Turning ”I’m outta here” into ”I’m back”

by Martin Reed on 21 May 2009 in Articles

inactive community members

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.

Get involved

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.

The lure

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.

Don’t obsess

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.

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Sam Houston May 21, 2009 at 2:28 pm

Seems to be that there is a huge problem with most of this working…it isn’t scalable at all.

If I run a community of over 300,000 members, trying to get all of them to come back one by one, is an impossible task.

Martin Reed - Blog Author May 21, 2009 at 5:15 pm

Sam – I disagree. Yes, it becomes more challenging as a community grows but that’s why you delegate and create groups as the community grows.

Divide up those 300,000 members into 300 or so individual groups. A couple of members are responsible for each group – these are the ones that will try to get members back.

fastcars May 22, 2009 at 5:38 am

I would disagree with the comments you made their Martin. It is the package as a whole that site owners need to concentrate on. If you have something that is attractive to its users both in design and the way it is managed then this in itself will encourage people to stay and become more active. If somebody leaves because of a perticular problem then of course this should be looked into and advice given but in general the site should never lose focus of its ideals and concentrate on the wider picture rather than a particular persons complaints. It is an impossible task trying to keep every user happy and only a badly run site would try and attempt this. Concentrate on the package as a whole and those that will enjoy it will stay those that don’t will leave. And if you end up with more peple leaving than remaining then the site owners/administrators are obviously doing something gravely wrong

Martin Reed - Blog Author May 22, 2009 at 8:52 am

fastcars – How can you concentrate on the whole package? You’ll struggle to get anywhere – you need to task yourself with different areas of community building in order to be effective. Divide up all the challenges and work on them individually – finding out why members are leaving and trying to get them back is simply one of them.

I stand by my original article – as you say, it’s important to know if someone left because of a particular problem. If you aren’t looking at why people are leaving (and trying to get them back), you might never discover a problem that could be a huge issue.

I agree that it’s impossible to keep every user happy, but disagree that only a badly run site would attempt that. Do you genuinely feel that sites that aim for all members to be happy is badly run?

Nicole Price May 22, 2009 at 11:55 am

There is a vital piece of investigation that is missing in this analysis and that is the possible impact a competitor site may be having on your membership. Not keeping an eye on what is going on in the environment can cause members to leave for a number of reasons.

Martin Reed - Blog Author May 22, 2009 at 1:32 pm

Nicole – Yes, it’s important to keep an eye on your competitors but don’t obsess over them. Your time is better spent figuring out why people are leaving your community and ensuring they don’t go in the first place!

sally May 23, 2009 at 1:42 pm

I think what ‘fastcars’ was trying to say was: when you focus on the ‘package as a whole’ it means that every member has come on to that site and stayed for a reason. The reason is they have all decided “there is something happening here that is important” “there is something here that we value” And whoever the original owners of the site are, they have to ask themselves whether that value has changed or something else has taken it’s place. They should keep to the original purpose if it was a successful one. If people start to leave then of course try to find out why exactly they went. There may be individual personal reasons that are outside of the “package as a whole” e.g. bullying by some other members. I certainly understand what you meant, Martin about focusing on why individuals are leaving. But keep in mind that no site is composed of the “individual” Sure, each person makes up a group and only individuals can do that. But how can there be “a group” with individuals being there first?

Bryan May 24, 2009 at 6:40 pm

fastcars, although I do agree you should focus on the entire ‘package,’ I don’t agree that a Site Manager should focus ONLY on the entire package. An individuals needs and concerns may or may not be the needs of the entire community — and that’s where this issue falls into place. You see that an individuals concern will conflict with the community’s concern; which is not true. One’s concern does not always conflict with that of the whole.

“It is an impossible task trying to keep every user happy and only a badly run site would try and attempt this.”

It is not impossible nor is it something a badly run site would do. Every person in your community has a voice, and it is your personal duty to see that they actually have a voice in your community. Trying to cater to an individuals needs is not always a bad thing, especially if it does not conflict with the needs of everyone else.

I think many of us are looking too deep into this and are coming to the conclusion that an individuals need will always conflict with that of the rest. There will always be room for an individual, no matter how large your community is.

Groups are indeed made up of individuals, which is exactly why you need to find out what each individual wants. Focusing on the group as a whole does not always give you the results that you might expect.

Marian Boczek May 26, 2009 at 2:44 am

From user’s point of view if I quit some community after vigorously participating in it for quite some time it’s usualy because it’s either changed and no longer entertains me or I just don’t want to waste any more time. Just like yesterday – I quit a board I’ve been posting on for quite some time (about 2 years). I was spending 1-4 hours a day just pointlessly posting there and talking about stuff. I can’t afford to be wasting that much time any more.

fastcars May 26, 2009 at 4:16 pm

That is the point I was trying to make Marian. We all visit many different types of site and those that entertain us the most and offer something worth staying for are the ones that will succeed and flourish. If a site is loosing membership then simply sending them emails to entice them back will never be enough. You have to then look at the package you are offering them and improve things so these people don’t leave in the first place.

Sally hit the nail right on the head.

Joseph Bennett May 27, 2009 at 3:18 am

“they have previously contributed so they may do so again. They certainly won’t if you take away their account!” I agree with this, what use is it to delete a member who has contributed? Anyhow some more great info here. Thank you.

Martin Reed - Blog Author May 27, 2009 at 9:33 am

fastcars – I agree; sending emails asking members to come back isn’t enough. You need to find out why that member left, fix the problem and then invite them back.

sally May 31, 2009 at 9:53 pm

Here’s an example from another users piont of view. Not very long ago, I posted on a forum about what the problem was and why I found it hard to stay there. Guess what happened? My post was deleted and a moderator sent me a pm; saying in a polite way that I had been rude about it. I realized later on that my post had been a bit over the top and we both *hugged* and so on and so on. In the meantime? the problem, the specific problem never got fixed, and never has been fixed and I am going to assume by this time that it never will. And this kind of thing happens too often. The forum owners or the moderators seem to want to help, they welcome all suggestions, but when it comes to “fixing the problem” in reality they almost come to a complete stop. There is a lack of will. No one seems to want members to leave….but by their own actions, they encourage members to leave. And maybe it’s not even conscious. Maybe they have to fight people higher up to get changes through, and they’re tired of it. Could be a lot of reasons. But I know that as soon as you start thinking of the individual and what you can do, you start thinking of the group and how it will impact them. Maybe there’s only been a few complaints. It’s almost as if you’ve automatically set up a wall in your mind against the individual, because you have to protect the group and think of the group first.

Nicole Price June 1, 2009 at 10:08 am

Was the problem identified by you technical? If so, this is understandable and the moderator may not have been able to attend to it. In any case, the lack of follow up and not acting on the complaint sure is a short cut to losing users.

sally June 1, 2009 at 7:28 pm

Yes, it was technical. But not in the way that you think. I’m not trying to be coy–I’m just not comfortable saying publicly what it exactly was. The forum is one I am currently still on and it is a very large forum.
I know I’m being too vague for this ‘example’ to be of much use to anyone. But what I was trying to say is that from my piont of view the ‘problem’ was quite obvious and it would be very logical to get it fixed.
The ‘problem’ was one that impacted every member in the end; not just me.

Sometimes forum owners have different objectives from the the ‘members’ Sometimes the members think the objectives are the same and most of the time, they are. But maybe sometimes the forum gets so large that it starts to work against itself. The forum owners lose interest in attracting new members and keeping them. They feel they’ve already got enough. If an individual speaks up and wants a change here or there or has a legitimate complaint—there’s little incentive in helping them. If they stay, they stay. If they go….then let them go. What’s one person, more or less, when you’ve already got ten thousand? It’s not a feeling of hostility but more just a feeling of inertia.
Martin is right—you shouldn’t focus on just the numbers or get obsessed with that. But EVERYONE has “the numbers” always in the back of their head. The number is too large. Or the number is too small. You always keep it in the periphery of your vision…even when you don’t want to.

Sorry for this long post. I drank too much coffee! :)

Mariann Jabay June 3, 2009 at 7:05 pm

well this is very common to almost all organizations and communities. many members lost the will to be a member after sometime. but with proper persuasion, you can surely bring your member back. one community or organization should have a good leader to be able to do the bringing back of the lost members.

Jonalyn June 3, 2009 at 10:28 pm

It can be very hard to get inactive members to come back, but is definitely worth it in my opinion. I do also agree that sending emails is not enough, fixing the problem and inviting them back is the appropriate course of action ( as you said Martin ).

Mr Woc June 7, 2009 at 7:21 pm

Hi guys some interesting reading there, and ive done well to read it as its gone midnight here lol, I would say getting people back to your website over and over is a bit of an extra skill that I havent quite mastered myself yet.


Shawn July 2, 2009 at 9:52 am

I agree that you shouldn’t focus on every missing member. Sometimes I’ll have a member post a “Who do you miss?” thread or something similar, sometimes just talking to members or reading posts people will reference somebody that hasn’t been around. Often times after such an initiative other members will contact the person if possible; they’ll realize that they’ve been missed by the community and not just being asked for activity from the admin!

Paul November 16, 2009 at 4:25 pm

It can be tough to determine why some people participate and then leave.

Some people can be flakey and act like this while others may get busy with their careers or family life.

Don’t worry about a few members leaving.

Jonathan December 29, 2009 at 3:33 pm

Like anything people may decide to lie low for a while or even forget that they registered on your site. Just because they haven’t contributed for a while doesn’t mean that they won’t offer a valuable contribution in the future. Sometimes sending a helpful reminder can help