When I joined my first online community 8 years ago, I was excited to see and take part in key discussions in my industry. The association I belonged to had launched a private online community for members earlier in the year and I couldn't wait to get involved. But when I logged in, I thought there was something wrong with my browser. Every group and discussion area was a ghost town. Even the questions that I now know were seed questions from the organization didn't have any responses.
That experience shaped my view of that association for years to come before I eventually dropped my membership. I wanted to connect with my peers, but the community's structure, value, and management processes weren't set up to get members to participate.
Hopefully your online community isn't silent, but even today it's not unusual for communities to have participation problems. It's also completely normal to feel frustrated when you're trying to fix those problems and find a solution that works. It's hard.
Getting members to participate in your online community is one of the biggest challenges that organizations have. As such, there is a lot of information out there about how to deal with participation problems, and you can spend hours, days, or even weeks perusing it all.
But while there's a lot of helpful community management advice on overcoming participation issues, not all of that advice will be helpful to your organization. Why? Because your participation problems and their causes are unique to you and the solutions will be too.
You need to create processes that solve your community's problems, not the general problems that other organizations have. How do you do this? Start by using your community's analytics data to uncover your unique problems and develop the best strategies to encourage participation.
These four easy steps will help you collect the right information and use it effectively to solve participation issues.
4 Steps for Using Data to Overcome Online Community Participation Problems
Step 1) Collect Behavioral, Transactional, and Demographic Data
Typically, your CRM or membership database stores information about who your customers are and what they purchased. However, you can't get a clear view of your participation problems with just one or two types of data, so start this process by collecting data from your community in three specific areas, including behavioral, transactional, and demographic information.
Your demographic data will include your members' ages location, jobs, and more. Behavioral data encompasses everything that your members interact with online. Transactional data details the items your members were willing to make a financial investment in. Finally, blog views, forum posts, and peer networking are all components of behavioral data.
For most organization, the easiest way get all this information is with an all-in-one community platform. These platforms automatically collect all three tyoes of information on your members and store it in a single, easy-to-access location.
If you have disparate systems, you may have to look in multiple locations for member data. Activity and behavioral data may be in your online community software, while transactional and demographic information will likely be in your membership database. Your event software, email engine, and survey tool could also contain useful information on your members.
Getting all these types of data will help give you a comprehensive view of your members and how they're currently participating (or not participating) in your online community. It will be the basis for identifying both participation problems and their causes, so be thorough when collecting your data. The more information you have, the better.
Step 2) Zero in on Participation Problems
Once you have as much information as possible, use your data to identify how much members are currently participating in your online community, then zero in on problems. There are two common types problems you may find: general participation problems and individual activity problems.
General Participation Problems
These problems are widespread and don't originate with any specific activity. Usually, they involve the bulk of your members not completing a large number of activities.
Engagement dashboards and graphs that track members' activity levels are good places to get an overview of general or widespread participation problems. You might use these tools to identify a large number of members in love engagement levels, such as your "zero" level, for instance. This indicates that they have performed few to no actions in your system. Having the bulk of your members in low levels isn't uncommon, but it does bring up the possibility that you have a general participation problem.
Individual Activity Problems
These issues occur when members are not performing certain actions in your online community. Some specific participation problems might include:
- Not logging in
- Not filling out a profile
- Not commenting on blogs or posting in forums
- Not connecting with other members
- Not uploading, downloading, or viewing files
- Not participating in surveys and polls
You can easily identify individual activity problems by running engagement reports or viewing dashboards. Look at the number of members who have performed important activities. If the numbers are low, you have a specific activity problem.
Knowing if you have an individual activity problem or a general, big-picture participation problem will help you develop the right strategies to combat the issue. It will also help you target your strategies toward only members who have not been engaging in your community.
Step 3) Identify the Cause of the Problem
To get a deeper understanding of your participation problems, continue to analyze your data and look for likely causes. When you develop strategies to combat the issue, they should target the causes you find, not just treat the symptoms.
- If people aren't logging in to your online community, is that because it's difficult for them?
- If people aren't reading your blogs, is that because blogs are difficult to read on mobile, or do people dislike your blog topics?
The cause of your problem can be anything from poor topics to technical issues, but once you get to the root of the problem you will be better equipped to fix it. Problems that are caused by technical issues such as frequent outages may indicate that you need a more reliable online community platform provider. Issues that stem from confusing navigation may mean that it's time to redesign your online community to make participation easier.
If you can't get enough information on the cause of a problem by digging through your data, ask your members directly. Surveys and polls that pop up in your online community or are sent through emails can give you opinions and feedback on why members aren't participating.
Step 4) Develop Systematic Engagement Strategies
Community management is about putting processes in place to impact the participation of entire groups of people. Use the detailed information you've collected to create engagement strategies that focus on your unique participation problems, their causes, and the members involved.
Remember that your member engagement strategies should take different approaches based on the type of problem you're dealing with.
General Participation Strategies
General participation problems often require broad engagement efforts that target your entire member base or large segments that are not participating. The data in your online community software will help you steer your community toward higher participation. Use that data, including engagement levels, to determine which members to target for your strategies.
One way to increase participation in general is to use your data to identify areas with high levels of engagement. Areas with high engagement indicate places where your members see value. What content, benefits, and offers are in those areas? Create more of the same type of content, or more materials on the same subject.
For instance, if your members are reading tons of blog posts on the professional skills necessary in your industry, write more on that topic and expand to new types of content. Create professional skills training courses and include skills workshops in your events. Since members have already indicated they're interested in these subjects, more content is likely to encourage more engagement.
Individual Activity Strategies
Strategies designed to increase participation in certain activities call for more targeted strategies. Your engagement tactics should be geared only toward members who are not performing the tasks. They should also include a direct action for members to take.
If members aren't completing profiles, for instance, you can develop a strategy that encourages members to fill out their profile information. On-screen ticklers reminding members about their empty profiles as well as an email campaign with a call-to-action for members to "fill out your profile now" is a good start. Include the benefits of the action in the campaign, explaining that complete profiles make it easier for members to build their personal brand as well as connect with peers and experts.
Professional Online Community Management Advice
Katie Bapple, Senior Director of Online Community Management, advises that you also speak directly with your members in order to increase participation. Your staff should start conversations and find out what activities and topics members are interested in. Then, your organization can use that information to create a content schedule that will appeal to members.
Take full advantage of your online community activity data to supplement your conversations and see what blog posts, forums, and topics members are already interacting with. Build better content that members want to engage with based on both your conversations and your data.
Once that's finished, Katie recommends keeping the lines of communication open, ensuring that members know about the content you've created for them.
Encouraging Online Community Participation Takeaway
The biggest advantage of using data to solve problems is that your data is specific to your organization. It can effectively pinpoint the issues that apply to your members and your community, not just those that affect other communities. To make the most of this process, take advantage of all the data at your disposal to identify your community's problems and develop the right targeted strategies to solve them.
Your strategies should be tailored specifically to fit your organization, your members, and your unique online community. Take member needs into account every step of the way. Members' interests, priorities, and the benefits they want to interact with should all play a part in your strategies.
The participation strategies you end up with after going through this process will be different from those you read about online. They'll be unique to your organization and its concerns, and will have the best chance of success.