Four reasons why people join an online community
Broadly speaking, people join a community for one of four reasons:
- They want to contribute to getting something done – shared purpose
- They want to connect with others in a similar life condition – shared circumstance
- They want to acquire or impart knowledge or skills – shared practice
- They want to explore or express their passion – shared interest.
One of – or a mixture of – these four motivations lies behind each of the thousands of communities we all belong to. For example:
- A campaigning organisation committed to changing public policy is a community of purpose
- A community of carers of people with a particular medical condition is a community of circumstance
- An association for professionals is a community of practice
- A leisure club is essentially a community of interest.
Primary and secondary motivations for taking part
In fact, of course, whenever people get together they start acting in ways that don’t fit these simple categories; people may join a campaigning organisation then use it to make local contacts, to learn new skills or explore shared interests with other members. Nevertheless, the campaigning will remain the primary motivation for joining, and the other motivations will be secondary.
It is essential, in planning your community, for you to be clear what the primary motivation is for people to spend time in it, and to ensure that this can be addressed.
It is also important to be aware what the secondary motivations might be, and to resource these as well, within the limits of your resource capabilities.
It is the secondary motivations that provide the richness of experience that will ensure people return.
The mix of the primary motivation that you aim to satisfy, and secondary motivations that you can also address, will make up the USP of your community as distinct from those of others serving the same area. You should therefore pay real attention to this mix throughout the community planning phase, and should ensure that it is visibly expressed in your brand, your marketing, your community structuring and your messaging.
Even if you start small and focus on certain aspects of the primary motivation, there’s huge benefits in offering the vision of how you see the community developing in future. If you don‘t, it will never grow, or its growth will be random and may not match your own needs.
Matching the community motivations to the organisation’s own needs
When planning your community, you have to start with these motivations, and keep them in mind throughout. However, they probably aren’t words that relate to the structure of your organisation; nor are they words that will carry a lot of weight in the boardroom.
So, when you seek to demonstrate the value of your community plans to your leadership team, you need to look from a different angle. For example:
For the community of purpose to flourish, you need to identify how it supports your organisation’s objectives, and how, in turn, you can support it.
The community of circumstance, on the other hand, is all about outreach, developing and working with advocates and helping them help you reach a new audience. This is a dimension of marketing.
The community of practice is all about creating and disseminating Intellectual Property, which is ultimately the source of income for a business. It therefore has potential commercial value.
The community of interest is all about making people feel listened to and their opinions valued. This is the route to creating a sustainable organisation.
If you can articulate the connection between the community members’ motivations and the organisation’s own needs and processes, you will find it much easier to:
1) demonstrate the value of the community to senior and middle management
2) engage colleagues in supporting and contributing to the community
3) create conversations that benefit both the organisation and the community members.
Your organisation may decide, of course, that it is not appropriate to relate the members’ motivations to the internal organisational objectives. But this decision should be a conscious and informed one, which can only be the case if you can clearly articulate what the potential value could be.