Month: June 2011

Most Online Communities Are Designed For Lurkers

June 14, 2011Comments Off on Most Online Communities Are Designed For Lurkers

Most community platforms and strategies are sadly designed to attract lurkers.

Lurkers are individuals who visit a community to satisfy their informational needs, not their social needs. They don't need to participate to satisfy their informational needs, so they lurk. 

Most communities have so many lurkers because they are set up to cater to information seekers. This is defines their strategies for growth, content and getting registered members. 


1) Growth

If you try to growth through mass-promotional means, you will attract a lot of lurkers. If you grow too fast, individuals wont receive any personal attention when they join. Good community growth comes through referrals and direct recruitment. You can influence both.

If you do promote then obey the basic principle of growing a community;  promote what's happening within the community, not the community itself. Promote a live-chat, controversial discussion or upcoming event as opposed to The community for {topic} fans!". 


2) Content

Focus on interactions, not content. Put interactions in the most prominent position on the platform. Great content will only attract active readers, not active members. 

The best content is about the members and interactions, it ensures members participate to satisfy their emotional needs. The best content welcomes newcomers by name and details. The best content talks about what members are doing and what's coming up in the community.


3) Registered members

Most communities optimize the process up until registration. This results in a large number of registered lurkers (as opposed to unregistered lurkers). Communities need to optimize the process from registration to participation. This means ensuring that newcomers are given some current discussions they can participate in, have members introduce themselves to the newcomer and educating members about the culture of the community.

You could schedule messages the member will receive 1 hour, 1 day and 1 week after they join a community. Or better, have a topical sticky thread such as: How did you become interested in {topic}? and ensure all members participate in it. 

The process from registration to participate must be optimized. 

If you have too many lurkers, it's probably because you're trying to attract and retain lurkers. The better you cater to a member's social needs, the more active members you will attract.

Starting An Online Community: Get The Concept Right

June 13, 2011Comments Off on Starting An Online Community: Get The Concept Right

If your community concept is wrong, you will struggle at every stage of the community development process and ultimately fail. 

The concept is what the community will be. It's tempting to breeze past this step with casual assertions; "The community will be for our customers to talk about our products". Which is fine, unless your customers don't want to talk about your products. If you try to force them, you will struggle to get people to join and talk to each other. 


What will the community be about?

Your community doesn't have to be about your organization. It should be about something people have a strong-self interest in. That probably wont be your products/services, but something related to your products/services. Find something people spend a lot of time on, spend a lot of money on or are emotionally engaged with and build a community around that. There is a reason why Pamper's village is about parenting and not diapers.

If you want a simple rule of thumb; if your target audience doesn't already talk about the topic online, then you have the wrong topic. 


What type of community will it be?

You have many choices here. It can be a community of place, a community of action, community of interest, community of practice or a community of circumstance. Don't assume every community is a community of interest (these tend to be the weakest and most difficult to start).

Each community has a different purpose and requires a different approach with regards to content, discussions, promotion and actions.  


Who will the community target?

Your community shouldn't target everybody, not even everyone that purchases your products. You should target a specific group of people whom have a lot in common with each other. The more they have in common, the more likely they will participate. It makes sense to deliberately limit your target audience to reach more of that audience. Better to have 3000 highly interested and highly active members than 30,000 lurkers. 


How will the community be positioned?

Will the community be the best community of it's kind? The most exclusive community of its kind? The biggest community of its kind? The only community of its kind? What will be the attraction for people to join the community? What will make it unique?


Organizations which get the concept right find the entire process much easier. Organizations which get this wrong usually feel they are fighting against the tide the entire time. Don't try to change what people want to do and talk about. Just focus on a small audience, for a specific purpose and with a precise interest. 

If you feel you are constantly struggling to get the community going, it might be time to reconceptualize your community.

Setting Guidelines For Yourself

June 10, 2011Comments Off on Setting Guidelines For Yourself

It's more important to set guidelines for yourself than for members. You should be able to answer all of these questions: 

How do you respond if someone threatens you?

What should you do if a member threatens another member?

What do you do if members discuss something illegal in the community?

How do you react if a member threatens to commit suicide?

Should you swear if your members do?

How do you handle criticism of your organization?

How do you handle personal criticism of you?

How do you handle bullying of members?

Are you happy for members to add you on Facebook?

Do you adopt a tone of voice to suit the community or use your own natural tone of voice?

What happens when you go on holiday?

What do you do if another individual or organization threatens to take you to court for something that happenened in your community? (surprisingly common)

Two more things here. First, you must consistently apply your guidelines in every circumstance. No exceptions. Second, you must decide how to respond to these situations before you launch the community.

Becoming More Interesting Than Television

June 9, 2011Comments Off on Becoming More Interesting Than Television

The biggest competition you face to attract and retain members to your community is television. The average American spends 4.5 hours per day watching television. That's around 30 hours a week. If you can peel just a few of those hours away, your community will be thriving.

The problem is most communities do a terrible job of competing against television. You can't beat television with content. The best content you could ever dream of creating wont match the weaker television channels. Worse still, television is ever-present. Your content can be read, watched or listened to in a matter of minutes. If your members have to decide between your content or watching television, television will usually win. 

But, I wonder, how many people would spend an evening watching television if they knew they were being talked about in your community? What if it was their night to lead a discussion on a topic they were passionate about? What if a friend of theirs was working on a guide for newcomers and needed their expertise. What if there was a VIP guest they had a question for?

You compete against television by planning to compete against television. You need a plan. This plan should use the motivational needs of people to be appreciated, to have an impact upon their surroundings and to build relationships with others. You need to put together a series of discussions, activities and opportunities for people to be involved. You need to ask people with passion, skills, knowledge and expertise to contribute that to the community. The more you satisfy these motivational drivers, the better you will do.

Most importantly, you're not in the content and entertainment business.

Measuring An Online Community: Master your data to gain an unfair advantage

June 8, 2011 Comments Off on Measuring An Online Community: Master your data to gain an unfair advantage

You have a truly remarkable advantage over offline community builders. You can track every single action your audience makes. You should know exactly what stage they are at in the membership life cycle process and which stages need to be optimized.

I'm always amazed by the number of organizations and community managers which have either a) No strategy for the community beyond maintenance or b) A strategy built upon guesswork and assumptions when the data is so close at hand.

You shouldn't be guessing what is or isn't working in a community. You should be religiously gathering and analyzing what the data. You should measure the following:

  • New visitors. This shows whether your outreach is successful. Always compare it to the previous month and six months ago. You should also analyze where these visitors arrived from and track how many of each progressed into active members. You can also track the success of each different source of members (where does the best quality traffic come from?)
  • New visitors to new registered members. This shows whether your website is optimized for converting a curious visitor into a member and whether you're attracting the right sort of visitors. You can go further and measure their progress through each stage of the registration form.
  • % members which make a contribution. This shows whether you are converting those that register into participants within the community. If this is low, you might be just collecting lurkers. 
  • Members active within the past 30 days. This shows whether you are gaining or losing active members. When this number starts to drop, you have a serious problem and a limited amount of time to correct course. 
  • Contributions per active member per month. This is an activity per member ratio. If this drops, members are less engaged in the community and could lead to more members leaving. This might also show if a small number of members are dominating the discussions. 
  • Visits per active member per month. This shows how often members visit the community. The less frequently members visit, the more likely the contributions will drop and the number of active members will depart. This may also show the popularity of events held in the community.
  • Content popularity. Each piece of content can and should be measured. How many people read it, how many responded to it. This will indicate which content items are most popular and which should be discontinued. 


You should also use sampling to understand the following:

  • What % of newcomers remain members for more than a month. Select 10 newcomers from three months ago and analyze their journey through the community and specifically where they dropped out of the process. Did they make a contribution? Did they not make a second contribution? You can adjust and tweak your community for this. 
  • Speed of replies to discussions. How quickly are discussions receiving a reply? The faster the responses, the higher the level of social presence within the community and the greater the level of participation. 
  • The % of newcomers which initiate a discussion. This highlights whether newcomers may be unmotivated or intimidated to start discussions. 
  • Language and tone of voice. What language do members adopt when they address each other? Is it formal and polite? Is there friendly banter? Is there a sense of familiarity? This will let you know what stage the community is in.
  • Sense of community. Ask members every year to participate in your specially modified version of the sense of community index
  • Number of volunteers. This will indicate the number of people moving on to the highest levels of engagement within the community. Low numbers usually limit the scability of the community.

Each piece of data will tell a story. If the number of active members is decreasing but the level of contributions continues to rise, it might indicate a core group is dominating discussions and other members are unable to break into the circle. As a result you might provide core members with a separate place to chat, or work to break newcomers into the group or talk directly to group members about the problem. 

Create a spreadsheet and a graph showing all this data. Update this monthly. Watch for numbers that dip and take a corrective course of action. 

When you gather data you can set objectives, strategy and targets for each of the areas of community management (growth, moderation, relationships, activities, content etc…). 

In practice, if you notice the number of volunteers has dropped, you can set a relationships strategy to focus on fewer bring and offer opportunities to be involved in areas of the community they are passionate about. 

Additional Resources

A Simplified Version Of The Online Community Development Process

June 7, 2011Comments Off on A Simplified Version Of The Online Community Development Process

For organizations getting started, here is a simplified version of the community development process:

  1. Objectives. Get the objectives right. Make sure your organization's objectives are aligned with what a community can offer.
  2. Resources & Expectations. Check the organization has the right resources and assets to develop a community.
  3. Audience analysis. Research the audience and develop a suitable concept based around a strong common interest that your audience shares. This should also inform your platform choices.
  4. Seeding the community. Build up a core group of 50 to 100 active members keen to participate in the community. 
  5. Launch of the platform. Undertake a soft launch of the community platform and help seeding members become engaged, regular, participants.
  6. Reach Critical Mass. Work to reach a critical mass of activityPromote the community, encourage referrals, invite others, initiate discussions, interact with members and ensure you reach a level where over 50% of contributions are made by members. The level of activity should be rising by about 50% – 100% each month at this stage. 
  7. Scaling Processes. Begin moving yourself out of the daily system and focus on processes that will let the community scale
  8. Measurement and Strategy. Keep tracking your key metrics and adapt your strategy (and community management activities) to match.

There is far greater depth to each stage. Notably, there is a slow, but steady, transfer of activities from the critical mass stage to scaling process.

Most organizations get caught here, they continue growing beyond critical mass without developing community processes to handle continued growth. 

This leads, amongst many other things, a high number of inactive members. Make sure you always know which stage your organization is at and what it should be working towards.

The Boundary

June 6, 2011Comments Off on The Boundary

The boundary is what separates members from non-members. 

The boundary isn't the registration form. It's the experiences, skills, relationships, accomplishments and interests that people have gained or acquired to be an accepted member of the community.

Last week I spoke at the Meet-Up Organizers group. This group of individuals each run a meet-up group. Running a successful meet-up, and all the work that goes into running a meet-up, is a boundary that individuals have to cross to become an accepted member of the group.

The tougher the boundary the greater the sense of similarity between members and the stronger the sense of community. Numerous studies link strong sense of similarity to higher levels of participation in a community.

But tougher boundaries mean less members. Most organizations keep their boundaries (the specific topic matter they're building their community around) weak to attract more members. This is a mistake.

You should keep boundaries high. Don't build a community for those that ride your motorcycles (or use your products), build a community for motorcycle riders who have travelled from coast to coast, or can fix any problem on a bike, or are based in a specific location, or are of a certain age or in certain professions, or have been customers for decades. 

It's easier to build and sustain a community that has a tough boundary than one with a weak boundary. 


Promotional Days

June 4, 2011Comments Off on Promotional Days

Sarada has a fascinating approach to dealing with spammers and self-promoters in her community.

She encourages them.

Every Friday, she lets those with relevant products/events/articles promote them in her community. It becomes something of an event that both promoters and members can look forward to. It lasts for one day. The rest of the week any such promotion is strictly banned.

It's not for every community, but it might be great for a few.

Few bonus posts:


Rules For Growing A Group of Insiders In Your Online Community

June 3, 2011Comments Off on Rules For Growing A Group of Insiders In Your Online Community

A key process in scaling online communities is fostering a select group of insiders working behind the scenes of the community. 

This group has several purposes:

  1. Reward active participants with greater trust, influence and power.
  2. Gain valuable feedback from members about what the community is/isn't doing well.
  3. Cultivate volunteers willing to help run areas of the community. 
  4. Show community members that their opinions are being actively sought and utilised in the development of the community.

Most insider groups are usually comprised from either the longest-serving or most vocal members. These individually often self-select themselves for the group. This is a mistake and leads to groupthink

There are several rules you can use to grow an insider group.

  1. Headhunt members. Don't wait for members join, actively seek out representatives from a variety of different sectors in your community. This include your most and least vocal, your most and least active, your longest serving and your newcomers and a range of members in-between. 
  2. Heavily moderate discussions and schedule actions. Keep a clearly defined list of tasks that this group should be doing with fixed deadlines. Establish discussion topic and moderate discussions to gain opinions from all members. Publish a summary of what was discussed and agreed. 
  3. Rotate membership. Change membership of this group at set intervals throughout the year. Don't change the entire group at once, just rotate the longest serving and/or least active members at set periods (every 3 – 4 months) throughout the year.
  4. Begin the group early. Start building the group early in the community with 5 to 10 members and gradually expand it as the community grows.
  5. Publish membership of the group. This group must give members a sense of status. Publish membership of the group. Write news posts about upcoming changes (e.g. "This week 20 new members will be chosen to join the exclusive 100 group, if you're not chosen this time – don't panic. You might be in a few months time.").
  6. Assign roles and responsibilities. Designate roles and responsibilities for members within the group. Content, moderation, recruitment, promotion, resolving disputes etc…
  7. Give the group a name. The group should have a name that is a clear symbol within the community. 
  8. Publish a clear manifesto and rules for the group. Make sure the group has a clear set of guidelines and rules. Refer to this group in the community about page and be clear about what the boundaries of the group are. 

This applies more to larger communities which are prone to member criticisms, breakaway factions and loss of focus on their member needs. Much of these potential problems can be prevented by fostering an active insider group. 

Initiating Discussions: How To Help Your Members Overcome Their Fear Of Starting Discussions

June 2, 2011Comments Off on Initiating Discussions: How To Help Your Members Overcome Their Fear Of Starting Discussions

If you could increase the number of members initiating discussions, the level of activity and engagement would rise sharply. 

The percentage of members who initiate discussions is usually small. This limits activity and the level of engagement members have in the community.

Members need both the motivation to initiate and to overcome their fear of starting a discussion. Their motivation to initiate will be to either learn something (e.g. "Does anyone know how to….?"), to impress others (e.g. "does anyone else think business class travel isn't as great as it used to be?" or to bond with others (e.g. "I'm upset Kelly got fired from the Apprentice").

Motivation comes relatively easy in active communities. It's social anxiety which prevents most members from initiating discussions. This social anxiety comes in three forms:

  1. I might ask a dumb question or make a dumb statement. 
  2. My comment wont receive any reply and I will appear unpopular. 
  3. I might be criticised by members of the community.

A community can overcome much of this anxiety in a few simple steps:

  1. Regularly ask members who write a good response to publish it as an initiated discussion. This creates a habit for members to start discussions. This can be taken further 
  2. Feature highly active discussions prominently on the landing page. This showcases the potential rewards (popularity) for initiating a successful discussion and acts as social proof to overcoming the fear of no responses.
  3. Send members the unwritten rules of the community when they join. Make sure they know how to start discussions, what discussions are usually about and a few tips on how to make a good impression. Automatically edit/correct any questions which are a little off the mark.
  4. Respond to discussions which have not received a response in 24 hours. The appearance of a community in which every discussion receives a response reduces the fear. You may also contact members directly to respond to these discussions. Another option is to have an 'unanswered questions' box. You can even congratulate the initiator on thinking up a question that your community's experts haven't yet been able to answer. 
  5. Make heroes of initiators. e.g. "Also this week Joe Smith started an interesting debate about….if you have some expertise, be sure to let him know". This, again, acts as social proof within the community platform and helps other members ot know that it's safe to participate.

Social anxiety within a community platform is low compared to offline situations. Yet, it is still high enough to persuade most members never to participate at all. You should be actively working to overcoming this fear. 

Making Specific Plans

June 1, 2011Comments Off on Making Specific Plans

It's easy to be vague in your community strategy:  

We’re going to approach males, aged 16 to 24, who love clubbing in London

That might be specific for a marketing campaign, but it’s too vague for a community.

You should name specific people you will approach. You should justify why you're approaching them. You should know what you’re going to tell them (this means writing out the text or key points of your e-mail/call with them). You should know why they will listen (this should be based on their personal history). 

This, naturally, involves a lot of research and thoroughly understanding the existing social ecosystem in which you will be launching your community.  

For example, telling your intended audience to “join the community” isn’t going to work. Telling them about friends that have joined, some people you have in common, providing them with a unique opportunity based upon their unique interests is more likely to succeed.

Research might be fun to skip, but it's the quickest shortcut to a successful community. Do your research and be specific in your community development plans.

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