There are a lot of posts about reducing the barriers to engagement and participation in online communities so that you attract more members. There is nothing inherently wrong with that statement – it is a great goal. However, how you set up your participation and membership process (or if you have a formal ‘membership’ at all) is a critical strategy choice that should be driven by your end goal. Making membership or participation easy is not a given and a majority of communities have some type of barrier to entry, whether explicit or not.
As with many things in the community space, it really depends on what behavior and outcomes you are looking to encourage. If you want broad awareness, making things easy, accessible, and sharable is absolutely paramount. However, the downside of this structure is that engagement levels are hard to improve much beyond the 90-9-1 rule of thumb. For many models, this is OK but for other communities it doesn’t work well at all.
If you are looking for advocacy, for example, you want to develop, support, and reward members and you want higher than a 10% active participation rate. You also want to give them special access and content in return for their advocacy and by virtue of that ‘special’ distinction, membership hurdles are required.
It is well worth understanding and articulating the barriers to participation of your community and making sure they are aligned with your goals. Barriers to participation exist in every community and while it is often good to make those as low as possible the same can be said for the reverse. Barriers to entry qualify members and often the highest barriers create the most affinity (think Masons, the Harvard Porcellian Club, etc) and engagement.
Below are some of the common barriers to membership – both explicit and implicit:
- Selection or demographic criteria – this is used particularly in the market research space
- Demonstration of value – an example would be an VIP or mentoring community
- Product/Service Customer – many communities are accessible only if you buy a product or service or, in the case of education, if you went to a particular school
- Membership fee – the community is the business in this case (Associations use this model as do we at The Community Roundtable)
- Member recommendation is required – this model is used by many country clubs and yacht clubs
- Skill, talent, or familiarity with the language of a domain – this is a barrier that exits in open source and some gaming communities
- Long established culture – new members typically need to be introduced by existing members or actively transitioned into the community. Culture can also immediately turn people away.
- Technology/channel – if the mechanisms for how a community interacts are not familiar, it is very challenging to participate
- The typical communication habits and time available of the target member
- How visible the community is and whether you need to know someone to even find out about it
For people entrenched in the culture of the technology market, we don’t like to think about exclusivity and there is a desire to have everything open. In reality that culture creates its own implicit barriers. Different people and organizations obviously have a wide range of different preferences, comfort levels, and contexts so choices about how they build their communities will vary considerably. Community never was and never will be a one-size-fits-all discipline but as stewards of communities you can and should actively influence how your community operates to best align it with your unique situation.
For further reading, Bertrand Duperrin wrote a great post on the tension between managing the structure of communities closely and letting them grow organically. These hard choices are what makes the community management space so challenging as well as interesting.
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