We’ve all been there. The first day of class when nobody’s raised their hand since roll call. The "brainstorming session" with a whiteboard that’s really owning its name. The vacant reception hall dance floor before the table wine has kicked in. Students have enrolled, people have shown up to the meeting, freakin’ disco balls have been hung. So why isn’t anybody doing anything? How can you increase community engagement?
Getting people to show up is one thing. Getting them to show off—or even just to show and tell—is a horse of a different color. Low engagement is a frustration most online community managers (and wedding DJ’s) know all too well. It matters because it’s engagement, not enrollment, that is the true measure of the health of a community.
Although there are numerous metrics that may be of interest to your community, there are essentially two main categories for measuring and increasing community engagement: Traffic and activity.
Traffic is good but as retailers will tell you, it doesn’t count for much if it amounts to little more than window-shopping or tire-kicking. Activity is what we’re really after: Posts, comments, reactions or "likes," DMs, participation in polls or contests, and other forms of value-added contributions to the community. In fact, it’s probably better to think of traffic as "potential" engagement. If 10,000 people view your site, that’s 10,000 opportunities to increase engagement with the community—which may or may not happen. For example, if 10,000 visits result in 2 posted comments, your actual engagement ratio is pretty poor.
But take heart! This isn’t always something to fret about. We know that up to 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% are "power users" who account for almost all the action. Still, there are plenty of things community managers can do to ensure that the 10% of willing contributors are keeping the community bustling and maybe even to lure the other 90% out of their shell from time to time.
Here are 9 rules to help you increase engagement in your community:
Start by embracing an operating policy built around generosity. It boils down to one golden rule: give more than you ask. Really, this philosophy starts with appreciation for your community members’ time, value and effort. Always remember that they are the ones doing you a favor, not the other way around. It’s all too easy to forget that there are real people behind every username or avatar. People with jobs, families, interests and obligations that are all competing for their time and energy. Be grateful for the amazing gift they have given in sharing their precious time and unique perspective with your community and acknowledge them at every turn. Look for opportunities to reward, support, validate and otherwise drive engagement with them. You can start with some of the strategies below.
There has to be a reason for people to visit your site—to be entertained, educated, inspired, or challenged. If your community is entirely focused on self-promotion or sales, then you’ve already forgotten the golden rule! Please stop and write “It’s not all about me” 100 times on the chalkboard before proceeding. Aim to create and provide content that is genuinely interesting and valuable to your target community members.
You can use editorial content to encourage engagement by posing thoughtful questions or presenting intriguing problems that solicit comments and input. But also look beyond written content to offer videos, podcasts, interesting activities, member-only exclusives, exciting contests, and thought-provoking creative challenges. Members need a variety of new things to see and do every time they return to your community. Make a concerted effort to keep your home page content fresh; think of it like the window display of a store that shows people new and exciting arrivals and hot trends.
In the early days, you’ll have to do the lion’s share of facilitating. This may mean manufacturing the first interactions to get the ball rolling. When Reddit first started, its founders posted from a number of fake profiles to create an aura of activity to attract and engage early (real) users. They’re not the only community to fake it 'till they made it, but were one of the first to unapologetically admit it.
If it seems sort of, er, unseemly— think of "seeding" as simply providing helpful examples of the kinds of interactions you want to see happening naturally. It’s not a permanent strategy, just a way to temporarily stimulate authentic activity by simulating it. As the user base grows, your community will achieve a level of activity that gives members a reason to sign up and, more importantly, to keep coming back. The whole purpose of increased community engagement is to create this magnetic effect that draws members towards you, again and again.
Today, the strongest social movements are peer-based. Your dedicated community members are the people that will best drive the movement for your company, organization, or brand. Your community members should feel a sense of ownership and pride in what happens in their shared online space, and feel as much a part of the team as the employees who are paid to be there. Empower them to steer the conversation, self-motivate and moderate, and weigh in on what they want the community to be.
Engaged community members are also a great source of insight and trusted information—given the opportunity. Give your participants real things to do and keep them updated as their ideas and suggestions become reality. This can be as basic as giving them an opportunity to suggest or vote on a product name or as complicated as engaging them continuously in the process of ideating (like LEGO does), producing, and marketing products. Ford Motor Company took this concept to the next level by engaging citizens to identify real-world transportation barriers and find solutions to these challenges. The Ford Smart Mobility Challenges showed that Ford’s reach is beyond being an automaker. They are also an innovative and collaborative mobility provider.
Seth Godin has written extensively on tribes and has pointed out that without a means to communicate and a strong leader, a tribe is just a crowd. He says, "Most organizations spend their time marketing to the crowd. Smart organizations assemble the tribe." The role of a community manager is to lead this assembled tribe in a way that brings out the best in them. Doing so means wearing many hats at the same time. You’re a participant but also a supervisor; you’ll be facilitating but also moderating. You’ll be guiding, monitoring, responding to and assessing the activities of your community—continuously. It’s a role that requires skill, intelligence and a healthy dose of humility.
The best community managers focus on enabling members to exchange valuable information and ideas. They dole out a steady flow of timely, relevant content that invites feedback. And they ask thoughtful questions and respond to comments and complaints with genuine interest and enthusiasm. A simple tactical strategy is to schedule regular summaries calling out your community’s best posts and achievements. This serves to acknowledge and reward your best contributors while pointing other members to your site’s most valuable user-produced content, enriching their experience.
Let’s face it: The internet can be a terrible place, for some folks more than others. As John Oliver said a few years back, "We all know the internet is an incredible tool, but like most tools it can be used as a weapon." As a community manager, you are in a unique position to make your little corner of the online world a comfortable and safe place for all members. When you first set up your community, you probably created a set of rules and guidelines governing behavior. This should obviously include your tolerance (i.e., ZERO) for personal attacks as well as for racism, sexism and all forms of discrimination and hate.
If you don’t already, add a section that speaks to the value of creating and maintaining an inclusive environment. This means you’re not only banning the bad, but encouraging the good. We’re all born and raised with our own set of biases, beliefs and stereotypes. Look for opportunities to talk to your communities about bias, diversity and inclusion (in a non-judgmental, lecture-free, “hey, I’m human too” kind of way). And follow through on the community guidelines you set; investigating issues promptly and removing posts or taking other disciplinary action as required.
It’s classic mom advice that is almost as cliched as marketing gurus telling you to "be authentic"—a buzzword so overused I’m loathe to mention it. But both the gurus and your mom are right. You’ll need to find a brand voice that suits your company and sounds like your members. Mirroring is a social strategy most of us subconsciously use in real life and it works just as well online.
When you speak to your community members the way they speak to each other you can avoid becoming a disembodied corporate talking head that sounds like all the adults on Peanuts cartoons. Don’t be afraid to inject some personality into your online communications. Posting on your message boards isn’t the same as presenting to your board of directors; you should fit your tone and style to suit the context. If you can’t have fun on your site, how can you expect anyone else to? A welcome side effect of being real, personable, and likeable is that your community members will be more likely to abide by the rules and to help you when you need it.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t make waves. There’s a reason why idioms for not messing with a good thing abound. This doesn’t mean you’re forever beholden to outdated design choices or archaic software. It just means that your goal should be to present a comfortably consistent and predictable user experience. You should remain open and responsive to the changing needs of the community and best web practices, but you can do so without rankling your loyal members.
In the category of "how not to do things," look to Yahoo’s actions after purchasing GeoCities in 1999. They promptly laid off about half of GeoCities employees and imposed new copyright rules on members with nary an explanation or word of reassurance. Be mindful not to make gratuitous or un-asked for changes that will make people feel disoriented or blindsided. Roll out changes gradually, with lots of notice and communication. Ideally, most changes or improvements can be done in consultation with the community itself.
Information is power and the more information you have, the better equipped you will be to update your strategies and keep the momentum going. Tracking and comparing your measurements over time is key to figuring out what is (and isn’t) working and course correct as required. With an analytics or tracking platform that allows you to see how healthy your community is, this won't be a massive time and energy-draining task.
One last thing to bear in mind is that an active community isn’t necessarily a wholly-satisfied one. Your members may still have pain points or unmet needs that they haven’t had a chance to articulate. Make it easy for them to provide feedback and suggestions and be sure to respond to them with gratitude! You might consider incorporating user testing, user surveys, post analysis, or get crazy and reach out by DM or email to ask some of your loyal users how they are doing and—most importantly—what you could be doing to better serve them.
If your community is a valuable, interesting, enjoyable place to be, your members will keep coming back. The tactics above will help you increase engagement in your online community, which contributes to overall brand engagement. Consumers have come to expect increasingly more interactive and experiential relationships with the brands they buy from and advocate for. The more regularly people interact with your mission, values and messaging, the more likely they are to think of you and your brand the next time they’re in the market for whatever it is you have to offer. In a world of seemingly endless choice, being top of mind and held in high regard is an amazing way to ensure your target audiences will choose you.
What to read next:
Denise Henkel shares her 4 secret ingredients for building a vibrant community. Read it on the CMX Blog!