If you could increase the number of members initiating discussions, the level of activity and engagement would rise sharply. 

The percentage of members who initiate discussions is usually small. This limits activity and the level of engagement members have in the community.

Members need both the motivation to initiate and to overcome their fear of starting a discussion. Their motivation to initiate will be to either learn something (e.g. "Does anyone know how to....?"), to impress others (e.g. "does anyone else think business class travel isn't as great as it used to be?") or to bond with others (e.g. "I'm upset Kelly got fired from the Apprentice").

Motivation comes relatively easy in active communities. It's social anxiety which prevents most members from initiating discussions. This social anxiety comes in three forms:

  1. I might ask a dumb question or make a dumb statement.
  2. My comment won’t receive any reply and I will appear unpopular.
  3. I might be criticised by members of the community.

A community can overcome much of this anxiety in a few simple steps:

  1. Regularly ask members who write a good response to publish it as an initiated discussion. This creates a habit for members to start discussions. 
  2. Feature highly active discussions prominently on the landing page. This showcases the potential rewards (popularity) for initiating a successful discussion and acts as social proof to overcoming the fear of no responses.
  3. Send members the unwritten rules of the community when they join. Make sure they know how to start discussions, what discussions are usually about and a few tips on how to make a good impression. Automatically edit/correct any questions which are a little off the mark.
  4. Respond to discussions which have not received a response in 24 hours. The appearance of a community in which every discussion receives a response reduces the fear. You may also contact members directly to respond to these discussions. Another option is to have an 'unanswered questions' box. You can even congratulate the initiator on thinking up a question that your community's experts haven't yet been able to answer.
  5. Make heroes of initiators. e.g. "Also this week Joe Smith started an interesting debate about....if you have some expertise, be sure to let him know". This, again, acts as social proof within the community platform and helps other members to know that it's safe to participate.

Social anxiety within a community platform is low compared to offline situations. Yet, it is still high enough to persuade most members never to participate at all. You should be actively working to overcoming this fear. 

(Image: worried sidewalk, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from ryanready's photostream)

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