Ultimately, when the great tide of novelty recedes, it's only members that have built relationships with each other that remain. They keep coming back to talk to their friends.
We need a long-term perspective. We need to focus on the lifetime value of members. If you demand short-term results, you build a short-term community. You build a community based upon clicks.
Clicks represent reactions to stimuli. People click to become members, respond to a discussion, share content. Clicks are measurable, but irrelevant to the long-term success of a community. When something new comes along, you lose the clickers. Your efforts are wasted – you will have to start again.
If you're working on a long-term perspective (more than a year), you know that building relationships is key.
Relationships aren't built upon clicks. Relationships are built upon meaningful interactions. Relationships are built upon increasing levels of self-disclosure, gradual (gradual!) development of trust and familiarity.
It's worth spending time to build a good relationship with a single member. Five years later, there's a good chance the member will still be participating.
It's worth introducing two members to each other. That relationship keeps them both active for years.
It's worth connecting a few members with a common interest together. That can become the foundation for a group that grows for many years.
All these seemingly insignificant, low-impact, tasks (at least in the short term), keep paying off for years.
When you build relationships, make connections between members and assiduously cultivate friendships groups – you build a community for a decade, not for a year.
Surely that's what we should be doing?
Look at GovLoop's online community.
At the top are these blog posts:
They're clearly not getting a good response..
Why have something which is not getting a good response taking up the most valuable area of your community?
Beneath these posts are the featured discussions (below)
If Featured Discussions are relatively popular and blog posts are relatively unpopular, wouldn't it make sense to switch them? Put the discussions at the top and move blog posts lower down (or remove them entirely).
In fact, you could go through your entire community platform using data and responsiveness to put the things that the community use/like at the top. Forum posts, categories of content, member listings….
If you're not featuring discussions in community platform (as we believe you should), whatever you do feature must more popular (more clicks, more activity) than anything else in the community.
Major issues help unite a community. They provide a source of activity and a reason for new members to join.
Identifying, promoting and escalating these issues is part of your job.
In some industries, issues come naturally. In many, that's not the case. You can use this process.
1) Identify the relevant issues in your sector. These should be new. Use the PESTEL framework if it helps. What's new politically, economically, socially, technologically, environmentally or legally? Which will affect your members? You can take a big news story and put a topical spin on it.
2) Ask members how they feel about this issue. Use a forum post. e.g. in an expat community you might ask "I've seen the USA is trying to make it more difficult to get a visa, will this affect many of you? What are your thoughts on it?"
3) Make a news post about this. Make this a sticky thread and publish a news post/notification/e-mail/Social media update to all members of the platform. Invite all members to give their opinion.
4) Host a poll. From the opinions, identify the common themes and post them as a poll in your community. Again, invite members to participate and give their views. You may also start sub-discussions on the topic.
5) Summarize. This is important, summarize what your community has said in a news post/forum category. Tell your community what they have said. Make sure they own their own ideas in the issue.
6) Statement. Publish a statement on behalf of the community on the issue. Send it to relevant journalists, bloggers. Use data if possible (63% of members thought this would cause major restrictions on their lives). Don't neglect local and national news. This can be a good source of growth and pride on behalf of the community to be featured in any relevant media.
7) Cause. Put together a few ideas for how you would like the issue changed. It can be a political/legal change, or even a social change ("A pledge to …."). Launch a separate page of the community to collect signatures, encourage members to contact their friends or take the pledge. Make sure this is integrated with other social media platforms.
8) Updates on progress. Keep the community and media contacts updated on the progress of your efforts. Encourage members to be more involved and do more to help your effort. Stimulate discussions on how it's going, what members can do, and sub-categories of the major issue.
9) Win / Lose. Declare victory or defeat. It doesn't altogether matter which. It's not winning or losing that matters, it's members participating in a joint activity over a shared period of time. Winning helps, but a good defeat can help members feel pride in trying (and opens the door for future efforts).
10) Update your community history. Update your community's history page about the issue. Let members make the entry if they like. Ensure all new members can see it. Perhaps give badges/unique profile customisation to members that participated.
Mumsnet have multiple issues at any single time. Yet Mumsnet is huge and there are no shortage of parenting issues. You might like to try a major issue every six – nine months.
Brands that are really sneaky might identify a product/service related issue that members might be frustrated with and begin the process there. This is especially useful if you plan to change it. It means your community will win.
The goal of the community manager is to continually progress the community through the community lifecycle.
By progressing the community through the lifecycle you maximise the potential of the community.
If you have a community that's just launched, you don't do mass promotion. You work to sustain a high level of activity from a relatively small number of members.
If you have a community that's highly active, you would focus upon introducing sense of community elements.
If you're not actively working to progress your community through the lifecycle, what exactly are you doing?
There is a big difference between platforms where it is difficult to get your data out and platfoms where it is impossible to get your member's data out.
This matters. If you move platforms, you don't want members to register again. You don't want them to lose their post counts and all record of their contributions.
You also want to backup your community data on a periodic basis, unless you risk the black swan event of your platform provider losing everything.
Some people draw the line between platforms where exporting data is easy and those where exporting data is difficult. They reject a lot of great platforms this way. They should be drawing the line between difficult and impossible.
Facebook pages is impossible. You can't export the data of members. You can't get their names, e-mail addresses and import them into another platform.
Ning is difficult. You can get the data out, but you will probably need a decent coder/developer to do it. Likewise, many forums can be difficult, but not impossible.
If your community is strong and you're paying to move to a different platform, a small fee to someone to transfer data from one database to another probably is good value.
Don't reject the platforms that are difficult to extract data from. Reject the platforms that are impossible to extract your data from.
Should you start a Google+ page?
Almost certainly not.
How would your members hear about it? You would have to promote it through your existing channels.
Yet, if they're already listening to you on those channels, why would you want to send them somewhere else? Why would you split them up? Why dissipate your community across ever-increasing platforms.
Did your community even ask to have a Google+ page?
I've been fighting shiny objective syndrome for the better part of a decade. You can happily ignore MySpace, Facebook, FourSquare, Quora, Twitter, YouTube etc…Community members on one platform rarely demand another.
Focus on the fundamentals. Stimulating interactions, building relationships and developing a sense of community.
I cringe whenever I see a community manager use phrases like:
“Thank you for taking the time to contact us.”
“We would like to wish you a happy thanksgiving”
These phrases, along with many, many, others are terrible for community building.
They’re major impersonality signals. They’re roadblocks to having a sustained conversation with an individual. We associate them with interacting with plastic customer representatives, not people we want to befriend.
Community managers should have a personality. It shouldn’t be a personality they’re faking. They shouldn’t adopt a polite, customer-service, orientated mindset.
Community managers should be hired because their personality suits the audience they’re trying to reach. They should be allowed (and encouraged) to unleash the full-force of their personality upon the community.
If I’m managing a community, I want to get to know them. I ask them questions. I makes jokes and tease members. When Patrick has forgotten his password for the third time, I tease him. I might send him my top ten ways to remember it (and reset it), or make a comical demand e.g. send me a picture of a puppy on a skateboard to get it back.
I’m happy to agree and disagree with members. I’m genuinely interested in their lives beyond the community. I act like a real person. The more members like me, the more likely they are to return to my community.
There is no rulebook here. It wouldn’t work in a community of biophysicists. Luckily, I’m not managing a community of biophysicists.
Don’t underestimate the importance of this. The hardest part of FeverBee’s consulting is realizing a community manager isn’t suited to the community they want to manage.
Two things. First, a brand should make sure they hire a community manager whose personality fits the audience. I worry about agencies that manage multiple communities on behalf of clients. Second, make sure the community manager is trained to unleash their personality, be himself or herself, and build genuine one-to-one relationships with the audience.
Beyond the short-term interest/need that compels a member to join, long-term participation is driven by four needs.
1) Power (efficacy)
2) Fame/recognition (appreciation)
3) Friends (affiliation)
Your members will participate because they want to have an impact upon their surroundings (even online), want people to say nice things about them and feel appreciated, make friends or feel a sense of achievement.
If the majority of your active members have been in the community for less than three months, you have a motivation problem. Your members don’t feel they can satisfy their power, fame or achievements needs within your community.
This doesn’t mean you need to give recognition, power etc…to these members. You just need them to feel they could quench their motivation thirst in these areas.
The difference is important. You can’t quench everyone’s motivation thirst in a scalable way. Nor should you try.
This isn’t an excuse to be lazy about giving members recognition, power or helping the community achieve things together. It’s the opposite.
It’s a compelling reason to be highly active in giving recognition (interviewing members, mentioning members in news posts, celebrating their milestones etc…), power (control over areas of the site, responsibility for certain topics, initiations to the volunteer group) and that sense of achievement (milestones, activities external to the community, collaboration activities), amongst a diverse group of members.
The more members see others being recognized, given power and achieving things within the community, the more they will feel they can get the same. The more they are likely to participate to achieve what these members have.
It’s the motivation thirst that will drive long-term participation.
Don’t try to be fair in dolling out recognition, power and achievements amongst all your members, you don’t need a rigid criteria for giving recognition, you just need to be highly active in doing it
Abdul just completed his first marathon.
He did it in a great time too, 3 hours and 38 minutes.
You might think this isn't worthy of your community's attention. It's not relevant to your community's topic and your members wont care. And if Abdul isn't in your community, you would be right.
But I bet there are dozens of members achieving great things every week in your community.
I bet members are having children, getting married, moving to new jobs, buying homes, running marathons, raising money, graduating from university. I bet there is no shortage of interesting news about your members.
This is news you should mention. It helps develop a sense of community and strong familiarity with each other. It provides a great source of easy content and encourages members to bond. It provides a support network and encourages an element of competition (the peer group factor).
Having a special congratulations post on a weekly basis will encourage members to visit more frequently. You can even let members submit their own posts for it.
It wont be relevant to your community's topic, but we know the best content for a community is content about the community.
…Because you’re a non-profit.
…Or because you have difficult stakeholders.
…Or because you have a unique product.
…Or because you work in the B2B sector.
…Or because you know something very special about your audience.
…Or because you don't have a large budget.
Whilst I admire the tenacity of organizations who believe the long-established principles of community development will politely bend to their needs, it’s probably better to assume that the principles do apply to you.
In fact, it’s a safe bet to assume that the principles of community development don’t care about your unique situation whatsoever.
Of all the topical issues in community management, there are a few I would be pay special attention to.
- The blurring lines between offline and online community development. What can each learn from each other? How are they merging with each other?
- Legal issues in communities. What are we responsible (liable) for and what can community managers, collectively, do to ensure sensible laws or regulation is in place to protect community professionals.
- Establishing the ROI and justifying our own value to community managers. Engagement isn't the outcome, a clear ROI is the outcome.
- Proven community/social theory into community management.What is proven to work? What is the social theory that underpins our work? What can we point to and say with confidence that this is applicable to all types of communities?
- The convergence or fragmentation of community management and other social fields. How do we establish community management as a unique discipline within the social fields. What is a community and what is a community manager? What is their role and activities?
There may be more, but these seem pretty important to me.
Amongst it's many perplexing elements was the assertion that BravoTV is a brand that gets it? Why does Bravo TV get it?
"Bravo does a great job of giving consumers a ritualized experience across programming landing pages and communities. Ritualized content and experiences are an important aspect of community life, and are an important return motivator."
You might imagine from such a statement that BravoTV's community would be thriving.
Only it isn't.
In fact, they struggle to get more than 10 members participating in a community at any one time. Try the boards for TopChef, Millionaire Matchmaker, What happens now, My Life On The D-List (just change the number at the end to find a variety of dying communities).
If simply posting a standardized thread each week and leaving people to their own endeavours is seen as good community management practice, what exactly is bad community management? This is community management by autopilot.
My point isn't to demonise BravoTV so much to highlight that much of what is considered good community practice bares so little relevance to what makes a community a success.
Ritualized content and standardized platforms do nothing to help a community, they might even prevent a community from developing a unique identity.
You judge a community's success by it's stage in the life cycle, the number of interactions it generates, it's members sense of community and the ROI it offers the organization. ComBlu defines success by what features the platform offers. By that assessment, nearly all of the most successful communities would be considered failures.
ComBlu credits Bravo with an array of successes which have no impact on the community's success. Only one suggestion is offered:
[..] On our Bravo wish list? A better gamification or reputation management system."
There are a variety of things the community needs, a better gamification system certainly isn't one of them.
How about hiring a community manager to take responsibility for stimulating discussions, getting members to respond, sustaining high levels of activity? How about allowing off-topic discussions? How about letting members initiate their own discussions? How about interacting with members and building relationships with them? How about developing a sense of community between members?
This isn't just limited to BravoTV. WholeFoodsMarket is struggling to sustain activity, American Express' Top Flyer looks quiet and Business Travel ConneXion's has had 3 participants in the last 10 days.
Throughout the report we see the communities deemed successful are very much the opposite. In many, you can't find where members can interact. Content sites branded as communities are still content sites.
And this is the crux of the problem. Too many brands don't care (or don't know) if they have beautiful, if little-used, content-based sites they can call communities or if they actually have a thriving online community. It's far easier to develop content sites. Those in the 'community space' know this. It requires little skill to create and publish content. You can't really fail, it's all about your actions.
But building a community is much more difficult (and more valuable).
We must peel back the layers of content and see if people are actually participating. We must stop classifying success/failures by what features the platform offers. We need to find a proper criteria for success and useful case studies to follow. At the moment, we appear to have little of either.