When we build an authentic community, participants (visitors and members) will engage. What do we mean by engage? We’ve seen the term engagement used to refer to, well, just about everything, from reading a blog post to tattooing a logo on one’s body, visiting a single meeting, leading a regional subgroup, and replying to a social media post. We’re going to use the term more specifically. Meaningful community engagement is any action by a participant that supports that participant in (1) caring about the welfare of other community members and/or (2) feeling connected to the community as a whole.

Meaningful engagement is experienced only by members, not organizations. Only members can decide what is in fact meaningful; when they find it, it inspires them to remain connected. This enriches and strengthens a brand community. You may now wonder how to determine or measure the depth or meaningfulness of engagement.

As we noted earlier, quantitatively measuring “engagement meaningfulness,” like measuring maternal love or mutual concern, may be nearly impossible. And like maternal love, meaningfulness still matters a lot for most of us.

There are detailed and nuanced ways to explain the difference between quantitative and qualitative measurements. For simplicity and practicality here, quantitative means objectively measurable by an outside observer. Qualitative here refers to a description of a first-person experience. We can quantitatively measure how many unique toilet roll holders that your mother sends you. We can only seek to understand how much your mother feels love for you qualitatively by asking her to describe it.

Because quantitative measurement is straightforward, we often see organizations default to measuring behaviors that contain actions (clicks, visits, views), but that never tell them whether people feel more connected or caring. When leaders can’t measure quality, they default to measuring quantity, which usually fails and misleads without informed discernment.

Empty engagement is engagement for engagement’s sake. It eats up time and mind space. It also disregards emotional connection or serving needs. For example, imagine that we post cute photographs of ourselves in our online community, living a picture-perfect life in a tropical wonderland. There’s nothing wrong with cute pictures. But this is empty engagement if we’re hiding our true selves, challenges, and longings while hoping to fool others with our posturing. No matter whether participants do this knowingly or not, we call this avataring. We know it’s empty because no one is growing a closer understanding or mutual concern with such activity. Communities that confuse avataring with connecting will not grow real, meaningful connections.

We see this frequently in social media groups and other mirage communities, where the engagement includes posting memes and selfies that never speak to the group’s values or goals. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with pretty photos, selfies, and memes. They can add important diversity to daily life’s sobriety and challenges, but let’s not conflate avataring with authentic community-enriching engagement.

Meaningful engagements relate to the community’s core values and purpose. The engagement also grows or demonstrates mutual concern. It may be difficult as leaders to distinguish what’s meaningful and what isn’t. There will always be a gray zone where some participants consider an engagement empty and others consider it meaningful. It’s important that you can distinguish engagement types at least in broad ways, because the distractions of empty engagement will lead to a community’s stagnation or decline.

Empty engagement means almost nothing for community enrichment. It can gain attention (promotion), but that’s not the same as growing something durable. Consider grocery brands that reward customers with a gas card. The brands get lots of grocery lists and gas purchase locations. Every purchase can get counted as an engagement, but none of it builds connection or community.