David DeWald and #CMGRHangoutHow do you welcome new members to an established, active online community? That was the topic of last Friday’s #CMGRHangout, a weekly Google+ Hangout presented by My Community Manager.

The panel discussion featured hosts Jonathan Brewer and Sherrie Rohde, alongside Brian Fanzo, David DeWald, Whitney Klinkner and me. This was my second time on the program and, once again, it was a pleasure.

By using different strategies and tactics, you can definitely have an impact on the percentage of people that join your community, that choose to contribute and that stay. There are many different ways to go about that and we discussed a lot of them.

In order for you to know what to expect, here are the questions that the panel answered:

  • How do you help encourage a new member to start contributing and get involved in the community?
  • How do you get a new community member comfortable with the community’s guidelines and objectives?
  • How do you help a new community member avoid or┬áhandle information overload?
  • What role do other community members play in welcoming a new member?
  • How can you utilize technology to help welcome new members without being robotic?
  • What other tips do you have for onboarding and welcoming new members?

I will provide a summary of my answers below, but to get the full picture, check out the stream.

How do you help encourage a new member to start contributing and get involved in the community?

Calls to action are big. The art of simply asking people to register and contribute is maybe the biggest thing you can do, alongside testing and seeing what calls to action work best. Look for easy wins. Simple, approachable tasks. For example, introductions tend to be easy. If not that, what about a discussion that is easy for anyone to add something to? Just a generally attractive, low key thread.

You can showcase interesting discussions and that is a good idea, but people will generally find the discussions that they care about on their own, often through search engines. Which is how most people will find your community.

Make registration easy, though some would argue against it being too easy because it can be good to have some barrier to entry. That doesn’t mean it needs to be complex.

Finally, really aggressive community managers with the time to spare could reach out to people on a one by one basis. You can welcome them directly and make it a custom greeting with something tied to them, their profile or a suggestion that you feel might help them. Note: this is not the same as an automated welcome private message. This could be easier for those who manage communities with a more controlled membership. For example, an enterprise-focused company that is running a community just for customers. But even if you have a massive, public-facing community, you can still select some members to welcome directly, even if you can’t get to all or a majority of them.

How do you get a new community member comfortable with the community’s guidelines and objectives?

Hopefully they are attracted to the community you already have, which the guidelines influenced. If you want people to find your guidelines, make them easy to find and link to them from the registration page. If you have long guidelines, you can create a simpler, more basic explanation of them to make them more digestible.

Even if you do that, however, a majority of people will not read the guidelines. That’s just how it is. This means that the first time that a member encounters your guidelines will be if they violate them. That gives you the chance to use those moments as a learning opportunity. Explain what happened, why it isn’t OK and provide a link to their guidelines.

It is important to understand that not everyone is meant to be a member of your community. A community for everyone isn’t because not everyone wants that. You have to have a focus and not everyone will fit in it and that is perfectly fine. As David said during the stream, it’s OK for us to “fire” members. Just like it’s OK for them to “fire” us. Life is too short.

How do you help a new community member avoid or handle information overload?

As I mentioned, you can feature important content or discussions that allow people to jump in easily. To some extent, I think with forums especially, the familiar format helps people find content because they are used to it.

More than two and a half years ago, I pitched the idea of activity streams for online communities. I haven’t really seen this done particularly well in any community software yet but I still believe in the idea. Basically, you are gathering all of this data on the member. Posts they make, sections they post in, friends they connect with, posts they “like,” etc. Why not use this to serve up a stream of content that will hopefully be relevant to them? And if you don’t have any data on them, you can always default to a generic “what’s hot right now.”

What role do other community members play in welcoming a new member?

They can welcome them formally, through a standard introduction forum. In addition, I think that members can be welcoming in tone. For example, how they discuss issues and how they treat differing viewpoints. If they do it in a certain way, it makes it easier for new members to jump in. Guidelines can re-enforce a welcoming atmosphere.

How can you utilize technology to help welcome new members without being robotic?

We’ve talked about activity streams, which I think could work really well. Not to say it doesn’t feel a little robotic. In general, I don’t think automation works that well when it comes to welcoming new members. The automatic welcome private message is an easy example of this. I tend to ignore those because they just don’t feel special.

What other tips do you have for onboarding and welcoming new members?

People are people and, at some point, they will make their own choices. You can guide them, you can prompt them, but they have to want to do the thing, whatever that thing is. They’ll find the content that interests them, they’ll register if they want to, they’ll post if they want to. You can really only present them with the option in a visible way. Going too far beyond that borders on annoyance, driving people away.