Helping you think through your community onboarding process

Earlier this week, Danielle asked an important question about the topics we don’t talk about enough in community building:

There were a number of great responses, so I highly recommend checking it out. But this one, in particular, caught my eye.

A few months ago, I led a small group of community builders and we spent an entire month diving into community member onboarding, so Philip’s response inspired me to share what I’ve learned and start a conversation in Rosieland on onboarding.

Here are some of the key lessons and takeaways I learned about what makes for successful onboarding, why it’s so important, and how we can make that process smooth for everyone. (*Bonus*: if you read to the end, I’ve also included all the resources I gathered up during the month).

Start small with a minimum viable onboarding experience

I’ve noticed an overarching theme when it comes to onboarding— across the board, it’s overwhelming. Whether it’s caused by the different things that you “need” to create to make an onboarding system, or if you’re worried about overwhelming new members as they join your community and the ranks.

Consider this your permission slip — your onboarding process (like many other things in building a community) will not be perfect.  That’s part of being human.  You cannot possibly predict everything every person will need; nor should you try to provide everything.  Some will learn best via the community itself. Rather, take the time to start with an iterative, minimum viable onboarding experience.

Breaking down the minimum viable onboarding experience

To get started, zoom out and take some time to visualize and think about the following:

  • What should a new member know when joining the community?
  • What kind of experience do I want new members to have?
  • How do I want new members to feel when they join?
  • How can I help them feel welcome and a sense of belonging?

Getting clear on your answers to these questions will help you prioritize how you approach creating your onboarding process. We’ve all been the new kid on the block at least once in our lives — think back to those days, what would have made your experience easier.

Personally, I’m a fan of the buddy system or community-centric learning.  Through following a buddy through the ranks or learning in a group or cohort together, we can reduce the feeling of new-kid-on-the-block.

Guide members to the experience you want them to have

What actions can you prompt new members to take that will help guide them to the experience you want them to have?

Why should you focus on actions taken by new members? Because a new member's motivation to take action is highest immediately after they join.  They’re excited!  They are now a part of something — so give them something to do!

If they take the first action, they're more likely to take the next (and so on and so forth). When members feel empowered to take action, they become more invested in your community.  And when folks are more invested in the community, it becomes a better place to be!

Great examples of actions for onboarding include:

  • Welcome each member and give them a “tour” where should they reach out for help? Who is the community manager? How and when should they be contacted?
  • What resources are provided to community members? Where can they find these?
  • Where are the community guidelines? What should I do in case of community guidelines are broken or need help/assistance?

Now that your new community member has the answers to the questions they need – take time to make sure they know what to expect.

Set expectations during onboarding

Setting expectations is an important, and often overlooked part of welcoming new members into a community. Help your new members understand what the experience is going to be like— what's inbounds, what's out of bounds, what commitment is expected of them, and where things might be different than other communities they've been in before.

They won't take the action you're asking them to take if they don't know what's in bounds and what's out of bounds. It won't matter if they know how to create a post in whatever forum or platform you've chosen if they don't know how to show up.

Looking at your current onboarding process— here’s my quick checklist to make sure that your community members have what they need.

  • How are you actively familiarizing people with your community's core values, beliefs, purpose, rules, and guidelines?
  • Where is there an opportunity to communicate what your members need to know about being a good member?
  • Do they know how and where to get started?

Help members get through your onboarding process by focusing on their "why"

Members join your community to achieve a specific goal or experience a specific transformation, and they have an emotional connection to that goal, and it’s important to keep that in mind when designing your onboarding process.

"Shift your focus from getting [members] ready to use your product to getting them ready to achieve their goals. When making requests of them during technical and functional onboarding, mention these goals and let them know exactly how the task will push the needle for them. These little reminders should help to maintain the emotional connection, and get them to the other side of the onboarding process." —  Growth Bites Indie Hackers

Think of onboarding like you're welcoming people to a party

The holidays looked a little different this year (as has almost everything), and while we weren’t able to attend any holiday parties, I found it helpful to reflect on them in terms of onboarding to remind me of the people behind the process.

I think dividing communities as online versus offline isn’t helpful to community leaders who are actively thinking about what they’re doing, like how to make the best decisions right now to cultivate a stronger group...True communities are simply groups of people who keep coming together about what they care about. Nowhere in that does it define this group of people as an online or offline thing.”—Kevin Huynh

Think of a holiday (or other) party you've hosted in the past — when your guests arrived, what did you do? I'm guessing you greeted them with a welcoming message, chatted a little, maybe showed them where to put their coat or find a bathroom, and introduced them to people you think they may enjoy connecting with (or, if you're one of my friends, you'd show me where the dog is 🐕).

In terms of "minimum viable onboarding," it's really that simple—make them feel welcome and seen when they arrive; give them just enough information ("the bathroom is down the hall") and context that they know generally what to expect for the night ("dinner will be served at 8, white elephant exchange to follow"); and connect them with others to spark conversation (and yes, if you have a dog and are in a community that I’m a part of - please send dog pictures!)

Onboarding is your opportunity to welcome new members to your community “party” and set the tone for the rest of their time there—be thoughtful and intentional about how you do it.


Credit + Thanks

Along with the resources above, most of what I’ve learned about onboarding has been from Tara McMullin and her team at What Works Network.

Thank you!

How can we build better communities?

We are on a quest to learn and explore what makes great communities.


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