Community Management

The Ultimate Guide to Community Onboarding – Engaging and Retaining your members

Onboarding is the first step in your engagement and retention strategy When we hear the term — continue reading
Posted by Moritz Arendt
January 18, 2023

You only get one opportunity to make a great first impression. Showing immediate value and activating new members are crucial first steps in creating an engaged community. Successful community onboarding goes beyond just registration and platform acclimatization. It is a long game. Yet, many online community leaders struggle with it. This article examines why onboarding is important and how to plan for success, including a video interview that provides an example of onboarding by Open Social’s Xynteo community.

Onboarding is the first step in your engagement and retention strategy

When we hear the term “onboarding” we tend to only think of the functional process that someone is led through when they join something for the first time, mostly focused on getting to know a platform, rules, and guidelines. This is part of it, of course, but there’s way more to it. Onboarding isn’t just about acclimatizing your members – it is the first (and one of the most important) stage in your engagement- and retention strategy.

A common misconception around onboarding is that it only takes place at the start or immediately after registration. But onboarding doesn’t stop at the first visit. Or the second. Or the third. Onboarding is part of your long-term engagement strategy. Anything you do to increase the likelihood of someone staying and engaging is part of the onboarding journey. Community is a long game. Onboarding is a long game.

The aim of member onboarding and activation is to create momentum until a critical mass, and a network effect, is created, in which more discussions ignite more discussions, and your members attract more members.

Before you have reached this critical mass, you need to attract members yourself.

The big question of successful onboarding is: How to move from onboarding and activation to creating habits?

Research shows that you need, on average, 66 days of momentum and getting your new members to log in regularly to become a habit. 

When something is a habit, we no longer need to actively decide whether we do or do not want to do something; it happens automatically. So when a new community member signs up, we want someone to stick around for at least 66 days. If they do, there is a good chance that it will become a routine (Staal, Peter; Wagenaar, Kirsten. Organising Communities: Identifying, connecting and facilitating (p. 108). Bind BV. Kindle Edition).

Show immediate community value

As community leader Sarah Hawk and many others claim: You should make it as easy as possible for people to interact with the community for the reason they came to it in the first place. 

Especially with an owned community platform, you immediately need to show relevant value to members. You only get one first chance after members have made the effort to sign up for your platform. You need to make the most of this first opportunity.

This immediate community value should directly link to the purpose of your community, addressing the needs of the new member (as identified in your member research as part of your community strategy).

What do you want your members to primarily focus on to get the most value out of their experience? You only get one chance to get this right and don’t want to overwhelm people.

Why is immediate activation as part of onboarding important for creating an engaged community? 

Research by Richard Millington on community data (as presented in his book “Build Your Community”) shows that: “Once members have registered, it’s critical they make their first contribution as quickly as possible. The odds of someone participating decline sharply with every passing hour between registering and making a contribution. Most newcomers either participate immediately or never at all.”

Research by Open Social confirms the importance of quickly getting new members to post, comment, join an event or a group, or even like something. Accumulated data on Open Social’s community platforms shows that the group that performs any one of these 4 interactions in the first month, has double the retention rate in comparison to other active users. This effect is still visible even six months later.

Therefore, you should invite newcomers to contribute immediately. Your goal is to get someone onto the first step of the engagement pyramid by assuring they have a great first community experience

Platform and community onboarding

There are two broad perspectives to onboarding: Process and function, or in other words: platform and community. You need to onboard people to your platform (give them the knowledge they need to use it without feeling overwhelmed) and to your community (give them clear paths to find the info they are looking for and help them create connections that will ultimately support retention).

The platform onboarding can be done by using user guides, training videos, chatbots, virtual open houses, or personal tours. It can be relatively easy, especially if you have some interactive user guide functionality already built in.

Screenshot: user guide created by Xynteo
Example of a User Guide created by Xynteo, divided into small steps, as presented by Dale Walker during his online interview on how Xynteo is onboarding new members onto the Xynteo Reef platform

The process required to onboard people to your community depends on the type of community that you’re building. The onboarding to a Support community (which is all about how fast people can find answers) will be very different from a Community of Practice (where it’s about connecting and empowering people by persuading them to take certain actions). There is no “one size fits all”.

The key for both platform and community onboarding is to always show value and explain why you ask them to take certain steps. Take a member’s perspective and ask: What is in it for me?

Many communities overwhelm newcomers with questions and long onboarding journeys when they first join. These are often geared towards giving us the information that we think we need to target them in our engagement strategy later on.

What’s in it for them? Social science teaches us that people need to be intrinsically motivated to demonstrate behavior that isn’t fulfilling a basic need. This isn’t about you; it’s about them. If you want people to fill out that form, you must clearly demonstrate the immediate benefit they will get from doing so.

Defining your onboarding goals

How do you design your onboarding purposefully to align with your community strategy goals?

First, regardless of the type of community, you need to define a very clear community objective. How do you want members to interact in a way that creates value for the whole community? What do you want to become their regular habit? What do you want new members to do? Once you have that, you can build your onboarding user journey around it.

Here’s an example of a simple process of baby steps in an onboarding journey:

  1. Encourage immediate engagement aligned with your primary community objective (i.e.: Join a group to find relevant peers or Share your challenge)
  2. Fill out your profile to make better connections
  3. Follow tags to find useful content
  4. Join an event

As people progress through the steps, they become more emotionally connected to their community. Plan the steps carefully so that each one adds value to their experience and gets them closer to addressing their goals and needs. Encourage each new behavior.

You can use email flows designed to encourage one specific action, which should align with a step in your onboarding journey. The first step might be to ask them to introduce themselves in a specific group for newcomers and share a challenge that they think should be discussed during the next online event. A second email a week later could share some new relevant content or resources, explaining how to find these easily using tags on the platform. A third one might describe your culture and the types of interactions you would like to see, referring to the User Guides, “How to contribute” or “Getting started” page (see examples below). A fourth email could be about learning new skills or sharing best practices at an upcoming event, etc. Make sure every email contains one Call To Action.

Plan these steps carefully as part of your onboarding journey, monitor how they perform, and be prepared to change and update them.

3 aspects of onboarding

As part of its ongoing product development, Open Social has identified three aspects of onboarding:

  1. First contact onboarding
  2. Task-oriented onboarding
  3. Continuous onboarding

Immediate value at first contact onboarding is related to inviting newcomers to join groups and follow tags to show immediate community value. Open Social is developing a wizard for first-contact onboarding to create baby steps for newcomers and help them understand what to do next. This can be broken up into tasks to do now and tasks that can be done later (task-oriented onboarding).

Offering information at the right time to the right users is vital for successful onboarding.  Open Social is working on implementing Gamification milestones for continuous onboarding to create milestones per level in the Community Experience Pyramid.

The milestones are a modular system that can be set up flexibly to fit each community’s goals. Community managers can combine a set of actions and tie them to a reward. For the end user, their progress is tracked, and they will get a reward after finishing them. The Milestones are tied to a level system, and with each new level, new milestones will be available with more complex tasks. This will allow Community managers to create a narrative around the journey users take and guide users to meaningful growth within the platform.



GIF: Animated Gamification Milestones
Example of Open Social’s Milestones extension; create modular goals for your members


Another, more simple, example of a checklist of progression indicators from the Pinside community:

Checklist of progression indicators from the Pinside community

More examples of first actions

Richard Millington suggests that after registration (which should be kept as simple as possible, using an email address and a name only), ask your members to do two things when they join your community:

  1. Reply to a welcome thread to introduce yourself
  2. Start a discussion to ask a question or challenge you could use help with

Here are some examples and tips for first actions:

Welcome threads

Ideally, the Community Manager creates a welcome thread where she/he and other members introduce themselves in an open way. Do not be afraid to be vulnerable by, for instance, using a personal video, as vulnerability ignites trust and might persuade others to also be more open in their outreach.

Help newcomers ask questions

Create a Newcomers Group to create a safe place to ask “dumb questions”. Structuring it in a group ensures you provide a relevant experience for members at different engagement levels.

Working Out Loud

Ask new members to share what they are working on at the moment to make it easier for others to connect based on specific needs and common characteristics and provide immediate value. This method obviously also works well for newcomers who do not have a specific question yet.

Use welcome emails, direct messages, and platform notifications to guide members to take at least one of these two actions when they first join your community.

“Getting started” pages

Setting up a “How to contribute” or “Choose your own adventure” page is a great opportunity to take new and existing members by hand and help them choose how to contribute to the community.  They force you to think about the different member journeys and how to make these as simple as possible. Here are two great examples for inspiration:

The “Choose your own adventure” page of the Atlassian Community
The “Choose your own adventure” page of the Atlassian Community


The “Choose your own adventure” page of CMX
The “Choose your own adventure” page of CMX

Software helps, but a personal approach works best

Personally welcoming each new member is much more time-consuming, but works best. Send a PM to every new member. Tag them in welcome posts. And please note that you do not have to do this alone. You could set up a welcome committee with ambassadors to divide tasks.

A personal approach works really well for small or new communities and is a great way of building cohesion and setting the right culture amongst early members.

Be creative

Make your onboarding fun and different.

Do a community onboarding Bingo like the Mural Community:

Creative Onboarding Gamification example of the MIRO community
Creative Onboarding Gamification example of the MIRO community

Do a welcome party or a “Virtual Open House”. A Welcome Party is a great method for immediately solidifying bonds between new members. Deb Schell, who is also part of the Community Consultants Collective, suggests this format for doing online welcome parties, ideal for groups of 20-30 people:

  1. Do a central welcome
  2. Use breakout rooms in Zoom for one-on-one networking (you could also consider using a Zoom-integrated online matchmaking tool like Twine)
  3. After the breakout rooms, ask them to share what they have learned about the other person.
  4. You can do a quick tour of the platform during the welcome party in the second part of the session. You can also log on simultaneously with all participants and do a live Q&A for all new members.

You could make it a regular, like a monthly event to create cohorts of new members, as they might not be able to join the first time.

3 tips for planning for success pre-launch 

Tip 1: Start small!

This has been my community strategy adagium for a while now, as it refers to so many aspects of community building: “It is not: Build it, and they will come, but: Build it with them, and they are already there!”. All successful communities start small and are built bottom-up instead of top-down.

In the pre-launch period, you can use this principle when planning for your launch:

  1. Start small with a select group of ambassadors. This ensures members are not showing up as the “first person at a party”, and the platform is seeded with relevant content. It also makes sure the right social culture and cohesion are being created.
  2. Launch in several smaller phases instead of an all-in-one “big-bang” launch. This helps every member have the best and most relevant first impression of the community. It also makes sure new members can be personally welcomed by relevant peers.
Tip 2: Align with your community strategy

Onboarding does not work well if it is not aligned with a well-defined community strategy.

Always start your community strategy by doing member research! This ensures you are providing relevant value, related to existing questions, problems, needs, or goals of your target group, and that members can identify with these. Naturally, this makes it much more likely people will stick around.

Tip 3: KISS

KISS – Keep it simple, stupid! Do not overwhelm your members.

Plan to make onboarding a longer process. It does not end at registration. Think about onboarding journeys in which you ask your members to take simple baby steps. Make your onboarding fun and different, and make the member understand how they can contribute and what their place is in the community.

Bonus tip: Add Rhythm, Repetition, and Consistency to your engagement strategy

Creating recurring, regular rituals to facilitate and amplify your community culture are a great way to shape an engagement plan. Use a regular column, theme, or “member of the month” as an angle to create a rhythm for interaction and build habits amongst members.

Example: How is Xynteo onboarding new members?

Watch this video in which Open Social’s Strategy Consultant interviews Dale Walker of Xynteo on how they are onboarding new members to the Xynteo Reef platform.

Video Community Onboarding & Activation

How are you onboarding new members?

Are any tips missing? Any more creative examples you have seen? Please share!

In this article we discuss

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