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Having read the roadmap, people are asking why the company is focused in increasing engagement on Stack Overflow.

I think that is the stated ambition ...

Though our active user base continues to grow, our engagement has remained the same. What this means is that while more users are coming to the site every month, the number of users who engage meaningfully in the site does not increase proportionally. To change this dynamic, etc.

... and "why?" is a sensible question.

My guess, and I may be wrong, is that the company is trying to improve their Teams product from which they hope to get almost all their new and future revenue. So they want to make the software more engaging and useful to everyone -- see e.g. the new feature of being able to follow/unfollow specific questions.

According to this theory part of how Stack Overflow (the site) is useful to Stack Overflow (the company), whose commercial interests are now centered on Teams more than on Ads or Jobs, is to serve as a large scale test bed for product (i.e software) improvement.

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    It reminds me a bit on health care systems measuring the success in how many patients have been treated. The question is if more treated patients indicates that people are healthier now or maybe it even means they got more sick. (Thanks for the edit.) – Trilarion Feb 26 at 9:21
  • I wonder if my theory is true, and/or whether there are other important commercial incentives/drivers. It might be good for everyone to understand the "reality" of the situation ("real" in this case meaning "money"). – ChrisW Feb 26 at 9:39
  • You would basically need an official answer from SE Inc. – Trilarion Feb 26 at 9:43
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    I asked for an answer (suggested that they should answer) here and I can see I'm not the only person asking this question (i.e. "Why the ambition to increase engagement?") -- I do think it would be good to know, help to put everyone on the same page. Things might be more harmonious if the community understood and so could accommodate the company's commercial motives. – ChrisW Feb 26 at 10:03
  • this discussion would probably be more appropriate at MSO - and featured over there – gnat Feb 26 at 10:05
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    @gnat If a moderator thought so they could probably migrate and feature it. – ChrisW Feb 26 at 10:09
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    @gnat I disagree. This is about the roadmap presented by the company on MSE itself. If they decided MSE is the place to put such notices, I think this should also be the place to ask questions about it. – Mast Feb 26 at 10:21
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    @Mast I am not quite comfortable because as of now it looks a bit like discussing critically important matters involving Stack Overflow behind the backs of that site community. For the sake of completeness, prior to mentioning MSO I considered suggestion to make it featured over here but didn't like this approach either because this would force users at smaller sites watch this SO-specific discussion which doesn't feel cool – gnat Feb 26 at 10:41
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    @gnat Theresa Dietrich did not specifically mention SO in the statement on the blog post. She may include all exchanges in this statement although it's clear that with SO being the largest site, the statement will be mostly about SO. – Trilarion Feb 26 at 11:44
  • It's ambiguous, isn't it. The blog mentioned the Developer Survey which is mostly-exclusively-SO in terms of "community". I did also ask (previously) what the commercial role is (if any) of the other smaller sites. – ChrisW Feb 26 at 11:58
  • @ChrisW if memory serves few years ago someone from the company mentioned that views on smaller sites (combined) have reached same number as Stack Overflow. I guess that means there is a solid commercial potential in these – gnat Feb 26 at 12:12
  • @gnat That (naively?) equates "solid commercial potential" with "views". And/or you may be right. If SE's business model is "three years in which to increase the sale of Teams by a factor of ten, and then an IPO" then I'm not quite sure how that (those other sites) fits in -- or whether they are mostly only pro bono -- though perhaps someone who has "seen the playbook", to quote Joel's phrase, i.e. who knows that aspect of the industry, might possibly understand it even from outside or before joining the company. – ChrisW Feb 26 at 12:38
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    Maybe I'm missing something, but they want participants to "engage meaningfully"---isn't the "why" self-explanatory? As a user, I'm often trying to get other users to "engage meaningfully" and not just post off-the-cuff rubbish, game the system, engage in arguments, etc. – Rebecca J. Stones Feb 27 at 1:33
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    Wanting and getting are two very different things. Most folks are waiting in the new platform to finish up to leave this place. Dont expect user engagement to grow. – JonH Feb 27 at 3:11
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    @RebeccaJ.Stones Maybe we are already "engaging meaningfully". Their concern is that the meaningful engagement doesn't scale with the number of users coming to the site. The debate is if this scaling is actually meaningful or what level of engagement we should expect really? – Trilarion Feb 27 at 8:22
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The company seems to assume that the engagement should scale with the active user base, i.e. that more users coming to the site every month must result in more users engaging meaningfully with the site.

... the number of users who engage meaningfully in the site does not increase proportionally.

Is the observation correct?

First, the reported observation may not be true. More users than assumed may actually engage meaningfully with the site depending on the used definition of meaningful engagement. And more users coming to the site may be accompanied by more users leaving the site and the really active user base may not be as large as assumed.

Is it sensible to expect a proportional increase?

Apart from that it makes some sense. A certain percentage of users will have questions that they want to ask and other fractions of users will have answers that they would like to give. That might be independent of the number of users in total and so with increasing numbers of users you may also expect a corresponding increase in activity. Especially if you think that you are not yet in any saturation regime where basically most of the good questions have already been asked or if you think about the system more like a help-desk instead of a knowledge base.

If the expected increase does not happen it may be an indicator that the system doesn't work optimally. For example, answerers could have difficulties finding questions to answer, duplicates finding should require more effort with more questions and the user experience in general could be improvable. I guess, but this is pure speculation, that the company is worried that the system is not optimally working and meaningful engagement that could happen, doesn't. And in a simplified manner they might think that maximal engagement indicates minimal friction in the process.

Why I would not expect a proportional increase?

On the other hand, I would not expect engagement to scale linearly with the number of visitors or active users. If this system is any good, then the benefit would be that with a growing user base and over time you need less direct engagement. Otherwise there wouldn't be a pay-off of building a knowledge base. It depends of course on how meaningful engagement is defined.

See also this answer of Guillaume Cretot-Richert to "The company’s commitment to rebuilding the relationship with you, our community", which basically asks the same as this question and argues that a successful Q&A should see lower and lower levels of direct engagement.

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Adam Lear♦ posted a partial answer in a comment here:

"Engagement" is often a dirty word, but IMO it doesn't have to be. There are a few different levels of engagement we look at (e.g. voting vs posting) and they feed into different things. We have some purely business-driven goals - to put it plainly, more users means more support and growth for our revenue streams. But there are also community-oriented goals. We need users (both new and old) to come in and help post and curate up-to-date information on current technologies, to maintain the knowledge base, if you will. The needs of the company and the community aren't completely orthogonal here.

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    More users do not automatically mean more revenue. If the quality of contributions is decreasing, the benefit of more users for the revenue might be very small or even negative. – Trilarion Feb 27 at 19:02
  • More activity by users means better information about them, meaning better ad revenue. If developers just visit SO to find out how to fix a CSS problem, there is not as much targeted ads that can be shown to them as if they also visit SE sites for movies, travel, food, parenting, ... Also more time spend on all sites also means more ad impressions. – tkruse Mar 10 at 10:11
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    @tkruse I don't believe ad revenue is an important motive. – ChrisW Mar 10 at 10:13
  • What other "revenue streams" would Asam Lear have meant? – tkruse Mar 10 at 10:15
  • @tkruse Yes I'd like to understand that better, that's why I asked this question -- it isn't obvious or explicit, but IMO better-understanding "why" (motive) and "what" (revenue stream) and "how" (growth) which underlies SE's actions might help the community understand/accommodate that. – ChrisW Mar 10 at 10:20
  • Perhaps it's a simple as this: For Teams to generate revenue, it needs to work. For Teams to work, you need engaged users. – tripleee Mar 23 at 7:53
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+50

I don't have a thorough answer to this very good question (yet).

Just leaving a placeholder here to make it clear that:

  • We have seen this (actually, was seen widely internally right after it was posted)
  • We plan on posting a response to this question (potentially as part of a bigger: "what is our strategy" post) at a later date (hopefully in the next couple of months)
  • We cannot yet commit to an exact timeline or date on when that post will go up
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