One of the toughest parts of being a community manager is judging how frequently to directly contribute to the community. The dream is always for a community that is so large and successful that members contribute all the necessary content to keep things lively and interesting. A direct hand from management shouldn’t be necessary. Many communities have yet to reach this point, and the pressure is on for the community manager to push members to engage more.
This needs to be treated carefully. I make a habit of speaking to people who have churned out of communities. The usual suspects like ennui and trolls come up a lot, but in recent times it’s increasingly common to hear that a member was alienated by the community manager. An earnest, well-meaning attempt to get a new member to contribute can feel to a new member as though they’re being chided for not contributing right. There are a few different strategies that can lead to this:
Forced Onboarding Strategies
This is any kind of mandatory onboarding that members have to go through. Most frequently, this is an “Introduce Yourself Here” thread, but variations on the concept exist in various places. I’ve even seen communities where new members are put in a separate group until they’re deemed to be contributing well enough to join the real group.
I frequently lurk in a community for a while before begin posting actively. If an overzealous host responds to this by calling me into a special thread to introduce myself, I invariably write the community off altogether.
These kind of strategies can safely be dropped altogether. They’re a sign of over-analysis in the launch phase. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would ever look at a live community environment and feel that it would be improved by making members jump through more hoops.
Focus instead on making sure there’s enough interesting and engaging content in your community that members will want to contribute immediately. People who see a fascinating conversation that they have something to add to will do so without further prompting.
Pushing For Too Much Too Soon
One of the great things about a community is that they quickly fill with subject matter experts who aren’t shy about sharing and discussing their knowledge. Sharing and acquiring knowledge are both rewarding pursuits, and the promise of opportunities to do either or both is one of the main draws of any community.
Trying to force this process is a surefire way of making sure that no one wants to contribute. A colleague of mine recently commented that he’d stopped visiting a struggling community. The given reason? After giving some best practises advice to another user, a community manager had stepped in to push for more information from them. After they obliged, the community manager followed up again, brusquely requesting that they expand upon their answer in other ways. Instead, they just left. Left to their own devices, that member would undoubtedly have stuck around for months or years to give advice. Instead, they felt like they were being upbraided for not communicating properly.
Remember that these are real conversations, and being pushy is just as annoying online as it is in real life. If you pressure your members to contribute too much, too soon, it adds an unmistakable air of desperation to the interaction. Members don’t want to feel like they’re there to do something for you.
It’s much more effective to encourage contributors by showing an interest in what they’re saying. Thank them, talk a little more about the matter being discussed and only ask a follow up question if you think it’s something they’ll be interested in following up on. Ideally, any discussion in a community is going to be open enough that more than one person has something to add. Going person to person with follow up questions shouldn’t be a large part of your engagement strategy.
Enforcing a Minimum of Profile Content
Nice looking profiles are a great thing to have in your community. They’re a sign that your members have a stake in your community, and that you have a diverse variety of people contributing. Some mistake this correlation with causation, and believe that they can engage their members more by mandating the filling in of profile content. This can be a fast route to alienating your new members.
Some people love filling out profiles and expressing their personality with a fun picture of signature. For others, it feels like homework. They’ll fill it in at their own pace, if at all. There are members of my community that have been contributing actively for over a decade without so much as uploading a profile picture. Sites like Reddit have also shown that the most engaged members aren’t necessarily the ones who’ve spent the most time filling in their forum resume.
It’s ok to remind members that the functionality exists, but don’t make it a mandate or a chore. If you’d like members to fill in their profile fields, give them a carrot rather than trying to make it a rule. Gamification can be great for this, and sites like LinkedIn (that benefit hugely from filled profiles) have used it to great effect to get people to take that time.
A fun way of getting this done is making a discussion where people can post if they’re seeking a profile picture. It’s something that other members can have a lot of fun with, and these early interactions help to create social bonds in the community.
Real Engagement Feels Natural
Anyone who has ever been at a party where the host admonished them for not dancing will know how irritating it is. The role of a host is to provide an atmosphere that allows and encourages its guests to have fun. That cause isn’t served by telling them that they’re doing it wrong. A community is no different. Provide an environment that members will want to be a part of, and let them decide how and when they do that.