new to the online community or are infrequent participants. They may be hesitant to visit or contribute. They may feel unsure about the technology or uncertain about community expectations. They need training, support resources, mentors and models to follow.
- People who are somewhat invested in the community with limited contributions and member connections online. People who visit occasionally and primarily interact with existing content. They rarely post documents or make comments. They are consuming but not making significant contributions to the community. A goal for this stage is expand participation into new or unfamiliar areas. They need encouragement to increase participation and experiment.
- People who are invested in the community, and who have a growing list of contributions and member connections. They are active, make frequent contributions; create new discussions, request subgroups, offer help and support when asked; undertake experiments with ways to use the community toolsets.
- People who are persistently active in the community and in contributing to its success over time. They are the problem-solvers and inventors of new discussions and contributions or uses for tools. They are also the most invested in the community based both on successful outcomes and well-established connections with other members.
Clearly how you motivate folk at each stage will vary. Early on, just making them feel at home will suffice (perhaps with more experienced members or the community managers acting as hosts or greeters). It could be a case of pointing people in the direction of content they may be interested in. Certainly at all stages a clear indication of the impact contributions are making to whatever is being discussed is vital. We all like to think we’re being heard. Could some more experienced members become mentors or community managers? Incentives can be as simple as an acknowledgement of a contribution (a one liner, or a regular “contributor of the week” award) or as sophisticated as offering members a chance to run the community, be part of the governance of a project. And of course, let’s not forget taking the online community into the real world. I’m sure we’ve all been to our fair share of Tweet Ups, Barcamps etc. It’s good to mix a bit of business and pleasure wherever we are.
Of course not everyone will progress through the cycles to stage four. Many will remain at stages two or three. To me that’s not a problem. As with any group (online or offline) not all members become community leaders. What we’re aiming for is a member who is active and very involved with the community, who visits regularly, makes useful contributions, collaborates widely, establishes multiple connections and offers help and guidance to other members. This member is a “model” participant, a mentor to others and, perhaps without realizing it is a recognized leader within the community.
And we’re still very much at the first stage with most of We are Camden (I read somewhere it can take up to a year to build a solid community -we’ve only been at it a couple of weeks). But we are in this for the long haul.
Oh, one resource that you might find as useful as I do is “The Art of Community” by Jono Bacon