For many organizations, launching a community comes with haunting worries:

  • Will anyone log in, let alone participate?
  • Will our staff need to prompt every discussion?
  • Will our members, of their own volition, really connect with each other?

In an interview for CMXHub, sociologist and strategist Danny Spitzberg says those fears can be assuaged with trust:

“What I think businesses can eventually get their head around is that people will participate. There will be user-generated content. There will be all these things that might match up with some of your metrics or business objectives generally. You have to suspend your disbelief that those things won’t happen and just trust people radically.”

You heard it: Building a community is a radical act.

Having an organizational culture of trusting your members is important for community. But community also requires building trust between members. Being part of a community, after all, means sacrificing a sliver of one’s own individuality in favor of a shared identity. Your members need to trust each other enough to know the sacrifice will be worth it.

How do you go about building trust? Modeling authenticity is key. Community managers can build trust by listening, sharing and responding in their own voice, by admitting mistakes, and by asking for help. But in addition to those very important ways of being, there’s another age-old way to build trust on a more massive scale: by facilitating ritual experiences.

Here’s the thing: studies have shown that groups of people who participated together in a completely bogus ritual trusted each other more than those in control groups did. For example, in one study, participants in an invented ritual were more likely to share their own money with other ritual participants than with non-participants.

Building TrustA different study showed that participating in rituals seems to enhance the quality of an experience. Brands like Oreo and Guinness, writes social psychologist Heidi Grant, have smartly built ritual into their marketing campaigns, “created added value right out of thin air” or, out of the twist of a cookie or the careful pour of a beer.

Think about rituals that you engage in as part of a community – physical, online or both. Does your organization take every new hire out to lunch, or induct them with a common project? What are the shared experiences that bind members of your association together at the annual conference? What do members of your advocacy group do together to celebrate gains (or acknowledge losses)?

New online community members should have these kinds of experiences, too. We need to invent new rituals where they may not exist, leaning on organizational culture, community mission and vision and member personas to make them on-tone, delightful and organic. We need to listen for and gently acknowledge and elevate any member ritual practices that arise organically. (If your member base has already created their own common rituals, great job!)

Joining a community – really joining it, on an identity level – is no small transition for members. How does your community celebrate every crossing of that threshold? How do you mark the passages and milestones that take place beyond it? Helping shape and illuminate the unique rituals in your community can bring delight to members and add another layer of meaning to membership, building trust for the group as a whole.