Month: November 2015

Building More Bridges

November 30, 2015Comments Off on Building More Bridges

Our team at the UN had a meeting every Thursday afternoon.

Our team was small. There were 5 to 8 of us. We were part of a bigger communications group of 40 to 60 people. Which in turn was part of the Refugee Agency. Which in turn was part of the United Nations system.

Shortly after our meeting began one afternoon; a lady entered the room and sat at the far side of the conference table. We hadn’t met her before.

When we asked her what she was doing, she replied:

“I’ve just started, I’m trying to learn more about how I can work with your team. Do you mind if I sit in and just listen? I won’t interrupt”

At the UN, attending another team’s meeting is similar to entering your enemy’s HQ and pulling up a chair while they discuss their secret plans to attack you.

It was awkward, but there wasn’t really a good pretense to ask her to leave. We couldn’t openly admit we sometimes use this time to plot against other teams or we didn’t want to share information with someone who worked for the same organization.

So she stayed and took notes. At the end she asked if there was anything else she could do to help. After that we felt that she was on our side. We listened to her future requests. We tried hard to work with her. We supported her when we could.

Naturally, it wasn’t just us. She was doing this with all the teams. She attended the team meetings and soon began sharing information from each team with one another. She worked with every group as much as she could.

6 years later, long after I’ve forgotten all the petty feuds between the teams, I still remember her and what she did. I remember how effective she was at getting things done. Far more effective than any of us were for sure. I remember how she had the support of almost every team within the unit.

And I remember just how brave she was to walk into the meetings and say the simplest words “I’m trying to learn how I can work better with your team. Do you mind if I sit in and listen? I won’t interrupt”. Most importantly, I remember her offer to help at the end.

You’ve spent years learning to build communities of friends, customers, clients, and colleagues. You’ve probably struggled to get the permission or support you need at times (and perhaps today). If I could offer one suggestion, it would be to try to understand the teams around you first. Ask to join their meetings, ask how you can help.

And do this long before you need anything from them. It takes courage, for sure, but you might just be amazed at how much easier it is to get things done when you’ve built bridging capital with every unit in your organization.

Diagnosing Decline In Participation

Many of us are experiencing stress over declining activity within the community.

If you’re in this position, the first step is to determine the cause of the decline.

This will be in 1 of 3 categories. Only the first is directly your fault.

1) The community isn’t as good as it used to be 

This has 3 possible causes. (1) Either the existing community discussions and activities have become stale and boring (2) the activities have changed and they’re not as fun as they used to be (3) you’ve changed something on the onboarding process and it’s driving people away.

If you’re still attracting the same number of unique new visitors but the participation is declining, this is probably a major cause.

Look at your Google analytics. Look at the number of unique visitors. Then look at how many of them are unique. Multiply the two together (e.g. 7000 new visitors, with 60% new = 4200) for the past 6 months and see which way the trend is going.

The solution here is a deep analysis of your health metrics, surveying and interviewing your members, identifying exactly what most interests them, and ensuring the community personifies that interest.

2) You’re in a declining sector.

The number of people in the topic has declined. You’re just declining within it. Reading this post by Daniel* it’s pretty clear there is absolutely nothing a video store can do to survive today. Building hyper loyalty with top customers didn’t save the store – and it won’t save your community.

Look at Google Trends for relevant terms here. See if less people are mentioning and talking about your sector. Reach out to members whom have disappeared and find out why. If the majority say “I’m not interested/involved in that sector anymore” you have a problem.

If your sector is declining, you need to shift sector. Find out where your current audience is moving to and go with them. You need to evolve with your audience. This will mean gradually broadening and shifting your focus. Expect a lot of turbulence in this time.

3) Increased competition.

Another community, app, or tool is now the hub of your sector and you’re being left behind. Social media platforms, Reddit, and others have now become an easier place to visit to discuss your community.

This is the most difficult problem of all. By the time the competition has established itself to this level, it’s very hard to stop the momentum. Reddit has decimated many gaming communities. You can’t copy your way against a competitor. You have to take a bigger bet on something your members want that another competitor can’t match.

Social media tools may be easier locations for members to interact, but they don’t have the depth of tools, customization, and ability to create customized experiences in the way you can.

We will go deeper into this next week. For now, make sure you understand the root cause of why participation is declining. Don’t guess or assume you know the answer. You might be surprised.

This determines your entire strategy going forward. For example, if less people are visiting the community in the first place, no amount of on-site activities will change that. Let’s figure out the problem to begin with.

More Effective Than A Public Welcome

Once you have around 10 to 15 newcomers joining a week, you can’t publicly welcome each of them. It wouldn’t help newcomers feel a part of the group (“oh gee, I’m one of 50 people being mentioned today!”). It’s tedious for existing members.

I’m betting the newcomer-welcome posts are the ones you’ve already begun to ignore. There’s no evidence that this leads to long-term participation anyway.

A better approach is to welcome them within an existing group.

This takes an extra few minutes.

Lookup a newcomer’s profile, Google their name and e-mail address. You should be able to find some details about them. Usually a Twitter account, Linkedin profile or other information.

Look specifically for their location, the type of work/variation of their hobby, and any unique quirk.

Now instead of giving them a public welcome, introduce them to a group of other people like themselves. For example, if the newcomer is from Austin. Send a private e-mail/group message to members from Austin to welcome the newcomer. Other members can now quickly reply to say hi.

(locations are especially easy for this. Mailchimp lets me pull a list of members specifically for this).

Better yet, ask the Austin group if anyone would like to greet future new members from Austin and send the names across as they come in.

You can create an excel spreadsheet or segmented list to add each newcomer by location or work variant. Soon you will find you can quickly introduce newcomers to existing groups without spamming every member in the community.

It’s far more fun and effective than another monotonous public welcome post.

The Negative Priming Problem

November 25, 2015Comments Off on The Negative Priming Problem

Be careful not to negatively prime your communications to members (forgive the irony).

Negative priming occurs when we expose the audience to a negative stimuli prior to or during a communication.

It occurs when we say don’t panic instead of keep calm.

It occurs when we are tired, lazy, and not careful enough in selecting the words we use to convey a message.

There are times when you want people to feel bad. When a negative emotion is useful and valid. Those times are not when you’re making a major announcement.

The words and phrases you use, with their varied array of denotations, connotations, and associations will influence your audience’s reaction.

When I used this example (below) in our workshop recently, one participant asked; “This wasn’t really published right?” I’m afraid it was…as were too many others like it.


Do you imagine the audience of this post will respond positively or negatively to this announcement? The problem isn’t the content, it’s the craftsmanship.

What does “content policy update” make you think of? Close your eyes if it helps.

Imagine someone telling you there’s a content policy update. I bet you’re not feeling excited to receive the rest of the message.

Look at phrases like “consolidated the various rules and policies we have accumulated over the years”. What kind of person typically speaks like that? I’m going to guess it reminds you of someone you didn’t like much.

Consider “thank you for your feedback”. Does that sound like someone who really appreciated your feedback? What if the author instead wrote “Some of your ideas blew us away. You highlighted things we would never have considered. I especially liked Joe Smith’s idea about ensuring the list of banned words reflects other cultures”

Further down you see negative priming such as “not changing dramatically” immediately before announcing a dramatic change. Putting a not before two powerful words doesn’t negate the words. Using the words puts the idea into their heads. If things aren’t changing, say they’re staying almost the same (or, frankly, not write anything at all)

You can probably scroll through the rest of the announcement (noticeably the repeated use of the word ‘Quarantine’ with a capital ‘Q’ and see a dozen further examples of negative priming. There’s even a subtle insult to the readers at the end.

Positively Priming

A better approach is to begin with how this helps the community. Put that at the top and begin with positive associations.

In this case the core message is: ‘We’re going to spend more time helping the majority of you and less getting distracted by Reddit’s enemies’.

Now explain positively how you’re going to do that.

Here’s a simple tip. Write out what you’re going to say, then spend an extra few minutes to turn any unwanted negatives into positives.

What’s The Opposite Of A Poisonous Jelly Bean?

Groups are persuaded more by emotive imagery than rational facts. Facts can help shape the image, but the image reigns supreme.

Consider putting the refugee situation in these terms:

“If I gave you a bag of 50,000 jelly beans and told you 100 are poisonous, you wouldn’t accept them right? Then why would we accept 50,000 refugees if some of them are bad?”

As Marginal Revolution calculates, statistically the average American is more likely to commit a murder than an incoming refugee.

Yet the imagery here matters. We can picture a bowl of jelly beans. We can imagine a poisonous jelly bean among them, and we can imagine how dangerous it would feel to eat one.

That’s powerful, emotive, imagery. The only way to beat this is to find more powerful imagery, not more powerful facts. Comparing refugees to murderers just heightens fear. Comparing refugees to asylum seekers from a bygone era just evokes more negative imagery.

One approach is to start talking about an army of incoming doctors, builders, teachers, and fresh young blood to keep America healthy, smart, young, and strong.

You can’t fight powerful images with powerful facts. You have to fight powerful images with even more powerful and more emotive images. The only thing that can defeat fear is a more unifying, more emotive, more powerful image people can identify with.

Building A Closer Team With Your Colleagues

You probably don’t work in isolation.

You work with colleagues. You probably work as part of a team of 3 to 15 people. You have a boss. You might have subordinates. You spend a lot of time communicating with each of them in person, on Slack, and other channels.

There are dozens of tiny tweaks you can make every day to build stronger connections between that team. You don’t need to be the boss to do any of them. Nor do you any more resources than you already have.

Consider the following:

In your interactions with colleagues do you:

  • Including references to the past to create a sense of shared history?
  • Highlight contributions of individual members to the group?
  • Tell newcomers about the history and unique culture of the group?
  • Organize off-site activities/meet-ups?
  • Participate to gain more connections, deliver expertise, or become more likable?
  • Ensure the team has specific, hard, goals?
  • Subtly push for higher levels of self-disclosure? Do you encourage members to share what each are doing, thinking, feeling, and fearing on a regular basis?
  • Introducing rituals and traditions from pre-existing activities?

None of the above cost a penny to implement. None of the above require the direct permission of your boss. Yet all of them will help you build a far better working environment than the one you have today.

It doesn’t take much to change what you’re doing and build a stronger team around yourself. It’s this very thing that will propel you higher up the career ladder.

Why Not Beirut?

November 20, 2015Comments Off on Why Not Beirut?

Or better, why don’t we show the same level of support for Beirut? Or Ankara? Or victims of the Russian plane bombings?

It’s not the number of people affected, the level of media attention (although it helps), nor geographic proximity. It’s not explicit racism nor lack of empathy.

It’s largely a result of how our social brains operate.

  • The easier a group can visualize an object, the more they respond to it. We can visualize Paris pretty easily. We can name landmarks. We’ve been to Paris. We can imagine idyllic baguette stalls being blown apart. Most of us would struggle to name a single landmark in Beirut.
  • Strong affinity with Paris. Parisians are a lot like us. We know people from France (and probably Paris). We know they’re WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) like us. They’re mostly white too. We feel a stronger affinity with Parisians than Russians (sadly).
  • Once a trend has begun, people join in to avoid being left behind. Facebook made it easy for us to make a temporary change to profiles. This made it easier to show support. Once it grew, people want to jump aboard the moment of collective unity for safety.
  • Easier story to understand. We can make sense of ISIS attacking France, it’s easier (albeit disagree) with the rationale of revenge. France attacks Isis. Isis attacks France. It’s harder to understand disrupting local elections or spillover conflicts.

None of these makes showing solidarity to one group over another any better. But it does explain why some issues receive greater priority than others.

If you want a group to respond better, make the objects easier to visualize, highlight commonalities with those affected (and differences with those not), make it easier for the message to spread, and design a simpler story.

Wrap Your Gems of Knowledge In Big, Crisp, Images

November 19, 2015Comments Off on Wrap Your Gems of Knowledge In Big, Crisp, Images

Your brain is an image factory. Right now it’s churning these raw words into a big picture for your mind.

The majority of us think in images. We remember images. We value images. If we can easily recall something, we consider it more valuable, frequent, and relevant to the problem we’re facing.

A big secret to communicating more effectively with any social group, is to communicate in images. Don’t fire words at them. Paint a picture they can take with them.

Here’s a message I received in my inbox today:

Subject: Signs Your Web CMS is Not Cutting It

Dear Richard:

Is your Web CMS cutting it? Sometimes it can be hard to tell. Hear from a panel of Web CMS experts, who help you ask the right questions.

There’s still time to register!

Our expert panel includes:

– A content management specialist in the healthcare industry
– A content strategist from a leading software company
– The editor of a leading content management publication
– A marketing technology analyst who consults with leading brands on their content strategy

Write out the deep, core, feeling

It’s hard to visualize what ‘cutting it’ means in this abstract context. Let’s see if we can make this more visual.

First, write out the core message to takeaway. In this case, your CMS isn’t good enough. You can turn this into a variety of images to trigger an emotion.

If the CMS isn’t good enough, how would that make people feel?

A few ideas:

  • They feel frustrated, restrained, and unable to achieve their goals.
  • They feel embarrassed about showing their CMS to their boss/other customers.
  • They feel let down by someone they trusted, someone who told them the CMS was good enough.
  • They feel trapped by a CMS they thought would be great.

Notice these are all emotional triggers. Better still, all these emotional triggers naturally lend themselves to images.

Turn these feelings into big, bold, images

What does being restrained and frustrated make you think of? Be bold with your imagery. How about being tied to the masthead of a sinking ship? How about running a marathon with a lethargic gorilla on your back (or your legs tied together)?

You need to get into your audience’s head. When they think of frustration, what do they think of? What do you think of? You can do this for each of the emotional triggers above until you find one you like.

The picture has to replicate something the audience is familiar with.

Make the entire message more visual and active

Now look at the next line.

“Sometimes it can be hard to tell. Hear from a panel of Web CMS experts, who help you ask the right questions.”

What emotion do we want people to feel? I’d suspect we have a group of top people who are going to put our CMS to the test. Remember the CMS is the ‘enemy’ here.

These are going to be people on our side who will decide if our CMS is up to the task or not.

An image here might be that of gladiators who are going to put your clunky CMS to the test and see if it meets the right standard.

The copy here might read: “We’ve handpicked 4 of the top CMS gladiators to test if your CMS is good enough for you”.

Most of us can recall watching gladiators and

There’s still time to register!

Of course there’s still time to register. You wouldn’t send the message if there wasn’t. The very least you can do is to set a time. By lunchtime on Friday (lunchtime is easier to visualize than 12pm) is one option.

We can turn this into an image too.

For example:

“Our handpicked CMS gladiators have limited this session to 15 of you. If you want to put your CMS to the test, send me your application to pass on to them by lunchtime on Friday.”

Again sending in an application is more visual.

And have fun with the imagery

Finally we can have fun turning this list into gladiatorial profiles with names, ages, experience, and special skills.

– A content management specialist in the healthcare industry
– A content strategist from a leading software company
– The editor of a leading content management publication
– A marketing technology analyst who consults with leading brands on their content strategy

Better yet, this makes every message more fun to create and to read. Who wouldn’t want to know if their CMS could survive the challenge of 4 hand-picked CMS gladiators?

This is one of many approaches of tackling a single message. There are many routes to going about this. We could easily have taken the ‘is your CMS sick?’ approach and take a medical consultants approach.

The key is to understand how you want the audience to feel and find an image to match. Make sure any metaphor you use is an active metaphor. It should invigorate the audience.

There’s a moment between when you’ve constructed a message and when you click send to turn more of your words into big, bold, pictures. It’s these pictures that the audience will remember. Let’s make them live long in the audience’s minds.

More Smoke And Bigger Mirrors

It’s tempting to inflate the numbers.

It’s tempting to claim 400 when you have 200 people.

Bigger numbers suggest a bigger community. Bigger communities appear to attract more people, bigger sponsorships, and greater attention.

With enough smoke and mirrors you might just be able to create and sustain the illusion, at least for a time.

It will always catch up with you. By the time you grow from 200 to 400, you’ll have to pretend you have 1000. When you get to 1000 you will need to pretend you have 2000.

Soon the time spent on pretending will cripple your ability to grow.

The real tragedy is those attracted by larger numbers tend to be the least valuable contributors to any social group.

The other tragedy here is size rarely matters.

People don’t join communities, attend events, or use a product because of how many people are attending. They attend those where the right people are present. The majority of sponsors care FAR more about the who than how many.

Focus on attracting the right people. Promote who is a member and who is coming.


Istanbul, November 27th

November 17, 2015Comments Off on Istanbul, November 27th

What happens when SEO works and you get people to your site?

How do you keep them there? What are the tools and techniques to convert a newcomer into a regular, active, participant of the community.

I’ll address these and other questions on community during my final talk of the year at SEOZone 2015 in Istanbul, Turkey, on November 27th.

At SEOZone I’ll be discussing what happens when the SEO works and you get people to your site.

If you’re in Europe (or just love Istanbul) I hope you can join us.

The Right Medium For The Right Message

A tweet will never change your mind (although it might reinforce an existing belief). Neither will an e-mail from a stranger.

However many strangers (people we haven’t met and don’t know) often do change our minds.

I read a lot of books and rarely know or meet the authors. Yet most books change my mind about something.

When we open a book, we also open our mind to being changed. When we’ve invested hours to read a book, we want to feel we’ve invested that time wisely. We avoid this cognitive dissonance by changing our mind – often resolutely.

Many speakers at events or videos from TED also change my mind. I’m open to changing my mind when I watch these videos or listen to these talks. I’m open to changing my mind when I signup for a workshop or training course.

Some mediums are simply more credible than others. We know the medium matters a lot. It changes the enjoyment of the message.

Today we spend far too much time on the message and far too little time on selecting the right medium to communicate the message.

It’s usually more effective to persuade someone to read a book than it is to communicate the message of the book yourself. It’s usually easier to persuade people to sign up to receive information from the right medium than it is to use some psychological ju-jitsu to deliver the right message.

This is both because of pre-existing associations with mediums and scarcity of creating effective messages on some mediums.


Even within each medium, we can push the scarcity scale to make the message more effective.

Tweets can include an image or retweet a better known figure.

Posts can include a story.

Images and videos can be more professionally created.

A self-published book can be professionally published.

An online course can become an offline workshop.

And this is the huge opportunity of communicating with large groups of people every day.

We can better decide which medium to communicate which messages. Communicating a major announcement by the same medium you’ve used for minor announcements isn’t very effective. Using a book, white paper or even a video might be a better option.

Select the right medium for the right message.

The Band That Only Plays Its Hits

November 13, 2015Comments Off on The Band That Only Plays Its Hits

I’ve long lost track of all the ideas we’ve tried that didn’t work.

Just at the top of my mind, there was the early CommunityGeek idea of getting academics to interact with top community professionals, the bulk-book buying deals that no-one bought into, the Get Unstuck webinar a few months ago, several early iterations of the podcast before we stopped it, some of the public speaking events, the drive to get people to share their data and benchmark against one another, and a lot more.

Looking at most of the large social sites out there, a little digging into the news archives shows most have a HUGE number of failed ideas. Facebook failed with FBML, Places, Questions, Inbox, Credits, Gifts, Deals, Credits, Poke, Slingshot and so on.

Two thoughts here.

First, the danger of failure is you begin to retreat from trying anything again. You focus on what you have now. You become the band that only plays its classic hits as the audience gradually fades away.

The moment you stop trying new scary things is the moment the community turns inwards. It begins to get stale. It’s the moment you open the door for more innovative competitors. If you’ve lost your members to Facebook, Reddit, or rival communities, it’s because you were out-innovated.

Second, never copy ideas from existing competitors. Most of Facebook’s missteps came when they tried to copy Twitter, Snapchat, Groupon, Foursquare. You can’t compete with competitors by doing what they’re already doing. You have to do what they’re not doing (or better, what they’re afraid to do).

From the outside this will always look like chaotic mismanagement rather than a culture of innovation. You will be told you’re a fool (in less polite terms). People both inside and outside of the community will tell you to quit.

And you will bear the brunt of these attacks. You know what they don’t. Every misstep brings you a step closer to the few ideas among many that will drive the community in the future.

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