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What Really Drives Engagement in Online Communities: New Research from Michigan State University

The approach we take to online communities at Communispace is intentional and specific — we keep communities small and private, we expertly facilitate member-to-member interactions, and we design communities to artfully combine what clients want to learn with what consumers want to experience.  And over the years, we have published numerous papers about why and how online communities work, and the amazing things brands can do when they collaborate with consumers. But, truth be told, a lot of our whitepapers are us writing about us. Our latest report, however, presents a study conducted by researchers at Michigan State University (MSU), who systematically explored what motivates participation in online brand communities — both public and private.

In order to understand what really drives engagement in online communities, the MSU team looked at a range of Communispace clients across industries, conducted TURF and regression analyses to explore the relative importance of 11 different motivations for participation (brand, community and personal), and then benchmarked Communispace community performance against that of other online brand communities.

You can access the full report on Communispace’s website, but if you want the Cliffs Notes version, keep reading. What follows is a synthesis and summary of the key findings, which are formulated as “rules of engagement.”

Six Rules of Engagement

#1  Create an environment that invites and inspires self-expression. Of the eleven motivations for participation, community members said self-expression was the top reason they engaged. Online communities should, first and foremost, invite and encourage consumers to share their ideas with others and to express and explore their own, unique experience with a brand.

#2  Close the loop. Consumers want and expect to influence the brand that is sponsoring their community — it’s a key reason why they are there. But companies must recognize that consumer collaboration is a two-way street. Creating a feedback loop to share results and impact does not happen unless community and insight professionals hard-wire it into the community design.

#3 Foster a genuine sense of community to deepen engagement. Regression analyses showed that brand-focused and personal motivations drive people’s intentions to participate, but that actual participation is driven by the community-focused motivations. Long-term engagement in online communities is based, not on brand passion or getting rewards, but on relationship factors such as validation, getting and receiving help, and interacting with others with a shared point of view.

#4 Embrace one strategy to recruit and another to retain. The mismatch between what drives intended and actual participation suggest we need two facilitation strategies. The initial invitation should be framed in terms of entertainment, the opportunity to influence a brand, and the potential for sharing experiences. Once members have joined the community, facilitators should focus on helping them build relationships, connect as a group, and discuss and explore shared interests.

#5 Tailor the engagement style to the industry. Results of the TURF analysis showed that B2B communities have specific engagement drivers, distinct from the Retail and CPG communities studied. Community facilitators must adjust their style to the needs of their audience; for example, “fun” activities in a B2B context must be clearly relevant to the business purpose of the community.

#6 Reward members in multiple ways. Both hedonic (fun, social status) and utilitarian (points, prizes) rewards explained some of the total variance in participation; but neither was the number-one factor for any of the communities studied. Community managers should take a balanced approach to incentives, and remember that being able to express oneself, influence a brand and help others are equally and ultimately more rewarding than money, status or temporary amusement.

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