The engagement traps of modern-day communities

Community
September 24, 2021
Rosie Sherry
Community Lead
The engagement traps of modern-day communities
Welcome to The Observatory, the community newsletter from Orbit.

I'm Rosie, and I'll be your guide for this mission. Each week I'll go down rabbit holes so you don't have to. I'm here to share tactics, trends and valuable resources I've observed in the world of community building.

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There’s a shadow that looms over community builders — the pressure to not only have community engagement, but to also create visible and trackable engagement. Often we feel that if there is not a constant flow of activity then our community is somewhat not worthy.

Of course, there’s nothing specifically wrong with engagement: a community would not exist without some kind of interaction. However, for building community, engagement for the sake of engagement isn’t particularly helpful. For community builders, the never-ending focus on more engagement can feel like a trap we can never climb out of. Either way you look at it — someone is suffering for the sake of a metric.  To keep pulling people in we want to focus on creating value, not noise. Let’s dive into what this means.

How to think about impactful engagement

When we think about engagement it’s easy to default to the ‘tactical hacks’, perhaps the creation of an event, a series of discussions, or maybe an automated email onboarding workflow.

All of these things can work and bring impact, however they need to happen as part of the bigger picture. Engagement without direction is waste. At every stage of our community building process we should ask ourselves two things:

  • Does this create value?
  • Is it aligned with who we want to be?

These are big thinking points!

Here are some ways to deliver high-impact engagement.

Create community alignment

Communities exist for a reason. The more open and explicit we can be about the reason we are all there, then the easier it is for both the community and the members to align efforts.

For example, in my days at Ministry of Testing, we existed to refresh and transform the software testing industry. We created the transformation together — the community as an organization, and the community as the people. Everyone who contributed, with a discussion, a helping hand, as a speaker, as an organizer, or as an employee knew where our hearts desires were set as a community organization.

This meant two things.

First, everything that I sought to create, invest in, and support for the community had to contribute towards the positive evolution of the community. The things we chose to share, the language we used, the discussions we encouraged, the projects we experimented with, and the talks we accepted all had to contribute to our vision of change. Everything else was a distraction.

And on the flipside, what about the community members? From their perspective, it meant we needed to support members through their journey, one that aligned with ours. To find new voices. To support them. To help them contribute. Spot and encourage new ideas. To hold conversations that mattered. To help members on their journey to transforming the industry together, for their benefit, and for ours.

As they grew, we grew.

The more experience they got, the more we did too.

Their success was our success as well.

We were in alignment.

To create community alignment, the community team needs to be acutely aware of what brings the value we seek to create. It’s a constant tweaking and monitoring of community activities to understanding what is in alignment and what is not.

It means spotting and going with the flow of what is working. Creating flywheels on the things we want to see more of. Then discouraging or hiding the things that we feel don’t help.

For example, consider a member-created discussion that holds great value and is in alignment with the community — when something aligns, community builders need to amplify it.

To do that, they might:

  • Seek to share it with more people
  • Ask insightful questions
  • Make compliments and encourage more and similar discussions
  • Offer an additional perspective or experience
  • Consider how the discussion be repurposed, on social media, for example
  • Nurture it into something bigger — maybe it could be the foundation of a talk, or an event.

Or maybe there is something not happening that you feel should be. You can’t just expect good things to happen, you have to ensure that you nurture and plan for the right people in your community.

To jumpstart the desired outcomes, you might try some of these tactics:

  • Look for people who align with your vision
  • Get to know them and understand their visions
  • Look for opportunities to support them
  • Highlight the good work they do
  • Ask for help
  • Create excitement together

And so, perhaps creating value is a forever flywheel of amplifying what is valuable and seeking to fill the gaps that exist.

Key questions:

  • How is this engagement contributing to where we want to head as a community?
  • How is this engagement helping out community people on their journey of growth?

Increase community love with value, not noise

A busy and engaged community does not necessarily equate to a loveable one. Whilst a flurry of activity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and a bit of it can be fun, too much and it can do harm.

Overwhelm is real. When something is too loud it becomes hard to hear others. When too much information is being shared it becomes harder to navigate and consume. You may think you want lots of conversations happening, but perhaps less conversations of higher quality would be more useful.

Tweet from Zach Weisman: Too much nosie. Valuable resources lost / too hard to find. Too large of community = overwhelming.

An event with thousands of people sounds like an amazing success, but what if the majority come away without having a single meaningful conversation or some kind of takeaway? Or what if the majority of the talks were lacking in substance?

What if the lack of value received means people will never want to come back. Or even worse, they tell their friends not to come back. Not only will you have to put effort into finding new people to join, you’ll also have to reinvest into building new relationships.

Communities can easily go on a downward spiral when value is missing from engagement. However, when there is value the love multiplies! It sounds simple to say ‘create value’, I wish it were as easy as that. What one member considers to be valuable is another’s waste of time.  Value arises when you value people and their time — and when you seek to truly do what is best for them.

Community members in Orbit Level 4 are Exploring and dipping their toes in. What they will find valuable is most likely not valuable for those who are Building (in Orbit Level 1). This is reason #109383 why community building is so hard — people seek many different outcomes!

At the heart of this is doing your community discovery and having a culture of experimentation. It doesn’t mean you will always get it right, but the more you know about your people and your industry, the more chance you’ll have of creating something that people care about.

Key questions:

  • How do you know what you are creating is of value?
  • How are members showing love for the value you are (co)creating?

Create journeys for community members

Another way to create meaningful engagement is to think about community user journeys. There is no single route to becoming a valuable community member, journeys will vary as much as human beings vary — as community builders we need to identify and create these paths.

One way I’m thinking about creating community journeys at the moment is through asking questions of our members. What if you asked questions with the purpose of seeking to create a customized community journey? Of course, these are not questions for the sake of questions, they align with the outcomes for the members and the community.

When members join, or at specific intervals of their community journey, what questions can you ask them to help you create a journey for them?

  • Where do they want to be in 6 months time?
  • What are their long term goals?
  • What is the biggest thing they are struggling with right now?
  • What skills do they want to level up in?
  • How would they like to contribute to the community?
  • Why did they join?
  • What do they need help with right now?


There is no reason, and with a bit of effort, why you can’t start collecting this kind of data now and start making progress with mapping out community journeys. Through trying to understand where people are heading, you can then get a much better feel and understanding on how to design and build in community engagement activities.

Otherwise, it all feels like a shot in the dark.

Community engagement is powerful when the energy is there

Who doesn’t love a bit of community engagement and energy? Having people who are loving, contributing, and caring to all the things your community and business creates. For many, it’s a dream come true.

The reality is that, to create a strong community we can’t just simply start talking to one another. We need to create a plan  — to be aligned, to provide value and to create journeys. This is where the magic happens.

This is where change-making community engagement happens.

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