Belonging is a fundamental human need. It’s right up there in Maslow’s Hierarchy — in the third tier, it’s almost as essential to our ability to thrive as food, water, and shelter.
As social creatures, all humans yearn to be accepted members of a group, to feel supported, secure, welcome, and appreciated.
Community offers just that — typically at scale. Cultivating a sense of belonging amongst your members is crucial to your community’s success.
When people feel that they belong to your community, they’re more likely to return, contribute, and become unofficial ambassadors by inviting others to join.
In my experience, these members are the best participants. They’re happier to share and do so consistently. The more your members do that, the more value they add to the community. These interactions, in turn, create more ways for new members to interact and connect, encouraging a sense of belonging for them as a result.
The stronger the sense of belonging in your community, the stronger it will be, and the longer it will thrive.
But it’s important to note that people only feel a sense of belonging after they’ve been a member, formed relationships, and enjoyed benefits of it — it doesn’t happen as soon as they’re onboarded.
In order to feel belonging, members need to feel safe, and the best way to do that is for them to feel like it’s an authentic space.
To be authentic in this sense means to lean into the character of your community. What is your community about? Do your actions as the Community Manager reflect that?
For example, we have a community for ‘Amazing Women in eCommerce’ on Slack, with a clear mission to empower, recognize, connect, and highlight women in the industry.
Be sure that authenticity carries through across every touch point.
It’s hard to feel a sense of belonging in a group that is inconsistent, where different interactions are wholly different experiences.
For example, think about how you invite new members and present the value of the community to them before they join. Are you using the same messaging? What do you highlight in the public spaces? Are they the same things you highlight in your communications?
My team tries to tie everything together. For example, if we’re really pushing the value of customer retention and how our products can best support businesses, then we will:
At the end of the day, a lot of what we do in the community space happens online, in virtual spaces, and without particularly tangible experiences.
Even if that’s the case, and people are used to it by now, our members still want to feel like the space is human. They want to know that the 'admins' are real people vs. mysterious entities enforcing community guidelines (or worse, AI-powered bots!).
If members can connect with those managing the community, they’re more likely to feel that sense of belonging.
Our team tries to be ‘human’ by:
A lot of what we do as community builders is facilitation — connecting the right people so they can help each other out or just mutually benefit from being in contact. As Community Managers, it's our job to ease members into action, to support them in getting what they need from the community and feeling seen there.
For example, when someone asks about a specific topic in our Slack community, like best practices for eCommerce UX or TikTok advertising, we do a quick search in the introductions channel to see if anyone has previously mentioned that they specialize in that space.
We usually find someone and tag them in the thread, with something along the lines of “Maybe member X can share more about it since they’re XYZ.” We always see the thread evolve into them connecting offline and solving each other's problems or fulfilling their needs — they just need a little nudge to get them there.
The same goes for connecting multiple members where the need arises. For example, we have a lot of members in Atlanta, so we created a channel specifically for them (and let them take it from there).
Since then, when new members join from Atlanta, we suggest that they join the group, and if an event is posted in the dedicated events channel that’s based in Atlanta, we’ll forward it to the Atlanta channel too.
Make every member feel seen at every possible point.
This can be done in so many ways — from mentioning them in weekly digests, reading and responding to new member intros, to creating localized groups if you notice a lot of members from the same city/country.
Start with the first impressions — the protocol for onboarding a new member — make sure everyone has the same experience and knows you're happy to have them. In our Slack space, we make sure that every member is personally welcomed and we add a few reactions to get things going.
In our end-of-week digest, we mention each and every new member by name This message is always posted by a person — no Slackbots here!
For our product user community, it starts with an (automated) direct message from one of the Community Managers’ profiles welcoming them to the community and suggesting first steps.
We follow this up with a “rookie” badge, and later check in to see if they’re getting the resources they need from the community. And if they submit a feature request or ask a question, we acknowledge it — even if we don’t have specific updates or answers to share, we always thank them for contributing.
Even if your community lives online, non-virtual connection can really cement relationships (and help cultivate that sense of belonging).
We put on in-person events based on what people are asking about, offering members the opportunity for intimate networking sessions when we see they have strong common denominators. Speakers for these gatherings are often sourced from within our community, too.
Tick all the boxes above and you’ll be well on your way. If across all the members’ touch points, your community feels authentic, consistent, and human, and your members interact with a Community Manager that’s attentive and facilitates connections between members, then that sense of belonging is practically guaranteed.
Ultimately, your members will tell you if you’re on the right track.
Look for the “thank yous,” the proclamations that they feel like they’ve found their space, and the connections happening before your eyes.
Another great sign: when your members start inviting their friends into the fold. Bonus perk of fostering a real sense of belonging? There’s no better feeling than being on the receiving end of messages like this.