While there are many ways to retain and grow a community, getting started often feels overwhelming.
Is building a community a race to see who can give away the most gift cards or a new Tesla? No! Can you get away with never talking to your community? No! Do you need community guidelines? Yes!
Here are the 10 best practices you can use today to make a difference as a community manager.
1. Listen to understand
The most powerful question a community manager can ask a new or existing member is, “How can I help you?”
These five words carry value. Show your community members that you’re there to listen, understand, and support them above all else.
Many community managers take a promotional stance. They arm the t-shirt cannons (“you get a t-shirt, you get a t-shirt, and you get a t-shirt”) to try and encourage community participation. However, those that pay attention and listen to their community members fare better.
Here’s why: Community members tend to have a lot of feedback, questions, or needs but don’t know who to approach. As a community manager, you’re the line of communication between them and the company.
Taking time to understand their needs and motivations is the first — and most critical — step in building an engaged community.
2. Offer proactive support
You need to be hyper-focused on helping your community. Great features, a terrific design, and an awesome promotion plan won’t ensure community success if you aren’t answering member questions or finding people who can.
Members can often help one another in more mature communities, but in the early stages, community managers must do some heavy lifting.
Deliver support based on what your community members want. Study how they use your community, identify their favorite features, and listen to what they ask for. How you take action will either help or hinder your ability to move your community forward.
3. Connect your community members
Your job as a community manager is to build the pathways that fuel community growth. You can encourage connections through different member activities. For example, if you run monthly virtual meetings, allow time at the end for members to share life and work updates. Or create subgroups for members with specific interest areas to connect.
4. Reward without contests
You can reward and motivate community members in different ways. For some, a thank-you note is all they need. For others, virtual recognition like points and gamification works too.
Aim for the right blend of virtual and physical rewards to help nurture your community. Rewards should be a natural part of your community members’ journey. Don’t rely on contests aimed to prop up quarterly numbers or to try to increase community activity. In action, gamification (start small) can help scale your community’s nurture stream, rewarding members as they become more and more active.
When and how you reward a community member within their customer journey should be purposeful. In some cases, the most powerful gift to give them is a personalized thank you (e.g., handwritten note, email, or video from key staff).
5. Implement community guidelines
Before you launch your online community, establish community guidelines (i.e., a code of conduct) that offer governance and set the tone. Community guidelines also help ensure your community is a safe place for members to interact without feeling unsure, threatened, or unwilling to engage.
Communities without guidelines can turn into wild west landscapes very quickly. Without any governance, your community can turn toxic and it will be tough to turn it around again.
6. Prepare your community for healthy growth
Developers know about scale. When they build a product that must work for millions of people, they factor growth into their work.
In the early stages of your community, you can thank or support 10-50 members with ease. But you have to ask yourself, how do I do this when the community grows to 10,000 members? What happens when the community grows to 1 million users? Build a community that’s prepared to scale so it can support membership growth.
Scalability is often an overlooked aspect in online communities — especially in earlier stages.
If the member experience suffers as your online community starts to grow, you likely have scaling issues. For example, answering questions from five members is not so hard, but it can become a nightmare as your community grows. Addressing questions goes from a manual effort to an almost impossible task to manage.
The best way to scale is to audit your activities and management efforts. What tasks can you complete manually? Which ones should you re-work? Encouraging members to answer each other’s questions is one way to scale. Offering a searchable database of answered questions is another.
This article about AirBnb growth has some valuable lessons for community managers.
7. Promote content that resonates
Can your members relate to the content and blog posts in your online community?
Community content works best when your members see their experiences reflected. It means you care. It means your members are part of the community’s story. The more your content relates to your community members, the more your community thrives.
8. Encourage offline community building
Just because your community is online doesn’t mean that it can’t have offline and real-life aspects. Marrying real life and your community strengthens the bonds between members and with your community as a whole.
A natural path to offline community building is to run meetups at industry trade shows or encourage regional members to lead their own. Offline meetups don’t have to be elaborate.
9. Welcome member feedback
Many online communities, especially for developers, offer ideation features. Allowing your community to submit, vote, and rank each other’s ideas is a powerful tool, but it fails if top-ranked ideas or feedback go nowhere.
If you ask your community for feedback, be ready to take action and give updates on progress. Being open to feedback means that you can not only collect it but also carefully review it and — when possible — make it a reality.
The more members see you’re open to feedback, the more they’ll send ideas that can enhance your community.
10. Build regular communication into your routine
When a member lands in your community but can’t find anyone to communicate with, it’s a frustrating experience.
Ask yourself, am I proactive in updating members about my community?
In one use case, an online community was about to remove several product forums without alerting its members. They didn’t see value in the product forums although it was the only place where members could helpful technical content. Members would also lose the thousands of contribution points they spent years accruing.
This is an example of when communication is critical. Without proactive communication, members are more inclined to disengage and harder to win back.
Sharing community-specific news and other highlights in multiple locations frustrates members too. Don’t expect them to know where every type of content lives. House it in one community-facing blog and offer an optional email newsletter for more accessibility.
Long Story Short: Be Helpful
Whether you’re ready to incorporate any of these ideas or they inspire you, I hope they help you on your community journey.
A thriving community requires the right approach and doesn’t grow overnight. As Community Managers, we approach every new day by asking ourselves, “How many members can we help today?”