For centuries churches were the pillar of communities.
It wasn’t an accident. People didn't stroll by and decide to pop in. Churches worked hard to build their communities. They organized events for most nights of the week. Dances, games, prayer, social meetings, singing, music lessons, book clubs. They provided advice for people with problems. My nan used to go to church 5 nights a week. She met my granddad and her best friends there.
Churches also had dedicated community managers (priests). These priests built relationships with regulars. He know them and their families. If someone went missing, he came to find out why and bring them back. He worked hard.
It's the most obvious secret to developing a successful community; working hard. But too many organizations ignore this bit. They don't allocate the time or resources for hard work. They don't work out what events they're going to be hosting for their community, nor have someone actively reaching out to individual people at a time to bring them into a community. They don't actively pursue missing members and bring them back.
It worked for churches for centuries. In many churches it still does. Copy their work ethic, their community strategies and their simple tactics.
When people visit a community, they want to know what’s new. Your community landing page should be a snapshot of everything that is presently going on in your community.
Don’t waste any space with with introductory text nor large images. Your goal is to show any newcomer exactly what is going on in the community in the shortest amount of time.
Good communities show most of the following on the landing page.
- Latest news. This is content produced by you and your volunteers. It should be content about the community, you have many options here. Aim to publish at least one news post a day.
- What’s new? What are the most recent contributions by the community? This keeps the content dynamic and fresh. People get a sense of efficacy when their post appears here moments after they publish it. It encourages instant gratifications and quick replies from others.
- What’s popular? Social proof, this shows members what others are doing in the community right now. It guides them in their own discussions and highlights activity. Knowing what’s popular helps bond your community around common themes.
- Who’s new? Showcasing member whom have joined encourage existing members to say hi.
- Who’s popular? This can take many forms (featured member, interview, rankings) but showing which members are most popular at any given time provides others with orientation points to aim for.
- Notifications/Replies. In a top bar highlight the notifications you have received to comments you’ve posted. These are actions that need the member’s attentions.
Your landing page doesn’t need to be beautiful. It doesn’t need to explain what your community is about, nor what newcomers can do. You have about pages and welcome packs for that. Your landing page simply has to show the visit everything that’s new in your community. When this is done well, your activity can skyrocket.
The role of the community manager is to ensure the motivations of members are being satisfied. Members want 3 things from any online community. These three things shape your actions in the following ways:
1) Recognition amongst peers.
Help members think they can get increasing levels of recognition from those they consider their peers. This is by far the biggest motivator for anyone in any online community. The more you can create an environment that highlights contributions from members, the more successful your community will be.
2) Influence within the community.
People want to know what they did has made an impact. If you kick a ball and it doesn’t move, you don’t kick the ball anymore. You have to demonstrate the impact they can make. You have to give them increasing levels of power and influence to have this impact.
3) Sense of community.
This is about trust and feeling secure to express yourself within a group you know feels similar things to you. This is about finding the people like you, having inside jokes, self-disclosing information and being rewarded with a layer of emotional safety. This is achieved by attracting the right members, ensuring high levels of interactions, real-time meetings and soliciting self-disclosure.
Don’t focus on just one, you need all three for a truly successful community.
The more members you add, the lower the level of participation per member. It's not a rule, but it's impossible for 12,000 members to all participate in a conversation. Usually a dominant group of regulars take over and the rest don't get the recognition and influence to stay active.
There is only one way to beat this. Just one way to conquer participation inequality and have a community where more members doesn't reduce the level of participation of all other members. You need to become an expert at nurturing groups in your community.
This is a proactive task. You need to create the physical and social structure that enables these groups within your community. You need to break down your existing community.
- Set up the correct platform. Ensure that your website physically allows you (and members) to set up groups within the community. You need to have the power to create the group and transfer the control of it to others. If this isn't possible, consider setting up off-site groups.
- Develop a criteria for a worthwhile group. Develop a criteria you might use for spotting these groups. This works best when you notice small groups of people discussing something niche within your community's topic. Alternatively, you can use anything members feel strongly about. Even by demographics, expertise, jobs, fame, those involved in topical issues, people that attended the same events. You can also give a group of friends a place to chat.
- Approach the members. When you see a popular topic within your community unfolding, create a group for it. Invite those discussing the topic to join and talk about it there. Make the two most active people the initial leaders of the group.
- Give groups recognition and power. In your community news posts, mention groups by name. Don't focus just on one group, spread the attention. Interview members from groups, highlight what these groups are discussing. In your main community news page, focus on groups rather than members. Leave individual recognition to these group pages.
- Provide groups opportunities to do things. Let groups have the opportunity to put themselves forward to do things. Create guides, arrange events, review products, nominate community representatives.
- Let some groups have great rewards. Arrange exclusives for highly active groups. Gain opportunities to interview people and let them approach companies for review samples etc…
- Build close relationships with the leaders of the most active groups. These are the representatives of your community. They are the ones you need to make things happen. Invite them to visit you, give them voting powers, address their need for power and recognition.
- Give group recommendations to new members. When members state their interests, give them recognition. Encourage the leaders above to invite newcomers to join their group.
- Call for specific groups to form on issues. You don't have to wait for the initial interest, you can call for people to start groups around problems, upcoming events, hopes & aspirations etc…
- Keep score. Keep score between groups. List the major successes, mini-histories and amount of activity per group. Friendly competition is good.
To beat the participation inequality, it is vital to adapt your role. Don't fear breaking down the existing community structure and rebuilding it under numerous related groups. Ensure that every member can find a group of up to 50 others whom can talk about an issue in a way where everyone can get the recognition and influence they need.
Your community probably has star members. These are people with the most knowledge, most authority, most experience. These aren’t just the high contributors, they’re the experts.
You should be promoting them. You should promote them inside and outside the community.
Get them interviews in relevant trade magazines, get them guest-post slots on top blogs, pitch them to speak on behalf of the community at events. Act as their PR agents. Good publicity for them is great publicity for you. It gives fellow members something to aspire towards.
You should try to ensure every post in your community gets a response within 24 hours.
Members that don’t get a response to their posts, especially their first posts, don’t return. In addition, single-post threads is the community equivalent of boarded up houses on the street, it shows a lack of engagement in the community. Why would a member post on a forum when so many aren’t getting replies? It’s a downward spiral.
Set two times a day when you respond to posts without any responses. You don’t have to have all the information, you can ask for others to help e.g. reply with “great point, Mr. X, I’d love to know what Harry, Joe and Melissa think of this” or “I love this topic. We had a big debate about this a few months ago, check out the thread here: www.link.com”.
You can also enlist volunteers here. Have people responsible for topics reaching out to those whom post in that area. It doesn’t matter how you do it, just make sure that every post gets a quick reply.
Identify the positive contributions you want members to make and reward them with points. Points highlight the top members, points establishing an element of competition. Points let you create awards like newcomer of the month, member of the year etc…
Points should lead to levels. Levels like newcomer, member, regular, expert and VIP. Levels give members specific motivations to earn more points. A member that needs just 10 more points to move up a level is likely to be active.
Levels bond members within their community groups. These levels should be clearly visible on every member’s profile and every comment they post. Each level should require twice as many points as the previous level (at minimum). Levels should lead to increasing recognition and power. Every increase in level thus offers greater reward.
For example, you might only mention individual members in your news updates whom are regulars and above. You might only interview members whom are experts and VIPs. You might only share power and admin access with members at VIP levels.
Quick warning. Never add too many game mechanics into your community at one time. Introduce one element at a time. Points. Then levels. Then stars, comment counters etc…
What time is your online community most active?
Is it 8am? 1pm? 6pm? Perhaps 9pm? If you run a community for insomniacs it might be 3am.
Work out what time your online community is most active and plan for stuff to happen at that time. Be active personally, organize events, initiate discussions and respond to others.
Being highly active for the hours when your community is most active is far better than moderate activity throughout the day.
You should be measuring your community manager’s work. Establish clear targets, especially for engagement, that they need to hit.
Take a measurement today, how many members are joining per day, how many newcomers are becoming regulars, how many regulars are becoming top contributors, how many top contributors are becoming volunteer helpers.
For recruitment, growth by 1% per week might make sense.
For engagement, you might aim to convert 75% of newcomers into regulars and 10% of regulars into high contributors and 1% of high contributors into volunteers.
Offer performance bonuses to community managers who could (ethically) hit and maintain these targets. You might spark a staggering level of proactive engagement efforts.