Getting and Retaining Members

By Heather Duggan

"A community is those people you keep running into over and over again."

Without regulars, there is no community. Drawing in and retaining those regulars is the most important job of any community owner. And it is a job that becomes more difficult as the net continues to grow and to fragment.

David Woolley, President of Thinkofit (a virtual community consultant specializing in community software) summarizes the difficulty – "I think [building a community] is a lot harder then it used to be, mainly because there's so much competition for attention. It used to be, back in the 1980s that "If you build it, they will come." . . . Early on there weren't very many venues for online discussion, so if you opened one up, people who liked that kind of thing would flock to it. Now barriers to starting one of these things . . . well, there aren't any barriers. You just go to Yahoo or Excite and start up a "community" in five minutes. Actually getting attention for it is much harder because there's so much out there."

The stages of membership

Community membership is not an event, but a process, as potential members move from stranger -> passer-by -> lurker -> participant -> regular. Only a small percentage of people make the conversion from step to step, so it’s important to hold on to as many as possible.

From stranger to passer-by

Key task: Make potential members aware of your community.

If you’re starting a new community, focus on building content {link to content article} that will attract members and publicize that content.

Some other attractors include:

If you’re hosting an existing community, the most successful marketing tool is your own members. To make the most of that potential:

From passer-by to lurker

Key task: Move the passer-by into the community space. (But be realistic in your expectations -- only a very small percentage of the people who are interested in your site will visit the community areas.)

Here’s some pointers to increase your chances of converting a web page visitor into a community entrant:

From lurker to participant

Key task: Transform a regular reader into a participant.

You can encourage this transformation by making the community as welcoming as possible. Here are some pointers:

From participant to regular

Key task: Encourage intermittent participants to check in, and participate, regularly.

While the community owner can largely manage the first three steps, this final step is wholly dependent on the entire community. People return to places where they find a group of people to talk to. If you do not have such a place, you will not be able to retain members. No effort on your part, no matter how great, will create a regular where there is no community.

This means that creating a community involves, in large part, knowing when and how to let go and allow the community to take ownership. This is an art form (much like the art of raising a child), but there are some general rules to follow:

According to Denham Grey, President of Grey Matter, a knowledge consultancy "It's no good being high up on a search engine. You really have to capture people's attention and commitment inside the community. That's what it's all about. You can bribe them in, but you don't keep them that way."