Online community management is a vast discipline. Community managers commonly spend their time a variety of ways, such as:
It's safe to say the "to-do" list is fairly long.
Yet, even with all that community managers have going on, one of the most common questions we get is as simple as they come:
How do we get people to participate in the community?
While there are lots of ways you can address this challenge, there's one simple tactic that we've found consistently gets results and encourages participation. What is it?
Teach people to ask for help.
It might seem too simple, but it is overwhelmingly the top trend in what gets a response or encourages discussions in online communities. And it's not just private online communities â€“ the same is true for public social networks, like LinkedIn or Facebook.
While sharing educational content like a blog post is still likely to get views, it's asking for help, sincerely wondering the answer to a question, or trying to solve a problem that gets people to participate.
Why is this the case? Simple, people genuinely like to help one another. We've previous cited this study from The Society of New Communications Research called "The Social Mind," where it was discovered that 80 percent of people participate in online communities in order to help others. However, before people can help, you need to establish the precedent of asking for help.
Now, if you're thinking, "How can I teach 10,000 people to ask for help?" â€“ don't worry. There are specific things you can do both at the beginning of your community members' experience and throughout their lifecycle as members that reinforces the benefits of asking for help.
They need to know that asking a question in the community is worth their time and that they can expect an answer in a timely manner. Establishing this trust creates a culture of asking and helping that keeps engagement in your online community high.
Your community members need to see a "helping culture" in action in order to know that it is going to work for them. One positive experience of having their question answered or observing another member's question be answered can create positive momentum that establishes that trust cited above and keeps them coming back.
New members will feel comfortable asking questions if they see that it is a worthwhile pursuit. While showing that questions actually get answered ensures each question asker also has a good experience, it also has the added benefit of increases your online community's value for your other members as well.
Put online community management processes in place that make it possible to address every single question asked within 24 hours. We call this the "24 hour rule" and it is essential to building a strong online community.
It doesn't matter if your members or someone from your company answers the questions posed in your community, but establishing a 24 hours rule makes sure that no question falls through the cracks.
When someone asks a question in a community and nobody responds, members become far less likely to ask for help when they need it in the future, causing your community to lose a portion of its value and potential activity.
Making sure questions get answered follows through on the trust necessary to encourage members to ask for help in the first place.
People respond well to direct asks. Let your members know that asking for help is more than okay, it's encouraged. Directly "asking them to ask" through very overt calls-to-action on your actual site, in email communication, and through notifications is a great start.
This reminds people that your online community is the place to ask and get answers. You may have a member who had a question, but didn't know where to turn to find the right answer â€“ seeing your direct ask could be the reminder he or she needs to pose the question in the community.
If you're doing a Friday roundup email of the "10 Hottest Discussions You May Have Missed" or something along those lines, don't highlight discussions that don't have any activity. Instead, focus on the more active discussions to continue showing your members that when they ask a question, they can expect an answer.
They'll see your examples and know that if others are receiving responses to their questions, they can feel safe asking their questions in the community as well.
Imagine this scenario:
You're having an online discussion in a different online venue than your customer or member community â€“ one of your social networks, an email exchange, etc. â€“ and the person you're talking to brings up a challenge they're facing. While your first impulse might be to answer them directly (assuming you know the answer to their question), think about resisting this urge.
Instead, ask them if they've considered asking the community for their opinion. The best community managers are always thinking of ways to suggest that people take advantage of the community. Keep in mind that this can happen both on and offline. If you're speaking to someone in person, say at a conference or meeting, suggest that they too look to your online community as a resource when they bring a specific challenge.
There are several ways you can encourage your community members to be more engaged, but none of them are as easy or as effective as simply teaching them to ask for help.
When you instill the expectation that questions will be answered, people feel more comfortable with the vulnerability of participating in an unknown social space online.
By systematically combining the examples of activity in your online community with directly asking your members to ask questions, you can truly "teach" the importance of asking for help. In addition to growing your community participation faster, creating an "ask culture" is one of the best ways to increase the value of your online community for your members.