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6 Steps to Revive a Stagnant Online Community

6 Steps to Revive a Stagnant Online Community

A vibrant online community is a sign of a thriving, successful organization—it signifies active engagement, robust knowledge-sharing, and a connected membership. 

On the flip side, a stagnant community can be a silent threat. Disengagement creeps in slowly and steadily, sometimes going unnoticed until it seems too late. 

Before stagnation creeps in, it's important to recognize the signs of decline and take steps to inject new life into your community. If your member engagement is in decline, it's possible to reverse the trend. 

Few people are more familiar with reviving member interactions than Catherine Hackney of Confident Communities Consulting, which provides online community consulting and management services. She's worked with dozens of associations to build, revitalize, and sustain member engagement and retention through compelling communities.

In a conversation with Catherine, we gathered 6 steps to revitalize a stagnant community. Here, she's sharing her expert tips to re-energize and restore community engagement. 

1. Diagnose the Problem

The first step to revive a community is diagnosing the dip in engagement. According to Catherine, a community might be heading downhill if there's a "sustained decrease" in engagement for six months or more. If you've spotted this trend in your community data, it's time to look for the root cause. 

Catherine stresses the importance of looking at both analytics and the broader organizational context. "It's not always an issue with the community itself. Sometimes, external factors affect members' perceptions," she says. This could include industry changes, economic downturns, or new competitors.

Bear in mind that a lull in activity isn't always a cause to push the panic button. "Especially in associations, communities have their seasonality," Catherine explains. "There are quiet times during holidays or budget periods, and then often we see spikes in activity around conferences." 


2. Check In with Members

There's no question about it—identifying the reason for declining engagement requires open dialogue with your members. "Often, it's not the platform we find that is the root cause of the issue," Catherine says. "It's human motivation."

Catherine recommends having honest, one-on-one conversations to collect the feedback you need. Ask open-ended questions, seek clarification, and confirm what you hear. Talking with even just a handful of members can reveal insights you can work with. "Do that once a quarter and reach out to different people," Catherine advises. "Understand what's different for them now compared to before." 

Catherine also suggests interviewing others in your organization to understand what's going on internally that may impact community engagement. You might discover a platform update or process change that made accessibility or ease of use more difficult.


3. Leverage Your Data Analytics

Revitalizing a stagnant community requires a deep dive into data-driven insights. Catherine emphasizes the role of analytics in identifying engagement patterns and areas for improvement. Tools like heat mapping and click tracking can provide quantitative and qualitative insights that will help you effectively strategize community re-engagement. 

From a quantitative perspective, look at metrics on page views, time spent on pages, and the paths members follow through the community. These numbers clearly measure which content or features are attracting attention and what's being ignored.

From a qualitative perspective, assess how members interact in your community. For example, have you seen a sudden drop in participation in discussions? Did you notice a spike in activity following a specific post? Can these scenarios be repeated to boost activity in the future? This can help test different tactics to see what resonates with your members.


4. Try New Tactics

There's no one-size-fits-all solution for every community, and revitalization requires you to be open to experimentation. "Trial and error is huge in community management. You have to try new things and see what works," Catherine notes.

She recommends testing a new tactic and then doing a check. Ask yourself: am I getting the results I expected? If not, it may be time to strategize new ways of inspiring engagement. 

Analytics can help you test the effectiveness of the tactics you try. Introducing changes incrementally and measuring how each one performs fosters a mindset of continuous improvement and ensures your community strategy stays aligned with member needs and expectations. And remember: you don't have to do it all at once, and change doesn't happen overnight. "Do one thing at a time," Catherine advises. "Watch what's happening."


5. Go Back to Basics

When all else fails, Catherine recommends going back to the basics. "Look at your community strategy to ensure it has a clear purpose statement. Why does your community exist? Who is it for? What actions do you expect from your members?" These are critical questions that need to be revisited regularly.

Defining the purpose of your community is one of the most important steps to revitalize engagement. If you haven't already crafted your community purpose statement, a helpful framework is: "Our community enables [who] to [do what] so that [why]." 

Involve staff, leadership, member volunteers, and other stakeholders in this exercise. Focus on the member-centric side of the community first, then consider how to improve the platform to create a better user experience. And once you've settled on your purpose, Catherine suggests pulling it out and evaluating it at least annually.

6. Aim for Long-Term Consistency

It might take time for new tactics to make an impact, but maintaining a positive, engaging environment is key to re-engaging members. Catherine emphasizes the need for patience. "Consistency is what's going to matter," she says. "It may take an entire year to get a community re-engaged, and even then, engagement might still not be at the level it once was."

A shift in mindset may also hold the key to long-term community success. "Stop thinking about it as a business tool," Catherine suggests. "It should feel like a space where members can come for thought leadership and general support from their real-life peers." When you create a space that meets these needs, your community becomes indispensable to members. 

Whether you're seeing a slow decline in activity or working to grow current levels of engagement, these strategies offer a solid starting point. Revitalizing a stagnant online community requires a blend of insight, interaction, and innovation. As we learned from Catherine, understanding the underlying issues, engaging with members, and continuously adapting tactics are key to breathing new life into your community.

To learn more about how to revive your community and provide members opportunities to connect and learn, download our free "Building Vibrant Communities" e-book.

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