7 Ways to Build Engagement in a New Community
Updated: Sep 29, 2020
Easy-to-implement strategies to help you create a community that’s active—and indispensable to your members.
Anyone who launches a community does so with visions of a space that’s active: buzzing with great conversations, frequented by regulars, and indispensable to its members. You’d never launch a community hoping that nobody interacts there. And yet, this is a common outcome—especially for community managers and entrepreneurs who take an “if you build it, they will come” approach.
Sparking early engagement is one of the most difficult tasks that community managers of newly-launched communities face. But, like most difficult tasks, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. While every community is different, I’ve compiled a list of seven strategies I’ve relied on to spark engagement, particularly when I launched a new community. You can use these strategies to plan your community launch, or to revitalize a community that’s floundering.
One quick note before we dive in: always keep in mind that as a community manager, you should always avoid putting too much stock in engagement for engagement’s sake. Keep your larger goals in mind—the real-life impact you hope “engagement” will have on your members or business—as you put these strategies to work.
1. Start conversations your members can count on.
For the entire time I’ve been a community manager, I’ve been aware of other CMs who use themed posts to spark engagement. We’ve all seen them—recurring weekly posts, often alliterative: Win Wednesday, Fun Friday. But, for some reason, I was for the longest time really resistant to using them in my own community. They seemed kind of cheesy, and I was worried my members would find them pedantic. Even after I had community members explicitly asking for themed posts, I still shied away from implementing them.
I was finally convinced to use this strategy by Jay Clouse, who I know through the Circle community. We were sharing engagement strategies, and Jay advocated for themed posts—except he called them “recurring, anticipated prompts.” There was something so sensible about this framing that made it finally click into place for me—the utility of recurring, themed prompts is that your members can count on them and will have at least one reason to visit your community on a habituated basis. (By the way, Jay’s done some great and extensive writing on community building that you should check out here).
“The utility of recurring, themed prompts is that your members can count on them and will have at least one reason to visit your community on a habituated basis.”
When I finally put this to use in my community, I immediately wished I had done so sooner. Once established, recurring prompts are a great way to remind members to visit your community and decrease the friction for them to participate. With these prompts, members have to put in less effort to understand what they’re supposed to do. Plus, prior experience will give them assurance that they can count on others participating, and won’t be left hanging.
2. Use a “flywheel” to prompt members to start conversations.
In new communities, there’s a perception that all content should be 100% organic from the very start. And, you do want organic, member-generated content to be the majority in your community—but, community managers shouldn’t be afraid to play an active role in seeding conversations that model the type of organic content they’d like to see. To do this, I often follow an approach I first heard about from Bridget Sauer, a Community Manager at Atlassian, during a talk at CMX’s annual summit in 2019. Bridget called this the “flywheel” strategy. You start by asking a question in your community. I’ve learned from experience that it’s best when you start with open-ended questions that prompt stories, anecdotes, and strategies. From the responses, choose a few of the best and reach out to the authors directly asking them to create a new post going into more detail on what they shared. In my outreach, I actually outline the specifics of what I’d like to hear more about. Crucially, ask them to end their post with a question that would prompt further conversation from the community. This is what makes it a “flywheel”: because it takes your original question and continues to spin it out further and further into more high-quality posts.
This has been such a powerful strategy for me because it has allowed me to simultaneously curate the types of posts I’d like to see flooding my community and to reward members who share high-quality content. Any time I put in the effort to use this strategy, I see several more, unprompted high-quality posts go up shortly after—because the posts I’ve encouraged have modeled how to effectively use the community.
I shared a template for the flywheel outreach email that’s been effective for me in a recent launch guide I put together for a recent blog post—if you’d like to grab that guide and the template, you can do so here:
3. Love your lurkers (and give them ways to participate).
I often see new community managers expressing concern about community “lurkers”: people who visit the community, but never interact there. This is misguided. Lurkers are a natural part of any community—you’ll always have a distribution among your members of those who post a lot and those who just visit, and that’s okay. What’s important is that members continue to visit because they get something out of your community.
But, lurkers can teach you a valuable lesson: not everyone will interact in your community in the same way. If you can think of community engagement like rungs on a ladder, where the bottom rung is just visiting, then “liking” posts, then commenting, then creating posts, this is a great way to think about making sure you have ways of engaging for every part of the ladder.
“Think of community engagement like rungs on a ladder, where the bottom rung is visiting, and the top is creating posts. Make sure your community provides ways of engaging for every part of the ladder.”
Think about creating opportunities to engage that address “half steps” on the ladder—for example, if someone’s at the point where they’re liking posts, but not commenting, maybe they might participate in a poll. If someone’s at the point of creating posts, maybe you can create an opportunity for them to give a presentation to the community, and so on. Just make sure you have ways of engaging that are well-distributed across the “engagement ladder,” as this will help you capture a wider range of members and help your members level up their engagement.
4. Switch up your call to action.
This one’s really simple. Community managers often create engagement posts where the call to action is for the community member to comment on the CM’s post. But, a community won’t feel super engaged if most of the activity is on admin-generated posts. Try switching up your call to action from “comment on this post” to “create your own post about x.” This can be a great strategy to mix and match with the recurring prompts I talked about in #1. Encourage members to comment on one another's' posts, and tag them in to do so.
5. Create exclusive opportunities in your community.
Ultimately, even if you use all of these strategies, you will have a hard time maintaining an engaged community if your members don’t feel they have a reason to visit. One of the best ways to create that reason to visit is to include beyond-a-forum elements in your community program. That is to say, make your community a hub for exclusive content that is only accessible through that space.
If your business runs webinars, consider making them a feature of your community program. If you release special guides, do so through your community. Whatever special content you create regularly, make opening the community a requisite step to access that content. (Note—content whose main purpose is SEO value for your business is an exception most of the time). While members are there to get access to the webinar, PDF, Q&A, or whatever else you may be offering, they will very likely also take other actions in the community.
6. Give conversations room to breathe.
As a community manager, you’re probably eager to not leave your members hanging. You’re probably also passionate about the subject matter of your community. Because of those things, it can be tempting to jump right into every conversation that starts—especially because so many community managers come from customer service backgrounds where short response times are prized. Counterintuitively, answering conversations as an admin too quickly can have an adverse effect on the health of your community. Admins commenting can often feel like a conversation ender—like the voice of authority has come in to give the last word. Let conversations sit for a while so that other members can chime in. As an admin, use your voice to ask follow-up questions and encourage community members who provide great answers—not always to provide the answers.
7. Remind them.
Especially if you’re not running your community on a big social platform like Facebook or even Slack, sometimes all you need to do to spark engagement is give your community members a little nudge to open up your community. They may like your community and want to visit, but they’re busy, and they just forgot. A community newsletter is a great option.
Every week, send an email to your community members to remind them to open up the community. A weekly digest that highlights the best conversations happening in the community, and any special events or content that can be accessed there, is a simple way to do this. (Some community platforms will even do this for you—the platform I use, Circle, has a weekly digest option for notifications).
Thanks for reading! I hope you found these strategies useful. If you put them to use or have other strategies, leave a comment here to share your experience. If you're looking for a hand building or engaging a community, you can check out ways we can work together here.
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