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Engagement is the Holy Grail of most community managers. And we expect to see at least a dotted line between our day-to-day activities and the engagement trend line.

If engagement is flagging, first we round up the usual suspects. Is it the technology? Is it the personal preferences of our members? Did I say something wrong?

Sometimes it's hard to diagnose why a particular community isn't thriving.

And sometimes the roots of the problem go all the way back to before the community was launched.

This blog post is for those who are in the "early research phase" or who are having that internal conversation about creating a collaborative community space. I'm recommending that, to get started on the right path, you lace up your sneakers and talk to your ideal community members.

Research on Participation in Online Communities

A few months ago, I ran across an academic research study called A Practice-Based Approach to Understanding Participation in Online Communities. Although the researchers only studied one community scenario, they surfaced some very useful findings regarding participation.

Their specific scenario was HR professionals within an academic environment, given a community to collaborate. The community never succeeded, and this study provides insights as to why.  

Here are some practice-based items to take into account if you're looking to build a successful internal/collaborative community. Thoroughly investigate each of these before you choose your technology, and you'll be on a path to success.

  1. Look at your ideal members' current patterns of interaction and media use, and try to maintain the character of the practices. If they are strongly attached to email, make sure you incorporate email into the community.
  2. Understand the environment into which you're introducing the community, not just interface design or individual motivations. How does your ideal member view his/her profession as a whole? Do you need to address firewall or security issues that might make it difficult to use the new system? Are there other initiatives that may compete with the community rollout? 
  3. How does technology become incorporated into the regular work of the practitioner, as well as the larger organization. Ensure that your on-boarding and training for new members fits into their daily work routine. Add value to the community that feeds into your members' goals and missions, and helps them do their jobs better.
  4. How does your members' practice relate to the larger organization? Think about where your member fits into the larger picture. How will the community enhance that position? Will the larger organization support or even reward participation in the community? Are the community proponents themselves committed to participating?

So as you're considering a community launch, don't forget to get out and walk around.

Map your members' daily journey and figure out where a community can make it easier, faster, better, more effective.

This process works great prior to a launch, but can also be incorporated as an ongoing routine. Lace up your sneakers on a quarterly or monthly basis, and talk to your community members about how and why they are (or aren't) engaging with the community. Bonus points if your sneakers are flowered like mine.

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