Demystifying Community Onboarding: How to get people to engage

Jaime Arredondo
June 28, 2022

Gathering a crowd can be challenging. But once you’ve gotten it together, getting it to collaborate can be even more challenging.

I’ve been part of many communities. Some that worked better than others. From tiny local communities to communities that worked across the globe through forums and Zoom.

Most were full of energetic and proactive people, but very few managed to work together for the long term. And I always wondered why. 

Whether you’re gathering a community for your local meetups, a group of volunteers or a community of open source contributors, it can be challenging to get people to engage and participate.

I recently finished Jono Bacon’s book People Powered, and it's a treasure chest full of practical tools. One of the tools that stood out the most was his framework to design community onboardings. It makes it easy for people to take part  and develop a sense of belonging that makes them want to come back.

And it’s important because it’s easy to get one of these community building steps wrong. And if you get one wrong, it can destroy the community’s potential to create amazing things together.

It’s 6 steps, but each one is crucial in getting people to participate and collaborate for the long run. If you’ve missed one, you can tweak your current onboardings. And if you’re already doing it right, you might get a few new ideas to get people to build more things together and stick around for longer.

Let’s take a look at Jono’s framework:

1. Why Participate? 

The first step involves a clear statement of why people should take time away from their family, friends, work and other interests to participate in your community.

What’s in it for them? What value will they get out of it?

These benefits could be: Contributing to a common mission that makes sense. Learning new skills. Getting support from others, getting visibility or meeting like-minded (or like-hearted) people.

Once you have this, you should include these benefits into your website. Explain the value of participating and a clear step-by-step for how to get started. 

When you’re up and running, the next step will be to tie it in into everything you do, whether it’s your communications, events and so on…

Let’s look at a few examples. 

In the Lego Ideas community platform, the site clearly explains who this community is for. It's for people who love getting imaginative with Lego Bricks and think of themselves as master builders.

And what’s in it for them for participating? They can share their creations and creativity, enter prize competitions, even make proposals for new Lego sets that people can vote, and be distributed commercially by Lego itself.

Source: Lego Ideas

Another great example is Wordpress’ Five for the Future. In this initiative, Wordpress encourages organizations to contribute five percent of their resources to its development.

And they are very clear about who it’s for and why it can serve those contributing. People can enjoy new learning opportunities. Contributing companies can find talent they can hire. And folks can even influence the directions Wordpress is going towards.


2. Setup Tools 

Before people start contributing something tangible they will need to set up the necessary tools, such as an article, a design, an answer to a question, or a piece of code.

Jono Bacon explains: 

“In your community this may require registering an account, familiarizing themselves with a website, installing software on their computer, or other tasks. This should be as simple and pain-free as possible.

In one community I saw, it took more than two hours to complete this step. This just isn’t acceptable. It needs to happen as quickly as possible.”

So give your participants simple instructions on how to get started, how to set up any tools, and the basics of using them. 

A great risk here is drowning people in text. Simple step-by-step guidance is the antidote to reassure and avoid overwhelm in your participants.

Peloton, which produces exercise equipment with live classes, is a good example. When they deliver your new bike or treadmill, they walk you through how to set it up, get you connected to their service, and show you how to get started. It is simple, clear, and effortless. If you want to see how they do it, you can just search for “Peloton unboxing” on youtube.

3. Build Skills

Your members have the motivation and tools ready. Now they need to learn how to participate. This again varies depending on the kind of person your community is for. 

Give them the basics they need to start delivering value to the community.

If you have a blog where people can submit their articles, you can provide them a guide on what they need to know and check before submitting a pitch. FreeCodeCamp has one of my favorite guides to help writers understand what they need to do to get published.  

The Repair Café has a guide to help participants understand how to organize repair workshops anywhere, and TED has a detailed guide to help organizers set up their own TEDx events.

Wordpress has guides for people to contribute code, translations, designs, documentation, trainings and many more things.

Reprap, the 3dprinting community, has a guide on how to help out, document and find the information they need about events and other resources.

4. Tangible Engagement

Your community is almost set. Your members know why they should participate, have the tools to do so, and know how to do it. They are ready to roll.

So it’s time to provide simple ways to connect your members with problems they can solve. Don’t let them figure this out on their own. They have already invested a lot of efforts to get here, so help them figure out what value to add. 

Many new community members don’t know how to get started. If you are running a software community, you can point new developers to simple bug reports they can start with (often tagged with “good first issue”).

You can also point towards popular pieces of content they can translate in their language. Or they can document an area that is lacking, organize an event in their own city, or join an existing organizer. If you’re running a forum, you can point your members to the posts that have no replies.

5. Create a Safe Space to Solve Your Members Problems 

Even if you’ve done everything right with your onboarding, your community members will hit speed bumps as they go through the process. And this will raise many questions and new problems to solve.

So always provide a space they can meet you and other members to ask questions and get help from more experienced participants.

This could be a discussion forum, Q&A website, regular meetups or anything else you can think of. Aside from just providing this place to ask for support, reassure them that questions are welcome.

When joining communities, many of us are worried we’ll look stupid. Make asking questions a normal part of the community experience.

In the beginning you and your team will need to field most of the answers to these questions, but as your community grows, other community members will start to help too.

6. Tangible Validation 

Finally, when your new community members have contributed something of value, celebrate it and recognize their contribution. 

As you can see, there is a lot involved going through the onboarding process—setting up tools, learning skills, producing value. When they successfully get through it, show your appreciation.

After jumping over all the initial hurdles of getting ready to participate, this step is the one that will help you instill in your new members a sense of belonging, recognition and connection to you and to the other members of the community. 

This can go from a private or public thank you note, to more complex systems of badges, gamification and rewards.

So if you're preparing a community, check that you’ve covered these six steps in your onboarding, and if you’re in an existing community that’s unraveling or never took off, take a look at which of these steps might be the weakest. I hope you’ll get a higher engagement from your community.

And if you want to learn more, take a look at Jono’s book People Powered. You’ll be glad you have access to the ton of useful frameworks he shares on building communities. And your communities will also be glad you’re better at gluing people together to make change happen.



It can be hard to design your own onboarding from scratch. I like to get some inspiration before I design and remix ideas from here and there. So if this is also useful to you, here are some great onboardings you can get inspiration and adapt to your own community:

Events and Education: TEDx community onboarding, TED Nominate, Dribbble Meetups onboarding, Meetup’s organiser guide
Translations: TED Translators onboarding
Food and Drinks
: Brewdog onboarding
For Software
: Wordpress, Laravel onboarding
For Hardware
communities: Sparkfun Support onboarding
For Designer
communities: Unsplash onboardings
For Retailers
: Harley Owner Groups Benefits
For Publications
: FreeCodeCamp’s Onboarding for writers and for editors
For Online groups:
FreeCodeCamp’s Moderator onboarding

Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash

Written by:
Jaime Arredondo
Creator at Bold & Open. Deconstructing how to turn radical ideas into transformative impact.

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