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Member Attachment in Online Communities

Sitting alone in empty theatre.

Member Attachment in Online Communities

What keeps users engaged in a site?

Companies have spent millions to launch online communities only to see them fail due to lack of participation. Researchers at the University of Minnesota have examined various dynamics of online communities in order to develop a more robust understanding of why and how people participate in, or abandon, online communities.

The Study

Social technologies have made it easy for people to connect via major social networks, as well as in niche communities for just about any topic imaginable. All kinds of communities exist online to help people work together, mobilize political activism, engage socially, support one another, conduct commerce, and exchange information. Some online communities prosper; others wither. Why? Technology and topic play a role, but success or failure of an online community is arguably determined by human participation.

There are many aspects to participation, including member attachment. Whether or not a person feels attached to a community can significantly affect how often, to what degree, and for how long that person participates in the community’s activities.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota and Carnegie Mellon University tested member attachment in a study of participation in online communities. To do this, they designed community features based on two types of attachment from social science theory: attachment based on group identity and attachment based on interpersonal bonds between members.

Results showed that both feature sets increased member attachment and participation; however, the features based on group identity had a stronger effect. That is, features designed to strengthen members’ feelings of connection to the group’s purpose or characteristics had more impact on member attachment than features built to foster interpersonal connection between individual members.


Many organizations want to engage a community online, including companies that see it as an opportunity to connect with customers and promote brands. This study and others demonstrate how theory-inspired features can be integrated and empirically tested in online spaces, thanks to the data captured by today’s technologies. This allows for experimentation and decision-making based on evidence, not guesswork.

Building Member Attachment in Online Communities: Applying Theories of Group Identity and Interpersonal Bonds, Ren, Y., Harper F. M., Drenner S., Terveen L., Kiesler S., Riedl J., and Kraut R. E., MIS Quarterly, 09/2012, Volume 36, Issue 3, (2012)


F.M. Harper, S. Drenner, S. Kiesler, J. Riedl, and R.E. Kraut