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Instruct Your Novices

New members play a special role in the community, with needs that are fundamentally different from those of more experienced members. Novices need to learn what they can do, whom they can do it with, where they can do it, and how they’re expected to behave. Your job is to engage your novices and educate them about community life, while protecting them from getting into too much trouble.

The Membership Ritual

You can do this by creating a “Membership Ritual” (Figure 4.10), which marks the transition from visitor to novice. This ritual will help you to welcome each new member into the “tribe” and teach them what they need to know to start participating.

Figure 4.10. The Membership Ritual

The Membership Ritual is a sequence of activities that takes place when someone first joins your community. Although it can be as simple as a brief email confirmation, new members will feel more welcomed if the ritual includes things like an informative welcome letter, a useful gift, and an invitation to attend a social event.

Now You’re One of Us

Send your novices an email letter confirming their membership and telling them something about how the community works. At minimum, this email needs to confirm some mechanical basics, such as member name and password, and determine that the member has a valid email account. But it’s also a great opportunity to reinforce your brand, and help novices get acclimated. For example, the Third Age welcome letter is written in a friendly and accessible tone (which is consistent with the Third Age brand), and it’s filled with pointers to resources and activities that are geared to new members (Figure 4.11).

Figure 4.11. Third Age Welcome Letter

Third Age sends this friendly and helpful email to all new members. The letter is brief but includes useful links to a welcome page, a message board especially for them, and a class where they can learn the basics of participating in Third Age.

You want the letter to engage and inform your novices without overwhelming them with too much information. It’s something your members will scan through and then tuck away for future reference. Be sure to include any links that they’re likely to need during those first few weeks, such as gathering places, support areas, and guidelines that members are expected to follow (see Chapter 6).

Whenever possible, your welcome letter should be signed by an established community leader—ideally, someone that can be contacted with follow-up questions. This will feel more personal than a letter signed with something anonymous like “Community Manager” or “All of Us at Community XXX.” The Third Age welcome letter, for instance, is signed by Chas, the community forums moderator. You can actually send an email to Chas, and he’ll respond.

Welcome to the Neighborhood

My family and I recently moved to a new and unfamiliar neighborhood, where we were greeted with home-baked goodies from the neighbors and a booklet of coupons from the local merchants. As I chatted with my cookie-bearing neighbors and browsed through coupons, I learned more about the community and started to feel like I belonged there.

Similarly, you can welcome your novices with a gift—perhaps a coupon for the community store or a free auction listing. Gift giving is a universal gesture of welcome, and it offers an ideal opportunity to educate your novices about some aspect of your community (such as the types of products offered in your store, or the pricing scheme for auctions). The type of gift you’ll want to give depends on what’s valued within your community. If your community has an internal economy—such as user points or virtual money—you could start your novices off with an initial stake framed as a gift.

Gifts are most effective when they come from a person rather than a corporation, so whenever possible, a gift should be given by (or at least signed by) a community leader. Ultima Online players begin with one hundred gold coins, which automatically appears in their knapsack when their character first enters the game. To leverage the power of gift giving, the game designers could have created characters to greet each novice and present him or her with one hundred gold coins. Same impact on the virtual economy; different emotional impact on the player.

Learning the Ropes

In addition to welcoming your novices, you want to educate them about community life and help them find their place in the social scene. It’s intimidating to join a group of people who already know each other; and newcomers who enthusiastically jump into ongoing conversations may run into suspicion and hostility, especially if they violate social norms that they didn’t even know existed.

Meeting and Greeting

You can help your novices become part of the community by creating special events and places where they can meet other members, learn the ropes, and ask questions without fear of ridicule. You can use message boards to host topics especially for newcomers. Some popular ones are:

  • A “Test” topic, where newcomers can try out the mechanics of posting without getting in the way of ongoing conversations

  • An “About This Conference” or “Conference Business” topic, where basic conference rules are covered and questions can be asked and answered.

  • An “Introductions” topic, where new members are encouraged to introduce themselves to the group

These topics should be clearly marked, and the host should make sure that newcomers have a positive experience. On the WELL, for example, hosts usually acknowledge a newcomer’s first post in the Introductions topic (Figure 4.12); other posters then follow the host’s lead and welcome the newcomer, taking up any interesting thread started in that first post. This gives newcomers a safe and structured way to meet people and start to get involved in the conversation (see Chapter 5 for more about hosting).

Figure 4.12. An Introductions Topic from the Well

This is the Introductions topic for the WELL’s EverQuest conference, run by the EverQuest WELL guild. Because this conference is dedicated to a role-playing game, the participants introduce their in-game characters here, rather than their WELL personae.

If your community includes chat rooms, you can schedule live events for your new members. The Third Age welcome letter we looked at before includes an invitation to the weekly “Introduction to Third Age” chat, where new members can learn how to use the basic interactive features of the site in a protected social environment.

Practice Makes Perfect

If your community is a complex environment like a multiplayer game, you may want to create a special practice space where newcomers can test out features and practice their skills. For example, Castle Infinity (the late, lamented multiplayer children’s game) offered a training track where new members could learn the rules and mechanics of the game before being thrust into the action (Figure 4.13). Even in a more straightforward environment, you may want to offer Internet newcomers a safe place to practice their online skills, as Third Age does (Figure 4.14).

Figure 4.13. Welcoming Newcomers at Castle Infinity

At Castle Infinity, visitors could choose to plunge right in, or go to the Training Track to learn the ropes (top image). The Training Track (middle image) put them through a series of exercises that taught the basics of how to interact within the system. When they were ready, new members could start interacting with other players in real time (bottom image).

Figure 4.14. www.thirdage.com/learning/community/meet_online.html

The Third Age Learning Center offers a variety of classes for Internet neophytes, including this six-week course that helps newbies learn how to socialize online, and gives them a safe and friendly place to practice their skills.

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