A sense of belonging is the key to create an online community. In 1986, social psychologists McMillan & Chavis confirmed this to be true, when they described the heart of a successful community as, “a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together.”
Think about it. When was the last time you were involved in a community? What kept you coming back for more and wanting to maintain your involvement? It was probably the level of comfort you felt being yourself in the community, the support you received from the community, and the sense of belonging it gave you.
A sense of belonging is a human need, but it’s not necessarily something members can easily communicate. For many, joining a new community is scary. Their initial lack of participation isn’t a result of their desire to participate, it’s usually a result of fear.
At Mobilize, we’ve heard from many leaders that one of the biggest challenges about running an online community is that it’s hard to engage lurkers, those who browse the community but don’t actively participate. Here, we’ve put together a few ways you can engage members from the start.
From the beginning, it’s important to cultivate a friendly and warm atmosphere within your online community. This means making it open and welcoming to everyone. Your community should be a place where people feel safe to share their thoughts and opinions. This starts with the tone in which you use to communicate to your audience. Be excited, warm and kind. Use Emojis and GIFs to break the ice and add a little humor to your community. Always welcome new members publicly, let them know you’re happy they’ve joined your community, and ask them to share a little information about themselves.
Your community should maintain a healthy balance between content the moderators post and content members post. If you’re the only one talking in your community and initiating conversations, there’s a problem. In order to create a healthy balance of content, create a list of discussion ideas for your community. You can have one list for what’s appropriate and what doesn’t really resonate within your community. Some members may be afraid to spark a discussion, ease their fears by letting them know what other members are interested in discussing.
A wise person once said leaders don’t run a community, a community runs itself. We’ve seen this to be true at Mobilize. One way to facilitate internal leadership is by establishing a system in which active members are promoted to moderator and admin roles. This is beneficial for a number of reasons. First, it helps delegate admin tasks. Second, it creates a reward system and makes the community more democratic and about the people.
Communicating online is great and all, but there’s something to be said about meeting in person. We’ve seen communities grow closer by hosting regular in person events. It’s important to establish a real, in person connection. We suggest hosting regular meetups in the cities your members are located in. Using the Mobilize events page, your invite can automatically sync to members’ calendars.
Another way to keep members engaged with your community from the beginning is by establishing a partner program. Like we mentioned, fear is one of the top reasons why members take so long to engage in an online community. A partner program, where new members receive a mentor right when they join, is a great way to gently ease them into the community.
How can a mentor help a new member? Mentors can make themselves available personally to the new member to answer any questions they may feel afraid to ask in a public setting, keep them updated on events, and tag them in relevant discussions.
Finally, if you’re managing a large community, full of thousands of people online, it can be very intimidating to new members. One way to ease this pain is by creating subgroups. Subgroups can be centered around similar interests, demographics or location. Using Mobilize’s community map, admins can easily organize and create subgroups.