Online Communities: Should We Make Them More Open?

I've been thinking a lot about online communities, specifically the more open ones that are public-facing and either for a company's customers or for a certain niche. Some examples would be:

I assume the companies that run these communities and others are using them to engage their audience and bring people together for:

  • Retention - Keep current customers around longer (and see how this community contributes to their spending)
  • Acquisition - Identify new prospects and generate leads
  • Research and data collection - monitor what people are talking about and collecting more data on prospects/customers
  • New revenue opportunities - selling products, creating new products, incorporating sponsors, advertising, etc.
  • Cost reduction - maybe these communities help companies save money on customer service
  • Branding/awareness

In order for this to work, two crucial things must happen - people have to join the community and they have to participate (or at least come back and visit again). Sure there's a lot that goes into this but in order for a community to be successful, people must join and participate.

Other communities may function fine with a set number of people or may work as private communities, but I'm not talking about those. I'm talking about communities where it's important that the number of members/participants is constantly growing. Since a percentage of people usually stop participating at some point, or they only participate once, or they never participate, these communities must always be adding more members.

Here's how things usually work with these communities when new people navigate to them.

1) People can see all (or some) of the great content there- activity streams, pictures, videos, question and answer sections, blogs, discussion forums, groups, etc-- without being a member or logging in.

2) In order to participate in discussions, people must join the community by filling out a few fields (name, email address, password, and maybe others) or by clicking a button that enables them to use their Facebook identity or other social profile to register/log in.

What I'd really like to know is how many people would have participated in some manner (ex: commenting on a discussion), but don't because they aren't sure they want to become a full member..yet or ever.

What if we made it easier for people to participate in these online communities? What if we made parts of them more like blogs, where it's accepted that people must put in a name and email address to participate, yet don't feel pressured into having to become a "member." You could then prompt people to register after the comment is published--you would already have their name and email address and would only have to go one extra step to ask for a password.

How many more participants and members could these communities gain if they opened them up a little bit and didn't force membership in order to participate? And how many more people would join as a result of these non-members, if they're given the choice to syndicate their comments/participation to sites like Facebook and Twitter so their friends are exposed to the communities? It would be fun to test.

On one hand, you want committed members and asking them to register is a commitment. But on the other hand, by forcing membership, you're losing people who would have casually participated and then went on to become full members later.

In many cases, just being able to participate isn't enough of a reason for people to join. People can often find the same/similar content on other blogs, forums and social networks they're already participating in or don't have to join. Maybe this means the community's content isn't good enough..or maybe not..there's good content everywhere these days. You often have to add in special deals, offers, games, access, etc to attract people. So maybe we should let more people participate casually in online communities and then reward actual members with the more special stuff. I'm not sure what the answer is but I think there's something here.

What do you think?

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