Month: August 2011
The biggest cost of a community shouldn't be the platform, you can (and should) start with something relatively cheap.
The biggest cost is the manpower. You need someone working full-time on the community. This is the big expense of community development.
The greatest tragedy is companies do the opposite. They spend a fortune on the platform and then cheap out on the manpower. They might leave the community to develop itself, recruit an intern to run the project, or ask a staff member to take on the community alongside existing work.
This simply doesn't work. It kills the potential of the community. It de-prioritizes the importance of the community.
And it will cost you much more money in the long-term.
Most companies don’t sell products/services that are interesting enough to build a community around. That strong common interest that brings a community together has to be really strong.
How many products do you have a strong interest in?
I love this press release for Sprite’s now defunct community The Sprite Yard. Especially this sentence: “The Coca-Cola Company is redefining the relationship between consumers and their sparkling beverages with the launch of the Sprite Yard”.
Brands convince themselves of this nonsense all the time. They confuse customers buying their products or liking their products with a willingness to participate in sustained ongoing interactions with others that buy those products.
There are very few products you can build a community around. These are products we spend a lot of time using, spend a lot of money on or products that we are emotionally invested in. Apple products were all three. They were expensive, we used them a lot and they represented a status and way of thinking. Apple didn’t need to spend much time on community development – they simply held major events for their community every six months.
Here is the point. It’s many times easier to build a community for a product/service we spend a lot of time/money on, or we have a strong emotional connection with. The benefits are greater too. The sad truth is most companies simply don’t give us products/services that fit these criteria.
In a matter of seconds, a visitor will decide whether to tentatively accept or reject your community's group identity.
If they reject it, they leave. That's it.
If they accept it, they go deeper into the community. They click the next page. They complete the registration process. They make their first contribution. They begin to assume the group identity for themselves. They begin to feel the group represents them. What happens to the community, happens to them.
Some communities have a clear, strong, identity. It's apparent in the name, the topic, the design, the type of discussions, and how members interact. The Rock and Roll Tribe pulls off the cool middle-aged rockers vibe to perfection. The tag-line reads: "F*ck the middle age, lets rock". It doesn't take long to determine if it represents you.
We need good cues to discover the group identity. It can be reflected of the tone of copy on the website, the design of the community, the discussions taking place and any visible information about the community.
You can guess where this is going. It's good to have a strong identity that most will love, but some will reject, than a weak identity. You need to craft that identity. You need to create those cues that guide others to this community identity.
Who is your community going to be?
Show a clear personality in your web copy. Set the early tone for how members interact with each other. Highlight what sorts of discussions the communtiy has. And, if you need graphical help, use it. If you're polite caring, then push the polite and caring angle. If you're joking and jesting, then push that angle too.
Proactively craft a strong group identity.
We haven't scratched the surface of what we can do with exclusive communities.
People want to join exclusive communities. They want to be insiders. They want to feel special. They want to feel above average.
Exclusivity is an easy positioning tool against established online communities. It slips you in the back door. If you only let the best people in, the best people want to join.
Exclusive communities can steal the best people away from established communities.
But it can’t be for show. You can’t be an exclusive community that lets anyone in. You can’t even let most people in – not even your buddies. You have to be mean, you have to let people apply to join the community, you have to turn some away, you have to encourage members to refer their friends, you have to have a high criteria (which keeps getting higher as the community grows, not lower).
You may even have to kick people out from time to time.
But, imagine what you can do when the 500 richest, most powerful, most influential, most active or most notable people in your sector are participating in the community. That's a value a community of 50,000 can't match.
Perhaps better, you can build a business on this. You can charge for exclusive communities. You can focus your efforts on reaching and keeping the few than chasing a never-achievable number. It's easier to build an exclusive community than a non-exclusive community.
Direct influence is pretty weak.
You can test it, tell your members to do something. What was your conversion rate? 10%? 5%? 1%? It's usually somewhere in that region.
People don't like being told what to do. This is especially true in branded communities. They like believing they have decided to do it for themselves.
Do you know the biggest influence on community members? Other members. People do what they see people doing.
If you want people to do something in a community, you need them to see people doing it.
If people do what they see others doing, you have the chicken and the egg dilemma. How do you get people to make a desired action in the first place?
Invest time building relationships with your key 50 to 100 members of the community. You need to build and sustain these relationships. When you want something to happen in the community, you can ask this insider group for their advice and opinions.
You can incorporate those ideas into the activity (to give them a sense of ownership) and work with them to make it happen. That insider group are the people that begin taking the desired actions in the first place.
Once people see this core group of individuals taking that action, they follow suit.
You can start discussions on topics or activities you wish members to participate in. You don't need to tell people to do anything here, you need to ask for their opinions and ideas on relevant topics. Reply positively to people that suggest an idea that fits in with what you want them to do.
You can also use your sticky threads. Whenever a member mentions an activity or action that you wish to encourage, you can set the post as a sticky thread to ensure more people see that action. You may also include these as a 'what's popular?' selection on the landing page of the community.
If a member moves closer towards the activity you want, ask them what they would need from you to make it happen. Ask who else in the community might be interested in being involved? People want to hop aboard something they believe will be popular.
You can also be more responsive to positive contributions and less responsive to contributions you wish to encourage. This is the subtle act of steering the community in the direction you wish it to go.
Content is your second biggest tool of influence. You can use content to give a huge amount of attention to the topics/actions you wish people to take. Don't overplay your hand here. Don't force the agenda. Use your content to give attention to people that are already taking the desired actions. Reatively create the agenda.
You can write content which mentions them and their actions. You can interview them and let them talk about their actions. You can highlight their milestone achievements. You can create polls for people to vote on a relevant issue raised by members. You can create a member of the month award given to a member that has taken the desired action. You can include such actions in your community's history. You can give members who have take the desired actions opinion columns within the community to talk about it.
As more people begin to take the desired actions, you can develop specific events/activities for the action. You can develop a live-chat, led by members, about the action. You can help your members set up a specific day to participate in that desired action/activity. You can turn that action into a challenge for members to participate in and keep score of it.
Remember to be reactive to members taking the actions, don't try to force your agenda directly upon your members. Your members want to feel ownership of their contributions. They want to feel the community has risen up to undertake this action.
Your biggest influence over a community is your subtle influence. If you master subtle influence, the value and effectiveness of your community will increase significantly.
Imagine you sell skis.
You build a community for skiers. Not just any skiers, but novice skiers.
You leverage your relationships with customers to develop a small community that rapidly grows into a large community. It’s a welcoming crowd. They discuss how they got into skiing, they share tips and trade product advice. You begin arranging events for your skiers, who also invite their skiing buddies to join. You let top community members try out new products.
Now it’s really starting to grow.
You let skiers provide feedback on the latest models; you drip information to your community first (causing more people to join to get the latest news before their friends). Your events start becoming quite big too. You invite top skiers to talk to your customers both online and offline.
You create a branded ski just for community members that proves popular. You provide an option to provide customized skis (with the member’s name on). You create beginner-level customized content and reviews of courses for novices. Hundreds are sharing their experience, advice and novice anecdotes. You create a book of these stories and it's shared across the web.
Then your boss cancels the community because the click through rate from the community to the product site was low.
You can’t measure the value of a community purely through clicks. A sense of community, lifetime customer loyalty, referrals to the community and can’t be measured through clicks. The easiest measurement isn't the best. At the very least, those familiar with your company will know to visit the site directly to make their purchases instead of going through the community
Now you could blame the boss for this tragedy. S/he should recognise the value of the community. But, how can they? They’re not the experts, they’re relying upon their own experience to make these judgements. It’s your fault. You didn’t establish boundaries, expectations, or means of measuring the community when you began.
You need to establish a means of measuring the community’s benefit to an organization, even if it’s using a sampling method (members –vs- non-members of similar backgrounds).
You need to build and collect your evidence. Whenever someone questions the value of community, you need to ace that question. You need to provide an impressive amount of data and anecdotal stories that will blow them away.
Even better, don’t wait for the question to rise to prove the value of the community. Proactively study the community, collect data and present that information. Don't even let the question arise.
Note: We will be studying ROI in depth as part of the Pillar Summit's Professional Community Management course. Click here if you want to be told when you can enrol for the course.
The definition of community has been stretched to breaking point…and a little beyond. Almost any online social activity is now referred to as a community.
There are three elements to a community. 1) A specific group of people who have 2) developed relationships with each other through a 3) strong common interest. Specific people + strong common interest + relationships, that’s it.
So lets highlight 5 activities which aren't communities.
- Online customer service channels. Customer service channels are fantastic. One person asks a question and another responds. They’re scalable and everyone benefits.
- Facebook fan pages. Fan pages can be a great promotional tool. They can increase loyalty and deepen engagement with fans. But they’re terrible at building relationships between fans. Fan pages encourage their audience to interact them, not with each other. Even those that can encourage their fans to interact with each other, struggle to develop these conversations into relationships.
- Twitter followings. A twitter following is similar to a fan page, it’s a great promotional tool, but your audience interacts with you, not with each other. The author creates a message and a few recipients reply. Most of the time, you can’t see who else replied to the message.
- Fundraising campaigns. These are some exceptions here, but most fundraising campaigns aren’t communities. They’re people giving to a particular cause. They don’t interact with each other. Even the platforms of Avaaz and Causes struggle to get their vast audience to build relationships with each other. There platforms can, and often are, tremendously successful, but we do a disservice to call them communities.
- Blogs. Some blogs are communities. Mashable, TechCrunch and co have developed an audience in which many members have gotten to know each other. They’ve organized offline meet-ups and developed a true sense of community. However, these are very rare exceptions. Most blogs, like this one, have a following. They don’t have a community. They have a group of people who have a shared interest. But this audience doesn’t interact with each other.
Some organizations such as GiffGaff, GetSatisfaction and Lithium Technologies do an incredible job here. However, they rarely build long-lasting relationships with each other. Most people visit, ask a question, get a reply then don’t return. Using community software doesn’t means your building a community. Developing relationships between your target audience means you're building a community.
Hashtags, however, can be communities. Jenn has done a great job with #cmgrchat. Each week, people come to talk to each other about an established community topic. Over a period of weeks they begin to recognize each other and get to know each other. They build relationships, a sense of community has begun to develop.
Knowing the difference matters. Imagine if you got sales and PR mixed up. Each is a different approach with a different benefit at a unique stage of the customer life cycle. The same is true with communities. As our social field grows we need to know what approach to use in each situation.
I hope we become better at differentiating between the two.
You might think when an organization is about to launch a community they would dig up lots of examples of successful communities first.
You might think they would use those examples to guide them on the choice of platform, the type of content to create, approaches to stimulate discussions and how to interact with members.
You might think the brand would thoroughly research their ecosystem, profile their potential members and try to figure out if the community is feasible before launching it.
You would be wrong.
Few brands research communities before they launch their own. They ignore proven successful tactics and repeat the most common mistakes.
The kicker is, with just a few hours research, it's all preventable.
On September 1st, I'll be leading an online community workshop at the Chartered Institute of Public Relations.
During the two hour session, I'll explain the proven strategies for developing successful online communities and guide participants through the process of planning a community for their own brands or clients.
The workshop will take place at CIPR HQ (52 – 53 Russell Square, London) and run from 17:00 to 19:30.
This weekend, one community manager explained that search engines accounted for nearly all growth to a community. It outweighed direct visits, any visible referral activity, links from any site and exceeded all social media traffic.
SEO, he declared, was the best way to grow a community.
The problem with that statement is he wasn’t doing anything else to drive growth. His plan for growth was to wait for members to search for a word and hope they became active community members.
Of course SEO will be your biggest source of growth if you’re not doing anything to stimulate growth. How else can people find your community?
If you’re not undertaking any promotional efforts, encouraging referral activity, inviting people to join, building relationships with influencers in the ecosystem, doing things worthy of attention – then people stumbling along through search engines is all you’re going to get. But that doesn’t make it the best source of growth. It just reduces all the other channels to zero.
The problem is search engines attract people looking for information rather than relationships. The conversion ratios for search engines are the weakest I’ve seen of any channel. Last week a founder of one community gave search engines a conversion ratio of just under 1%.
SEO attracts information seekers. Once they find the answer, they’re gone.
If SEO is your biggest channel of growth, it’s time to develop some new channels.
The power of sticky threads is huge. You get to set the agenda for your community. You get to determine what discussion everyone should participate in. You get to decide what the first discussions people see when they visit the community. You to get to show the community’s what’s popular.
Too often, sticky threads are used to highlight what members must read as opposed to must do. There are better ways of getting members to read something. Don’t use sticky threads to explain the forum guidelines or for news announcements. Use sticky threads to highlight the discussions that members should participate in.
Sticky threads are the singular place for the most emotive topics at any given time. They’re the threads where the community needs to be urged towards and cajoled into giving their opinion. They’re unification material for the community.
Don’t just set a sticky thread. Write a news post about it. Create a poll about the issue and let members vote. Tweet and make a Facebook update about the emotive topic.
Finally, don’t let the sticky thread last forever. Provide a closure to the topic. Summarize what the community has learnt or decided (or, perhaps, not agreed upon).
If the sticky thread proves insanely popular, you can create a forum category devoted entirely to the topic. You can make it a profile question for members to complete (Elvis or The Beatles? The Wire or The West Wing? Daddy or Chips?).
Singular actions have very little long-term impact upon a community.
A singular action rarely leads to huge growth or a surge in activity (and if it did, it's a temporary, fleeting, success at a big cost). The success of a community depends upon establishing good processes and sticking to those processes.
There are many small processes which can make a huge difference within a community. These include:
- Build relationships with members. This is often agreed as vital, but rarely embraced as a process. Spend time every day interacting 5 – 10 members. Ask them questions, find ways to help them, solicit their opinions, share your own aspirations for the community with them. Gradually convert them into active volunteers for the community – or at least people with whom you can depend upon to make things happen within the community.
- Initiate and stimulate active discussions. Every day or two initiate a discussion which people can participate in. Prompt individuals within the community by direct message to participate in the discussion. Send a note of admiration to individuals who make a notable contribution. This means every day there will be an interesting discussion taking place in the community.
- Ensure every discussion receives a reply within 24 hours. If members see unanswered discussion in the community, it increases the perceived social risk that their own discussion thread will receive little to no response. Members can avoid that by not initiating a discussion. It's therefore essential that every discussion receives a response in 24 hours (12 hours is better). You can respond yourself or contact other members to post their thoughts/opinions.
- Analyze and use data. Data is your biggest weapon. Spend time every week mastering your data. Ensure you're constantly identifying where members are dropping out of the community and making social and technical changes to optimize this process. Identify the most and least popular types of content. Kill the weak content and repeat the popular stuff.
- Invite individuals to join the community. This process guarantees a regular source of new members, increases your ability to define the reason for people to join the community and encourages you to initiate activities which are worth inviting people to join the community to participate in.
- Create regular content series. Create a content calendar with regular series of articles (interviews with members, opinion columns, exclusive news etc…). Make the content about the community (not it's topic). Create most of the content a week in advance. Over time you will have an unmissable local news channel which sets the agenda and social structure for the community.
- Plan for future events/activities. Spend time every week planning upcoming events and activities. Reach out to VIPs for guest interviews. Talk to brands about hosting a competition to win their products. Arrange for an exclusive sneak-preview to the community. Work on your offline meetups.
- Integrating. Introduce more employees to the community. Highlight the contributions of your staff to the community. Get other staff to answer questions. Grow the base of support for the community within the company.
These are all small, simple processes, which over the long time will have a huge impact upon the community. However, they must become routine for them to work.
The problem isn't knowing the processes, but applying them. You need to set aside time for them. You need to arrange your meetings and other activities around them. You need to hold yourself (and others) responsible for undertaking them every week.