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 email@example.com, you can be pretty sure they meant to enter firstname.lastname@example.org. 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?