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Faculty Insights

What Makes an Online Community Thrive?

By Wisconsin School of Business

June 18, 2015

An online community is more than just a URL—it is a vital hub of conversation where members can share their thoughts and feelings with the expectation that others will not only listen, but also understand their perspective. In other words, successful communities have members who are “engaged,” energized to undertake tasks that benefit everyone who visits the website or app.

Sung Kim
Sung Kim, Associate Professor of Operations and Information Management at the Wisconsin School of Business

My colleagues Soumya Ray of National Tsing Hua University, James G. Morris of the Wisconsin School of Business, and I studied the social dynamics of online communities and discovered that satisfaction is not enough to motivate members to contribute actively and say complimentary things about other members.
To be successful, online communities need members to be engaged.

In order to do this, online communities need to do three things for their members: understand each individual’s sense of self, project clear values and goals that members share, and make individuals feel that they can effectively participate in online activities.

How can online community managers know if they’re succeeding? The primary real benchmark is online community members’ level of engagement.

Here are some examples of how online community managers have successfully encouraged engagement:

  • Offer badges that members can choose to identify their skills, interests, and activities
  • Post statistics and news that celebrates community milestones, such as “We have just overtaken Digg in website traffic.”
  • Be on the lookout for threats to community values, which often come in the form of off-topic conversations
  • Recognize, reward, and provide a platform that encourages members to be helpful
  • Recognize frequent contributors for their participation with special badges

These tactics work well in some communities, but they are not the only tactics available to improve engagement. The Internet is full of groups of every conceivable stripe that provide members with access to unique and specific knowledge, resources, and shared experiences; and the engine that drives these communities is engagement.

Read more about this topic in our paper “The Central Role of Engagement in Online Communities” in Information Systems Research.