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Building Member Sites with Teeth

Dec 4th 2014

Above simply increasing traffic and page views, nurturing authentically engaging communities on your site means giving members original ways to engage with your brand, content, and each other.

If your email click-through rates are abysmal and your daily login numbers could use a boost; but you’re already trying everything “recommended” to engage users, it might be time to consider building custom features focused on keeping users coming back for more.

Lately, I’ve been on quite the member site development kick, which sparked many conversations with colleagues around best practices behind encouraging user interaction. It’s no longer sufficient to simply publish the weekly blog post and wait for the users to show up. That’s now a minimum to keep your site feeling alive and curated.  So, what else can be done?


Profile strength on LinkedIn

At its core, gamification involves creating micro-rewards for users based on their habits and desired actions on your site. In exchange for “sharing 10 articles” or “leaving your first comment,” a site might reward you with a snappy icon and achievement in your profile. This kind of reward is generally shallow but satisfying to users, and may help them return and take action for a time. This is all well and good— until the stimulus inevitably loses effect, or the requirements become too demanding.

Personalized Micro-Communities

Nearly every site has a community it can call its own. But, as in larger real-life communities, you can often find smaller microcosms that care about X over Y. Giving your members the ability to organically form around concepts of interest allows for a more personalized and memorable experience. This can be tied in with user published content to allow a single member to receive and generate exactly the types of content they find meaningful, without all of the noise.

Imagine if your Facebook news feed wasn’t just restricted to your list of friends and family, and instead included content from all of Facebook’s 1.35 billion members. You would be afraid to return! Filtering through to only the content you really care about would be next to impossible.

A common challenge sites face is too much content in too many different categories. If this is the case for your community, consider creating smaller groups for members to join, or facilitate users creating these relevant groups themselves by self-selecting other members with similar interests.

Pinterest does an excellent job of this with their Group Boards feature. Group Boards are collaborative projects where users can invite others that enjoy the same topics to add Pins to. This keeps the conversation going, full of fresh voices by interested contributors, at a very minimal effort by site admins.

Group board from Pinterest

User-Published Content

Opening up content publishing to members has many benefits, and not just for the users. The range of content allowed can start with something as small as a shared status (comments count, too) or work all the way up to member blog posts and entirely user-generated and curated pages.

The trick is, of course, in determining how much control you want users to have, and how much you trust your members to generate high-quality, meaningful content. You can set up various levels of moderation to ensure only quality content gets through, but for some sites with large memberships, automation is a requirement.

On a personal project of my own, MTG Cardsmith, nearly all content is generated by users. The site provides a free set of tools to help members and guests make their dream Magic: the Gathering™ cards a reality. This doesn’t mean all of the content is excellent, but by giving the community tools to self-regulate and "upvote” quality content, everyone gets a chance to have their best work seen. This also touches on the idea of Recognition Systems that I’ll introduce, which gives personally meaningful feedback to members.

Member-to-member feedback for user-published content is a great way to get users engaged.

Recognition & Psychological Rewards

Whereas automatic rewards from a system or a computer (as in gamification) can lose emotional value as time goes on, receiving the approval of leaders and peers within the community is an extremely strong pull that is much more sustainable.

For best results, strive to allow for human recognition within your community. Capture the engaged members and entice return visits by appropriately recognizing and rewarding quality content. Facilitating methods for users to reward each other (for insightful comments, content, actions, etc.) gives the member a mental “Yes!” which they will desire to repeat.

The power of user recognition on member sites.

These rewards can be as simple as a “favorite,” “like,” or “upvote”; or as complex as allowing members to buy gifts (digital or physical) for each other.

My favorite example of gifting is what Reddit, a forum hub, has done to reward members while offsetting their server costs. The program is called Reddit Gold, and is essentially a premium membership to the site that can be purchased for other users. The psychological benefit is quickly seen when a Redditor that has been gifted Reddit Gold for an insightful comment immediately comments, “Edit: My first Gold, wow! Thank you!!!”

Gamification on Reddit

Additionally, positive recognition from site admins or moderators (humans, not machines) can be a boost to both the individual being recognized, and other community members striving for the same type of recognition. Creating an area like “Recipe of the Week,” or “Member Project of the Month” gives special validation to your community. Be sure to carefully curate these selections in order to prove the administrators are making thoughtful, respected choices.

What's Right for You?

From simple gamification with shallow rewards to get users initially engaged, to allowing users to personalize the content they are interested in viewing as a way to deepen their engagement, to encouraging users to add to topics they care about, there’s a real opportunity to grow your user engagement in an authentic way. And to top it all off, you can allow your users to receive true peer recognition for their contributions— tapping directly into the deeply held human need for belonging and the earned esteem of others. 

It’s my hope that these examples and ideas inspire you to consider what tools your community would enjoy using to keep them coming back. And, if you have an idea and would like to discuss the next steps to make it a reality, we can definitely help – it’s kind of our specialty.

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