Member count isn’t a true reflection of how successful an online community is, and good community managers know it. The fact is, not all of your ‘members’ will be active. Some will join and engage in conversations enthusiastically only to disappear weeks or months later. Others won’t say a word.
It’s another community building challenge – how to get those members who have gone AWOL to return.
Are they really gone?
Don’t be overenthusiastic. Just because someone hasn’t been seen for five days, it doesn’t mean you need to call in the search party. People have a life away from your community, and sometimes it’ll get in the way. I wouldn’t consider contacting a member until they have been gone for at least two weeks. Even then, you need to make sure there isn’t an obvious reason why they have disappeared.
Why have they left?
You need to figure out why a member has left in the first place. There is no point in trying to lure them back if there is something about your community that acts as a barrier to their participation. Perhaps they feel ignored in the community, perhaps they get bullied by other members, perhaps they forgot their password and can’t find the link to be emailed a reminder.
You can’t read minds, so you won’t always know the exact reasons why particular members left, but with a bit of digging around you may be surprised what you can find out.
What do you know about them?
Set aside some time to focus on luring back your inactive members. Work in small chunks. Write down a list of five members that you really want back in the community. Go through their posts – see what they were talking about when they were active, and the kind of responses they were getting. Find out their interests and how respected they were in the community. Put yourself in their shoes. See if there was anything about the community they were unhappy with.
In an ideal situation, you want your members to lure other members back. It creates more of a sense of shared ownership of the community, and a message from another member will always feel more genuine than a message from the community manager.
At Female Forum, we have inactive member reps who are responsible for getting inactive members back to the community. It’s important you have clear guidelines when you delegate this responsibility – make sure members aren’t sending out generic messages, and that they aren’t spamming other members. Have a central record of who has been contacted and when, and have strict limits on the number of times an inactive member can be contacted. The limit at Female Forum is three messages over a three month period.
Just because your members are trying to lure other members back, it doesn’t mean there is no room for you to get involved, too. Maybe you had a good relationship with one of the members that has disappeared – if so, then perhaps you are the best person to reach out to them. Make sure the message is personal and tailored to that individual.
Here’s another reason why it is essential that the community manager is personally involved in the community – imagine contacting a member with a template message asking them to come back. Unfortunately, because you weren’t involved in the community, you failed to see that they already made a very public post declaring that they were leaving, along with all the reasons why. You look like a fool, and the recipient of your message will simply be reassured that leaving the community was the right choice. The more active you are in your community, the more you will know and understand its members.
So how do you tempt members back? Reach out in a way that is relevant to that individual.
- Did they mention something about the community they didn’t like? Fix it and tell them.
- Did they not feel recognised? Figure out how to put your members in the spotlight and invite them back.
- Did they go away on holiday but didn’t return? Ask them how their trip was.
- Family or personal issues? Show you care and ask how they are doing.
- No clue why they left? Learn about them by reading their posts and engage in a conversation about their interests, or highlight specific discussions that are relevant to them.
Throwing in the towel
Sometimes you need to accept that some members are gone and won’t be coming back. Some communities will suffer from this more than others. For example, support forums will often see people register, ask a question, get the answer and then leave. The challenge in this case is to work out how to provide continued relevance and value to these members, so they will want to return (and contribute).
You can’t spam members or beg them to return. You don’t want to bribe them. All you can do is try to figure out why they left and address the issue. Even if they don’t return and get involved, they may still be passively engaged in the community. A reader still has value – you don’t want to hound them until they no longer even show up.
Goodbye – forever
Some communities actually delete members if they become dormant. At Just Chat, I delete forum accounts that haven’t been activated after seven days, and accounts that haven’t made a post three months after joining. I would never delete a member who has contributed, though – regardless of how long ago that was. After all, they have previously contributed so they may do so again. They certainly won’t if you take away their account!
If, on the other hand, you email a member and the email bounces back to you as no longer valid, it could be a reasonable indication that this member has been lost. If they have previously contributed, I still wouldn’t delete their account (they may still return, log in and update their email address), but you have to accept that their return is out of your hands.
It’s easy to become obsessed about membership numbers and active member ratios. As long as you recognise that it is worth getting more members active and you are taking steps to encourage dormant members to return, you are doing just about the best you can. You can’t force a member to come back; you can only invite and encourage. Accept the fact that you won’t get 100% of your members active 100% of the time, but you can almost certainly lure some of them back, and that alone is worth the effort.