OnboardingI recently asked what I could help you with. Brent Wilson of Whipp Media and Josh Barraza of The Exotic Pet Network both suggested that I discuss community member onboarding. Thank you for the response, Brent and Josh.

Onboarding has typically been used to describe the process of helping new employees at a company to pick up the skills and information they need to become solid contributors to an organization. Even though members aren’t your employees – far from it – the Wikipedia page for onboarding is a really interesting place to start.

Take a look at the onboarding model adapted from Talya Bauer and Berrin Erdogan. Even though it is meant for new employees, one can see how it could be readily applicable to an online community. Drawing from that model and the Wikipedia page, let’s walk through the conclusions that researchers have come to and how they apply to online communities.

New Member Characteristics

Just as certain personality traits help new employees to acclimate within an organization, certain traits can be found in the members who actually take the leap from viewer to participant.

As the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. Proactive, extroverted people will likely make up much of your membership. Though you get your fair share of trolls or people who just like to hear themselves talk (or read their own posts, more likely), your best members will be open to other viewpoints.

Curiosity is a driver of great community members, too. I think it manifests itself more in online communities than on services like Twitter. In an online community, you are joining into a shared space. You can’t say “well, I’m going to post this and it’s on my profile, so you just have to accept it.” And yet, that’s a big part of Twitter. “If you don’t like it, unfollow me.”

Finally, those who are veterans of other online communities will certainly have the advantage of some knowledge. Even if your guidelines are different and your site looks like another planet, there are still common threads and an experience factor that can help. So when you think about onboarding and draw up plans, make sure you include the “get the heck out of the way and let me post” option, for those who know what they want.

Newcomer Tactics

Members looking to join in will seek information. For those jumping right in, they may just be looking for and following simple pointers: start a new topic, enter your subject here, etc. Others may take the time to read longer guidance, such as that which might be included in a welcome email. They might read the guidelines or some form of welcome document that you direct them to.

My favorite is how people learn by observing others. That may seem frustrating because you can’t control what they observe. But you do have some control, if you employ consistent moderation in your community. If you do, most of your veteran members will be members who are setting an example for new members to follow. This feels more natural to me than guidance from a perceived authority figure.

It is very common for a new member to include something in an early post like “I hope I put this in the right section.” That brings us to the second tactic: feedback seeking. New members often seek approval, especially for their initial contributions. You can be proactive here, as well, by complementing or praising a new member who does something well. That sort of validation can mean a lot to people. On the flip side, you can also be proactive by ensuring that the new member follows the guidelines and politely informing them (with the reason) when they don’t.

Rounding out tactics, we have relationship building. People generally seek acceptance into a group. Having friends in the community and people that they identify with goes a long way toward helping them to feel more comfortable as a contributor.

Organizational Efforts

This is where you come in. Taking into account what we have discussed above, what socialization efforts can you put in place, with the hopes of empowering a new member to become an engaged one? Beyond the generic socialization, the diagram gives us three more categories beyond socialization: formal orientation, recruitment and mentorship.

Types of Socialization

Going back to the Wikipedia page, you can see that there is a lot of definition as far as the forms that socialization take, as outlined by John Van Maanen and Edgar H. Schein.

Collective vs. Individual

Should newcomers be grouped together or encouraged to learn individually? Both approaches can make sense. Some communities have sections specifically for new members, who then gravitate toward those sections and learn collectively. Generally speaking, just because of how communities tend to be structured (people participate when they want, how they want), empowering them to learn as individuals usually makes the most sense.

Formal vs. Informal

Is it beneficial for new members to be segregated from veteran members or for there to be little barrier between the two? I tend to lean toward the latter because it seems more natural. That said, some communities allow you to earn status and access to areas that you weren’t able to use when you were new. A good mix can make sense. But as far as bringing new people in, interacting with (and learning from) current members is a highly beneficial.

Sequential CardsSequential vs. Random

With the programs that you create, do they need to be done in a specific order or can they be done in an order of a member’s choosing? This comes back to the difference between employee and member. Members do things at their leisure and by their choice, so being flexible will lead to more people using the program. That’s not to say that a guide to getting started can’t suggest an order. For example: fill out your profile, introduce yourself, start your first thread.

Fixed vs. Variable

Similarly, is there a fixed timetable for these steps to be completed or is it at the member’s discretion? I think it is great to have a goal for how soon you’d like members to do something – and to track that, as well as to track what those members go on to do – but if you force members to do X by Y, you run the risk of it being taken as an ultimatum. Not a good thing.

Serial vs. Disjunctive

Is it worthwhile for new members to be shown the way by veterans or should they be encouraged to find their own path? While diversity is good and new perspectives help grow communities, what is true of most online communities is that they have a set of cultural norms. Veteran members are in a great position to influence new members in a positive way. This is why welcome committees can be helpful. If you can pair a veteran member with a new one, with the veteran member welcoming the new member and encouraging them to ask questions, you can impact the likelihood of that member staying.

Investiture vs. Divestiture

Should a new member be stripped of certain character traits or do you want them to be, more or less, who they are? The answer here lies in between because there is no doubt that people must conform to be a member of a community. We want them to bring their unique perspective, but to contribute to a certain standard. That may be exactly who they already are, or they may need some help. Perhaps they have been an active member at another online community with totally different standards and norms.

We can aide them through guidelines, onboarding programs and direct interaction when guidelines are pushed or broken.

Formal Orientation

We’ve touched on this quite a bit, but even if you opt for less standardized programs, having more formal materials can still be beneficial. Written guides, tutorial videos and other resources that are available to members and can be viewed at their discretion, as well as promoted in welcome emails, introductions and similar opportunities.

Recruitment Events

When hiring employees, recruitment events can help you identify the right people. For an online community, you probably can apply this in two ways. First, how and where you promote the community. Getting it in front of the right audience is important. Second, in your calls-to-action and perhaps even the registration form on your community, you can give people clues as to the type of community that you are, which will make the right people more likely to continue through the process and join.


Relating to the “Serial vs. Disjunctive” form of socialization, members who have mentors acclimate more quickly. Beyond just the idea of mentorship and in receiving guidance, if you have a friend in the community, one who has been there for a while, they can put you at ease. They can answer questions and they can support your early contributions. While a community manager often tries to fill this role, a new member might feel more comfortable with another member that they view as being on similar footing.

This is all easier said than done, of course. You don’t want to ask too much of your current members and you don’t want to force them on new members who may not want them.

Member Adjustment and Results

Successful onboarding efforts allow employees to adjust to the environment and standards at the company they have joined, allowing them (and others around them) to be more efficient and, hopefully, happier. The same is true for a community member: they get more out of the community and others benefit from it, as well.

Their role within the community becomes clearer. They become more aware of the dynamics that exist between their fellow members, staff members and management. Their knowledge of the unique culture of the community grows. They believe more in themselves within the community and that what they are about to post will be well-received. It’s a heightened level of comfort. The trepidation tied to making that first few contributions disappears.

Because of this, they earn the acceptance of other members, who respond to those contributions, appreciate and support them. More and more, they feel like they fit in, which emboldens them to commit to the community in an even deeper way.

Developing Your Onboarding Efforts

When it comes to developing a strategy to put into use on your community, you might find it useful to break down your efforts into 3 categories. I’ll include some ideas in these categories to help you get started.

Friendly RobotAutomatic Efforts

This covers methods which occur without any involvement from a person as well as resources that simply live on your site. For example, an automated welcome email that includes helpful links and currently hot discussions. A dialog box that appears at the top of your site linking to a welcome guide. A video tutorial linked from the “new discussion” page that shows new members how to start a new conversation. Creating an easier registration form. These are all things that are present without you having to manage them regularly.

Having a good call-to-action is a big deal. UserOnboard.com is a good resource for thinking about those and learning from real life examples. A call-to-action leads a member toward registration, filling out their profile, introducing themselves and making that first contribution. When you use automated methods to push the conversion (like follow-up emails and persistent dialog boxes), you also need to make sure that your software understands when they have successfully done it. No one wants to be asked to introduce themselves after they already did.

Personal Efforts

Where the machine ends and people begin. Some of the “automatic” efforts – especially any resources that you have created – can be useful as you try to convert people manually. Welcoming people to the community (once they post that introduction) is a simple thing that is actually done by real people. You can bring in other staff members – or members of the community – into the program and form a welcome committee to help give new members an individual point of contact that can help them find their footing.

It may not be possible for you to personally contact every member. But you might try to identify members who have made some commitment, and then stopped, to see why they have gone away and if you can help them. If you run a smaller community where you know all of the potential members (an enterprise community only for paying customers), you have a greater opportunity to pick up the phone and see if you can make the community more beneficial to them.

Praising people is another great thing you can do. When people do contribute and they add value, praising them boosts the likelihood of them coming back. You can do this in public, in private and by highlight them and/or their contribution.

Background Efforts

These are tactics that normally wouldn’t be considered “onboarding,” but I wanted to include them because I feel like they can have an impact on the success of your efforts. For example, when you praise people, that creates a culture where members are more likely to praise people. The same goes for welcoming. Not only do these efforts help with direct onboarding, but they help other members to bring new participants into the fold.

Good moderation fits in here, as well. When you set the proper example for people, it helps to re-enforce the order of things. Above I discussed people who are apprehensive about posting something in the wrong section. But if you make a point of moving all discussions to the most appropriate area, then they’ll have great examples to draw from, so that they can feel more confident when they post.

A well run online community is ahead of the onboarding game, when compared to one that isn’t.

Start Small, Deploy, Test and Adjust

It can be easy to get overwhelmed when thinking about onboarding. Start small. Pick an effort or two. Integrate them. Utilize A/B testing to improve your calls-to-action. Use what works. And as your efforts get stale, change them up.