Offensive and Defensive Community Onboarding

Onboarding in a community is all about information. New information takes energy for members to process. Every step of the onboarding process takes energy from members, and every member has different energy levels. When the energy runs out, they lose interest in the onboarding process, or worse, they leave and never come back. This is why communities should figure out how best to provide and gather information during the onboarding process.

A community has two ways to manage information during onboarding: defensively and offensively.

Defensive Onboarding

Defensive onboarding protects the community’s energy. Many communities default to this because spammers, trolls, and other bad actors are prevalent online, especially when communications channels are easily accessible. Dealing with these people drains the collective energy of the community. 

To prevent this, communities can force everyone to use more energy when joining. This helps ensure fewer bad actors make it through the onboarding process, and into the areas where members interact. Potential members who make it through stronger defences prove they are “bought-in” to the community, and more likely to be positive members. 

The tools communities can use for defensive include: 

  • Sign up, login
  • Verification, captcha
  • Rules, code of conduct, moderation
  • Roles
  • Payment, subscription
  • Proof of ownership, contribution, status, expertise

For example, a community might ask you to complete a captcha or acknowledge you’ve read the rules. They might make you pick a role within the community to join or show you’ve done work and have skin in the game. At a more basic level, they might require you to sign up and give over your email, name, and basic information.

Foster, a collaborative writing community, asks new members to edit or comment on 10 drafts before accessing every channel. Sprezza’s Faculty Lounge, a men’s fashion newsletter,  requires members to be email subscribers for over 3 months.

These defences use up energy from everyone joining to help prevent bad actors from joining. Bad actors with negative intentions are likely to have lower energy levels they want to spend onboarding. With fewer bad actors joining, the community has more energy to spend on positive interactions. In the end, defensive onboarding protects the energy of the members of the community.

Offensive Onboarding

Offensive onboarding informs new members. It provides them with the “right” energy and helps them understand how to use their energy within the community. It does this by providing context on what the community does, how to interact with members, and what they should do. 

It is less used by communities because its benefits are less legible. Unlike defensive onboarding, it doesn’t prevent bad actors from joining. It helps improve the knowledge and quality of members joining. It is difficult to understand what new members know, what they are learning, and their quality. This causes offensive onboarding to be important, but underused.

There are many options for offensive onboarding, some of them include:

  • Intros, Welcome Messages
  • FAQs, Wikis, Channel Guides, Best Of
  • Community artifacts, external promotion, content
  • Member connections, word-of-mouth

For example, Invisible College, crypto learning DAO, shows new members a well-produced video. Interintellect, a salon-based intellectual community, promotes themselves by creating many external artifacts like tweets from their hosts. Rands Leadership Slack is behind a long introduction post and a thoughtful email about leadership. Other communities link to FAQs or Wikis in a welcome message when you first join. All are examples of offensive onboarding.

All this helps provide the information necessary for a member to function within the community well. It provides context, examples, and answers common questions. It raises the average quality of community members and channels new members’ energy to the right place. Offensive onboarding helps improve the average energy level (and usage) of members.

Balancing Defense and Offense

Good onboarding is a balance of both offensive and defensive. Problems arise in communities doing too much of one or the other. They may not realize onboarding is the cause. Membership quality is often the outcome of onboarding. As people are the most important part of a community, getting it right is critical.

The balance of offensive and defensive onboarding constantly needs adjusting. If new members are spamming, breaking rules, and ruining the experience for others, the community likely needs more defensive onboarding. If new members have low retention, can’t contribute, or are confused on what to do at first, they likely need more offensive onboarding.

A simple model of offensive versus defensive onboarding is offensive onboarding creates more good members, defensive onboarding means fewer bad members. The opposites do not apply. More offensive onboarding does not lead to fewer bad members, more defensive onboarding does not lead to more good members.

Communities should think about their goals and tweak their onboarding accordingly.

  • Members stuck asking basic questions? Answer those questions with offensive onboarding
  • Too many spammers or trolls? Force them to enter more information or go through captchas on sign up.
  • Want to improve the quality of new members? Raise the amount of both offensive and defensive onboarding.

Onboarding sets the stage for what’s to come in a community. It provides members with new information critical to their understanding of the community. Many communities do not onboard offensively well enough, leading members to get lost and leave. Many communities see defensive onboarding as the only tool, but that isn’t the case. Experimenting and finding the correct balance of both sets your community up for long-term success.


Thanks to Jeff Griffin, Nick Drage, and Caryn Tan from Foster for the feedback.

Let me know what you think on Twitter.

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