How Online Communities work : Fostering and sustaining engagement in online communities (model)

large__853070269How do you foster and sustain engagement among members in your online community? This is a question a lot of managers struggle with. A decreased commitment is the main reason why a lot of online communities fail after a couple of months.  It is an enormous challenge to keep members engaged for the long run. Branded communities will have to compete with hundreds of other websites and social media platforms that people can spend their time on. Besides, people (especially the young generation) like to hang out where their friends are, for example on Facebook or Twitter. What can managers do to ensure that their online community becomes and maintains vibrant, lively and successful?

Before I continue, it might be relevant to answer the question: what exactly is consumer engagement? When looking at it from a cognitive perspective, it is a “positive state of mind that is characterized by high energy, strong commitment, and loyalty towards a brand. From a behavioural perspective, engagement refers to a set of behaviours that reflects community member’s willingness to participate and cooperate with others in a way that creates value for themselves, other members and the brand” (Porter et al. 22).

Porter et al. have done extensive research on consumer engagement in brand communities. I read through their findings and decided to visualize some of their main findings into a model. The model (see figure below) shows a three-stage process that managers can follow to foster and sustain engagement regarding their brand communities.

Stage 1: Understand consumer needs and motivations

At the beginning of this chapter it was extensively explained which needs community members fulfil via online communities. I also linked them to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Understanding these needs and motivations is the first and most important step for managers to take when building an online community. Members will behave accordingly to their needs.  If you ‘as a brand’ understand these needs and accordingly feature the right tools and add the right content in your community, you have already made the first step towards meaningful, long-term customer engagement.

Model: Three stage process in fostering and sustaining engagement in online communities

Foster Engagement

Stage 2: Promote participation

Now that the intrinsic needs of community members are fulfilled it is important to understand what extrinsic factors might do. In this stage, members should focus on promoting participation in their brand community. According to Porter et al. there are “three main sponsor efforts effective in promoting participation among community members: encouraging content creation, cultivating connections and creating enjoyable experiences. These three efforts are in line with the social and psychological needs of members” (23).

  • Encourage content creation

I already explained that making your community members responsible for the content in your brand community will lead to a fulfilment of higher-level needs in the hierarchy of Maslow. In the best practice examples that were described in an earlier post, some brands (e.g. Ideastorm, Inkpop, Starbucks) could already be seen that are encouraging content creation on their community. I think it is one of the main reasons for their success. Allowing your members to be partly responsible for the content of your community – and giving them the confidence to do so – will already lead to higher levels of engagement.

  • Cultivate connections

Interaction is the heart of every online community. Social capital becomes the glue that connects community members and makes them participate. Research suggests that community members can “feel a sense of a shared purpose and strong ties with other members, even in the absence of (offline) personal relationships with those members” (Porter et al. 17). In this scenario, members can feel a sense of duty to contribute to the community and sustain the relationships. Managers should enable members to express their personal identities, which will facilitate individual relationship building. The number of people using social networking sites to create and share personal profiles, is rapidly growing. With this knowledge in mind, it can be concluded that there is a “unique and significant opportunity for brands to cultivate connections among members by using similar profiling features” (Dholokia et al. 208).

  • Create enjoyable experiences for members

Research has shown that when community members “experience flow (a psychological state of having fun as well as feeling absorbed, gratified, and in control over one’s experience) they develop favourable attitudes toward the firm that provides such an experience.  This is something especially true when the experience is in line and relevant to the member’s interest” (Mathwick and Rigdon 324). What exact experiences you should create for your members will heavily depend on the focus and underlying objectives of your community. But I am sure that if you can create enjoyable experiences for your community members, they will come back, actively participate and maybe even invite others to join (y)our online community.

Stage 3: Motivate cooperation

In stage 1 and stage 2, the intrinsic and extrinsic factors were discussed that will motivate consumers to participate in an online community to meet their own needs. In stage 3, firms can start to “extrinsically motivate consumers to meet their needs while, at the same time, intertwine these needs with their desire to create value for themselves and for the community sponsor” (Porter et al. 28). The study of Porter et al. suggests that community members will be willing to cooperate with a brand when they “believe that the firm has attempted to embed and empower them via the online community” (29). In “an embedded community members feel a high sense of attachment with the community and that the idea of leaving the group will trigger negative emotions” (Crossley et al. 89).

How can you embed members? You could give members certain privileges (such as access to specific information) that non-members cannot enjoy. This could lead to “members exhibiting engagement behaviours, such as willingness to cooperate with the firm and stay loyal to the community” (Crossley et al. 103). This example will not only help members fulfil their need for status, but also higher their perceived emotional risk of leaving the community. In some cases, “embedded members can even start to consider themselves organization insiders (also called ’quasi employees’) of the firm” (Porter et al. 30). How do you transform embedded members into empowered members? Embedded members feel obliged to support the brand that provides them value, but “empowered members believe that their acts of support have actual influence on the company” (30). Dell has succeeded in embedding and empowering their community members. They have given their members the ability to actively influence the firm by participating in their innovation process. Their community members believe they have a voice and chance to see their idea actually implemented. By sharing ideas, views, and opinions with the firm, empowered “members are motivated to co-create value with the firm” (Ahearne et al. 945). The research conducted by Porter et al.  suggest that there are two efforts effective in motivating cooperation that will eventually embed and empower community members:

  • Mobilizing member leaders

Mobilizing member leaders is about “giving certain member the status and opportunity to influence the brand’s policies and practices (in- and outside community)” (Porter et al. 19). If this is done correctly, these members can become your brand advocates. Brands advocates (also called brand ‘evangelists’) are super-fans and feel a sense of duty/responsibility to see your brand succeeding. They are influencers in the extremely important word-of-mouth conversation.

  • Encouraging members to co-create

You can ask community members to help think about innovative ideas and solutions. If you inform every member who co-created whether and how their input might be acted on, it will encourage them to return, participate and actively engage again. In some cases, it could even be “great to give top contributors a special status” (Porter et al. 33).

I really hope this post was clear and helpful to you. I am very curious to read your comments and receive feedback.

So far we have looked at the definition of an online community, the different types, how companies use them and the way they work. I emphasized the opportunity for non-profits to invest in their brand by means of an online community. In the next posts  a strategic perspective will be given on the creation of a possible online community for non-profits. I aim to guide non-profits in their decision of the type of community that will best serve their intention(s). These posts are the result of the extensive field research that I carried out.

Until next time,

Anne-Sophie Gaspersz

Photo credit: winged photography via photopin cc

Photography: Lindley Ashline

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