How to make the most out of your community engagement software in 2021

Remote collaboration was the top priority for businesses in 2020, and now the focus has shifted to perfecting their community engagement. Keeping people interested and actively participating is the challenge of the day for community builders everywhere, while the harsh competition of all other apps and social media platforms easily steals the attention of our community members at all times.

As there are so many things fighting for each member’s attention, digital community building is more challenging than ever. Whether you’re building a community for your existing or potential customers, good managers can and should think beyond e-mails and push notifications.

At the core of community management is a community manager doing things that don’t scale. According to community building consultant Rosie Sherry, everything starts with:

  • Thoroughly researching your market
  • Becoming acquainted with your members
  • Actively starting conversations

While software alone doesn’t run the community, it can definitely help the community manager schedule an additional coffee break or two and prevent burnout from the manual activities. You can use one, two, or more apps to keep track of your data, conversations and activities, but the best practices remain the same.

Below you can learn how specific actions and practical strategies can make your community building more effective.

Prepare well before you go hunting

Before setting out to find the perfect software stack for your community, you should have a clear idea of what you’re looking for. There is a tool for everything, but there’s never one tool that’s good for everything. Brainstorm the functionality you really need, and have the list written down when you start comparing.

Try to keep the list worded as goals, not features. There may be different ways to achieve the same thing, and you may pass on an excellent application because it serves the same goal in a different way that you imagined.

Here’s a few examples how you could list your needs:

  • I want to post challenges and track which users have completed the challenge
  • I want to send direct messages to users
  • I want users to get a notification when someone responds to their public message
  • I want to see a monthly leaderboard of user activity metrics such as messages posted or challenges completed

Make the list long, then group similar things. Now you’re well equipped to look at your options and determine which apps check off most of your needs.

Get personal – software providers are part of the community, too

It’s not usually easy to understand the full capabilities of any software tool just by looking at the website and basic tutorial. If there is a trial or free version available, you can sign up and check the features. Look around and try to create some of your expected workflows – can you figure out how to build the processes on your list?

If the app looks promising, you can cut your learning curve shorter by requesting a demo or training session from the provider. Most solution makers will be thrilled to help you use their product better. Usually there’s a chatbot or a form on the website where you can request or book a session. If you’ve done your first research well, it will be a super efficient way to check off your list.

By sharing your wishlist you’re also giving excellent feedback to the software provider. Maybe they’re already planning to provide some of your dream features with their next update, maybe they’ll be inspired to put your suggestions on their internal request board.

Whether they’ll actually provide a perfect app for you or not, your feedback will help the company build better software for all community managers.

Do the research, read the reviews

If you’re not up for a personal outreach, you can still get a lot of insights from watching product walkthrough videos. If there are any superfans out there, they might have created some templates or videos where you can see how others are using the same tool.

You can also connect with other community managers who are using the same solution and are vocal about it on social media. Or do a shout-out in a peer group to hear what others have got to say about the solution.

Researching your tool will require a bit of time but the payout is huge when you get the software right at your first try. Changing platforms is an inconvenience that not only costs you additional time and money, but ends up losing a considerable amount of users in the process.

Take the lead on conversations

Talking directly to your audience should not be intimidating. Use your platform to test different ideas and ways of communication. Do not stick immediately to one format, rather just watch what works best for your audience.

Alice Katter, a brand and community strategist, recently launched Out Of Office, a community of home-based professionals working through the COVID pandemic. She began this community with a series of Zoom calls in which the members got to know each other, took a break from their daily work, talked and brainstormed on different topics.

“My approach is to dive into communities and culture, conducting cultural research and help brands develop strategies to find ways to communicate with their audiences and communities via the platforms they love and in ways that resonate with them.” she explains.

The results of these early trials should be measured in terms of engagement and other “soft” results. Are your members coming back? Are they getting offline benefits out of their online participation in your community? In the case of Katter, after a few weeks of starting the community she saw how a member was able to find a new position thanks to participating in Out of Office.

“The lesson for brands and businesses here is to start small. Start with a core group of people who really care. Stop trying to talk to everyone and be everything, but instead focus on a small group of people that you can be relevant for and provide them with the content, experience or product they really need and that gets them excited.” she concludes.

Make your software friendly for your members

Once your community starts talking, it is key to keep them engaged. Malin Sandström, INCF Community Engagement Office, offers community managers some tips to help your users adopt your community engagement software:

  • Make your community easy to find.
  • Make it easy for your users to publish their first contribution.
  • Pin the topics currently most relevant.
  • Clearly communicate how your members can contribute to the community.
  • Have a Code of Conduct with contact details to a human community manager with a first and last name.

Making your software platform a friendly place includes a great deal of moderation (because no one likes trolls!). Managers should set and communicate from the get-go what gets a post deleted and how discussion is moderated. Since this is a time-consuming process, you can decide to have a set of moderators like many reddit communities have.

If you decide to recruit a moderation team, make sure they perfectly know the rules of the game and that they reinforce communication (by personally replying) and user networking (by tagging users in discussions where their input is useful). Moderators should feel empowered to notice and report any community issue as it arises. Remember, communicate, communicate, communicate!

Nurture the network

The days in which a new follower mattered are gone. Beyond reaching a x or y number of likes, focus on acquiring actually devoted and active users. Depending on the tool you are using, you can invite the most active to become moderators and conversation starters, or even allow the community to decide this on their own. Participation is key, so you should create rewards that reward users for replying or giving useful feedback.

Ryan Paugh, COO of consulting firm The Community Company, points out the main benefit of focusing on creating interactions:

“Your goal should be for a “network effect” to take hold in your community. The value of your product should increase exponentially with each user, and this usually requires a manual process that you can’t scale immediately.” he states.

In the case of work communities, should managers focus on the time users spend in their community or the percentage of participation? Andre S. Avramchuk, assistant professor of management at CSULA, considers that community managers should look beyond the data dashboard of their solutions:

“Even if the only result of an employee group’s gathering is its stronger relationships, it is a good result and one that may propel the employees to higher levels of effectiveness in what they routinely do,” he explains.

As you can see, there is a great deal of legwork required to make a community management solution work for you. If you haven’t found the right fit, read our list of useful softwares we recommend. By using your favorite tool in appropriate ways, you will make sure you are building a quality community that is respectful, listens to their users and provides great feedback to the management team.