Motivation and Online Communities

Not everyone will participate, here’s how to build an engaged community

When I moved to San Francisco early in my career to pursue my Dot Com 1.0 Internet millionaire dreams, I did not know a single person. Over time though, I built an oddball collection of friends, including a small group I met in Golden Gate Park one weekend playing flag football. They were down one person for their 5-on-5, so I joined in.

Several weeks later, our 5-on-5 turned into 12-on-12. Everybody wanted in, so we just made the teams bigger. It got complicated and crowded and confusing. Then I ran a route, caught the ball, and got leveled by five guys at once. That was the end of my flag football glory. I heard the guys did not miss me though, they were now 15-on-15…

Participation is a tricky thing to get right. Too many people, it becomes messy. Too few, and it feels like a ghost town. It is a market dynamics problem, ideally you want to get the balance right between too much and too little involvement.

“Will people participate” is a common question when discussing how to build an internal developer community. Organizations are right to be skeptical as almost all attempts at implementing social collaboration platforms end in dismal adoption. This leads to the inevitable discussion of motivation and how to spur interest in participating.

Since I commonly get the question of how to intrinsically motivate developers, I am providing a comprehensive guide that you will find below. Using this guide will help provide a practical understanding of the practices we have employed so that you can launch and grow your own internal communities.


Community is a critical ingredient for building a self-perpetuating content generation engine such as a knowledge repository. Active contributions from the community is what makes such systems work. However, not everyone will want to contribute. Having everyone or even a majority contribute is not the success criteria however. The success is the growth of content and engagement with the content that users add.

So the real question becomes, how do you get enough users to contribute enough content to create a thriving and active community?


I read a post some years ago that strongly influenced on my views on communities called “1000 True Fans”. The author made the case that an artist can be a success even without fame and millions of fans. All an artist needs is 1000 diehard fans. They are the ones that keep the artist afloat in the long run.

The Internet also works along the same lines. A site does not needs billions or even millions to thrive. A site just needs to have a large enough “fanbase” to sustain itself. For example Stack Overflow’s community is developers whereas Dribbble focuses on designers, both of which are large enough groups.


The true fan theory is quite evident across social networks. Of the 330 million monthly active users on Twitter, 70% are only there to read “news”. Just as most users never tweet, very few ever contribute on Stack Overflow. Of the 50 million monthly visitors to the site, only 500,000 contribute in a significant way. On a daily basis, they receive about 5,000–6,000 new questions per day.

This is participation inequality, a concept introduced by Will Hill of AT&T Laboratories in the 90s. This idea was later christened the “1% Rule” (also called the “1–9–90 Rule”) in the 2000’s as Internet usage was exploding and online communities were quickly expanding.

The theory states that any online community will have different levels of participation. Of the total community population, 1% create content, 9% edit or modify that content, and 90% view the content without contributing. Those 90% are usually called lurkers, which is who millions of users experience these online communities on a regular basis.


We might think this is a bad thing to have such low participation rates. But what if the opposite were true and the majority contributed actively? Even if just 50% were posting content on a regular basis, the system would become overwhelmed with poor content as moderators struggle to handle the volume of contributions.

Consider what has happened with messaging apps. One developer I spoke with called their Slack instance a “dumpster fire of gibberish” littered with condo sales, bus schedules & birthday best wishes. In large communities, too many active users creates a worse user experience and decreases participation.


For smaller communities though, a 1% active participation rate would not work. If you had 200 people in your community, that would mean 2 users would be very active and 20 would be moderately active. Luckily, we have observed much higher engagement for internal communities where the active participation is in the range of 10% and the moderate users make up 30–40% of the user base.

Here are a few considerations when building a strategy to grow community participation:

  • Create value up front. It is much easier for people to get involved when there is a starting point. That is why we strongly suggest seeding content or batching up events from the very beginning that comprises the most commonly asked questions or useful topics.
  • Make it easier to contribute. The lower the barrier to participate, the more willing users will be to engage. That is why it is critical to introduce nudges and notifications, so that members of the community are aware of opportunities to participate or chime in.
  • Rally your internal fans. There are users that will immediately get excited by the introduction of a community. For them, they have a natural inclination for these types of social environments, so use that enthusiasm to get them on board from the very beginning.
  • Promote quality contributions. Recognize all good content and active users. Use all relevant channels such as newsletters, intranets / collaboration platforms, chat apps, company webinars, lunch & learns, and internal tech events to promote the platform and community. Do not be afraid of over-communicating.
  • Reward — but don’t over-reward — participants. The easiest and best means of rewarding community members is through recognition. Being recognized through badges and reputation points in a platform is one method, but also use external channels and platforms to reward active contributors. Contests, giving out swag, free passes to tech events are just a few ideas.
  • Integrate into training. Having new employees get an introduction to and training on the community from the start of their onboarding is both an easy way to get new content and participation and an excellent way to indoctrinate involvement from the start.
  • Encourage support from leadership. Having IT leaders both talking about and engaging in the community gives users encouragement that their own participating is seen as a positive activity sanctioned by management and the company as a core value.


Underlying the tactics used to launch the community is the long-term strategy to methodically scale the community. Inviting everyone onboard at the start is rarely a successful strategy. Instead, the community needs to build in stages to ensure each layer of the community is stable before building towards the next stage of adding more users and groups.

There are three specific strategies that help set the right foundation for long-term growth:

  • Identify the most impactful uses. Not every group or area is equal when it comes to a good starting point. Consider groups or functions where there are a lot of repetitive questions, lots of new technology being introduced. significant change occurring, or / and rapid growth in staff.
  • Start with your fans. It is critical to get your fans on board from the start. They will set the community standards, the bar for content quality, and the types of content that are valid on the site and presented at events. And most importantly, they will be the early and most active contributors that build momentum for organic adoption.
  • Build the market. Any user generated content engine is essentially a two-sided market with “sellers” of knowledge who contribute content and “buyers” of knowledge that seek content. Therefore you need a mix of people involved in the community from subject matter experts to moderators to newly hired employees in order to create enough “liquidity” of content and a support system to maintain the social norms of the community.

Employing these strategies allows you to build trust in the community and content, create more value for users over time, and spark organic growth so that the community is self-sustaining without any need for the overhead of central administration.


In discussing community with IT leaders, there is often the question of whether they can motivate users to participate in the community. The answer is no because intrinsic motivation is something internal to each person. What you can do however is provide an environment that makes it natural and easy for those with the motivation to want to participate in the community.

This gets back to fans. There are individuals that are already avid fans of communities, think of the developers that participate in hackathons, attend conferences, and organize events. They understand the power of people coming together to share knowledge, to help each other, and to learn new ideas that spur on even better ideas. They value human based knowledge and the value they have received from participating in communities. They understand the WIIFM (known as “What’s In It For Me”).

Using the ideas in the GROWING PARTICIPATION and SCALING THE COMMUNITY sections will help to activate the WIIFM for users and provide a strong foundation for the long-term success of the community.


Much of the content for this answer was derived from blog posts I wrote on Community Management best practices that you can explore further if you wish to understand more about these topics.


  • Not everyone will contribute to the community and that is okay and expected
  • Participation in online communities generally follows the “1–9–90 Rule”, 1% are active, 9% are moderate & 90% just lurk
  • Number of active contributors is not the ultimate success criteria, it is growth in overall usage and content
  • Increased participation requires finding your internal fans & communicating on a regular basis the WIIFM for the rest
  • Internal communities can sometimes reach a “10–30–60” ratio of users which is quite respectable for internal communities

Do you agree with the points about community building & participation? What are some examples of social collaboration platforms you have used?

Do aircraft cabins have suspension?

Had a lot of turbulence on my last flight & this answer was interesting…

We help IT leaders in enterprises solve the cultural challenges involved in digital transformation and move towards a community based culture that delivers innovation and customer value faster. Learn more about our work here.

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