Everyone has their own engagement theories for fostering interaction within online communities. Some engaged communities appear effortless while others remain stagnant, with occasional spurts of activity. So, what gives? What’s the trick for building sustainable, steady engagement?
In general, if you want to motivate someone to do something -- say you want your kid to help do household chores -- what do you do? The answer, usually, is something along the lines of bribery. If you want to incentivize your kid to make the bed and take out the trash -- you’ll probably give her an allowance. Or permission to go to the movies with her friends and stay out later. If she doesn’t follow through, you’ll take away money or permissions.
Do you think this really works? It might in the short term, but what happens when you stop bribing? Is she still motivated to help out around the house or did you just take away her reason for pushing herself so hard? Unless she gets some sort of enjoyment or satisfaction from her contributions, she won’t be motivated any more. Bribery or handouts work in the short term, but they don’t build a self sustaining habit.
Short term versus long term engagement
The key is a look at psychology, as Sarah Hawk explained in the new eBook Using Automation to Support Motivation in Online Communities.
What makes humans tick, consciously and subconsciously? According to Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory, there are two types of motivating rewards:
- Intrinsic Rewards -- Motivated from within, not from external factors
- Extrinsic Rewards -- Motivated by external factors, or things
What does that look like? Here are a few examples:
- Intrinsic Rewards -- Feeling helpful or as if you’re contributing to a greater good. So, if your child can see how important and helpful it is to take out the trash or mow the lawn once a week, they’ll be more motivated. Who knows, maybe they enjoy those chores! Your child would help out even without money.
- Extrinsic Rewards -- Receiving something physical for completing a task. Like giving your daughter an allowance for completing her chores. Or giving members gift cards if they upload a profile picture or participate in a discussion. You’re motivated to do something because you want the prize at the end and might not have done it without that incentive.
Although extrinsic rewards can be useful and spur engagement, giving out freebies doesn’t cultivate a long lasting culture of engagement. If you need something specific, like survey responses, extrinsic rewards like raffles, swag or gift cards can work. But if you want people to make community a habit, you need to tap into those intrinsic values so they want to participate even if they don’t get a prize. They get something more powerful out of it -- a sense of belonging, pride, happiness. Since their motivation isn’t connected to an outside reward, it’s more sustainable.
Intrinsic engagement in action
How do you intrinsically motivate members? Since you can’t just hand out prizes, creating opportunities to intrinsically motivate members is more nuanced, but very doable. It goes back to what makes humans tick.
Here are a few examples for a more intrinsically motivated community:
1. Make sure members feel like they belong
People are motivated by connections and a sense of belonging. It’s a deeply human need that community can help foster if it’s facilitated in the right way. Simply being a member isn’t enough. Belonging is a deeper feeling, ingrained in one’s identity.
Lyft, the ridesharing company, does this really well by making sure their drivers see their work as more than just work -- they’re part of a community, and being a Lyft driver is part of their identity. Drivers initially will join to make money, but there’s a reason they chose Lyft over a competitor -- Lyft works to make sure their drivers connect with each other, support each other and continue Lyft’s unique traditions and culture through meetups and other driver organized events.
So how does this look in practice within your community? This probably goes without saying, but networking and connecting with fellow members needs to be easy. These connections can happen many different ways. For example, create a program that makes it easy for members to find a mentor or mentee. Create fun “Coffee Talk” groups where members can start alternative conversations.
Games like Werewolf or Mafia are also a fun way to build community and a sense of belonging amongst members. Games bring fun to the community and connect members who normally might not interact with each other -- especially games that require people to work in teams. They don’t take up too much time, but it deviates from business topics and give members one more reason to log on everyday.
Don’t forget to bring the online community offline into the real world. Have happy hours or meetups so that members can get to know each other and bond in different settings. You can even encourage members to organize their own events. Which brings us to another intrinsic motivator.
2. Loosen up the reins and give members autonomy
Why do something if you can’t make any decisions or effect change? That’s why autonomy is a powerful motivator, and why members should feel like they have a healthy amount of power in the community.
Community organizers do a great job of this -- they’re trying to enact positive change, whether it’s on a micro-local level (like getting a speed bump on your street) or a macro level, like changing federal legislation. No matter the goal, you can’t affect change without the help of community -- and your community needs to feel a sense of ownership and initiative to take action. Community organizers prompt community members to feel empowered and autonomous so they start canvassing, making phone calls and protesting.
How do you foster that same sense of autonomy and actually motivate members to participate (without it getting out of control)?
It’s very important to set clear boundaries for what is and isn’t permissible in the community. Boundaries are important for several reasons. First, it inhibits mayhem and ensures members don’t break any important rules. Second, members won’t be paralyzed by the fear that they’ll accidentally break a rule -- they’ll know exactly what power they do have, what’s helpful and what’s not.
Once boundaries are set, encourage members to take certain actions, like starting a new discussion or organizing an event.
3. Members should feel smart (because they are)
Members like to feel smart and knowledgeable in your community’s subject matter. Validating members’ contributions and helpfulness is very motivating.
Encourage members to share their knowledge and expertise with the community. Even if you know the answer to a member’s question, don’t jump in right away to answer it. Wait for a fellow member to lend a hand. If someone knows a lot about a particular subject, ask them to write a blog or be part of a community webinar.
4. Ensure your members know they're valued
Knowing you’re valued and your input is worth something is a strong intrinsic motivator, especially with Millennials. Millennials are happy to volunteer and contribute, but particularly for projects that require a unique skill or expertise they have. Use this to your advantage. Brand ambassador or volunteer programs do a great job of tapping into this motivator.
Consider your members experts in the community. Set varying permissions for members as they become more involved so that MVPs, mentors or volunteers can help moderate discussions, create events, upload blog posts or any other tasks particular to your community. Consult them if you need ideas or are considering enacting changes. And, if crisis strikes in your community, these MVP members will be invaluable for you -- they have insider knowledge that you’ll never fully have.
Don’t you think treating members as the experts they are is empowering? That’s exactly what you want, because empowered members are motivated members.
Fine tune your tactics
Not all extrinsic rewards are inherently bad. Instead of putting a carrot in front of every member, make prizes random and unexpected. Occasionally just give a gift card to October’s most active member. Or a lurker who just started posting. Rather than making it a prize to be won, make it a thank you gift -- which contributes to all the above intrinsic motivators, like a sense of belonging and importance.
Since every community is unique, experiment to see which rewards -- or combination of rewards -- motivate your members the most.
What are your favorite ways to motivate members?