As the saying goes, you only get one chance to make a great first impression, and perhaps that’s even more true in online communities. Effective onboarding sets the tone for the relationship between new and existing members of the community, and it’s arguably one of the most important aspects of community strategy. However, it can also be nebulous, with no set formula to follow or automation to implement to educate new members on the shared space.
To gain insight into effective onboarding strategies, I spoke with community leads in various communities, including creator, founder, product, and knowledge communities. Through these conversations, I've identified five key guidelines to assist you in creating a positive onboarding experience for your community. While there is no single codified approach, following these guiding principles can ensure a successful onboarding experience – and help make the most of that first impression.
1. Hospitality - making others feel welcomed
At the end of the day, onboarding is just jargon for hospitality. Although information-giving is critical, the best onboarding experiences create a feeling and generate a sense of belonging at the outset of a member’s journey.
Bearing that in mind, the first step to effective onboarding is to make your new members feel welcomed. I like to think of online community and relate it back to how I treat people in the real world. Imagine welcoming a guest at a cocktail party. You’d greet them at the door, offer to take their coat or give them a drink, point them in the direction of the bar, and help them enter a conversation with another guest. Onboarding in online communities is really no different. To make new members feel welcomed, keep that big picture in mind and follow a three-step process: welcome, orient, and connect.
Your number one job is to transform once-outsiders into insiders. Done well, this will ensure that new members feel like they belong and know their next right step to have a great experience and make progress. Yes, you want to communicate logistics and information, but don’t overlook educating them on the culture and the vibe. Get them up-to-speed on the shared language and make sure they understand key terms or phrases that are often used in your community. Sharing context and nuance will help them feel more comfortable and create a greater sense of belonging.
2. Onboarding is an everyday activity
Onboarding is a continuous process that involves making new members feel welcome and prompting them to take consistent actions that lead to member value. As you build your onboarding flow, remember the goals of your community and create onboarding steps that correspond with important milestones in the member journey. This will provide regular encouragement to your members to take the actions that you deem essential to their success. Set up automations to check in with members at determined intervals and survey them after they've been members for a set period of time. Make sure that you are onboarding along the way to encourage and prompt actions that will lead to member value.
Our online community members crave a sense of welcome every time they visit. It's important to remind them often that we appreciate them. When introducing new rituals or events, take the time to explain their purpose and value. Even long-time members may not be fully up-to-date on all the community has to offer. By repeating key information and creating a welcoming atmosphere, we can help them feel more connected and engaged. Rather than overwhelming them with information, invite new members to participate and get involved in a specific event or channel. Focus on creating a sense of belonging and guiding them to their next best action. This helps them feel like they are in the right place and makes it easier for them to fully connect with the community.
As Max Pete, community lead for the knowledge community SuperHi, points out, "Onboarding is an ever-changing process; it's not a one-and-done type of thing. You don't do onboarding and forget about it. If you’re doing it well, it’s something you’re constantly revisiting."
Finally, it's essential to re-onboard your existing members as new members join your community and at regular intervals. By re-onboarding your existing members, you're reminding them of the community's purpose and re-engaging them with the community's values. Existing members can be celebrated for their role as experts and advocates.
3. Listen and learn
Effective onboarding isn't just about sharing information, it's about creating a dialogue with new members. Listening to their needs and preferences is crucial to meeting them where they are and providing them with what they want. By making onboarding a two-way conversation, you can encourage new members to connect with others in the community and take action. Plus, by gathering feedback and iterating on your process, you can make it as frictionless as possible for future members. Don't just talk to your new members, listen to them and create a streamlined onboarding experience that sets them up for success.
Caitlin Chou, community lead for Picsart’s creator community, emphasizes this key principle: "If you're listening correctly, your onboarding process should probably change a couple of times before you public launch – if not several times – because you're going to learn a lot," she says. Chou also suggests incorporating automation and AI to gather insights and augment community management effectiveness. “Applying automation wherever possible to surface these insights helps us see what we cannot feasibly, manually gather.”
Effective onboarding is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Everyone has their own unique way of learning and processing information, and it's essential to take these differences into account. By offering a variety of options, you can cater to different personality types and learning styles. Some people prefer to skim through information quickly, while others want to delve into the details. The best onboarding experiences provide a range of formats, such as a quick checklist, a video tutorial, or a PDF guide. To ensure that key information is retained, it's important to communicate through various channels, whether it's through live events, email, or reminders within the community platform. In today's world of constant distraction, repetition is crucial to reinforce key points and make sure members remain informed.
Vic Lee, Community and Operations Manager at mxv Capital, underscored the importance of knowing your audience. “In order to create meaningful connections, we’ve been adapting our onboarding process. For example, we also added some in-person events after feedback last year that members wanted to hear more directly from the founder himself; he's really the main contact and he’s really the person who holds everyone together.”
4. Do the unscalable thing
While automation and AI may seem like efficient solutions for onboarding, they can't replace the power of human interaction. Use them to your advantage to free up time for unscalable, one-off activities. As Caitlin Chou wisely reminds, “a one-to-one conversation is going to bring up stuff you would never see in a customized downloaded report.” The magic sauce is in a healthy combination. Personalization and a human touch can create a lasting impression on new members, leading to increased engagement and loyalty. While it may seem counterintuitive, incorporating unscalable, one-off activities can actually save time in the long run by creating a strong foundation for the community.
Luca Buchholz, Global Community Lead at Camunda, shares,: “Sometimes you have to go the extra mile and do a lot of things that don't scale to then be able to scale the community later on. When you put in the effort and you show up for people, they are in turn open to doing the same. You act as a role model for other community members. Other people in the community take this as an example and then do the same. And you really create a culture and set the tone.”
I encourage you to find ways to prioritize the human element in your onboarding process, even if that means recruiting others to assist in the process. You'll reap the rewards in the long run.
5. Have a clear path to value
The goal of onboarding is not just to provide information but to create value for new members quickly. As a community, you want to speed up their path to progress and help members get a quick win. This means providing them with the necessary tools, resources, and connections to make their experience valuable from the start. By doing so, you are setting your newest members up for success and increasing their chances of becoming long-term, engaged members. Remember, the ultimate goal of onboarding is to create a positive first impression and establish a strong foundation for future engagement. Think of yourself as a friendly guide pointing out a clear path to value for your new members, directing them to the most active or valuable channels in the community, and helping them achieve a quick win. Do that well, and you’ll win them over!
In conclusion, effective onboarding is critical to building a strong and engaged community. By taking a thoughtful, personalized approach, you can help new members feel welcome and quickly understand the value of your community. Remember to listen, incorporate unscalable activities, and guide new members towards the most valuable parts of your community. And don't forget to continuously iterate and improve your onboarding process based on feedback.
While onboarding is crucial, it's only one part of the community member experience. Perhaps in a future article, we'll explore the importance of offboarding and how to make sure that members leave your community feeling satisfied and with positive memories of their experience.
March 14, 2023
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