Written by Shanice Stewart-Jones

With Circle announcing just a few days ago that it had raised $4 million in a seed round of funding, it seems like online communities are enjoying a very positive outlook.

It’s not hard to see why the concept of virtual communities works. We’re social creatures by nature. We enjoy being part of a tribe and being surrounded (even if virtually) by people similar to us. What’s more, communities can drive our learning, success, and growth, by providing a space to connect with others with something to teach.

If you’re the owner of a community or a person in charge of your community’s well-being or growth, how your members are onboarded is a really crucial factor to consider. You might not have paid too much attention up until now on how your onboarding process works, but here’s a little analogy to help you see why it matters.

Imagine you have just joined a gym. You’ve never used a gym before but, inspired by your dedication to lead a healthier life, that’s all about to change. You’ve read enough about this gym to know it’s the right one for you, so you’ve signed up and paid. Life is good! But, after taking your money, nothing happens. You stand at the front desk smiling sheepishly at the receptionist hoping he’ll take the lead, but he seems otherwise occupied. You know this is where you need to be if you’re going to get fit and healthy but you’ve zero idea how to use a single bit of equipment. You don’t want to put yourself out there and look stupid. Everyone else here seems to be total pros. You start to feel overwhelmed and a little lost. Suddenly, feeling like you’re in the complete wrong place, you cut and run.

If you’ve ever joined a gym for real, you’ll know that most often, the welcome experience is the entire opposite to this. Someone friendly and knowledgeable signs you up, takes your details, and offers you a brief tour of the gym layout and equipment so you have your bearings from the get-go. And if you need a little extra help to get you on your way, you can easily enlist the help of one of the gym’s personal trainers.

Gyms may not be the first thing you think of when we talk about ‘community’, but just like online communities, gyms require a certain etiquette, and people can get so much more out of them once their members know how things work.

From encouraging engagement to helping members to connect, to improving the longevity of your community and even increasing sales, paying attention to onboarding your members is something you can’t ignore.

What is ‘onboarding’ and why’s it important?

Onboarding of your members is the process by which new people join your community. It can (and should) be both experiential — how a person feels about joining your community — and practical — is the person being onboarded in an appropriate and helpful way?

For most new members, this will be the first time they are interacting with you, your company and its people. They are coming at you with fresh eyes, primed and ready to absorb everything your community has to offer. Of course then, you want to make sure that they get off to a great start. Without sufficient onboarding, your members may not interact with your community in the way you’d like and may fail to become engaged users in the long term. They might not adhere to your community’s culture. They might miss out on all the value and positive experience that your community provides.

Tribe does a good job of summarizing the key benefits of onboarding your community members;

  • It helps to set the right expectations for new members and the community owner
  • It helps ensure that new members are aware of the community culture and its guidelines
  • It equips new members with the tools and information needed to get the most out of your community
  • It encourages members to discover peers with a shared passion so networks can be formed and reciprocal value can be added

The logistics of onboarding community members

So there are two angles to approach how you onboard members to your community. The first is to look at how new members are brought in, logistically and practically. (The second is experiential — more on that later).

Make signing up easy

This is a bit of a no-brainer, but important nevertheless. A clear sign-up process is going to set the tone for the entire experience, so if it’s clunky or unclear, you may have people regretting their choice to join your community before they’ve even started.

Make signing up to your community a simple and obvious process to follow. Be clear to people about what they need to do to become a member. This could look something like;

  • Send an email inviting them to join the community with the clear call-to-action within the email, e.g. a button that says ‘JOIN NOW’.
  • The link from the email will take people straight to the sign-up page for the community platform. If you can pre-populate any fields based on their user data to save them time manually entering it themselves, even better.
  • After signing up, members are brought straight into the community on a ‘welcome’ or ‘new member’ page or space.
  • Once signed up, people will receive another email with clear instructions on anything they need to do next.

This is how GitHub welcomes new members by email:

At the top of the email there’s an intro video, followed by a CTA to update your profile, followed by helpful links for if people come unstuck.

Confirm when your members do what you want them to

As well as making your sign-up process clear, you should also make it clear when new members have done what you intended. You could, for example, consider sending them emails at the following stages;

  • When a new member finishes their sign-up
  • When they introduce themselves to the community
  • When they make their first community contribution
  • When they join their first channel or space

Confirming steps will not only assure your members that they’re on the right path, but it’ll also tap into their reward systems and make them feel like they matter to you and the community.

Rules control the fun! Orientate your new members

So you may have the funnest, hippest, most non-conformist community out there, but all forums need a degree of policing and etiquette. Without at least a few ‘dos and don’ts’ your members may end up running riot. And in all seriousness, as a community manager you have a certain responsibility to make sure things like trolling, online bullying, and other inappropriate behaviors don’t happen on your turf.

That’s where orientation comes in. This is a really important part of onboarding. Get it right and you’ll (hopefully) have a pleasant and orderly community where everyone gets along nicely, helps one another, and uses all the channels and spaces as they should. And ultimately, this is not only going to propel the success of your community as a whole, it’s also going to save you or your team loads of time that would otherwise be spent on managing people who don’t know how to adhere to your community’s culture.  

Orientation in a community normally happens once members are signed up. At this point, you’ll want to make sure you give them all the right information, such as what they can and cannot do, what is expected of them, what the community culture is, where to find what they need, etc.

Orienting your new members can be done when members make their first login to the community, and also by follow-up contact outside of the community (usually by email). It could be as simple as a welcome note in your default community channel containing all basic information and instructions. This is the message that new members of the Makerpad community see on first arrival:

This links through to the Makerpad’s Community Guidelines which inform members how to navigate and get the most out of the forum spaces.

Once you’ve set up your introductory message, you could also automate sending it by email to make sure it doesn’t get missed.

Beyond just a simple welcome message, your onboarding orientation could go a step further and include a virtual tour, welcome video, or 1:1 time with a real person from your team.

The experiential side of community onboarding

The other aspect of creating an amazing community onboarding experience is how the process will make people feel. Beyond the practical elements of getting people integrated into your community, you also need to make them feel welcome and like they belong there.

Here are a few ways you could approach onboarding your members to give them the best experience possible.

Make them feel welcome with personal responses

When your members introduce themselves to your community or post a topic for the first time, make a special effort to personally respond to them. You could reply to their post, simply leave a ‘like’, or go all out with a bespoke introductory message from you to the whole community. You’ll know best what suits your community and brand, so do what feels appropriate.

Wherever possible, you should also personalize communications with your members — just using their name (in your forum or in emails) is enough to help things feel authentic.

Do 1:1s

We mentioned this briefly above, but putting in a little extra effort can go a really long way in the success of your community. Offering individual 1:1s for new members with someone from your team will help members to feel welcome, valued, and will help shed any initial uncertainties or answer questions.

Lead by example

Want people in your community to rally around and welcome new members? Want more help to be offered when new members ask questions? Whatever it is you’re trying to cultivate in your onboarding experience, it starts with you.

Reward members and gamify the experience

Mix it up and make your onboarding process more interesting by playing around with competitions and rewards. Gamification is everywhere, and sometimes it’s so subtle we don’t even recognize we’re ‘playing’. But if there’s an element of competition or working towards a goal in return for reward, then it’s a gamified experience.

Gamifying your community can work really well by helping to motivate members to do things, and simplifying the way your community works.

A gamified community might look like any number of these formats;

  • Points are awarded to members who carry out certain activities or achieve certain goals
  • A leaderboard where members can compete on how many points are scored
  • Levels or ranks assigned to people based on their level of activity, achievements, or length of membership
  • Rewarding members with additional forum abilities once they reach a certain rank

Create additional resources

If your community or company concept is a little complex, you could always offer additional resources to help new members squeeze as much out of their onboarding experience as possible.

Additional resources might include supplementary documents, out of hours sessions, links to useful online sites, a list of the most helpful or active members in your community, or anything else you think might make for a well-rounded experience in becoming a member of your community.

Go the extra mile

If you have the time and budget, doing a little more than an average community can make your members feel extra special. Dogpatch Labs and NDRC together do this nicely:

You could send gifts appropriate to your brand or user demographic, customized of course with your logo and company info. You could gift them credit with your company or brand (if that applies) or a gift card, or donate money to charity.

Here's how AWS Community Builders Program members are welcomed:

There are of course a whole host of ways you can make your community onboarding experience amazing. Pay attention to your members and play around with what particularly works for them. Hopefully this post has inspired you to do some amazing things in your own community!


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