Month: June 2017

Time Saved

The community often gets pitched to internal and external audiences in noble terms; connect, collaborate, unite etc…

More and more, we find the simplest route is to stress the time you might save.

Next time you have a problem at work you don’t know the answer to, login to our community and ask. Then move on to the next task. Check back in in a few hours and find several great solutions to choose from.

You don’t need to pester your boss or spend hours browsing the web. Instead, ask the question and get great responses delivered right to you.

Next time you have a problem, try it in our community if you like. You might be amazed just how much time you can save.

This works with internal evangelism too, product, support managers, and marketing can circumvent a lengthy process by testing ideas in the community first.

Sometimes it’s just easier to talk about saving time than anything else.

Provide Useful, Relevant, Trustworthy Information First

June 28, 2017 Comments Off on Provide Useful, Relevant, Trustworthy Information First

I used to try to build a sense of community among members far too early.

The problem was people didn’t know each other yet. They didn’t know if they wanted to be associated with one another. They didn’t fundamentally trust that this was a useful place where people like them hang out.

In psychological terms, this is known as cognitive trust.

In most types of communities today, you need to establish and sell the quality and reliability of members and the information they share before you can build a sense of community.

Try to build a sense of community too early and you will drive people away. Once your members perceive the community to be trustworthy, reliable, and of high quality, they want to associate themselves with it. They want to spend more time there and get to know other members. They feel a common identity with others.

Cognitive trust emerges from authentic responses, featured and accepted solutions, attracting and keeping smart members to answer questions, showing impact and consistently sharing useful ideas.

If you’re building a new community, you can focus on the socialization side later. Focus on providing useful information above all else.

The Audience You Have vs. The Audience You Want

June 27, 2017 Comments Off on The Audience You Have vs. The Audience You Want

Everyone wants the top experts, senior decision makers, CEOs and influencers to join and participate in their community.

It’s not going to happen. These people are too busy, too self-important, or simply unwilling to spend much time interacting with people below their level (outside of their own organization).

The peers they’re most trying to impress are those at their level. That’s the group they might wish to engage with (, among others, tackles this by only allowing senior people to join and keeping all discussions strictly private).

So you can’t get the audience you want, you have to make do with the audience you have.

And the audience you have are typically those with time and passion. Your challenge is to figure out who you want them to become.

  • Are you nurturing experts or building strong relationships?
  • Are you creating competition to answer questions or encouraging them to build and grow their own sub-groups?
  • Are you training them to think a certain way or push each other further?

All of these are important, strategic, decisions that take place at the highest levels.

What are you going to do with that time and passion your audience has?

Don’t try to do everything, you’ve got to pick one (possibly two).

Any of them will take persistence. Just be very clear from the very top who you want your members to become. It influences every other decision you make.

Great Community Value Requires Strong Internal Alliances

A thesis…

Your community probably isn’t generating the value it could because you’re spending too much time building engagement and too little time building internal alliances.

One community manager last week mentioned their frustration at constantly seeing product feedback from the community ignored by the engineering team.

They began to attend meetings of the engineering team and discovered a crucial detail. They were sending the feedback at the wrong time. Once they began sending feedback at the beginning of an engineering sprint (period of intense development), it could be used and incorporated quickly.

The community quickly became a valuable resource. Seeing the value, the engineering team began soliciting feedback from the community through requests and trials. This real-time feedback channel proved invaluable to identifying errors early, iterating faster, and developing a better product. The community is now infinitely more valuable to the organization.

Another community manager mentioned reaching out to marketing teams around the world to test web copy in the community first to see which ideas work. Again, this helped them write more successful promotions which generated exponentially more value.

Another talked about feeding quotes from the community into material the sales team uses to capture new business.

Past a decent level, more engagement drives diminishing returns in value. But building more internal alliances exponentially increases that value.

For established communities, you don’t generate more value by driving more engagement. You drive more value by doing a better job at capturing that value. That ‘capturing’ means working internally.

Too few community professionals ask to attend meetings of the product, marketing, sales, support, and customer success teams. Too few try to first build relationships and understand what each department values. Too few spend anywhere enough time designing reports (which will be read) and sharing information internally.

In one interview recently, a community manager noted a senior colleague shot down the idea of a community moments before being told they already had one.

You have to take a huge chunk of your time and invest it in building and maintaining these alliances. That might be 30% (we’ve seen as high as 80%). Stakeholders leave, opinions change, priorities shift.

Consistently, the biggest problem we notice is internal support, yet so few community professionals devote the majority of their time to earning it.

And if it’s your biggest problem, why wouldn’t you devote your time to solving it?

Your community and your career depend upon it.

The ‘Let’s Try It Ourselves’ Problem

Every few months a prospective client, working on a new community, will invite us to submit a proposal, see the cost, and reply along the lines of:

“Thanks, we’re going to see how it goes and we’ll let you know if we need your help”

Which makes perfect sense if you feel you can make it work without help.

But looking at the list many months (and years) later, just 1 of the many dozens has succeeded going it alone. This might be the Dunning-Kruger effect. No-one realizes how difficult building a community can be until you’ve been through the wringer a few times.

Many organizations make the same mistakes without realizing they’ve been encountered many times before. These include:

  • Not testing different messaging appeals in small groups first and refining a powerful community concept.
  • Not building strong relationships with prospective customers prior to the launch of the group.
  • Selecting community platforms which integrate badly with current systems.
  • Spending too little time on technical details (or trusting vendors/implementing partners will deliver on sales promises). Related, failing to set-up the features or functionality of the platform properly (notably SSO).
  • (Massively) overpaying for a community platform.
  • Spending too little time gaining internal support for the project (notably in legal/PR for what you can/can’t say within the group).
  • Promising too much to gain support and later struggling to satisfy expectations.
  • Neglecting existing groups or top members who already feel a sense of ownership over engagement platforms.
  • Failing to onboard newcomers effectively.
  • Hiring a community manager who has never built a branded community from scratch.
  • Sending out mass emails to members announcing the community.
  • Trying to do far too many features at once (gamification, ideation, top contributor programs etc…)

All the above is relatively easy to overcome if you know about them in advance. We’ve consistently chopped 3 to 6 months off development time and time to critical mass just by addressing issues much earlier in the community lifecycle. When you factor in platform fees and staff costs, this usually means a saving in the six-figures.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try doing it yourself. Consultants who have been through this process many times aren’t cheap. Many organizations manage to do it alone and succeed.

But be aware it’s very difficult to spend your budget, lose organizational support, and squander the attention of your audience and still succeed. Getting any of these back is extremely hard.

So if you do go for it alone, make sure you start small. Run a small pilot on a cheap platform and learn quickly. See if you can drive and sustain engagement. If you can, gradually spend more time on it. If you can’t, get help.

And make sure people and colleagues know it’s a trial program.

The Expert vs. Skills Problem

June 22, 2017 Comments Off on The Expert vs. Skills Problem

To continue from the subject matter expert post.

We turn down a lot of work because we won’t manage a community for a client.

We do plenty of other things, but hosts need to own those relationships.

The reason is simple.

When you build a community, you’re going to have a lot of people asking questions.

These are questions only people very familiar with the subject can answer. If you’re not an expert, you can spend the bulk of your time searching for answers to questions instead of proactively building communities.

This means pestering employees and hoping they give you a response.

This isn’t a good use of your time, so why handicap yourself?

In most sectors, it’s a lot easier to take a subject expert and teach them great community skills than teach someone with great community skills about the topic.

You can now spend the bulk of your time building the community instead of fishing for answers to questions.

There’s some nuance here, but the principle remains intact. Find someone smart and connected within your field. Check they have the attitude to help a community of people like themselves. Then teach them community skills.

p.s. your customer support team is a good place to look for talent.

The Art Of Writing Good Asks

June 21, 2017 Comments Off on The Art Of Writing Good Asks

Sometimes you can get everything else right and stumble at the ask hurdle.

This is the point where you have to ask someone to do something they’re not already doing. Every community effort reaches this point.

This is difficult, especially without an existing relationship.

Most people begin with an email or message along the lines of:

“Hi Mark,

I’m the community manager for WidgetCorp, a community with 3,000 active members of which you are one.

Over the next few months I’m interviewing members of our community to see how we can improve the community.

I would like to interview you and get your feedback.

Let me know your availability. I am available on Tuesday 23rd between 2pm and 6pm, and Thursday 24th between 2.30pm and 5.30pm. Will these times work? If not, suggest times of your own.”

Can you spot the problem? From the very first sentence it feels spammy and impersonal.

It could be one of 50 similar requests you might get this year, all of which you will ignore.

This feels like a minor issue, but we see it consistently undermining the great work so many community managers try to do. Once you’ve ruined that first impression, it takes a LOT more work to bring people around.


“Hi Mark,

Susan Chiu recommended I contact you because you have some experience about [skillset …be specific].

Can I get 10 minutes of your time to get your advice on something we’re working on? It’s for our community which might help a few thousand people.

Any help here would be really useful.”

Notice the difference in tone and messaging? You have a referral, you’re being clear, but you’re talking the way real people talk.

You can adapt any appeal as you see fit, but be sincere. If you’re not sure if your email is sincere, it probably isn’t (not yet anyway). Look to see the messages you respond to in your account and aim to match.

Your Brand’s Online Community Strategy – Broken Down Into Specific Steps

June 20, 2017 Comments Off on Your Brand’s Online Community Strategy – Broken Down Into Specific Steps

Writing an online community strategy from scratch is hard, especially if you haven’t created many strategies before.

Too many online community strategies don’t logically connect the ‘what you’re doing’ with ‘what you’re trying to achieve’.

Having written and reviewed over a hundred community strategies from brands big and small at this point, we see many of the same problems occurring.

Let’s try and tackle the process in a little more depth.

This usually takes 8+ weeks to complete. These strategy templates might also help.


Be skeptical of advice which begins ‘list your goal’.

Uncovering and getting support for a goal takes time, but saves time in the long run. No-one questions your value when they’ve already agreed what it is before you begin.

If you find yourself being measured against engagement, you haven’t properly established your value.

New communities should start with a single, clear goal agreed by all relevant stakeholders. Don’t rely on just your boss to fight for you. Your boss might leave or lose support.

The key to setting a goal is gaining support. The key to support is seeking to understand before being understood. Attend meetings of product teams, marketing teams, PR teams etc…understand what they value and ask for their feedback on how the community can help. Now design a goal to match that is as closely connected to business value for one department as possible.

Also, realize how you talk about that goal matters. Framing a goal matters. There is a big difference between framing a goal as increasing retention and framing a goal as stopping competitors from stealing your customers.

Which do you think will get most support?

You can also frame it as a gain. The point is when you talk about it internally that you use emotive language. Remember people are persuaded by emotions, not rational thought.

Make sure you do a detailed stakeholder analysis here. You need to know how to keep the main stakeholders engaged and informed throughout the community lifecycle.


  • “The goal of our community is to stop competitors from stealing our customers.”

Goals are the value your community gets from the community. These don’t have to be directly linked to a financial return, but you want them as close to a financial return as possible (retention is better than loyalty here).


Objectives are the behaviors members need to perform for you to achieve your goals. These should be really specific and logically help you achieve the goal.

If you have an existing community, you can run a multivariate regression analysis (or an experiment) to see which behaviors most drive your goals today (e.g. if number of articles read is closely correlated with increased retention rates, you might prioritize reading articles over creating them).

At this stage you’re making testable hypotheses.

For example, your hypothesis might be ‘the better members become at using the product the less likely they are to switch’. So the objectives (behaviors you want) might be:

1) Customer experts creating content explaining how to use the product in new and innovative ways.

2) Regular members reading content created by customers experts.

3) Members engaging in activities which helps identify them as experts.

Now you have three really specific behaviors to encourage and easy metrics to track:

1) Articles created by designated experts.

2) No. of members reading articles created by experts.

3) No. of designated experts (e.g. above a threshold).

You want benchmarks against these metrics, not generic engagement goals.

Notice how these KPIs aren’t borrowed from another community but completely unique to your community goals. This is how it should be. Borrowing someone else’s measurements is to measure someone else’s strategic efforts.

Now we have a clear goal, objectives to achieve that goal (notice, also, how connected those objectives are), and we know what we’re going to measure.

Remember you will need to check that your assumptions (members learning to use the product better increases retention) are accurate later. There are other channels (superior customer service) which may work well here too.

Make sure your boss and colleagues know what behaviors you’re encouraging. They need to understand how it all connects.


A strategy is your approach to driving the above behavior(s). Your strategy is based upon the emotional appeal you’re going to use. A huge mistake here is to try to persuade people with facts. Always appeal to the emotion if you want people to take action.

Every tactic you select later should be designed to amplify or reinforce the emotion that will move people to action.

The best way to uncover your strategy is to interview as many members who already perform this behavior and ask what motivates them. Go deep to uncover how they feel when performing the behavior (notice too, how a community strategy is about engaging deeply with the outside world).

You need a strategy for each objective. It might look like this:

You should see the emotional appeal in each element. At this point, we have our goals, objectives, and strategy set. We should only be executing on tactics which help achieve that goal.

Next, we want to develop our tactics.


Most community professionals are trying to execute on far too many tactics.

If you’re feeling burnt out and overwhelmed, that’s not a time-management or self-care problem, it’s a strategy problem. You’re trying to do too many things because you don’t know which activities matter.

A strategic plan should help you identify just the 3 to 5 tactics which really move the needle and provide you with the time and resources to execute them extremely effectively.

(i.e. you’re not going to do a clumsy hour-long webinar with an expert and publish the result, you’re going to meet the expert, interview them, and edit the video into a digestible resource of advice.)

Every tactic must amplify the strategy. Don’t select tactics just because other organizations use them. They’re chasing engagement and kudos from their peers, you’re chasing results for your company.

If you’re not sure which tactics amplify the emotion, think of situations when you felt that emotion (e.g. when did you feel part of a superior elite group?).

What caused that emotion? (e.g. perhaps having special access, special privileges, being known by name by the organization)

How might that translate into a community (e.g. customer council for brand, moderation/content creation rights, having your opinion sought by the community manager)?

Let’s take an example of one strategy above.

You can do this for each of the 3 strategies (shouldn’t be more than 3) you plan to execute.


Now plan how you will maximize the reach, depth, and length of each tactic.

I’m constantly amazed how many people come up with great tactics but do little to get the most out of them. Often the community isn’t aware the activity occurred, let alone making it easy for members or lasting for a long time.

Most tactics fail because they are so badly executed. They don’t reach enough people, don’t change behavior, or don’t last for a long time. If you’ve ever spent a long time working on a PDF eBook which people downloaded once and barely read, you know what we mean.

Reach is what % of the audience the tactic will reach, depth is the extent it will change behavior, and length is how long it lasts for.

An example of taking a regular tactic and executing it well is detailed below:

Notice how most people might approach this and how you (with your additional resources) can now do it much better. This is what happens when you cut down the number of tactics you’re working on to a core few.

Once you invest more time into a tactic, you can improve your results considerably.

Here’s another example of a possible tactic:

Again, great tactic – but once you can upgrade to make sure you get as much from it as possible.

Now you want to take each of these steps and schedule them in an action plan (template). Highlight when they will be done and who will do them. Estimate the hours each will take. At this stage, you will need to revise your expectations to make sure you can execute on these tactics.


At this point, you should be relatively set to pursue a logical strategy to achieve your goals. You should have internal support, know what behaviors you need to encourage, know what emotion will drive each of those behaviors, and have identified tactics to amplify that emotion.

You should also know how to ensure each tactic is as effective as it can be and scheduled each tactic for the next 3 months.

Most importantly, if you get the strategy process right, most of your problems fade away. That sense of burnout, feeling overwhelmed, lack of internal support etc…these are all strategy problems you solve along the way.

Remember to get a copy of the strategy templates and join our community if you have questions.

Policy On 3rd Party Community Groups

For larger companies, your community isn’t only on your platform (and it’s never going to be).

Your customers have created their own Facebook groups, subreddits, StackExchange sites, and have built an audience around their own social media channels.

Previous clients have had a policy that varies between legal harassment at worse to lukewarm support at best. Simply ignoring these groups is most common.

May I suggest proactive encouragement?

Encourage people to create their own groups in their city, for their unique interest, and set some loose guidelines for affiliation. Invite these people to submit their group for affiliation with the community. They get promotion and support if they do, but they won’t be legally harassed if they don’t.

Now list and promote these groups on a page in your community. A large number won’t thrive, but that’s true of all groups created. You can filter them out. Now you can focus on the groups which are thriving.

No, you don’t get control. But these group creators don’t want to be controlled.

Instead you get an army of volunteer community managers who can capture great insights, solve member problems, localize/translate your content, and disseminate important information. You might also be building a useful pipeline for future employees.

If encouraging and supporting people to help build your community isn’t a worthwhile part of your job, I’m not sure what is.

Where Does Good Community Feedback Go?

June 18, 2017 Comments Off on Where Does Good Community Feedback Go?

You’re probably getting a lot of product feedback.

So, what should you do with it?

Here’s what not to do. Don’t surprise people in a meeting or a company-wide report with community feedback that is critical of someone’s work. This makes people defensive and creates enemies determined to undermine everything you do (believe me).

The best time to share negative, yet constructive, feedback is in person after you’ve built a relationship.

It’s after asking each person what kind of feedback would help, what format would they like it in, what would really blow them away?

Certainly, share feedback with the wider organization, but make sure you’re letting each person in the room lead with a solution to overcome that feedback. Your job is to make them look good. Use stories about how they figured out a solution to address the issue.

Now your feedback is making them feel smart and innovative. That doesn’t create enemies, it creates allies.

Far too much great information by communities is ignored because we didn’t lay the groundwork for it first.

Pass on community feedback after:

  1. You’ve built a relationship with the recipient.
  2. You know when they need the feedback (giving feedback to product teams during an engineering sprint isn’t smart – nor is in the middle of the team meeting).
  3. You know how they need the feedback (charts, data, stories etc…?)
  4. You know how they use feedback from elsewhere.

This is one of many small things you can begin doing today to build stronger internal relationships (and your career prospects).

Be First

If you’re not willing to build a community until you’ve seen someone in your field build one first, you’re not going to have a community.

…but at least you (and your customers) can join theirs.

What Discussions Do You Remember From Last Year?

June 14, 2017 Comments Off on What Discussions Do You Remember From Last Year?

Outside of transactional communities (customer service), most lasting communities are built upon shared experiences and shared memories.

If you positively remember going through events and circumstances together, your propensity to continue supporting and participating in future community activities rises considerably (wouldn’t you do anything for your college buddies?).

But how many activities (discussions, blog posts, activity) from the community do you remember last year? I’ll bet it’s not many.

This is a hidden problem. It won’t show up in your data. Members won’t ask you to have memorable experiences and discussions, but you still need to figure out how to do it.

This doesn’t just mean offline events. Build up a list if you like. What would big achievements in your field look like? What would help a lot of people? Now reach out to a few of your top members and ask them what they think.

Is there anything on the list you can achieve? Is there anything members are especially passionate about? What would the next steps for a plan of action look like?

Start making it happen.

The great thing about this is no-one remembers (by nature) the failures. It’s only the home runs that count.

Creating amazing memories might happen by chance, but chance makes for bad strategy. Why not instead deliberately create situations which might lead to positive shared memories of the group? Rely on yourself, not on chance.

It’s time to get serious about the soft side of this work.

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