When a new member enters your community, what should they do first? What will encourage them to contribute and help them feel more comfortable in doing so?

Online community onboarding efforts vary. Frankly, a lot of new members are effectively thrown right into the community. Some communities might go a bit deeper. Perhaps they make a bigger deal out of welcoming people, pointing them to an area where they can introduce themselves. Maybe they make new members click through a guide to the community. Or they prompt them to fill out their profile.

But if the primary goal is to have them contribute to the community, your best move could be to help them make their first post in a no pressure way. Community software vendors could have a big impact here by offering sandbox-like functionality as an option by default.

Creating the Playable Tutorial

Samuel Hulick is a user onboarding consultant, who I recently had as a guest on the Community Signal podcast. I asked him about the best way to guide people toward making their first contribution, and he talked about the importance of giving people an anxiety-free, interactive way to learn.

“One thing that I highly recommend, in that scenario, is to dump them into a place where it’s really clear that they can experiment, make mistakes, [and] it’s not going to go on their permanent record,” he said. “It’s a private space, so they’re not going to look like they’re doing something dumb in front of somebody. Just let them explore the interface and understand how to operate it, before they go out and try to parachute into an existing conversation.”

Specifically, Samuel referenced how Slack fills out your profile by having you chat with a bot. In doing so, not only are you completing your profile, but more importantly, you are gaining an understanding of how Slack works. They could have just had you fill out a form, but instead, this creative solution gives you a leg-up on using the application.

It’s kind of like video games where they have the playable tutorial, where you know you’re not going to die. The stakes aren’t dire. There’s nothing that you’re going to do here that’s going to permanently affect the rest of the actual ‘game experience.’ Just go to town, figure out how the controls work and get a feel for the game in a very almost molecular, biological kind of way. That’s what I really strongly advocate for software.”

Community Software Could Do This

Some might say, “you can just create a test section,” and you can, but that’s not what I’m after. I’m not looking for a public section where everyone can see the test posts made. I’m also not looking for a section that the staff will have to clean up.

I’m interested in a sandbox where people are guided through the process of making their first post or their first reply. It could simply be a test post, where they are given some prompts on how to use the BBCode or upload a photo. More creatively, they could be talking with a (clearly-identified) bot, similar to slackbot in Slack. There is a great opportunity here to make our communities easier to use.

Creative community managers have been playing around with this sort of functionality for a long time. And yet, I can’t recall an online community that I registered for that did anything like this. I would love to see leading community software vendors explore these ideas.