Month: February 2018
What do you notice about the following four communities?
….they all have terrible banners.
Most community banners today are doing more harm than good. They’re static monstrosities filling far too much real-estate with bland messaging trying to appeal to every member segment.
A banner is not a game-changer for any community, but it is a useful tool to drive the kind of behavior you need, help with the signal to noise problem, and set the tone for a community.
But banners come at a big cost, they push activity off the page. They make it harder for members to see who or what is new in the community. The bigger the banner, the greater the cost. Your banner comes at the direct expense of activity.
The Big Problems With Most Banners
The problem with banners comes in 5 areas. These are:
1) The design. Many community banners have curiously bad design. This often includes an ugly palette of colors, text that doesn’t contrast well with the background, or bland photoshopped images.
2) The size. Most are far too big and take up far too much space. You generally don’t want to push activity below the fold.
3) The contents. No-one really cares much about being ‘welcomed’ to the community. Online communities have been around a while, most people know they can ‘connect’, ‘share’, and ‘learn’ from each other in one. What makes your community unique/different/surprising?
4) Static. The same message is often shown in the community regardless of whether members have already read it 10,000 times. It’s rarely updated with new information and members can’t get rid of it even if they wanted to.
5) Same banners appear to everybody. Far too often, the same banner is shown to every visitor regardless if they’re arriving for the very first time or visiting for the 10,000th time.
There are some exceptions to these challenges. A customer support community, for example, should have a question box right at the top for all visitors to easily ask questions. However, even this should be regularly adjusted and augmented.
Most organizations easily have the budget to do a better job with the design of their community banners and avoid most of the common mistakes. These tend to fall within 3 categories.
1) Not using brand colours. Sometimes you want the community to have a unique brand, but generally you want to keep the colors relatively on brand. Try to avoid using a full palette of primary colors here.
2) Stock images of people. Stock images of people don’t tend to work well in brand banners. Use either a generic image (like Fico) or avoid using images entirely. You don’t need an image for a banner to work well.
3) Contrast. Make sure the text contrasts well with the background. If it doesn’t, either change the color of the text/background or add a layer behind with a degree of opacity behind it. You can use any text if you had a layer behind it. We do this on FeverBee experts too.
Getting The Size Right
This should be easy. A banner should be as short as possible. It should take up 30% of the page at best, 50% at the very worst.
Any more than that, and you might want to consider removing copy. As we can see in the examples below, you can often move a few features around to reduce the size of the copy.
The Spotify Community
The banner takes up a huge amount of space which could be easily tweaked for a better experience.
(notice how by pushing the metrics to a side box they have freed up a lot of space for the activity)
You might need more height than Alteryx, but you should be able to reduce the copy or contents of a banner until it fits to less than 50% of the page.
The Message And The Call To Action
This is by far the critical part of it. It’s inseparable from the message itself. What you don’t want is a bland “welcome to the community” banner which offers nothing.
The right messaging and call to action may include:
- Headline personifying what makes the community special (this is usually critical)
- Clear next steps to take.
- A search box (vital for customer support communities).
- Trending topics
- Most popular topics/questions
- Registration/login information.
- Videos/multimedia messaging.
- Community Statistics (although these can usually be avoided)
The messaging and calls to action you use should depend largely upon who the audience is trying to reach and what you want them to do.
This will depend upon the type of community you’re trying to build as well. Trending topics works well for fields where there are new, major, issues. Registration/login works well for visitors. Videos/multimedia messaging works well when there are major announcements that you can frequently update. Search boxes work well for customer support communities etc…
Static/Never Changing Banners
With few exceptions, a banner which is static and rarely changes is never a good sign. There are two good solutions to this.
1) Regularly update the banner with new, useful, information. This means with new content/activity that members need to see. This works well when you make frequent new announcements and there are new things to see.
2) Let members hide the banner. One common problem is members can’t get rid of the banner even if they wanted to. This doesn’t make much sense. If members have read/seen the message, you may want to let them hide it.
Both are reasonable options. You can also update the banner based upon a member’s previous contributions to the community.
Once you’ve read it, you can click ‘got it’ and the banner is hidden. You can expand it later if you need to.
You can use a banner to make regular, big, announcements. But try not to make them quit this big.
Showing the same banner to everybody
It make no sense to show the same banner to your first-time visitors, your newly registered members and your top community members.
The most common solution to this is to create two separate banners for members who are logged in from those who aren’t. The former focuses on activity, the latter focuses on signing up.
An even better solution is to use conditional logic to guide members to the next action they should take based upon their previous contribution to the community.
We’ve been exploring this below in our community.
If you’re running a community, you probably should have a banner. The banner though has to drive real value.
It has to be well designed, not take up too much space, have a clear call(s) to action, allow members to hide it, and be updated frequently.
Don’t let the banner be an afterthought, it takes up the community’s most valuable real-estate.
Autodesk has one of the oldest and most successful brand communities in the world.
If Apple and Airbnb showed how the largest brands run their communities (and StackOverflow showed what’s possible with a fully customized platform), Autodesk represents what’s possible with the tools most organizations have available today.
The community began as user groups on bulletin boards in the mid-90s. For a time Autodesk, sent their website visitors to separate user groups. In the early 00s, Autodesk reclaimed the communities on their own site and have steadily grown membership and activities ever since.
Structure of Autodesk’s Communities
Pay careful attention to how Autodesk has structured its community efforts.
Instead of trying to have a single community perform multiple functions, Autodesk has multiple communities performing (largely) single functions.
The communities are divided into the following categories (with some overlaps):
- Product communities. These are largely communities for peers to share ideas and help each other get better at the topic.
- Support communities. These are communities for people to solve their product-related frustrations.
- Ideation communities. These are for customer feedback, testing new products, and suggesting ideas.
- Peer group communities. Autodesk has communities for its University program, a developer network, and the MVP/experts program.
- Social media platforms. This includes a large collection of blogs and social media accounts.
- Multiple languages. Autodesk has distinct communities which cover Chinese, French, Turkish, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian.
The structure of a community program changes everything. Autodesk structures communities by their unique purpose, audience segments, and functions. The benefit of this is each community can use software and have a design fully suited to achieving its goals. This ensures Autodesk gets the maximum value from its community.
The downside is Autodesk might end up having multiple communities competing for the same group of members. This can be overwhelming to members and strangle activity for some groups.
- Key Lesson 1 : Mature communities shouldn’t focus on a single stream of value, they should support multiple areas of the business.
- Key Lesson 2 : As you grow, you want to fragment the community by unique purpose of the community (not by the unique groups you’re working with).
The multiple community structure allows Autodesk to create multiple homepages. Each homepage can be designed for its specific communities. In practice, these homepages fall within three categories.
1) Product Support Homepage
Most Autodesk communities are support communities. These are all mostly in the same format as shown below:
Key Lessons From The Homepage(s)
- The homepage is designed to encourage members to browse to a specific forum before asking a question. The search box and ‘new post’ option are moved to the side and not given the priority they usually are in support communities. This is generally against best practice. Most people in a support community don’t want to browse a forum, they want to either search for an answer or ask a question.
- Showing popular solutions and common issues is terrific for dealing with questions which are asked most frequently and questions which are new/trending right now (as happens often after a new product update). Many members won’t know the precise words to use in their question, but seeing the obvious answers helps. It might be good to extend this a little further.
- Getting started, tutorials, and troubleshooting are all displayed in about the right place. These help members solve common problems and use the community better.
- At the bottom is the Autodesk Expert Elite members. This is a simple and effective way to highlight best members. Some communities put this group at the top, this is a mistake, being featured on a website has as minimal impact upon participation.
- The right-hand side shows the basic product download and installation tips. This is a handy feature. It helps more members solve their problem before asking a question.
2) The Ideas/Inspiration Homepage
The product-communities (in practice, education communities) are designed to showcase the best work of members using its products. These are often visual and encourage members to upload their work.
- The product communities are designed differently to allow members to showcase what they have been doing and share proactive advice. These are generally set up to allow members to share what they have created rather than asking questions about how to create things. The goal in most non-support communities is to help the best material rise to the top.
- The gallery at the top is ideal if the product/service itself is visual. It’s also kept minimal so visitors can see other activity as well.
- Showing the most popular forums makes sense in these communities. You want members to browse and be inspired. They’re not looking for anything specific. They want to be there. You could equally show the latest or most popular discussions here.
- The latest blog posts widget is also useful here, but it has to be kept up to date with fresh content. Autodesk achieves this well.
- The latest events probably belongs as a side widget and not on the homepage itself, people can see it but only a small percentage of the audience will ever be able to attend.
- The other useful feature would be a reddit-style list of the most popular discussions or articles shared within the community. This happens on the Instructables site. This helps the best content rise to the top and makes it much easier for members to browse articles.
3) International Communities
It’s never easy figuring out the best way to structure international communities. Do you use conditional logic based upon someone’s IP address to guide them to a specific location? Let members highlight what language they speak and then adjust it? Or give people a list to choose from.
Autodesk (below) takes the simplest route and shows all the international communities in a single list. This is usually a good idea and removes a lot of fiddly technical issues.
REGISTRATION AND ONBOARDING
Autodesk has a reputation for having an award-winning registration and onboarding system. In 2013 the entire platform was revamped. This led to a revised onboarding system.
1) The Registration Process
The on-site registration process is clean and easy enough. You begin with a simple profile completion form with some conditional logic and a password prompt.
Once completed, you’re invited to fill in some member registration data.
- This is a considerable amount of information. However, it’s not required. You can skip the entire stage. You’re asked to use your real name, but it’s not required. The interface is clean, photo upload works well, and it’s clear what will be shown in your public profile.
- Once this is complete, you’re dropped into your profile page. This section is a little disappointing. There isn’t really much guidance from this point for what to do next. Dropping members into a new member area would be better.
- Verifying the email is kept clean and simple, with a direct URL to use if the button fails.
- Once complete, you’re again taken to a separate page and dropped into the profile page. This misses the same opportunity to drop people into something specific.
- You also receive a message (with a username chosen for you((?)) which highlights your new profile rank. This feels a little confusing and unnecessary at this stage for a new member. Far better to use this to get members to do something specific.
2) The Welcome Email
The Autodesk Welcome email (download the PDF) is the beginning of a 3-part series to engage people within the community. The first email invites members to:
- Introduce yourself.
- Check out the community etiquette
- Search for existing solutions
- Create and participate in discussions.
The translations into multiple languages is a neat touch.
The email is clean. It might be worth pushing the community etiquette lower and moving up creating and participating in existing discussions to engage people immediately within a discussion.
Ensuring it’s easy to ask questions and participate in the community is the critical feature of a community platform. Autodesk’s community ticks most of the right boxes here.
Asking a question
- Autodesk passes the test of ensuring responses to previous questions appear when you begin searching for an answer. It’s also notable accepted solutions appear higher than questions without a solution (Apple!).
- Asking a question is well executed here. The product and board are automatically selected. There is a very quick line of advice to ensure people ask a good question (this could benefit to a link/drop-down). The introduction of a screencast is a terrific touch. Encouraging members to add screenshots and videos is a really great idea. The only possible improvement is automatically suggesting some relevant tags (similar to Apple’s community).
List of Discussions
The forums are very much at the world-class level of best practice. All posts are displayed by the latest update with pinned posts on the most entertaining or most important ideas. This is a great use of pinned topics. You can also browse the accepted solutions and unanswered questions.
The hover text is also a nice touch and saves people clicking through to discussions which aren’t relevant to them.
Replying To A Discussion
A discussion itself is a little clustered with potential options with two reply buttons, 4 sharing icons, profile details, report flags, topic-dropdown options, in-discussion drop-down options, kudos, adding tags, and asking if the discussion was helpful.
You don’t need both a kudos and helpful discussion, it would be easier to use a ‘me too’, a response, or a helpful options and remove everything else (the other options will never be used anyhow). This drifts away from best practice here.
The profile pages are generally used as status symbols within the community. This generally works well. It would be worthwhile moving rank/kudos/solutions/posts into the grey space above.
The Autodesk Gamification system leaves a lot to be desired. It’s opaque, largely meaningless, and misses out on plenty of opportunities to drive high levels of engagement and activity. This is the only public post I could find which explains the system.
This explanation invites more questions than it answers. There are 13 unique levels, but there are no obvious benefits or unique badges for achieving each level. It’s not even clear how to reach each new level. This is a huge missed opportunity for a community as successful as Autodesk. Autodesk also doesn’t appear to be using any unique badge system. The Apple community has a far superior system.
The Autodesk community has an ideation area where members can suggest ideas which might be implemented in the product.
Autodesk communities host ideation areas for many of its products. Members can suggest ideas and watch progress on those ideas over time. The green and red bars work well to highlight the current status of the idea. However, many of the ideas have been under review for years. It wouldn’t be unfair to assume ‘under review’ is where ideas go to die so the member doesn’t need to experience a rejection of the idea. It would be easier to be clear and honest about what’s happening.
The kudos and comments is an interesting feature, but could be greatly improved within the community if more people were using it. At the moment, the limited use in many of these areas is a real problem. It might be worthwhile only opening these areas in the communities where there is clearly a big demand for them.
Overall, Autodesk has a well developed community ecosystem with millions of responses to hundreds of thousands of questions. The platform is largely designed in line with best practices with some clear areas of improvement in gamification, asking questions, and ensuring key areas are kept up to date.
Don’t believe the “our members are too busy to participate” myth.
Time is about priority and priority is about relevancy. If your community is helping your members solve their toughest problems right now, they will always find the time to visit.
The problem is most communities don’t get their signal to noise balance right. They aren’t helping enough members achieve the goals they have right now. They’re not making their community relevant enough to their members.
The Signal Is About Relevance
If you made a list of your priorities today, you wouldn’t name long-term ambitions nor a strong desire to ‘connect’, ‘share’, or ‘join the conversation’.
The biggest priorities for us are the things that have the most important outcome to us (impact) right now (immediacy).
We can see examples of these in the table below:
The key to overcoming the signal to noise problem is to ensure as many of your visitors as possible see community activities related to the top left box.
But this is more difficult than it might first seem and changes at each stage of the community lifecycle. This means you need to ensure you have the right mechanisms for your stage of the community lifecycle.
In this post, we’re going to explain what these mechanisms are and how to use them.
How To Keep The Signal Strong In Increasingly Noisier Communities
Separate signal from noise requires a filter. There are five broad types of filter which you can use across the four stages of the community lifecycle. These are chronological, editor’s picks, member-tagging, popularity, and artificial intelligence.
As you can see above, as you grow you should gradually invest more time and money to build bigger and better filters.
Key point: Don’t stick with the filter you have as your community grows. You also need to develop better ones. Members will usually push back at first, but you need to be sure you keep pushing for the filter you need.
Inception Stage – Chronological Updates
Early-stage communities should be all about signal. Almost 100% of updates should be relevant to what brought most people to the community. If they’re not, your concept is too broad (p.s. this is why many communities don’t take off).
The main filter here is chronological. When everything is relevant, members just need to know what’s new compared with what they have seen already. This is a list of posts by date posted/updated.
Even the largest sites, like Facebook, began with a simple system of showing all updates chronologically.
Your main task here is to keep the filter clean by weeding out the few posts that are outside the community’s focus.
Inception / Establishment Stage – Editor’s Picks
As your community grows to around the 100+ active participants region and you near critical mass, it becomes impossible to keep up with every update posted. This is where you need to make sure members aren’t missing out on the best stuff.
This is where you use editor’s picks.
This means you use sticky threads, blog posts, newsletters, and community digests to highlight the content you think most people in the community should see.
You should be helping members see the most popular/useful items of content in your community regardless of when they were posted.
Even some of the largest platforms, e.g. Slideshare, still use editor’s picks to highlight the best contributions others should read.
There are two key challenges here.
- Ensuring the quality of any ‘selection’ remains high. Some people fall victim to doing daily or weekly picks regardless of quality. Wait until you have enough quality contributions or you dilute the power of a pick.
- Reading enough contributions and identifying the best content. This becomes increasingly time-consuming.
Establishment/Maturity – Popularity Filters
As you reach the maturity phase of the community lifecycle, you will have too much content to process everything yourself. You’re also not the best judge of what’s the best content in the community compared with thousands of members.
This is often the stage where it makes sense to move platforms.
At this level, you want to use popularity filters to ensure the best content can rise to the top. This usually uses one of three metrics.
- Most visited. This is the number of users who have visited within a recent period of time. This usually highlights the most useful or entertaining piece of content.
- Most commented upon. This is great for most engaging topics – often the most controversial.
- Highest rated. This uses the number of upvotes (sometimes weighted by the ranking of the user) to show the content members like the best. This is a really important score.
All three have their place. Highest rated and most visited is best for lurkers, most commented upon is best for regular members.
Ideally you show the member the most popular content within the past week, yet also show the most popular within the past hour (trending topic), week (popular topic), month (top content), and ‘all time’ (best content).
However, be aware that you will probably need to manually remove some topics or set stronger filters. Sometimes old content which most members have seen is indefinitely the highest rated or most popular material every week.
Your goal is to allow members to quickly find the best content without having to browse through hundreds of posts. This only works when you already have a lot of activity.
Most major platforms enable some form of these already without much difficulty.
Your main work here is testing and managing different filters to get the best results.
Maturity Stage – Developing Unique Segments
As you grow past establishment stage, you begin to attract a more diverse group of members whose needs begin to diverge. Some people make the mistake on doubling down what’s worked in the past and focus on what they know best.
This limits the potential popularity of the community.
What’s most popular will increasingly be irrelevant to minority groups within the topic. The better solution here is to start categorizing and tagging members into distinct groups. Then you serve them the content that is most relevant to them.
The first part of this is to figure out a good system of tagging people (tagging works better than categorization here, people might be interested in more than one topic). You have four options for this.
- Create new groups/categories and let people join them. This is the simplest option, but most members won’t join any groups and you might be left with vacant areas of the site.
- Manually tag people by topics they seem interested in. This works better in smaller communities, but is a great way to test potential tags and ideas.
- Create a profile question and add people to the relevant group as a result. This works well for new members, but not so well for existing members.
- Run a SQL query to see who has visited or participated in which topics and then assign them tags as a result. This works very well, but requires some technology support. You can do this once or on a monthly basis. Begin with a few key topics at a time. It’s also possible your top members will participate in almost every discussion.
It’s usually best to focus on each unique segment at a time and ensure there is enough demand for the segment to make it worthwhile. You also need to check you have the resources to cater to them.
Once you have your segments, you can start sending them newsletters, @mentioning them by group to important discussions, or notifying them of new, popular, content in the community. This can be done manually or, ideally, automated. You shouldn’t attempt this stage until you have more resources to make it work.
Maturity/Mitosis – AI/Machine Learning Recommendation Systems
At the most advanced level, you should begin to see AI and recommendation systems. These essentially assign a score to each past member activity and use a weighted score to predict other relevant discussions members might be interested in. This is known as an algorithm.
These algorithms run each content through a relevancy filter of their own based upon popularity, existing metrics, content of the post, before using your past activities to determine if it will show it to you.
They’re not perfect, but they do improve with every click. Some of the best, like Amazon, Facebook, and Quora, perform remarkably well when showing members content they need to see.
At the simpler level, any post you read will also highlight other relevant posts. This is included in many of the most popular community platforms today. At the more advanced level you need to design more complex systems to handle who wants to see which information (and from whom).
Don’t rush to move up to the next filter until you have the level of activity to make it worthwhile, but don’t be too late to move neither.
You need to carefully balance your limited resources with the opportunity to develop increasingly advanced filters as your community grows. If you get this right, you should never have the ‘too busy to participate’ problem again.