How to Create Online Community Engagement

by Carrie Melissa Jones in Partners   |    Last Edited: 13th July 2020

What would it feel like to lead a community where members engaged without any effort on your part? Where each day, members posted hundreds of questions, stories, and self-organized events, and others responded within minutes without prompting? 

That’s the community leader’s dream. It’s possible to get to that end state, but you may not yet understand that it takes a certain strategy to get there. Copy-pasting templates and sending lots of emails will only get you so far. When we build a compelling community, participants naturally engage. Engagement is not the tough part; it’s building a compelling community that demands extra effort. 

But, first, let’s step back and answer the question: what do we mean by engagement? You have likely seen the term engagement used to refer to just about everything from reading a blog post to visiting a single meeting to replying to a social media post. If we want to build a compelling community, we’ve got to use the term more specifically, and distinguish between meaningful and meaningless engagement. 

Meaningful community engagement (as opposed to empty or meaningless engagement) is any action by a participant that supports that participant in (1) caring about the welfare of other community members and/or (2) feeling connected to the community as a whole. 

Meaningful engagement is experienced only by members, not organizations. Only members can decide what is in fact meaningful when they find it inspires them to remain connected and enriches and strengthens their own desire to participate. 

Empty engagement is engagement for engagement sake. It eats up time and resources. It also disregards emotional connection or serving the needs of your members. For example, imagine that we post a few photographs of ourselves in our online community living a picture-perfect life in a tropical wonderland. There’s nothing wrong with cute pictures. The post may get a lot of “likes” or responses. But this is empty engagement if we’re hiding our true selves, challenges, and longing and ignoring the community’s purpose. We know it’s empty because no one is growing a closer understanding or mutual concern for one another with such activities. They’re also not fueling the community’s purpose. 

Communities that confuse empty engagement with true connection will not grow and will never sustain themselves to reach the community leader’s dream state. Your “engagement numbers” may increase but you are no closer to knitting a community with any meaningful impact. Such images may break up the monotony of everyday life and provide an entertaining outlet, but let’s not conflate such actions with authentic community-enriching engagement. 

You may notice empty engagement when the only point of this engagement is to “get people to interact more.” Interaction without meaningful context rarely builds community. 

I once had a tech-focused client discover they could double their community engagement by asking members to post pictures of their pets. What they had discovered is that everyone loves to brag about their animals, not that this was the ticket to sustainable purposeful engagement. The engagement numbers told a story of active participation, but the qualitative insights revealed that such activity did little to promote interaction between members. 

As leaders, it may be difficult to distinguish between what is meaningful and what isn’t. There will always be a gray area where some participants consider an engagement empty and others consider it meaningful. However, it’s important that you can distinguish engagement types at least in broad ways. 

How should alumni community leaders create meaningful engagement then? Here are three practical tips: 

  1. Always consider individual community members’ progress. In what way does one member you know well (let’s say her name is Shaun) grow by being part of your community? If you have trouble answering that question, it’s time to get to know Shaun better, so you can create content and programs that fuel her growth. 
  2. Try the individual outreach test. If you are worried about no one interacting with a program you are starting or a piece of content you are about to post, start with one person. Choose a member who you already have a relationship with, and ask them to participate. 

There are a few things that can happen here: 

(a) You ask and they enthusiastically say yes and engage: Great! You’ve created meaningful engagement. This person’s engagement will break the ice for others.

(b) You ask and they do not reply or they say they will engage but never do: Oops! You’ve got some work to do crafting a compelling reason for your members to engage with that particular idea.

(c) You feel nervous and do not reach out: This is a great sign you are not confident in the value your community delivers to members. If you feel like you’re inconveniencing someone with the ask, put yourself in their shoes, and examine how participating will help them connect with others and the community.

  1. Keep in mind that the 80/20 Principle applies to online communities, as it does to many other areas of life. That is, about 20% of your members will contribute to about 80% of the participation in your community. It is highly unlikely that the majority of your members will engage meaningfully in your community. This is normal. It should demonstrate to you that focusing your efforts on that top 20% will reap engagement rewards for the entire community. 

If you want to learn more about community engagement, content, and planning community events, you can check out Building Brand Communities, available wherever books are sold. 

About The Author

Carrie Melissa Jones is an author, community builder, M.A. researcher, and community management consultant. Her work influences the world’s leading brand communities including the American Medical Association, Buffer, Patreon, Google, and DoSomething.org. She is the Founding Partner and former COO of CMX, the hub for over 20,000 community professionals.