How to Elevate the Quality of Engagement in Your Online Community
Going beyond "engagement for engagement's sake" and starting the conversations that really matter
One of the most common fears for those who run online communities is lack of engagement. What if you put a ton of effort into researching, strategizing, and launching a new community, and then nobody interacts? It’s like that feeling you get fifteen minutes before your birthday party starts, when you’re convinced that you have all these chips, and nobody is going to show up (that’s not just me, right?). Because of this fear, too often community leaders prioritize amping up the quantity of engagement, and don’t place enough emphasis on the quality of engagement. In the service of bloated engagement metrics, community managers can often choose strategies with an eye toward volume—and they end up with communities where discussions are at best vague and irrelevant, and at worst repetitive or unhealthy. It’s the difference between a lively class discussion about the material and one that’s full of kids asking the teacher questions about why they got a B+ instead of an A- on their last paper. I’ve been there. I used to run a community on Facebook that drew tens of thousand of “engaged” members (around 50% of 40k total members were typically active month over month). But, even though the numbers looked good, I still didn’t feel like the community was as valuable as it could be—it wasn’t helping my team discover new power users, get great feedback, identify emerging strategies, or source amazing content. When I went through the painstaking process of manually auditing my Facebook group’s posts over the past three months, and analyzing them for topic, sentiment, engagement, and more, the results confirmed my instincts. Here’s a breakdown of the types of posts I was seeing in my community:
Of course, community goals vary. But in my case, almost 40% of the posts in my community were about support in some way (direct support requests, general support requests, and general product questions). For a company with a robust support offering (live chat, an award-winning team, and a very thorough knowledge base), I knew this wasn’t the most valuable way my community could be used. Instead of getting to the heart of best practices and building powerful relationships, my members were using my community essentially as a really inefficient way to search our knowledge base. So, when I completely revamped my community offering and migrated off of Facebook onto a new platform called Circle, I became obsessed with improving the quality of conversations. I wanted my community to be a go-to place for high quality insights, best practices, and networking. And, it made a big difference—members shared almost right away that they felt the quality of discussion was higher, and coworkers started to rely on the space more and more to source content, find rising stars, and learn from engaged members. In this post, I’ll be sharing the strategies I used to elevate the quality of conversation in my community. Before we dive into these strategies, I think it's worth acknowledging that the community I run is a brand community for a SaaS company. There are many different types of online communities, and for some of them, a greater sense of distributed ownership is warranted than might be a fit for a community run by a brand. It's important to evaluate strategy in line with your community's unique goals—but I hope that in any places the specific advice in this post isn't a fit, the thinking behind it might still be helpful. If you'd like to get more free resources on community management, straight to your inbox, you can grab templates, cheat-sheets, and guides on community management by clicking the button below:
Stop using "Big Social" to host your community.
Sometimes, the place sets the tone. A party you host at the beach is going to feel really different than one that you host at a banquet hall. The same people will adopt and embody different behavior based on what they associate with the setting. The same is true for hosting communities on Big Social platforms like Facebook (and Slack, to a degree) versus hosting on a platform where you have the ability to define the culture. Does that mean that there’s no way to host a high-quality community on Facebook? No, of course not. But, communities on Facebook face an uphill battle to setting a tone that’s conducive to the professional environment that many brands covet. If your members having an argument with a family member about politics in one thread and then jumping in to discuss your brand in another, you may see a tone bubble up in your community that’s influenced by other parts of Facebook. By setting up a community on owned platforms (I run mine on Circle), you have a greater opportunity to set a culture from scratch that’s associated only with your brand.
“A party you host at the beach is going to feel really different than one you host at a banquet hall.”
Define both community standards and community values.
Practically every community out there has community standards. These tend to focus on things that are prohibited—don’t be mean, don’t promote yourself, and don’t talk about stuff that’s irrelevant. I think it’s equally important to define your community values—the things that if every community member embodied, would take your community to new heights.
In the community I run, these community values are a big part of how I define the quality of discussion. I try to reference these values as frequently as I reference my community standards. My community values include things like “give as much as you take” (which encourages members to not only ask questions, but to share their best tricks), “success is in the details” (which encourages members to get into the nitty gritty of why they hold certain opinions or use certain strategies), and “abundance mindset” (which encourages members to let go of their eye for competition and come to the community ready to help others succeed). Taking the time to define your community values will give you and your members a greater understanding of the “higher purpose” of your community, and give you something in common to strive for.
Model the type of content you want to see.
I’ve talked a lot in past posts about a favorite engagement strategy I use, the flywheel. It has relevance here, too. For the full strategy, check out this post (it’s strategy #2). To summarize: don’t expect great posts to magically appear in your community. Instead, try to get a sense for the unique expertise and genius of each member, and then reach out to them proactively to ask them to share. Sometimes, people need encouragement to share their best work. Whereas they might easily chime into a question someone else asked or weigh in with a throwaway comment, sharing your actual opinions, in detail, takes courage. As a community leader, you can be a part of building up that courage. In addition to this, I curate a selection of the best posts of the week every single Friday in my community, which I call the “Friday Digest.” I tag in the members who contributed the posts, and ask others to join in the discussions. Importantly, I also include I blurb in each digest explaining why these posts are the best, which references and links back to my community values. Doing this gives members something concrete to emulate when they contribute in my community.
Remind, redirect, and remove when you need to.
Remember that the culture of your community is set by what members see others posting. No matter how many times you say that your community is about raising adopted dogs, if members see that half of the posts are actually about promoting dog grooming parlors, they’ll probably start to post about that, too. When you see conversations that don’t help you reach your higher vision for community, you can take a three step approach.
First, remind the member what the community is here for—its purpose. They may just not know—a lot of communities do not have clear purposes, or their purposes are co-opted over time. Bring them into the vision of why your community strives to be what it is, and the value you’re trying to build there. Next, try to redirect the conversation. Ask follow-up questions that help you identify the high-quality insights or expertise that the member might be able to contribute, related to your community’s purpose.
And lastly, play clean-up on your space. Don't be afraid to remove posts that don’t have relevance or longevity. This makes it so when members access your community and start reading the conversations there, they will draw from the example of the highest quality posts, versus the ones that are distracting or only relevant to the original poster. It's important to note that you should do this graciously, with a light touch, and only after making sure the original contributor got what they needed. Don't miss the opportunity to show them how they can still contribute in the future, and don't make them feel bad—bring them into the vision for how they can help build the culture of the community with you.
(For what it’s worth, I would have really disagreed with this approach three years ago—removing stuff felt like censorship. For example, even though conversations about support were always discouraged in my community, I used to constantly discourage them in comments, but still always answer and leave them up. So, it’s no wonder I was never able to change that culture in my community—any time a new member would come in, they'd quickly learn that the community was a viable place to discuss support, and even better, get an answer from an admin.
There’s an attitude in community management that you have to meet your members exactly where they are and indulge any conversation—I think we’ll see this viewpoint shift in the coming years. Playing a more active role in curating the content that stays up in my community has been a more effective strategy for me in encouraging posts that have more lasting value—and I can tell it's working because I had to remove posts much more often in the first quarter or so of my community, and I barely rely on this strategy at all now that the culture is set.)
Reward your best contributors intrinsically and extrinsically.
This is discussed a lot in community management, and that’s because it works. When you have members who are consistently making your community a better place, reward them for it.
Intrinsic rewards are things like giving your member a shoutout, a nice comment, or a virtual high five. They’re “feel good” things that make your members happy they contributed. Extrinsic rewards, on the other hand, are tangible. The most common ones referenced in community management are gamification and swag, but be careful with over-using these.
More impactful extrinsic rewards will tie back to the outcomes your members are trying to achieve, versus being shallow physical tokens of success. Examples are things like featuring the member’s accomplishments in your blog or social media or helping them get a speaking opportunity related to their field. These things are incredibly effective because they can help other members understand the tangible outcomes of participating actively and contributing high-quality content to your community.
I hope you enjoyed this post and found it helpful. If you're struggling to ramp up the quality of engagement in your community, I might be able to help—learn more about working with me here.
Lastly, you can get free resources on community building straight to your inbox —like a templatized guide to a community launch, a cheat sheet for community management job postings, and more—by clicking the button below:
Thanks for reading, and I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!