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These Features Will Take Your Online Community Engagement to the Next Level

Josh Mitchell, Director of Engineering
#Digital Strategy | Posted

You have a wicked cool technology product or service that people are clamoring to use. You are growing quickly and building your user base. And now that you have users, they want actual information and support…all the time.

So how  do you keep your users engaged and make sure they’re getting the information and support they need, when they need it?

Community sites can be an excellent way to connect a user base to each other and to official support and documentation. Done well, they can reduce the need for dedicated support services by automating common support tasks, and providing users with tools to help each other. Done poorly, they represent a drag on the growth of your organization’s reputation and brand.

I’ve built or improved a number  of community sites with a wide range of communities with different goals. Across all of these sites, I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t when it comes to  user engagement.

So what features contribute the most to your amazing community site? Read on.

Content must be relevant

It all starts with content.

It seems odd to call that a feature, but for engagement with a community, nothing else matters if there is no compelling reason to visit the site. The best community platforms connect you with the information you need to use the product or service. This can take several forms, but usually is a combination of curated content and user generated content.

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Curated content may include:

  • Posts that explain or introduce new features

  • Informative video and media resources

  • How-to guides written by product managers

  • Detailed documentation written by professional documentation writers

  • Calendar of upcoming opportunities to connect with experts using your product or service

When recruiting writers to produce this content, remember that the end result needs to be compelling as well as accurate.  Build in time to edit your subject matter experts’ work to make sure it’s accessible and engaging to your audience.

User generated content (UGC) may include:

  • Forums that let users answer questions and ask their own

  • Wiki-style documentation that allows power users to share their knowledge with others

  • Code contribution solutions—this is especially important for connecting with developers using your tools or technical professionals building solutions with your tools

So who are the U that are going to GC in your UGC? That brings us to your next power feature…

 

Users can easily join the community and feel good about doing it

The signup process is possibly the most important step in engagement with a new community member.

Does your community ask for a lot of personal data and give little in return? That will hurt your reputation. Start with the least information you need to start the engagement and give them an excellent onboarding email and landing page that helps them understand all the ways your community site will help them do what the site can help them do.

Social logins, such as logging into your site with Facebook or Google accounts, is a great way to quickly onboard a user. Quickly onboarding the people that will authenticate to access your site is your most important user experience. Depending on your product, you may want to provide a way for the users to create a separate account so they can maintain privacy or associate their account with a work address.

Stop spam on user generated content

Many community sites open themselves up to get the broadest base of users possible to contribute to user generated content.

Spam is an arms race for community sites that have public content. Content publishers have spent years learning how to fight spammers. Spammers have spent years coming up with ways to get around those measures. Nothing will sink a community site faster than spam.

Content moderation tools like Akismet are less effective now than they once were. For openly published communities with a limited content moderation budget, consider limiting a user’s access to your community until they have provided some valuable content to the community. For example,  allow a new user to post a question, but only existing community members can see the question until an answer has been posted, at which point the content becomes public.

Using content to help vet users and giving existing community members a way to report spam will help you keep your content clean and quickly engage new users into the community. When a user adds valuable content, they can be quickly elevated to roles that give them more permissions. When a user adds spam, they can be quickly banned.

Drupal.org has a rather ingenious way to tackle reporting spammers and also “confirm” new users to be real community members. The result of this process is that spammers get blocked and humans get a powerful bit of affirmation after contributing to the community.

Sites with closed content tend to see much less spam since there is less SEO value to publishing content on your domain.

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Security and Performance

Stopping spam also has a security benefit. Limiting access to potential bad actors in your community is key. Don’t stop at preventing bad files from being uploaded to your server. Take the time to harden your server and public touch points so that your community is rock solid.

The community you are building is entrusting you with some of their information, even if it is just an email address, and you had better protect it if you want your product to continue to have their support.

The community site should also be as performant as possible. Several user research studies have pointed to speed as a primary trait in whether your content is trusted. Fast sites indicate well supported sites that contain more valuable information.

Users can find what they needed fast

Speaking of speed, search has to work—being both quick and intuitive. If the site content is available to the public, you search engine optimization (SEO) must be stellar. Many community sites put some or all of their content behind authentication. If that is the case, there has to be excellent site search built into the feature set. Solr and Elasticsearch are two excellent options for providing a powerful index of content.

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The content must also be well structured and categorized so that dynamic views of content can be shown to users at just the right moment. These taxonomies can also be user generated depending on the community, but it is key to have a curation and governance plan to optimize those relationships. It pays to invest in a good information architecture as part of the overall user experience planning for your site.

Reward your most engaged users

Your community site should let your power users know how much you appreciate them. While I have never been a huge fan of badges, displaying engagement metrics on user profiles within your community can be used to create delight and foster continued engagement for your high-value users, as well as incentivize beginners to start being more active on the site. .

More than gamifying, you want people to enjoy participating in the community.

Your organization should show that appreciation with more than just some text on a profile. Incentivize good behavior with more tangible benefits like additional permissions, giveaways, and perhaps most powerful of all, the occasional thank you note (or email) signed by a person in your organization. There’s no substitute for the  human touch.

Allow users to self-organize

On many community sites, the ability to self-identify with like-minded users creates an opportunity for increased engagement. Users are more likely to post meaningful and useful content when they know the audience to which they are sharing.

Allow your users to create internal groups organically or with help from the data they provide you about themselves. These relationships will go a long way towards making your community truly communal in nature.

The platform integrations matter

Engaging user onboarding experience, ongoing rewards for participation, and really great content all matter more than the technology you use, but I nearly always turn to Drupal as a core part of a community website build because it makes those features easy to deliver out of the box.  

You need to think about how your platform will integrate with external services and social media. Do your users go into an engagement pipeline tracked in Salesforce? Can you integrate your support ticketing system with your community site? Is your community already engaged in a service outside of your organization's control—Stack Exchange for example. And you need to integrate with that service or have your internal subject matter experts join that community.

Drupal 8 provides an excellent base for integrating external services while providing a powerful content management base.

Is it time to rethink your community strategy?

The choice of how you engage with your community is yours, but the key features reviewed above will make that engagement much more powerful. 

Want to read more about community? See the top five community platform trends here, and if you’re ready to dive into a community build check out these tips for garnering stakeholder support.

Josh Mitchell

Josh Mitchell

Director of Engineering