Guided Hike: Unequal Engagement—And Why That’s A-Ok

The Pareto Principle, finding your power users, and ’lurking’


🥾Too Long, Didn’t Hike

  • Unequal participation is expected, normal, and good

  • 20% of your users will make up 80% of the overall engagement and value of your community

  • The other 80% aren’t useless, they are the bulk of your community and what makes it worth the time of your 20%ers (and you)

  • Recognize, acknowledge, and support your 20% power users

  • Note who could become a power user and begin fostering their further engagement

  • Respect your 80%ers needs by asking broad community-wide questions on how they want to engage



One of the most common concerns for community leaders and moderators is low engagement.


Or lordy forbid a ‘ghost town.’

But let’s clarify this low engagement fear a bit, yeah?

“Low engagement” is pretty vague.

  • How are you measuring engagement?
  • Comments? Likes? Questions asked? Visits to the forum?
  • And are you looking for the same level of engagement from all members?

That last question is what this Guided Hike is all about: unequal engagement and why that’s not only expected but what makes a community work.

To pull one of my favorite quotes from the powerhouse book Building Brand Communities:

“[It’s] normal, predictable, and perfectly fine that members’ participation will typically look radically unequal.”

Why’s this?

The Pareto Principle.


The Pareto Principle, aka the 80/20 rule

Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist from the nineteenth century, came up with the now-famous 80/20 rule that you might have seen floating around.

It’s pretty easy to understand and explain.

>At least 20% of effort will yield at least 80% of the outcome.<

It applies to nearly everything.

In your business, 20% of your actions result in 80% of your overall success.

It could be sales calls or highly strategic marketing…and probably not day-to-day project management or admin tasks.

In your life, 20% of your activities result in 80% of your overall happiness.

Think hobbies, family time, vacations…and probably not all that time spent washing dishes or watching yet another 20-episode season of what you admittedly call ‘trash television.’ (oh wait is that just me…)

The same is true for your community.

20% of your members will account for 80% of all engagement.

In fact, those 20%ers are more than likely the folks who make your community feel like a community.

Not you.

Not the other 80%.

Those 20% core members.

Take one of my clients, for example.

In an online community of 1,000+ people, he got curious as to how everyone was engaging and at what rate.

Over the course of a month, he manually tracked everyone’s engagement based on comments, likes, quality questions asked, and (most importantly) how often they pulled others into the conversation.

What he discovered was surprising, and can be applied 99.9% of the time to every single community ever.

Of 1,000 members, there was a core group of power users in his space.

Repeat the 80/20 rule again, and of those power users two really stood out.

One was his paid community moderator, so she was an expected main hub of engagement.

But another was an unpaid community enthusiast, and that person was an even bigger hub of activity than the paid moderator.

This person was in there, connecting others, asking great questions, pulling people in, and keeping the community going.



Power users are the lifeblood of any community, delivering an overwhelming amount of results (engagement, communication, whatever you’re tracking).

Yet it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking “Wow, I wish every user was like these power users. I wish everyone engaged this much, participated this much, asked this many questions, and brought so much spark to the space.”

Do you know what would happen if EVERYONE was a power user?

Absolute chaos with no space to breathe, think, or engage in a meaningful way.

The most important takeaway here is this: 

Unequal engagement is expected.

It’s 100% typical.

What matters most is that you have that core 20% because they make the community worth it for the rest of the 80%.


How to recognize your 20% power users

There are a lot of tools out there that can help map and track engagement so you don’t have to do it by hand like my client in the section above.

But I’m guessing each and every one of you would be able to easily list at least 1-5 members that you’d name as power users of your space.

A note to consider though!

Some people are constantly interacting, but they may not be effective.

Effective can be defined by answering these questions:

  • Are they building up the ideal culture in your space or just kind of noisy?
  • Do they help pull more folks into the conversation, or create cliques?

Keeping these questions in mind…here’s your first scavenger hunt item for this guided hike!  (Scavenger Hunt = little action items you can take along the way)

🔎Scavenger Hunt:

Make a quick list of your power users


How to foster your 20%ers

I’m not exaggerating when I say this:

Losing just 8 critical members can collapse a 1,000-member community.

When you put in on a smaller scale, losing even one of your critical members can create a clear lack of pizazz in your space.

You’ll feel it.

You’re 80%ers will feel it.

And you’ll be totally scrambling trying to figure out how to get that spice back.

As a community leader, your job is to both nurture your power users and foster potentially new power users so when a current one leaves, it’s all good.

Trust me, some of your power users will leave and that’s ok.

With your list of power users from the scavenger hunt item above, you can start personally reaching out to them, showing your appreciation for all that they do in your community, and asking how you can make the space even better for them.

It’ll both make them feel very seen and appreciated AND give you an energetic direct line of feedback for community development.



A note—

This isn’t an exercise to say “thank you, but can you also do this?”

This is an exercise in appreciation only.

You’re acknowledging the power users, showing that you see how important they are, how they bring such great conversations to your space.

You’re not asking them to do more of it.

You’re just saying (in a very specific-to-them way) thank you.

Some examples:

  • “Hey Claire, I really appreciate how you invite folks to join you in co-working sessions with you. It helps so many folks get the work done!”
  • “Hey Max, I’ve noticed how intentional you are in the way you ask questions, answer others, and generally engage in the community. I’m so grateful for you!”
  • “Hey Joe, I’ve been really enjoying the articles you’ve been posting in the space. They are so informative and well-researched AND easy to implement the takeaways!”

Just by acknowledging them, they’ll probably do more anyway.


You’ll also want to start noticing potential new power users in your 80% crowd.

  • Who could become a power user with a little bit of encouragement?
  • Who can you start pulling into more conversations?

These two actions together—acknowledging current power users and fostering new ones—will help you avoid the ‘holy shit the core of my community engagement is gone and now everything is on fire’ space.

🔎Scavenger Hunt:

  1. Personally (and privately) acknowledge your power users and ask how you can support them better

  2. Make a list of potential new power users and begin fostering them more


How to (respectfully) engage your 80%

Remember that dream earlier?

Us wishing everyone was as engaged and integrated as our power users?

That dream can creep into your community leadership in sneaky ways.

It can look like calling on people in live sessions that didn’t ask to be called on.

Or tagging someone in a post directly to get them to engage in anything.

But, look, everyone engages in their own way.

There is no such thing as lurking.

Listening is an active state and there’s nothing wrong with that!

Our job as community leaders is to make space for folks who want to listen or engage at a different (not smaller!) level than our power users.

  • How do we engage them with respect and not desperation?
  • In other words, are we giving our folks permission to participate in how they want or are able to?

A great example is actually a Community Camper!

In planning her community, she found herself falling into the ‘how do I get everyone to participate’ trap we all fall into.

She pulled out of it by adding a simple question on her intake form: “How do you want to participate?” 

She gave them options to self-select, ranging from OMG I ASK MANY QUESTIONS AND ENGAGE ALL THE TIME to Hi yes I would just like to quietly learn.

This simple question not only helps tell her members that it’s a-ok to just listen but also helps her segment her list and membership into VERY VOCAL and Listeners.

Another very easy way to respect your 80%ers is through feedback forms or questions directly in your forum.

  • Ask them what formats they feel most comfortable participating in (audio, text, video, etc).
  • Ask them if they would feel more comfortable opening up in a smaller group setting or if they like being just another person in a crowd.
  • Ask them.

📝 Notice how the advice for the 20% is to reach out to them privately (making them feel appreciated) and broadly to the 80% (making them feel seen).

🔎Scavenger Hunt:

Make a plan to ask your broader community how they want to engage (but make sure you only give them options you’re willing to fulfill hint hint)

Bonus Trail: Day one of a new community

When you’re first launching your community, fill it with ideal power powers and not just someone who you know will post a lot.

You want people who are intentional, who get the culture you’re trying to build.

Start with those folks and then grow out from there.

-Trail End –

Trail Reflection Questions:

🥾How does an ideal ‘power user’ engage in your space?

🥾What type of engagement/actions are most important to building up your community culture?


Get on my bird list!