Month: September 2016
Think about how a community influences purchase decisions.
- It establishes and reinforces social norms within a peer group (e.g. ‘people like me drink coffee like this’). If those social norms involve you or your products, you win.
- It shapes the environment to encourage the behavior (e.g. ‘I can find better information on home-roasting coffee beans here than on Google’ or ‘It’s easier to buy in bulk or through subscription here’). If the community makes the behavior easier, the behavior will happen more often.
- It increases the perceived value of the product (e.g. ‘I didn’t know this coffee was organic or home-roasted by an independent retailer, I’m going to buy it more frequently’). If the community encourages people to better understand the value, they might buy more of it or remain as a customer for longer.
- It rewards the buyer and incentivizes further purchases (e.g. ‘by buying this coffee I can find a peer group of people who love coffee as much as me’). People are rewarded for their purchases.
If your community is designed to increase sales and you’re not doing one of the above, then what are you doing?
Pinching members from existing communities is hard.
When you begin studying your members in detail, you usually learn this is the first community for that topic for most of your members.
The best way to grow a community isn’t to target people who already participate in one.
Target the far bigger percentage of people that don’t.
You need to identify moments where you can reach them.
An obvious moment is a newcomer who is just getting started. If someone is just getting started golfing, they might want to know what clubs they should buy, how much to spend, where they can find a local golf course. Look a little deeper and the questions are usually related to trust. They don’t know who or what to trust yet. They’re worried about making costly or embarrassing mistakes. You can target content, discussions, and videos specifically at this group.
Another moment is when people make comparisons. This is when they have some knowledge of what they’re doing. People choose between two types of golf clubs (or iPhones or tech platform etc…). Discussions in this area tend to be popular.
Another is when people begin to consider themselves good at what they’re doing. They want to know who is the best. How do they rank compared to others? You can create a ranking system (subjective or not) to show people how they compare. You can embed a referral system within the process.
Remember each of these is about emotions. Joy, fear, jealousy, anticipation.
You can map out the journey if you like. Look for the moments a regular person goes through. Find the potential moments where they will go looking for support, comfort, or information. Satisfy that need.
That thing you’re planning to work on today, will it move the needle in any major way?
Will it increase growth, activity or the value of the community by 10% over the long-term?
Creating an incredible community resource might do that. Newcomers and existing members can contribute. It might show up in search and attract more people etc…
Launching a major referral program might move the needle, recruiting a small army of volunteers might move the needle, hosting a major event might build a sense of community which moves the needle…
But what about that next content update? That latest welcome email? That new scheduling tool you’re looking for? That disgruntled member you’re about to engage with? That meeting you’ve got planned for today? That discussion you’re about to respond to?
We spend so much time working on all these little things which have no chance of moving the needle. Some of them need to be done, but not for that long and often not by you.
If you want a far more motivating and productive role, I suggest you spend less time on the daily minutia and more time on the big wins. Work on big projects that have the potential to move the needle by 10% or more.
Many (most?) of these might fail. But you only need a few successes to build a successful community and a successful career.
Imagine you ask a group of 20 people to rate three possible community concepts.
The results come back as follows:
Option 1: 3 people love the idea, 14 people like the idea, 4 people hate the idea.
Option 2: 6 people love the idea, 3 people like the idea, 11 people hate the idea.
Option 3: 2 people love the idea, 18 people like the idea, no-one hates the idea.
Which idea should you pick? Option 2.
The only people that will participate (especially at first) are those that love the idea. Don’t worry if people like or hate the idea. Neither group will participate anyway. The competition for attention is too ferocious.
To get a community started you’re only tracking how many people love the idea. And the most lovable ideas are usually the most radical to a small group. These ideas challenge the status quo. Anyone that benefits from the status quo is going to dislike the idea.
So don’t worry about the likers or the haters. Only count how many people truly love the idea. How many people rate it 5 out of 5? Go with that idea.
The first level relates to engagement tactics. You see a lot of discussion about social media tools and how to use each of them effectively. A minor change by a big platform is huge news to this group. You see plenty of discussions about how to measure activity. What tools and metrics do you use and look at? You see funny stories of brands getting it right. You see discussions about how to remove bad people. Perhaps unsurprisingly, you will see plenty of job-hunters/job advertisers in this group too.
In the second level, members talk about how to measure and persuade others of the value of their community. Members talk about developing coherent content and member recruitment and conversion strategies. They talk about how to launch a community from scratch, grow a community team, migrate to new platforms, and increase their search ranking. There is an overlap with the first group, but there is also a fairly clear separation too.
You don’t see the third level. This is where complex and unique challenges are discussed in very small groups (perhaps just one on one). This makes sense. More complex problems (as naturally happens as people progress up the career ladder) require more information to solve. Sharing more information takes more time and requires more trust. This weeds out those with shorter attention spans and precludes public discussion.
These discussions can range from team management, internal persuasion, complex data problems, scaling a global team etc…
The community space is far from unique here. Most sectors will have a similar sort of implicit or explicit hierarchy based upon the complexity of the problem.
Three points here are important to note.
1) If you follow data to maximise growth and engagement you will inevitably attract the most junior people with the lowest attention spans. This looks good on paper but is terrible to create value for most communities. This group has low spending power and no decision-making power. This leads to the second big problem.
2) If you let people create or do whatever they want, the trend will ebb towards more junior-level content. This attracts more junior people and drives away the senior folk. You don’t just need to prune the bad stuff, you need to clearly define what kind of discussions you will and won’t accept. We don’t allow job adverts in our community because we don’t want to attract job-seekers.
3) The more senior the person you’re targeting, the more you need to offer privacy, trust, and exclusivity. Senior people want small groups with no search traffic and to know/respect the people they are talking with. This means the most valuable communities are often among the smallest.
Here’s a bonus point, decide what level you want to be at and act like it. If you want to work at the tactical engagement level, keep doing what you’re doing. If you want to move up, then see what issues concern those at the next level and get smart about solving those issues.
The obvious way to promote something new to a group (or community) is to go big.
Make a big announcement. This only works when the announcement is surprising. But surprise is a hard emotion to sustain. The second announcement isn’t as surprising. By the third, it’s just business as usual.
Surprise is also the most competitive emotion. I’ll wager you’ve got 20 emails in your spam folder right now each vying to be the most surprising. You’re probably not going to win by making the biggest announcement.
There’s a myth that if you invest a lot of time and effort to create a resource that you need to launch it big (and big means a big surprise). Why not launch it slow and try different emotional states. For example:
- Pride. Share the idea. Build up anticipation early. Let people help define it and contribute to it. Make it a collective resource that members are proud to share with others and frequently reference.
- Exclusivity. Link it to jealousy. Release it only to a few top members and let the word spread. Let them share it with a few others too.
- Powerful. Set-up a training course to teach people how to use the resource. Let the value (and popularity) increase over time as people begin to feel more empowered using the resource.
- Creative. Encourage members to adapt it to their own context and report back. Begin with a small group and expand from there.
Launch it slowly. Let it grow steadily. Let people hear about it naturally. Let its value appreciate over time as more people hear about it.
A valuable resource is valuable regardless of how and when people hear about it. You don’t need to compete against a spam filter of outlandish junk for limited attention when you can slowly launch it instead.
Mega communities (1m+ members) often face a similar problem. To scale a community they need to facilitate sub-groups. If they let everyone create sub-groups, they will fill their communities with empty ghost-towns. However, they don’t have the resources to create and manage every sub-group themselves.
The challenge then is how do you identify, motivate, and support people to create successful groups within an existing community?
Not many organizations get this right. The two that stand out are StackExchange (via Area51) and Nextdoor. Both tackle this from a slightly different angle. StackExchange takes group creators on a 4-phase journey from defining the community, attracting commitment, beta, and going live. Nextdoor lets people create a pilot site for their neighborhood if one doesn’t already exist. They then have 21 days to hit specific targets.
However, there are enough similarities in their approach to identify what works well here. You might not have the same resources, but you can embrace the same philosophy.
1) Limit Group Creation (encourage members to check if the group already exists).
Don’t let members create groups where existing groups exist. First, make members check if the group for their topic already exists. For Nextdoor it’s neighbourhoods. You type in your zip code to see if the network already exists.
For StackExchange, you’re shown similar sites when you enter your proposed topic / title for the group.
If the group does exist, you need to encourage people to join that. If it doesn’t, encourage people to create the group. But try to reduce duplicate groups and merge as many similar topics into one as possible.
2) Filter Bad Group Creators
Creating and managing groups is hard. Most people don’t have the skills or motivation to make it work. You need to filter these people out. Creating a group shouldn’t be easy enough to let everyone do it. It should be hard to ensure only the right people do it.
If someone isn’t willing to fill in some basic information, they shouldn’t be creating a group. This shouldn’t be something you let them do, it should be something they get to do if they’re good enough.
If you want to create a group on Nextdoor, you have to explain why you’re good enough.
On StackExchange, you can’t create a group at all. You can only propose a site and then fill it with example discussions that might be in the group.
3) Verify Skills And Connections Of Group Creators
The last step filtered out the people who aren’t motivated. The next step filters out the people who aren’t qualified. When we researched The Proven Path, we noticed the only difference between successful and unsuccessful community founders were the number of friends they could invite to join the community to get things started.
This makes sense. The more friends you have within the sector the easier it is to get things going. You’re also likely to be more knowledgeable and skilled within the topic. It makes sense to filter for connections and skills at this stage. This means a verification stage.
You can verify anyone who wants to create a group has the right attributes to do it. You might ask them to share their LinkedIn Profile, CV/resumé, Twitter account, blog, or any other supporting information. You can pick anything you like. Perhaps asking them to list people they would use as references or highlight events they have attended.
There is useful psychology behind this. People feel it’s more exclusive. Nextdoor verifies people live in the area. You can do this by registered phone number or by requesting a code by mail.
You could also limit group creation to people who had gained a high number of likes or influence within the community.
4) Highlight The Work And Next Steps Involved
At this level, you want to make group creators aware of the work involved in creating a group. This will deter some people. This is a good thing. It’s one less inactive group to shut down later.
This outlines what happens next. For Nextdoor, you have 21 days to get 9 more people to signup or the neighborhood will reset.
This stresses the importance of taking action right now instead of waiting. It also gamifies the process a little by providing clear metrics to target. That’s 9 people in 21 days. That should be do-able for most people.
StackExchange asks group creators to develop 40+ discussions with a score of 10 or more (upvotes minus downvotes) and attract 60+ followers. This is just for the definition stage. After this you need to persuade a large number of people to commit to the site to reach the beta stage. Once in the beta stage, you have to fill out the rest of the content of the site and keep discussions going.
At this stage, you should have ensured that only the right people are creating groups and understand what’s expected of them. Now the challenge is supporting group creators to grow that community.
5) Support People To Invite Others
Now you’ve filtered out the wrong people by initial motivation, skills/knowledge, and commitment, you want to help those that do create groups reach critical mass as quickly as possible.
Nextdoor uses a really simple step, invite your spouse.
This instantly doubles the size of the community. You might ask people to invite their boss, closest friend, nearest team members etc. By focusing on a single person they can invite you make the rest of the task seem easier. This works even if that person is only signing up for relevant updates.
6) Invite Others In The Address Book
This is a relatively standard step now. Encourage the group creator to invite people from Facebook, Gmail, Twitter and other popular tools.
If they are already in the community, you can let them invite others they are already connected to. A really powerful tool would be to let people do it via @mentioning them in a custom message.
You can see the Nextdoor approach above with a custom message or the StackExchange process below.
Nextdoor also lets you send a postcard to a limited number of neighbors inviting them to sign up. This is a clever tactic which removes the awkwardness of knocking on the doors of strangers and asking them to join.
You can win big if you can remove the awkwardness from this step without overwhelming recipients with unsolicited spam (hence the limitation on postcards).
7) Set Defaults For The Welcome Message
While every group is unique, there are enough similarities between them to craft common messages. You can learn from your own experiences or borrow ideas from groups which are successful in engaging newcomers. This is probably one of the few areas where Nextdoor could improve.
The best welcome messages guide newcomers to make immediate contributions. The best contributions are based on a newcomer’s demographics, habits, or psychographics. Who are they? What do they do? What do they think/feel about key issues?
If you can set a default message along these lines (which each creator can adapt) you are going to significantly increase the number of newcomers which become active.
The above represents most of the core steps involved in facilitating successful sub-groups.
- Ensure people search for existing groups first.
- Filter out the bad group creators by motivation.
- Verify skills/knowledge/resources of group creators.
- Highlight the process for creating a group and making sure it’s a success.
- Make it dead-simple for group creators to invite their first members.
- Ensure it’s connected to existing social platforms.
- Set battle-tested defaults.
This isn’t an exhaustive list. For example, you could build a peer group among group creators where the most successful could share what they have learnt. However, it’s definitely an upgrade on the approach most large-scale communities take to facilitate successful sub-groups.
Don’t let everyone create a group. Make it harder to create a group and support the right people to succeed.
p.s. this process works equally well for launching a new community from scratch. If you can’t list 40+ people who would take your call, sign up and identify a lot of questions that would kick-start activity you probably shouldn’t launch a community yet.
Your community was likely created to achieve a single, major, goal.
You’re likely pursuing that goal as effectively as possible.
The danger is ignoring secondary benefits. These can add up to a significant amount. On some occasions, they surpass the main benefit of the community.
Very often when we need examples, we’re stuck on a problem, or looking for inspiration we might ask the question in our community. This might save us an hour or more of searching online. If we do this 2 to 3 times per week and estimate an average staff cost of $100, that’s $300 per week in time saved (or $15,600 per year).
A few months ago, we tested LinkedIn ads for recruiting a staff member. The cost was around $1.5k to put together a list of 60+ applicants. This week we published a job advert here. We also posted it in our community and via a few social networking channels. We’ve now found some very strong applicants. I imagine we recruit a few staff members per year (say 3 to 4). This could be a cost saving of $4.5k to $6k per year.
When a prospective client contacts us, we usually invite them to our community to prove our methods work. I’d imagine this has helped us assure an extra 1 or 2 clients per year. The profit from these might range from $40k to $150k. Let’s assume a low-end return of $80k per year.
Our community is built on Discourse and involved a tricky migration. We often field requests from organizations looking for help to move to a Discourse community. I’d attribute around $10k in revenue from Discourse-related requests per year .
We might see a complex problem shared in our community we believe we can solve. If this turns into a client who wouldn’t otherwise have hired us, this might add another few consultancy projects per year. Let’s estimate a low-end value of $120k per year.
The community also exposes us to challenges our audience faces. We can see what people talk about without us prompting them. We often identify challenges people face. Some are quite common others are unique and complex. This changes our focus for training programs, consultancy projects, and topics of future events.
If we’re launching a new course, we can solicit the feedback of members early on to improve the course. We can collect useful testimonials from members. We can share information about the program in the community, provide discounts to members to incentivize signing up etc…
We could also calculate the value of first-time traffic generated via increased search results, or have the ability to test research and new ideas in the community to determine what really works. We could calculate the value of answers to questions from course participants in the community (and involving others).
All things considered, we might be able to conservatively attribute some $250k+ in value per year to the community.
None of the above was the reason we created the community, they are all secondary benefits.
But the thing about secondary benefits is you need to proactively pursue them. You need to use the community for recruitment, save on research time, generate more traffic, identify more leads, convert leads to clients, identify opportunities etc…
Does your terminology differ from your members?
We’ve seen plenty of knowledge bases/tribal knowledge centers/wikis etc…But we’ve yet to see many situations where members themselves would use this terminology. They usually prefer tips, advice, or information.
Try to figure out what your members would call these areas of your community
Would they call a live interview an ‘Ask Me Anything’ or ‘Ask The Expert?’. Would they call it a product support chat?
Would they refer to content as news or updates?
Do they call their interactions knowledge sharing, discussions, talking, chatting, or something else? Do they even call it a community? How about a club, group, collective, team?
These matter for two reasons. First, it helps members find what they’re looking for if the terminology aligns. Second, it’s a signal that this is the right community for them.
It’s a pretty simple tweak to make.
…is when you can still do something to change the outcome.
Don’t worry about the meeting with your boss tomorrow. Like most meetings, the outcome has been decided before you enter the room. No amount of psychological jujitsu is going to change her mind at this stage.
The time to worry is when you can change the outcome.
You should worry when community stakeholders go quiet, when you notice enthusiasm has diminished, when priorities are shifting to other areas, when your budget hasn’t increased this year, when your emails aren’t getting replied to as quickly, when you hear a rumour or a remark about the community on the grapevine, or when your boss or colleagues leave.
These are usually moments when you can still influence the outcome.
You can still rebuild relationships, identify what impresses stakeholders, collect emotive stories, uncover real reasons behind diminishing interest etc…
These are the moments when you can still make a difference.
Leading up to our event last year, our event organizer asked us to make a dozen or more decisions per week (food, sponsor placement, filming vendors, microphone setup etc…).
This happens often. The expert has to ask an authority (client/boss) to make a decision.
This isn’t a good thing.
It was far easier to give her a budget, a few loose limitations (legal issues, branding) and let her use her expertise to create the best event possible. She knows far better than us.
It feels good to be asked to make a decision. You feel important. You feel your knowledge and expertise is the key ingredient to a successful outcome. You feel respected by your team.
The reality is your decisions are likely to be worse than the people on the ground (or closest to the project). Decision-fatigue sets in. It becomes a mental burden. Important decisions stack up when you’re on vacation (and even when you’re in the office). Your team feels less ownership and enthusiasm towards the project. You are perceived as a controlling micro-manager.
One goal of collaboration is pushing as many decisions as possible down the chain of command. This means resisting the urge to make a decision. Instead, you explain and discuss how to make good decisions. What data and evidence should you consider? What kind of risks are you happy to tolerate? What kind of budget and resources require approval from higher up? What kind of fail-safes need to be in place?
There will be mistakes, for sure. I’d estimate we’ve made mistakes that have cost us thousands of dollars. But that’s a pittance compared to the value of making better decisions, retaining top talent, and having a team that feels ownership over the work they do.
Don’t measure the success of decisions by singular outcomes, but whether the best possible decision was made based upon the information available at the time. If you can teach your team to make better decisions you will get better outcomes.
Most people work from a simple assumption (e.g. “higher levels of activity per member, an increase in retention rates”). This means you measure activity per member and design your engagement activity to maximise activity per member.
The downside is you haven’t proved if the relationship is true (i.e. does it correlate well?), nor the influence levels of activity have on an individual’s retention rate (does it account for 100% or 5% of retention rate increase?), nor whether the relationship is linear (does it drop off after a certain level?).
You could blindly be pursuing more activity when data might show you that 3 posts per member, per month, is enough.
A better approach is to test a falsifiable hypothesis (e.g. sample members by levels of activity and compare this with customer retention rates to prove if the relationship exists and how influential the level of activity is in that relationship). You could then focus on increasing the level of activity from a specific segment to see if retention rate among that segment rises (this isn’t a natural experiment, but it’s still good). You might find that there is a relationship between increased levels of activity and retention, it’s nonlinear. After 5 posts per month, there is little impact.
Now instead of trying to get every member super active, you focus on ensuring they make 5 good contributions per month. This changes how you work a little.
An even better approach is to run a regression analysis to identify which variables correlate with increased levels of member retention. You might find that increased activity accounts for a 27% increase in higher retention rates. This also highlights other key variables. You might find direct messages between members have a 25% influence, opening newsletters have an 18% influence, and adding a profile picture have 10%. You can now test these relationships and build a mechanistic model.
Now instead of trying to maximise member activity at all costs, you might spend more time on newsletter subject lines and content, persuading members to add their profile picture, and ensuring members befriend each other to increase the number of direct messages.
This isn’t easy to do, but that’s exactly what makes it valuable. You can build a specific, tested, model that will show you exactly what you need to spend your time on to achieve. This lies beyond the endless hunt for more engagement. It’s where you can take your work to a more advanced, strategic, level.