To encourage and build engagement in online communities, sometimes the smallest things make the biggest difference—I was reminded of this recently listening to a science podcast where they discussed the metabolism of medicines in mice during lab experiments. In one group of mice, the meds the scientists were testing were metabolized twice as fast as they were in a second group of mice. As far as the scientists could tell, there was no difference between the groups of mice. So they repeated the study on new groups, controlling for every conceivable thing that could affect the test, but still the same result.
Finally, after checking everything, they found that the wood chips in the cages were affecting the rate at which the mice metabolized the medicines. This tiny detail changed the course of the entire experiment. And how often do we encounter this in our day-to-day work: That the smallest detail makes the biggest difference?
So, instead of just sweating all of the small stuff, how can we use it to our advantage? Well, as it turns out, people talk a lot about change and progress, but when it comes to actually changing, they usually hate it. This is our first advantage: Small tactics over time lead to the larger changes we want to make. Second, small tasks are easier in the simple fact that they’re small. However, this advantage comes with an equally weighted disadvantage in that the small tasks can easily become overwhelming. Because of this, make sure to prioritize each tactic and reassess them regularly to make sure they’re effective. Which brings us to our third advantage, which is that small tactics are easier to change and adapt than large ones. Think of them like Legos compared to RC cars—you can make Legos into just about anything, but an RC car will always be what it is.
So what are some of these small community management tactics? Well, there could be any number of them, and you’ll likely develop your own over the course of your career, but there are some basic ones related to online community recruitment, engagement, and retention that you can employ easily or may already have in place.
Preview content from your branded online community on social media by creating infographics, testimonials, or snapshots from your community content. You could also open a discussion thread to the public depending on the security setting capabilities of your community and CRM or AMS. Previewing socially created content on social media is a great way to not only tell non-members about your association, but to also show the spirit of collaboration and the depth of knowledge that members can access on your community.
Create community advertisements in your publications. Whether they’re simple advertisements or advertorials, remind members that they can participate in discussions around their specialty and build their industry knowledge in your online community. While we would like to think that our members know all of the benefits our organizations offer, they are often too busy to read through endless pages of text outlining the association’s resources and mission. So, reach them where they are at, and remind them of new opportunities wherever you can.
Conduct a community-sponsored happy hour at your event. If you can’t secure the funds for an exclusive community event, slap your community on the sponsorship board for one of your annual conference galas or happy hours. Just like advertisements, sponsorships can remind members that the online community exists. More than that, though, in-person events are a natural extension of the online community in that they also engender conversation, networking, and interpersonal engagement. By tying your online community to an existing event that achieves similar goals, you are infusing your online community brand with the feeling of community engendered by in-person events.
Just like rock stars at a concert, industry leaders can often make members giddy. An “Ask Me Anything (AMA)” on your online community is a great way to tap into that energy and to bring some big-name enthusiasm to your online discussions. If you have a keynote speaker or thought leader who is willing to spend an hour chatting with your members, book them for a Reddit-style “AMA” on your community. If you can’t squeeze an honorarium into your budget, see if you can tack an “AMA” onto the keynote contract of one of your annual conference speakers.
Similar to an “AMA,” a live discussion on your community gives your members a chance to discuss a particular topic with their peers. Like a Twitter chat, you could brand your live discussion with a hashtag to tie separate conversations within your community. You could also create a thread or community specifically for live discussions. Hold live discussions on their own, or tack them onto things like webinars to drive traffic from your traditional continuing education programs to your online community.
Depending on the tone and culture of your online community, you may or may not have room for games, but these can be a great way to build discussions and networking within your community. Create a separate forum for members to play in, and organize everything from icebreakers to industry and member trivia to coffee klatches. Breaking down some of your members’ inhibitions about online communication with fun and humor could yield big results in the long run.
Notes of encouragement are vastly underrated in almost every aspect of our lives, not just in online communities. However, they can be especially helpful in reminding members how valuable their contributions are to the community as well as reminding them that there’s a community to participate in. Your community might have the ability to send automated messages to members based on behaviors, etc. But even if it doesn’t, you can easily identify frequent or infrequent contributors and send them notes of thanks or encouragement throughout the year. Over time, these small bits of encouragement could develop a population of super users and evangelists in your community.
Volunteer engagement is sometimes overlooked, but it’s an essential aspect of your online community. No matter how much coffee you ingest, community managers can’t be available 24/7 for their community. To make the job a little easier, engage your users to assist you in the day-to-day tasks of the community and in developing strategies and tactics. Start an advisory group or task force in your community to generate ideas or to develop a list of members who can answer unanswered questions or welcome new members. Not only are members welcoming and engaging newcomers, they are also likely developing themselves a deeper sense of connection with the community.
Like notes of encouragement, recognizing the work of your most active community members is a small but essential aspect of community management. Create a small award for your most active contributors or simply add some gamification to your community with badges and ribbons. Either way, give members a way to display their activity and show pride in the community they’re helping to build. While you may not be able to implement all of these on day one, growing a community takes time. Prioritize your tactics based on the primary behaviors you want to see in your community, then build from there. In time, your small tactics and changes will lead to huge results.