Month: August 2010
A website isn't as important for your online community as you might think. Community building efforts should drive people to each other, not to a website. A website should be just one element of your community (and not always a big element at that).
Apple has a very strong online community, but not a central website.
Look beyond your website. What else are you doing to develop a community?
- Causes. What is the strong cause and mission that strikes a chord with your intended audience? How are you articulating this? What are the developments?
- People. Who is the audience you're trying to reach? Why these people? What are you telling them? Who are the key people you're spending more time with? How are you reaching out to them? Who will you be reaching out to in the future? Why?
- Issues. What are the major issues your community can talk about? What's new? What's good? What's bad? What's topical for members?
- Relationships. How are you helping people to develop relationships with each other? Whom are you introducing to who? What discussions are you facilitating?
- Events. What events are you doing for your communities? What live events, online discussions, conferences and shows are you hosting for your community?
We need a website to feel in control. But we don't need to feel in control. Our audience needs to feel in control. Our audience has more ways convenient ways to talk than visiting our website first.You will find it easier to build a community if you don't commit your entire efforts to driving people to a website. Let members talk the way Apple's community does, through any platforms they like.
If you feel it is essential to drive people to a website and exclusive those who don't come, then that is fine. For many, however, I expect there is a web of opportunity just beyond your website.
The people you think will be your community’s star members, best recruiters, most prominent activists; rarely are. Usually, they’re too busy doing this stuff elsewhere to spend much time in your community.
Repeatedly we find that the best promoters of your community, the most activist members, those who make the best contributions, are people you haven’t yet heard of. People given the platform for the first time. People who seize the opportunity and surge ahead.
Your job is to spot and nurture those people.
If you try to predict your top members before you launch a community, you’re almost certainly going to be wrong. You’re probably going to waste a lot of effort trying to reach them (top influencers rarely participate in online communities). You're going to be disappointed.
You're going to be much more successful if you have a criteria for identifying potential star members and a plan for nurturing them.
Every charity has dreamed of persuading 40 billionaires to donate at least half their fortune to charity. Only a billionaire, Bill Gates, could make this happen. Only a billionaire has the trust and respect of other billionaires. Only a billionaire can engender a sense of community amongst other billionaires.
If you were trying to create an online community for billionaires, you need to know Bill Gates (or another billionaire). You need to know him well enough to ask him to introduce you to a few other billionaires. You need his help to bring a few of them together and start an exclusive place for them to converse. That would be the start of a fledgling community.
Obviously this isn’t a post about how to create a community for billionaires (it really isn’t possible, don’t try) it’s a post about creating exclusive online communities for the most important people in your field. There is huge value here and it’s easier than going for billionaires.
The steps are simple:
- Either, spend the time to become as important as they are or spend the time networking until you have a strong relationship with one of these people. Introductions from friends helps here.
- Ask that person to bring several others together to discuss creating an exclusive community. If this fails, repeat 1.
- Develop a community that extends beyond the internet. Expensive retreats, exclusive access to companies, speaking roles at events, arrange press interviews,
Much of the future of online communities is about developing closed, exclusive, communities for the elite members in the topic/sector. If you can do this well, you will never be out of work.
It’s easy to track which visitors actually registered. You can do this with Google Analytics. It’s harder (and much more valuable) to track which visitors became regular members.
You should ask your regular members how they heard about the community. Where did they come from? It might be a year ago, maybe three years ago, but I’m betting this is the sort of traffic you want to encourage in the future.
If they came from a particular magazine, blog or promotional activity target that those magazines, those blogs and repeat those promotional activities. If they came via referrals, encourage referrals.
I suspect you will quickly find a link between how members heard about your community and whether they became regulars.
In the mind of marketers, you create one message to reach many people.
We know the secret is that there is no message. There are just relationships to build.
You build relationships by having conversations. Lots of them. One-on-one. You begin conversations simply by asking how they're doing? What do they think of this..or that…You try to help them when you can. You introduce them to others that they might get along with. You give one person your complete attention at any one time.
Then you begin doing things that several people can be involved in. This creates a group feeling. These things are fun, perhaps competitive or collaborative. Perhaps just an experience people can share.
Does that sound like something a big brand does? Does that sound like something a big agency does for a big brand? Are we still surprised so many online communities fail?
Designing an online community spec can be difficult, there are some elements I think should be included in nearly every online community. These are:
- It’s own domain name.
- An application form to join the community.
- Facebook Connect/OpenID linked profiles.
- Latest activity from members on the front-page.
- A news page for content about the community (Should be the landing page.)
- A forum for members to communicate.
- Game mechanics embedded deep within activity.
- Sections named after people and/or community jargon.
- These value-added pages.
- These 8 overlooked elements too.
- The ability for members to create their own sub-groups.
- Commenting enabled for stories that appear on the news page.
- The option to Tweet/Facebook-share any comment/story with friends/followers in two clicks.
- Use Facebook plugins to show which of your friends are already members of the community.
- The ability for visitors to read all community content (which isn’t private), but have to log in to participate.
- Deactivation of accounts which are inactive for 6 months.
- The option for the admin to give increasing levels of access to community members to moderate comments, write content etc…
- Every new member is prompted to answer a question which appears on a forum thread – hence prompting further responses and converting the newcomer into an instant regular.
- Members receive notifications when someone comments on their profile or responds to their forum thread (and these can be turned off).
- A Twitter sidebar which shows tweets by members in the community and allows members to respond (with an automatic hashtag) that shows up on the side of the bar. It’s like a mini chat-room, but promotes you and encourages off-website activity.
What other elements would you include?
Be sure to watch this great presentation by Joshua Porter.
To create an online community, you need to provide your intended audience with two things.
- A means to communicate
- A desire to communicate.
The fost successful communities were lucky. The desire was there before they provided the means to communicate (the platform). This worked great for Facebook, Mumsnet, SK-Gaming, Barista Exchange, TES etc…
Most businesses aren’t that lucky. The audience (your customers) don’t feel compelled to talk to each other. If your target audience doesn’t already have the strong desire to talk to each other, creating that desire (not the platform) is your first goal.
There are many ways to create a desire for people to talk to each other. Three easy ones include:
- Prick egos. Talk about the people you want to join or issues/groups that they care about. Be sure they know this is being discussed. You can also rank and rate various issues/people in a manner that will solicit their engagement. It’s hard to avoid comparing yourself and trying to be more popular.
- Have a cause/create a movement. Position the community as a movement to participate in. People want to be part of something. Momentum is a powerful thing. People jump aboard things that are successful.
- Threaten their way of life. Focus on the threats facing their way of life. What is changing? What social/technological changes are affecting them? Create the desire to co-operate to preserve that way of life.
- Appeal to what they want to be. Create the community for what your audience wants to be in the future. Celebrate those that get closer to it. Identify and share advice on the steps it takes to get there.
Notice what isn’t mentioned above. Talking about your products. Guiding people to give feedback on your services. Controlling the conversation.
There is a big desire barrier to joining online communities. Unless you can prick their egos, provide a movement to join, threaten their way of life or appeal to their inner needs, you’re not going to break through it.
Don’t try to restrict activity to your community website. Encourage as much activity elsewhere as you can.
Encourage members to meet up in their local towns and cities.
Encourage members to talk to each other on Twitter, e-mail each other and friend each other on Facebook.
Encourage members to e-mail each other and set up their own groups/places to chat about topics.
It’s sometimes hard to remember that the website isn’t your community, the people are. Fostering those interactions, wherever they may take place, brings your audience together.
Nancy Strauss and Anna Buss’ Online Communities Handbook has some interesting tips for being an efficient community manager.
These including writing clear, updated, FAQs, semi-automating elements of the community (bad word filters), have standard replies to send to members.
There is a simpler solution. If a community manager becomes overwhelmed with the level of work. Hire another online community manager.
If the community manager has been so successful s/he needs help, then hire more. Don't try to change how they're doing the work. They're doing a great job. If you can't justify the budget, then why are you developing a community?
It’s a good post, I want to simplify it.
Call the police.
If you get a suicide threat, call the police. If you get a death threat, call the police. If members threaten each other, call the police. If members are conspiring to commit a crime, call the police. If you’re not sure, call the police.
Don’t be shy. You don’t want a death on your conscience nor a crime on your record.
Call the police. First time, every time.
Joel Spolsky has a fantastic post on community identity that every business should read.
Should we have dogs.stackexchange.com and cats.stackexchange.com? Or PoochQAndA.com and KittyQueries.com? If everything lives at stackexchange.com, the brand carries across all the sites. So if you had a great experience with motorcycles.stackexchange.com, you might believe that chess.stackexchange.com a good chess site.
[…] we decided that individually-branded sites felt more authentic and trustworthy. We thought that letting every Stack Exchange site have its own domain name, visual identity, logo, and brand would help the community feel more coherent. After all, nobody wants to say that they live in Housing Block 2938TC.
Many businesses listen to their web team and put the community as a sub domain of the website. Some don’t even bother to name it at all. It just exists as community.domainname.com. These communities don’t do well.
The better community businesses pick a name using insider jargon [Thanks Joel] that reflects the community itself. They let the community develop an identity that might be unique from the website itself.
Just because it’s easier to host it on your own domain, doesn’t mean you should.
Many of the key benefits of online communities are measurable.
None of these should be your objectives, but they should be used to justify the costs of an online community. Remember all these are derivatives of a successful online community, not it’s purpose.
This isn’t comprehensive, but covers what most organizations are looking for.
Return on Investment for Online Communities
- ROI = (Return attributable to the investment – Investment) / Investment
- Return = Increased revenue + reduction in costs
- Investment = Time, resources, People
Increase in revenue
In theory, you can measure increased revenue by overlaying your sales before your community activities with the sales for the comparative time period since you began your community activities and marking up the difference.
In practice, your online community is too entwined with your businesses dozen other marketing efforts (not to mention the rebounding economy) to attribute any number to the community.
The easy mistake is to chalk all sales through the community as a community benefit. This is misleading, it overlooks that many members will have purchased the products anywhere. It doesn’t show the benefits.
- Membership fees. Do you charge membership fees to be a member of your online community? Is it part of your service package? You can count this income here.
- Direct sales of products. Are you selling products directly through the community. This is a great return figure. However, be careful, most communities begin with loyal customers who would have purchased from them anyway. You need an average of purchases from the community less purchases through the alternative sales channels.
- Other revenue streams. Easier to measure. Do you sell community-branded products? Organize events? Take a % of members selling products through your community? etc…Include these here.
- Increased page views to website. Does your community increase page views to your organization’s website? Do you measure your funnel from new visitors to customers? Then you should be able to put a value to every page view and assign a number accordingly.
- Mentions elsewhere. As per above, track other mentions of your community that lead to measurable number of visits to the business website. Each can be assigned a value as per the page views above.
Clearly, direct sales (namely, repeat purchases) is going to be the key sales figure here. Be careful to clearly demonstrate that the community has encouraged members to purchase more frequently. Demonstrating this loyalty is the key figure.
This has to be a tangible number that your business can assign to your community. If you can cut staff because you’re getting less calls, then that is a reduced cost.
Reduced costs include:
- Reduced marketing spend. When a member is in your online community you no longer need to spend money on direct marketing, PR campaigns or advertising to reach him/her. Calculate the typical marketing cost of acquiring a customer and multiply it by active members of your online community.
- Reduced support staff spend. If your online community does a fantastic job of answering questions about your product, you can link to that from your online community and measure if you receive less calls. Can you reduce staff costs here?
- Reduced recruitment costs. If you can find enthusiastic, knowledgeable and skilled staff through your online community can you reduce the money you spend on recruitment companies?
- Feedback/Ideas generated. This is difficult to measure. How do you put a value on good product ideas generated through your community? You can’t. You can gain comparative costs from focus groups or assign a tangible contribution to a product that improved it’s expected sales, but that’s all.
- Reductions from other crowdsourcing. What else has been crowdsourced? Have your members taken on any other work? Has there been a clear reduction in costs as a result of any crowdsourced work by the community?
Investment includes the people, time and financial costs tied to this online community. We will ignored the fixed overheads and opportunity costs for now. Your CFO can add them in later.
- Community staff. This covers the salaries/pay of the staff involved in running the online community.
- Time. How much time have other people needed to commit to this community? You need a rough figure of hours from anyone involved from your marketing team, legal team, management etc… multiplied by their hourly rate to give an accurate number here.
- Resources. This includes the additional costs linked to the community. Did you hire an agency to create the community platform? Are you paying for hostage? Did you host community events? Do you give community products to use etc?
There are a lot of assumptions here. The problem is many things are too intangible for direct measurement, others are several layers removed from the return.
What isn’t included in this?
- Future/Present values. The money you spent on this will be worth less tomorrow.
- Opportunity cost. What else could you have done with the investment? Massive marketing campaign perhaps?
- Sense of unity. Your customers like each other. That increases loyalty to the brand that united them.
- Premium brand. Thanks to the positive image created by the community, can you charge a premium?
- Value of feedback. Not all feedback is equal, this doesn’t account for that.
- Cost of not creating a community. Imagine if your competitor had persuaded all your customers to join their community first. Lucky you got there first.
- Competitors. Your competitors find it harder to poach your customers now.
- Overheads. Nasty things, overhead. Your CFO will assign this better than I can.
- Future value of the community. Unlike most assets, communities appreciate in value. The work you put in this year will pay off better next year.
- The biggest benefit of your online community. It improves your business outlook incredibly, this isn’t included – pity.
- Non-profits/social good. Organizations that don’t sell a tangible product/service wont have a direct relevance to this.
Naturally, everyone has a different perspective of the ROI of an online community. I hope this helps add to the debate. Good luck.