Passive vs. Active Participation in Online Communities

Ann All

About a month-and-a-half ago, following my discussion with Toby Richards, general manager of Community & Online Support at Microsoft, I wrote a post in which I asked the question: Are social rewards enough for online community members? Richardson told me recognition and influence were the two biggest rewards enjoyed by Microsoft's Most Valuable Professionals (MVPs), users who participate as moderators in Microsoft's online communities. In writing the post, I had also contacted Vida Killian, manager of Dell's IdeaStorm community, who told me connecting with peers, the ability to help others and high interest in topic areas were the top drivers of participation for IdeaStorm.

 

Several folks at SAP left some great comments on my post, mentioing that similar incentives were important to members of the SAP Community Network. Their comments led to my recent interview with Mark Yolton, SVP of SAP's Community Network, during which he mentioned SAP's most active community members enjoy rewards such as reserved seats at SAP's physical events, meetings with SAP executives and invitations to press briefings, earnings calls and other events where they might get an early heads-up on SAP news. Eighty Mentors, all of whom are nominated by other community members, sit at the upper echelon of SAP Community Network participation, where they get perks such as free attendance at physical events and special briefings.

 

Similarly, Microsoft's MVPs receive early access to new products and opportunities to interact with product engineers.

 

Yet despite these perks, both Microsoft and SAP (and most online communities, I'd venture to say) struggle to engage their users, that is get them to do something more than passively consume content. Both men told me they wanted to increase activity levels in their communities. Said Richardson:

... When you convert a lurker into a more active participant, you start to create more connection and hopefully a more enduring relationship, either with the community or with the company. We see the role of community support as creating a tighter bond with Microsoft. If you think about the billions of people using Microsoft products, they don't have a personal relationship with Microsoft. When you can create some sort of bond, it has an effect on the brand. The bond doesn't have to be a direct one with a Microsoft employee. It could be with an MVP. It could be with another community member that has a similar passion. We don't have a specific target for converting lurkers, but we recognize that converting someone from lurking to participating creates benefit for the community and for the company.

Yolton told me SAP's activity statistics mirror those of more public social channels, with the "1/9/90 rule." That is, 90 percent of members simply consume content. If SAP sees those numbers increase month over month, it knows that "whatever it is we are doing is providing value or they wouldn't come back," Yolton said. About 9 percent are occasional contributors, with 200,000 people having ever contributed something to the SAP Community Network, which just passed the 2 million member mark earlier this year. They've asked or answered a question in a discussion forum or commented on a blog post, for example. The remaining 1 percent are active contributors, who account for the bulk of the network's content.

 


SAP awards points for contributions to its community and, said Yolton, "the points really become reflective of a member's reputation. It reflects how engaged and collaborative you are in how you work with others in the community." The point totals are part of a member's public profile. Yolton said:

If you look at my profile, you can see how many points I have this year, how many I had last year, you can drill into detail to find out if I was blogging or answering questions in forums, and you can drill into my areas of expertise.

In October when I interviewed Ed Moran, director of product innovation at Deloitte and one of the authors of the second annual "Tribalization of Business" survey, told me that many companies put too much emphasis on activity. The majority of online community members are "lurkers," yet they can add significant value to a community. Like Yolton, Microsoft's Richards and Dell's Killian, Moran said most folks join communities to connect with like-minded people discussing topics they love. He said:

They're not there to get a good price or do a transaction. Companies need to start thinking that way. They are mostly still thinking about transactions and about clicks. A lot of times, people just check in quickly to see what's new and move on. There tends to be no outward manifestation of activity. They are just coming to your site. But those are valuable people. You want them to do that every day.

Still, I think there are good reasons for companies to encourage activity. If members generate the bulk of a community's content, having more activity should, in theory, result in more content, in getting more questions answered, providing more food for thought and perhaps in inspiring others to create content. Moran made a good point, though, that the function of the community should help determine the relative importance of activity levels. His example: You wouldn't want to see a lot of page views and long session lengths for communities designed primarily for customer support. Instead, he said, "You want them to come in, get their problem solved and get out." So instead of monitoring page views, it makes more sense to employ a button on sites that says, "Was your problem solved?"

 

Probably the best case is when activity can be translated into tangible actions. Moran offered two examples from Deloitte's client roster: One company's community was reducing call center volumes because a growing number of issues were being resolved online. Not only that, but chatter the company saw online helped it adjust call center staffing because it could better predict when call volumes were likely to rise. Another client changed its website to offer more bundles of services instead of stand-alone products when community feedback indicated that's what customers wanted.



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