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In face-to-face networking situations, it's easy to get stuck with "that person" who won't stop oversharing about themselves.

By the time you've grabbed two appetizers from the buffet, you're familiar with their entire medical history and the current political climate in their office. 

But in online networking situations, or online communities, it can be extremely difficult to elicit personal information from members.

The community administrator or moderator team is (of course) interested in learning as much as possible about community members to support:

  • Marketing communications segmentation
  • Tailoring content and programming
  • Connecting them with other members with similar interests
  • Serving appropriate ads (sometimes)
  • Discovering customer preferences and needs

Community members' comfort with self-disclosure is often based on timing, the format of the request, and environmental cues.

Let's run through each of these factors to explore how you can make your members comfortable enough to share.


There's a huge mental difference between the information you provide when you first register for a community and the information you're willing to share once you're an established participant.

Community managers can acknowledge that mental gap by only making minimal "asks" during registration, and then prompting members to add more detailed profile information later. For example, you could set up a recipe that sends a "profile completion prompt" email to members a month after they've registered.

Format of the Request

Dropdown menus and radio buttons are very simple to use, and take almost no effort on the part of the member. However, a giant empty field that says "Bio" can seem intimidating.

Think about breaking down your profile information requests so that they are very simple and quick to complete. If you want biographical information, break it down into "education," "career moves" and "favorite ice cream" rather than a big blank space.

The format includes privacy as well. If you're requesting disclosure of potentially sensitive information, you might want to make the profile field private. Data points like phone number or address are much more likely to be completed if they are kept private.

Environmental Cues

Recently, there was a social sharing study published that explored all of the various cues that prompt members to disclose personal information. One of the findings was that visual cues can influence this behavior, including the display of other members' disclosed information (shows that it's OK to share) and even the use of images of eyes (called surveillance primes).

"...people strive to adhere to privacy norms in SNSs, and that explicit cues, primes, and even the sequence of information disclosure can significantly affect privacy-related behavior on these sites. 

Consider using images of actual people within your community, especially in spaces where you're seeking self-disclosure. Also think about including widgets or highlights that demonstrate that others have already shared as well.

One other key element is showing your members that they have some degree of control over their own privacy settings (whether they are shown as "live" on the site, whether their birthday is visible, whether others can send them private messages, etc.). If you're running a community where you're trying to encourage a lot of self-disclosure, you may want to immediately point to these private settings (perhaps in your welcome email) to psychologically bolster their sense of security within the community. 

How are you tackling self disclosure and establishing trust in your community?

Study quote: Spottswood, E. L. and Hancock, J. T. (2017), Should I Share That? Prompting Social Norms That Influence Privacy Behaviors on a Social Networking Site. J Comput-Mediat Comm. doi:10.1111/jcc4.12182

Title image via Flickr CC: Brian Smithson

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