Growth August 29, 2012 Last updated September 19th, 2018 2,929 Reads share

What Motivates People in Online Communities to Participate?

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Being a forty something….I get this question a lot from my peers. This is a behavioural question that business and organisations all over the world are trying to understand. In my

What makes one community perform better than the next?

Why does one business or organisation get lots of shares on Facebook and RT’s on Twitter while another, trying equally hard, gets very few? There are a number of reasons.

Dynamic content plays a large part.

The more your content tells a story, builds empathy and is relevant, you remember. The higher the edu-tainment value, the more the online community will respond, participate and share.

Trust is a huge influencer.

Your online community has to trust what they are sharing and talking about is not going to come back and bite them on the ass by embarrassing them in front of their online peers.

Values and Principles

The values and principles of the organisation are demonstrated in the manner in which it conducts itself in public and the online community are happy to align themselves with that.


That the business or organisation conducts itself in a manner congruent with its values and is not just paying them lip service. Get caught lying on this one and the online community will drop your business instantly; after giving you a good going over on the social platforms. A very public humiliation.

Having these attributes in place allows the organisations to build an online community but as I asked in the heading, what intrinsically and internally motivates people to participate, why bother?  In previous blog posts I have explained the importance of Multi-Directional Expressive Capability (MDEC) to online community building. MDEC conversation is the goal of any online community, for the Social Business Model (SBM) to succeed. Without the online communities participation in the customer to customer discussion about business (C2CaB), then the organisation can not maximise its online marketing results.

Related: What is MDEC (Multi-Directional Expression Capability)? It Is The Rocket Fuel For Successful Online Strategy!

What motivates people to participate in online communities?

There has being a large body of research undertaken, trying to identify the triggers that inspire, drive, motivate people to participate. Reviewing results of this research shows the most consistent result proves to be intrinsic or internal motivation. As a result of studying this research, here is what I understand intrinsic motivation to be. The Collins dictionary definition is as follows, intrinsic means; “essential to the basic nature of something” or “of ones self”. Daniel Pinks research showed the following three terms help to understand intrinsic and internal motivation better.

  • Autonomy – the urge to direct our own lives
  • Mastery –  the desire to get better at something that matters
  • Purpose –  in the service of something greater than ourselves

In themselves not startling information but placed together a powerful force which bring dramatic results for people.


Not everybody is comfortable having to make decisions, in fact the majority of people are very happy to let others make decisions for them and complain about those decisions later. People feel that to many issues are stacked against them, money, education, ability or where they were born. All boundaries over which they feel they have no control.

The research shows that people that are intrinsically and internally motivated do not see these obstacles and see success as a  matter of long hours of dedication. Matt Sayed in his brilliant book Bounce examines the background of some of the most brilliant sports stars and musicians to see what was the “autobiographical” circumstance of their youth – people like Beckham, Woods, Agassi and Beethoven. He discovered that despite growing up in different circumstances the real difference was they were intrinsically motivated early in life to love their chosen discipline by a significant adult in their lives. Their love of their sport or music meant that  nothing would stop them from working hard and putting in long hours.

Related: Four Olympic Takeaways For Business Owners


The people mentioned above along with countless others were intrinsically and internally motivated by the desire to master their chosen sport or instrument. It is of course not exclusively sports or music, it could be maths, gardening, teaching or any walk of life –  the common thread is the discipline to keep trying to improve. In Bounce, Sayed uses a calculation that you need 10,000 hours to gain mastery over your chosen discipline. He is not alone in this belief as Malcolm Gladwell wrote his book Outliers: The Story of Success on that principle and proved the point with his research. Why would anybody put these kind of hours into any mastering any discipline? The love of it.


People generally want to belong, we are pack animals and because of this we form communities and relationships. Some take this a step further by volunteering with organisations like the Coder-Dojo, Sports, training kids, working with charities and so on. Online the greatest example of this is Wikipedia — everybody that edits Wiki does so free of charge and receives only the satisfaction of knowing they are helping their fellow man to better understand things.


The biggest contributors online are intrinsically motivated people – of that there is little doubt. The research in this area overwhelmingly points to this in all walks of life; online behaviour is no different. The job of the online marketers is to increase the number of intrinsically motivated people in their clients’ online communities to maximise the MDEC conversation around the company, organisation or brand.

It must be the company, organisation or brands objective to build trust with their community through transparency.  Conducting themselves in a values driven principled manner. This is the new marketing model which will allow businesses and organisations to tap into the undoubted potential of the online space. The Social Business Model does work, it is working, just look around at how businesses and organisations are reaping the reward of word-of-mouth that online community brings.

If you want online success, build an online community that improves the lives of your members and makes life more interesting. Does it not make sense that more people will respond to your content if they are motivated?

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John Twohig

John Twohig

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