Josie is happiest when sitting on the book I'm trying to read.
Creative Commons License photo credit: Trinity

Alex Papworth runs a premium member community and recently asked if I would talk about how you can encourage your members to participate in your community without annoying them.

“I’m keen to encourage participation,” he writes. “Especially to ensure people feel they are getting value but I don’t want to push people when they have busy lives and become a ‘nag.’ Do you have any suggestions on how I could manage this balance?”

Thank you for sharing this with me, Alex. When we talk about encouraging people to participate without annoying them, I think there are two things that you need to consider carefully.

How Often Are You Doing It?

A sale isn’t a sale if you have it every day. It reminds me of Jos. A. Bank, a retailer of menswear. Their marketing relies on bold sales promotions, like buy one suit, get seven free. This model has come under pressure and they’ve even been sued because of it, as some customers felt that it was misleading to call something a sale if you do it all the time.

Those types of promotions may work for some, but I have to say I’ve never stepped into a Jos. A. Bank. I say that not with any maliciousness – I certainly don’t wish them anything but success. It’s just that, to me, their continuous commercials offering these sales have simply lowered my perspective of the brand. It’s almost comical how frequent they are. I love to get a good deal, but if every week you have a huge sale, it makes me question the quality of your goods. How desperate are you that you must need to offer me an armful of free suits for what seems like the whole year?

I believe the same thing to be true for online communities – only much more so because people are way more sensitive to being continuously contacted directly than they are to marketing that appears in the background, in between their favorite TV shows or on their favorite websites.

If you’re going to encourage people to participate, make it count. Those once every 6-12 months automated “I noticed you haven’t been posting” emails are alright, low impact and probably remind some people (what I suspect is a small percentage), but if you go beyond that and are really asking for people to do things, then you run the risk of fatiguing them and simply driving them away.

Can I Dismiss It or Opt-Out?

If you are contacting people, I’m going to assume they have opted-in because if they didn’t, you shouldn’t be contacting them. Via email, postal mail, telephone, etc. Visiting your website is opting it to view what is on that website, such as a temporary overlay asking them to contribute to something.

The second consideration is whether or not I can opt-out or simply dismiss the notification. If it is a notification on your website, can I close it or will it go away after a short period of time? If it is an email, can I opt-out? I am not going to get into the CAN-SPAM Act, but if you go and sign up for a free account on MailChimp or any reputable email list vendor, you’ll notice they require you to include certain things in your message, like a postal address, unsubscribe link and more. They do that because of CAN-SPAM.

Putting aside the law, it’s just good practice to allow people to easily unsubscribe. I currently receiving some “10 great recent discussions” type email from one community that I joined because they mentioned my book and I wanted to thank them. It does not include an unsubscribe link and you cannot unsubscribe yourself. What you must do is visit the community and post on a thread that any member can view, saying that you don’t want to receive the emails any longer. Then they will be remove you.

That is terrible. Not only illegal, but a perfect example of how you can annoy a member by reminding them about your community. I have to publicly say to the community “hey, yeah, thanks for mentioning my book… but stop emailing me.” I’m not going to do that. I’ll just delete or filter messages from that community from now on.

Automated, Personal and Reminding Without Reminding

With those two principles in mind, I would suggest looking at encouragement in the following three lights.

Automated: When the machine decides that this member hasn’t done this in this number of days and that triggers a message, that’s automated. It has its place, but the novelty can wear off fast. You don’t want automated messages going out too frequently.

Personal: When you reach out to someone individually, that is a personal reminder. Though they may not scale as easily, I think it allows for more nuance and more impact. For example, if you notice someone hasn’t been around for quite a while and you really respect their contributions, you could reach out to them and make sure everything is alright and express that you miss their contributions in this way. Like anything, overdoing it could lead to fatigue. But if you keep it specific and don’t send repeated messages to the same person, it probably won’t.

Reminding without reminding: This can be summed up as “don’t ask people to post, show them why they should post.” Showcase cool stuff, community programs and enticing discussions that would encourage them to participate. It’s not: “Hey, I noticed you haven’t been around much. I’d like to see you post again!” It is: “Hey, look at this great thing that we’ve got going on here!” It’s more subtle. And some subtlety can go a long way.