The most successful communities in the world are the ones that people come back to several times a day.

Look at Reddit, Product Hunt, Instagram, and any massively successful community product – it’s clear that their members have developed a daily routine of returning and contributing to the community. Developing communities that become habits in people’s lives is a skill as much as it is an art.

Nir Eyal and Ryan Hoover’s book Hooked, released in 2013, has become one of the seminal books on product development. Hooked examines the reasons behind the success of certain products, the failure of others, and how businesses can engage customers through subtly influencing consumer habits.

The Hook model can be broken down into a four-step process embedded into the products of many successful companies that lead to patterned, habit forming behaviors among customers.

Through continuous “hook cycles”, these products bring users back repeatedly without using costly advertising or aggressive marketing tactics.

Check out Nir’s talk at CMX Summit 2014 about building habit loops within your product here:

In this article, we’ll share how Nir’s theories around building habit-forming products can be applied to communities and community-centric products.

The basic Hook model looks like this:

1. Trigger

A trigger is what causes a member to think about your community. Triggers can be external or internal. The goal is to start by motivating your community members to deepen their engagement with external triggers and eventually move to internal triggers.

An external trigger can be a notification (Facebook groups), an email (forums), or an advertisement. By sending out these external reminders, you’re pinging your members, telling them to think of you and take some action.

An internal trigger can be an emotion like boredom or loneliness or it can be a thought like “what’s happening right now?” The idea is that, over time, your community members should feel these emotions and immediately look to your community to satiate their emotional drives.

2. Action

An action is what a member does to get to the community.

They might click on the notification you sent them or an ad that directs them there. Or if the trigger was internal, the action might be to go directly to the community on their computer or phone.

3. Variable Reward

The variable reward is the value that the members get when they get to the community.

It might be a great thread they can read, funny pictures, a sense of belonging they immediately feel when they arrive, or any sort of reward that your members get from being a part of your community.

4. Investment

The investment is an action that your members can take within the community. It might be liking a post, posting a comment, starting a new thread, or attending an event.

As Nir explains,

“Through consecutive hook cycles, successful products reach their ultimate goal of unprompted user engagement, bringing users back repeatedly, without depending on costly advertising or aggressive messaging”

This is an interesting model to think through, but how can you actually apply it to your work building community?

So many companies dive right into building a community without first thinking through how they’ll keep members coming back. It’s important that you think through why you’re building a community, in addition to how you’ll drive value to your members again and again.

Here are 5 questions adapted from Hooked that you should ask yourself when launching or improving your community:

This is the first question to ask companies who are wondering how to build a community. What pain is your community relieving for its potential members? Why should they care? And is this a pain point that they face regularly so that they’ll keep coming back?

It will take a long time for your members to develop an internal trigger that keeps them coming back to your community, which means until then, you have to bring them back with external triggers.

If you build it, they will not come. You have to bring them back. Think through what sorts of reminders you will need to provide.

This is why Facebook groups work so well at maintaining engagement for your community. People are already on Facebook so the notifications are very efficient at triggering people to return and re engage.

If you’re not on a platform where people aren’t already spending time, you’ll need to set up emails or some other mechanism to keep your members coming back. And it will likely be a lot more difficult to get up and running.

How can you simplify your product to make this action easier? What will a member have to do in order to access the community? Will they have to log in? Will they have to dig through a lot of forum categories to find interesting content? Or can you remove as many steps as possible and get your members directly to the good stuff right away?

Keep in mind that this is not the same as initial sign-up and onboarding. You often benefit from making onboarding a little more of an investment so you can ensure you’re getting the right members who will actually be committed.

People who are hooked on Instagram know that every time they open the app, they’ll see a stream of pictures. The value for them might be seeing a beautiful artistic picture, something funny, a beautiful person, or seeing their friends. Those are the potential rewards they know they’ll get every time, and they know it will always be different since friends are always posting new pictures. Assuming you’ve figured out what your members really want, how confident are you that they’ll find it every time? And will that reward be unique each time?

Is the value of your community one off (think Q&A forums) or is it recurring?

It’s vital that what your community members contribute will increase the value of the community as a whole. If people are coming to your community to get advice and learn, but every time they come they only see funny cat photos, they will stop coming to the community.

What do you want your members to actually contribute to your community? Are your members motivated to contribute content that’s going to be valuable to other members? How will you motivate them to do so?

Bringing It All Together

Equipped with the answers to these 5 questions, you’ll have the blueprint for a how to build a habit-forming community that consistently brings value to your members. And you’ll be able to avoid some of the most common mistakes that cause communities to fall flat.

Want to dig deeper into the techniques and tactics required to build and support your community? Join us for CMX Summit, an annual event run over 2 days that includes community focused workshops and the opportunity to connect with community leaders and experts.



David Spinks

David is the Founder of CMX (, the world's largest and most passionate network for community professionals. Thousands of community professionals come to CMX for support and education in com...

See Author Posts

Subscribe to the CMX Weekly

We review the top community industry news, trends, jobs and resources every week, so you’re always in the know.