Compare these two questions below to a recipient of your organization's mailing list.
"Would you like to join a new online community?"
"Would you like to be a founder of our exclusive community?
There are many different appeals you can use.
The most successful, we've found, is using founders (or co-founders).
It uses the efficacy motivation. It sets expectations that contributions and effort will be responsible. And it also hints there will be rewards and recognition.
You can't fake this. You do need to give founders real ownership over the community. This means soliciting their ideas, asking for support on topics, giving them responsibility for areas of the site.
There are two major benefits here. First, you get a core group of members to launch the platform. Second, founders are likely to invite everyone they know to their community.
It's not just a tiny terminological change. It's an entirely different approach. You're building a community with founders, not for members.
Do you know what most discussions are about?
People mostly talk about other people.
In the early stages of developing a community (when you're trying to get the community off the ground) initiate and feature discussions about people.
Write content about people.
Even in your initial outreach, invite members to give their opinions on people.
It helps if the community manager is familiar with the topic.
Actually, it helps if the community manager is very passionate about the topic.
It helps if it's something they've been involved with for years.
It helps if they know all about the major issues, know the tone of voice to use, and can share their own experiences.
It helps if they have a lot of friends in the sector already. It helps if they can genuinely connect on a one to one level with the people they're trying to reach.
This debate split the room evenly at Swarm Sydney.
We do see examples of communities founded and managed by people that weren't already engaged in that topic. Martin Reed has made a career out of this.
But we find far more examples of successful communities built and managed by people whom are highly committed to that topic.
I worry about communities managed by agencies for precisely this reason. Whilst a few succeed (SiftGroups has done very well here), most fail. Most agencies don't have staff with that same level of passion, experience, knowledge, and connections.
This matters a lot.
If you're hiring a community manager, I'd hire someone that's an expert on the topic as opposed to previous community management experience. This is especially true if you're working in highly specialized fields like healthcare, teaching, accounting, legal etc…
It's easier to teach someone how to grow and manage a community than it is to make them passionate about the topic.
It's better to cater to the most hardcore fans of the topic.
Some people worry about this. They worry that if the discussions are too technical, too geeky, too wierd, too extreme, they will lose the less committed.
This is rarely the case.
It's the most committed fans of the topic that attract the less committed. By encouraging and facilitating the geekiest, hardcore, technical and weirdest discussions, you get the people you want.
Your audience see the geeky discussions as a signifier. This is the community for them. This is a place that accepts and embraces their wonderful wierdness. This is the place where they can be themselves and talk about the topics they can't talk about anywehre else. It helps develop a stronger sense of community.
You shouldn't worry about the discussions being too technical. You should worry that they're not technical enough.
It's not advertising. That's invasive and usually clogs activity.
The best way to monetize a community is to develop products/services that your audience really wants to buy.
You're best placed to do this.
You can identify the common problems that keep coming up. You should know the audience better than anyone. What would their dream products/services look like?
Do you know the best part? You can ask your members what their dream products/services look like and develop these for them.
The best tend to be educational courses, coaching, books and guides. But you can also do events, develop entirely new products/services (see The Travel Hacking Cartel), and exclusives.
Here is a simple task, search for the phrase launches an online community.
You can use Google, press release distribution websites, or the search function of marketing publication/trade websites.
With so much literature available on the internet about developing communities, there is no excuse for this. This community has fallen victim to big launch syndrome.
This organization has sent their entire audience to visit an empty community. What a waste. Over a week has passed and there still isn't any activity.
The problem is we're used to a launch. We're used to that big day where the community goes live to the world. We're exciting about announcing it. We wait for it to begin doing the work that we should be doing. We forget we should only launch a community when we're ready.
This is a mistake. We should skip the launch. Ignore it entirely.
Start by interacting with a small number of your target audience. Find out what they're interested in (biggest problems/challenges). Once the platform is ready, initiate discussions on those topic and invite them to participate.
Then reach out to a few more people, get to know them, find out what they're interested in, then invite them to participate in the community too. You don't launch, you just keep repeating the process until the community reaches critical mass.
Bonus: If you want a free eBook to launching a community, click here.
A few organizations are heading in the wrong direction.
They believe game mechanics will encourage contributions within a community.
They use a free incentive to get people to join.
They have short-term competitions/challenges in which members can win a prize to stimulate activity.
These might achieve a short blip of success, but they hurt the community over the long term. All three are sure-fire ways to attract a lot of lurkers (information-seekers).
I've been in meetings with clients absolutely bewildered that anyone would participate in a community if they didn't receive a tangible reward.
If you're used to managing employees, it makes sense. But it's rather sad. It's also disproven by every successful community not offering tangible rewards for participation.
Forget Maslow, there are three key motivations at work here.
1) Power and influence (self-efficacy). We want to feel like we've made an impact in the world around us. This is the strongest motivator. We participate in a community because we feel we matter in that community. We feel we make a difference.
2) Fame and status seeking (appreciation). We participate to increase our status within the community. We share our best advice, try to make friends, participating in discussions all to increase our own status (and possibly boost our own self-concept). This drives many contributions in knowledge-sharing communities.
3) Affiliation (belonging).We want to make friends. This is a weaker motivation than most the others. We want to connect with people and learn more about them. We want to conform and 'fit in' to a group of likeminded people. We participate to increase that feeling of belonging.
These motivations haven't changed for participating in social groups for years.
If you want to stimulate activity over the long term in a community, you have to use these motivators – not tangible rewards.
Tangible rewards place members within the reward mindset. They link their behaviour to the anticipation of the reward. It doesn't scale and rapidly reduces activity.
If you want to stimulate activity, then create the environment which appeals to these motivations. Click here for some simple tactics.
You want a member to embrace the community identity.
You want them to mentally commit to that community.
They wont do that if they think the community is struggling.
Why waste their time, effort, and sacrifice a part of their own identity for the group if the group might fail? That will just hurt their own self-concept.
This is partly why you need to concentrate activity in as a few as places as possible. It's also why you need to identify your quick wins.
The perception of momentum and success, is as important as success itself.
This means celebrating the minor things in the early stages, regularly introducing newcomers that join the group, writing content about upcoming events and activities, initiating regular discussions and ensuring the popular ones remain as sticky threads for a week.
If your community isn't successful, it's a good idea to make it appear like it will be.
Launching an exclusive community can be a great idea.
You can target and attract a specific group of people. You can generate an extremely strong sense of community amongst a group of people with a VERY strong common interest. You can build a community that delivers an incredible ROI.
It's also an effective positioning tool. When there are established communities for that topic, your new community stands out.
But, as obvious as it sounds, exclusive communities need to be exclusive. That means they're smaller, much smaller. That's the sacrifice. It has to be difficult to join. You have to have a criteria that members meet. You can't make exceptions for anyone (let alone everyone).
It also has to make sense within the topic. It makes no sense, for example, for a community about salads to be exclusive. It does make sense for professionals.
And if you're going to build an exclusive community, try to avoid sentences like this:
And the best part is that membership in this private club is free and open to anyone with a salad bowl, a pair of tongs and a passion for the green stuff.
You can have a private club or an open club, but you can't have both.
Bruno claims you don’t create a community, you provide the platform for that audience to gather and connect.
Forgive the semantics here, but we do create the community.
We build the relationships between members. We embed the elements that develop a strong sense of community. It's important to understand this.
We don't build platforms, we build communities. We take groups of people with a shared interest and develop a strong sense of community amongst them.
But there is one thing we don't do.
We don't create that strong common interest.
That interest must already exist. That interest must be strong. That interest must be common (shared by a number of people). People should be keen to discuss that interest in their spare time.
It sounds obvious, but too many organizations still get into trouble here. They try to make people interested in a topic and build a community at that same time.
But why would people not interested in the topic join and participate in the first place?
You see this happening in many ways. For example, when a brand tries to get an audience to talk about them, instead of the topic. The manufacturer of skis, might build a community about skis instead of skiing. It sounds like a minor difference, it's not. It's huge.
If you're always fighting an uphill battle to get the community off the ground, it's because you haven't nailed that strong common interest.
Look harder. What are people really interested in here? Build a community around that.
Take special notice of members that make their first contribution.
If you're reading a post from a member with a '1' post count, your response is a big deal.
Your response needs to be quick. If a member had to wait a few days for a response, they're gone.
Your response has to be genuine. You have to response to what they say. You need to acknowledge the quality of the question and provoke further debate.
You might also want your volunteers/regular members to participate. Responses from 5 people including 2 long-term members is better than a quick response from the community manager.
If you're finding that many of those whom make a first contribution never make a second, you might want to work harder at crafting a better response to that first contribution.
A lot of communities seem fond to do what CommunityOfSweden has done.
They waste valuable space with unncessary copy targeted at newcomers.
This is especially painful when the categories are intuitive and self-descriptive.
There are three important lessons here.
1) Treat your real estate as sacrosanct. Don't waste it on pointless copy. If you can remove something, do it. The more copy you have, the less people read. Focus on the important things. You can test your copy and track how many people are clicking through, do this.
2) Pay close attention to what you have above the fold on any page. Here it's clearly important to have all the forum categories above the fold. You also want to display the latest activity at any given time.
3) Don't target your website to newcomers. Regulars will know what each category is for. Newcomers should have an intuitive idea what a forum is and what 'myths about sweden' will be about without the extensive copy. When in doubt, always target your community at those that visit frequently as opposed to the newcomers.