Why does someone decide to join a community?

I tackled this question in part via my previous post about the threshold of participation. Recall my statement that a community's perceived value to an individual must be greater than the obstacles that deter that person from joining:

Perceived Value > Threshold of Participation

What is perceived value? It is the projected personal benefit that would be realized by joining and engaging in the community. Sounds rather selfish, doesn't it? Some readers might respond, "Surely not everyone joins communities because of what's in it for them." Sure they do.

Self-serving

It is easy for any of us to state publicly that our participation in any community to which we belong is a selfless effort to achieve a vision or to generally promote the betterment of mankind (especially, but not exclusively for caused-based organizations). However, privately, in the corner of our conscious mind where decisions are weighed and made, each person eventually justifies involvement based on how it will positively affect him or her. Examples of such personal benefits are:

  • Intrinsic: Direct or indirect impact to the person's own life for the better.
  • Association: The feeling of belonging to and participating in an entity bigger than oneself.
  • Satisfaction: Feeling a sense of self-worth and accomplishment by seeing a problem solved and a vision achieved.

If the individual can envision enough of these benefits...enough perceived value to outweigh the threshold to participation, then he/she joins the community.

It's all about perception

Notice that I was careful to say, "perceived value", which is a forecast of future value. After all, how can a prospective member realize any value without first engaging in the community?

Perception of any future value can be communicated from various sources. Some sources are direct, such as observing the community interactions and benefits first hand. For communities that operate publicly so outsiders can at least view some activity within, or offer a trial period, this observation is possible. Alternately, examples of indirect sources of perceived value are personal referrals/word-of-mouth or the media (blogs, TV, radio, etc.)

The key point question is: Does your community provide enough sources to perceive value, enough to incentivize the right prospective members to overcome the threshold to join? For example, in my online community, I display a special front page for non-members that says:

  • Who we are and what we do (Benefits: association, intrinsic),
  • Links to testimonials and media coverage (indirect sources),

...and of course, a link to register. This communicates and validates assumptions of perceived value. I want to make it as easy as possible for people to realize and justify the value, make the decision to join right there.

That's growth.