Interaction and participation. It’s something many community sites and managers struggle with and focus on increasing. Engagement is the lifeblood of many online communities, and yet, so many struggle to reach that ‘critical mass’ of participants.
When #Blogchat started in early 2009, participation wasn’t an issue. Even in those 1st few weeks where we’d only have a few hundred tweets, there was plenty of engagement. But even then, I noticed some problems. It seemed that there were a core group of really smart bloggers that were, for the most part, answering the questions of everyone else. So the core group of smart bloggers were mainly talking to each other, and fielding questions from everyone else.
If you think about it, you see this in a lot of online communities, especially knowledge-based ones. You have the ‘newbies’ and the ‘experts’. And early on, that’s what we saw with #Blogchat, the ‘newbies’ were asking questions of the ‘experts’. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but the problem is this: If you’re not a ‘newbie’ or an ‘expert’, how do you participate?
What started happening is that I would talk to people that follow #Blogchat, and when they told me they lurked, I would invite them to participate. “#Blogchat is so much better when more people participate so we can all learn from each other!” I would tell them. Almost every time, they would reply by saying “Oh no! I don’t have anything to add, I’m not an expert!”
I hated hearing that. So I added a new rule for everyone in #Blogchat: No experts allowed.
That’s not to say that smart people can’t and shouldn’t participate, but I wanted to communicate to everyone that they should feel comfortable participating. #Blogchat works best when everyone is comfortable sharing what they know. Does that mean that some people make some points that are completely off the wall? Yep, but that also leads to new discussions, because others feel comfortable questioning and debating those claims.
But if your community only has interaction from the experts and newbies, you’re going to be ignoring everyone else. Kathy had a great point about this several years ago, and her point is the same as mine, that you need to communicate to your community that everyone should participate, and help them feel comfortable doing so. For #Blogchat, when they hear ‘No experts allowed, we are all here to learn from each other’, it puts everyone at ease. Most people are smarter than they give themselves credit for, they might not believe they are ‘qualified’ to join a discussion, but they almost always have something they can share that can benefit the group.
One of your key roles as a community manager is to get everyone to a place where they are comfortable contributing as they can. And remember that when people start participating in a community, they begin to take a sense of ownership in that community. That greatly increases the motivation they have to help you grow that community, and make it more valuable for everyone.
This starts by finding ways to get everyone more interactive. Not just newbies asking experts questions, but everyone asking and answering questions. This will generate more discussions and more value for everyone.
If you want to get more discussions and participation among your community, consider these steps:
1 – Encourage involvement from lurkers. As I am watching #Blogchat’s stream, it’s obviously moving way too fast for me to catch even a fraction of the tweets. But if I see anyone tweet that they are joining #Blogchat for the 1st time, I *always* go back and thank them for joining. Nothing makes a lurker feel more welcome than announcing to the group that they are joining for the 1st time, and immediately getting a thank you tweet from the moderator. Additionally, other #Blogchat members have started doing the same thing, which only increases the chance that this lurker will move to being a participant.
2 – Understand that statements are NOT discussions. Often, I will notice that a member of #Blogchat isn’t directly engaging with anyone, but rather they are tweeting out general statements like ‘Blog from the heart!’ or ‘Make your post as long or as short as it needs to be!’ These tweets will probably get a lot of RTs, but by themselves, they don’t often generate a lot of discussion. If I see someone that’s constantly leaving tweets like this, I try to engage them. I’ll ask them questions about their statements, and hopefully get a discussion started with them. Then, others have an opportunity to join in.
3 – Encourage all members to be helpful. When I first started #Blogchat, I asked regular contributors to please help me by welcoming new participants, and to help them with any questions they have. The #Blogchat regulars do a wonderful job of being helpful to everyone. Now I tell everyone that if they are new to #Blogchat, to feel free to ask any of us any questions, that we will be happy to help. And I am constantly seeing others tweet about how helpful and friendly the #Blogchat community is, so I think the #Blogchat regulars view it as a badge of honor. At least I hope they do, because I do 😉
4 – Clearly spell out for all members how they can participate and what is expected of them. All it takes is a simple post listing out the purpose of your community and any guidelines. This is important, because if someone stumbles upon an established community, it can be a very daunting thing, and a ‘road map’ can definitely help put them at ease.
5 – If you are active in your community (as you should be), then make sure you are following your own rules. For example, when I participate in #Blogchat, I am usually asking questions of other participants. I try to avoid always making statements, and I use the words ‘I think….’ a lot. If I am asking questions as the ‘moderator’ of #Blogchat then it sets the tone of everyone else to the same.
Remember at the end of the day if you can reach a point where community members are creating value for themselves, then everyone wins. A great way to do this is to increase the level of participation within that community.