Month: January 2018
If you don’t have a clear and simple strategic plan you’re either relying on guesswork or using whichever tactics drive the most engagement.
Doing this work at the professional level is all about executing a strategic plan. It’s where you know your goals, you know your objectives, you know your strategy, and then you execute the tactics best designed to achieve that strategy.
In this post, I want to outline six broad strategic plans which have been successful for clients we’ve worked with in the past (or, in one case, a course student). Consider these ‘off the shelf’ strategies you can use for your community work.
Don’t use them wholesale, but adapt them to suit your needs.
Template 1: Advocacy Communities
Advocacy communities are designed to get customers to plead the case of the brand to non-customers.
Picture these efforts on a continuum. At one extreme you have cult fans who support you because they love you. Supreme and HarleyDavidson probably fall into this group. At the other extreme, you have reward/incentive-driven communities. Most of Influitive’s clients fall into this group.
Between the two, you have word-of-mouth marketing efforts. This is when when people who know you/like you share something you’ve created because it’s remarkable, involves them, or helps the audience look good.
The most common behaviors here, in order of value, are typically:
- Direct selling/referrals to others. If a customer personally invites someone else to become a customer for the brand or make referrals to a sales team to someone who would be a good fit for the product, that’s a big win.
- Writing customer reviews. This includes writing positive reviews on sites like Amazon, Goodreads, TrustRadius, and any other comparison site.
- Creating brand-related content. This is when a customer creates positive articles, videos, or podcasts about the product. Gamers do this on Twitch and YouTube all the time.
- Sharing content on news/content on social. This is where members share discounts, announcements of new releases, or any other brand-content to others.
Strategic Plan Template – Video Game Advocacy
The challenge here is to design community objectives (member behaviors) which achieve two goals. First, they must directly help the community achieve its goal and second, they must match what different member segments are likely to do.
Our strategic plan may look like the below:
All of this should be based upon research. By the end you should have a small list of 5 to 7 tactics which you will commit significant resources to executing. If you get this right, each member segment will be making their best possible contributions to the community.
Template 2: Engagement-Driven, Advertising-Supported, Communities
There is only one kind of community where maximizing engagement is a reasonable target and these are communities driven by advertising.
Most of the big social networks (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest) fall into this category. As do sites like Reddit, StackOverflow, and Nextdoor (plenty of smaller, hobbyist, sites fall into this category too).
The key things you need members to do here typically include:
- Getting members to organize members in their own groups. A key principle of exponential engagement growth is fostering sub-groups to increase advertising inventory and member time on platform. This means identifying and nurturing people to run parts of the community.
- Ensuring members join and participate in these groups. You can’t have successful groups unless you can get members to join and participate in these groups.
- Keep members actively engaged. You need to persuade people to visit and participate frequently to keep the community going.
Strategic Plan Template – An Engagement Platform
The challenge for an engagement-driven community is growing at high-speed. This example included the following:
For each group you want to amplify a unique motivation. This motivation will be very different for top contributors compared with, say, newcomers or lurkers/visitors. As the platform grows larger, you will need far more specific segmentation of the audience.
Template 3: Lead Identification/Generation Communities
Lead generation (and identification) is one of the most underutilized uses for a community. Members provides useful information which could identify them as potential leads for the sales team.
Bringing a list of 50+ leads to your next meeting is a good way to build internal support. However, be careful not to invade the privacy of your members or spam them with unwanted offers. Any outreach from a brand representative needs to be done with careful consideration towards the mindset of the member.
Members can identify themselves as leads in multiple ways. These usually include:
- Downloading content/attending webinars. Members who submit their details to download product/service related content/attend webinars can be considered as strong community leads.
- Sharing problems the product can solve. If members share a problem which the company can solve, someone can reach out to them and ask if they would like help.
- Creating content which attracts more search traffic. If members create content which attracts high search traffic, this could generate leads through natural awareness.
- Pre-purchase behaviors. Using a lead-scoring system, you might identify potential leads through the discussions and posts members click on.
- Completing surveys. Occasionally, members might reveal themselves as fitting a lead profile through completion of a survey.
Strategic Plan Template – A Large Consultancy Company
Developing a strategic plan for a consultancy company tends to be easier than any other goals. Note, below, the type of platform you use to build this kind of community might be different from a support or advocacy community. Sometimes, you might not need much member to member engagement at all.
Template 4: Innovation and Insights Communities
- Generating product ideas. This covers all solicited ideas in ideation-driven platforms.
- Voting on product ideas. This is self-explanatory, members vote on the ideas they like best.
- Providing feedback on the product/service. This includes every complaint, bug, or frustration members express which can be useful feedback.
- Participating in surveys/interviews. This is useful solicited qualitative and quantitative feedback.
- Expressing sentiment. If you track what members say they like or dislike you can gather a lot of useful insights.
- Engaging in trackable behavior. This includes tracking specific behavior and outcomes e.g. what content or discussions people like best.
Ideation/soliciting ideas tends to gain the more attention but is also the least successful. Better feedback usually comes in response to things members can see, touch, and do.
Strategic Plan Template – SaaS company
Many SaaS companies are gradually shifting their community from customer support to insights and innovation. This means rethinking what members are going to do within the community. A recent strategic template included:
From this, you should be able to use our insights report template and capture the main insights for the engineering team.
Template 5: Support Objectives
Support communities are the easiest type of community to create.
You launch a platform for people with a lot of questions and divert traffic from your website to this platform. It’s also the easiest community type to connect to direct cost savings. Most organizations with 100k+ customers should consider building a support community.
- Asking questions in the community (instead of support channels). This is obviously a critical behavior for a support community to succeed.
- Answering questions in the community (with empathy!). This is equally as important. Questions without solutions are worse than no questions at all.
- Searching for an answer in the community. The majority of members should be able to find the answer without asking a question.
- Voting and rating answers in the community. You need help from members to vote and rate answers within the community. This helps the best solutions rise to the top.
Strategic Plan Template – A Large Consultancy Company
Strategic plans for support communities are usually fairly transferable from one type of community to the next. The key difference is you usually don’t have regulars. You usually have top contributors, a small group of irregulars, then a large group of lurkers and visitors.
There are other ways to achieve these objectives (especially with top contributor programs), but the objectives usually remain relatively the same. Most internal collaboration communities would also fall under this category.
Template 6: Knowledge-Sharing Communities
Knowledge management (KM) communities (and Communities of Practice) are unique in they often span many of the different archetypes above.
However, the typical KM community emphasizes documenting and keeping knowledge up to date. This saves people time and helps them do better work.
The key behaviors here usually include:
- Documenting a best practice/lesson learned/templates. This includes actions taken, what worked, where to find useful information, revenue spent, how it was measured etc..This also covers templates for future projects.
- Keeping and updating previous content. Once content has been shared, it needs to be kept relevant and updated in a systematic way.
- Tagging and properly storing information. People need to be able to find the information. This means it need to be stored in the right place, with searchable names, and properly tagged.
This is a simplistic overview that becomes more complex as the volume of information increases (e.g. what if you have 5 different versions of templates floating around or 50,000 employees across 8 languages?)
Strategic Plan Template – A Management Consultancy
KM communities will have the most flexibility among the strategies you can deploy. Sometimes appeals to honor and pride work well and sometimes appeals to collective rewards work, and sometimes fear of punishment works best.
This isn’t a definitive list of community types. There are plenty of communities based around collective action, crowdsourced fundraising, and plenty other archetypes.
This should, however, cover the most common community goals and the kinds of strategic plans you might develop to support them.
There are multiple different ways to achieve the same community goals through different objectives, strategies, and tactics. The principle is to ensure everything matches up in the most direct and logical way possible. The templates above might help.
p.s. We’ve opened registration for our Strategic Community Management course.
A community’s ‘type’ is similar to a movie’s ‘genre’. It should provide you with a set of rules which should focus your community building efforts.
Community work varies greatly by the type of community you’re developing. Building a Q&A community for support is very different from building a community where your members proactively share their best ideas.
In this post, I want to highlight the three common types of community, how to build each type, and the constraints of each type.
If you completely understand what type of community you’re building, you can align everything you do to match.
Three Broad Types Of Brand Communities
Many people fall into the mistake of trying to build a general community about the topic. This usually happens when the company avoids making tough choices and tries to cover every possible use case for the community. Don’t do this.
General communities have weak concepts and tend to struggle to sustain much activity.
The most successful branded communities today usually fall within three core community types.
- Q&A (or support) communities.
- Idea-sharing (or education) communities.
- Peer groups (or exclusive) communities.
Each has positive and negative attributes. We’ll go through each in turn:
Type 1: Q&A / Support Communities
Most of the successful brand communities are based around questions and answers (Q&A). The most common of these are customer support communities. Customers bring their problems and get solutions from top staff/other members.
The key aim of a support community is to remove the frustration that brought the member to the community in the first place. It’s not enough just to provide an answer, you need to provide an answer with the speed, clarity, and sentiment that helps members feel less frustrated.
If interacting with the community makes people feel unhappy, you haven’t really solved the problem.
Benefits of A Q&A/Support Community
There are three main benefits of a Q&A / Support community:
1) Direct contribution to value. Whereas other types of communities are often several layers removed from value, support communities are fantastic for demonstrating a reduction in support costs, reducing satisfaction of disgruntled customers, and identifying/resolving potential problems early. They are also often used to solicit feedback.
2) Easier to launch. If you have a lot of customers with a lot of questions, you can usually make a support community work quite easily. Most traffic to a community initially comes via the website and email links. As you build up a base of answers, SEO traffic will usually become the prime source of traffic.
3) Member familiarity. Related to both of the above, members are familiar with the idea of asking a question and getting responses from others online. It’s a behavior similar to what we already do and doesn’t require much explanation.
All of the above explains why most successful brand communities are based around customer support and why support communities tend to have the most success.
Downsides Of A Q&A/Support Community
However, there are some inbuilt major problems with managing a Q&A/Support community. These usually include:
- You need a large base of members to succeed. Companies with less than 100k customers usually shouldn’t try to launch a support community. They struggle to attract the critical mass necessary to attract the superuser group and can’t deflect enough tickets to justify the investment.
- Negative tone of voice. Because most people only visit when they’re frustrated, the tone of voice skews more negative than other types of communities. This frustration can often turn on other members or community staff who can find themselves victims of very personal online attacks.
- Most members only visit once. Most people only visit when they have a problem. It’s hard to build any real sense of community among people who don’t want to be in the community at all.
- Static participation levels. The level of activity and participation is often driven by factors beyond your control (e.g. new product launches, changes to search algorithms, placement on the website). This can make it difficult to move the needle in many areas.
- Costly to run. It’s possible to do support on cheaper forum-based platforms like Vanilla/Discourse, but the standard for a large company is typically a premium platform with the security, functionality, and analytics they provide. You want to be able to add common answers to a knowledge base, create levels for superuser programs etc…
None of these are fatal and most aren’t avoidable, but they’re likely to be an ongoing problem with the job.
How To Improve A Support Community
If you’re managing or optimizing a support community, you will probably spend your time working across four dimensions. These are speed, accuracy, sentiment, and integration. Specifically, this means:
1) Decreasing the time to get a solution. You want the majority of people to find the solution without having to ask a question. This means recruiting and nurturing a top contributor program to provide quicker responses. This may take up the bulk of your time. You also need to ensure questions are well categorized, tagged, and have an accepted solution where possible. You need trending or topical questions to appear high up the page.
2) Increase the accuracy and clarity of the response. You want the quality of responses to be extremely strong. This means ensuring responses are easy to read and understand. Using video walkthroughs, screenshots, and bullet points usually helps (and training your team to do the same). You also want to frequently update the top 20% of answers responsible for 80% of traffic (especially after major product updates).
3) Improve the sentiment of the responses. You need to carefully consider how you personally engage and respond to discussions within the community. You need to deeply understand the psychology of your audience (p.s. I’d strongly recommend anyone working on a support community take this program). Your answers need to be personalized, friendly, empathetic, as well as accurate.
4) Using the questions and solutions throughout the organization. You should also be spending a lot of time escalating issues internally, ensuring questions are incorporated into product decisions, and helping your company take notice of the key trends within the community.
If you’re working on a support community, most of your time should be spent in the above areas. You can’t expect your members to be happy, but you should expect to be driving really incredible results for your company.
Type 2: Idea/Education Communities
Many of the most popular communities today are based around the idea of members proactively sharing resources, tips, and links. These are not solicited.
This can range from full-fledged articles (Medium), sharing resources (ProjectManagement.com) to simple link sharing (Reddit).
These kinds of communities come with some incredible benefits and equally challenging downsides.
Benefits of An Idea/Education Community
There are three main benefits of an idea/education community.
1) Growing the business. These are the best kinds of communities to improve customer satisfaction/retention (by helping people use the products better), attract new business (via search traffic), and drive innovation. The very best of these communities become the hub of their field.
2) Positive tone of voice. These communities usually have a positive tone of voice. It’s communities filled with people sharing what they’re doing and learning from one another. People don’t visit when they have a problem, they visit to get better at what they do.
3) In-built participation habits. These communities have in-built variable-reward mechanisms. Every time you visit, there might be a great new idea you can use. This is a lurker’s paradise and are environments ripe for forming habits.
If I were to add a third, it would be these communities typically explore the cutting edge of any field or topic. This is an exciting/motivating type of community to build.
Downsides Of An Idea/Education Community
Very few brands try to build an idea/education community. There are many reasons for this, but the biggest include:
- Very difficult to get started. By far the biggest problem is getting started. You need one group to attract the other. The success rate of these communities is far lower as a result. You might have better luck turning an existing, general, community into this type of community. But you need a large group of smart people willing to share great links first.
- About the topic, not the brand. With a few exceptions, these communities are better at serving broad topic areas (e.g. inbound.org) than specific brands (e.g. HubSpot). If you try to build the community about you, you’re going to find it harder to attract a high-quality audience. People want to talk about the broader topic than just a brand. However, there are plenty of exceptions here.
- Can be overwhelmed with spam. Once you encourage everyone to share their content, they often do. This quickly descends into poor-quality, promotional, content which drives everyone else away. It’s hard to fight this and maintain high-quality content. This leads into the next problem.
- Customized platform requirements. While there are a handful of idea/education-based communities on forums, the vast majority are not. Forums are better designed to support communities than education communities. Education communities tend to use a custom-built platform designed to solicit these specific recommendations. These range from templates/resource sites, news/link aggregation, pinterest-style boards, etc…
While the benefits of building an idea/education community might be higher, the costs and risks are usually much higher too.
Optimizing An Idea/Education Community
Based upon the above, it should be relatively clear how best to optimize a support community. This will include:
1) Recruiting and helping members to share interesting things. This is obviously critical. You need to find ways to identify smart/motivated people and get them to share great stuff. In the beginning this will usually be you and your team finding the best ideas. As you grow, you should be able to gradually bring more people into the fold.
2) Developing and improving your filter for high-quality content. You need great filters to separate the good from the bad. This usually means a combination of editor’s picks, tagging, upvoting, trending items, and (less often) algorithms. You need to work on ensuring members see the best stuff as quickly as possible. Technical competence is important when building this type of community.
3) Promoting the community. These communities benefit most from traditional publicity tactics. This means getting publicity on relevant blogs, influencer outreach efforts, and doing interesting things that attract a lot of attention.
4) Turning interest into results. You also need to turn the community interest in value for the business. This might be through lead generation, ‘sponsored’ posts, etc…
As you grow, you may also need to focus on how you build sub-groups within this community for related topics or subtopics.
Type 3: Peer Groups/Exclusive Communities
The easiest type of community to create is an exclusive community. The people who join are those who meet a high criteria based upon demographics, habits, or psychographics. In these peer groups, members usually share a strong, shared, identity with other members. The connections tend to run deeper than other types of communities.
Benefits of Peer Groups / Exclusive Groups
The key benefits of peer groups/exclusive communities are:
1) ‘Lock-in’ key audiences. Building an exclusive peer group among some of the top people in your field can be a great way to ‘lock in’ a key audience. This works well for companies in the B2B space, those looking to charge for membership, and those building platforms for peer groups to thrive.
2) Easier to launch. If you don’t have a large, existing, audience, the easiest way to start a community is to keep it exclusive and targeted only at some of the top people in the field. This is motivating for those people in the field to join and participate. Many communities begin exclusively before expanding to a broader audience once they have established their reputation.
3) Members connect with each other on a deep, personal, level. These groups whether via working-out-loud or simply providing each other with emotional support can be life-changing for participants. An exclusive community effort tries to bring together a group of people with a very strong shared identity and create a sense of belonging among them. These communities tend to have a lot of off-topic discussions and real-world meetings.
The Downsides Of An Exclusive Community
There are also some common disadvantages to creating and managing an exclusive community.
- Internal disputes. Exclusive communities tend to be hypersensitive to petty disputes between members. Given the small size and close relationships of the groups, these disputes can rip audiences apart.
- Building credibility with top people in your field. You need to have relationships with high-calibre people to get the community started. If you don’t, you need to invest the time to build and maintain these relationships before you can build the community.
- Limited growth. The very nature of having a high-barrier to entry ensures the community size is always limited to a degree. Any expansion is a threat to the close ties of the group itself. This means you have to gain the maximum benefit from the members you have.
- A high barrier to entry. You don’t need to make it impossible, but there should be a very clear calibre of people who are allowed to join the community. These reasons should be very public.
Optimizing A Peer Groups/Exclusive Community
These kinds of communities tend to have the most flexibility in your daily work. A small peer group diverges significantly from a larger, exclusive, community. The focus of your work however will usually be along the lines of:
- Programming content. You need to host events or create content that supports the community. Simply being exclusive isn’t enough unless you offer a clear benefit beyond this exclusivity. This should offer members something which they cannot get access to elsewhere.
- Attracting and keeping the right members. You will need to invest more time to interact personally with each member and ensure they are happy and engaged within your community. This is often very difficult to do. It might mean breaking the bigger group into subgroups so members can engage and interact with each other.
- Building a sense of community. You work hard here to build a strong sense of community among the group. This includes plenty of rituals, emotive discussions, and roles for each member of the community.
If you’re not sure what type of community you’re building, you’re probably not building a very strong community.
If you are sure, make sure you focus your time and effort in the areas which are going to have the biggest, possible, impact for your type of community.
Almost every organization we’ve worked with can really improve their community by better understanding what type of community they’re building in the first place.
I’d estimate around 90% of community problems we see are concept problems.
This means the very idea for a community you begin with wasn’t strong enough.
Alas, it might not be your fault, but it’s now your responsibility to deal with it.
The problem is a weak community idea can survive for a really long time on a handful of posts a day. It can be propped up by staff members creating dozens of posts per day to give the illusion of activity. It can be given spasms of promotion in the desperate hope that if it reaches just enough members everything will be ok.
But adding more members to a weak community idea won’t work, you need to completely relaunch or revamp the community.
In this post, I’m going to try and guide you through what our consultancy process looks like here using case studies and templates.
(Note: If you run a customer support community, you can skip this post entirely. Many of these principles will be different).
The Honest Appraisal
By far the hardest part here is being honest with yourself and the people running the community.
On the (rare) occasions we fail, we fail because we can’t get people to be honest with themselves and their company about the true state of the community.
A failing community is like a bad business. A bad business locks up capital which could be deployed elsewhere. A bad community locks up people who could be better engaged and active elsewhere. It’s also highly damaging for your career.
Your community concept is probably wrong if you match any of the following:
- After a few months you’re still initiating and responding to most of the discussions.
- Very few members stick around.
- You have a dozen posts a day or less.
- Very few people seem excited by the idea of the community.
- Word of mouth isn’t spreading and bringing in more people.
- The level of growth and activity isn’t increasing, yet you haven’t reached critical mass.
There are some exceptions here, but you’re probably not one of them.
Please don’t waste your career, your members’ potential, and your company’s resources propping up a bad community indefinitely. Be honest and do a proper revamp. Take the hard decisions you need to take.
|Quick Case Study: Health Meets Wealth
One example might come from the Health meets Wealth community. This is a community based upon Lithium designed for people to talk about health and wealth. Yet with two staff members participating there still isn’t enough activity to justify the high investment.
This could be a promotion problem, but I’d bet it’s a concept problem. There are better communities to talk about health and wealth. No matter how hard you try to push a weak concept, it’s always going to be a struggle.
However, an exclusive community focused entirely on the health routines of wealthy people might succeed. It targets the right demographic and fits in with what wealthy people usually want (privacy and exclusivity).
There are plenty of examples here.
You can spend the next few years’ of your life feeling miserable trying to make a bad idea work or you can spend that time feeling excited about a community that will explode to life. Please choose the latter.
(aside, this is exactly where it makes a lot of sense to get consultancy support).
Be Brutal With Cutting Anything Holding You Back
Now you have to decide between a hard and soft change.
A hard change means closing your current community and starting a new one.
A soft change means working with your current platform and members to make things work.
In the past, I’ve advocated for the latter. Recently, I’ve found the former to be far better. You need a fresh start here. You will upset some members, but it’s far better to do a complete relaunch than try to gradually shift things. You tend to keep too many legacy attributes to do what you want. Don’t let the old stuff that caused you to fail repeat the same trick.
This is almost certainly going to mean changing or completely redesigning the community platform too. Be prepared for this. You can archive the old community so the content is still accessible, but don’t allow any further posts to the site.
Communicate this clearly in advance and explain the reasons why. Never blind side members, regardless of how few people are there.
Your colleagues will also try to push you to keep most of what you have and make minor tweaks rather than the profound change you need. This is the sunk costs fallacy. Stay strong and focused on making the big change you need.
Now you have to go through the concept phase of the community lifecycle to find and test the right community idea.
Last year, I was contacted by a car brand about revamping their community. They had already mapped out the community and hired creative companies/developers to build out the community. But they hadn’t built any relationships, undertaken any interviews, nor tested their new idea.
They wanted us to explain how to get people to join and participate in the community. Alas, that’s not how it works.
You need to identify what members need and ensure the community is perfectly designed to deliver on those needs. This is what the conceptualization phase does. The conceptualization process is to figure out the concept, build relationships, and having some sort of platform you can leverage to drive early activity.
You need to go through this process too.
If you think you’re going to develop a hit community idea without any feedback from the community, you’re delusional.
This means working at the micro one to one level. There are three core things to achieve at this stage:
- Build credibility among your early target audience.
- Nurture relationships with prospective members.
- Identify and validate what members really want.
Step 1) Building Credibility (CHIP process)
The first step is to build some credibility among your audience. This means you achieve positive awareness.
It’s very difficult to persuade people to join your community if they’ve never heard of you. Being from a big brand can help, but it’s not an all access pass to get everyone to love the community idea.
You probably ignore most of the blind outreach messages you receive right? People will ignore your messages too unless they recognise you. You need to be individually recognised here.
You need to use the CHIP process below:
Spend 2 to 6 months participating in other communities, attending events, asking questions, and interacting with people online. Be curious and friendly. Don’t try to get anyone to do anything for you at this stage.
Next, start a platform. This might be an Instagram account, a blog, podcast, whitepaper, or any medium that best suits your interests. You want people coming to you for information. This gives you the added advantage of starting to test and experiment with the idea. Share what you’re learning. Test ideas if you like.
Better yet, interview or feature people for this platform. Now you get the benefit of learning and connecting with smart people. The same people who won’t give you time of day for a coffee will give you hours for an interview. This is how Ryan Hoover built relationships for ProductHunt.
Step 2: Nurture Strong Relationships and Identify Key Themes
If you’ve succeeded in the above stage, you should have a few hundred subscribers/followers at this stage. These are now people who will recognise your name and be happy to speak with you.
Directly reach out to this group. Schedule coffees or calls with them. Travel to where they are if you need to. Try to have private, 1 to 1 discussions with at least 50 people (if you don’t enjoy this process, consider a different occupation).
Ben Munoz launched BensFriends by participating in other communities, responding to questions on Q&A sites, and meeting people. It’s very hard work but it is the single most reliable way to get great results.
Step 3: Identify and Validate The Community Idea
You should be able to sustain relationships with at least 50 people at this point and have a very good idea of what they have said. I prefer to use a spreadsheet and look for patterns in the data, but you can use whichever method works for you.
Make sure you ask people about their challenges, hopes and ambitions. Find out what they like or don’t like about the scene or their work. Find out where else they interact with each other (you don’t want to copy what already exists).
You should be able to identify a few topics that people really care about.
You’re looking for topics a handful of people really care about and don’t have a great place to talk about it today. One of these topics will become your concept.
Developing Your List of Community Concepts
Let’s use the TransAmerica example above and pretend we have interviewed 50 people in the wealth space. We might discover a few common themes:
- Never having enough time to do anything.
- Not being able to maintain a consistent fitness routine.
- Not feeling part of the elite group or know how to join exclusive events.
- Not spending enough time with friends.
- Not spending enough time with family.
- Uncertainty about the future.
- Concerns about status.
- Embarrassed by wealth.
- Wants to spend less time doing routine tasks.
- Who to trust when outsourcing projects/ideas.
At this point we can take this list and either;
a) do a survey asking people to rank which of these they might care about (easy to do on SurveyMonkey).
b) start testing some community concept ideas directly.
If you do the survey, use it as a rough guide and discard those at the bottom rather than pick those that the top. People find it difficult to articulate what’s most important to them.
A community concept is essentially the community topic (what the community is about), target audience (who the community is for), and type (action, circumstance, support etc…).
Any one of the themes can serve as a possible community and each can also yield multiple community ideas.
Let’s imagine we find health and fitness is a problem for wealthy people. You can quickly build 5+ concepts from that:
- An exclusive community sharing the health and fitness regimes of the ultra wealthy. Members would each share their diet/food recipes, read content from celebrities and others, and be able to sign up for programs named after superstars.
- A complete optimization community. For the wealthy to get personalized food support, training regimes, and automate/optimized every aspect of their health and fitness.
- A peer group of wealthy people to set themselves goals with financial forfeits to charity if they don’t achieve them. Similar to Stikk, but for wealthy people.
- A community for people with $10m in assets to share their advice on personal chefs, trainers, holidays, and the best gyms.
- A bodybuilding club for the ultrawealthy. Members work out together or at the same time and record/share their results/photos with each other.
Not all of these ideas are good (some are terrible), but you should be able to find and validate at least one of your ideas for one of your themes.
You launch a community by focusing on just one of them!
There are more options here for a concept than you might imagine. Kaggle, for example, began as a community for data scientists who wanted to participate in competitions.
That’s a really narrow focus, but the audience loved it and word spread.
Run them past a few of the target audience to find which they like and which they really dislike. This should narrow your 30+ ideas (across all topics) to five to ten which you can test.
How to Test Your Community Concept
You want to test your idea as fast and as cheaply as possible. You can do this in multiple ways:
- Create an item of content/whitepaper and see how popular it becomes. If you’re thinking of a community about the fitness regimes of wealthy people, write an article or two about it and send it to your audience.
- Create a mailing list or Facebook group about the topic. Invite some of the members you spoke to before, start a few discussions, create some content, and see if the idea takes off. Keep it simple and quick.
- Host an event for the topic. Host an event for the topic (or even a webinar) and see how many people attend. Have a speaker if you can and gauge the reaction. Better yet, have two events and see how many people attend twice and how enthusiastic they are.
You’re really looking for the instant win, the one idea that explodes with popularity.
What gets people to attend and generates the most positive feedback? If you’re not sure if your idea was an instant win, it wasn’t.
It’s far better to have 10 people who really love the idea than 1000 who are mildly interested by it.
Almost all of the struggling communities we see today skipped the conceptualization stage.
If you get the concept wrong, you will forever be paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in platform and staff costs on a community that will never succeed. Don’t let that happen to you. If you don’t have a hit, test more ideas down the list until you get one right.
By the end of this stage you should have achieved three things:
- Built a (content) platform from which you can invite people to join a community. This should have at least 100+ followers/subscribers.
- Nurtured 20+ strong relationships with people in the field who you know will love the idea.
- Tested and validated this is a great idea for the community. You know this because your community already exists via a FB group, event series, or a small mailing list.
If you don’t have all three, keep working at it until you do.
Now you properly enter the inception phase of the community lifecycle below:
If you’ve got the concept right, this stage should be much easier than you imagined.
Your goal at this stage is to increase awareness, sustain rising activity, and develop the community platform.
1) Identify and develop early sources of growth
In the early days, you’re not going to get much organic search traffic or referrals, instead you need to identify and drive sustainable sources of growth.
You usually have three options here:
- Your existing website traffic. Most companies promote and try to drive traffic from their website or mailing lists to the community. This is the easiest and most common way to expand . However, it only succeeds if you have an existing audience. If you don’t, you have to follow one of the paths below:
- Existing groups. This means means subtly promoting the community on other sites and meetups. Anthony, Kaggle’s CEO, spent plenty of time in the early days promoting his online community in existing groups and speaking at as many meetups as he could across the country. Ben from BensFriends, as you might recall, participated in existing groups. This helped build a platform and attracted the earliest members to the community. Respond to every question, participate in existing communities, attract people in the 2s and 3s.
- Direct invites. This is you personally identifying people interested in the topic and reaching out to them. You have to use a status-based invite/approach to get someone to join and check out the community. This takes time but is often quite effective when it’s done well. This works best when you have strong relationships with a small number of people. The secret here is to get referrals from previous people you’ve contacted. This will save you a lot of time.
Later you can do the mass-promotional tactics. But, for now, you need to know you can sustainably bring in new traffic to the community to get things started.
It’s often smart to ask people to participate in discussion topics they mentioned in your interviews to get things going.
(note: some platforms, e.g. Facebook Groups, currently have an in-built source of new members via referrals to others on the platform.)
There are plenty of online community platforms to choose from. Begin with something relatively small and simple to use. Invest more in the community as the community grows (unless, as noted, you’re running a customer support platform).
Platforms vary enormously, but depending on your budget you’re probably looking at: Facebook Groups, Mobilize, MightyNetworks, Vanilla Forums, Discourse at the cheaper end and HigherLogic, Lithium, Telligent, Jive, and Salesforce at the premium level.
I’d recommend to begin at the former and later decide if you need to move to the latter.
You can develop something yourself too if the concept is really unique, but you will need a budget to hire a really top tier team. This worked for Producthunt and Kaggle. This is high-risk, high-reward territory. Go for it if you’re confident you can get the technology right.
The secret here is to focus entirely on the unique aspect of the community concept and ensures the community is perfectly suited for that.
Critically, make sure by the time you launch a new platform you have a large group of motivated people eager to use it.
3) Sustain and develop activity
Whichever activity your community is pursuing (discussions, tips, solutions, sharing photos, action plans etc…), you want to be able to see high-quality discussions taking place. High-quality discussions usually mean a few specific things:
- Very specific and relevant topics. You need discussions about topics which are relevant to the day to day lives of members. If you have done your interviews, you should be able to create these kinds of discussions.
- Clearly different types of discussions. You need to have discussions which expand beyond just a single niche topic. What is the next level up?
- Broad interest and participation. Discussions should be popular with members. People should be happy to participate in them and interact with one another.
- Good information being shared. You want to see new perspectives and facts being shared.
If you don’t have at least the above four, you probably need to rethink the community concept and the kinds of members you’re inviting. You either have the wrong concept or the wrong people participating in the topic.
You can test a lot of different things here. Limited-time webinars, AMAs, featured discussions, collaboration projects, predictions, leaderboards, open debates, and anything else that adds to the community concept. You will usually need a mix of things for this to work.
If things have gone well, by the end of this stage you should have something close to:
- At least 50 active participants (people who make a contribution).
- At least 30 discussions with 5+ responses.
- More than 50% of the growth/activity being initiated by members.
All the metrics should be heading in the right direction by now.
Most importantly, the community should feel rejuvenated. You should sense members are more positive, happy, and excited about the community. You should also find yourself being more excited about working on the community.
Now you can start exploring some sense of community tactics, exploring more promotional efforts, and more interesting events to drive more growth, activity, and a stronger sense of community.
The secret to rejuvenating a community isn’t to try harder or big tech changes, it’s to force through the really tough decisions and let go of the thinking that dragged you into the state you’re in today. This frees you up to identify what members really want and build an entire community around them.
You’ve launched your online community. You’ve got hundreds, maybe thousands, of active members.
But there is a problem; you’re not sure what you want them to do.
You’re not alone, this happens to the majority of companies we’ve worked with. Many have invested a lot of time and resources to get members to participate without ever answering the fundamental question; ‘what do we need our members to do?’
This usually leads to asking the wrong members to do the wrong things. Fortunately, it’s a very fixable problem.
In this post, I want to take you through a process we go through with clients. This highlights the most valuable things a member can do, the challenges you will need to overcome, and a framework you can use to move forward.
Only A Small Percentage Of Community Contributions Matter
Only a few contributions to your community are valuable. These are the contributions which drive the results you want. They also tend to bring in other members, set the tone for the community, and carve out a unique identity.
You can have a lot of people talking about a lot of things in a place you control (and pay for), but this doesn’t mean it’s valuable. This is like owning a popular bar where people bring their own drinks. Your members get the social benefits while you pay for the overheads.
Your mission is to get every member making their best possible contribution to the community. These are valuable contributions which help you achieve your goal.
What Should Your Active Members Do?
Let’s focus on active members here (we will cover lurkers another time).
Begin by working backward from the result you want. Use this table below if it helps.
This isn’t a definitive list. You should notice however that only a very narrow number of contributions are valuable from active members.
If you want to avoid building another opinion-sharing community, you need to be clear what you want your contributors (usually up to 10% of your membership) to do first.
Select the contributions that most closely match up your goal. Be very clear and specific in the contributions you want members to make.
e.g. ‘members writing detailed blog posts’ as opposed to ‘members sharing good advice’
By the end of this stage you should have identified the contributions you need to achieve your goal.
Great Examples Of Valuable Contributions
The best communities are defined by the great contributions members make.
If you need some examples, here are a few:
- The Spotify Rock Star program has a few hundred people who contribute thousands of great quality solutions every year. These great contributions (quick, personalized, solutions) bring in hundreds of thousands of members and reduce support costs for 6.4m+ members.
- ProjectManagement.com has the smartest people in Project Management sharing detailed articles and resources. These templates and resources saves thousands of people spending days, even weeks, of their lives creating their own resources to do their work. They also serve as a premium feature of the community.
- The Adobe forums has thousands of members sharing their best tips to use the products better. These tips aren’t just targeted at the elite experts, they’re targeted at the far bigger audience of newcomers. This reduces churn, increases loyalty, and improves search traffic.
- Goodreads has members publishing dozens of independent, quality, reviews every minute. This provides Amazon with a treasure trove of information and increases sales.
Each of the communities above are crystal clear in what they wanted members to do. They orientate their activities around these goals. They didn’t hope they would happen by chance if they got enough activity, they proactively drove those behaviors first.
Why Your Members Aren’t Making Great Contributions
Most people, perhaps you too, are making the same mistake. You’re asking members to make contributions they don’t have the skill, time, and motivation to create.
Once you’ve identified the contributions you want, it’s tempting to start blasting messages out to members asking them to make those contributions.
The problem is different kinds of contributions require different attributes from members. A newcomer to the field can hardly be expected to share expert advice.
…But that’s exactly what happens in many communities(!)
These attributes typically fall within three categories;
1) Skills/experience. Great contributions like those above require a significant experience or an acquired skill. If a member doesn’t feel they have a unique skill or experience to share with the community, they won’t participate.
2) Motivation. Motivating refers to deviance from normal behavior. This means getting members to proactively do something they wouldn’t usually do (and don’t see peers doing).
3) Time. This refers to taking an hour or more to contribute the contribution. If you’re writing a review, this doesn’t matter, but if you’re about to share a detailed resource or host an AMA, the member needs the time to create that post.
You can influence each of these a little. You can train members, reduce the time it makes to make a great contribution (e.g. pre-set resources/templates), and deploy motivational messages. This is good practice too. But you’re still going to be working within these relatively fixed restraints. You can’t get members to do things they aren’t able (or willing) to do.
So, what’s the solution?
Going Beyond An Opinion-Sharing Community
You need to match the kind of contributions you want to the members who have the skill/experience, motivation, and time to do those things.
This means identifying members who have the ability to make these contributions and spending more time on them. You can use different systems for each of these.
1) Skill/Expertise. Tag members who demonstrate expertise in a particular niche. You and your volunteers can use admin notes on profiles, create customer badges, or keep a separate list on excel/google sheets (the latter is easiest). Whenever a member makes a great contribution on a topic, tag the contribution to member’s profile/contribution.
2) Motivation. This is harder to fathom. One simple method is to look either at members who create the most posts, those who create deviant posts (e.g. publishing something different or unique), or use your own subjective observations. Listing members by the number of posts they have made is easiest. Set a mark, usually 5+ contributions in the past month.
3) Time. Create a list of members who have either spent the most time on the site or read the most posts within the previous 60 days. You can do this by either listing members by time spent or the site/posts read. You can list members from native features or, if you’re pulling data from the server logs, you can run a simple query below.
This provides a list of members who have read more than 50+ posts within the past 60 days (you can change these variables to suit you).
You can build increasingly complex and automated systems to add people to the right list. The key principle is you should now be able to divide your regular members into active groups based upon the table below:
(yes, this list is quite subjective)
Now you place many of your active members into the categories above (feel free to add your own) and pursue those on lists which lead to the contributions you need to achieve your goals.
- If someone appears on all three lists, you want to invite them to share a detailed resource/template based upon their expertise. Highlight the kind of resources you need, emphasize the status of those resources, identify similar resources elsewhere for them.
- If someone appears on experience and motivation, you want to see if they can share their best tips or solutions on a semi-regular basis. Highlight the tips required, the impact they have, and make a big deal out of great tips shared.
- If someone appears on time and motivation, guide them to volunteer or leadership roles within the community (hosting interviews, welcoming members, moderating areas of the site etc…).
- If someone appears just on motivation, ask them to highlight or vote on the kind of content or material they would love to see in the community. Then feed this back to members creating tips/resources.
- If someone appears just on one list (e.g. experience), you might want them to share reviews or help connect members where possible. etc…
The more resources you have, the more lists you can pursue.
You can begin with just a single list if you like (perhaps resources/templates), find people who fall into that category, and see if you can start adding some tremendous templates and resources to your community. This is terrific for lead generation.
Your goal by the end of this is to make sure every member is making their best possible contribution to the community.
The equation is simple. If you want more support for the community, you have to show the community is driving more value.
The common mistake is to equate value to activity and trying to attract more members to drive more activity.
Having undertaken in-depth interviews with almost 70 people for my book, I feel fairly confident to say that there is a far more effective option. You don’t need more members, you need better systems to capture and use the value you have already created.
The Insights Matrix
Online communities are rivers of powerful insights. We usually let these insights wash away because we don’t have good systems to capture and use them.
This, in turn, means our communities aren’t generating anywhere near the value they should be. Which, in turn, means were’ not getting the support we need to build the incredible communities we want to create.
If we can better capture and use these insights, we can solve these problems.
We can divide these insights down into the four distinct categories we see below.
|Members||Aware||Ideas and opinions
This includes ideation, co-creation, surveys, polls interviews, asking for ideas and feedback.
e.g. asking customers what they think about a product.
This includes problem posts, voting on problems (or ‘me too’) posts.
e.g. finding out what customers are really angry about.
|Unaware||Sentiment And Qualitative Data
This includes tracking mentions and popularity of topics. It involves identifying the words and language members use.
e.g. waiting to see what your best customers say about a product.
This includes click-through rates, conversion rates, attribution, landing page data.
e.g. tracking what people are most interested in about the product.
These insights are categorized by whether:
a) they are solicited by the organization.
b) our audience knows they’re generating insights.
Solicitation matters because asking someone what they think gives you a very different type of insight from a furious member complaining about a problem.
Audience awareness matters because members have a tendency to lie or struggle to explain what they really want. Fortunately, their clicks don’t lie.
You’re probably capturing at least one type of insight today, but you can immediately bring more value to the table if you start capturing multiple types of insights.
1) Ideas and Opinions
Any time you ask members for feedback, you’re going to get their ideas and opinions.
Ideas are useful both in themselves and also to validate or challenge existing thinking, identify great talent, and get a range of options to choose from. If no-one else can come up with a better solution to a problem than you have today, you can probably move on to the next thing.
In practice, this falls into two buckets. Insights generated through a dedicated platform and those sought after through more traditional platforms.
The dedicated platforms include:
- Ideation platforms. In an ideation platform, members are invited to submit ideas and vote on the ones they like best. This usually involves a platform like BrightIdea, Spigit, Charodix etc…
- Competition platforms. In a competition platform, members are set a challenge and invited to work together to come up with the best solution. Good examples here include Kaggle, Topcoder, 99designs.
- Co-creation platforms. In a co-creation platform, members collaborate with each other to develop a bigger project. Many open-source platforms can fall under this banner. Other common examples might include Forth and platforms like Jovoto and others. Though, in practice, outside of open-source its rare for members to refine and update each other’s ideas.
You can find a bigger list of platforms here. Pricing ranges from a few hundred dollars per year to low-six figure sums for larger efforts which require high levels of customization.
These platforms are essentially efforts that align the goal of the community to a single type of insight. It’s more effective for that purpose but limiting if you want any other kind of insights.
This leads us to the second category of ideas, those sought after on a more ad-hoc basis without a dedicated platform. This includes:
- Surveying community members. You can ask members a range of questions about their opinions on products, their problems, or what they would prioritize. SurveyMonkey is probably the simplest tool.
- Running a community poll. You can run a poll and get immediate feedback from members on a single question. Most platforms have this as a native feature today. Getting feedback from most members on a single question. Otherwise SurveyMonkey and Doodle are quite simple options.
- Interviewing community members. In-depth interviews give you deep, qualitative, data on members. This can help you build profiles, better understand the problems, and appreciate how people conceive the problem. I personally use Skype with SkypeRecorder for these. I also transcribe each interview in real-time with a few pre-set questions to begin.
- Initiating discussion questions. The easiest way to get feedback is to use the community what it is there for, asking questions and getting responses. This gives you a quick and simple understanding of what your participants (not to be generalized to your community) want.
Capturing and using these ideas and opinions:
There are a lot of different ways you can make this work for you without building a dedicated platform. The easiest might include:
- Set a competition to solve a problem your marketing/engineering teams are struggling with. Have a small prize for the best response (or top 3 responses). Be sure to check the law on competitions.
- Ask members to review upcoming content before it’s published (I’m doing this with my book). Find out what they like about it, don’t like about it. Does it make sense? Is it relevant? Does it read well? What were their main takeaways?
- Ask engineers what features they would like feedback on and run a poll or survey on those issues. Solicit questions from your colleagues on a regular basis to run past the community. Find out how many ideas they want, what format they want them in, and when they want them.
- Get snapshot responses to any question raised in meetings that would benefit from quick feedback.
- Ask members what they would most like to change about your product/service and feeding that information back to your colleagues.
- Highlight the roadmap and ask members to prioritize what order they want these items fixed in a survey.
You can develop plenty of your own ideas here too.
Be sure to find out exactly what feedback about your product, PR, and marketing teams would most love to see and set questions, polls, or surveys in the community to gather that feedback.
Complaints are often more powerful than ideas because they reveal what members really care about.
If someone takes the time and energy to write a complaint, you can be sure the problem is important to them. Solicited ideas might reveal preferences, but complaints highlight what will influence purchase decisions.
Complaints can also act as an early warning system to any upcoming problems and avoid PR disasters. They also give you a great opportunity to correct bad strategy mistakes and turn unhappy members into satisfied participants, if not eager advocates.
However, the number of complaints received via customer support tickets or calls usually dwarfs those received by the community. But the community typically contains an organization’s most dedicated fans/supporters.
A community shows what your best customers are upset about. If you lose your best customers, you have a major problem.
Many communities are launched as a customer support channel, this means they host only complaints. Others try to focus on the positive aspects of the product, but often become overwhelmed by the negative tone of discussions.
Capturing and using these insights:
- Setup a place in the community for member complaints and share this link with the people that need to see them. This also separates the positive community discussions from the negative.
- Tag or screenshot each complaint (or the biggest complaints) and compile these into a simple briefing for engineers or product managers at the end of the week.
- Find out from colleagues what complaints they want to be immediately escalated internally and train your staff/volunteers on what to do with these complaints.
- Report which areas/features get the most complaints.
- Respond quickly (where legally possible) to every complaint that’s received within the community and demonstrate a positive approach to trying to solve the problem.
You want to develop your own system for tagging, screenshotting, or having a place for members to post complaints. Evernote is the simplest, but far from the only solution. Most platforms will either let you ‘tag’ a discussion or add a note to these discussions. This lets you pull these complaints in a query.
3) Sentiment and Qualitative Data
Every day your audience is giving you great insights in both their sentiment and the choice of words they use. Each of these has different benefits.
Qualitative data (or sentiment) is great for analyzing how much people care about a complaint they have posted. It can help prioritise which complaints to focus on. For example, a large number of members might be mildly irritated by a feature most used, but a smaller group might be furious about a less used feature. You might want to prioritise the latter or risk losing that smaller group of customers.
Alternatively, you might notice members no longer speak about a product or the company as positively as they once did. This portends a major problem you should raise at the next company meeting.
Finally, how a member describes a problem is very useful. You can find out exactly how members talk about issues and describe problems.
This can be passed on to copywriters, marketers, your PR team, and anyone involved in writing anything members read. When you start using the exact words members use, you get a better response (as well as SEO benefits).
Capturing and using sentiment:
- Run your community logs (or URL) through a sentiment analysis tool to either track positive/negative sentiment broadly or towards a particular product. There are plenty of social media focused tools that do this, but a few others like blockspring and Haven will either let you build your own or do this for you (note: I’ve never used Haven). You can also track mentions of specific words that might be associated with positive or negative sentiment.
- Capture the titles and words members use to describe their problems and feed this data back to the people that write the FAQ, help center, and marketing copy. This helps them ensure they’re using the language members best understand.
- Track which topics are most popular within the community and share this information with people who provide this data. See which discussions have the highest level of positivity associated with them.
Word of warning, sentiment tools are addictive. Make sure you know what you’re looking for before you use one.
Behavioral insights are usually the most powerful (and the most overlooked).
It’s one thing to track what members say, it’s another matter entirely to track what members do.
Behavioral insights are relatively easy to setup and use. You can use Google Analytics and other simple tools to easily see what pages most people arrive on and make inferences about what got them there. If most people are arriving at a discussion about ‘cheap conference venues in London?’, you might want to create content about the topic.
You can also see which categories (or topics) are rising and falling in popularity. Your colleagues can then devote more time to creating content or product features within these categories and devote more time to creating content or product features within those categories.
Click data reveals trends and shows what’s rising and falling in popularity. It can tell you exactly what members are doing and help you personalize activities for your members. It also helps you to optimize for key topics.
Capturing and using behavioral data
These systems can become considerably complex, but at their easiest you can usually do the following:
- Ensure each discussion is not just placed within a category, but properly tagged. Track and report the popularity of each tag (by visits and comments) to identify possible trends and feed these trends back to colleagues.
- Track the top 50 landing pages to the community each month. This reveals what members (and, most often, newcomers to the topic) are searching for. Your marketing team can create more content around these trends to capture newcomers.
- Use Google Analytics to check where members are visiting from (geographic region as well as demographic data). This might reveal the need to translate your product content or sell the product to new regions. It might at least identify possible favourable markets.
- Track where members arrive from. High-volume websites might indicate opportunities for referral/partnership programs.
- Track visits from specific devices or on multiple browsers. This may show a need to cater the product or material to those browsers or devices.
This is far from a definitive list. Start with something simple and expand gradually to add greater depths of insights.
Your colleagues might not act on a single data point, but if the information proves credible it becomes a powerful and invaluable asset to have.
Pros and Cons Of Each System
Each of the options above have various pros and cons.
|Ideas and opinions||
|Sentiment and language||
Download Our Reporting Sheet
Once you begin collecting your insights, you will also want to share them more broadly than just the immediate person in need. This is why you should prepare an insights report to share around at each meeting and email to a broader group at the end of each month.
This covers the summary, the key takeaways in each of the four areas above, next steps, and insights implement.
Make sure everyone is aware of previous insights which have been implemented as a result of the community.
You can download our worksheet here:
Getting great insights from your members to your colleagues is the most effective way to increase the value of the community. But you need to work at both ends. You need to find out what insights your colleagues most need and develop systems to capture those insights.
Your success (and the success of the community) depends not on how much activity you generate or how many members you persuade to join, but by how useful your colleagues find the community.
If you collect a lot of great insights they can use, you will quickly win them over and build the kind of community you want to create.