Community building: Getting members active and addicted

by Martin Reed on 19 January 2009 in Articles

community building active members

This is the tenth article in what I hope will be an indefinite series about the processes involved in developing a new online community from scratch. I am currently developing a new online community and am detailing its development on this blog.

Community building: The real challenge

Many community builders will tell you that getting visitors to register and become members is the easy part. The biggest challenge comes in trying to get those members active and addicted. I agree.

Registering is should be easy. It’s a great first step – that new member is effectively a ‘lead’. However, it takes effort to convert that lead into an active contributor. In this article, I’ll outline the methods I am using at Female Forum to get as many members as possible active in the community, and how I’m keeping them active.

Keep the community visible

Don’t hide your community. Keep it as open as possible. People won’t take that first step and join if they don’t know what they are joining. You might like to hide one or two sections of your community, but be sure to keep the majority of it open and accessible. This content is your bait. Would you rather go fishing with a big juicy worm, or a bare hook?

Make registration links prominent

Don’t go overboard, but don’t hide your registration form. On Female Forum, there is a ‘Register’ link in the header of the page, along with a welcome prompt for unregistered members at the top of the forum pages. I also show the ‘New Topic’ and ‘Post Reply’ buttons to members that aren’t yet members – if a visitor clicks the button, they are then prompted to register. This results in all visitors who want to contribute being taken directly to the registration page.

Make registration easy

Some community builders argue that you should try to collect as much information as possible from users when they register. The argument goes that although less people will register, those that do will be more valuable. I am not convinced. Sure, quality is always more important than quantity but I would rather convert a visitor into a member before requesting more information from them. You haven’t build a relationship with that person yet, so how can you expect them to share their life story with you?

My registration page asks for a username, password and email address. That’s it. They can fill out their profile once they have registered and become more comfortable with the community.

Keep an eye on the activation process

Sometimes, people won’t respond to the activation emails or they won’t even receive them. Here is where you need to be proactive. Keep an eye on your pending members – try to work out why they haven’t activated their accounts. You’ll be surprised how many people make mistakes when entering their email address. Of course, you need to be careful trying to double-guess what people are entering, but if you see john@homail.couk, you can be pretty sure they meant to enter Update it, and resend the activation email.

If members haven’t activated their account after a week and their email address looks OK, it can’t harm resending the activation email. Just don’t be resending them every day.

Invite new members to get involved

Don’t bombard new members with messages. You don’t want to appear desperate. Give them a day or two after they have activated their account before contacting them with a personal welcome message. This is not the time for automation.

Introduce yourself – outline your role, and invite them to introduce themselves. Include a direct link to the introductions form. Make things easy.

Has this member filled out their profile? Do you know anything about them? Identify with their interests. Here’s a recent example from Female Forum. A member joined, and in her profile she mentioned that she was from Canada. I mentioned that I had lived and worked there for a year in 2004/5 and asked her where in Canada she lives.

I found something I had in common with this new member, and asked them a question to encourage interaction. It doesn’t matter that this conversation is private for the time being – you are developing a relationship with this member, and building trust. When they feel comfortable, they’ll interact with the public community.

Engage at every opportunity

When a member introduces themselves, develop a conversation. Pick up on any interests they mention. Give them links to discussions you feel will be of interest to them. Mention the names of other members that they have things in common with. Be a matchmaker.

Delegate community building tasks

Bring in valued members to help you build the community. Female Forum isn’t large enough to warrant bringing in moderators just yet. Indeed, the community is barely 5 months old – I don’t yet know the members well enough to decide who I want to invite as moderators. However, I do want the most valuable members to feel extra special. I don’t want to lose them. I want them to feel even more engaged with the community. So, I created a ‘Community Rep’ position. I now have community reps that are responsible for different areas of the community. Some are responsible for welcoming new members, others for creating new content, others for encouraging debate by responding to existing content, and others whose sole job is to encourage inactive members to get involved.

The community reps have clear guidelines – they know what is and what is not expected or permitted. They know not to spam members. They know what tactics work, because I have told them and led by example. I have a small core of cheerleaders that are really helping me build the Female Forum community, and what’s more – they love doing it.

Earn and retain trust

I am truly humbled when I see what some members are willing to discuss with the community. They trust other members, and by implication this means they trust the community’s management. Don’t lose this trust. Ensure you have strong, clear community guidelines that you enforce professionally and impartially. It’s hard to earn trust, but very easy to lose.

Get involved. Be contactable and approachable

You need to get involved in the community. Why should you expect members to get involved if you can’t be bothered to do so yourself? You need to be visible. Don’t be anonymous – be sure to share information about yourself.

I am in a rather unique position at Female Forum – it’s an online community for women, yet I am male. Therefore, I deliberately limit the number of posts I make in the public discussion forums. I develop the community primarily through the private messaging system, general chat and introductions areas. I ensure that members feel comfortable with my presence and I don’t get too involved in conversations that may be sensitive or overly personal in nature.

The subject matter of your community and your aims and goals should determine how involved you are in your community. Regardless of how involved you are, you should always be approachable and contactable. Female Forum has clear, prominent links to a contact form. My signature tells members how they can contact me. When I welcome new members, I tell them to contact me with any questions, comments or suggestions. I invite feedback and contact from my members. You should do the same.

Be aware and follow up. Show concern.

Haven’t seen a member online for a while? Drop them a message to make sure everything is OK. Again, be sensible. Don’t bombard them with messages or spam them. Send a personal message once a member hasn’t been seen for a couple of weeks. Keep it short and simple. Show your concern. Ask them if they are OK. Whenever I have done this, members tell me how valued it made them feel – no other online community they were a member of had sent them a message asking after them if they disappeared for a few weeks. Just don’t overdo it.

Did a member recently move house? Maybe they recently sat an exam or had a job interview? Ask them how it went. You don’t have to keep this private – post it in the open forum (as long as the information is common knowledge). This way even more members will chip in and make that member feel extra special.

Create a ‘dummies’ guide

No matter how easy you think your community is to use, some people will still be confused. You need to cater to these people. Ensure you have guides on how to use the community and make them easy to find! Have a section for frequently asked questions. Even better, create videos so people can see how to use the community. I am working on instructional videos for Female Forum, and hope to have them posted by the end of the month.

Don’t be afraid. Be sensible and be personal

There is nothing wrong with contacting members of your online community as long as each message you send is justified and personal. Don’t send inactive members an email every day. Don’t send members you haven’t seen for a couple of weeks a private message every single week until you hear back from them. Be sensible.

People joined your community to interact with others. You are simply interacting with that member. Just don’t flog a dead horse. You won’t be able to get every single member of your community actively involved every single day. Accept this, and cut them some slack. Your community should be fun – members don’t want to be bombarded with messages from one person (you). Make a limit and stick to it. No response from a member after two messages? Leave them be, and hope for the best.

So that’s what I am doing to get members active and addictaed. What are you doing?

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Peter Reiser January 19, 2009 at 6:13 pm

Very nice article – good job

ThorB January 20, 2009 at 3:04 am

I am in the finishing process for my new forum for classic games, and I hope it will be ready for the launch in the end of this month. Thanks to your blog I’ve gotten some good points in how I should work to get and keep my future users.

Lawrence January 20, 2009 at 7:02 am

A really great article. My work is on developing online comunities for the public sector, and lots of this here reflects my own experience. Some great tips that I will be taking away with me. And I really agree about the personalisation of communities. When we interact normally with people we get to know them on a personal level, why should this be any different online…

Amish January 20, 2009 at 8:34 am

You make it sound so simple. I wish that you would start a community for men. Something different from the kind of rubbish that is currently available.

Sally January 20, 2009 at 7:41 pm

Really good pionts. When you said to try to keep registration easy, you are right. Many sites seem to have forgotten this and appear only engaged with keeping most everyone out: because they are all bots anyway, right? or spammers. So–make people register twice just to be sure. And don’t make any part of the forum visible. So of course you know they would still get members in the end, but not as half as many as they could have.

Martin Reed - Blog Author January 21, 2009 at 3:08 pm

Amish – What makes the existing online communities for men ‘rubbish’?

Sally – I definitely agree that some sites take the challenge of reducing spam a little too far, and end up making the site difficult for real people to join!

Tom January 21, 2009 at 4:10 pm

I still always read your blog, don’t be alarmed about my lack of posts. It’s just there’s not much I can say that I haven’t said before really!

I put in your last article I’m currently undergoing a huge revamp of site navigation, currently creating a “Tour Guide”,. They can click on a help link and instead of the generic phpBB faqs, a pop up will come up. With basic and “dumbed down” instructions on how to do certain things, explaining all the features, how to use them, how to get started, including screenshots and pictorial instructions.

I decided on a little pop-up that they can scroll down because they can follow the guide while reading it then. For new users to forums it will have instructions on how to make your first thread. They can follow it, and then once they’ve done that, they’ll wonder what the “Congratulations, you’ve earnt 50 Smiley’s for that post” is all about, so they click on the pop-up tab on their taskbar and that will be the next article explaining it. It’ll say “Click on Bank at the top” and then explain what the feature is for, and it’ll take them on a tour around the forums explaining everything in layman’s terms with pictures”

Then of course on the index page there’s.

Thank you for visiting Friendly Chat Forums. If you require any help or if you have any questions, comments, suggestions or criticism please don’t hesitate to PM Smiley(Host) (linked to my PM), Sis(Host) (linked to hers) or e-mail us (linked to our contact form).
We love to hear from our members!

It’s easy to register. Like you, all I require is a username, password & e-mail – they can do the rest later. I’ve personalized and customized every aspect and text of the forum to make it easier to understand and navigate, and easier to contact us if there’s any problem.

I think customizing and personalizing all messages such as the agreement text, the registration page (after they’ve registered) and the e-mail are important, and have contributed to visitor retention. Most of my members felt a connection with the site just after registering, they could sense that they were valued.

Welcome to Friendly Chat Forums!

We care about you, our members, so this is why we ask you to please respect our code of conduct. We don’t believe in bombarding an adult community with dozens of rules as we feel we should be able to trust our members to use common sense and etiquette, but we do have a few ground rules to help keep our unique community a fair, just and friendly one.

By using these forums you agree to the following Code of Conduct

No signing up just to spam. If you sign up, spam, then disappear your post will simply be deleted.
No signing up with the sole intention to belittle or abuse members of the community.
No being offensive just for the sake of being offensive.
No soliciting, advertising or condoning illegal activities.
Being an international site, we must ask you to stick to the universal language of English.
Usernames that include sexual, harassing, hurtful, racist, intimidating or generally any inappropriate comments or words deemed unfit for a friendly community will be deleted.
We do not allow the spamming of URLs, phone numbers, Email addresses, real names, MSN addresses or any other similar content.
You agree to only sign up with one username and not to spam or post abuse to fellow members. Abuse of other members of the community, and particularly abuse of staff will not be tolerated.

We reserve the right to terminate your account or block your access to this site for the following reasons

We suspect you are under 18
Your chosen username is inappropriate, hurtful or offensive
You are harassing our staff or other community members
You are impersonating a staff member
You are spamming the community
You are preaching, soliciting or condoning illegal activities
Sexual harassment or threatening behaviour

If you feel uncomfortable, harassed or threatened within our community please contact us (linked to contact form). We care about our visitors and we want you to enjoy Friendly Chat. All comments, complaints and suggestions are welcome.

Please note that the IP addresses of all visitors are logged. Our member’s safety and comfort is our number one priority. Harassment is a crime and we will not tolerate it. Any evidence of harassing or threatening behaviour will be sent to the offender’s ISP along with their IP address.

After registering:

Thank you for registering to Friendly Chat Forums. Please check your e-mail address for the activation key that we have just sent for you to confirm your account registration. Don’t forget to check your junk mail if it isn’t in your inbox.

If you haven’t received an activation key, please contact us(linked to contact form) and we’ll activate your account for you.

Of course we e-mail back saying “Have you checked your junk mail folder?” and if they e-mail back saying no, we then activate their account. That way we can make sure the e-mail address is valid and it’s a genuine user.

The e-mail they get is:

Hi, Username

Your account is currently inactive. You cannot use it until you visit the following link:

My name is Tom, the creator of Friendly Chat Forums & Friendly Chat Rooms.

Allow me to be the first to welcome you as the newest valued member of FCF. I hope that you’ll enjoy being part of our community.
We have plenty of features for you to try out, including music uploading, arcade games and blogs.

Our forums are friendly and full of banter, joking around and topical discussions. With fantastic regulars always eager to welcome more people into our family, I’m sure you’ll find our community a warm, banterful, unique & friendly one.

If you ever get stuck or need help, please don’t be afraid to private message me or e-mail me at any time. I love to hear from my members!

So with that said; welcome, and thank you for taking your time to register, we appreciate your support and membership. Please make yourselves at home and enjoy!

All comments, complaints, criticism & suggestions are welcome:

I look forward to reading your contributions.

Thanks again for registering!

Best regards,
Tom Holmes

Please keep this email for your records. Your account information is as follows:

Username: Username
Password: 123456

We do our best. The members get involved. The current democratically elected FC Council are posting in their little forum I gave them ideas for our Bill of Rights page, which I plagiarized from a post you made on here I’m afraid.. what can I say, it was a good idea lol.

They feel important and valued, it keeps them around because they feel like it’s THEIR site, and they don’t feel like they’re simply USING the site.

It’s not been easy, they’re used to forums where they get treat like expendable statistics. I’ve had to really dig it into my members that they’re important, they were reluctant to give suggestions or criticism at first, now they do it freely without a second thought, and if they are too scared or shy still… they have a body of users they can anonymously talk to about it and it’s their JOB to tell me about it, they’ve been voted by the users to talk to me about it. There’s an election every 3 months.

So not only does it give them a say in running the site, but it’s also a bit of fun for them. Keeps them interested.

I’d recommend this idea to any new community owner who wants to create an atmosphere of democracy.

Cody January 22, 2009 at 3:48 am

“Many community builders will tell you that getting visitors to register and become members is the easy part. The biggest challenge comes in trying to get those members active and addicted. I agree.”

- I 100% agree.

Great article to come back to, I’m going to try and use some of these pointers in my 2009 goal to make my community more active.

Mr Woc January 23, 2009 at 4:24 am

Hi there

Some good stuff there, as it is difficult to get people additcted but once u have people are usually loyal to your site, the problem is people can judge ur site very quickly, sometimes they can only be around for a min or 2 so its important u catch their eye straight away !


Patrick January 24, 2009 at 12:37 pm

Great post, Martin. Thanks for the mention, as well. Much appreciated.


Nicole Price January 25, 2009 at 9:38 pm

As a member of a forum I have also observed what you say to be correct: getting people to sign up is the easy part but to retain people’s interest; now THAT is the hard part.

James January 26, 2009 at 11:09 pm

Sounds alot like what they teach at Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). But makes sense to mirror your customers so they feal comfortable

Linda P. Morton January 27, 2009 at 10:29 am

Thanks for these great tips on developing an online community.

By the way, I have listed this blog as a dofollow blog and send a few readers your way. I’ve linked to
the page above.

I’m in the process of updating the rankings and providing a bit of information about each site. Updates should be up by Wednesday. Let me know if you’d like to change yours.


Linda P. Morton

Amish February 2, 2009 at 9:30 am

I have just returned to this blog after some time and see Tom’s comments fascinating. I intend following his suggestions as I certainly wish that my community be democratic.

Jamie Cohen February 7, 2009 at 1:12 am

Great article, i’ve been looking into making an online community. Its definently not easy but
this could definently help out. Keep up the good work

Nicole Price March 1, 2009 at 9:18 pm

Just for my information, I wanted to know if spammers cause a big problem for online communities? and if they do how do you deal with them?

Martin Reed - Blog Author March 2, 2009 at 12:37 pm

Nicole – It’s all relative. If your community is on the radar of spammers and scammers and you have weak protection, you are going to suffer. Taking some pretty basic steps should reduce the majority of automated spam. This will allow you to spend more time managing and developing your community rather than continuously deleting spam.

Jason May 7, 2009 at 8:42 pm

I really enjoyed this post! I think I will definitely be coming back to this blog (I’m not the blog watcher type.. :P )

One thing I am wondering though, how is this effective when posts to members ratio on your forum is 9891/ 574?

The forum’s opening date seems to be 18 Apr 2008.. Promotion seems to have started on 11 Aug 2008..

You have an amazing amount of members. I am truly impressed by this. I would have expected with the additional challenge that you are in fact a male leading a female forum, you would have less membership.

So very nice!

Mike May 31, 2009 at 8:10 am

Very helpful post Martin. I will refer back to it as I start to reach out to members in my new role of community manager for MH Connected (like Linkedin for lawyers). You mentioned the idea of creating videos for tutorials; this is something that I wanted to do on our site as well for most of the functions (people just don’t read like they used to!). What software do you suggest? I have used the demo of Adobe Captivate to create demos before. Is there something else you have used? Also, when dealing with special interest groups, such as female community managers or lawyers, how do you gauge what is useful to them in getting them more active on the site, (direct message, polls, etc.)?

Martin Reed - Blog Author June 7, 2009 at 12:23 pm

Mike – I am a Mac user; for down and dirty screencasts, I can recommend Jing. For something more comprehensive/professional, I have heard great things about Screenflow but haven’t used it myself.

As for gauging what is more useful to members of your site in terms of getting them active, just experiment! You can use your own judgement when deciding what you think will be effective, but don’t be afraid of trying something new. You may be pleasantly surprised! Even if it doesn’t work out, it’s not a failure as you have learnt something more about your community.

Shawn July 2, 2009 at 9:29 am

Great article; I’ve found that a well designed welcome header for unregistered users works wonders for registrations. It gives me a chance to tell them why they should be part of the community as well as point out a couple of things that make us special.

Shug July 26, 2009 at 2:38 pm

Trust is hugely important, being open and honest. Anything kept hidden will come to light eventually and ruin your hard work.

Steve August 3, 2009 at 8:15 pm

Some good tips there. It’s amazing how some forums/communities are so full of life and others it’s like pulling teeth starting a conversation, the people in control can have a big effect on this so your points are very valid.

Crystal A August 6, 2009 at 5:17 pm

I really like the idea of providing a dummies guide to the community. I think sometimes on my website too many important and helpful links are hidden. And we’re ready to assume that if people look they’ll find it, but they’re just not obvious enough.

Brian September 18, 2009 at 1:23 pm

Hi there,

I’ve a quick question about your Community Reps. Do they take up their tasks for free, or do you reward/renumerate them?

In the community I am building, I’d be more than happy to pay for the services of these types of individuals, as I value the jobs they are doing, but I’d be wary of it coming across the wrong way. I want them to evangelise about my brand becaue they love it – not because I’m paying them!

If you’ve covered this elsewhere on the site, I do apologise – I’m new around here…!


Martin Reed - Community Manager September 18, 2009 at 4:38 pm

Brian – I don’t have paid staff in any of my online communities. I feel that if people are truly passionate about the community (the ideal people to give additional responsibilities to), they will be eager to help without pay – their reward is in their elevated status and knowing they are truly helping the community succeed.

This doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to pay staff members though – for example, if you are looking for a skilled and dedicated community manager, you’re unlikely to find one for free.

Consider what you expect from staff members – if they are performing basic additional responsibilities (welcoming members, reporting abuse) then you should be able to find volunteers. When you are looking for wide ranging responsibilities, that’s when you’ll probably need to get your cheque book out.

Lisa Udy October 1, 2009 at 12:55 pm

One of the biggest things to get people to register is to have an easy and clear way to do it. It’s funny how so many websites owners don’t put clear and prominent calls to action.

Matt October 8, 2009 at 1:03 am

“Donít lose this trust.” — Absolutely. I had a member earlier this year question me publicly in the forum (the founder of a community) if I sold his email address to someone else. Of course, I didn’t, and other members turned up in my defense as well. The person backed down and realized that he made a mistake, and we “laughed it off” publicly on the forum post. Since the post was public, ending it on an upbeat note while showing no trust was lost was beneficial.

Paul November 27, 2009 at 2:57 pm

If you can get involved, make your community exciting, and keep growing, many people will start to get addicted to your community. They will be on everyday and be posting constantly.

These members are very valuable to have!

Brent Salmi January 2, 2010 at 12:09 am

Thanks for the great article! I have read through a lot of your articles and they really did take much of the guess work out of launching my community/resource based website for college amateur radio clubs (We refer to it as CollegeARC). I’m in a tough spot though, although I don’t really have any competition out there for the target audience that I am going for, it is a really small group (About 100 people) and I’ve sorta reached a good number of the college amateur radio people out there that I know about. The hope is to get as many of these current operators on the website as possible and grow the community itself, on and off the internet.

The hardest part I’ve found is trying to target such a specific audience and how to keep the college amateur radio and electronics feel to it while allowing an open access. So far we’ve only required people to show that they have a past association with a college club or are currently involved in one but we’d like to open it more. I am worried that the website may lose focus over time if I open membership up more but it’s as always a catch 22, any suggestions? We’ve been really dedicated to getting a few “Community Reps” and with good success although it seems that they still are hesitant to send welcome messages and such. We’re targeting a very unique audience with amateur radio that is at the moment dominated by an older demographic, we hope to change that.

Any suggestions to take your comments in the article and apply it to a situation such as this? How tightly should membership be held to retain this focus in a hobby that has a very large non-college members?

-Brent, KB1LQD
-CollegeARC Co-Founder

Martin Reed - Community Manager January 5, 2010 at 2:30 pm

Brent – Have you considered asking your existing members what they want? Do they want to see new members come exclusively from a college amateur radio background? Let your members influence the evolution of your community.

Sharon February 4, 2010 at 4:57 am

The best approach I’ve seen is having a really prominent “Introductions” thread where, like you said, people actually engage the new poster and ask questions. The forum that did this had a very active userbase.

Doyen February 16, 2010 at 7:54 pm

I have a large handful of members who registered, but never bothered to post or even log back in a second time. Should I send them an email saying “Hey how are you? The above made it sound like that was more for members who have been inactive for a short while, or may sign on but not post. What about those members who just never came back again?

Martin Reed - Community Manager February 19, 2010 at 12:44 pm

Doyen – Sure, send them an email. Ask them if everything is OK and whether they need any help using the site. If possible, see if you can get some feedback.

If they don’t reply, try putting yourself in their shoes – why would you join the site, but then not get involved? Is the content compelling enough? Is the community fun enough? You might need to work on making the site more interesting, exciting and addictive.

The best way to do that is knowing why members aren’t currently active and involved – so by all means, ask them!

Sean March 1, 2010 at 3:37 pm

How valuable is a visitor that visits but does not comment? In a previous site I worked for dealing with the green industry, we use to get a lot of visitors but were unable to get commentators. Alot of the people visiting the site would sign-up but never, ever comment. What do you think the problem was?

Martin Reed - Community Manager March 5, 2010 at 12:41 pm

Sean – The value you place on lurkers depends on the aims and goals of your community; for example, if you’ve developed a support community to reduce your costs and someone visits the community, gets the answer they were looking for and then leaves – that’s still providing you with value.

I can’t say what the problem was with the site you mentioned – perhaps the topic isn’t interesting enough; if people aren’t passionate about the subject (or don’t see what’s in it for them), they won’t contribute.

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