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3 Tips for Building a Successful Online Community from the Offline World

3 Tips for Building a Successful Online Community from the Offline World image building online community tips offline worldThey are an executive’s worst social business nightmares.

You launch an online community for customers, partners, or employees, then two things happen.

  1. Nobody contributes to the community.
  2. New members join the community, are not engaged, and then never return.

These two scenarios create a spiral of fear that prevents many organizations from launching their social business strategy, even though all indications point to customer communities playing a central role in the future of customer relationship management.

On recent episode of Socious’ social business web show, ProCommunity, we discussed straightforward ways that organizations can squash these fears and set up processes to overcome these challenges using customer engagement techniques employed in the offline world.

Paul Resnick, Professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information and co-author of the new book, Building Successful Online Communities: Evidence-Based Social Design, offered tangible tips for engaging new members in your community and encouraging contribution.

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The following three tips stood out as especially useful for social business professionals and online community managers:

Tip #1) Bring Newcomers into the Community in Groups

Think about college orientation programs. Colleges and universities don’t let students trickle in and get oriented individually. They bring in groups of students together to go from ‘I know nothing about college” to “I see myself making it here.”

By bringing people into your online community in “cohorts,” your organization increases new member engagement by starting with smaller mini-communities where customers or members can build connections on a more comfortable scale.

Companies maximize the effectiveness of their online community training program by training new members in groups rather than individually. They also augment the support system for newcomers because new members can lean on each other.

Not all online communities can wait to gather a group of 10 or 20 before orienting them to the community. Whether your online community can bring new members on in groups depends on the community’s missions, structure, and membership makeup. If the process is clear and organized, both internal employee social networks and external customer communities can use this approach to improve their new member engagement and onboarding processes.

Tip #2) Have People Do Something Active or Challenging

Think about the military. They have used this technique for generations to build community among new members and commitment to the organization with their boot camp programs.

Online communities have an even better opportunity to use initial activity to drive engagement. Not only would new members feel more comfortable contributing and using the platform, but their contribution would benefit the rest of the community.

New members could be required (or encouraged) to find a question to answer or a discussion topic to respond to. Community managers play an important role helping connect new members with a forum, blog post, video, or document where they can engage based on their expertise.

It’s a dual win for the community. The action allows new members to see the path to becoming a fully engaged member of the community and the community benefits from the content that the new member has added.

Tip #3) Ask People to Contribute Using the “Uniqueness Principle”

In Building Successful Online Communities: Evidence-Based Social Design, the “uniqueness principle” refers to asking people to do something by conveying that the specific individual is the only one who can do it. There are two parts to making this work:

  1. Number of Recipients- The more people who are the recipient of “the ask,” the less likely people are to respond. Think about your job. If someone sends an email to a dozen people asking for assistance solving a specific problem, how motivated will you be to respond? Now, imagine that that email came only to you, how would your chances of responding change?In your online community, you’ll get more contribution from members if you target specific members to address specific tasks, rather than blasting out group emails asking for someone to respond.
  2. The Content of the Ask – Highlight why the community member you are reaching out to is being asked to make a specific contribution. Tie the contribution to their professional expertise, experience, or areas of interest.

It takes more time from the community management team to make one-to-one asks, but the ultimate results will be much higher contributions in the community. The right online community software platform also makes it easier to find new or veteran members to fit a specific contribution.

Online Community Takeaway

Look around you. Communities are everywhere. Many of the successful offline engagement models that you participate in everyday have real implications in your online community.

Many of the fears that your management team has about using online communities to engage customers, partners, or employees are rooted in a lack of information. Anyone would see their social business investment as risky if it was based on hoping they people would be engaged.

Take a deep breath and know that there are proven steps that your organization can take to engage your target audience and grow your online community over time.

Focus on testing, measuring, and adjusting those processes and the fear will disappear.

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