Online Communities: Just Regular People Behind Those Pixels

Intros, welcomes, recognition: The keys to driving online community engagement are all about people, not technology. One association community manager shares her common-sense approach.

If nothing else, by the end of an icebreaker at the start of a group meeting, the people in the room have at least one thing in common: They all lived through the icebreaker and whatever awkwardness or silliness it might have brought. Of course, that’s why icebreakers work. They give a previously unconnected group of people a shared experience, so they can move on to connecting on more important matters.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, then, to know the same dynamic works in an online environment. In a space like an association’s private online community, previously unconnected people—arguably more unconnected, since they’re not physically in the same room—need some help getting comfortable with engaging with each other. That’s where digital icebreakers come in, like the ones shared by Lindsay Starke, online community coordinator at Professional Photographers of America, in “Rules of Engagement: Break the Digital Ice,” in the July/August issue of Associations Now.

Starke’s tips come right out of Group Facilitation 101: welcomes, thank-yous, introductions, and recognition. This stuff’s not that complicated, but it’s worked quite well. Starke opened an “Introduce Yourself” discussion a year ago that’s now well past 300 posts. Threads marked “Discussion of the Week” typically see spikes of additional responses. And “Member of the Week” has become a playfully coveted and celebrated honor among members of PPA’s community, The Loop.

People like to make friends and share parts of themselves and maybe even have the opportunity to brag a little bit.

Starke says traffic and engagement are up in The Loop since she began these efforts, but the benefits extend beyond simply engendering more discussions and bringing in new readers. Putting people first is building camaraderie. When new members introduce themselves, existing members serve as “the unofficial welcome wagon,” recommending resources and tips for getting the most from the community and the association.

“It’s helped us to build some really positive feelings between the existing members and the newer members,” she says.

And whomever Starke chooses for Member of the Week can expect a flurry of kudos.

“If somebody is made Member of the Week, another member will often start a thread saying, ‘Congratulations, Anthony, on being Member of the Week,’ and then in the body of the post write, ‘I really appreciate your thoughts on lighting,’ or, ‘This post you made on this thing was very enlightening.’ And so it’s become this meaningful thing within the community and [created] a sense of togetherness that people congratulate other people on it,” Starke says. “And it’s sort of become part of the internal mythology that if you’re Member of the Week you get a golden Cadillac and you get a free seafood dinner. And so it’s another point to have this psychological togetherness where everybody’s bonding over this inside joke.”

Our Basic Motivations, In Person or Online

Before joining PPA, Starke worked as editor and community manager at online magazine Being Human, which gave her a keen interest in, essentially, what makes people tick. That experience gave her a clear perspective on how psychology drives community activity.

“It’s not that hard to figure out what people will respond to as long as you’re thinking in terms of basic psychological motivation,” Starke says. “People like to make friends and share parts of themselves and maybe even have the opportunity to brag a little bit.”

For those reasons, Starke says she is generally opposed to using prizes and incentives to drive community engagement.

“When you focus too much on extrinsic motivation—if you do this thing that I want you to do, you’ll get a prize—people will eventually learn to only participate for a prize, versus if you create this intrinsic motivation like a feeling of status in the community or a sense of connection and friendship, then people will participate for the love of participating, and it will be more of a continued trend,” she says. When she has experimented with prizes, it has boosted engagement only for a short time. “I would rather take that budget and the time it takes to run promos and spend that on improving the technology and … creating more internally motivating experiences for the member base.”

Starke shares a few other habits that keep The Loop a friendly and inviting environment:

Participate in the community as yourself, in your own voice. “A lot of people have the initial tendency to speak in PR speak and refer to the organization as a ‘we, in every post, and just in general not be very human,” she says. That sort of authenticity is a key element of building trust between Starke and PPA members. “I always use the first person, say ‘I really want to hear about this thing,’ insert little jokes, have fun with people, and not act like the grand arbiter voice of PPA.” And when she does have official announcements from PPA, she posts them from a separate organizational account.

Don’t get bogged down in process. For Member of the Week and Discussion of the Week, there are no stated criteria, no points structure or evaluation scale, and no judging committee. It’s just Starke picking them out each week. She welcomes nominations from the community, but she keeps the selection process “limber” and focuses on finding a discussion that is “very, very active and has been getting a lot of responses from a lot of different people and that is relevant to a lot of different people, or a discussion that I think needs a little bit more light shined on it.” For Member of the Week, she looks for members “who are either very helpful and post a lot or … post very in-depth, useful things.”

Always put people first. Do this even in subtle ways, like referring to related posts in the community by the member’s name, not just the topic. Starke suggests, “Instead of saying, ‘If you read this thread, it has information on what you’re asking about,’ say, ‘Mark said in this thread that’s so helpful, X, Y, Z.'”

A Human Approach

In their book Humanize, authors Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant, CAE, pointed out that social media—a phenomenon in a virtual environment—has been so revolutionary because “it taps into what we, as human beings, naturally love and need and want to do—create, share, connect, relate.” And they argue that organizations often struggle with social media because they don’t know how to behave like humans and not machines.

Meanwhile, Ben Martin, CAE, chief engagement officer at Online Community Results, noted in a blog post earlier this year that association online communities tend to perform better when the community manager resides in the membership or communications department, because those departments are driven by meeting member needs and generating content, whereas IT and marketing departments tend to focus on building tech systems and driving sales.

I don’t know if Lindsay Starke has read Humanize, or what department she works under at PPA, but her approach to PPA’s online community platform shows she understands that things like authenticity, inclusion, transparency, and relationship building will drive success.

Luckily, this isn’t a difficult strategy to emulate. Just remember that, though your online community is a virtual environment you interact with through a screen, the people on the other end are still just that: people.

How are you driving engagement in your association’s online community? Do you find a “human,” people-centric approach is working well? What challenges are you facing? Please share in the comments.


Joe Rominiecki

By Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki, manager of communications at the Entomological Society of America, is a former senior editor at Associations Now. MORE

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