Ever since I first started working with online social communities I’ve been thinking about just what it is that makes some communities successful while others fizzle and die. In particular I’m curious why collaboration communities seem to be so hard to make work.

Of course we have plenty of research into the strategies and tactics involved in setting up and running a successful social community, and we continue to publish new research and insights each month. But what do we know about the real reasons why individuals take the time to participate in these communities? What motivates them? And if we can understand what motivates them, is there a connection to figuring out why some communities are more successful than others?

While doing recent research on social computing initiatives I got to thinking on this problem again. Recently I made the connection to Abraham Maslow’s work on the hierarchy of needs:

Maslow suggested all people are motivated by a desire to fulfill basic human needs in an ascending hierarchy. He also suggested that unless the lower-order needs are fulfilled, the higher-order needs are not motivators of behavior.

The primary needs Maslow identified fall into five groups:

  • Physiological: breathing, food, water, sex, sleep, homeostasis, excretion
  • Safety: security of: body, employment, resources, morality, the family, health, property
  • Love/Belonging: friendship, family, sexual intimacy
  • Esteem: self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of & by others
  • Self-actualization: morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, acceptance of facts

What’s interesting is that many social community activities fit nicely into Maslow’s hierarchy, suggesting a basis of motivation that drives participation.

Using Maslow’s hierarchy as a foundation, it’s possible to identify four needs  that online social communities satisfy:

  • Safety – Calling for help through any type of social communication (for example the use of Twitter in anti-government protests or after an earthquake).
  • Love and Belonging – using social communities to connect with friends and family and reinforce the human need to belong to a family group or community. Using social communities to find new relationships also fulfills this need.
  • Esteem – When we answer questions in a community we are fulfilling the need to build self-esteem and potentially earning the respect of others. This is the reason why many communities have found the use of community points awarded for participation encourages more use.
  • Self Actualization – the need for a creative outlet motivates bloggers and YouTube contributors alike. The need to solve problems is a big motivator in collaboration communities.

Social communities of various types offer the opportunity for its members to fulfill some or all of these needs. However, if lower level needs are unmet, people may lack the motivation to participate in the community.

For example, applying Maslow’s hierarchy helps to explain why so many people feel the urge to use Twitter and YouTube in times of crisis when they feel their own security is threatened. These social communities provide a pathway for potentially satisfying the need to be safe. It also explains why broader social media communities are most popular in societies where the lower-level needs are already satisfied in a large portion of the population.

The Social Community Needs Hierarchy: 4 C’s

Every social community it seems must satisfy at least one of four Social Needs:

  • Communicate –the ability for members to easily share with others meets the safety needs and also supports the love and belonging, and esteem needs. This may be as simple as sending short messages to others in the community to let them know what’s happening.
  • Connect – finding people and make connections contributes to the love and belonging needs. Communities built with rich profiles and the ability to search the member profiles help to connect people. Technology that automatically suggests connections based upon profile information are highly successful in meeting the social need.
  • Contribute – helping others and being able to recognize the contributions of others fulfills the esteem needs. Simple question and answer communities provide one example of support but to fully tap the social need the community should provide the ability for members to provide kudos to each other and for contributions to be rewarded in some way.
  • Create – The ability to create and/or work together on a shared problem helps meet the self actualization needs. Communities that facilitate collaboration between members such as Google Wave or that allow members to create content and share ideas through technology such as video uploading are best able to tap into Self-Actualization.

Not all communities need to be designed to satisfy all Social Needs but in general, the more needs that are supported; the more people are likely to find the community appealing. For example, YouTube provides an excellent platform for creating but lacks support for sharing and connecting in the way that FaceBook provides to its members; LinkedIn started out as a platform to connect people and recently has expanded services to community members that appeal to a broader set of Social Needs.

When thinking about what it takes to create a successful collaboration community, it’s important to recognize that this is dependent upon satisfying higher order needs. A collaboration community is likely to be most successful if it taps into member’s motivation to participate by supporting all four social needs. It can do this by:

  • Offering a mechanism for easy communication (e.g. micro-blogging).
  • Helping members to connect through rich profiles and profile search with friending.
  • Encouraging support by providing not only Q&A but also the ability to vote and reward contributions
  • Providing the ability to share ideas and to comment and add insight such as through virtual whiteboards, photos, video or a wiki-type content platform.

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