ENGAGEMENT HACK to encourage ACTIVE members in your community!

people engaging in community

We all want active members as soon as they walk through our community door...

But how do you get them to participate as soon as they have joined?

In my (many years) of building communities, I’ve tried many different tactics to ensure new people who join are motivated to engage right from the start.

Engagement as a new member may mean different things – such as:

  • Completing their profile
  • Introducing themselves to the group
  • Answering someone else’s question
  • Attending an upcoming event or new member induction
  • Providing feedback or offering suggestions – either to the group or to the community team
  • or… even to “like” or “react” to someone else’s post!

All of the above usually counts as engagement. 

In the past I have approached this by ensuring the new member onboarding process was as solid as possible. 

New member onboarding handbook

My “new member onboarding process” would typically include:

  • Instructions on how to participate in the community “Here’s how to get started” 
  • House rules (Expectations for how to behave in the community)
  • Request for them to complete their profile
  • Personally reaching out for quick calls / 1 on 1 conversations where possible to deepen connections with new members (or setting up a process for regional ambassadors to do this)
  • Weekly newsletters/ roundups for new members especially to remind them of the community, any important news/announcements and encouraging them to check back in with the community / participate

Recently I discovered an engagement hack that was used for a completely different purpose  (more on that below), and it had HUGE success in encouraging people to participate right from the start. 

It’s now made me think completely differently on how I would bring in new members to a community and encourage engagement right from the start.

Person opting out

My *new* engagement hack

OPT OUT of engagement as a default principle

As I mentioned earlier, I had discovered an engagement hack that was unrelated to community building that had great success in encouraging a high level of participation right from the start. 

It has made me completely rethink how to approach community engagement! 


Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness

In the book ” Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness”, authors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (who are Professors of Economics and Law) advocates using defaults to prompt us to make better choices. 

What does this mean?

A default prompt changes the status quo.

Instead of asking people to opt IN to doing something…

Present the desired behaviour as the default, and provide a choice to opt OUT. 

According to the book, this results in humans making the RIGHT decisions because they have been nudged in the right direction.

But does it actually work?

An online experiment (original paper by Eric J. Johnson and Daniel Goldstein linked here) was conducted to determine if more people would become organ donors using this principle.

 161 respondents were asked whether they would be organ donors on the basis of one of three questions with varying defaults:

  1. In the opt-in condition, participants were told to assume that they had just moved to a new state where the default was not to be an organ donor, and they were given a choice to confirm or change that status.
  2. The opt-out condition was identical, except the default was to be a donor.
  3. The neutral condition simply required them to choose with no prior default. Respondents could at a mouse click change their choice, largely eliminating effort explanations.

Here are the results from that experiment:

You can see from the above results that opting out almost DOUBLES the participation rate. 

This result is astounding especially because it would result in many lives being saved (due to all the additional organ donations). 

The lesson is that it really doesn’t take much to completely change human behaviour – we just need the right nudge. 

If you think this is only applicable in the medical world, you should know that corporations have tried this principle out too.

If you are employed by a corporation or institution, you may have noticed the company asked you to consider donating a % of pretax earnings to a charity.

Some large Australian companies (including CommBank and Bain & Company) have since implemented opt-out workplace giving programs and they are seeing significantly higher participation rates compared to an opt-in model. For further details on this study link here.

This got me thinking…

Why aren’t we looking at Opt OUT strategies when building communities?

What if we set out the desired engagement for new members as the default – and have them opt out if they preferred to just lurk?  

Now I know you’ve probably thinking of the ethics of this – my first thought was also the frustrating way that marketing T&C’s try to trick you to “opt out” from receiving spammy marketing emails for instance. 

The key here is not to *trick* anyone into participating in something they don’t want to participate in. 

There should be no “clever wording” used with double negatives. 

You should clearly stated they could opt out of the scheme if wished (and the text shouldn’t be so tiny you can’t even read it).

There is no upside in trying to trick people into opting in. Rather – this is about setting the “default” behaviour expected – and if people are not comfortable with that then they can always opt out.


How to actually apply this engagement hack to community building

Be clear on what you want as the "default" for your community

Communities should be treated as sacred spaces. 

They don’t just “appear out of nowhere” and they don’t happen without a lot of hard work, dedication and passion for whatever purpose they have been built around.

We have high expectations for what we want the community to achieve as a whole.

So why do we set the bar so low for what is expected from new community members to join?

Is it because we are so desperate to have “people in the room” and beef up numbers so it appears we have a “community”?

I’ve mentioned this many times before – the number of people who join your community means NOTHING. 

You could have 10,000 people join your community – but if you’ve got noone talking – or worse – you have too much random noise that is irrelevant or spammy – then your community is worthless.

If you have a community of 100 people who get together and achieve the sole purpose of the reason they have gathered – THAT is a far more successful community.

It’s vital that you are clear on what type of community you are looking to build, and working backwards from that.

Set the bar higher for new member participation

Be clear on what your “ideal community engagement” would look like. 

Perhaps you want to ensure there are enough posts about X topic, or you would like members to host smaller group check ins. 

Be clear on what those exact tasks would be to achieve those desired engagement KPIs you have set. 

Alter your new member onboarding so they have to OPT OUT of engaging (rather than OPT IN).

Wording is key here.

When you send out an invite or form for new members to complete, this is where you will encourage them that “engaging in your community is the default action – but they can opt out if they prefer to just be a lurker”. 

You should include the purpose of the community, the values, and then what is most desired from new members joining the community.

You should give them a choice of how they can participate in the community – and then assign them role titles. There are tools and processes to help you automate all of this – but most importantly you should have the tasks clearly defined and ensure new members understand why these tasks are important. 

What happens to those who decide to opt OUT?

This is a really interesting debate. I’ve observed other community professionals who will “kick out” inactive members after a certain number of months. 

The question is: are those members who choose not to engage valuable to your community?

You may be familiar with the engagement pyramid or the community member engagement lifecycle. It’s often thought that people can move around the engagement stages – from watching to sharing and so on. 

Engagement Pyramid | Socialgraphics: The Engagement Pyramid … | Flickr

If you believe that only people that opt in should belong to your community, you have the choice of electing for those who opt out to not have access.

That is certainly applicable if the whole point of your community is to have active participants. You will need to create some protocols however – you are building a community of humans after all – and humans can have a myriad of reasons for suddenly going inactive in a community. 

My advice would be to ensure you allow those who may have been booted – to gain access again once they show interest in rejoining.

I also believe it’s important not to create a sense of “fear of being booted out” in your community. You don’t want people to participate simply to “remain in” the community. The key here is that you’re aiming for QUALITY engagement with QUALITY members. 

Another option: Create tiers for your community members.

For those who opt out – perhaps they are granted access to “read only” channels. You could assign them a different title, and provide them with an option to easily “opt in” at a later stage when they are ready to engage.




* Consider the default behaviour for your new community members: have them opt OUT of future engagement rather than expecting them to opt IN. 

* Execution is key: define the purpose of your community, have clear tasks defined for what they are opting in to, ensure clear communication with community members, avoid creating anxiety for members who may fear being kicked out if their engagement level doesn’t remain at the expected level

* Consider what happens to members who opt OUT. Do they still join the community under a different tier? Are you giving them options to Opt IN at a later stage? 

I'm on Twitter & Youtube!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Community Coach Tips

Unlock Your

Copy Now...