Understanding the importance of engagement

Engagement drives output and is critical to any successful online research project, says Joe Stubbs, junior consultant at Promise Communities.

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One of the most common questions we get asked by prospective clients is what makes our community platform so engaging? An online community, after all, is only ever as big as the number of engaged members – it is also one of the hardest elements to master.

The internet is often misunderstood and perceived outside of the context of the real world. There is a belief in some organisations that if a space is provided online, people will automatically gravitate towards it. The misconception that people will organically come together to discuss a product or service is commonplace. The reality is though, that this notion remains a fallacy.

If the majority of brand online communities were coffee shops in the real world, they would be second rate. Think greasy-spoon shack hidden on the side of a B road outside of Slough rather than a Starbucks or a Costa in Trafalgar Square. There would be limited competitor research or knowledge, limited promotion and, most importantly, a limited product range.

There are a number of fairly simple explanations as to why this is the case. The most obvious and important is that people want a purpose for why they are engaging. Many brands fail to provide this in their online spaces. This purpose is often hard to define and will differ between individuals and groups, but it must exist for any online community to work. It gives all parties a sense of where things are going and helps establish what success will look like.

People who join brand conversations online want to feel as if their voice matters

Secondly, there has to be an understanding that true engagement isn’t one way; it has to be reciprocal. Brands have to show that they are listening to the conversation and that community input has some level of influence or impact. People who join brand conversations online want to feel as if their voice matters, in the context of the project or initiative and within the group. It is unlikely that people engage for purely recreational reasons, thus empowerment and recognition are key to developing a conversation. In order to do this, it is important that the brand has a presence at all times, through moderation and support.

It’s also important to understand that the conversation shouldn’t always focus on the brand. A sense of engagement does not always focus on messages from the brand, but also messages from the consumer. A space where community members can set up their own conversations and engage with others on matters which interest them creates a sense of ownership, which in turn fosters further engagement.

One of the most passionate conversations I’ve ever seen was in a research community for an FMCG client, involving a transatlantic debate on video game consoles. Many members of this innovation community were inviting each other to participate in competitions on virtual gaming platforms; others were sharing tips on buying and selling 1980s Commodore consoles. Neither theme related to the new product development brief but both actions further encouraged a sense of community engagement and in turn improved our project overall.

Consumers need to know that conversations are taking place and that they have an invitation to join in. In all communities it’s important to signpost new discussions and notify members of project developments in order to encourage participation.

One of the first things we often find when working with new clients is that the brand is not telling its followers that the conversation is taking place. Even amongst the most aspirational brands, consumers cannot be expected to naturally seek out discussions to be part of.

Fostering engagement is key to the success of any digital platform. It is unquestionably one of the hardest and most intensive parts of the process to manage and yet, when done properly, helps define success. Engagement strategies should have as much precedence as other key objectives and are always worth the investment.

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