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What's really stopping your community from acting?

November 24, 2021
Rosie Sherry
Community Lead
What's really stopping your community from acting?
Welcome to The Observatory, the community newsletter from Orbit.

Each week we go down rabbit holes so you don't have to. We share tactics, trends and valuable resources we've observed in the world of community building.

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The quest for engagement and participation is never-ending, and just getting people to show up is often the biggest challenge.

Sometimes you can create a burst of excitement, and the flywheel of one channel or program really starts to spin. And that’s great!  

The risk, though, is that sometimes we create 'solutions' or 'spaces' and become so invested in them that we fail to see what else we could or should be doing.

Perhaps the easiest mistake many communities have made over the years is not truly putting themselves in the shoes of all members, including those who aren’t actively engaging today.

It's easy to point out what we are doing  

When we create in community, activity often begets activity. Whether it's member feedback, forum discussions, or a talk someone has given, there’s tangible proof of what we’ve been working on.

We can take that proof and show it to our bosses with pride and justification for perhaps doing more — we might seek to get approval for more budget and community experiments.

Perhaps your biggest channel right now is a chat space, like a Discord or Slack. Or maybe it's a forum, like Discourse or Forem. You see it growing. You find all the positives and the proof that it's all fine and dandy. Then you ask for budget to make it more. More members. More discussions. More comments. More...!

It's tempting to go all in on a single tactic and try to grow your community in that direction. Of course, this could be a great strategy, but before you do that, take a step back and think about who you aren't serving.

I actually explored the forum questions a few months back (there's always a tweet related to what I write):

What stops you from participating in forums?

Here are the responses, with edits and my own additions.

People are overwhelmed:

  • There are so many potential places to connect
  • It's hard to find the time
  • The amount of information they see is too much or too long
  • They don't know where to start

It's a safety thing:

  • Participating openly and online is scary
  • We all have reasons to not want to or be able to post online
  • Do we really have to hand over our personal details, yet again?
  • They've seen things they don't like
  • They don't know who they are talking to
  • They know who is in the room
  • They don't want to leave a trail
  • They suffer from imposter syndrome
  • They want to be anonymous...they don't want anonymity

It's a diversity thing:

  • People won't listen to me as a _______
  • They feel the need to change their identity to be heard
  • They don't see enough people that look like them

It's a confidence thing:

  • There are just too many experts in the room to add anything of value
  • Participating feels like too much of a jump
  • They fear looking stupid
  • They'd love the option to participate anonymously
  • They have fear of being challenged
  • It's hard to get started
  • Finding a cadence is tough

It's a theme thing:

  • It's boring
  • They have nothing else to add
  • Everything useful has already been said
  • It doesn't help me get to where I want to be

The community user experience is questionable:

  • There are too many bots
  • They switch off from automated communications
  • The design is old school
  • There are a lot of hoops to jump through
  • They don't custom build their community
  • The chaos affects the community user experience
  • Why does it all have to be text-based?
  • No responses on posts
  • Responses are not helpful
  • Content and responses are too long

It's a value based thing:

  • Responses lack context
  • There is no value
  • Discussions that get dragged on are annoying
  • Discussions that happen too quickly are annoying
  • They're not sure if there is any value in spending their time there

It's a preference thing, they:

  • like it not too big, not too small
  • like reading
  • like watching
  • like listening
  • love audio
  • really want to meet people in real life
  • have fear of going out (FOGO)
  • don't feel there is the need to participate
  • dip in and out
  • have anxieties
  • have a chaotic life
  • learn by observing
  • are just finding their place in the world right now, thanks!
  • would like to be introduced to like-minded people
  • have an employer who allocates funds and time away
  • often feel people are, well, annoying
  • are yet to connect with the right kind of people
  • need more notice

It's a habit thing:

  • They want to show up, but don't
  • Time is needed to get to know the community and culture
  • Life is about priorities, it's just not such a high priority
  • Why are you asking so much of me?

Focusing on what you aren't doing

Think about those people in your Orbit Level 3or 4, those that we often refer to as lurkers.

A list of who lurkers are.

And ask yourself — what's stopping them from ________?

If you have a forum, then it would be what's stopping your members from participating in forums?

Asking members whether they like your forum and if they would use it, ala Mom Test, they would probably say yes to both. In reality they are unintentionally lying. Not on purpose, of course. It’s just that most folks have trouble giving direct and honest feedback, so it’s really important to ask the questions in the right ways.

To experiment with trying to figure out what people actually want, ask them:

  • what's stopping you from using our forum?
  • when was the last time you logged in?
  • what's the most useful takeaway you've had from it?
  • what conversations have you had with other members?
  • what's your goal?
  • what's your fear about using forums?
  • what was the last bit of information you consumed in your niche?
  • what 3 apps or websites do you open every day?

Your goal is to seek understanding and have empathy for the lives other people live, and questions phrased like this will help you dig deeper than surface-level questions.

Focusing on who in your community isn’t showing up also taps into diversity. Historically society “hasn’t done so well” at addressing the needs of everyone, especially the underrepresented.

As community builders we have to work smarter to find a better balance. We all have different needs and things going on in our lives. All of our backgrounds are not the same. As community builders we need to design support for that into our communities.

What can we actually do with all of this?

The power of this, for me, is learning to design community with member’s needs in mind.

The reality is that yes, you may have a central hub of community activities (perhaps a website, forum or chat space), but to truly move forward and advance in the world of community we need to get better at serving a wider variety of needs.

Community builders need to listen, ask the right questions and then design community activities and rewards accordingly — with everyone in mind.

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