When you are first getting started, it can be daunting when you open the doors to your community and the flood fails to arrive. Sometimes communities, for one reason or another, start with a trickle rather than a flood. To build that trickle over time, you may need to pitch in and help out in during a lull in the flow.
I've talked a bit in the past about the importance of seeding activity as opposed to seeding content. The main point is that members don't engage with communities because of the great content that is there, they engage because of the great people that are there - which is why we have a measure of Liveliness as one of the key factors in our Community Health Index. Quite a few may arrive because a search engine has directed them to a solution to a particular problem - but if the answer they need isn't already there, why will they post questions? Because they see evidence of other members who can and will answer - they see activity.
Promotion is still the number one way to drive traffic and members, but sometimes you need a little more to get folks posting in the beginning. So here are some strategies we've picked up on how to build that activity, broken down by two key components: Content and Frequency.
You know your content best, and who your audience is and what they are interested in. But some approaches can work better than others. One good way to deliver content that promotes engagement and participation instead of just consumption is to involve the community members with each other - in other words, don't tell your audience about you, tell them about them!
Some types of content that works well, in order of general effectiveness:
Issues reported by users (and the resolutions that were provided)
Statistics or information about users
Stories about yourself, as a peer (if you happen to share the same interests/experiences)
Also, do not forget to respond to posts by users! A quick reply with a positive acknowledgement can go a long way to bringing the user back to post again. If your goal is support, though, be wary of answering questions in the community too quickly. An authoritative answer to users' questions can have the unintended effect of stifling conversation rather than encouraging it. In these situations it is good to have separate groups acknowledging new posts (Welcoming Team) and answering questions (Support Team). The Support Team should then refrain from responding for 12-24 hours to allow users the opportunity to answer the questions themselves, and only step in when users are really stuck.
And lastly, a reminder to be transparent and not to pretend to be someone you are not. You will almost always be found out if you do, and if you use the methods above there really isn't any need. Ultimately, the risks just aren't worth it.
When seeding content, what is important is frequency over time. 10 topics posted on one day or in one post are less effective that 10 topics posted across 5 days in 10 posts. The goal is to try to balance your need for content in each discussion board you have with the need for the content to appear fresh when users visit. Larger posts should be segmented into multiple smaller posts, and seeding activities should be spread out over multiple days. The ultimate goal is to ensure that each discussion board has 5-10 posts per day on average (including user posts). Build yourself a reservoir of posts you can use to fill in the gaps when user participation is lower than desired. Over time, as user participation builds you should be able to phase out this activity.
Of course, the fewer boards you have to fill, the easier it is to keep them appearing active! So remember to start with a small structure, but one that appeals to the widest audience.
Like so much about community success, keeping a community active is about planning and preparedness. Make sure you are ready to help out when activity is slow!