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Onboarding Success: How to Engage New Members with Your Online Community

Written by Andy Steggles | on July 29, 2015 at 10:30 AM


Getting your new members involved in your online community from the start is a good way to build engagement and retention. Plus, thanks to automation, it makes the work of community managers a little less labor-intensive.

Onboarding new members is a critical step for associations, and often one that is easily missed. 

There are processes that have stood the test of time, like satisfaction surveys or new member discounts. Then there are the old, resource-heavy tactics that should be retired, including clunky mail-merge campaigns, old brochures featuring generic organizational information, and individual phone calls for checking in.

For organizations, these onboarding processes were about time, effort, and energy—all in high demand and short supply for any member-facing department. Old processes don’t upsell well or get a high volume of renewals, especially for those who are new to the organization.

Take a look at how SAE International has successfully onboarded members and grown engagement in its online community.

So how are organizations evolving? 

Since it’s important to prioritize member loyalty and retention, many membership departments are shifting to marketing automation, which not only allows them to personalize interactions with members but also reduces excess effort for onboarding.

Marketing automation and online community can work wonders when they're used together. You can track members' engagement across the board, and ensure your outreach is personalized and relevant. But my focus in this post is mainly about how to use the automation within your online community, where your members are already collaborating, networking, and connecting, to improve the onboarding process.

With automation and community leading the charge, an organization can separate its onboarding process into two concepts: inaction and recognition. These are starting points for customer and member transactions that will lead to stronger engagement.

Inaction. Members with the lowest level of engagement can be encouraged to complete a task or engage in some capacity with the community.

Recognition. Reward members who are creating value for the organization by offering digital badges and ribbons, as well as traditional discounts and special opportunities.

Using an online community platform, these initial tactics can become integral to maintaining and retaining members. By divvying up transactions into two buckets, it becomes easier to distinguish which automated processes are working well and not so well. Here’s a closer look at the two:

Onboarding tips for inaction

Introduction. We often hear how the top barrier to engagement is fear, so support for new members is key in early stages. According to Higher Logic’s 2014 Community Benchmarking Report, members are significantly more likely to post a message if they have already posted one—hence the importance of helping them over this initial barrier to entry.

Here’s a good way to get them started:

  • Set up an automated email (or a marketing automation campaign) to welcome new members, and guide them to the community
  • Create a community discussion thread called “New to the Community–Introduce Yourself Here” or something similar
  • Create a tailored “reply” page, and provide new members with a link in the email to answer a few short questions

Profile completion. Our data shows members who have informative profiles are significantly more likely to engage within the community and organization overall. The best chance organizations have to convince new people to complete their profiles is during the introduction process.

Follow this example:

  • Invite someone to complete an online profile as the first step toward learning more (It helps if there’s an option to import a LinkedIn profile)
  • Encourage her to add a photo and fill in as much detail as possible to help showcase her professional expertise
  • Follow up after a couple of weeks to those who haven’t completed, and showcase others who are currently engaging
  • Follow up after one month to check in on profile progress and offer assistance if they are hesitant or experiencing issues

Check in. A few months after welcoming new members to the community, send an email asking for feedback on the community itself. This could connect to a survey or satisfaction form. The email should also include a link to a popular discussion that not only encourages them to post but also serves as a reminder the community is there to help them professionally.

Onboarding tips for recognition

WelcomeMost organizations should send a welcome email to every new member that is personalized and includes a call-to-action (CTA), such as logging in and posting to a discussion or completing a profile page. Immediate recognition sets the tone that every new member is important and useful to the community at large. 

The initial welcome is part of an overall campaign to reach out to community members on a regular basis, until everyone has completed assigned tasks deemed important by community managers and organization staff. Try challenging newcomers to complete a set of tasks that will set them up for future recognition correspondences. These may including importing their profiles, sending a contact request, or posting to a discussion during their first week.

First time postsPosting new information is always a great way to collaborate and help others who share similar questions and ideas. Associations should take advantage of these member accomplishments, and send an email that congratulates and focuses on positive reinforcement, rather than general CTAs. This is also an opportunity to inject gamification into the community, by offering digital ribbons and badges for first-time and repeat contributions.

Top contributors. Reward the community’s repeat contributors—these people are the organization’s advocates and brand champions. Beyond community badges for specific participation, include an esteemed “Top Contributor” email indicating the community member’s recognition is widespread. Some communities have a homepage section for featured customers or members.

Whether you are developing or rebuilding your onboarding process, keep inaction and recognition as your primary correspondence indicators to start. From there, let your community feedback and collaboration dictate how you readjust and improve.

Remember that onboarding communications should be governed by automation, not manual labor. Most should be controlled by some kind of logical workflow, and emails should be dynamically generated. This means community managers can provide greetings, rewards, compliments, and alerts without labor-intensive actions or 24/7 monitoring of community activity. After all, curating onboarding messaging through automation is just as important as creating it all.

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This post was updated in August 2018 to ensure accuracy and completeness. 

Topics: Community Platforms & Updates, Engagement, Marketing Automation, Online Community

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