How to design engagement triggers and guarantee participation in your digital community

You’ve finally launched your digital community. You’re excited by the potential to create a robust, tightly knit and scalable group of like-minded individuals who can connect, represent your brand and attract newcomers.

But when the confetti settles, you realize the hard part is about to begin: How will you sustain ongoing community engagement? Now your priority is to maintain your community’s activity level and encourage participation in perpetuity.

Without a strategy for increasing engagement, communities can easily fizzle out, leaving you panicked for ways to get people to come back. Co-founders, marketing executives and community managers must understand the key elements of maintaining (and growing) community participation.

1. Find your superfans. Amplify the voices that are already talking.

Superfans build initial momentum for a community or launch. They’re your first followers. As Derek Sivers says, “The first follower transforms a lone nut into a leader. If the leader is the flint, the first follower is the spark that makes the fire.”

Who are the first followers—or superfans—in your community? There are a few proxies for finding this special group of early adopters.

If you’re just starting out, you can target customers who (a) open all your emails, (b) attend your events or (c) refer other customers to you. This is directional, so it’s not a hard science. It’s a good start, based on past behaviour of willingness to spend money or time on your offerings.

Once you’ve launched your digital community, your superfans are the members who are the most active. They’re the ones who are first to comment, reply, answer questions from other members and offer feedback. They’re generous in giving back to the community and are more concerned with how they can offer value than what they can extract.

Treat your superfans like gold. They took the risk early on to participate when there was little social proof your community was worthwhile. In other words, they believed in your brand and invested in it to allow for other members to perceive your community as safe.

You should reward your superfans for their participation, but that reward doesn’t necessarily have to be monetary. Sometimes it’s better to keep money out of the equation, because it can make members think twice about volunteering simply because they believe in your mission. Instead, offer rewards that are just as valuable, if not more so. Examples include additional access to exclusive content or events, increased status (admin level on your platform) or more opportunities to connect with fellow superfans.

By supporting your superfans, you’ll encourage them to draw out members who are shy. You’ll create a baseline of participation because your superfans will constantly be active, so your Slack room, Facebook page or other platform will look lively.

2. Make it prestigious to participate.

The holy grail of your community is when participants proudly tell like-minded people about their involvement.

For example, Y Combinator alumi often put the year they participated in the accelerator in their LinkedIn and Twitter profiles. Similarly, 500 Startups alumi will include “#500Strong” in their profiles. For a non-digital example, WeWork members often wear T-shirts with the word “Creator”—which reinforces WeWork’s brand and could serve as a conversation starter.

Hacker News is an example of a community in which being upvoted is prestigious. So while there’s no tag in profiles, people who participate will respect people within that community.

Another example is Singularity University’s flagship course, the Global Solutions Program, where a tightly knit community of folks put “GSP17” in their profiles. As someone who did the GSP, I often meet other alumni who will quickly identify the year they did the fellowship as a way of introducing themselves.

All of these are examples of the benefits of a strong brand. The more you can make it prestigious to be a part of your community, the more members will feel proud to proclaim their affiliation with you—which attracts newcomers and positive attention in a virtuous cycle.

3. Give prompts and activities that encourage participants to come back.

Depending on the size of your community and the platform you’re on, you’ll want to try different types of activities to increase participation.

For example, in the altMBA Alumni Slack room, I designed micro-prompts to be released every Monday at noon with a question for the community. Hundreds of alumni will chime in from around the world (45 countries and counting) to share their thoughts and pick the brains of other community members.

Questions have included: “What’s your favourite productivity tool?” “What’s a non-fiction book you recommend?” “What’s your top goal this month?” “What do you do to overcome procrastination?” and “Who is someone in the community that you feel thankful for?”

Prompts like this build a habit. They give participants an easy reason to return to your community so they don’t miss out on what everyone else is learning. This tactic leverages the idea of FOMO (fear of missing out), which triggers curiosity and the need for social belonging.

In conclusion, building a community that fizzles is an expensive mistake. To avoid this, you need to assert who will help keep your community vibrant (your superfans), why they’ll want to affiliate with you (prestige) and what triggers will continually bring them back (activities and prompts).

By planning your engagement strategy deliberately, you can build a community that continues to grow more powerful with time.

By Wes Kao