The Complete Guide to Online Community Onboarding on Owned Platforms
Get the process (and template!) I use with my clients to help them create onboarding sequences that build habits and skills on an unfamiliar platform
Community builders generally want to choose community platforms that effectively serve their functionality goals while also being low-friction for community members to access. Unfortunately, the landscape of tools available to community builders today means they often have to make difficult compromises. Often, the community builders I speak with feel they are making a choice between:
Big social platforms with limited community-specific functionality and other drawbacks, but built-in network effects and habituation leading to a low-friction adoption experience for members (i.e., Facebook groups, and to a lesser degree Slack)
Making this tradeoff can feel like a huge bummer because the elements on both sides of the equation—on the one hand, prioritizing functionality, on the other, prioritizing ease for members—are both so existentially important to the success of a project.
The good news is that it turns out this is a bit of a false dichotomy—it assumes that once you make your choice, you’ll be stuck with the conditions you set for yourself, and unable to surmount those challenges to create a well-rounded project with benefits on both sides. But, the reality is that community builders have the power to impact one side of this equation more than the other. While you can’t meaningfully change the functionality of any community platform—you’re stuck with the capabilities of what you choose—you can change your members’ experience with that platform.
As long as you use the right strategy, you can have the best of both worlds: you can choose to prioritize the functionality of the platform you want, and create a lower-friction experience where members can engage and become habituated, even if they’re not initially familiar with the platform. The key to getting there: a powerful onboarding sequence.
I have personally run projects, and worked with many clients, for whom an effective onboarding sequence was the key to overcoming the challenges of working with an owned platform—challenges that can doom many projects unless addressed. In this guide, I’m aiming to lay out the knowledge that has helped those projects succeed as comprehensively as possible, so that even if we don’t ever work together one-on-one, you can still implement these strategies. In this guide, I’ll cover:
How to think about the purpose of community onboarding, and what elements need to be present in order to find success
Understanding the different forms of community onboarding and how they overlap; and how to think about the channels you’ll use
A step-by-step process to identify and outline your ideal onboarding sequence
Plus, this guide includes a template you can use to outline your community onboarding experience. If you want to grab that now so that you can have it open while you read, you can do that here (and, as usual when you download any resource from my site, you get access to them all—so hitting the button below is getting you templates for community content, launch plans, and more, in addition to the onboarding template):
Understanding the true purpose of onboarding for online communities on owned platforms
Before we dive into how-to, we need to spend a little bit of time understanding the purpose of community onboarding. This is one of those areas where community platforms, even really good ones, can tend to lead you astray, because built-in “community onboarding” flows that have members set up profiles and click through platform tutorials can give the impression that onboarding is “done,” even if the real transformation that it’s supposed to deliver hasn’t been achieved.
In reality, when we onboard community members, we should be aiming to take them on a journey from net-new member to active member (and perhaps even to becoming a superuser). We’re aiming to take someone from square one to someone who:
Has all of the technical and logistical understanding needed to utilize your community (i.e., they have set up a profile, they know how to make a post, they know not only how to use the community platform, but how to navigate your specific architecture)
Understands how to contribute to the community in a way that not only abides by the community guidelines, but exemplifies its values and culture (i.e., when they do engage, they do so in a way that’s valuable to the community)
Has established an autonomous habit of usage in your community (i.e., will remember to log in and engage on a regular cadence without being specifically prompted to do so)
While using built-in onboarding flows in your community platform is a great first step, it’s important to make sure that your onboarding efforts are truly addressing the purposes laid out above. Accomplishing those often requires a multi-faceted approach, where you see onboarding less as a single channel or flow and more as a phase in your community members’ lifecycle that you can help them through using a variety of channels and strategies.
It’s also worth stating that while implementing an appropriate onboarding flow is an incredibly powerful strategy, they should be only one in your arsenal of campaigns that you use continuously throughout your community’s lifecycle to build super users, reactivate inactive members, and more. Onboarding may be the first, but should not be the last time a member encounters a well-sequenced engagement campaign in your community ecosystem.
Understanding common forms of community onboarding and their uses
Now that we’ve established that onboarding should not be a single channel or flow, but rather a well-rounded approach to taking members through an activation journey, let’s take a look at some of the common onboarding channels and their uses. Note you do not necessarily need to use every single one of these strategies, but should instead evaluate your overall goals and utilize whatever strategies will, in-tandem, adequately address those goals.
In-platform onboarding: setup flows and tutorials
Many community platforms have a built-in onboarding flow that community members will experience when they first set up an account in your community. Most platforms give you the opportunity to customize aspects of their native onboarding features. While every platform is different, these flows tend to do things like:
Ask members to complete forms that collect information relevant to their membership, such as their experience level or core challenges, that the community leader can store and reference later. Some of this information may be necessary for technical reasons, like sorting your members into the right spaces.
Ask members to complete profiles that will be visible to other members, including uploading pictures, filling in biographies, and filling in social links
Ask members to read and accept community guidelines
Point out key basic features of the platform, such as how the navigation works or how to create a post
If the community platform you’re using has a built-in onboarding flow, you should absolutely use it. However, generally these flows are capable of impacting only about half of the objectives we’re aiming to accomplish through onboarding. These flows are generally capable of impacting members' technological understanding of a new platform, and beginning to introduce them to the culture through exposure to community guidelines, however, they will do little to help your members establish patterns of usage in your community.
These flows also tend to have limited use because they only happen once and members can perceive them as an impediment to starting to use the community, and so can tend to quickly click through onboarding flows to dismiss them. Because of this, we generally shouldn’t assume that any information shared within these flows has been absorbed very well by community members, and should instead see them as first touch-points for a few key pieces of information. We should generally expect to need to repeat important information multiple times before assuming it's been well absorbed. Elsewhere in our onboarding sequence, we should consider:
Do community members in my particular audience need additional support to learn a new piece of technology? (for very tech-savvy personas, these flows are often enough; for less tech-savvy personas, you may wish to do more explicit instruction on using the community in one of your other channels)
Are there community guidelines I want to emphasize, re-state, or otherwise teach to members?
Do I want to otherwise prompt my members to complete their profile within the community? (research across a variety of platforms and use cases often seems to suggest that having a profile picture significantly impacts engagement)
TL;DR: see these built-in flows as a good starting point, but not the be all, end all.
In-platform onboarding: evergreen
Many community platforms give community builders opportunities to display static, evergreen information within their communities that members can continue to access whenever they like, throughout their lifecycle as a member. These opportunities range form pinned posts, to purpose-built spaces for announcements, to opportunities to host pages or other static content, to built-in features for displaying community guidelines.
Making full use of how your community platform lets you display static information is also an important opportunity to bolster your onboarding experience. A strategy that’s become popular in the community architectures of those building on Circle has been to create an evergreen “Getting Started” space within the community. Those can look something like this:
This screenshot is taken from inside Circle’s own customer community, and gives a great example of how onboarding can live on inside a community permanently. Notice they are addressing both technical and cultural concerns of onboarding by both giving suggestions on how to utilize the platform and on how to begin to engage.
Giving onboarding information in your community a permanent home can be a great “insurance policy” against folks who click quickly through onboarding to access the community, and can also be a helpful resource to continue to point back to as you engage with community members throughout their lifecycle.
"Pre-habituated" Onboarding Channel
You’ll notice that so far, the only objectives of onboarding we’ve addressed have been technical and cultural. What about building habits for community members?
One of the toughest aspects of using an owned community platform, rather than a big social platform, is that members come to the space with zero habits of usage. The onboarding mechanisms you use in-platform have little power to address this because members would have to already be inside the community to benefit from them. So, I find it’s important to layer in onboarding sequences that make repeated use of a channel where members are already habituated. The most common solutions here are email and push notifications, but you can use any channel where you're confident your members are already accustomed to looking to accomplish this aspect of onboarding.
Your goal with this channel of onboarding is to prompt your members through a series of activation milestones, paced in a way that mirrors the type of habit that you want them to build with your community. Since you’re delivering these prompts in a channel where your members are already habituated, you’re piggy-backing off that channel to drive members into your community and create a habit in a new place. In our how-to section and our template, we’ll focus mostly on creating a sequence for a pre-habituated channel—more on that in a bit.
Real-time onboarding: personal or group
While I don’t always recommend using real-time onboarding efforts in your community, many of my clients are drawn to this strategy, so it seemed worth mentioning here as an option. Some community builders wish to host 1:1 or group onboarding calls with new members or cohorts of members where they walk them through information on the community in real time. Some limitations of this strategy:
Just like the in-platform onboarding flows we talked about above, real-time onboarding calls are a one-time effort. They should not be used in isolation since they don’t have the ability to help members form habits.
These are a very high effort form of onboarding. You should consider whether the effort it takes to conduct these calls is justified by the additional output.
Because I’m so focussed on keeping my clients from spending undue time on strategies that don’t have significant outputs, I tend to discourage using this strategy. However, there are a couple of notable exceptions:
If you are engaged in user research, 1:1 onboarding calls can be an opportunity to feed two birds with one scone: to conduct your research and get to know your members better while giving them a valuable service. Just make sure that if you’re spending time 1:1 with a member, you’re empowering them to go back and serve the community in a way that impacts more than just one member—in other words, using high-touch efforts to enable community scale.
If you are running a cohort-based online course that will have regular meetings, group onboarding can be appropriate. I’ve written extensively about how cohort based courses and communities can exist synergistically.
How-to design an onboarding sequence for your online community: a step-by-step guide
Now, let’s get into the part of this blog post you probably came here for: the how to guide. If you haven’t done so yet, you should definitely take a moment now to download the template that goes along with this process so that you can work as you read. You can do that here (and, another plug that when you download any resource from my site, you get access to them all—so hitting the button below is getting you templates for community content, launch plans, and more, in addition to the onboarding template):
Step 1: Identify your channels
Your first step to creating an impactful onboarding sequence is to choose which channels you will include in your approach to activating members. Remember, you are aiming to choose a combination of channels that address all three of the onboarding goals we outlined above: building technical skills, building norms and culture, and building habits.
In most cases, you should:
Max out whatever opportunities you have for in-platform onboarding, based on what your community platform allows for
Include at least one channel in your onboarding approach that is already habituated for your members, such as email, text messages, or push notifications
As we continue with this template, we’ll focus mostly on that second channel for the sequence we’re designing, which should overlap with your in-platform efforts (or real-time onboarding if that's part of your strategy).
Step 2: Identify your desired habitual cadence
At this point, after you’ve identified your channels above, you may be feeling concerned about fatiguing your audience with too much information. While this is a real concern, generally your risk of fatiguing your members with your onboarding inside the actual community platform is low, since they will have needed to visit it with intent to begin with (one exception to that is creating intake forms that are too long, but we just don’t have the time to walk through that in this post).
However, you do run a real risk of fatiguing your audience on a habituated channel like email, and prompting them to unsubscribe. The good news is that this limiting factor can actually help you decide what kind of cadence you want your community members to habituate on your community, while taking member burnout into account.
When I work with clients on this step, and ask them, “how frequently do you want your members to access your community,” many of them are automatically prone to respond, “every day.” But, this step is all about challenging that and really considering what kind of habitual cadence is right for your community members. The following questions can help you dig deeper into this to figure out what kind of cadence or habit is actually beneficial:
Based on the subject matter of my community, how frequently do my members need to be engaging in order to get something out of the community (for example: a meal planning community might be something you want community members to visit once a month, an exercise community 3 times a week, an addiction recovery group every day)
Is there any downside or risk to engaging more frequently for community members (i.e., are your community members busy executives? Or, is engaging frequently a sign they’re stuck and not building skills autonomously? Or, will they get overwhelmed and quit if they engage too much?)
Based on the overall size of your community, how much engagement would you need from members in order to make the community feel lively? What cadences would support that? (i.e., if you have 100 members, and you think you need about 10 new posts per week to make your community feel fresh, what kind of engagement cadence would support that outcome?)
Once you’ve answered these questions, you should have a picture of how frequently you’d like your members to engage with your community. For most builders, this will range between once every other day to once every week.
Whatever cadence you decide is your ideal member habit, you will use that cadence to structure your onboarding sequence—in this way, you are scaffolding the habit you would like members to build.
Step 3: Identify activation milestones
Now that you’ve identified your ideal habit cadence, and therefore your onboarding sequence cadence, it’s time to identify the activation milestones that would take your member from new member to activated (or even superuser). In the next step, I’ll ask you to arrange these along your calendar based on your cadence, and I’ll ask you to keep each outreach to one single CTA (call-to-action), so keep that in mind as you brainstorm. Some examples of activation milestones are:
Completing your profile in a community platform
Reading community guidelines
Responding to something an admin has posted within the community
Responding to something another member has posted within the community
Introducing yourself in the community
Making your first unstructured post in the community (i.e., not prompted by the admin)
It’s likely that there are activation milestones that are unique to your community, too. For example, some communities may wish to have members join or lead specific programs within the community. The key is to place your milestones in order from easiest to hardest, so that you are escalating your community member’s skills and autonomy through the sequence. Most onboarding sequences should be about 6-12 milestones long.
Step 4: Put it all together!
Now, arrange the milestones you identified above across the cadence you identified in step two. You may wish to also draft the actual copy you will use in the outreach, depending on the channel (my template has a spot to do that in). Just keep one thing in mind: try to limit yourself to only one CTA (call-to-action) per outreach, so that you are really focussing on just that one milestone at a time.
Bonus: Slowly replace your onboarding sequence with community rituals and other campaigns
Once you’ve established an onboarding sequence, you’re also giving yourself the benefit of warming up your members to hearing from you outside the community sometimes. After the onboarding sequence ramps down, it’s appropriate to replace it with things like:
Reminders of upcoming community events
Community newsletters or content digests
Other community campaigns, like challenges or reactivation campaigns
Want to take any of this a step further?
I hope this post has been helpful for you and given you a strong start to creating a community onboarding sequence that will truly impact your community and your business. That said, I understand that this can be complicated stuff, and sometimes you need a hand to help put it all into practice. The reality is that no matter how comprehensive a guide I try to make, there will still be lingering questions that apply to specific projects. I work with clients every day as a strategic coach for online community projects, and community engagement is one of the most common topics my clients want to discuss. If you would like to work together 1:1, you can learn more about how I work and get in touch here.
It’s also my hope to make this the most comprehensive guide to community onboarding available—so if you noticed anything you think is missing, or have any questions, shoot me an email at email@example.com and I’d love to continue making updates and will likely add an FAQ section soon. Thanks again for reading!