You've heard the Ravelympics story by now.
The US Olympic Committee sent Ravelympics a cease and desist letter.
Revelry responded by publishing the letter.
When a group we're a part of is attacked, we feel compelled to defend it. It's part of our identity. If the group fails, we take a blow to our own identity.
This strengthens the group identity. Even relatively minor threats, can lead to a huge response.
The genius of Ravelry wasn't their response to the letter (although it was terrific), it was publishing and promoting the threat to the group identity. In doing so they galvanzed their audience. They strengthened the identity.
Those big threats to your community, can also be big opportunities. You can publish them, highlight them, and galvanize your community to act together. Threats to the profession, the broader ecosystem, or to individual members also work to galvanize and increase the group identity.
Both badges and stickers are good idea.
They're even better when you can tie it into a topical event/occurance.
Why not give all members a virtual badge that states their position (and the community's position) on a relevant topic. This might be a controversial issue in the sector. Members can display the badges on their social media accounts.
It's all useful for group bonding.
The pacing (the speed at which new discussions appear) needs to suit the community's stage in the lifecycle.
In inception-stage (new) communities, the pacing needs to be much slower. If you've just launched a community, you should only post a new discussion when the last one has received at least some response.
Over-eager community managers can post 10 new discussions a day and get 5 responses. A response or two every looks bad. It deters people from participating. As the speed and quantity of responses increase, you can speed up the frequency of new discussions.
However, if you initiate too many discussions without waiting for any to get a response, you risk having a community that looks very empty. If you post a discussion which receives no response, either remove it after a day or two or individually prompt people to respond (this might indicate bigger relevancy problems).
In mature communities the pacing of new discussions will naturally be faster. You need regular members to frequently see new discussions they can participate in. Sometimes that takes care of itself, quite often you need to initiate a discussion or two to fill the gaps.
It's a fine balance.
If you want to increase activity in your community, who should you focus on?
It's not your most active members. They're usually as active as they're likely to be.
It's not your least active members/lurkers. They're the hardest to convert into regular active members.
It's the people in-between.
Let's divide your members into four categories by the number of posts they make per month.
For example; tier one members post 75 – 100 times per month, tier two post 50 – 74 times per month, tier three post 25 – 49 posts per month, tier four post 0 – 24 times per month.
Focus on the tier two and three members. These are members that already participate, but not as much as they could.
You can deliberately segment these groups and develop clear, measurable, campaigns increase higher levels of activity amongst this group. This usually means engaging them in the community's sense of community elements (membership, influence, needs-alignment, or shared emotional connection).
Many organizations focus on their best or worst members, this is a mistake. Focus on the mid-level members.
If you're trying to convert newcomers to regulars, you need to align the entire conversion process around a single motivation.
It's tempting to treat the process as a series of humps. You can identify a different tactic to overcome each hump
For example, you release exclusive information to get people to visit the community. You offer a free ebook to members that register. You launch a challenge/competition to get members to make their first contribution. You use a game-mechanics system to keep members active (perhaps even offer tangible rewards for the winners).
But this approach doesn't work. The reason why a member crosses a hump matters as much as crossing it. 10,000 members registering to get a free ebook is less valuable than 100 registering to exchange tips with experts in the field.
You need prospective members in the right mindset when they cross each hump. Sure, there are a number of proven methods to increase conversion, but none of these affect the fundamental motivation.
Now for the scary part. If you've tried everything, and it's still not working. You need to make a big change, not a small tweak.
You have to do two things.
First, you need to make a fundamental change in your community concept. This means changing who your community is targeting (narrow the focus), the type of community you're developing, the positioning of the community, or the benefit of the community. This isn't easy. You need to do a lot of research to get this right.
Second, you need to get really good at articulating the benefit that captures this motivation.
Every extra click hurts your community.
If you put your community behind a community tab, that hurts.
If your members have to click another tab to see the latest activity, that hurts.
If your members have to scroll down the page because a big graphic consumes your landing page, that hurts.
These aren't minor annoyances. They're certainly not necessary evils. They're easily correctable problems which really improve the performance of your community.
Tactics aren't so important.
Tactics change for every community.
We have a massive playbook of tactics that have worked in a variety of communities.
Processes are critical. Processes remain the same for every community.
The best community managers aren't those that stumbled across a series of successful tactics that work in one community, but have mastered a set of processes that they can apply to any community.
When we train community manager, we train them in processes. How do you systematically identify what the community needs and how to resolve that need.
Take growth. You can boost growth by trying to get bloggers to write about your community, gaining promotion in relevant media, encouraging members to share content. As a result, growth might temporarily go up.
A process has a different result. A process keeps growth high.
This means reviewing data to benchmark your current level of growth, looking at what is/isn't working so far (where are you in the lifecycle, what sort of growth does your community need, where is most of your growth coming from right now?)
Then you implement the growth strategy. This strategy is based upon theory. We know for example that greater levels of ownership lead to high levels in referral growth. Instead of a temporary promotional hit, we might work hard to ensure members feel higher levels of ownership.
Tactically that might mean more shared, collaboration, activities. It might mean encouraging participating in something that affects real change in the community (and then automating it so members themselves are responsible for this). It might mean developing an insider group of members or a constitution. These are all singular changes that will indefinitely pay dividends to the community.
We then see what worked what didn't. We test different approaches (based upon proven theory), that we believe will work. It's a process, not a singular action.
If you work at the tactical level, you're usually moving from one spike to the next. Sometimes you strike it lucky and get a lot of members, sometimes you don't. If you're working at the process level, you're working to sustainably keep growth and activity high.
The difference is between an action that makes the level of growth/activity go up, and a process which makes the level of growth/activity in a community stay up.
Aside: We're working on something terrific. If you want to help, please take 5 minutes to complete this survey. If you leave your e-mail address, we will send you a free lesson.
If you have low levels of participation, you need to identify if members are visiting but not participating, or if few people are visiting.
The difference should be obvious. If people aren't visiting, then it doesn't particularly matter what you do in the community, no-one will see it. You need to focus on reaching these members. You need to develop clear tactics to promote the community.
That usually means building a permission list of members you can interact with. For example, interview 10 people about their top tips in the topic, publish that as an article members can download (you get the e-mail addresses), then invite those people to the community (the people you interviewed need to promote this).
Or you might interview popular bloggers/influencers and ask them to post a link on their sites. You can also directly invite people you see elsewhere to join the community. Make sure you are inviting them to do something specific in your community (and not just join a community).
If members are visiting but not participating, you have a relevancy problem. The focus becomes seeing what they do when they visit the community. Do they bounce at the homepage? If so, make sure you highlight emotive discussions on that page which members can participate in (and make sure this is above the fold!).
Do they browse/see the discussions but not participate? Change the discussions they see. Use sticky threads to highlight the most engaging/controversial posts. Research your audience. Identify the topics they really care about. Start discussions based upon their hopes and fears.
Summer is coming up. If you haven't read many community books, here is a list that will help you get started (in order of priority too!)
1) Robert Kraut & Paul Resnick – Building Successful Online Communities: Evidence-Based Social Design
This is a rare book in the community genre, one that combines data and theory into proven hypothesis which are then verified. This is the best community book we have. If you only read one book this summer, make it this one.
2) Dale Carnegie – How To Win Friends and Influence People
This is vital for day to day interactions with members. If you want a basics primer in building and sustaining positive relationships, this will explain how. It's long, so once you get the idea feel free to skip the examples.
3) Etienne Wenger – Cultivating Communities of Practice
Whilst this book is written for those growing and managing CoPs, most of its information is relevant to all types of communities. Pay special attention to the domain of knowledge sections.
4) Robert Putnam – Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community
This is a mind-boggling sociological study in the collapse of community in modern America. It's not an online community book, it's better. It's a terrific insight into the creation collapse of social capital.
5) Paul Adams – Grouped: How Small Groups Of Friends Are Key To Influence On The Web
This isn't the most advanced book on the topic, but it's certainly the most readable. Paul explains why it's important to treat a community not as a homogenous group of individuals, but as a cumulative number of small, distinctive, groups. The key to building communities is to be able to cultivate and work with those groups
6) Robert Cialdini – Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion
Most people have read this now, that's a good thing. Robert Cialdini's book defined how we think about influencing people. He outlines 6 clear paths to gaining influence amongst an audience. You need to select one of these paths to build influence in your community.
7) Al Ries & Jack Trout - The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing & Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind
These books are a terrific read BEFORE you've launched the community. They will teach you about conceptualization, how to position the community within it's sector, competing against existing communities. Neither are about communities, but you'll get the idea.
8) Howard Kerzner – Project Management: A Systems Approach To Planning, Scheduling and Controlling
Any project management book will do, but this is one of the best and most detailed. If you can't follow through on a plan of action in your day, you're going to struggle to move to execute (or develop) a strategic plan of action.
9) Douglas Atkin – The Culting Of The Brand
Douglas' book is a fascinating account of cult-marketing. It explains how and why people begin to love a brand and the benefits that building a sense of community amongst your audience can provide. We needed a book to explain the importance of communities in the list, this is it.
10) Joshua Porter – Designing for the Social Web
Along with this presentations, Joshua's books are a terrific read on improving the design of community sites. This wont resonate with everyone, but should provide something of value to everyone that reads the material.
Some freebies you can download right now…
You can even get some great books for free, such as these:
- Jono Bacon – The Art Of The Community (The best community management book we had for a long time, the second edition came out this week)
- Howard Rheingold – Virtual Communities: Homesteading On The Electronic Frontier (Howard's original classic, more entertaining than educational – now for free!)
- Richard Millington – The Proven Path (our own free contribution to the field)
If you read one of these, you will be a better community manager. If you read them all, well, you will be terrific!
Communities that struggle for activity often have no programme of planned activities.
You can succeed without regularly organizing activities, but it's harder. Activities, typically events, play an important role in communities besides directly stimulating activity.
For example, a community of practice might have a debate around a major question within the topic. An interest community might have a live chat about their best memories/funniest stories involving the topic
Major events help too. They help build a sense of connection between members. They help communities develop a shared history. They increase the level of contact between members, facilitate stronger relationships, and increase commitment to the community.
There are rules behind good events. You want people to interact with each other around a common theme. You want active participation, not passive learning.
If you want more participation, putting together a clear plan of events is a great place to start.
I took a cooking class in Thailand in April.
It was disappointing. We spent 2 hours preparing food, then about 5 minutes doing the fun cooking part.
Of course, cooking is as much about food preparation (cleaning, weighing, chopping, mixing, grinding, grating) as it is about the heating. Once you have all the ingredients ready, it only takes a few minutes.
The metaphor here is for creating a community strategy.
The actual analysis of data isn't difficult. The hard part is collecting that data using scientific methods. I've yet to come across a platform gives provides all the analytics tools we need. This means we need to spend time counting, calculating, surveying, sampling, and ensuring we have good data to make good decisions.
But once it's all there it becomes pretty easy to spot what is/isn't working.
Looking at the graphs and deciding what to do next takes a few minutes.
Getting the graphs into an easy dashboard takes months.
Tamara points us to David Amerland's Broken Windows post.
It's an oft-cited (though somewhat unverified) theory that if you clean up the minor misdemeanors, the big stuff goes away.
For online communities, the logic is like this. If you crack down on the little things you can keep the scary trolls away. So correct the typos, remove the off-topic posts, clamp down on the slightest variation from rules.
That might be true, but there is no data to support it (and a little that's skeptical).
The problem is this only removes the bad stuff. It doesn't encourage the good stuff. It might reduce the level of activity, upset members (we like flexibility in our online environments) and prevent the community from pivoting in a direction it wants to go. This is the problem with top-down planning.
What we do know from studies of social norms in communities is people generally do what they see other people doing. This is true in both online and offline environments. If you want to encourage positive behaviour, you need to worry less about the negative stuff and more about using your subtle influence to showcase behaviour you want to encourage.
This is reflected in not only what discussions become sticky threads, whose behaviour you draw attention to, what content you write about, but also in the little things. The personality of the community, the tone of voice you use, the first people you approach to join the community (this is a big one).
Discouraging the bad behaviour is an exhausting effort that wont get you far. It's smarter to encourage the behaviour you want to see.