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The two questions people ask before joining a community

Here’s a guest post Douglas Atkin, CEO at The Glue Project and author of “The Culting of Brands” wrote for our WordofMouth.org project. Check it out for more great word of mouth marketing tips like this every day.

These are the two universal (and often unconscious) questions people ask when deciding whether to join a community. They’re the two fundamental social needs that should be met if you’re going to successfully recruit potential members.

Are they like me?”

At Meetup, we found that Member Profiles were one of the most highly trafficked places on the site. Once someone has decided that they want to join a Beagle-lovers Meetup or practice their Spanish, their first concern is “am I going to get along with the others?” Or, as some people would put it: “I want to check there’s no weirdos there.” A community is predicated on sharing. Getting a fix on whether the others are enough like you to make that possible is important.

What’s even more important is to enable a feeling of belonging. Without this, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to build a strong and sustained community. Finding ‘like-others’ is, of course, critical to enabling belonging.

I first discovered this when I interviewed members of cults and cult-like organizations while trying to deconstruct why and how people commit to things. This may be a surprise, but people join cults not to conform, but to become more individual (‘The Great Cult Paradox’). Like all of us, they are looking for others with whom they can be themselves. We will change companies, join a clique of jocks or geeks in high school or change churches because we want to find a place where we feel at home. We’re all looking for a place where the others are enough like us that we don’t have to compromise who we are, we feel safe enough from criticism to express our true selves and thus self-actualize.

Harley riders admitted to me that it’s only when they’re riding out with their brothers that they can be themselves. They may be dentists or management consultants by day, but when they slap on their tattoos, don their leathers, and ride out with the others, that’s when they become their true selves. It may be taboo not to feel like your beautiful home, your lovely family, and your career is who you really are. But whether they were someone on the lam, an architect, or a cop, they all admitted that when they’re with others who recognize that deep down they’re a rebel do they feel who they really are. They become themselves. They feel more individual.

So what does this mean if you’re designing a community platform or if you’re a Community Manager or Leader? Do as much as you can to clearly show what the membership is like… and equally, not like. It will hurt the community if people join who are not like the others.

1. Showcase the existing members.

Have rich member profiles and mini-profiles. Make your Member Page attractive and enable potential members to examine rich profiles in detail and skim mini-profiles to check that they share interests, goals, values or… they get their kicks from similar things.

2. Showcase what they do.

Enable potential members to see not only what members are like, but also what they do. Showcase photos and videos of recent activities or key posts that enable them to get an idea of how they’ll be interacting with each other.

3. Highlight pre-existing relationships.

There’s a high chance that if a potential member already knows someone within the group, they are likely to fit in. Meetup has a social connections feature that shows how you’re linked to existing members of a Meetup Group. If you have joined the site by Facebook Connect or already attend other Meetups, friends and fellow members will be highlighted and rank ordered on the member’s page. And they rank those members on the Member Page accordingly.

4. Have an explicit Purpose/Mission/Goal statement.

Being very clear not only about the benefits of joining but being explicit about who should and who should not join is one of the fastest and best ways a prospect can assess whether the community is for them. It should enable them to answer for themselves whether they share the same goals, want the same things, share the same values, and are the same kinds of people as the other members.

“Will they like me?”

Once the first social need has been answered: “Yes, these are people are like me,” the next natural question we tend to ask sounds slightly neurotic… but it’s a type of social anxiety we all feel: “Yes, but, will they like me, will they accept me, or am I going to be left dangling, awkwardly nursing a drink alone or having my posts and questions unanswered?”

The first few days or weeks after someone joins is critical. They’re effectively ‘in the airlock’, neither truly in or out of the community. They will quietly and quickly make an exit if they’re not made to feel welcome or can’t connect happily with anyone else.

Welcoming a new member with a personal message works wonders. Moonies had a term for this that I find helpful: ‘Lovebombing.’ They would bed new members into their organization by pouring enormous resource into ensuring the vulnerable new member felt they truly belonged by celebrating everything they did and appointing buddies to help with every new task.

Lovebombing the Moonie way may be overkill. But it’s a good way to think about how you should treat new members:

1. Welcome new members personally.

An auto-generated welcome email is never enough. If you’re the leader of a new community, welcome them personally. If the community has grown this won’t scale so appoint a member of the leadership team as the ‘welcomer’. Or highlight new members on the site so that existing members will feel compelled to drop them a line.

2. Highlight pre-existing relationships.

The same feature mentioned above serves two purposes. It can reassure new members that they’re already known and liked because there are people they already know. Joining a community is a bit like showing up at a party alone where you will probably know no one. Technology now enables us to show that that may not be true and in fact you already know quite a few people at the party (remember the joy when you spot someone across the room you already know). What’s more, encourage those members to reach out and welcome the new member.

3. Ask them to do something.

Asking a new member to do an easy task (such as introducing themselves to the group, uploading a photo etc.) pushes the member into engaging with others. It also gets them to make an investment (albeit small) in the community, predisposing them to do it again if they get a good response.

Asking them to do something also acquaints them quickly with the intrinsic… but not necessarily apparent… benefit belonging: engaging with others. It’s too easy for new members to make the leap and join, but never experience the real benefit of the group because they’ve not engaged with it.

It goes without saying that a community won’t grow without new members. But it probably is worth saying that it will grow strongly as long as you get the right new members: ones that share goals, values, and needs with the rest of the group.

So having these two questions in mind as you design a community platform or lead your group is critical for effective community growth:

  1. Are they like me?”
  2. “Will they like me?”

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