Extrinsic Motivators

Dealing with a “leaky” community

How much of your energy is focused on growing your community by adding new people to the roster?

I bet your answer is “most of my energy, Alex”. And I bet that you’re used to being overwhelmed by that fact. A big part of that overwhelm rooted in the feeling that you can’t add new members fast enough, or that your hard work just doesn’t seem to pay off.

It’s easy to fall into this trap. It’s not as easy to get out. The only way to escape is to change your focus to the one factor that’s most likely to be putting a strangle-hold on your growth efforts: retention.

Retention is a metric that helps you describe how long a person stays engaged once you’ve gotten their attention. By understanding retention, you can begin to observe valuable patterns to help predict the health of your community.

Understanding why retention is important

Participation model for email list

Business lends us some key concepts about retention, but business concepts don’t port very well to communities “out of the box.” In business, tracking and measuring retention usually begins with transactions like a customer making purchases, or an employee accepting a position or being promoted.

Communities present similar transactions to measure - like first attendance, first signup, first post etc - but these events alone can be a deceptive for measuring community member retention. A more valuable way to measure retention is based on engagement, or participation. I’ll talk more about that in a minute.

Paying attention to churn

Churn is retention metric specific to the “turnover” of members during a period of time.

If you look at your entire community as a bucket of water, members joining the community is like adding more water to the bucket. What happens if that bucket has a hole in it? Depending on the size of the hole, the water will leak out at a different rate.

Here’s why retention matters: if water (or members) are leaking at the same rate you’re filling, the two effects cancel each other out…but you’re still doing the work of adding water. Worse, if the water is leaking out faster than you can add new water, the bucket will never stay full no matter how hard you work.

Your community is like a leaky bucket.

You have two options: add members faster (but you’re already getting tired), or slow down the leaks. Everything your invest (your money and your energy) into adding a new members to the community becomes a more valuable investment the longer that member continues to participate.

Retention can be a complicated variable to address in the community growth formula because it’s not always clear why people drop off.

“If they’re already gone – how am I supposed to find out why they left?”

The fact is that if you’re waiting until after people have gone, you’ve waited too long to address community member retention.

Participation is NOT binary

I mentioned earlier that communities provide some “transactional” metrics that you can use to measure engagement. The problem with using these metrics is that by the time you’ve lost someone…they’re already gone. A more effective way to understand retention is to look at community member behaviors long before they’re headed for the door.

Every community will have different behaviors that you can use as signals for how members are participating in the community, and you’ll have to do some work to find and understand those unique signals on your own.

Keep in mind that participation doesn’t need to be “on” or “off”.

Instead, imagine participation is more like a spectrum.


When you treat participation as a spectrum, you can see that there are “steps” between a member being “fully in” and “fully out”. This is extremely helpful when it comes to creating experiences to build engagement, but it’s an even more valuable perspective when it comes to retention. People can step “down” without stepping “out”.

Like the transmission found in a car, this can mean the difference between someone’s participation stalling completely, or a simple and more elegant downshift.


With this model, it’s possible to slow the leaky bucket of community participation at each individual level…before are anywhere near the exit door.

Don’t panic when people downshift

Even when you love being a part of something, it’s perfectly natural to want or need to take a break. Once again, this spectrum of participation allows members who are more engaged to catch their breath. The medium and long term result is a reduction in burnout and more sustainable levels of participation across the board.

How to patch a leaky bucket

With a better understanding of participation as a spectrum, you can tactically address community member retention long before people are looking for the door. Here are two techniques that work consistently:

  1. Shorten the time it takes for a new member form a bond with two or more other people who are active participants.

    People are more likely to stay active when they have a relationship with another active member. If you notice a lone wolf joining the community, look for ways to help that person bond with two already active participants.

    Why two? Because in the eyes of a member, forming a bond with one person in the community could be an accident. By the second time, they’ll notice a trend in their ability to bond with people in the community and will more likely continue that trend on their own.

  2. Reduce or eliminate unnecessary short-term benefits of being a member. Members who join for access to “stuff” are more likely to end their participation when they no longer need for the “stuff”.

    It might be tempting to use rewards that play to the short-term wants of community members to draw them in, but over the medium and long term, this approach backfires and you’ll experience extrinsic motivators at play.

Extrinsic motivators, or how cookies ruined coloring books

Here’s a quick case study that helps to understand the effect of extrinsic motivators:

Back in the 70’s, researchers asked two groups of children to spend time with their coloring books.

The first group was promised a reward for their work – a cookie – while the second group was simply given the assignment – no incentive or benefit for their participation. Both groups were given the same coloring books and crayons, and the researchers watched the results.

The same groups returned a second time, but this time – no rewards were offered to either group. New coloring books and crayons were handed out, and the researchers watched the results.

During the second session, the children who had previously been rewarded for their drawings spent significantly less time on their drawings compared to the children who’d never been rewarded.

Author: Alex Hillman
Date: July 20, 2013

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