Friendly Tips for Keeping your Contributors

One thing that I constantly hear colleagues in the Open Web community talking about is the lack of participation on the part of the user. They talk about losing participation rather quickly.

Open projects are constantly trying to get people involved, but how are they doing it? They usually have a webpage and people from the project tweet and retweet opportunities within the community, they go to conferences and try to get new people involved. They market within the community and ask that the community spread the word. But is the community doing that? Well, they might, but engaging the users that are already there and getting them to help grow the community requires a bit of ENGAGEMENT.

Why do I feel this is important? Because we are fighting for something that I believe is a basic human resource. Because we need the masses to get on board with Open Web to educate, spur innovation and change the landscape of our societies. Because the Mickey Mouse Protection Act inhibits our ability to share, grow, create, change and EVOLVE. Because I have an authority problem and I don’t like it when some corporation says what I am allowed to view, read, consume or learn because I don’t have their expensive or proprietary device or browser or what ever.

Because I am a humanist.

So in an effort to contribute a little something more to my friends and colleagues in the Open Web World, here is what people need to STAY involved (imho):

In order to keep participation up people need to feel like their contributions matter, no matter how small they might be. That means saying THANK YOU. It means noticing that someone is contributing! This is fairly easy for small projects, but the infrastructure on larger projects exists, so use it.

Here is an example from P2PU, who have been pretty good about keeping me involved:

Hi Laura,

I saw that Zuzel was able to pull out bits of your pull request and they are live. I figured if I did that that it might mess up your fork. Ah well :) Live and learn!

I wanted to say “Thank you!” The navigation that didn’t have a mouseover was bugging me for a long time and I’m so glad that you fixed that. Thank you! Plus, I don’t have to click to get the drop down! I don’t know why it was set up that way but it was so odd. Thank you for fixing that too.

Alright. I think I’ve spammed you with “Thank you” quite enough now ;) Oh wait… here’s another one…

Thank you!


Jessica Ledbetter

Do you see what she did? She thanked me even though I only fixed a couple of random bugs. I got this email three days after I contributed for the first time. And I will continue to contribute to Lernanta (as soon as I am no longer bedridden, overwhelmed with other tasks and can fix my dev environment which got taken out by my Lion upgrade).

Bigger projects, you need to work on this :) Can’t you just get someone to tweet a random contributor everyday? You must have lists of contributors, can’t you ask for people’s twitter handles and set up a bot? Or randomly post on your home page “[NAME], a volunteer on the Big project, has really been helping us out. Thanks [NAME]!” I know it’s not a lot, but people need to feel like a valued member of the community, otherwise they’ll get bored with it, figure it doesn’t matter and stop contributing. They’ll also unsubscribe from your mailing list. Even whispered thank you’s go a long way.

People need to have adequate support in the systems the project is using. I’ve noticed a couple of times that open source projects assume that their crappy explanation page is enough. They also assume that people will contribute regardless of complications in setup to contribute. Most people will not spend days setting up a development environment, especially if they aren’t developers! But if they do, you need to give them real support. That means creating step by step instructions that are easy to understand, and having someone responsible for answering setup questions. Document common problems. I also recommend giving non developers a way to submit ideas and improvements that doesn’t go through GitHub or a ticketing system. You shouldn’t be asking a non developer to open a Terminal.

This might seem obvious, but I’ve noticed some slacking in documentation, so: People need to understand the tickets! If contributors don’t understand what a ticket is asking for, they won’t fix the bug! Be specific, there might be new contributors, but they will become ex contributors if they constantly find tickets that don’t make sense to them.

People need timely feedback, they crave it. This one is about the thank you, but rather telling someone why you didn’t implement their idea. Answer their emails. People will send one contact request, if you don’t react, most of them won’t try again.

People will participate more if they know about the scale of the project. Tell us how many people are contributing, how often are community events organized, where there are chapters, how will we be rewarded in the short term, in the long term? Show us how to easily find this information.

Now it’s time to talk about NON DEVELOPERS! Seriously, I understand that we are working in the open web and it might seem like the valued participation is development related, but open source projects need more. Much more. It needs to be made clear that you’re not just looking for developers.

There are plenty of people – designers, project managers, lawyers, editors, writers, etc – that would get involved if it weren’t for the fuzzy dev talk that we throw around in the community.

It needs to be EASY to contribute something, even if that something is a nice marketing phrase or forwarding an email to external networks. There need to be multiple inlets for participation. People learned about your open source project at a conference or randomly via a share from someone else, they want to get involved, but your “Get Involved” page only tells them the technical things they could contribute, so they leave. We almost had them, but now they’re gone.

People need to be able to find these ways to contribute too. Having a buried contribute page isn’t helping. Shout it from the roof tops. Put a call to action on your homepage. Say “Check out all the different ways you can contribute to this Free and Open Source Project!” Get a designer to help you make it eye catching. People will click.

Lastly, if you want to keep participation up make it FUN. You’d be surprised at what gamification does for user engagement, even if the game is automated (I’m looking at YOU Wikipedia, “random page in this category” is a huge part of the reason I contribute. I’ve learned a lot of crazy things because of that). Pitting contributors against each other in a completely arbitrary score board will get people hungry for more points. Just look at It’s without purpose, there is no game, it’s literally just a point system from my friends at Phantom Compass. But people are giving and taking points, despite not having any sort of reward. Having easter eggs for contributions will get people contributing with the purpose of finding one of those eggs. I mean, make it fun, and people will contribute more, they’ll stick around because it’s entertaining. They’ll stick around because they made a personal goal.

In the end it’s like this: If you give us hugs, help us when we’re confused and make it easy and fun to participate, we’ll stick around. You already convinced us of your message, if you want us to spread the message further, you’ve got to make sure we know how important we are.

NOTICE: I am NEWISH to the Open Source community. I have been engaging in multiple products and projects over the last year, and this is what I see from my perspective. I am a very engaged user, but it’s because of my own tenacity, as opposed to engaged support from the Open Source Community. I stay involved because I believe in the Open Web. But I think that other people don’t participate because they are just not as tireless as I am. I’ve heard more than once “Fuck it man, I’m not contributing to open projects anymore, nobody notices anyway” more than once. I have been extremely frustrated, so I thought I would tell you about it.

If I’ve offended you, or if you feel like “Hey, we ARE doing that!” feel free to contact me and I’ll take a look from “random user” perspective. My response might be really simple like “Oh you are? How come I don’t know about it?”

I am not a typical user, but I can play one on the Web.

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Friendly Tips for Keeping your Contributors

4 thoughts on “Friendly Tips for Keeping your Contributors

  1. Hi Laura,

    many thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. We’re about to start our very first open source project and your original insight will definitely help us with the community-building.

    Just one thing I couldn’t help to notice: you say “I don’t like it when some corporation says what I am allowed to view, read, consume or learn because I don’t have their expensive or proprietary device or browser or what ever” yet you’re running MacOS ;-)!


  2. […] As I mentioned before, putting some game mechanics into your campaign will help you get and/or keep participation. It’s a fairly simple concept, people like to play and if people are having fun, they’ll get addicted. Addiction is the reason so many people play simulation games (Farmville, SIMS, Sim City 2000), and why they move pieces and parts around (Bejeweled, Tetris). Addiction is about becoming psychologically dedicated to something – why shouldn’t that something be participation in your project or campaign? […]

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