You've got a core group of early members, and the first inklings of a community, but it's a small batch of embers that you'd like to gently blow on to create a roaring fire.
If you blow too forcefully (ie, start posting like a maniac yourself), you'll put out the spark.
If you just let it sit there, it might die out on its own.
So what's the correct balance?
There are three keys at this stage of the community-building process:
- Creating a Content Center of Gravity
- Learning What Your Members Need
- Immediate, Delightful Reinforcement
Note that tactics for encouraging participation will change over the course of time. Once you have a mature community, the needs will change, and so will your strategy. These tactics work best for a fairly new community that already has 20-50 members registered.
1. Create a Content "Center of Gravity"
Whether your community site is supporting a business with products, a hobby, or a group of professionals, one of the best things you can do is start creating and sharing compelling, useful content. That could be photos, PDFs, tutorial videos, or blog posts.
The content will provide both a reason to keep returning to the site and something to react to. (Side bonus, it will help your search engine visibility too.) If you are resource-constrained, choose your best tool and go for it. Don't try to scattershot across content types until you've built up a bit.
Hopefully you will also consider allowing your members to share rich content as well---sometimes a member who feels too timid to post a forum topic might be willing to upload a photo.
2. Learn What Your Members Need
You absolutely need to know why your members (or potential members) will value the community. And the only real way to know that is to ask them. This question can come in your welcome email, in a poll topic, or behind the scenes on the phone (hey, great idea, how about connecting with your members face-to-face?)
If you're in a business where you have contact with your prospective members all the time (as in a support community or best practices community), why not ask them what they would find useful in an online community?
3. Offer Immediate, Delightful Reinforcement
The second someone shares on your community for the first time, you need to make sure that they get immediate positive reinforcement. You can go in and comment, or pose a followup question, or (even better) get another member to give them a high five. Think about introducing members behind the scenes if you feel they could help each other. Those relationships can be valuable for everyone!
Consider some type of secret handshake or surprise for someone who reaches the "fifth post" milestone. Send them a handwritten note, a sticker, give them a special badge to put on their other social profiles, or do something that will let them know you NOTICED them specifically.
What are your strategies for getting the roaring fire going in your community?
Image courtesy of Insanephotoholic (Flickr CC)