How would you feel if you’d been a member for a community for years, but then started to suddenly feel disconnected from that community? In countless communities, it’s the most senior members who often feel the least sense of community.
So the question that community managers should be asking is, why is that?
Do you have a specific strategy for acknowledging your community members? If not, it may be time to think about how you want to demonstrate your gratitude.
The resentful feeling that results from a lack of acknowledgment is a tough phenomenon to tackle because it tends to be silent and insidious, leading to the churn of valuable members. In the most extreme cases, ignoring the voices of your most experienced members has led communities to fall apart entirely.
Let’s take a look at the reasons why this happens, and how we can deal with it.
Why do long-term community members feel disconnected?
In one specific case shared at the CMX Summit 2018 conference, Ben Leong of Envato found a pronounced trend: the longer people remained members of the Envato community he leads, the less “sense of community” they reported feeling.
I found Leong’s community data trend not only fascinating but consistent with many of my experiences building online communities. With few exceptions, I have also seen this negative correlation for any community that does not consciously tailor its strategy to serve its most senior members. (You can get all the slides from Ben’s CMX presentation here).
There could be many causes for this trend. One of the most prominent in the communities that I have worked with is a shared feeling among senior members that they do not receive adequate acknowledgment. They don’t get enough credit, or consideration for their many early contributions (another is a lack of freshness in community programming, but that is far easier to remedy).
Let’s dig into some strategies to combat this.
Know when to acknowledge member contributions
There are a few specific actions that beg for acknowledgment in communities. Above all else, it’s vital to acknowledge contribution, rather than seniority alone. To be thoughtful in your approach, acknowledge these types of often-ignored contributions:
In any community, there are virtually infinite ways members can make a difference. From reaching out with feedback to reporting violations of community guidelines, all kinds of contributions matter, especially those that are mostly invisible to other members.
Many people naively assume that the “truest” community leaders are those who don’t seek acknowledgment for their work and are happy behind the scenes. But this could not be further from the truth. Working without acknowledgment is not sustainable for anyone, no matter how behind the scenes they prefer to be.
Some invisible contributions that deserve acknowledgment:
- Getting on the phone with you in the early days to be interviewed and give feedback
- Being willing to be an early person to post threads when your community is just getting started
- Boosting others, whether with helpful comments or liking posts (as long as it’s not spammy)
- Getting together with you to think strategically about the direction you’re heading
- Giving you difficult, private feedback about your performance or your community in general
- Stepping up to volunteer in various ways, especially who do so proactively
- Reporting problem posts privately
These contributors do not tend to contribute because they want acknowledgment. But if their contributions go routinely ignored by you or your leadership team, they will eventually stop.
Relationships and bridges
Did someone make a valuable intro, referral, or other connection for you? Acknowledge them.
I’ve known community builders who keep a giant spreadsheet of the introductions people have made for them so they can acknowledge them in big and small ways (handwritten cards, thoughtful closing-the-loop emails, etc.).
I’ve known others who never close the loop on introductions or partnerships that come from trusted referrals. Again, those intros will eventually stop coming if they go unacknowledged.
Of course, you should acknowledge visible contributions: people who lead subgroups, host events, post the most threads, are often first to reply to quiet posts, and so forth.
But be careful not to stop here, as many community builders do. Publicly acknowledging the loudest voices more often than the quiet ones sends a clear message to others: their quiet contributions don’t matter. Either they need to be louder or they need to leave. Many will choose the latter.
How to acknowledge your members
Need inspiration for how to acknowledge your members? Here are a few simple starting points. Begin here and brainstorm ways that you can creatively apply the above strategies to your specific community’s mission, goals, and voice.
As a general rule, acknowledging someone is not about telling them that they are “incredible” or “amazing.” You shouldn’t view their contribution as a judgment of their worth (even if it’s meant in a positive way!), but rather as a sign of their commitment to your shared purpose.
Powerful acknowledgment is about acknowledging the specific contribution they made and tying that back to the impact it has on the community. For instance, instead of saying “Thank you! You’re so amazing!”, illuminate that statement with a more concrete acknowledgment like:
“Thank you for contributing to our latest community resource! You’ve added so much polish to the piece that the ideas in it can now shine. That means our members will be able to put it into practice and move their organization forward.”
Here’s the formula that you can use in your own acknowledgments:
Powerful Acknowledgement Statement = Stated Action + Its Impact
You can deliver this acknowledgment in a variety of ways, such as the following.
If you’re in person, acknowledging someone verbally is an obvious, ever-powerful, method for acknowledging contribution. Acknowledging people on a stage at a conference, in a private conversation, or over coffee can all be effective.
The same principle applies here. Handwritten cards (I’ve gotten hand cramps from writing so many of these at once, but never regretted the effort I made!), private messages or emails, public statements can all work.
Public statements are especially valuable for acknowledging invisible contributions because they send a strong signal to the rest of the community that quiet work is still valued by your team.
Consider what tokens of acknowledgment you can give. Pins, keychains, plaques, stickers, patches, and other community-specific tokens can all communicate to both new and senior members that their contributions matter.
Outsiders can also see these tokens, denoting community membership to new people so that word spreads about your group. Just don’t ever give these as incentives for participating in a community. They should come as symbols of contribution, impact, or other actions taken from intrinsic motivation.
It’s a simple way of making sure that your long-term members still feel appreciated.
Badges or Other Signifiers
Badges can be a great way of acknowledging someone’s contribution to an online community, in that they acknowledge without placing a quantitative value on the contribution (which is always a slippery slope). With Vanilla’s ability to create customized badges, these can be a powerful way to create digital tokens and signifiers of membership that others in the community can see.
Recognizing and appreciating the value of long-term community members
We all want to feel wanted in communities, regardless of whether they’re online or off. You wouldn’t keep going back to a party if you felt like no one wanted you there. The same applies to online communities.
There’s real value to keeping your long-term members around. They can contribute in ways that newer members may not be able to. They can even make your job a lot easier! So make sure that they feel appreciated for the contributions that they make to your community. Ensure that there is mutual respect, give them a feeling of belonging, and they’ll keep your community going strong.
Whatever strategy and tactics you choose to use to acknowledge your long-term members, be sure that this is a piece of your community plan that doesn’t get lost in the day-to-day shuffle of managing a community.
Otherwise, one day, there may be no valuable community members left to acknowledge.