In The Art of Community, Charles Vogl lists seven principles for belonging that all genuine communities share.
This is Part 2 of a series in which I am explaining how each principle works within the specific context of online communities.
This week, let’s discuss the second principle: initiation.
What all online community initiations needs to achieve
Vogl describes initiations as “any activity that’s understood as official recognition and welcome into the community.”
You may know this concept by its more common term in online parlance: onboarding.
In my experience, the initial phase of your community onboarding needs to accomplish five goals:
- Let people know with certainty that they have joined your community.
- Give them an overview of what to expect and a clear call to action for what to do next.
- Ensure that they feel welcomed by a community leader.
- “Show them around” in terms of the resources and space they now have access to.
- Help them feel like they belong.
In Vogl’s words, “The routine should help the new member to feel seen, understood, and welcome to participate more.”
You can (and should) go above and beyond these five steps with your community onboarding, but these are the essential elements that the initiation phase of your onboarding needs to include.
Let’s break down each of the five elements:
1. Let people know with certainty that they have joined your community.
This should be an extension of your sign up and checkout process.
Once people people perform the necessary actions (register, pay, etc.) to gain official access to your community space, you need to provide clear messaging to let them know they were successful.
It needs to include:
- A confirmation message or redirection to a confirmation page immediately after registration/payment.
- An email confirmation that clearly states what they’ve registered for, which also includes a breakdown of any immediate payments and future payment commitments.
Most software programs for community and order management include messaging like this by default, but don’t take it for granted.
Ensure that this messaging is delivered, and edit the default messages to communicate in a tone appropriate for your community.
2. Give them an overview of what to expect and a clear call to action for what to do next.
Once people know that they’ve joined your community, they need to know what’s next.
Your ability to empathize with your new members is important at every stage, but it’s especially important here.
As you gain more and more experience managing your community, everything is going to seem more obvious to you. In other words, you develop the curse of knowledge.
It’s your responsibility as a community leader to fight against this cognitive bias.
Instead, you must slip into the shoes of new members and recognize everything they don’t know. Then you can use your knowledge of how your community works to determine what they need to know right away to get moving forward.
This should include:
- A reiteration of the values the community is built upon. (Remind them why they joined in the first place!)
- How to perform basic functions like customize their profile and notification preferences.
- What kind of recurring content and events they can expect from your community.
And it absolutely needs to include: what to do next.
The best practice for the “What to do next” step is some kind of common action that all new members take. This helps to begin the process of creating a shared experience among members.
It can be something as simple as answering an icebreaker question, viewing a particular piece of content, or having new members sign up for an orientation meeting. Whatever you choose, just make sure that the call to action is clear.
This information is usually provided in an introductory email autoresponder message, sent immediately after registration is complete.
I recommend email for this message because it’s the most reliable form of communication with your members, and you want to take this opportunity to “train” new members on how you will communicate important community information to them.
You can also duplicate this information on a page inside of the community, which you can later use as a reference link in case a member has questions or can’t locate their email.
3. Ensure that they feel welcomed by a community leader.
This initial autoresponder email will likely have your name on it, but that doesn’t mean your new member will feel like it’s from you.
Most people have been around the online block enough to know that autoresponder welcome emails are sent to everyone who joins. And that’s fine; they serve their purpose.
But don’t make the mistake of believing that your autoresponder will make a new member feel personally welcomed by a community leader. It almost surely won’t.
So you need to have a process in place that ensures all new members feel personally seen and welcomed by a community leader.
And yes, this means doing something that isn’t automatic and doesn’t scale. If you really want to lead a connected community, then you can’t trust an autoresponder to facilitate the development of your personal connection to new members.
Instead, you can:
- Send a direct message to each new member.
- Send a personal email to each new member. (If you do this, I recommend making the autoresponder email “from” the community so that you can send a personal welcome email from you personally.)
- Schedule a one-on-one meeting with each new member.
Yes, this will feel a little daunting as your community grows in members. You still have to do it. If you don’t do it personally, then you need to delegate this important responsibility to another leader.
And if you don’t have anyone to delegate it to, don’t worry. There are ways to make it efficient.
I typically type the same welcome message to new members, customizing it with their name: “Hey [Name!] Welcome to the community. We’re so glad you’re here with us.”
What really matters is what happens if they reply: I always reply back.
And I usually include some form of this in my reply: “If you ever have questions, let me know. I’m here to help.”
Sometimes it’s a brief exchange and we both move on. Other times, a valuable conversation ensues during which I can learn more about a new member, what motivated them to join, and what, if any, initial questions or concerns they might be having.
That last part is an important function of the personal welcome message. In addition to making a new member feel welcomed by a leader, you want to open up a channel of communication so that people feel comfortable coming directly to you (or another leader) with questions or concerns.
4. “Show them around” in terms of the resources and space they now have access to.
Your initial autoresponder in #2 above needs to strike a balance between giving new members enough information to feel properly oriented without overwhelming them.
So resist the urge to show new members everything in that initial communication. Instead, plan a follow-up message that goes into more depth about what they now have access to.
Information included in this message should include things like:
- How they can access replays of archived content.
- What sub-communities are available and how to join them.
- The code of conduct and any community norms they need to understand.
Think of it like this: while your first email is like turn-by-turn directions to get new members to a specific point in their initiation, this email is more like a map so they can determine on their own where they want to go next.
5. Help them feel like they belong.
The last step is to go beyond making sure people feel oriented and welcomed. People join communities because they want to belong.
A personal welcome from a leader is nice, but beginning the process of developing a sense of belonging with other members of the community is where the real magic starts to happen.
Initial feelings of belonging can happen in many different ways:
- You post a public welcome message that acknowledges new members, and older members comment on it.
- When new members participate in the initial action recommended in Step #1, older members acknowledge or comment.
- When a new member makes the bold move of posting or commenting for the first time, older members respond.
You might even set up something formal, like a welcome buddy system, which helps to connect new members and established members.
Naturally, members are going to follow your lead. So if you are publicly kind and welcoming to new members, this will become a norm in your community. And when the welcoming sentiments are coming from many different directions, belonging builds.
The other element of belonging that cannot be overlooked is how your community’s values are communicated both explicitly and implicitly.
Remember that values are the foundation of all strong communities. They create an important boundary that must be upheld.
If a new member comes into your community, looks around, and sees anything that runs counter to the values they were signing up for, that initial sense of belonging will erode. It’s your responsibility to do whatever is necessary to uphold your community’s values.
No amount of warm welcome messages can overcome a disconnect between the values that were promised and the values that are practiced.
You need to lean on both your pride and your humility to effectively initiate new members into your community.
You need the humility to empathize with new members so that you understand what they need to feel welcomed and ready to start participating. And you also need to take pride in the power that a personal welcome from you will have, and you need to be proud enough of the values your community is built upon to ensure that new members feel them from Day One.
Now here are some additional links on this topic …
How to take your community onboarding to the next level
In future posts, I’ll go into more depth on how to create next-level onboarding for online communities. But don’t wait for me. This post from Rich at FeverBee does a nice job of explaining how good onboarding can “change and enhance how people feel about the community.”
The four elements of belonging
You can’t create a true feeling of belonging in the initiation phase, but you can certainly get the ball rolling. To ensure that new members eventually feel the full sense of belonging you want them to have, they need to feel safe, seen, heard, and honored.
What do people need to feel part of your community? | Pamela Slim
A useful analogy to help you empathize
One way to empathize with new members is to think about a time in your own life when you may have started something new and been a little unsure about what to do next. How about … cue ominous music … high school? The buddy system this post describes could be applied effectively in more mature communities.
An Onboarding Idea for Online Community Pros | Dennis Shiao
Consider the difference between fitting in and belonging
If you want members to feel a sense of belonging, you don’t necessarily want them worried about “fitting in” — if fitting in will cause them to adapt away from being who they really are. Your role as a community leader is to create a space where people feel like they belong just by being themselves.
Five Ways Leaders Help Others Belong, Not Just Fit In | Leading With Trust
Thank you for reading this issue of Primility.
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Photo by Kristina Paparo on Unsplash