Engagement, participation and fragmentation in a virtual world

Here’s the paradox – most organizations say they want to get more people engaged in their mission, and people say they want to get more involved, yet most organizations I meet talk about how hard it is to get people involved. I’d like to explore this paradox a bit with this post.

For an organization – whether it be a company engaging people with their brand or product, a non-profit or NGO wanting to involve more people in promoting a social good, or an association or elected official wanting to get more people supporting a new policy – in general the more people engaged the better. Organizations increasingly recognize that there is tremendous value and innovation capability in the collective knowledge and experiences of their stakeholders and followers. And potential participants definitely jump at the opportunity involved and support the things that they feel emotionally connected to. Want proof? Just look at the incredible growing popularity of Kickstarter, Go-Fund-Me and Kiva for example.

So with both parties seeking engagement, why does it seem so hard to get people involved? In my mind, it comes down to two things: making it meaningful and convenient.

Meaningful engagement to me means enabling people to actually contribute something of value – an idea, opinion, or working with others to determine how to improve on something. People want to help solve problems, make things happen and help organizations prioritize. At the same time I’ve seen that enabling participants to make connections makes a huge difference whether engagement is meaningful. Those connections can be both the organization itself, and to other like-minded people and to collaborate on something of value.

If your organization is still relying on engagement methods that require physical presence you probably face a growing struggle to get fewer and fewer participants. This is an inconvenient model that has been failing for years, and continues to fail. Even something as importing as voting for the US president has shown a continuous and significant decline in participation  over the last 50 years. If they don’t show up for something that is very relevant to their lives and takes five minutes, why would they show up for meetings or other events? You might get them to one, but not to many over time. There are so many things pulling on their time – fragmenting them if you will – that they really can only devote small amounts of time to the things they love.

This is where the virtual world is your ally. To sustain participation over time from a large number of participants, you have to make it possible for them to participate on their terms – when and where it’s convenient for them. AND you have to make it meaningful for them. This is also where online engagement comes in. But not all forms of online engagement are equal. For example most online communities fall short in the two meaningful categories – discussions are not focused and curated towards allowing participants to make a significant contribution to something that matters to the organization, and they aren’t really collaborating or making connections.

But there is hope. Applying crowdsourcing methodologies can turn online communities into productive, goal-focused processes that produce more value for organizations AND make the experience more meaningful to participants. We see people contributing over periods of weeks months and years because they now feel that they are participating in something that matters, and they are getting better at collaborating and making connections. And they can contribute in small amounts of time, on their own schedule, addressing the fragmentation in their lives. Sounds pretty good, eh?

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