How to Encourage Online Community Participation

Your online community is only as good as its members, and most of your members aren’t participating at all. According to a study by Internet usability expert Jakob Nielsen, community participation follows the 90-9-1 rule:

  • 90 percent of an online community is made up of lurkers.

  • 9 percent of an online community drops by to chat now and then.

  • 1 percent of the overall community are the truly productive members.

Nielsen refers to this situation as participation inequality. His research challenges community managers to get more of that 99 percent of members into the conversation. High participation is especially important in communities that relay on sales or donations.

Members don’t care to take part in discussions for a variety of reasons. The conversations may not be interesting to them, for one thing. Also, if a comment thread is nothing but “I agree” comments, members either feel that those comments are too boring to add to or are afraid to disagree when everyone else is so supportive.

Although the healthiest communities are the ones that can run themselves without incident, a community manager needs to be a regular presence, at least to make sure that conversation is flowing. You also want to find other ways to bring the lurkers out of hiding, such as the following:

  • Award prizes for the best comments. Have community members go beyond “I agree” comments.

  • Award badges and status upgrades for levels of participation. Issue a fun status level or prize after members make certain numbers of comments. A member can graduate from Newbie to Regular to Superstar for every 50 to 100 comments, for example.

  • Specifically ask for lurkers’ opinions. Don’t call them out by name, but try inviting them. Say something like “I’m especially interested in hearing from those of you who aren’t regular commenters.”

  • Be sure that discussions invite comments. Topics should be open-ended and inviting.

  • Keep away negativity. Lurkers are reluctant to participate if they feel that they’ll be attacked. Make them feel equal and welcome.

  • Make everyone feel welcome: Don’t just hang with the cool kids, everyone is equal.

  • Invite new or lurking members to introduce themselves. Asking for introductions may give longtime lurkers their “in.”

  • Make participation fun. Games, polls, puzzles, and contests always bring in fresh faces.

  • Make participation easy. If members have to jump through a lot of hoops simply to make a comment, it’s not going to be worth their effort. Avoid having them register or fill out CAPTCHA, that alphanumeric code many forms require you to fill out before submitting to prove you’re not spam for every single comment. Make it as easy as possible for them to engage with others.

Keep in mind that some members are still going to lurk, but the more encouragement and enticement they have, the more likely they are to come out of hiding.

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