Build a Community vs. Grow a User Base vs. Increase User Engagement

This post was inspired by Jason Shen (@JasonShen) of Ridejoy.  Jason tweeted asking what the difference is between building a community, growing a user base and increasing user engagement.  After tweeting him my answer like a good Twitter follower, his question stuck in my head and I just couldn’t shake it.  So I want to expand on my 140 character answer.

Although some people like to use the phrases “build a community”, “grow a user base” and “increase user engagement” interchangeably, they actually represent three very different aspects of your customer experience.  All three are necessary in building a great brand and all three rely heavily on the other two for success.

The reason why people consistently confuse these terms is because “community”, “user base” and “users” actually refer to the same thing: the people who gain value from your service.  “Build a community”, “grow a user base” and “engage users” are similar in that they all focus on the people your company serves.  Where they differ is the types of interaction you have with your users and the purposes/goals of these interactions.

Build a Community

The term “building a community” refers to the activity of increasing your users’ support of and communication with your company.  This is the most abstract of the three terms but it basically means your ability to create and nurture relationships with your users.  If you want to quantify the value of your community you can look at related metrics such as annual renewals, bug reporting, personal recommendations and direct sales.  However, keep in mind that not all success metrics are quantitative.  I like to unofficially monitor the strength of a community by the nature of my live chat sessions: how eager are users to chat beyond their initial question, how often do they volunteer feature ideas, and how personal/comfortable do the sessions become.  I recommend doing the same as you build your community and also, remember that no two communities are the same and every relationship grows at a different rate.

Sidenote: Some people think building a community means fostering interactions between your users, but this is only true if your service has a social feature.  The community of my last startup didn’t interact at all via our product because that wasn’t the nature of the service.  Does that mean we didn’t build a great community?  Hell no.  If your service has a social feature then by all means yes, part of building your community should include how often your users interact with each other and the nature of those interactions.  But if you don’t have a social feature, don’t sweat it… and certainly don’t add it to your product because someone says you can’t build a community without it.

Grow a User Base

Growing a user base is the most quantitative of the three terms and boils down to two little words: new users.  The action of growing a user base is the addition of new users to your current base*.  Sweet and simple.  Your user base should increase in size from one day to the next.  You should also take note of active vs. inactive users when looking at your growth – inactive users are people who sign up and never use your service, active users are the ones who do.  It’s important that your month over month growth increase or be consistent but unfortunately this isn’t always the case.  So, when you grow your user base, you need to pay attention to your sign up trends.  What time/day/month do users sign up the most?  When do they sign up the least?  What events trigger or hinder sign ups?  Do active users come from different sources than inactive users?  These are all factors that will affect your growth and you need to be aware of them.  They will help you allocate your marketing resources effectively and identify holes in your sales process.  They might even expose your achilles heel i.e. on the Fourth of July your users are excessively patriotic and completely disinterested in buying “Forza Italia” face tattoos.

*Retaining current users also affects the growth of your base – if you add five new users but lose eight returning ones your base isn’t growing – but, for argument’s sake, let’s say you know user retention like the back of your hand.

Increase User Engagement

Finally, engaging users means getting people to use your product or service.  There are a lot of external factors that can affect user engagement (pricing, confusing UI, inaccessibility, etc.) but successful engagement comes down to the user’s interest in and need for your product.  When you increase user engagement you up a user’s interest and need and thus, change their behavior.  This means getting a user to login to your service twice a day instead of once a week, spend two hours rather than two minutes using your product, or use your mobile app as much as your website.  It can also mean getting a user to buy an annual membership instead of a weekly pass or purchase related products to accessorize and complement what they currently own.

Now that you know the difference between building a community, growing a user base and increasing user engagement, your next thought should be “how do I do these three things?”  Excellent question, I guess I should get started on that post.