Community building: Be personal or don’t bother

by Martin Reed on 2 February 2009 in Articles

community building personal

Community building is all about building relationships. As a community manager, you need to build a relationship with your members and encourage them to build relationships with each other. You can’t do this unless you get personal.

We are all unique

We all used to accept receiving letters that referred to us as ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’, however if we receive a letter nowadays, we expect the sender to address us by name. We are used to companies addressing us by name, even if we have no prior relationship with them. Technology makes it easier to be more personal. Being personal works. It helps build relationships and it encourages people to listen.

Automation is tempting

I won’t lie. Sending automated messages and templates is easy. Sometimes, you have to use them. You can’t really be expected to hand craft an activation email for every new member of your online community (unless you have a very focussed niche with limited appeal). This isn’t a problem, though as most of us expect certain messages to be automated. We expect a standard activation email. We expect a standard confirmation email. We expect automation. This is where the opportunity lies.

Do something unexpected

Something unusual is remembered. 8 inches of snow in London today? The country grinds to a halt. People will remember this because it’s unusual. What if you went away on holiday and a couple of days after you got back, a representative of the community you’re a member of dropped you a message asking how your trip went? What if they even addressed you by your real name rather than your pseudonym? I bet you’d remember that.

If previously active members of my online community for women haven’t logged in for a while, I’ll send them a message to see if they’re OK. I’ll catch up on some of their posts first, though. I’ll see if they had anything planned that explains their absence. I’ll find something about them that I can bring up in the email. I’ll talk to them as though I know them – as though they are a friend. I care about every single member of my online communities, and I want this to shine through every time I communicate with them.

Seth Godin’s post on how to send a person email applies equally when sending private messages to members of your online community. Be personal, be sensible, be genuine.

Wasted opportunity

Every time you fail to be personal, you miss an opportunity – regardless of the time or effort you put into crafting the message.

A couple of weeks ago, I received a ‘thank you’ card in the mail from my bank with my name and address hand written on the envelope. What a great way of grabbing my interest. It didn’t last though, because:

  • I had opened the account about three months ago
  • My wife and I opened a joint account, but the card was only addressed to me
  • The card was hand-signed, but with the address of the branch
  • A name wasn’t even included on the enclosed business card

It obviously took some effort for someone to write and send this card, yet instead of it impressing me, it ended up as an impersonal note that ended up pretty meaningless. They might as well have sent a machine printed card. What a waste of time, effort and opportunity.

Don’t make the same mistake when you communicate with members of your online community. Be personal if you want to build a relationship.

Relationship building and community building are the same thing. The only difference is, with a community you are developing relationships in an location of your choosing.

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Amish February 3, 2009 at 7:36 am

You have written about a very sensitive matter. Whether it is online or off, such personal touches make a great deal of difference to relationships. The letter that you received from the bank is a classic example of good intentions gone awry. Had they only carried the exercise to its logical conclusion, the relationship would have solidified instead of leaving the bad taste in your mouth as it did. The problem is that all such activities, in an attempt at economy, are mechanised. That is why the letter that you received failed.

Mike P February 3, 2009 at 11:28 am

As with everything, it is the little things that can make the biggest difference. Every year companies that I have worked for send cards out during the holidays. While some hand write theirs, others have some printed out. I make sure to hand write every one of the cards that I send out.

Having an automated process will obviously save you money in the short term, but if you are looking for long term growth and retention, the devils are in the details and building those relationships are “priceless”.


Nicole Price February 3, 2009 at 9:57 pm

Good credo to follow ‘Be personal, be sensible, be genuine.’

Mr Woc February 5, 2009 at 1:45 pm

Hi there

Yeah lots of common sense there and I agree its important to build up relationships with your members as this is what keeps people come back over and over !


Angela Connor February 6, 2009 at 11:47 pm

Boy do I practice this one. Sometimes I cannot believe the number of personal responses I dole out on a daily basis. But what I like most, is when someone responds indicating that they can’t believe we actually got back to them. This is VERY effective when dealing with unhappy users or complainers. When you take to the time to address their concerns and really care, the tide turns and a once hostile visitor can become loyal and spread the word. I have a chapter in my book along these lines. I do believe in the power of making it personal.

mike February 10, 2009 at 2:16 am

A good post on importance of building relationship. I think relationship building is very important not only for community building, but also in your business, work, college every where.
I will call it People management.

Tom February 13, 2009 at 7:43 pm

Agreed, and a good article.

Being personal always wins over loyal regulars, it also helps when you need to deal with them.

Ie: instead of them receiving a PM from “the admin telling them off” for breaching a rule, they get a PM from “their friend, the owner, who is asking them a favour”. That favour is toning down what ever it is they did wrong of course.

Just remember not to be TOO personal, always strike a balance.

For example, all my members call me Tom, and all my signatures have in them:
“Best Regards,
Tom Holmes.”

To give me that human feel. But I don’t PM them telling them my life story.

I be as personal as I possibly can, but I never add people to my MSN. I have discussions with them, even in private – although I steer away from talking about myself. I mainly ask about how their week has been and how their work is coping under the global recession.

So I’m personal, but also keep my distance.

It’s all about balance, so your members can see you as a friend – but also as an authority figure and not someone to be taken advantage of.

Jeremy L February 14, 2009 at 6:02 pm

I recently started taking a more personal approach on my forums, and it’s made a BIG difference. People have responded so positively to simple gestures from me. Whether it’s a simple Welcome message when members join, or a Thank You message for helpful posts, both give people a sense of acknowledgment that goes a long way in a community environment.

It’s a practice I wish I would have started sooner!

Jacques Groenewald February 15, 2009 at 5:23 am

This is completely true and one of the things that I preach on my blog too. If your blog or website is gonna read like a school book, people are gonna lose interest and leave. As easy as that. Be personal, be creative, have your readers in mind and you will succeed. Keep up the good posts

Tom February 17, 2009 at 4:14 pm

Exactly, Jeremy. Users like to feel important. Getting a simple message from who they see as “the big man” gives them that warm fuzzy feeling that they crave.

Be careful though, don’t dish out verbal rewards & personal thank yous too often. You’ll de-sensitize them.

You want to keep it as a ‘special’ thing that always gives them that warm, fuzzy feeling.

I thank people personally very rarely. But when I do it, they are over the moon about it for weeks – and it really rubs off in their posts.

Be personal. Just don’t go overboard.

Amish February 18, 2009 at 6:49 am

I have just left one forum for precisely the reason that I believe that I did not get the attention and response that I deserved from the Administrator. A particularly vicious commentator had been bugging me for a while and my approach to the Administrator did not elicit the response that I wanted. There may well have been other motives, but my quitting will also mean that I shall inform some of my friends that I have left the forum for the reasons mentioned above. Some of them are also likely to leave.

Forest March 3, 2009 at 11:00 am

Ive noticed with one of my main blogs that is not targeted to a specific niche that no matter how personal I get or helpful I still have people leaving all the time…

Some of my smaller targeted niches get less work from me and people seem to hang around…. uphill struggle at times but worth it :)

Rona March 4, 2009 at 11:49 am

I agree a hundred percent that it still pays off to have a touch of something personal in everything and everyone we interact with even in these contemporary world. A smiling emoticon is totally different from a real smile after all…

Edward March 15, 2009 at 10:19 pm

I agree, Tom. I think it’s good to have a rapport early so your job is easier when you have to put on your moderator hat.

Martin – do you have any thoughts on this? i.e. striking a balance between being the business owner who is profiting from the community (so having some decorum) and being a “friend”? Should you offer opinions or just be a non-opinionated presence?

Martin Reed - Blog Author March 19, 2009 at 7:55 am

Edward – You need to use your personal judgement (remember, every online community is different). I give different levels of information out about myself depending on the community I am in.

At Just Chat, I give little personal information away and keep myself more behind the scenes as I have a great team of staff that are the face of the site. In Female Forum, I give more information away and get more personally involved in the community, but I am careful not to get involved in conversations that are more personal or sensitive (it is a community for women, after all).

It’s great if you can be seen as a friend – just be careful that this doesn’t lead to accusations of favouritism though, and don’t use any perceived friendship as an excuse for failing to treat certain members as you would any other. You need to be independent and neutral. Give away what you are comfortable with sharing, but remain professional.

Remember – what you say will remain forever. Even if you delete what you wrote, people will remember and it will probably end up in the Web archive anyway.

Edward March 19, 2009 at 3:26 pm

Thank you, Martin. This really helps as I often feel caught in the middle. Something to work on! :)

Paul November 13, 2009 at 4:55 pm

Sending messages to people who have been active in awhile is a great idea.

Man, this site has just an amazing amount of quality community building content.