What to do when your community slows down (& why it’s not always a bad thing).

“Why are people losing interest in my community? Did I do something wrong? What can I do to get the community perked back up!?”

When you’ve invested a lot of energy into building and growing a community, it’s nerve racking when activity slows down.

On the surface, communities do have a natural ebb and flow to them. You can expect seasonal dips and spikes, along with natural growth and attrition of members.

Did you add a wave of new members last month? There’s a good chance that you’re going to see a temporary spike of additional discussion, introductions, etc…but it won’t last.

Is one of your champion community members working intensely on a project? There’s a good chance that you’re going to see a temporary dip as the conversation-starters and contributions aren’t always in the room.

But what if there’s actually a problem?

What if members really are losing steam?

Step one comes from Douglas Adams’ best advice for humanity : Don’t panic.

Sometimes it “feels” like a community has slowed down. But that doesn’t always mean something is wrong. Luckily, I have a customer story to show what I mean!

One of the earliest communities using GroupBuzz are the alumni of Brennan Dunn’s Consultancy Masterclass. Brennan helped his group make the jump from Google Groups to GroupBuzz a few months back, and they’ve given us a lot of helpful insights into how different kinds of communities will use GroupBuzz in the future.

Recently, a few of the Consultancy Masterclass members kicked off a thread about the fact that the list seemed to have slowed down, along with a call for “new blood” and growth to perk things up. One member, a very active contributor, asked:

“What’s the long term goal for this community, other than eventually fading and dying?”

Another followed on, adding:

“Clearly what we have now isn’t sustainable.” and “it seems clear that the value / activity / energy on the group has dropped significantly in the last 3 months.”

Brennan asked me for my thoughts on the situation.

My first piece of advice was that while some people felt like the community wasn’t active enough (which I’ll touch on in a minute), it’s just as likely that there are others in the community who thought it’s too noisy. Neither is right or wrong, this is just the fun of communities. :)

Participation isn’t binary.

There isn’t just “participating” vs. “not participating”. In reality, it’s a bit more like a spectrum. Some people participate more, and in more active ways. Others less, and in less active ways.

Neither is wrong. But  more importantly, your job isn’t to get members to participate more than they are.

Your job is to help members participate at a level that balances the value they RECEIVE from the community as well as the value they PROVIDE to the community.

I’ll say that again because it’s so freaking important: a community managers’ job is to help members balance what they give and what they get. Not everyone participates the same way, and there’s more than one way to give and receive value from a community.

I helped develop a way to visualize this with the help of two of my colleagues – Adam Teterus (also hailing from Indy Hall) and Tony Bacigalupo (from New Work City).

It’s called the Bullseye Model. Here’s a snap from a slide deck to illustrate:

Every community maps a bit differently onto this model, but it works pretty universally. There are a lot of very interesting things we’ve learned to do with this model, but that’s for another day and another blog post.

Back to my original point: participation isn’t binary. Not everyone posts. Not everyone replies. Lurkers gonna lurk (a.k.a attendees). And inevitably, some people will vanish. That’s all 100% normal.

Have you heard of the 80/20 rule? It says that 80% of the contributions will come from 20% of the contributors. This rule holds true…but not just between “posting” and “not posting anything”. Instead, you can look for the 80/20 rule in effect between each level of the bullseye model above. Only 20% of any given level of that bullseye are likely to ever move one level closer to the center.

And that spread tends to result in a VERY healthy, sustainable community.

So, I did a little digging into the history of Brennan’s community activity on GroupBuzz. Coming soon, you’ll be able to glance at some easy to understand reports to determine your community’s health and sustainability right in your GroupBuzz dashboard…but here’s a peek into how you can understand them now.

Analysis, Part 1 – Subscription Settings

The first thing I noticed with Brennan’s community were the current email subscription settings. For context, GroupBuzz gives your members a few options for getting emails. By default, all members will:

  • Receive first post of each new message.
  • Receive “Active Digest” Emails (approximately once every 4 hours)

In both cases, anyone can choose to “follow” a topic if they’re interested in it and want to get the rest of the comments via email. In addition, members can choose to:

  • Enable “firehose mode”, which sends them an email for each new post AND subsequent replies. In essence, they auto-follow every new thread.
  • Mute everything, and diligently check up on community activity on the web.

Brennan’s community report looked like this:

  • 76 total active members
  • 63 get first posts only (which, of course, members may filter in their inbox)
  • 47 get digests
  • 23 on “firehose mode”, which is EXTREMELY high compared to other communities using GroupBuzz.

But here’s where things get really interesting…

Analysis, Part 2 – Participation Statistics

  • 22% of the community has started a thread in the last 30 days
  • 51% have posted anything at all in the last 30 days.

I also noticed a pretty high level of “like” activity, and often from people who don’t post or comment very much. Again, reference that bullseye model from above.

I also noticed that, while the overall number of threads has gone down over time, it appears that the overall percentage of members who actively contribute to the discussion in a given month has stayed strong, and even gone up.

Diagnosis? Signal vs. Noise.

I don’t believe that Brennan’s Masterclass community was actually “slowing down”, but instead shifting to a level of activity that was manageable for more of the community to pay attention and participate.

“More conversations” is a very common false proxy for more value in the community. But value isn’t created when there’s more noise, it’s created when there’s more signal.

“More participation”, on the other hand, is more specific. It means that a greater percentage of the total community’s members are engaged, and at a level that balances the value they RECEIVE from the community as well as the value they PROVIDE to other members of the community.

New blood isn’t the answer.

Remember back at the beginning of this story, I mentioned that Brennan’s community members called for fresh blood. In a later comment, someone suggested:

“new people make it a vibrant community”

And gosh, I wish it were that easy! It’s actually quite the opposite: larger, faster growing communities are much harder to keep strong and vibrant.

I know this both from research and from experience: Indy Hall takes MANY times more effort to keep the participation levels high (today, we have 250+ active members) than it did at smaller scales (we were less than 100 members for most of the first 3 years.

Even huge online communities – like Reddit.com – are constantly trading off new activity for quality activity as their subcommunities, called “subreddits”, evolve and grow.

And I’d be remiss not to mention that getting bigger means it’s harder for members to build and earn trust. Getting to know your fellow community members becomes critical, beyond being ‘nice to have’.

Central_Bureaucracy_3010You can also view it in the context of a corporation: small teams tend to have the most vibrant the culture, share common goals and expectations. But when teams grow larger – and grow quickly – culture starts to atrophy. This is when the “bureaucrat” tends to take over. I’ve got a few tricks for managing growth, but they’re all about keeping things small.

My party line for many of my community/culture clients is that more isn’t better. Only better is better.

If you can’t make your community better with what you already have, you’ve probably got deeper rooted issues that need working through; in which case adding people is definitely going to make things worse, not better.

“Okay, so we aren’t losing steam, and flux in participation is totally normal. How do I create more value with what I have?”

If adding people isn’t a fast track to vibrancy, what is?

The most consistent and effective way to breathe life into your community come from solving a shared problem as a group is a sure-fire way to bring people together.

This is where you come in as this community’s moderator/manager/leader. Your job is to help them find something that they care about improving. Something bigger than each individual. Something that the community can benefit from.

  • (hint: this is why hackathons are awesome for community building.)
  • (bonus hint: the solutions you come up with to solve greater issues barely matter, it’s the process of working together to solve problems that you share, when no one person has answers, that makes a community into a better version of itself.)

Start by talking to your community members. Focus on asking questions, rather than making statements or assumptions about what they want or need. Here are some ideas:

  • Why did they join the community? What did they hope to get out of it?
  • Is there a feature/resource in the community they don’t participate in? Why not?
  • What is one thing that they’d like to see the community accomplish?

From these answers, you’ll begin to notice some commonalities. These common challenges and goals are great clues as to what kinds of problems could be solved to the benefit of the community at large. And that’s exactly what you’re looking to support.

Encourage the community to discuss those commonalities, and support them in making improvements. A conversation surrounding things community members want to do, see or say is healthy, participatory content. It also signals an invitation for more members to contribute, or for more vocal members to witness the availability for support.

One person, even a few people, can’t change the culture of a community.
But you can guide your community towards being a better version of itself.