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February 28, 2024

The Social Science Behind Building Community Commitment

You already know that communities generate value. What you, and many others, may struggle to understand is: How do you create committed communities, where members participate thoughtfully? This question gets to the root problem that many communities face. They may have tens of thousands of members but be filled with toxic or meaningless behavior. Or they may be filled with one-sided interactions, where your organization broadcasts information and you feel like you’re talking to yourselves (because you are).

Across geographic boundaries and community types, past studies indicate that individual commitment to communities leads to more member satisfaction, self-esteem, and quality contributions: win-wins for everyone (Shen et al., 2018; Zhang et al., 2020). That’s why commitment is a critical concept for community builders.

But how do you focus your efforts toward creating commitment versus manipulation or extraction? Many online communities are launched daily, yet most fail to grow beyond an initial idea and a few posts. Most people don’t know how to create meaningfully, committed online communities.

Research can fill the gap. In this blog post, you will learn practical applications for strengthening community commitment, based on quantitative social science research on online community participation and commitment from 2016 to 2021. You can also check out the end of the post for a full bibliography.

Position Community Value Carefully

Ensure that members receive the benefits they are promised. People seek to meet specific needs when they join an online community. If expectations deviate from experience, they are unlikely to participate short-term and even less likely to commit long-term. This concept is often explained by Uses & Gratifications Theory (as well as related theories like the Theory of Planned Behavior and Social Exchange Theory), which are ways of explaining that people seek to meet specific needs when initiating communication and, if those perceived needs are met, they are more likely to continue participating.

What does this mean for you?

Over the last 5 years, a number of studies have found consistent relationships between the most common needs sought from online community usage and the type of participation. A number of studies have pointed to general important shared motivations like affiliation with a group, reciprocity, altruism, self-efficacy, and image enhancement (Palma et al., 2019; Sari & Othman, 2018).

Recently studies have demonstrated that specific perceived uses of online communities correlate with different behaviors like lurking, posting, or interacting (Chen et al., 2020). That means the values sought by people more likely to interact are different from the values sought by those more likely to lurk or broadcast messages.

This study of an online brand community suggested that those more likely to create content tend to be more motivated by achievement, altruism, information sharing, and socializing. Those who are more likely to lurk or browse are typically motivated by altruism, information learning, socializing, and pleasure or fun. And those that are most likely to interact with others are motivated by achievement, pleasure, socializing, and an identification with the brand community itself.

A few takeaways:

  1. If your members do not interact with one another (nothin’ but crickets), improve your community positioning by including what members can achieve and enjoy together.
  2. Make it fun to participate! Is your community nothing but serious and stodgy? You may see transactional exchanges, but you’re unlikely to see much interaction.
  3. If members do not post often and you feel like you’re talking to yourself, improve your positioning to include what members can achieve and learn as well as how they can help and meet new people. Then create programming toward those ends.

Get Picky About Member Recruitment

Another essential component of member commitment is finding and engaging the types of members who are more likely to engage in your community long-term. Channel Expansion Theory (Carlson, 1994) suggests that people are more likely to find deeper satisfaction in communicating on channels and topics they are already familiar with. This helps explain why expecting people to learn a brand-new platform for your community is such an uphill battle.

Focus some portion of your resources on finding people already familiar with contributing to online communities, and you will find your work easier. As Liao (2017) recommends in a study of employee social networks, invest disproportionately more in your core users and the entire community benefits. 

Other empirical studies suggest that prior productivity in virtual groups (Yu et al., 2017), those who are motivated by altruism and who do not expect tangible rewards (Xing et al., 2018) are more helpful to the community’s health overall. I do not suggest you ignore those who do not already participate in online communities. To do so could deepen the digital divide. But know that your strategies for working with those new to online communities need to involve tech education as well as topic-related discussions.

Recognize the Core

In larger communities I have worked on, the core 4% of members bring most of the value to the rest of the group. They deserve the extra attention, and this recognition tends to encourage more information-sharing behaviors in the future (Wang et al., 2016)

Recognize those core members often, even in small ways (sometimes small gestures mean more than large actions). Recognition is surprisingly rare, and most people think of it as a transaction (e.g. gift cards in exchange for work done).

Instead, it is important to recognize leaders who go above and beyond. So those leaders you found who are motivated by altruism? Thank them for that, call them out by name, and help them build their sense of achievement and expertise.

Don’t Just Onboard, Educate

Onboarding is a crucial part of a community journey, but ongoing education and expectation-setting are often neglected.

Studies have found that perceptions of governance and norms (Liao et al., 2017), formal education by the organization but also by peers (Liao et al., 2017), and perceptions that people have sufficient knowledge all contribute to people’s assessment of the community’s value. Public perception of moderation has also been shown to increase intentions to participate (Wise et al., 2006).

Questions to ask yourself:

  1. How do I enforce our guidelines publicly so that people are aware of the presence of moderation and leadership in the community?
  2. How do I encourage members to help each other versus jumping in and trying to fix things myself?
  3. What norms exist in our community, either explicitly or implicitly stated? How might I be more explicit about these norms, teaching them to newcomers and recognizing existing members for upholding positive ones?
  4. Is our platform set up in a way that it is easy for members to learn how and where to post their questions and comments?

The Work Is Never Done

While these empirical results, in aggregate, represent some of the latest recommendations on community management practices, the work is never done. There is constant room for improvement in communities. If you’re struggling with engagement, focus on these four components of commitment. Find new ways to strengthen commitment among different groups in your community, newcomers as well as veterans, and constantly refine your positioning. 

To view original source information, please contact Carrie, or see below: 

Carlson, J. R. (1994). Channel expansion theory: A dynamic view of media and information richness perceptions. Academy of Management Proceedings, 1995(1), 280–284.

Chen, L., Yuan, L., & Zhu, Z. (2020). Empirical study of consumer participation motivation in value cocreation within cultural and creative virtual brand communities. Asia Pacific Journal of Marketing and Logistics (ahead-of-print).

Liao, J., Huang, M., & Xiao, B. (2017). Promoting continual member participation in firm-hosted online brand communities: An organizational socialization approach. Journal of Business Research, 71, 92–101.

Palma, F. C., Trimi, S., & Soon-Goo, H. (2019). Motivation triggers for customer participation in value co-creation. Service Business, 13(3), 557–580. 

Sari, H., & Othman, M. (2018). Factors affecting participants’ knowledge-sharing behaviors in online communities: A systematic review. International Journal of Engineering & Technology, 7(4.35), 378–382.

Shen, X.-L., Li, Y.-J., Sun, Y., & Zhou, Y. (2018). Person-environment fit, commitment, and customer contribution in online brand community: A nonlinear model. Journal of Business Research, 85, 117–126.

Wang, J., Yang, J., Chen, Q., & Tsai, S.-B. (2016). Creating the sustainable conditions for knowledge information sharing in virtual community. SpringerPlus, 5(1), 1019.

Wise, K., Hamman, B., & Thorson, K. (2006). Moderation, response rate, and message interactivity: Features of online Communities and their effects on intent to participate. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12(1), 24–41.

Xing, W., Goggins, S., & Introne, J. (2018). Quantifying the effect of informational support on membership retention in online communities through large-scale data analytics. Computers in Human Behavior, 86, 227–234.

Yu, B., Wang, X., Lin, A. Y., Ren, Y., Terveen, L., & Zhu, H. (2017). Out with the old, in iith the new? Unpacking member turnover in online production groups. Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction (CSCW), 117:1-117:19.

Zhang, X., Gong, Y., & Peng, L. (2020). The impact of interdependence on behavioral engagement in online communities. Marketing Intelligence & Planning, 38(4), 417–431.

Carrie Melissa Jones

Carrie Melissa Jones is a social scientist who studies online communities, the co-author of Building Brand Communities: How Organizations Succeed by Creating Belonging, and a community consultant with over 15 years of experience working with the world’s top organizations, including Airbnb, Google, and Microsoft.