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Onboarding new community members: some thoughts

andymci profile image Andy McIlwain 🇨🇦 ・7 min read

Thriving communities are wonderful things. But what about the newcomers? How do you make them feel like the community is also for them, just as much as it is for members who’ve been around for a long time?

There are plenty of resources on the web covering how to get your new community up and running. Most of that work, especially in the early days, depends heavily on personal outreach and interaction.

As a community grows, that 1:1 relationship gets harder to scale.

It’s one thing to greet each new member as they join, introducing them to existing members. It’s another thing entirely when you have hundreds (or thousands!) of members joining every week.

What follows are some thoughts re: member onboarding - tips that you can implement early on, and will scale with your community as it grows over time.

What’s the point of it all?

Step one: start by clarifying exactly who your community is for, why it exists, and what your members get out of participating.

There’s a good chance that you have this defined already. If not, now’s a good time to lock it in:

Who is your community for? Communities are connected groups of people with something in common. Who are these people? What do they have in common?

Why are you bringing people together? What’s the purpose for your group? Are you working towards a specific goal, or pursuing a specific mission?

What do members get for registering? Is there something special, something exclusive, that’s only available to community members?

Which brings me to…

Gated areas & features

Private sections of your community are the easiest to implement. A step up from that is publishing content in other places that are only available to registered members, like exclusive newsletters, job boards, online/offline meetups, Discord or Slack, etc.

You could also lock other perks behind community membership. For example, if you have deep-ish product integration, you could give beta access or exclusive discounts to members.

Badging and credentialization can also have perceived and real value, depending on your community. This goes hand-in-hand with having a persistent community profile, making some members stand out from the rest.

Dangle these carrots! Make these areas and perks known to non-members, but don’t make them accessible. Keep them just out of reach to pique a bit of FOMO.

Awareness & calls to action

You’ve defined the motivation and laid out the membership perks. Now you need to make it easy for potential members to join.

That’s where prominent calls-to-action (CTAs) come in.

A prominent header CTA is the most important action that a visitor can take. You’ve seen them before: Request a quote. Book an appointment. Go to your cart and check out. For a community site, it’s Join or Log In.

Place contextual links where it makes sense. Wherever a potential member might feel the urge to join, you want that option to be obvious and easy. Don’t make them hunt for it.

Mention your community in a newsletter? Add a link to join. Instead of comments on your blog, invite readers to join your community and pick up the discussion there.

Heck, go the extra mile -- use a post or page to spell out exactly why someone should join your community, and use that page when linking in from external sites.

Registration

How much of a commitment are you seeking from new members? What do you need to know up front? How much information can you gather later? Do you want to let members sign in with 3rd party accounts, like Twitter, Facebook or Google?

The more steps you add, the more friction you’re creating in the sign up process. Every additional step can dissuade potential members from joining.

That’s not always a bad thing. Not enough friction can also open you up to bots, spammers and other low-quality users.

That’s why Facebook Groups lets you add questions for new members. If someone isn’t willing to answer a few questions, are they really going to contribute anything useful to the group?

It can take a while to strike the balance between too many and too few steps. Experiment and iterate. Maybe you start with a frictionless registration flow at first, then gradually add more steps as your community grows?

Personalized welcome messages

Alright, now we’re on to the fun stuff: what happens after someone registers.

Let’s start with email. Chances are your community platform sends out a notification email to either validate the new member’s email address, or to confirm that they’ve signed up.

That’s great, but it’s little more than a receipt. You can do better!

What about a personalized email welcoming the new member to your community? An email that shows them where to go, how to get started, and what first steps to take?

If your community platform is configured to send direct message alerts via email, you can drop that messaging into a DM. That way you’re bringing them back into the community experience.

Set expectations upon joining

IMO, Community Guidelines are one of the first things -- if not the first thing -- that your new members should check out.

Your Community Guidelines clarify...

  • What is and isn’t allowed in your community
  • How members can flag offending content or users
  • How rules are enforced and how enforcement gets escalated

I like to think of this as a helpful companion to your Terms of Service, Privacy Policy, Code of Conduct, et al. It’s not a replacement for those docs, but it’s certainly easier to grok for daily use.

Put this in a prominent place and link to it from your welcome messages. Refer to it often, update it as needed, and cite it when making moderation decisions.

New member orientation

Games usually include a few introductory tutorials or levels to get new players acquainted with the game’s interface and mechanics. Consider doing the same.

Create a short guide to help new community members with:

  • Wayfinding, knowing where to look for different content.
  • Key features, like bookmarking posts or sending private messages.
  • User settings, like profile customization and display options.

As with the Community Guidelines, this is a helpful companion to more in-depth FAQs and documentation (see below). Place this information in a prominent place and link to it from your welcome messages, update it often, etc.

Sidenote: A guide doesn’t make up for bad design, e.g. broken navigation or unclear labeling. Fix those UX issues first.

Where to go for help

Members may have even more questions than what you can reasonably cover within your Community Guidelines or new member orientation. Where do they go for help?

My recommendation: Set up a separate place -- a section, forum or channel. It’s like a public inbox for meta community support and feedback. If someone has a question about how to use the community, or an idea for a new feature, point them there.

It’s also a good place to talk about your community’s platform updates, e.g. adding new 3rd party integrations to your Slack community.

Roll out the welcome wagon

We’re nearing the end here. (Phew.) Most of my recommendations so far have been on the passive side - things that are evergreen and automated.

What follows here is very much not that.

Welcome your new members by announcing their arrival.

David Spinks used to do this in the CMX Hub group on Facebook, calling on new members to introduce themselves in the comments. It breaks the ice on their behalf, and it’s a nice personal touch to boot.

Granted it doesn’t scale all that well if you have a ton of new members joining every day, but you could still set a threshold of some kind, like calling out new members who’ve made their first post, or who’ve been active in the community for at least a month.

Create a place for new members to introduce themselves.

Community Club’s Slack team is a great example of this. I love jumping into the #introductions channel and seeing who’s recently joined the group. Create a section like that, link to it from your welcome messages, and keep an eye on it. Greet everyone who joins.

Call out new members in your newsletter.

Assuming you have a newsletter, call out the members who’ve recently joined your community and invite existing members to give them a warm welcome.

This pairs nicely with the above suggestions -- either linking to the announcement thread or to the place where folks introduce themselves.

The point of all this is to show new members that you are paying attention, and you absolutely care that they’ve joined. First impressions matter - your new members are more likely to stick around if they feel welcomed.

Reporting in analytics

At last we arrive at our final step: reporting! It’s all well and good to do all this work to onboard new members, but how do you know that it’s working?

I’m a fan of using Google Analytics for this, though you should be able to set up similar reporting with other analytics platforms as well.

Configure goals. This could be an event trigger or specific page URL, depending on the platform you use. Set one up for registration and one for activation (assuming your platform requires that extra step post-signup). Here’s how you do it in Google Analytics.

Set up a funnel report. Funnel reports are super helpful for sequenced steps, e.g. a member hitting registration, activation, then viewing your Community Guidelines. Here’s how you create a custom funnel report in GA.

User flow. I find this more useful for investigation than regular reporting, but I’m dropping it here because it piggybacks nicely on goals and funnel reports.

When you dig into a specific URL -- e.g. your community’s registration page -- you can look at the user flows that led your members there. Orbit Media has a great breakdown of this feature.

Bottom line? It’s all about smooth progression.

I’m a gamer at heart, and I think of all of this within the context of gaming. Just as a player progresses through levels, your members progress through different phases.

They start as a one-off visitor. If they like what they see, they become a lurker. Eventually they may want to participate, becoming a casual member. Then, if they keep participating, a regular.

Creating a smooth onboarding experience eases your members through each phase, ideally turning more of your lurkers into casual members and casual members into regulars.

As they progress, as their investment in the community grows, the value they bring to the community -- and the value they get out of the community -- grows as well.

Time for the hot takes. Over to you, Community Club. 🖖

Discussion

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touch_marine profile image
Touch Marine

Great content, this is like a guide. I like that you touched on all the important points but kept it simple. And I agree, it is all about progression. Making newcomers ingrained step by step.

Do you have any thoughts on downvotes? I think they can be a good form of community curation. But at the same time, they may be detrimental. For example, newcomers often get downvoted because they do not know the rules yet. Thus making your community unwelcoming.

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andymci profile image
Andy McIlwain 🇨🇦 Author

Thanks! I agree with you re: downvotes. Positive reactions only. Curation comes from highlighting the best of the positive.

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mac profile image
Mac

Onboarding is so critical, and I want to give a big shoutout to the Forem team for building one of the best native onboarding processes I've ever seen in a community platform!

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iamcesarromero profile image
cesar

This is so on point. Most of the slack communities I'm part of have an opportunity to improve on the new member onboarding process. David and the CMX team are doing it right. Onboarding is all about helping new members feel comfortable, understand the community space, and help them get that first win (introduction, first post, etc.)

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iamcesarromero profile image
cesar

Here's an example of one of the best onboardings I've had when joining a new slack community: loom.com/share/7c5432c2e762432084b...

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John @ YEN

love this so much.

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worldofawakening profile image
Anna

Thank you so much 🙏❤