Embrace Churn

3 axioms to show that your community can not grow infinitely without losing its flavor. Stop aiming for the moon and pay attention to the needs of those who are part of it.

I guess about all I really know
Is — save a little or save a lot,
You have to eat some of what you’ve got.
And — say what you like as you trudge along,
The world won’t turn without a song

John J. Plenty and Fiddler Dan (public library)

The poem compares the toiling of the ant with the grasshopper's leisurely approach to living. It made me think about gamified community growth, where every action is directed toward growing the member count while the experiences of existing members are neglected.

Frustrated with the lack of visible progress, community builders turn to gamified incentives, quests, to get more and more people to join their community. Their initial joy when their Twitter following explodes is met with horror as their engagement metrics drop. Those members attracted to the community using gamified incentives are dropping out as quickly as they join

The choice is this: Keep feeding the monster of shallow engagement in return for short-term success, or swallow the pill and accept that sustainable growth is built one person at a time. You need to create space for members to “sit around and listen to the music”, read what is being shared, and let these learnings sink in.

Communities aren't anything new; even online communities have existed since the advent of Bulletin Board Systems in the 1980s. We can try to reinvent the wheel or learn from the past.

Axiom 1: Communities are built around a shared interests

Communities form because the people in it share something in common. We might not like to hear it, but likes attract likes. Everyone who has moved countries knows how comforting it feels to enter a store that sells food from your country. Sometimes, I swap the 3-minute walk to the Spanish supermarket for a 30-minute bus ride to the German supermarket only to get my kids those sweets that represent a past life, a childhood left behind on the European mainland. They taste better because they are infused with memories. It's the same in online communities.

People stay active in a community because they feel they belong there. Members speak the same language as they, laugh at the same joke, and share the same stories infused with personal experience.

This sharedness makes physical distance irrelevant. What is perceived as an immense stumbling block in collaboration between members (physical distance) is a mere inconvenience compared to the roadblocks you will experience when members don’t have deep-seated commonality. It's easier to overcome physical distance than affinity distance, the difference in sharedness between people.

Axiom 2: Churn is ok

Churn is ok. It's ok, because people change. Interests change, people enter different life stages, people move around. Expecting that your members will remain in your community forever is absurd. Just think back to your childhood and the clubs you were part of. Are you still active in them? Of course, some people join as kids and remain active for 40 to 50 years. You see this in any sports club or scout organization. But it is not the norm. People develop different interests, have different needs, and literally move on.

Axiom 3: Most members will not be active

When I was teaching online in 2010, it was well-known that 20% of students generate 80% of content. And that’s in a learning setting where participating means higher grades as it solidifies the learning content.

If in such a goal-oriented online community, engagement rates are only 20%, what makes you think that the engagement rate will be high in other, less goal-oriented settings? I’ve heard several rules of thumb:

  • 10% of members create 90% of content
  • 90% of members not contributing, 9% contributing, and 1% driving the community
  • 55% of members not contributing, 25% reacting to shared content, 20% contributing content,

While the proportion of how many people actively contribute vs. sitting back and reading changes, the main message is the same: A minority of members will contribute to your community.

So, where do we go from here? Your community can not grow infinitely without losing its flavor. Stop aiming for the moon and pay attention to the needs of those who are part of it.

Dive Deeper

For something different

The newest song in my playlist is by the Swiss-German band Churchhill. I came across it thanks to a friend with whom I drove home after MetaFest - home here is factual wrong but the easiest way to formulate the sentence without diving deeper into the intricacities of my summer travel

At TogetherCrew, we’re building a feature to retain users through personalized nudges. Interested to know more? Reach out to me!

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