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Managing successful online communities


Boundaries & Identity: Building Membership in a Community

This is the April edition of my 2019 Year of Community series to help Invision Communities of all sizes build successful communities.  The foundational articles on strategy and competition are finished, so we’ll be turning our attention to the Sense of Community in a four-part series. Read prior posts in the Invision Community Blog.


Cultivating a strong Sense of Community is a clear goal for community builders.  Develop a strong sense of community, and you’ve built a community experience that sparks a more meaningful and connected community that your members will love. 

A strong sense of community means:

  • An integrated community where members feel personally related
  • An impactful community where a member can influence and be influenced by the group. 
  • A fulfilling community where members meet the needs of others and can feel rewarded. 
  • A shared community, where users undergo common history, time together, and social experiences. 

Do you believe you’ve developed a strong sense of community?  Follow long as we critically examine the first element in the Sense of Community: Membership. 

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Membership

Boundaries of communities have always existed, whether it be neighborhoods, social groups, or online communities.  By definition, there are people who belong and people who do not.  It’s okay to decline membership to users, thereby providing a more comfortable space for members who are accepted. 

Here are some time-tested tips from my years of community management that touch upon various attributes of membership:

Don’t try to be everything to everyone.  It’s far better to be an exclusive community to a smaller, impassioned group of users than to dilute your community for a wide audience.  Not everybody deserves to belong, and by intentionally removing irrelevant members, it makes it a more purposeful community for those who can join.  Define who should belong, and outline the requirements on your Registration screen and Guest Sign-up widget. 

Boundaries are walls, but safe walls.  Although there’s the pain of rejection and isolation of private communities, it’s offset with the positive benefits of joining.  It creates a space where members can feel safe to open up, to feel related to one another, and to feel protected.  Reinforce the benefits of joining the community to new members in a welcome message. 

A new sense of identification.  Not only do members join the group, they should develop an extended sense of belonging and identity with the group.  The more strongly you can define the sense of belongingness, the more deeply the member will feel connected.  There should be a feeling of acceptance, an expectation that one fits in, and a willingness to sacrifice for the group.  Create a welcome team that immediately reaches out both publicly and privately, ask how the new member can contribute, and constantly highlight how the community has gone above-and-beyond in members helping members.   

The higher the boundary, the greater the reward.  Personal investment is an important contributor to a member’s feeling of group membership.  By working for a membership, a member will feel like he’s earned a place – and that the membership will be more meaningful and valuable.  You can ask guests for their accreditations, background, or how they can contribute to the community. 

The power of symbols.  Social groups throughout history have long used symbols, icons, ceremonies, and group language to cultivate a unique sense of identity.  These conventions are powerful representations of a group.  You can cultivate and write a common language in your Invision Community in large ways and small by uploading unique reactions, changing the language string, and celebrating community-specific holidays and events.     

As you re-evaluate your community framework with me, take the time to outline what it means to be a member of your community.  Defining your membership goes hand-in-hand with defining your purpose.  It should touch upon these five attributes of membership: boundaries, emotional safety, sense of belonging, personal investment, and common symbolism.  Establish clear distinctions for your community’s membership qualifications, and you’ll be able to develop a deep Sense of Community from the very start of a member’s registration. 

Share with me and others how you've defined your community's membership in the comments below.  I love to hear about other Invision Communities.  

Joel, 

Invision Community Advocate and Certified Community Manager


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You're welcome! I'm glad you're getting some useful pointers from these articles.  

I really wish I had these kinds of thought provoking articles on community management when I was first starting out, so I'm trying to jumpstart the success of others. These articles are really meant to provide an easy core foundation for all Invision Community admins and owners to think deeply about how to build a better community.  

Sometimes I feel as if community managers try to rely too much on technology to solve all their problems.  Install a new app! Request customization! Focus on SEO and sitemaps! When in reality, there's this whole component to sparking human connection which is far more important.  People have been building communities for thousands of years, and the tenets of community building have been around forever.  

In short, whether you build your tribe in digital or offline, you'll always need to think about things like boundaries, identification, rituals, and more.  Get those right and the community will follow.  

Edited by Joel R

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This is apparently my biggest problem. I have had literally 0 people post in years and years... that's how well I did at coming up with an idea. I'm hoping to eventually think of something that will be a more unique, focused idea. And my main site was a general site, so not focused at all... I did do a second site, which I thought had a nice custom skin someone made me (for free, too) and was a specific idea, but that didn't take off, either.

Edited by Midnight Modding

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You need to be careful with the height of the boundary, though. While jumping it might be satisfying and rewarding for the member that will feel accepted, at the same time failing to jump it might leave a lot of potential useful members out. An example from my real life experience:

I have joined my first forum waaay back in 2001. Back then it was the most popular discussion option in a very specific niche - Formula 1 racing. We had real life meetings and parties, we had many internal jokes incomprehensible for outsiders, we developed strong relationships that last until today. However, entering our club wasn't easy - we really knew our stuff so newbies with basic questions or not well very well presented arguments were often ridiculed - not directly, sometimes with a joke only we can understand, but in the end it created a bit of a hostile, unwelcoming atmosphere for newbies. 

As it is natural through the years many of the regular members dropped out due to losing interest or other issues and there were no fresh members to replace them, because of the stuff explained in previous paragraph. So eventually the size of the community thinned out and it died. Now, 18 years later, I have met one of my best friends in this forum, including my life partner, however what is left of it is a facebook messenger chat with 5 people. The forum is still online, but this is its most recent posts list:

image.thumb.png.cbb13cc637fa4c1207bc56b72ddfbfe3.png

So, yes, keeping the entry boundary high will result in a long term lasting friendships and really dedicated members. The higher the boundary, the tighter the friendships. However it will also be the most probable certain death of the community - sooner or later people within the borders will leave and the newer ones won't be able to jump high enough. 

So, it is an extremely delicate balance. I would argue it is probably the most important detail you need to figure out - how hard you want it to be for new members. Do you want to have facebook and twitter login available that will attract a lot of members, but many of them will post thin questions and the percentage of well defined meaningful discussions will drop. Or you want a steeper entry curve, which might lead to have very few really meaningful discussions, but you will eventually lose critical mass and the community will die. Unfortunately you can't have both. 

To find this balance you need to adhere to your mission statement. On my current forum, I am removing posts that are hostile towards newbies, even though some of them might be fair - a newbie asks a question that has been answered thousand of times, or a newbie asks 5 questions without contributing answers to other peoples questions, etc. This alienates the elders, some of them even might scream "censorship!" and leave, which will be a big overall loss to the community as most of them have invaluable knowledge. However, this is the path I have chosen and I am adhering to it. 

My niche is travel and I have decided that this is the mission statement of my forum - I want to make self organized travel more popular and reduce the monopoly of travel agencies that shoehorn all people in the same boiler plate travel programs and charge pretty penny for their easily replaceable services on top of that. This means that very often there are newbies that take their first self organized flight and will always ask question about cabin bags size or liquid limits. This definitely dilutes the the discussions, imagine that such basic topics are always popping up on latest list, instead a story from a long self-organized trip from a little known country like Uzbekistan. However, for me I have decided that I want to be newbie friendly instead of elitist. I want to have 10 people that will make their first self-organized trip to Rome (Rome is very easy to organize when you are in Europe - tons of cheap flights, concentrated and easy accessible main attractions, etc.), instead of 2 people that will discuss their Nepal trecks. In the long term, the Nepal guys are the ones that will contribute very unique and quality content to my community, but it doesn't help with the Rome guys who will book with travel agency if they can't find a place that will provide friendly answers to their basic questions. I do want to have it both, really, but it is hard and next to impossible to achieve.

I do hope to realize a gamification idea I have, which will reward the quality and unique discussions more, I hope it will help. I am in the process of defining the project requirements and will post it here if we can community fund it. We'll see. 

Very interesting topic. 

Edited by jair101

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Maybe another take on boundaries: what do you think of introducing achievements to community? For items created (posts, uploads to gallery, blogs, etc), things user does for the community (i.e. recruited someone, wrote an article).

Do you think such a way would be viable to boost engagement? Is only a badge reason enough to engage more?

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On 5/9/2019 at 3:56 AM, jair101 said:

So, yes, keeping the entry boundary high will result in a long term lasting friendships and really dedicated members. The higher the boundary, the tighter the friendships. However it will also be the most probable certain death of the community - sooner or later people within the borders will leave and the newer ones won't be able to jump high enough. 

It's unfortunate to hear what happened to your Formula 1 forum.  But I think what you're really asking is this: how do you onboard new members into a community with strong sense of membership? 

You don't need to lower your requirements.  Just because a group is exclusive doesn't mean it can't bring on new members.  If anything, every new member is even more precious because he managed to jump over the requirements to join -- and the effective community manager will make integration of new members an important early part of the member lifecycle.  This means immediately welcoming the member, explaining the tribal rituals, and respecting them in discussions.  

I have a club with this exact scenario as your Formula 1.  They have a very long and intimate history (10+ years), use tribal rituals only they understand, and have very high requirements to join.  So when I hosted my most recent discussion with their club leadership, I pointed out the problem that if they don't do anything to bring in new members, their group will die out.  So part of their process is to actively seek out new club members and welcome them to their club and they've done very well.  

Just because a group has strong boundaries to keep non-members out shouldn't mean they're not welcoming to members who do meet requirements. 

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On 5/9/2019 at 3:56 AM, jair101 said:

This means that very often there are newbies that take their first self organized flight and will always ask question about cabin bags size or liquid limits. This definitely dilutes the the discussions, imagine that such basic topics are always popping up on latest list, instead a story from a long self-organized trip from a little known country like Uzbekistan. 

Great scenario. 

I'm not a fan of having newbies repeat questions over and over again, so let me flip the question back to you: how would YOU like to deliver the best and most informative topics from the community to new members? 

Answer: articles or topic compilations that gather best-in-class resources from the community.  This is especially powerful for mature communities who have a wealth of community knowledge to share.  

What if you pinned topics of the following resources:

"Answers to All the Questions You Should Ask about Self-Travel" 

"10 of the Best Topics For New Travelers"

"The Definitive Guidebook on Self Organized Travel for Members, by Members"

"Planning Your First Trip? The Best Community Stories by Members"

"Read the World: the Best 2018 Travel Blogs on Jair's Community" 

You don't have to answer the same new questions over and over again if you can compile the best topics and answers from the community for members. But imagine showing these resources to new members, how you'll be able to deflect most of the easy questions, and also inspire them by showcasing the very best content from the entire community! 

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1 hour ago, Nebthtet said:

Maybe another take on boundaries: what do you think of introducing achievements to community? For items created (posts, uploads to gallery, blogs, etc), things user does for the community (i.e. recruited someone, wrote an article).

Do you think such a way would be viable to boost engagement? Is only a badge reason enough to engage more?

Hold on! I have an amazing guide / topic to share in Community Administration board, just need a board moderator to approve the topic.  I think it'll give you some good ideas. 

Topic has been approved: 

 

 

Edited by Joel R

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@Joel R, Thanks for the feedback. My post was more like illustrating a concept then actual looking for an advice. I have most of your suggestions implemented, on top of my board is introductions and welcome forum, right below it are instructions for newbies. Each newbie receives a friendly welcome message pointing to the organization of the community - simple enough to be followed, not complicated enough to overwhelm them. I do have some paths to knowledge within my forums, if the newbie wants to put the effort to follow them. I think I got the newbie bases covered. 

Still...the reality is a little bit more complicated. If I have to dig deeper, I would say that most actively travelling people are a bit egocentric. These people have their own blogs, they are a bit stubborn in a sense that their way is the only correct way, they hardly accept different opinions, etc. Most of the time you won't find the people doing self-organized trip from Amazon river answering basic questions on Trip Advisor. I try to nurture these people as much as I can, because they really enrich each discussion they participate in - I do add badges to people with many visited countries, to people that often share their travels in trip reports, etc. But still I am sure that many of them feel the discussions are below their level. It is up to me to figure out if I need the grumpiest of them when I am certain they will never make it within a community anyway. They are lone wolves and have them at the expense of my sometimes basic but very enthusiastic newbies is not something I like. Anyway, its an additional complication, which comes with the travel niche, I am sure other niches have similar specifics. 

If I have to summarize it to one sentence, one should be careful to set the boundaries high enough, but still to make them jumpable. I think thats one of the axioms of gamification too - make the achievement hard enough so the person can feel a sense of accomplishment, but not impossible so he doesn't participate and give in easily.

And one should be aware of the signals your community is giving - are the discussions too basic and thin to your liking - try to toughen up on newbies, because usually they are responsible for the thin discussions. Are the discussions too few with rarely a new member contributing - try to relax the atmosphere and make it less elitist. This should be actively controlled by the admin, but my experience is that many admins dont realize the importance of it and let it go with the flow. 

To lighten up a little bit in the end, sometimes no matter what you do the result is like this:

image.thumb.png.b49a61ef1ead609b69cecffbfafe3d4a.png

 

https://xkcd.com/1726/

Edited by jair101

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We really work hard to nurture our community. Out of all the choices we had to build our community on, IPS made the most sense, as it has some amazing features. I just wish from the core, the developers would think more about DISCOVERY and ease of finding information, as well as navigation. The whole 3-4 clicks to get anywhere, and then have to scroll all over hoping to find a link BACK is crazy. We can only do the awesome things you said in your article WITH the right tools to keep community members happy. I do not at all regret my decision to move our community here, but I do want to really work with the devs here to focus in on what is MOST important.

The way that I always approach UI is ask myself, what are the 20 things people do MOST on the site. Knowing those 20 things, I make those the easiest to find and do. And then I build backward from there. Now that those things are easy, how can I stack without losing that flow.

It seems like development on here is more about the functionality of the plugins. Which IS important, don't get me wrong, but you can have all the amazing features in the world...but if navigation and discovery are hard...then those things don't matter.

Anyway, sorry for the rant on your post. It is just that I can see you think the same way we do. I want to know that we made the right choice to move our AWESOME community here. 🙂 

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