community management

Is Popularity a Community Problem?

4 Comments 21 February 2011

image courtesy of chooyutsing

Rachel Happe, of The Community Roundtable, just published the best blog post I’ve read in a long time about how to nurture a successful online community. A key point is that members who have a lot of social influence within a community may be preventing full community participation. Her main points are stated thus:

1. Behavior within a community of peers can be influenced by a “flow of influence” within the community

2. Focusing on the most active community members and most popular content can kill community

3. A good community manager should encourage broad participation, actively reaching out to those less likely to participate

One participatory inhibitor is the presence of online influencers. It’s a funny tension, because an online community is naturally proud of its influencers and “social media rock stars.” Social media rockstar (or nptech rockstar) members will certainly bring more attention to a cause, project, or nonprofit. This attention will help the organization more easily reach its advocacy, fundraising, or other goals. Their presence also assures that others will be interested in joining the group.

However, an online community can be hobbled by influencers as well.  Happe states in her post: “Highlighting the most popular only reinforces for the majority of members that their voices don’t matter because they don’t have popular attention.” In my own work within social media communities, I’ve seen that a few loud voices can dominate group conversation. I’ve also seen group members pander to, or consistently agree with, members who have a lot of social media influence. The same thing tends to happen on Twitter (we all want that rock star influencer to retweet us) and in real life (we all want to meet a rock star influencer at a conference and have that person really, really like us…)

Some essential elements of a strong, participatory community are that:

Members begin to feel social obligation to other

Everyone feels comfortable participating fully, and

Group relationships become interconnected

Interconnected relationships between group members strengthens the group as a whole. Weak ties become stronger as those members within the community move communal relationships to individual relationships outside of the group. (I’ve written about the strength progression of social media ties here.) However, nptech rock stars within a group creates a “gawker effect” (my phrasing) which can inhibit full participation, lead to in-cliques and out-cliques, and inhibit external relationship-building. I’m not saying that a community doesn’t want a few rock stars inside the community, but I am saying that both the influential members and the community manager have an obligation to ensure the long-term growth of the community.

Encouraging new leaders and community involvement requires vigilance and outreach, especially in groups with “influential” members

Rachel offers six solid suggestions for encouraging broad community participation, which are worthwhile to read. To those, I’ll add five more:

1. Welcome groups of new members as they join. A simple “welcome (names of up to 10 new members) to our group! Please take a minute to introduce yourself and your interests” is a great way of making newcomers feel welcome. One Linkedin group administrator sends out a monthly update to all members welcoming and listing the names of each new member and his/her city and country. Mentioning my name made me feel personally welcome.

2. Ask established influencers or leaders to send personal or public messages to new members who join, welcoming them. In one Facebook Group that I administer, I asked a group of established and talkative members to consider sending a personal message through Facebook to new members welcoming them to the group. Group members have mentioned this gesture as something that made them feel very welcome.

3. Ask members that post infrequently, but offer great ideas, to expand those into a longer blog post or lead a discussion about an idea. I’ve seen the quietest member participate more frequently after asking her if I could interview her for a blog post.

4. Make the community calendar transparent and inclusive. Do you hold a monthly mastermind call or community discussion? Do you offer specific types of content to the community monthly? Create a system where all members have the opportunity to offer ideas and suggest themselves as content creators or discussion leaders within the community.

5. Encourage social media rockstars (group influencers) to consider themselves community cultivators. Ask them how they think that they could reach out to help others feel welcome.

Full community participation is ideal and the role of a good organizer is to encourage new leadership and participatory opportunities for everyone. As an example, Rachel offers the idea of highlighting content that doesn’t have a lot of comments. Why? “Because highlighting the least reviewed content encourages content creation and participation from every member.” Absolutely.

Additional reading/resources:

Creating community on a Facebook Page

Klout as a tool for community managers: Why I don’t buy it

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  • Ray Poynter

    Whilst I am happy to agree with Rachel’s six points and the five suggestions above, I think we need to recognise that in most communities the majority of comment will come from a minority of members. The reason that it is important to recognise this phenomenon is that we do not want community managers to feel they are failures just because the majority of connections are to a small number of hubs and because most posts come from a small number members.

    These outcomes are a feature of how most people relate to each other. A community manager needs to do their best to ensure the community meets its objectives (whatever those might be), they usually need to maximise involvement, whilst recognising that involvement is a direction not a destination.

    In addition to the suggestions above (and those in Rachel’s post) I would add the implicit put downs of the ‘long time member’, for example trying to stop people saying things like “We have discussed that before”, “As most members will already be aware …”, or “Here is link to the answer to your point …”.


  • Thanks Debra for this thoughtful extension of my post. The popularity question is a tough one. You want to encourage it because they are often the most active without encouraging them so much that there is no room for others to feel needed. I particularly like your suggestion to encourage the community leaders to reach out to others is a fantastic one as it both recognizes them while also reaching out to a broader base.


  • Melinda Lewis

    This is great, Debra–I realized, while reading, that these are some of the same challenges I face in the classroom, although the same tactics don’t necessarily apply. It’s a continual quest, in any “community management” setting, I think, to figure out how to take advantage of the vigorous and often very significant contributions of those influencers, while not creating an environment that stifles not only the active participation of others, but also dissent. That’s a challenge for me every day teaching adults, especially because even the quieter individuals need to be able to engage with the content as meaningfully as those receiving more natural attention.



Debra Askanase is an experienced digital engagement strategist, non-profit executive, and community organizer. She works with mission-driven organizations to develop digital strategies and campaigns that engage, create trust, and move stakeholders to action. Debra speaks at conferences worldwide on the intersection of technology, social media, and nonprofit organizations.

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