Many online communities get started out with the simple mantra if we build it they will come. If it worked for Kevin Costner in “Field of Dreams” surely it can work for a new online community powered by Jive, Lithium, Telligent, etc!!! If we have learned anything from the mid-90’s until now as online professionals regardless of our roles is that simply having a website doesn’t mean millions will suddenly flock to it and starting using. This is the Internet equivalent of fools good: build something online and success and millions of people will instantly show up!
Even if you get people to show up to your online community or social channel it doesn’t mean they will stick around for very long or visit often.
5 Ways Online Communities Fail to Keep Active Members
No Retention Program
How many times have you gotten a killer flyer for a party and shown up and the place was empty and/or nothing to do? Too often online community programs spend so much time focusing on getting new members they forget they need to retain the members joining and not only that but keep them coming back! How are you going to keep new members coming back tomorrow, next week and next month? Too often a online community is set to sail only geared and modeled towards getting new members and immediately the data that starts coming might be an exceptionally high number of new members but an even steeper decline in dormant users at the 5-30 day mark.
No Onboarding Program
While many social networking sites like Pinterest and Facebook can mostly be highly intuitive in getting started using that often isn’t the case for many online communities as there often is zero direction in walking new users through how they can use it, what to expect and helping to guide them through getting started. In communities like this where there is in essence no one there to greet you and help you get started how often do you really expect new members to stick around? Often you find people beating their heads wondering why their community isn’t doing more of something never realizing no groundwork and especially onboarding efforts have been made to even push community members towards it.
No Expanded Activities
Whether it’s for new members, existing members or power members you need an expanded circle of activities to keep them engaged and as well pushing them beyond their initial user activity bubble. Initial user activity bubble is the main action a user usually sets out to do. In the retail space your user activity bubble could be to go into a Best Buy only to check out the movie section. What will it take for Best Buy to expand your activities to include checking out the computer section or end caps? In the same way for online communities how do you get users to start exploring and participating (including helping others) beyond their original user activity bubble and what they usually always set out do once visiting or logging into your online community?
Once you get them past that you might still be faced with the challenge of having a limited budget or resources and in some cases waiting on the next big release to offer new features that will offer your community new tools or things to do. The key there is never to over rely on what you don’t have. Look at your existing community applications and use it in a variety of ways instead of just at face value. The amount of different kinds of live event activities for example you can use either within a forum application of a community or in combination of other social channels is staggering.
Additional areas in expanding activities is auditing your existing social signal and earned media touchpoints. This is going to be aimed at both active contributing content community members and as well as community members that prefer to read and consume content. What activities can these community members perform with your existing set of social signals and earned media? Social signals can often perform multiple actions aimed at both of these audiences: indexing content by rating it (especially for getting reader and consumer type of community members to login to indicate a content item was helpful or in the event of a support community was a solution that actually worked for them), collecting content by liking it (saves to a defined page they can review their favorited types of content) and importantly how they index content helps provide social signals to it that all other community members get the benefit of.
Expanded or better placed social signals can greatly help out in the often challenge of getting community members who prefer to read and thus rarely logging in actual value added reasons to log in and participate (even if they aren’t directly contributing content when doing so).
Community Engagement is Treated as a Free T-Shirt Giveway
Having a thriving reward and recognition program for an online community or social channel requires evolving the discussion beyond, “How many free t-shirts can we give away this month Johnny!?!” The thing you have to keep in mind here is that members are motivated in different ways with some being motivated by rewards (t-shirts, iPads, etc), virtual rewards as well as either recognition (physical awards, offline event opportunities, etc) or virtual recognition (status levels earned by reaching X amount of points or virtual badges gained by performing a series of actions).
Think about it also from the mindset of many of your most active users who could have generated hundreds if not thousands of content contributions (forum posts, blog comments, etc) and you go to hand them a t-shirt. For many the work and time they spent in contributing to your community at that point they will value far greater than some $5-$20 t-shirt. There is a real fools gold in online community building where so many try to throw free t-shirts at this and as well increasing engagement. A free t-shirt drive for your online community might give you a spike in desired metrics for one to two days in some cases but what hooks are there for them to remain active and as well for those that were your top users have you unintentionally driven them off in the process?
When building your community engagement program model it with a healthy balance of underlying user motivation Some will need actual rewards and others virtual rewards. Some will need actual recognition and others virtual recognition. Also keep in mind the goals and experience you are going for.
Give reward and recognition to your community beyond anything too easy to obtain and especially where your competition can easily match you. If you are giving away t-shirts, electronics or gift cards these are often items your competition can easily also giveaway. Make your reward and recognition program unique. Give away real or virtual rewards and recognition that your users can’t simply walk in to any store or online community and get. By doing that you will be separating yourself from the pack and especially modeling your program with your community members in mind. It has to be an organic and complimentary experience to succeed versus something tacked on.
No Two Way Communication or Offline Component
When it comes to engagement don’t forget to engage, interact and reach out to your online community. In social media people often forget to be social. If your community feels that all communication is one way including social relationships it has with you and employees of your online community their investment in your community will tend to be very frail. The social stake and investment in your online community is something you want your members to feel passionately about to the point there is no way they would completely stop and never come back.Too often community members only get barraged with one way communication. That feeling of “does this online community and the people behind it really care and listen to me” goes greatly down. In a healthy online community you will rarely feel that way.
Twitter is a great example of this. Browse to the Twitter handle of any business, thought leader or celebrity you follow. On these accounts how many do you see tweeting away and never interacting or responding back to anyone else? This is especially baffling with quote unquote social media experts where their entire Twitter feed is all one way. They have countless people engaging back with them but not a single one is getting engaged back to. Now think back to your online community and are people having a similar experience? Engage with and get to know your community members of all types as much as is humanly possible.
Lastly nearly every online community needs a healthy balance of offline to it in order to succeed long term. Having as many offline components as you physically can have will go miles for your program in effort. Virtual relationships either as business acquaintances or friends only goes so far. At some point to really cement a relationship you have to have some type of offline connection. So from that point of view you will find almost immediately it will be impossible to meet all your online community members offline but you can be sure to make sure at the minimum you do create offline components so that you can meet as many as possible. This can be through increased participation at industry tradeshows, community meet ups (either member driven or setup through your company), company events and more. In China many online communities that span hundreds of thousands of users and near equal amount of ongoing earned media regularly hold offline community meet ups that are often usually entirely setup by community members which can run the table from being an education driven event with multiple training sessions to basic networking style meet ups with food and drinks provided.
Even activities with your community members like Google+ Hangouts (video webchats) can go miles as you break away from being virtual identities into real breathing human beings. The combination of online virtual two way engagement with offline components takes your online community from feeling anonymous/cold/lifeless to feeling human and thriving.
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