Building community online can have a big impact on your ability to maintain strong relationships with customers or members. Your organization can then leverage those relationships to achieve a variety of business outcomes—ranging from increasing customer retention and developing customer advocates to creating more innovative products and increasing revenue.
However, none of these goals can be reached without a community that keeps customer or member engaged. It is their engagement within the community that makes those strong relationship possible and maintains that affinity going forward.
While it might seem like a bit of a "chicken-egg" situation, think of it like this:
The more engaged your customers or members are in your community, the more engaged they'll be with your organization and its ecosystem, and vice versa.
In short, it takes engagement to make engagement.
We often discuss the tangible results that online community engagement can deliver for your business or association. Active community members are more likely to become loyal customers or advocates. By investing their time in your community, they're demonstrating an interest in maintaining and building upon your existing relationship.
However, it's not enough to put an online community out there and expect instant engagement. When your customers or members come to your community for the first time, they're looking to answer two questions:
The good news is that much of this is within your control. There are certain things that you can optimize in order to get people to participate and engage with both you and each other.
To convince potential new participants that your community is worth their time, attention, and actions, you need to be proactive at every point in the community members' journey and make it as easy to engage as possible.
To turn new members into contributing members, you need a deliberate process that makes them feel welcome, as well as directs them to where they can get answers to the two questions above.
Your onboarding process might include personal outreach that helps ensure your new members understand what they can do in the community and the best ways for them to participate. Highlight specific discussions and relevant content that would be good engagement opportunities for their particular interests.
Try to look at your private online community from the perspective of someone who hasn't been working on the planning and design for months. Pay especially close attention to your community landing pages and your most popular member areas to make sure your calls-to-action are clear and easy to understand.
Calls-to-action are the street signs and billboards that tell community members where they can find relevant content and engagement opportunities. Your members aren't going to do what you want them to do if they can't understand what you're asking.
Create simple and specific calls-to-action that get people involved in the areas of the community best suited for their specific goals. Promote your discussion boards, new content, events, or documents that would be useful to each target customer segment.
If your new community members are frustrated with the process of uncovering valuable information and engagement opportunities, they're not likely to stick around. By continuously trying to simplify the community structure and experience, your community members can get comfortable in this social environment with minimal frustration.
Starting small with fewer features gives people something to focus on. When your customers or members understand the structure of the community, they have a much more clear view of what they can get and what they can do.
People want to feel as though their community experience is somewhat personalized based on the product they use or the type of member they are.
Featuring content that is relevant to their location, role, or type of organization will help them more easily find value in the community. Relevant content might come in the form of documents in your file library, videos, blogs, or even new announcements.
Don't beat around the bush"”come right out and ask members to engage. However, rather than just putting out a blanketed call for community engagement, be specific about their opportunities.
Ask them to join a specific discussion or add their expertise in the comments of a video so they'll feel wanted and comfortable with taking steps toward becoming more engaged.
When people see a familiar face, they're instantly more comfortable in their environment"”the same goes for your online community.
Use pictures and articles from people they may recognize in your industry or have recently met at a conference. Post photos from recent events that community members may have attended (or known someone who did) or feature members they might recognize from the community.
This could be done by your community manager or the volunteer leaders in your online community, depending on your frequency of new members and the willingness of volunteers.
When a new member joins (or a previous member returns from a hiatus) make sure they receive personal contact from someone recognizable in the community. This might come in the form of an email that acknowledges they are new (or have recently returned) and suggests some great features or content to check out in the community. Leave the option to reply open, but make it clear that they can return contact if they have any questions.
By setting this up as a system, you can avoid it becoming a burden on any one person. Instead, leverage your community leaders (committee heads, SIG leaders, board members, etc.), as well as your online community software platform.
Chances are, you aren't going to get every detail of your online community "right" the first time. Soliciting feedback is a great way to highlight potential areas of improvement, as well as make your members feel their input is valued.
Ask open-ended questions to find out how your community can better offer solutions to your customers' or members' problems. Inquire about their experience participating in the community and how the process could be easier.
It is important to expand your feedback to include both new and senior members. This approach will give you a more complete picture of your community through different stages of the engagement funnel.
If you want to have engaged community members, you need to make the value in your community clear and the process of both getting that value and participating as easy as possible. This rarely happens organically. It is the role of the community management team to create a plan to do this on a consistent basis.
Taking proactive steps to encourage new members to engage will help transition them into members who regularly participate. By keeping your processes clear and simple, plus going above and beyond to offer a highly relevant experience, new members will quickly learn what they can get from and do with your community.