A 4 Stage Model for Member Engagement

Posted on February 17th 2010

“If you build it, he will come.” — Field of Dreams

If only this were true for any kind of online community. However, waiting for new members to show up and engage at your site will only rarely succeed. Creating a successful, vibrant online community — especially for an audience of busy professionals — requires a thoughtful, active approach to attracting, inviting, involving, maintaining and retaining members. The umbrella term to describe the process of acquiring and sustaining participation by members in an online community is member engagement.

From a strategic point of view, member engagement is much more than a numbers game based on visitors, visits and page views. The value of a professional community depends upon the quality of the information shared and the strength of the connections created between members, as well as the quantity of these activities. High-quality online collaboration requires regular outreach to new members, encouragement of current members, and reconnection efforts with inactive users to stimulate visits, participation and continuing engagement with other members of the community.

Encouraging collaboration and participation is not a one-time startup activity, but an ongoing process, one that is primarily concerned with building and sustaining user behaviors and interactions. Along with pure activity measures and measures customer and member satisfaction, member engagement is a key metric for site success.

Each member of an online community or professional network participates in the community or network at one of four stages of activity: being online, doing online, acting online and finally, thinking online. Each of these stages represents a greater level of member participation, involvement with community content and, especially, with other members.

Here is a Four-Stage Engagement Model for Online Community which simplifies the member engagement process. Rather than trying to craft communications and incentives for individual members, or using a single, standard approach for all members, the model helps group leaders and community managers categorize their memberships and create a package of communications and activities tailored to each stage.

Stage 1: Being Online
Characteristics:  Members who are new to the online community or are infrequent participants. They may be hesitant to visit or contribute. They may feel unsure about the technology or uncertain about community expectations. They need training, support resources, mentors and models to follow.

Engagement resources: Launch guides, welcome kits, “official greeters”, suggested content resources.

Stage 2: Doing Online
 Characteristics: Members who are somewhat invested in the community with limited contributions and member connections online. Members who visit occasionally and primarily interact with existing content. They rarely post documents or make comments. They are consuming but not making significant contributions to the community. A goal for this member stage is expand their participation into new or unfamiliar areas. They need encouragement to increase participation and experiment.

Engagement resources:
Basic user recognition incentives and rewards; best-practice examples to support more participation and experimentation; receive mentor-ship experiences.

Stage 3: Acting Online
 Characteristics: Members who are invested in the community, and who have a growing list of contributions and member connections. They are active, make frequent contributions; create new discussions, request subgroups, offer help and support when asked; undertake experiments with ways to use the community toolsets.

Engagement resources: Encourage member-to-member support and leadership; intermediate member recognition incentives and rewards; best practice contributors.

Stage 4: Thinking Online
Characteristics: Members who are persistently active in the community and in contributing to its success over time.  Enablement for increasing participation for the community's most active and engaged members. They are the problem-solvers and inventors of new discussions and contributions or uses for tools. They are also the most invested in the community based both on successful outcomes and well-established connections with other members.

Engagement resources: Leadership and governance opportunities; advisory board members; best practice award recipients; advanced member recognition incentives and rewards including site performance metrics; mentors.

At each stage, different tools and techniques can capture the member's attention and support or sustain their current activity, and encourage participation at the next level of involvement. The end state is a member who is active and very involved with the community, who visits regularly, makes useful contributions, collaborates widely, establishes multiple connections and offers help and guidance to other members. This member is a “model” participant, a mentor to others and, perhaps without realizing it, is a recognized leader within the community. No all member will progress through the cycles to stage 4.  Many will remain at stage 2 or stage 3 and that is OK - as with any group (online or offline)  not all members become community leaders. The goal is to create and increase opportunities for member engagement, and to help members succeed in their experience at every stage. 

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Vanessa DiMauro

Vanessa DiMauro

CEO, Leader Networks

Vanessa DiMauro is a trusted business advisor, and founder and CEO of Leader Networks, LLC, the world’s premier B2B social business consultancy. Vanessa helps organizations drive top line growth through innovative digital strategy design and thoughtful execution. Her experience as a social business executive spans over 15 years and her award-winning track-record is fueled by passion, experience and consistency.  Vanessa's work has been covered by leading publications such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and CIO Magazine and she was recently named a Social Marketing Master by Forbes. She is serves on the board at a number of leading organizations such as Social Media Today, The Society of New Communication Research and is a former Executive In Residence at Babson College - Olin School of Management. 

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Vanessa DiMauro
Posted on February 18th 2010 at 8:00AM

Thanks Chris for your addition to the 4th stage - yes- the scale issue and "train-the-trainer" models are important so that the community can start to take on  self-fulfillment. 

What engagement tactics have others found to be useful to draw people into their community?

Posted on February 18th 2010 at 9:24AM
Very fine post, Vanessa. As I write my book about using branding in public education, I am looking at social networking as a powerful force. Many educational managers are afraid of building it, but my feelings about engagement have been affirmed and informed by your thinking!
Peggy Dau
Posted on February 22nd 2010 at 10:11AM

Great thoughts Vanessa, especially relevant for companies still figuring out their integrated marketing strategies.  I still believe the successful strategy is a blend the incorporates social networking platforms with "traditional" markething methods.  In all cases, understanding your audience and how they will engage, is critical :-)


Vanessa DiMauro
Posted on February 23rd 2010 at 3:21PM

Peggy D,
thanks for adding to the conversation.  Your point about the need for integrated marketing strategies is definitely spot on in my opinion.  A blend of traditional and social media efforts tend to be the most effective. With many of my consulting clients who have exclusive or gated communities that cater to executives we often use traditional member acquisition programs to help raise awareness about the online community offering.  No matter how digital we all get, there is nothing quite like a real personal invitation issued on fine letterhead!

There is a great conversation going on within the SocialMediaToday LinkedIN group that my friend Jack Greene launched recently.  He asked a seemingly simple question regarding the relationship between traditional and social media marketing- can they co-exist and the discussion topic exploded!  He is currently writing up the findings and a report is coming soon.