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Engaging online participation: the research

A new, emerging space like social media might seem like unmapped territory. But actually, there's already a lot of knowledge available about how and why people participate online. Our methodology for fostering online participation has its roots in Alex's Ph.D. research at Harvard University and her work for social capital scholar Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone.

That methodology is grounded in three key insights:

1. Online conversations build the social capital that businesses, organizations and governments need to succeed.

We start with an understanding and appreciation of social capital: what it is, why it matters, and how to build it. Social capital is created by relationships and social networks; it's often defined in terms of levels interpersonal trust or the propensity to cooperate. Low levels of social capital reduce resilience for businesses, organizations and societies, and make it harder for them to respond to emergent economic, social and environmental challenges.

Businesses, organizations and communities succeed when the people within them trust each other, look out for one another, and work well together. That trust comes from interaction, collaboration and, most of all, conversation. The past century has seen an erosion in the social capital that holds our businesses and communities together; we feel the impact in everything from declining voting levels and weakening economic performance to poor health and diminished personal happiness.

There's a lot of debate over why social capital has eroded, but it comes down to us having less time together: as we get busier, and spend more time alone or at home watching TV, we stop investing in the relationships that hold our businesses and communities together.

Online conversation can help to turn this around. When people create and support relationships through thoughtful online interaction, they start to understand each other better and have more trust in one another. That kind of trust can be built through frequent, modest interactions (think Twitter or Facebook status updates) or less frequent but more intensive interactions (like blog exchanges or video conversations).

As the density of online interactions thickens, you develop the relationships and trust you need to succeed: whether that's through your customers' trust and engagement with your brand, your supporters' engagement with one another and your mission, or your team's engagement and collaborative power.

2. Online conversations engage participation when they offer compelling benefits.

If you want to use social media to build relationships, trust and social capital, you have to get your customers, supporters and team to actually participate in the conversations you launch.

And that isn't easy. With more and more online communities, social networks and social media projects launching every day, you face increasing competition to get your customers' and users' time, attention and participation.

Alex's research into the motives for online political participation (PDF) builds on decades of economic, sociological and political science research into what makes people participate instead of free riding (getting the benefit from something without shouldering their share of the costs) in a wide range of settings. This research applies directly to the challenge of online conversations, where it's easy to benefit from the community's content or knowledge without contributing any of your own.

Her reserach confirmed that online -- as offline -- the best way to get people to contribute rather than free-ride is to offer selective incentives: benefits that are available only to the people who contribute. That's why our projects always offer tangible benefits to the customers, supporters or team members that participate in your online conversation – whether it's knowledge they can gain or prizes they can win. Since all of our projects are based on offering compelling incentives, we have a large repertoire of ways to induce participation, and will help you find the particular, innovative combination of incentives that works for your community.

3. The most powerful benefit an online conversation can offer is a sense of belonging.

Economic and social research has done a great job of showing how material benefits (such as money or goods) affect participation. But it also shows that opportunities for interaction, expression and impact can motivate people, too.

Alex's research into hacktivism was the first to bring social psychology literature on group identity to bear on the analysis of selective incentives. She found that one of the most powerful motivations for participation is the desire for positive ascriptive identity: the desire to identify yourself with a group that you think of positively. Often, people participate in a particular kind of activity not because they want to say "I do this" but because they want to say "I'm the kind of person who does this".

That's why every one of Social Signal's projects engages participants with the promise of a valued identity: the opportunity to become the kind of person they want to be. We've helped shape online communities that give people the chance to say, "I'm the kind of person who's building my city's economy"; "I'm the kind of person who cares about conservation", or "I'm the kind of person who helps fight red tape."

From insight to innovation

These insights are the key to keeping every one of our projects alive and humming with participation. And – along with our extensive and growing experience in creating new social media projects – they provide an overarching framework that allows us to constantly innovate: envisioning new opportunities for community-building, new avenues for social media marketing, and new ways of engaging your audiences.

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