The community engagement trap

The community engagement trap

The community industry has a problem and it comes in the form of an unbalanced emphasis on "engagement"️. I'm not saying engagement is bad. The balance is just out of whack.

When we think about community often we think about lots of engagement. Lots of chit-chat. A hive of activity. I'd argue that community doesn't have to be like this. That often it is too overwhelming and the average person can't quite keep up. The consequence is they drop out. The churn is painful.

Community engagement feels to be the new growth hacking. It brings short term results and we often obsess over the metrics. It didn't take long for people to see that growth hacking is not really a sustainable solution and that it's something their people don't like.

We are seeing the same with community engagement. People are not stupid and they quickly switch off from anything that wastes their time or doesn't align with their goals.

As community builders, we need to get better at learning how to help our people do and solve what matters. Engagement is a part of this, but it is not everything.

The problems with community engagement

A huge part of the problem is that we live by engagement metrics. We are measured on them. We lose access to the budget if our engagement drops. We feel unworthy and lack confidence as community builders if there isn't enough activity.

In addition to this, the engagement that is measured is often surface level. Again, it's fine and good to know what is happening on the periphery.

Engagement that makes a difference is often what can't be seen, and consequently (easily) measured. Most of us don't truly have access to the best conversations. They happen behind closed doors. The quality increases when no one is watching, when we relax and open up in trusted circles.

In addition to this, generally speaking, as an industry we are terrible at making use of the engagement and conversation data to build better community. We don't actively take note. Do research. Make sense of the data. Or use it as an opportunity to go deeper.

Too much of it remains surface level and this is a problem with community, because in community (generally speaking) the whole point is to go deep. We get surface level stuff with marketing, we don't need more of that.

A focus on 'community engagement' is unhealthy and not a great way to live as a community builder. We often go out seeking the next engagement hack, which ultimately makes us feel like we aren't really making meaningful progress.

Instead, I think engagement should be designed to achieve the community goals. Sometimes this is the goals of the community, sometimes it is that of the member. Really they are likely interwined and inseperable.

Redesigning what community engagement is

To create progress with this I believe we need to partly rethink and redesign what community engagement is. We need to value all the things, not just the superficial community activity.

Putting names to and pinpointing what we'd like to see happening gives community builders permission and power to move forward with intention.

This means thinking of engagement as:

  • having conversations that matter and make a difference
  • seeking new voices, not just defaulting to the same people every time
  • encouraging and valuing invisible, small and private activities
  • doing community interviews, much like companies do customer interviews
  • creating a real understanding of how members are achieving their goals
  • taking community discovery and research to create better engagement
  • enabling space for community builders to experiment and build MVCs

Engagement without progress is meaningless, the more we can align our community activities to the outcomes we want to achieve, then the more people will feel like they are part of something of value.

Community discovery feeds into value-driven engagement

When we think about community engagement we need to make sure we do our research (community discovery) and be working towards meaningful goals.

Community discovery is the work you need to do help you make better and informed community decisions, it:

  • helps you build the community your people want
  • aligns community efforts with business needs
  • equips you with insights and confidence
  • helps find people and build foundational relationships
  • helps you research and understand your ecosystem
  • focuses on community outcomes and opportunities
  • guides your Minimum Viable Community experiments

Community discovery manifests itself in purposeful conversations, analysis and research. (It's a big topic which I'll dive into deeper at a later stage.)

When you do community discovery well, you know what to talk about. You know what people care about. You know what they need to know about. You know what to bring to create excitement and progress.

When you do community discovery well, it comes across as you care. That's because you do care, as you've done your research. People don't do research unless they care. 😊

Another way community discovery can be expressed is as β€œRosie, it’s like you read my mind!” Β Maybe Rosie is born with it, or maybe it’s community discovery. πŸ˜…

Rosie knows what

  • what troubles people
  • how they feel
  • what is lacking
  • where people need to head
  • talk about the things that matter

It feels like magic, but really it's good old community discovery.

Bringing community discovery and community engagement together

Without waffling on for too long, what I'd love for you to take away is that community engagement can be wonderful. It should be amazing, It should feel like magic.

It doesn't happen by accident. It happens with intention and with research. Better and more meaningful engagement can happen by aligning your community discovery with a clear direction of where you want to head.

You may think you'll run out of ideas, but once you start doing community discovery you will only find an abundance of opportunities. The problem will then become how to decide what to focus on.

But to get started, first we need to get good at research, capturing and understanding community information, then we need to set goals. Community activities (engagement) are the micro-pieces of the puzzle that help us get there.

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