How to Optimize Your Membership Site with Smart Systems
April 11, 2019
Online communities within membership sites can be one of the most valuable features of a site to its members and one of the most effective retention strategies to employ as the site owner.
Mike Morrison has this great phrase with so much truth behind it, often on a membership site “people come for the content and stay for the community.” Some type of group interaction like a forum or Facebook Group can be the differentiator between a membership site where people show up, consume the content, and churn before the 90-day mark, verses those who stick around for many months or even years because of the value and relationships they’re getting from that group interaction.
Granted, an online community is neither valuable nor appropriate in every scenario, but those are often the exception rather than the rule.
At the outset, running an online community requires a great deal of intentionality, time, and cultivation. Starting a community is not a decision that should be taken lightly, but when done well, the benefits far outweigh the costs.
Whether you have an existing community or are thinking of creating one, begin with the end in mind. Meaning, cast a vision for what a successful community would look like within your membership offering and work backwards to create your strategy for bringing that vision to life. Write down what your ideal membership community would look like: What kinds of discussions would happen there? How will participants get the most value from it? What does a “successful” community look like in my mind?
Once you have a broad vision of your ideal community, start asking yourself: How can I write out rules and guidelines for participation so that my vision can come to fruition over time? How do I get new members to feel comfortable participating? How much would I like to personally participate? Who else could help me implement my vision? What would I need in terms of content moderation? How much discussion would I need to seed in the beginning and as time goes on so the community doesn’t look like a ghost town?
Set the Right Expectations for New Members
As with every part of running your site that involves prospective and current members, proper expectation setting from the get-go will save you many headaches. Your marketing should reflect your community accurately. Hopefully that means a kind, welcoming, helpful bunch of people who are invested in each other’s success. Then, during the onboarding process, make sure you get your community’s rules and guidelines in front of, and ideally agreed upon, by the new member when they create their user profile. On an ongoing basis, it’s your responsibility to enforce those rules (yourself and through moderators) and cultivate the community you cast the vision for from the beginning.
When a new member scans through member discussions, the attitude of the community should reflect how it was advertised. If you have welcoming forum participants, your new members will be far more likely to jump in without fear of being berated and embarrassed.
If you have an established community that needs some work, changing the culture can be tricky, but it’s certainly doable. If you suddenly start clamping down with a bunch of new rules, that might be really disruptive and not accepted by current participants. Positive changes will likely need to be phased in over time very strategically. Start interacting more yourself, seed discussion, and work with some of your positive, influential community members to adopt your new vision and be change agents for others. Community curation is a long-term play. Cast a vision and get others to help you implement it to stay on track.
Create a Vision for Your Community
It probably comes as no surprise that the first part of creating systems for your online community is to cast a vision for it and write it down. This may seem silly, but as soon as you start to bring on moderators and delegate some responsibilities, this vision document will come in handy.
Next, set forth rules and expectations for community participation based on your vision statement. Write these down and get all participating community members to agree to follow them. Include what happens when rules are broken – even eventual dismissal from the membership.
Now start your process document which will outline in detail things like: how often you participate and what kinds of discussion you engage in, how and what kinds of conversations are seeded, moderation rules, what time zones you need moderators in, how you want your moderators to interact, how you will encourage (through onboarding and beyond) your members to be active community contributors, any relevant technical details, and so on.
It might seem ridiculous to write this all out, but the reason is twofold: so you have a decision making framework from which to refer so you can run your community in a way that aligns with your original vision, and so you are able to delegate tasks more easily in the future.
If you need to seed discussion in your community, here are a few ideas on how to do that:
- If your tech allows, have a discussion thread automatically start in your forum for each piece of content you release. This way all conversation regarding that piece is in the same place, even for future members.
- During onboarding, prompt new members to start a progress thread for themselves. Have a specific forum within your community for these individual threads so they don’t clutter other conversation and ensure that you and your moderators are reading through these threads, encouraging members, and providing advice when appropriate. If your members are tracking their own progress it’s easy to prove the value of your membership because you have a very tangible way of seeing how far each person has come since they joined.
- Ask what people are struggling with in regard to your membership topic. This serves as a great place for you to grab new content ideas and address problem areas head-on.
- Ask each new member to introduce themselves on a special forum just for introductions. Make sure staff members are proactively welcoming those new members and ask other community members to do so as well.
With regard to your personal participation, it’s good to set accurate expectations for how often you will be directly participating in the discussion forum community. So, if you are in the community day in and day out, people will expect you to be there day in and day out, 24/7/365. People treat you the way that you teach them to treat you. And so if the expectation you’re setting is that you will always be around the forum, you’re going to be expected to fulfill that, which is just not sustainable long term.
How to Be There for Your Members
It’s likely that a lot of your members joined your site to be able to interact with you directly, so you need to show up, but as with every other task you need to repeat regularly, set aside time to be active in your community and stick with it. It’s distracting and highly inefficient to jump from one task to another, effectively putting out fires all day. Being reactive in your business instead of proactive comes with a high cost.
If you have people on your team who can speak intelligently about your membership topic, assign those people days and times (cover all relevant time zones) where they are in the discussion forum, paying attention and actively responding to members’ questions. Having staff members, a VA, a trusted sub-set of members, and/or moderators able to engage with the community on your behalf is necessary for sustainable growth and a vibrant community.
Again, follow the steps above take the time to create a PD for explaining your approach to curating the community. This process document will allow you onboard new moderators, a membership or community manager, or any other necessary staff member with relative ease.
There aren’t too many automations to be had for community management – it’s a lot of hands-on work. However, ensure you can tag individuals within conversation threads and receive notifications for those and that you can automatically have a discussion thread created for each relevant content piece you publish.
A successful membership community is one reflects your vision, is active, and clearly fosters a group dynamic of encouraging and helping each other. Creating a PD and applicable automations will position you to delegate, scale, and stay sane.
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