03.29.2017

Today, it seems every business is building some sort of community.

Some, like Atlassian and Google, are empowering ambassadors to host events all over the world. Some are launching online communities, like Spotify and Sephora. Some actually look at their business itself as a community with their employees serving as its members. And finally others, like Airbnb and Xiaomi and Lyft, are the central hub connecting networks of people together in a way that we have never before seen in human history.

Whatever community you’re building, whether it’s for a business, a hobby, a religion, politics… the most common challenge is always the same thing: how do you keep people engaged?

I’ve been building communities online and offline since I was 13 years old and spent the last 10 years helping organizations build thriving communities around their brands and products.

Community engagement is both a science and an art. You can leverage social science to understand what motivates people to participate. But you also have to feel out what your community needs at any given time. Do they need positivity? Do they need a challenge? Or sometimes, do they just need to be left alone for a couple days?

Over the years, I’ve picked up on some things that can get a community going. Here are 21 tips for engaging a community that you can try in your own community…

1. Create daily, weekly or monthly rituals.

Think about any big, long-lasting community and you’ll find a number of rituals in play. Rituals are powerful because they help your members create a habit of participating and they know what to expect. This will also make your life easier as a community builder because you’ll have content that you don’t have to think too much about each day/week/month. A few ritual ideas you can steal:

  • Weekly new member welcome: we do this in the CMX group and it’s 100x better than just having one ongoing thread that gets way too long
  • Promo day: give your members a chance to promote their work and accomplishments
  • Meetups: get everyone together in person on a regular basis
evergrey conversation

The Evergrey, a Seattle newsletter, hosted a conversation where readers posted the last photo of Seattle from their camera roll. It ignited a spike in activity.

2. Call on people by tagging them and message members asking them to respond.

Have you ever posted something, waited 15 minutes, then deleted it when no one responded? Yeah, me too. Fear of crickets is a legitimate problem for community builders. One thing I do to combat this is I tag specific people in posts so they’re notified. You don’t want to overdo this or it will feel spammy. In my new member welcomes, I tag each member individually. But in regular posts, I’ll tag 2-3 people I know who might have a good response to the question I’m posting.

In the early days of a community, I’ll take it a step further and actually message or email a few people I know, asking them to respond to my post. Let them know that you want to set a good example for other members and ask them for help in getting things going.

3. Host in-person events and empower your members to organize.

If you’re hosting an online community and haven’t created opportunities for your members to get together in real life, you’re missing out on a huge opportunity. Connecting people in person will allow them to forge stronger relationships, which will bring more energy and engagement back into your online community. This one might seem obvious, but too many people forget about it.

Don’t have the time and resources to host an event? Ask your members to organize a small get-together in their local city. Doesn’t have to be fancy. It can just be coffee or a happy hour.

4. Start a debate.

I’m a big fan of debates. Probably because I love to debate, but also because it drives some of the most quality conversations you’ll see in a community. It can also create some conflict, which is a good thing in communities. When there’s conflict, and people disagree but work through it and find common ground, their relationships grows stronger. They will feel safer in the community knowing that they can express their opinion without being attacked. But make sure you have clear rules and guidelines in your community, and that you moderate consistently to prevent and remove attacks and abuse.

5. Play a game.

It doesn’t have to be all business in your community. Make it fun! There are lots of games you can try in your community. Here are a few you can steal:

  • Last photo game: Inspired by my friend Ivan Cash, this was a hit in our community. Just ask your members to share the last picture they took on their phone, and share the story behind it.
  • Acronym game: Just type a word, and the next person has to come up with words for each letter, then add a new word. (e.g. I would write MOONS and someone could comment Men Only Own Nine Socks… then they would come up with a new word for the next person).
  • Pet Pictures: Because everyone loves sharing pictures of their pets.
  • Karate Girl: This is an in-person, full body version of rock, paper scissors, you can bring to your events.
CMX Summit LEGOS

At our conference, we always have badge decorating stations for people to get silly together. There are plenty of fun games and activities you can do online too.

6. Welcome every. single. member.

Individual in-depth welcomes can often only scale so far, but if you can make every single member who joins your community feel welcome, it will go a long way to make a good first impression and experience. We have 50+ members joining our community every week, and I still tag every person individually, and add their company name to our weekly welcome thread.

Onboarding and welcoming should feel organized and attentive. Some platforms have baked-in onboarding procedures. If yours doesn’t, create that ritual and make onboarding a science rather than an art. Onboarding is central to ongoing community health.

7. Host a “lurker week” to activate your passive and inactive members.

This is a fun idea created by Suzi Nelson at Digital Marketer. She created a themed week all focused on activating the lurkers in her community. As a result, she was able to activate 44% of their previously inactive members in just 5 days!

8. Spotlight members that you want other members to copy.

When you see a member do something awesome in the community, create a post about it. Maybe they posted a really good question. Maybe they’ve been really active and have helped a lot of other people. Maybe they hosted an event that went really well. The best way to get your members to take similar actions is to highlight that member. This sends the message to other members that those kinds of actions will be celebrated!

You can even make this into a ritual and do a member of the week or member of the month.

9. Create a name for your members.

At the core of community is identity. Humans form their individual identities based on the communities they participate in. Humans also form social identities, which are adopted by the group. You can, and should, help shape this identity in your community.

Sometimes it will happen automatically, and your members will create their own name that just sticks. But you can create it too. At CMX, our members started to call themselves CMXers and we adopted the name with them. Reddit calls their members redditors. Lady Gaga calls her fans Little Monsters. It seems like a small thing, but it can have powerful effects on the social identity of your community.

Lady Gaga Little Monsters

“MONSTER is a lifestyle.” – Lady Gaga. Talk about a solid member identity.

10. Be brutally transparent.

Another critical element of community is emotional safety. There’s a popular theory in community psychology called the “sense of community theory”, which lists emotional safety as one of the five key ingredients of membership. The researchers define it as the “willingness to reveal how one really feels.”

The best way to create emotional safety in your community is to be the example of openness and transparency. When you make a mistake, admit it publicly. When you don’t know what to do about a situation, tell your community.

I often share things that are bringing me stress with our community. Or if we’re facing a hard decision, like whether we should change a rule in our guidelines, I’ll just tell the community that I have no clue what to do and I need their help. And it’s true and authentic.

This lets them know that when they make a mistake, or when they have a problem they’re embarrassed about, they’ll be safe sharing it in your community.

11. Host live events online using a webinar or Zoom.

People love live events, even if they aren’t personally contributing. Something about knowing the other person is actually sitting there, talking in that moment, makes it much more engaging than a recorded video, or a post in a forum. We use GoToWebinar for our “official” live broadcast events. Facebook Live is becoming a really great channel for live video events.

It’s even better if you can give members the chance to participate in the discussion. Use houseparty for informal gatherings. We’re big fans of Zoom for group discussions.

Just pick a topic and go!

12. 2x your energy and excitement before posting and inject humor into your content.

Mark this one as another obvious, but often forgotten, tip. To be a community builders is to be an entertainer. You are the curator and facilitator. Your community will respond to, and mirror, your energy. If you come in with low energy and bland writing, your members will either ignore it, or also respond with low energy.

Sunny Lenarduzzi, an expert in video marketing, says when you’re on camera, you should take your energy and add 15% to it right before you get on camera. Whatever you say, just add energy and excitement to make your video more engaging. The same goes for writing! BRING THE ENERGY! USE CAPS IF YOU HAVE TO! Use emojis, gifs and images to make it more fun. Even if you’re running a “professional community”, it turns out professionals like to have fun too.

Not a funny person? No problem. David Nihill is my go-to for all humor advice. Here’s a great ebook he made for speakers that applies to all content.

13. Make 1-1 introductions between members.

A great way to make new members feel welcome is to connect them to another member that has something in common with them.

Eventually you can have official “community mentors”, volunteers who are willing to connect with any new member and help them get started.

If you can manage a good enough CRM for your members, then you can constantly be making introductions between members who are in similar industries, or who live in the same city.

A community is just a network of relationships. The stronger the bonds between individual members, the stronger the community will become as a whole.

Coffee meeting

Allowing members to informally meet 1-1 helps form lasting bonds. In a strong community, this often happens without much prompting, but imagine if you encouraged it even more!

14. Bring in an expert / influencer for an interview or AMA.

A great way to inject your community with energy, and new perspectives, is to bring in guests. Loic is brilliant at doing this with Facebook Live. Product Hunt actually made AMA’s a part of their product because they were so successful.

15. Ask for feedback on how to make the community better.

Yes, asking for feedback is a way to get new ideas, but it’s also a great engagement tactic. Members love to be involved in brainstorms. This will make them feel heard, important and make them more invested in the success of the community since now they’ve been part of the planning process.

Try to be specific when asking for feedback. Don’t just ask how to make your community better. You might say, “What can we do to increase the level of activity in this community?” or “What kind of event would you love to attend for the community?”

16. Create a challenge or a collaborative project for everyone to work on together.

The first edition of our guide to community platforms was a huge community undertaking.

A lot of communities exist purely for the sake of connection, but some of the most powerful communities in the world are the ones that aim to accomplish a specific goal.

Working together to accomplish something creates all sorts of interactions that will strengthen the bonds in your community. Members will have to take leadership roles, negotiate, work through disagreements, make decisions, and at the end of it all, they’ll have a tangible outcome they can point to. This is why employees in companies often form really strong friendships. You go through a lot together!

Your entire community should always have a purpose… some larger vision for the change your community exists to create in the world. But you can also get more specific. It doesn’t have to be a massive project. Maybe you collaborate on an ebook. Maybe it’s a community video that everyone contributes to. You can raise money for a cause. Anything with a specific outcome works.

17. Share your data with the community.

Most people love numbers, and they’ll be really excited to see the numbers behind their own community and the story those numbers tell. Once in a while, we like to share our total number of posts, comments, and likes in our group. We’ll share who the most active members are and the most popular posts and comments. Sharing your metrics makes for engaging content, and it leverages transparency to deepen the trust in your community. You’re showing them what’s behind the curtain.

18. Embrace occasional silence.

Your community doesn’t have to be active all the time. You’ll get to know your members, and your data will tell you when they like to engage. Our community basically turns into a ghost town on the weekends and that’s okay. I don’t force it. In fact, trying to engage people during “off hours” can actually bring them stress, because they’ll feel like they’re missing stuff. Enjoy the down time, and let your members enjoy it too.

19. Acknowledge when something didn’t work.

Comedians know that when a joke falls flat, the best thing to do is make a joke about it falling flat. After a joke fail, David Nihill likes to say “weird… that one worked a lot better on my mom!”

You can do the same thing in your community. When you post something and no one responds, comment on the post and acknowledge the silence. I like to use gifs here… something that conveys awkwardly waiting for something. Or just comment and say “Bueller…?”

20. Throw a props party!

Ask your members to give props to someone they know, or someone on their team, for something awesome they did. You’ll create good positive vibes, and it gives members permission to congratulate someone publicly. Without being prompted, giving someone a random congrats can feel awkward, or forced. This post makes it okay! This also works really well because they’ll tag the person they’re congratulating, who will then add a congrats of their own, making it viral.

21. Be persistent and constantly experiment.

Each of these tips might give you a short burst of engagement but to build a long-lasting, highly engaged community, you just have to keep at it. You’ll have some posts that work well and some that fall flat. Some things will work for a while and then go stale.

The key to building community is simple: give a sh*t and put in the work every day. If people see how much you care about the community, and see you showing up every day, then they will show up too. If you want to just set the community up and let it ride, you’re not going to do so well.

I promise, if you just keep at it, regularly try new things, and genuinely care about your members, over time a thriving community will form.

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David Spinks

David Spinks | @DavidSpinks

David is the Founder and CEO of CMX. He’s been building digital communities since he was 13, and has trained a number of the world’s leading businesses in community strategy. He created CMX to unite the community industry, and bring community professionals the resources, network and training they need to thrive.