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Online Community Meetup: The Five Steps to Growing an Engaged Online Community

Community & Social Media

This post originally appeared on's blog and was written by Susan Chavez.Randy Paynter of Care2 at TechSoup's monthly meetup

May’s Online Community Meetup featured Randy Paynter, co-founder of Care2. Paynter’s talk, "The Five Steps to Growing an Engaged Online Community," examined how to build and sustain online communities by relating some of the lessons he has learned through managing the Care2 community since its inception.

Founded in 1998, Care2, a B-corporation that works with over 700 nonprofits and has more than 15 million members, defines itself as a social action network. Care2 provides visitors to their site green-living advice and the opportunity to act on behalf of the causes they care most about. The Care2 community is largely composed of women, a valuable and powerful consumer segment when one considers that women control 83% of consumer spending and are more inclined to spend in line with their values. Technology and social networking means, according to Paynter, “Community has never before been more important for organization success.” The following are Paynter’s steps for growing an engaged online community:

  1. Create Critical Mass: Organizations can create critical mass with viral services and content. Care2 started with e-cards that gave back and webmail in 1998. It followed up on that success by creating the Petition Site the following year. By getting people to share through online items that would become viral, like e-cards, petitions, contests, and so on, Care2 was able to and continues to grow its community; the proof is in their membership of 15.9 million. 
  2. Get Engaging Content in Front of Members: Paynter concedes that although it is, “much easier to respond to content than it is to create content in the first place,” Care2 has instead endeavored to provide content that its users will find engaging. Care2 has achieved this by providing healthy lifestyle tips and articles through their blog and news feature, the Care2 News Network. The Care2 News Network allows users to submit news stories and vote for content that should be featured more prominently. Meanwhile, Care2’s blogging network is comprised of 80 bloggers writing compellingly about a multitude of causes that matter to its membership.  
  3. Give Positive Feedback: Care2 features its own unique member incentive system, Butterfly Rewards, which can be earned by completing positive actions. Points are earned for completing any number of actions such as signing a petition related to a cause one cares about or vetting news items on its Care2 News Network. Points can be used to purchase socially good items such as a day’s worth of clean drinking water for a child in a developing country or planting a tree. Paynter finds that along with content, getting some form of positive feedback and interaction is also important to keeping community members engaged. However, the most important caveat to implementing a rewards system is to make sure that the incentives offered are appropriate to the community, at the risk of creating disincentives.
  4. Maintain Members’ Trust: The first method by which Care2 works to maintain their members’ trust is to protect their community from spam and trolls to maintain a safe online community. The site does have an internal system by which to do this but other methods used include deputizing members, allowing members to take collective action, and providing a customer service channel. Another facet of trust is respecting members and being consistent to the community’s core values. A for-profit company, whose practices conflicted with Care2’s stance on the environment, once approached the leadership at Care2 for a sponsorship opportunity. As appealing as the potential sponsor’s money was in the short-term, in the long-term it would have cost Care2 their integrity among their community members had they chosen to put money over values.  
  5. Make It Sustainable: When Care2 was founded it was intended to be an engine for good. As the community has grown, it became ever more important to generate revenue to ensure the capability and resources necessary to serve its members. Care2 has developed a number of ways to generate revenue including charging nonprofit organizations a reasonable fee for new donor leads, advertising for private companies, and a “Take Action Platform” widget, used on over 100 partner sites that drives traffic and advertiser dollars to its site. While some might see a conflict in developing partnerships with for-profit companies, Care2 believes that including businesses rather than excluding them is a more productive way to move businesses towards making more ethical choices. 

Following the presentation, Paynter answered audience questions that revealed more about Care2. For instance, Paynter revealed that initially Care2 focused on environmental issues, however, it was discovered that although people generally came to the site to learn about or support one issue they could be appealed to take action on other issues because most people are not “one-issue” people. Using the technological tools at their disposal, the staff at Care2 can cater to the individual preferences of their community members by allowing them to customize the newsletter content they receive or using individual member history to send out petitions for causes that will most likely appeal to those people. Despite the proliferation of sites that take a more niche approach to embracing causes, Care2 believes that taking a holistic approach to advocating for progressive causes is the best approach for them because it allows them to draw people in via issues that interest those individuals and then exposes them to other worthy causes.

The Care2 community, like those found on other social networking sites, includes a small number of “super users,” who account for a large volume of online activity, with a much larger number who are more casual users. In an effort to make the site’s resources available on-the-go for community members, Care2 plans to do more to capitalize on mobile technology and make their site mobile friendly. Although Care2 does not have the resources to create opportunities for its community to connect offline via a published magazine or meetups, it will continue to focus on its strength: the online community. Part of that strategy includes more outreach on popular social media channels, such as Facebook and Twitter, while still providing valuable content for their community members who may not be on nor will be persuaded to use those channels. And if the community member who drove 700 miles to visit another lonely community member over the holiday season or the community connections that resulted in marriages are any indication, the Care2 online community is indeed strong and on the right track.