When your community is just getting off the ground, it’s common for a Community Manager (referred to as CM for the rest of the article) to individually greet new users. This can be an effective way to get people engaged and encourage them to start participating in the community. I’ve seen a few different approaches to this:
- A single “Introduce Yourself Here!” thread, where a member posts if they want to be welcomed. Sometimes participation is mandatory, but opt in is most common.
- A welcoming thread, where the CM will post a welcome to new members. Generally this will be accompanied by an @ mention of some kind, to ensure the user doesn’t miss the post.
- The CM keeps an eye out for new members as they start posting, and give a quick welcome to them in the thread while engaging in conversation.
- New members create new threads to introduce themselves in.
Most community managers will use some variation on this theme in their communities. It’s something that takes a good deal of time to do, and is commonly on the list of Things You Just Have To Do. But is it really necessary? Beyond that, is it even a good idea?
The Problems With Welcoming New Members
While it might be heresy to some community managers, I’m not convinced about the practice of individually welcoming new members. I avoid it where possible, and in one of my communities actively legislate against it. While it’s possible for the practice to be used well, it’s too often used as a one-size-fits-all Thing That You Do when you start a community. People simply do it because it’s what everyone else seems to do, rather than considering it as a tool to be used where appropriate. There are a few caveats that don’t seem to be talked about as much as they should:
It’s a Potentially Massive Time Suck
This is going to depend on the size of your community, but welcoming every new member can quickly become an annoyance for a community manager. Welcoming new members might seem manageable when you only have a few members, but what about when your forum community grows? I’ve heard CMs complain that they’re spending half an hour or more a day doing nothing but welcoming new members on board. It might be nice for the member, but that’s time that could undoubtedly be spent on other things.
For many CMs, welcoming new members is essentially busywork. It’s a way to be visible in the community and look like you’re doing something. That’s not such a bad thing at the beginning of a community’s life-cycle, but sooner or later you’re going to get too busy with actual work. If the higher-ups are used to looking for obvious signs like this as a sign that you’re working, what will they think then?
It Feels Fake
I’m a huge fan of authenticity in community management. I believe that it promotes better behaviour, because people behave better when they’re faced with real people than when faced with PR droids. I’ve never seen a welcome message in a community that wasn’t a little forced and fake. That’s understandable. By definition, you don’t know anything about that person. What can you really do other than say “Hi! Welcome to the community!”? There aren’t many variations on that theme, and it will always read as forced.
Offering people a thread to simply introduce themselves promotes a similar atmosphere.
New members feel like they have to summarise themselves in a few paragraphs. It’s more akin to filling in a dating profile or resume than a genuine social interaction, and even if it’s optional there’s a pressure to conform to what other new members seem to be doing. It starts a new member’s participation off on a stilted, artificial note. Everyone might be all big smiles and enthusiastic welcomes, but this front makes it harder to interact on anything but a surface level.
It Can Be Stressful and Off-Putting to New Members
I recently joined a community where onboarding policy was that new members were summoned into a post with an @ mention by a moderator and asked to Tell Us Something About Yourself. It felt jarring and unnecessary, and made me want to disengage immediately. I wasn’t sure if participation was mandatory, and I would be kicked from the group for non-compliance. It seemed like I was immediately being put under the spotlight. I wanted to be able to chill out in the community a little bit before being asked to make a full accounting of myself.
Some people see lurkers as empty calories, a problem to be solved. In reality, many lurkers fully plan to contribute at some point but are waiting until they have something to say. Some people want to feel the room a little bit before they start voicing opinions and contributing. There’s nothing wrong with that, and those people shouldn’t be cajoled into contributing in a way that’s more conducive to your business goals. Even if the participation in a welcome thread is ostensibly voluntary, social pressure can make people feel like they’re expected to do so regardless. It can be easy to “count the hits” and think of how many users you engaged with a hearty welcome, but how many did you put off?
It’s Not All Doom and Gloom
I might come across as a little negative about it, but I don’t want to suggest that it’s a disastrous tactic that should never be used. In small-to-medium sized communities, a hearty welcome can be a useful part of the onboarding process. My problem is that it’s something that it’s assumed a community manager should do. It’s a tool that’s used without real thought for why it’s being done, that can be misapplied. At best, this can result in wasted time. At worst, it can actually be bad for your community
If you find value in these introductions, bear in mind that the introduction doesn’t have to come from the community manager to be effective. Using the “Introduce Yourself Here!” approach, you can encourage your existing members to be the ones that welcome new members. This will generally feel less forced than a welcome from a staff member. It also allows you to identify the people who are most inclined to be helpful and welcoming to new members. Those people are prime candidates to be elevated to moderator status.
Personal introductions might be just the thing that your community needs. They might also be the last thing your community needs. Don’t just listen to some guy reading off a checklist of things to do, and don’t just listen to me. Look at all the angles and figure out what’s going to be a fit for your community.