6 questions to ask if engagement is down

by Venessa Paech May 1, 2020

Engagement is fluid and even in a highly active, effective online community, it will flux over time. But if you’re seeing a trend downward in engagement that’s unusually fast, or doesn’t let up, it’s time to look closely.

There are many things that can cause engagement to drop, and some will be unique to your community. These high-level, strategic questions will help guide your investigation into what’s going on and assist you in developing constructive interventions to get things back on track.

1. Can members access the community?

It seems obvious, but you’d be amazed how often this point is overlooked when deducing why engagement numbers have taken a turn. Is there a technical issue? A broken link on your website or elsewhere, that members typically enter from?

Access isn’t just technical – it’s also about discoverability. Is the community sufficiently sign-posted on your website (not hidden behind a menu or buried in a footer)? Do you promote it regularly on collateral, on social media, and other marketing channels? Is your community content and layout optimised for search engines? Do you need to merge threads or tweak topic titles? Dig into the technical and promotional aspects of how your community is found and accessed, and look for things that can be improved.

Learn the main reasons communities fail

2. Are needs being met?

A successful community means the needs of members should be met, consistently, over time. What members need will likely evolve, so you need to keep your finger on this pulse if you want to stay valuable. Your community may be growing beyond its founding members and main user segments, so you’ll need to figure out what newcomers need and how to deliver it in line with your core purpose.

Survey members about the value the community is delivering them. Has it changed? How so? What do they need now that you’re not providing? These health checks should ideally happen regularly over the life of a community so you can benchmark these insights. If you haven’t done one yet, a dip in engagement is a perfect time to start.

How to determine if your community is healthy?

3. Is your community organised properly?

Community management is, in many ways, knowledge management. Regardless of what your community is for, you need to organise content, discussions, resources, events and anything else it contains in a way that makes the most sense for members. Is there a clear place for newcomers? Are guidelines or mandatory content immediately obvious as part of the onboarding process? Are there most important discussions or resources front and centre? Are they organised logically? Are there clear areas for different types of members or needs? If the answer to any of these is no, engagement may take a hit.

If your platform doesn’t let you make changes you need, it might be time to migrate elsewhere. If you’re on social media, you might want to move to a dedicated forum, where you can control and configure more of the experience around business and member needs. If you already have an owned platform, talk to your vendor about your organisational goals or needs, and see what features may be available to help.

4. Do people feel safe?

Behavioural incidents in the community (like a bad blow-up, or a nasty encounter with trolls or harassers) create emotional and cultural fallout that might not be immediately visible. Members may feel more trepidation posting, or might avoid topics that would ordinarily create strong engagement. Have any of these happened recently? Or more often than the past?

Consistent moderation helps mitigate these incidents and shows members that they can contribute safely. Do you have enough moderation protocols and processes in place? Are there consequences for inappropriate or harmful behaviour? Can members self-moderate and report issues? Is bad behaviour getting out of hand? As the community grows, moderation systems need revisiting and refreshing to ensure they’re still effective. And if they’re not in place at all, they’ll definitely hold back engagement potential.

5. What’s changed amongst members?

As you build your community over time, members will naturally take on more community management tasks and help you scale the heavy lifting. This is a good thing, but it means you need to look out for dependencies. If a member leaves the community and they were responsible for driving more engagement than you realised, you’ll need a back-up plan to fill that gap.

Map your community personalities and connections – who are the major influencers; who curates information for others; who gives a warm, helpful welcome without prompting; who are the resident experts; what are the sub-groups of interest or activity? It’s valuable to cultivate these social roles amongst members (and the sense of ownership that goes with it) but keep a watchful eye on any single points of failure.

6. Is a drop in engagement a bad thing?

Perhaps the most controversial, but arguably the most important question to ask if engagement is down is… does it matter?

In certain types of communities – e.g. customer service, learning, therapeutic – a fall in engagement may mean you’ve succeeded in meeting key community objectives. Questions have been answered. Behaviours have been changed. Healing has occurred.

Remember that volume doesn’t equal quality or success – this is not advertising. Chasing engagement for engagement sake is a quick route to unsuccessful communities and community manager burn-out. If engagement is part of the true value of your community and it’s diminishing, you have a problem. If the value the community generates – for members and your organisation – is intact or growing, regardless of post and interaction volume, then it’s a different story.

Remember, engagement problems are always strategic problems. Step back and examine your community holistically to get to the bottom of issues, and don’t risk leaving it too late!