David Spinks
Jan 7, 2016 · 8 min read

This is post #6 in my 365 day writing challenge.

A really common question we get in the CMX community is how to improve engagement in a community.

It’s a hard question to answer because there are so many different kinds of communities and engagement can mean so many things.

Is it a series of events and you’re looking to improve attendance rates? Or interaction at your event? Is it an online community and you’re looking increase the amount of people posting content? What kind of content is it? Questions? Articles? Pictures? Ideas?

Since “engagement in your community” can mean so many things, it’s really hard to tell someone exactly how to increase engagement in their community on a general level. There isn’t a silver bullet I can give you that will suddenly make it highly engaged again. Engagement is a process, it builds on itself and it’s the sum of many factors.

Ideally you should be looking at engagement as an experiment. Form a hypothesis around what you think will work, test it, and adapt based on what you learn.

With that, I wanted to try to point our a few reasons why your experiments aren’t working and your community may not be reaching the engagement levels you want. Out of the many hundreds of communities I’ve seen, these are the most common problems…

1. You have the wrong people in the group

All members are not created equal.

People want to participate in groups of people that they look up to or respect. If they see the members of the group as lame, or not their people, they won’t want to participate.

In his book “The Culting of Brands” Douglas Atkin recommends recruiting members who have great social skills. I don’t think you necessarily always have to just choose the “cool kids” but just keep in mind that your best recruiters and engagement drivers will be existing members. So it’s important that existing members can convince others to join, and make others want to participate.

2. You Aren’t Creating Any Value for your Members

A community becomes highly engaged when people feel rewarded for the participation and they’re triggered to return.

A great model to help you wrap your head around this is the Hooked Model by Nir Eyal, which helps explain how some products are able to form habit loops that keep their users coming back. Basically, every time a member takes an action, whether it’s joining the community, reading something, responding, posting, etc., they must feel a reward. Ifyour members aren’t feeling a reward for their actions, they won’t be motivated to come back to your community.

When people first join a community, the rewards are almost always extrinsic. It’s to solve a problem or need they have like getting answers to questions or to be entertained.

Only after they’ve participated in the community for a while will the reward become intrinsic and they’ll get value from the sense of belonging and identity it brings them. They’ll want to contribute because they’re rewarded with status in the community.

Until they get to the point where it’s intrinsic, you have to constantly be solving a problem for members. If you aren’t solving their problems, they’ll stop coming back.

That’s why it’s so important to make sure that every member that posts something gets a response. Ideally from another member, but if not from another member, then from you. Until things start happening organically, YOU have to make it happen.

3. You aren’t reminding members to come back

Eventually your goal is for members to make participating in the community a habit. They’ll feel an obligation to the group and make it a habit to keep coming back.

That takes a long time though. Until that natural habit forms, you need to pull people back into the community.

This is one of the main reasons I choose facebook groups when starting new communities. People already have a habit of being on facebook, so it’s easy to pull them back into the group via notifications.

This is why Slack has been picking up a lot of momentum for external communities even though the product isn’t even built for that use case. It’s not because of the product… it’s a very simple product. It’s because people already have slack open for their team communication and they’ll see the notifications.

Other community platforms usually use email to pull members back in. That works for some but you risk the notifications going to spam, or being filtered into a folder they don’t look at. It really depends on your members and whether or not they like using email for the purpose of being notified.

Mobile has the opportunity to be really powerful for communities thanks to push notifications.

Another thing we do at CMX is link to specific interesting threads from the group in our email newsletter. This pulls people back to the community, to a specific thread that we know is highly engaging.

The holy grail of community engagement is getting members to form a habit of coming back. Until then, you have to pull them in.

4. Your Barriers to Entry are Too High

Related to the idea of rewarding members with value, if the work they have to put in outweighs the value they get out, they won’t do it.

And even more important is the level of trust that the member has that they will receive that value.

You can offer a million dollars to a member if they’ll participate, but if they don’t trust that you actually will give it to them, they won’t participate regardless of whether or not you actually plan to.

So if the value is low, or the member’s level of trust that they’ll receive that value is still low, you have to make your barriers to entry really low. Make it as easy as possible for people to participate.

5. Your leadership style isn’t resonating

This is why it’s so hard for someone to tell you how to engage your community. What works for them may not work for you. They may be really funny and outgoing and that’s what gets people talking in the community. If you’re not funny, don’t try to be. Find your own style.

You don’t have to be funny, or even terribly charismatic to be a great leader. I mean, if you’re extremely socially awkward then maybe being the community facilitator isn’t the best job for you. But there are many different kinds of leaders. Some are soft spoken and reserved. Some are really weird and energized. Some are great story tellers and love to be on stage, some prefer to stay int he background and let others do the talking.

What’s important is that you exhibit the elements of great leadership, that your style is true to your personality and that it resonates with the community.

6. You Haven’t Created a Space of Emotional Safety

One of the key elements in creating a sense of community is emotional safety.

Relationships form when people can identify with each other and relate to each other. In order to that, they have to be open, they have to share. But if the community doesn’t have an environment that makes them feel safe, they won’t share.

A member feels emotionally safe when they feel like they can post without being judged or ridiculed. They need to feel like the other members of the group will empathize with them and understand.

This is important in all communities, not just communities with a sensitive subject matter. Every subject has sensitive, personal aspects to it.

7. You Aren’t Creating High Impact Shared Experiences

Asynchronous conversations are rarely enough for people to form relationships and for a true sense of community to form. They need to have live experiences with each other. They need to communicate in the moment. Ideally, they need to come together face to face.

Shared experience is a component of basically every community psychology theory you’ll find.

Hosting events is a simple way to bring the community together. Look for opportunities to create intimate experiences at events. Just standing around in a big room drinking or listening to speakers won’t make people feel connected to each other. Having deep conversations will. Getting drunk at the hotel afterward and making mistakes will. Creating challenges for people to work through will.

If you can have people work together to accomplish a goal, that’s even better. Shared experiences with a specific beginning and an end are amazing for building community.

That’s why groups like the military, fraternities and sports teams have such strong communities. Because members go through a shared experience, usually something extremely challenging, together. And there’s a goal and a reward at the end that they get to share together.

Hackathons work really well for the same reason. Developer facing products like Twilio, SendGrid and Keen.io host and participate in hackathons as a core component in their community strategy. It creates an experience where developers are working together to accomplish a goal in a set amount of time. By the end of the hackathon, strong relationships are forged.

8. Your Onboarding Experience Needs to be Improved

A member’s first experience with your community is critical. If it sucks, they’ll join and never come back.

For every member that joins, you should ensure three things:

1. They feel acknowledged (ideally by a specific person)

2. They know what to do first

3. When they take that first reaction, there’s a response

It’s tempting to focus on growth to fix your engagement problem. Adding more members will create more engagement right? No…probably not. Remember, nothing else matters if you have a leaky bucket and every member who joins churns immediately. Your priority should be on member retention before you focus on member growth.

I learned a lot of these lessons for myself when building the CMX community. The CMX facebook group is actually the third time I’ve tried to build a community of community professionals. The other ones worked well but this group just took off. I think it worked really well this time because:

1. I already established myself as a leader

2. We made sure every question was answered quickly and that every member who joined the group was welcomed personally

3. We hosted it as a facebook group so it was easy to pull people back in

4. The barrier to participating in a facebook group is extremely low on both web and mobile

5. We set the example by being open and transparent ourselves so others felt comfortable doing the same

6. It was launched simultaneously with CMX Summit, an epic shared experience for members that they would remember together

7. We seeded the community with CMX speakers and community influencers first who provided a ton of value with their answers, and made new members excited to participate because they respected the people they saw in there

Hopefully this will help you identify some potential reasons for your community being quiet. Just remember, it’s an experiment. It’s okay to be wrong, as long as you learn and you try something new. Keep trying until you find a rhythm that works for your community.


Grow your Business with the Power of Community

David Spinks

Written by

Founder of CMX. Helping good people build great communities.



Grow your Business with the Power of Community

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