In both my world of nonprofit work and in my personal life, digital technology is at its best when it’s facilitating connection—whether that’s a Skype call from Portland to a colleague in Addis Ababa, FaceTime with my niece and nephew in LA, or online chats with my officemate down the hall.
Those Times When You Hug Your Computer
Very real physical distance does not need to hinder the very real relationships we can have with each other when connecting in online spaces. It’s strange (and intelligent people have undoubtedly researched and explained this psychologically, psychosocially, etc.), but we humans can feel so connected with each other online that we attempt to hug each other during video calls by wrapping our arms around our respective computers. It’s a beautiful thing, and of course it’s supremely weird when you think too hard about it. This is almost as weird as the fact that I often physically wave goodbye when I say “goodbye” to someone on the phone. Imagine that image now and think: tech savvy.
When I’m not waving maniacally, I work as a community lead at World Pulse, a global women’s online community with the goal of creating social change through women’s collaboration. I’ve been at this job for the last two years, but have been a member of the World Pulse online community since 2009. One thing I’ve always found special about this place is its welcoming culture. Aww…I know it sounds sweet, but believe me, it’s far more than sweet—it’s strategic. Welcoming is absolutely what community managers should be writing home about, or at the very least blogging about. And, yes, I know they already are, all over the place, in fact, but I’m bringing you new ideas today!
It’s Tough to Be the New Guy
In any community, online or off, being new is not usually the most comfortable of feelings. Entering a new online space can be much like showing up at a party by yourself, knowing no one, and with no one to introduce you around. In a word, awkward. We call ourselves communities, after all, because in the end, we are just groups of people—humans connecting with one another in some sort of fashion, or ignoring each other, in an online space. And if you join an online community, post a profile, and all you hear are crickets (or perhaps, more accurately, the hum of your processor fan), it will probably seem like a pretty dead community right? Or at least a very rude one. You may never come back. Or worse, you may feel offended and tell others how awful that community is. The trouble with online communities is you can’t bring snacks. Snacks bring people together like no other, so what is a newbie to do?
Maybe you’ll get an auto-welcome message to your inbox, which is great. It helps orient you, gives you the lay of the land, and if it even includes a profile pic of the community manager, you’ll feel that little twinge of excitement—I’ve been recognized! But even better is a personalized message, responding to the bits of info you’ve pasted in your profile—I like cat photos and going to the movies—from a real person. Maybe even a person named Sam.
Sam: I like cat photos too. In fact, here’s one! [insert cat photo] Enjoy! And btw welcome. J
People Want to Feel Useful
Of course, this is nothing new, right? We know people want to feel included and recognized. But how do we keep up with a growing community? As online community managers, we can’t personally reach out to each new community member, can we? I would venture that’s not a realistic expectation for most of us. So what’s the solution? Get your community members working for you. Believe me; they’ll be glad for the opportunity. Why? Because, in addition to wanting to feel included, people also want to feel useful.
Give your superstar members a job, albeit an unpaid one. Keep it flexible. Let them set their own schedules but provide them with the guidelines and goals for what you’re after. And if you love them, let them go and do their own thing. I think you’ll be surprised what sort of energy this can drum up among seasoned members and newbies alike. It’s like you grandparents out there playing with your grandchildren. You can’t get enough of them and their precious innocence and you love showing them the ropes. You know it’s true! (“This is how you pat-a-cake!”) And of course those babies love the attention and are excited to explore the great wide world of their elders. So it’s a win all around.
But in all seriousness, giving longtime members of your community a role to play in maintaining the overall health of your community can help them develop a sense of ownership of the community and pride in it. And, yes, you want this! This isn’t your community after all. It’s everyone’s community, of course. And it’s likely they’ve already felt this sense of ownership and pride for some time, but now they’ll have the perfect way to express it, and to the benefit of all.
In the World Pulse online community, we actually have a volunteer role specifically for welcoming new members. Poetically, we call these volunteers Welcomers. Welcomers receive a badge on their profile to acknowledge their leadership within the community and are tasked with making sure all newbies receive the good ol’ World Pulse welcome. They post their greetings publicly as comments on newbies’ profiles, so everyone can see their good work, answer newbies’ questions, put them in touch with other members that share similar interests, let them know what’s going on in the community at the moment, flag those pesky spammers that get through, and you name it!
The role need not be a formal one for long. Once the precedent of community welcoming is set, you’ll see other members, unaware that an official welcoming role exists, start reaching out to the newbies themselves. The result is truly a feel-good space where everyone feels welcomed to the party! Invite your lurkers to the table with a personal welcome message and you may find they brought you snacks after all.