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See the big picture from the beginning: how to create a better community onboarding program
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Aug 14th, 2023

See the big picture from the beginning: how to create a better community onboarding program

🫶 This is a coauthored blog post from Rebecca Marshburn, Head of Community at Common Room, and Krystal Wu, Senior Manager of Community & Content at ZoomInfo.

Community onboarding is more than a single event or series of communications—it’s a chance to reset, reaffirm, and re-energize your community with each new member.

Over the years, we’ve learned (sometimes the hard way) that how you onboard members sets the stage for the end-to-end community experience.

It impacts how members participate, how they interact with each other, and ultimately, whether your community is a place they’ll choose to spend their time.

Keep reading to learn:

  • Why onboarding is key to creating a healthy community
  • How to take community onboarding from “meh” to “heck yeah”
  • Which onboarding pitfalls you should keep an eye out for

Better onboarding builds better communities

Everyone loves a warm welcome, and as the host of your community, it’s your job to make new members feel appreciated, informed, and connected.

But onboarding is about more than hugs and high fives.

It sets expectations, helps new members get comfortable, and models the behaviors you want to see in your community—all of which play an essential role in building and growing it.

💡 Communities come in many forms, from channel-specific communities to channel-agnostic ones and everything in between. For the purposes of this post, we’ll be focusing on owned communities centered around a specific channel, such as Slack or Discord.

Setting expectations

Every community has its own norms (and quirks!). Onboarding lets you lay out what’s expected of members and what they can expect from the community in return.

Besides driving home the purpose, values, and rules of your community (a code of conduct comes in very handy for that last one), onboarding allows you to walk new members through the best ways to connect with their peers.

When done right, community members know who to go to with questions (whether it’s you or other members who act as community liaisons), where to find information, and how to get involved.

Onboarding pro tip: Think of community onboarding like an RSVP to an event. How would you know where to go or how to get ready without one? Make sure community members have all the information they need to join the party.

Getting comfortable

Ever walked into a party where you don’t know anyone and stood awkwardly in the corner?

Onboarding allows you to familiarize members with your community. Members who feel comfortable are more likely to contribute—faster, more frequently, and with more vulnerability. They’re also more likely to respond to other members and share feedback (including difficult feedback) that will help you build a better community, product, or both.

It’s an opportunity to build trust with members and cultivate a feeling of ownership in them. It’s also the first step to finding champions who may go on to take a greater role in your community by doing things like organizing meetups, sharing helpful content, or mentoring other members.

Modeling behaviors

How you treat new members during the onboarding process says a lot about how they should treat others in the community.

This goes beyond your code of conduct, which establishes ground rules for participation. Onboarding offers a chance to set the tone for all community-based interactions.

If you want your community members to be friendly, inquisitive, and responsive, this is the perfect time to inspire them. Setting the example from the start makes it much easier for people to follow your lead.

Onboarding pro tip: Approach onboarding with community growth in mind. A well-executed onboarding process increases the likelihood of long-term retention and encourages members to advocate on your behalf. This creates a ripple effect that attracts new members and fuels community expansion.

Check out the video below to see how Common Room helps you welcome new community members automatically:

Saying hi is only step one

Community onboarding isn’t a one-and-done task to check off a to-do list. It’s a process that spans time.

We realize that sounds a little metaphysical. Let us explain.

Sometimes people confuse “onboarding” with “welcome message,” but greeting new community members is only one step of many.

Here’s what a more comprehensive onboarding process might look like:

Welcome

This is the first interaction. It’s your chance to say hello to new members, share must-have information and resources, and empower them to get involved. This message can be automated to be sent out immediately after a member joins your community.

Onboarding pro tip: Don’t be afraid to think outside the box when welcoming new community members. One option is holding live orientation webinars or virtual events on a regular basis where new members can introduce themselves, ask questions, and connect with existing community members.

Survey

After a day or two, once your new community members have had time to poke around and ask questions, you can reach out and take the conversation a level deeper. This is the ideal time to ask members about why they joined the community and what they’re hoping to get out of it (automated surveys make this a breeze). That way you can better personalize the remainder of the onboarding experience and make sure you’re delivering value to them.

Check out the video below to see how Common Room helps you survey new community members at scale:

Educate and enable

Now that you know your community member a bit better, you can reach out to them with helpful content that’s tailored to their interests. We usually recommend doing this 1-2 weeks after a member has joined. The goal here is knowledge-sharing—this is your opportunity to help members learn something new about your community, product, or industry, as well as give them an idea of the types of content people share in the community.

Check in

We’re big fans of sending check-in messages around 3-4 weeks after a member joins. These don’t have to have a specific objective—they’re more of a no-pressure reminder that your door is always open in case members have any questions or feedback. It’s a great way to let members know you’re invested in them and available to chat.

Onboarding pro tip: Consider different ways to encourage community contributions. For instance, incorporating gamification into elements of the onboarding process—such as providing perks or shout-outs to people who post their first comment or add to a discussion—is a fun and interactive way to motivate people to engage from the start.

Re-engage

This one is optional and dependent on whether a new community member has gone quiet. If someone joins your community and quickly goes inactive for a month or more, it’s worth reaching out to see if there’s a reason why and, if appropriate, encourage them to come back. This is another instance where automated surveys can be very helpful, even if just to learn how you can improve the community experience for others.

Check out the video below to see how Common Room helps you automate community member re-engagement:

We all want to grow our communities, but it’s important to remember that a small and lively community is more valuable (for both members and your organization) than a large and quiet one.

That’s why we recommend paying special attention to metrics related to engagement and responsiveness. When you have a bird’s eye view of how people are engaging and helping each other, you can more easily spot opportunities to improve and make this a part of your onboarding process.

Stumbling blocks to sidestep

Community onboarding has a lot of moving parts and community professionals only have so much time in the day. That makes it easy to overlook certain issues or let things fall through the cracks.

Here are some of the most common onboarding errors we’ve seen (and maybe been guilty of ourselves from time to time):

Getting the timing wrong

There’s a thin line between engaging new community members and overwhelming them. You probably have a lot of information you’re excited to share, but it pays to space out your onboarding process so your outreach isn’t coming too fast and furious (you can use our timing sequence above as inspiration).

Onboarding pro tip: Try to balance equipping new members with essential information and allowing them to explore and discover the community at their own pace. Breaking down onboarding materials into digestible portions or offering optional resources for those who wish to delve deeper can help create a more pleasant and manageable onboarding experience.

Failing to prepare

How you want the onboarding experience to go and how it actually goes are two different things—and sometimes they don’t line up. It's inevitable that new members will have questions or face challenges, and community teams often have limited headcount. Make sure you have the tools you need to get visibility into questions, complaints, or other issues—and a plan for how to respond.

Onboarding pro tip: Create support options—such as dedicated community moderators, workspace channels, help centers, or chat forums—and promote them to new and existing community members. This will help make sure members know how to seek assistance and receive timely responses. By promptly addressing inquiries and providing guidance, you build trust and improve the overall onboarding experience.

Putting your needs first

Communities are mutually beneficial—they help you create value for your members and capture value for your organization. But it’s important to put your members’ needs first. If you ask for something, offer something in return. This “something” could be a useful piece of content or an introduction to a community member who works in the same industry and is navigating similar challenges.

Onboarding pro tip: Create a feedback loop. Find out how new community members feel about the onboarding experience and use their feedback to refine the process. Surveys and dedicated feedback threads help you gain insights into members’ perspectives and identify areas for improvement. Just make sure you follow up on it—actively incorporating feedback demonstrates your commitment to members and helps you enhance the onboarding experience over time.

Thinking one size fits all

It can be tempting to set and forget certain parts of the onboarding process, but it’s important to remember that every community member is different. They join for different reasons, they’re interested in different topics, and they’re looking for answers to different questions. While creating an ultra-customized onboarding experience for every new member might not be feasible, you can save time via automations and use it to personalize certain parts of the onboarding process (a multi-question survey goes a long way toward shedding light on how members arrived in your community and what they’re looking for).

Onboarding pro tip: Gather information early on that will allow you to personalize the onboarding experience as much as possible. You want to align the goals of your members with what your community has to offer. By understanding their specific needs, you can better address their problems and provide solutions within the community.

Asking too much too soon

As new members join and settle into your community, be mindful of what you’re asking of them. While some community members are eager to hit the ground running and get involved, every interaction should be a value exchange. Coming on too strong too early can scare members off before they get a chance to contribute in their own way.

Onboarding pro tip: Consider how often you make requests of community members and when. Have you already asked a new community member to participate in some form or fashion multiple times? Maybe check in with them before making another ask. Is it a Friday afternoon? Maybe wait until Monday before reaching out.

We don’t want to make community onboarding feel more complicated than it needs to be. But as people who’ve onboarded many community members over the years (and struggled with it at times), we think it’s worth pointing out why onboarding is so important to long-term community health and sharing the strategies that worked for us.

Saying hello to a new community member and pointing them in the direction of some educational resources is easy. Making sure your members have the knowledge, encouragement, and guidance they need to help your community thrive? That’s a taller order.

Whether you’re starting from scratch or revamping an existing onboarding program, we hope this is helpful to you.

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