Which is More Important in Online Communities: Engagement or Satisfaction?

A few weeks ago, Joe Rominiecki wrote a good article that addressed the fallacy that higher member engagement leads to higher renewal rates. Instead, he points to Sheri Jacob’s new book that asserts that it’s actually member satisfaction rather than member engagement that drives renewals. I absolutely agree with Sheri but there is one fundamental flaw with Joe's article: The assumption that the act of consuming content is not an act of engagement. Consumers of content (or "lurkers" as we like to call them) are engaged, it's just a different type of engagement.

Of course when I read the article, it reminded me of the debate about whether lurkers provide value within an online community? This membership finding detailed in Sheri’s new book could easily tie into my argument that lurkers are, indeed, valued members of online communities. Arguably lurking is a "lower" level of engagement but, as Sheri points out, it's not a lower level for some, it's just a different type of engagement. That’s to say, they derive satisfaction from merely reading discussions and following what’s going on in the community; they may never have a desire to become more engaged but may still be a very satisfied community member.

This understanding should help associations develop their online community strategies, and decide where and onto what their community managers should focus their efforts. For instance, an organization might set one of the KPIs for a newly-launched community as “have at least 50% of community members contribute at least one piece of content or discussion item by X point.” First of all, it’s probably an unattainable goal, going by the “90-9-1” rule that I talked about in that previous lurker post. So setting it as a bar would be unadvisable anyway, and trying to achieve it would likely be extremely time-consuming as the community manager attempted to personally network with and cajole those lurkers into becoming contributors. Not to mention that if that many members posted content on a regular basis, the volume of content would be unmanageable...so there’s definitely something to be said for the natural balance of lurkers vs. contributors.

So what if, instead, armed with this hypothesis that satisfaction and not engagement is what drives the success of online communities as well as association membership, community managers were to focus instead on measuring community members’ satisfaction and ensuring that areas of lower satisfaction were addressed regularly? So rather than focusing on the number of posts or whether a high percentage of members were contributing, instead they focused on regularly touching base with community members either via survey or personal emails or phone calls, asking about the level of satisfaction with the community and addressing any major themes? Personally, I'm a huge fan of the Net Promoter system for measuring satisfaction.

For larger communities, it wouldn't be feasible to do this on a one-to-one basis where each member got to give their feedback and each and every issue was addressed, but I’d be willing to bet that themes would emerge and the organization could pretty easily address potential issues and keep more members satisfied over time by addressing them regularly and making sure community members were aware of the changes. So focusing on stuff like meet-ups where community members could give feedback at face-to-face meetings, a feedback forum in the community where people could leave feedback or, quarterly surveys asking for either open-ended feedback or posing specific questions--these are all things organizations can easily have their community managers do, with the hope that community member satisfaction will remain high….and, of course, as a result, so will association membership.

What do you do to ensure that members are satisfied with your online community? And do you think that satisfaction is more important than engagement when it comes to online community?

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