“If you build it, he will come.” – Field of Dreams
If only this were true for any kind of online community. However, waiting for new members to show up and engage at your site will only rarely succeed. Creating a successful, vibrant online community – especially for an audience of busy professionals – requires a thoughtful, active approach to attracting, inviting, involving, maintaining and retaining members. The umbrella term to describe the process of acquiring and sustaining participation by members in an online community is member engagement.
From a strategic point of view, member engagement is much more than a numbers game based on visitors, visits and page views. The value of a professional community depends upon the quality of the information shared and the strength of the connections created between members, as well as the quantity of these activities. High-quality online collaboration requires regular outreach to new members, encouragement of current members, and reconnection efforts with inactive users to stimulate visits, participation and continuing engagement with other members of the community.
Encouraging collaboration and participation is not a one-time startup activity, but an ongoing process, one that is primarily concerned with building and sustaining user behaviors and interactions. Along with pure activity measures and measures customer and member satisfaction, member engagement is a key metric for site success.
Each member of an online community or professional network participates in the community or network at one of four stages of activity: being online, doing online, acting online and finally, thinking online. Each of these stages represents a greater level of member participation, involvement with community content and, especially, with other members.
Here is a Four-Stage Engagement Model for Online Community which simplifies the member engagement process. Rather than trying to craft communications and incentives for individual members, or using a single, standard approach for all members, the model helps group leaders and community managers categorize their memberships and create a package of communications and activities tailored to each stage.
Stage 1: Being Online
Characteristics: Members 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.
Engagement resources: Launch guides, welcome kits, “official greeters”, suggested content resources.
Stage 2: Doing Online
Characteristics: Members who are somewhat invested in the community with limited contributions and member connections online. Members 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 member stage is expand their participation into new or unfamiliar areas. They need encouragement to increase participation and experiment.
Engagement resources: Basic user recognition incentives and rewards; best-practice examples to support more participation and experimentation; receive mentor-ship experiences.
Stage 3: Acting Online
Characteristics: Members 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.
Engagement resources: Encourage member-to-member support and leadership; intermediate member recognition incentives and rewards; best practice contributors.
Stage 4: Thinking Online
Characteristics: Members who are persistently active in the community and in contributing to its success over time. Enablement for increasing participation for the community’s most active and engaged members. 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.
Engagement resources: Leadership and governance opportunities; advisory board members; best practice award recipients; advanced member recognition incentives and rewards including site performance metrics; mentors.
At each stage, different tools and techniques can capture the member’s attention and support or sustain their current activity, and encourage participation at the next level of involvement. The end state 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. No all member will progress through the cycles to stage 4. Many will remain at stage 2 or stage 3 and that is OK – as with any group (online or offline) not all members become community leaders. The goal is to create and increase opportunities for member engagement, and to help members succeed in their experience at every stage.