Month: April 2018
Don’t try to imitate major community programs without their resources.
Ideally, every community effort would have a full-time community manager with a six-figure budget to build and support their audience.
However, most people are juggling community around other tasks with limited financial support.
The temptation is to launch a platform, drive members to it, and start responding to questions. But without a decent amount of time and money, this probably isn’t the most effective approach. It sets high expectations, spreads resources thin, and requires a big, long-term, commitment.
An easier approach is to deliver a powerful community experience at regular intervals.
Instead of having an ongoing community you can’t fully support, focus on powerful community experiences you can deliver.
You can nurture a sense of community in many different ways:
- You can host monthly webinars with product experts where customers can join to ask questions.
- You can invite customers to join you at headquarters a couple of times a year.
- You can host weekly live twitter chats.
- You can solicit contributions of customers each month and publish the best advice and tips in a newsletter digest.
- You can create a podcast and invite contributions from members. You can encourage and promote the meetups of your members.
A hosted platform is just one of many approaches to foster a strong sense of community. It can deliver great results, but it’s both time and resource-intensive. If you have neither, take a different approach.
It’s always better to deliver a powerful community experience for a short amount of time than a mediocre experience for a long period of time. It’s easy to build upon a powerful community experience than a mediocre one.
Last summer, we were hired by Eventbrite to work on their EventTribe community.
EventTribe is a really interesting customer acquisition community. The primary goal is to gather leads of significant value through the community. This meant the concept had to be about the topic (running successful events) and not about the product (the latter would only attract existing customers).
In this post, I want to share the process we went through.
(You can see the results for yourself here: www.eventtribe.com).
EventTribe was an inception-stage community, our goal was to drive it to establishment and, eventually, maturity. This meant increasing the number of quality leads generated from the community while putting the site on the path to sustained growth.
To get started, we undertook three types of research, interviews, surveys, and analysis of community data.
1) Interviews with key stakeholders. The first step was to interview the key stakeholders. This is especially important to establish the value. For example, what qualifies as a lead? Is lead-scoring used? What is the process for passing a lead from the community to the sales team/process? Who are the best types of leads etc? These interviews also identified any areas of uncertainty among staff and the kind of training which would suit them best. This helped us focus our efforts in a few key areas.
2) Interviews with community members. We interviewed a range of community members and highlighted every possible useful point in the transcript. This revealed a range of challenges members faced, how they thought about the community at the moment (‘interesting, but many discussions weren’t relevant’), and opportunities the members might want to pursue. We dropped most of these ideas into the surveys (below) to validate it among the broader community.
3) Survey of the community. Click here to see the exact questions. We wanted to know who the active audience were, what type of events they ran, what topics most interested them, and what they wanted to see next. One of the key questions here is to let members rank which types of content they want to see and how they want to see it. The results broadly showed we had a big audience who run events for 101 to 500 members and want to learn event promotion, project management, and finding good vendors/venues. They also wanted this as quick tips, detailed guides, and interviews/AMA formats. The survey also revealed some other interesting challenges and information we would use later.
4) Analysis of the community data. The community data showed an increase in traffic (especially due to some paid social advertising), but a decrease in the number of members who were participating each month. We identified the exact areas where members were dropping out and the key challenge, relevancy.
Once the research was complete, we could begin making laser-focused interventions to improve the metrics we wanted to move.
Improving The Newcomer To Regular Conversion Ratio
The first challenge was to improve the newcomer to regular conversion ratio. This began by mapping out the current process. We reviewed every community touch point and developed broad recommendations to optimize each point. Then we prioritized them and decided which we had the resources to pursue.
(Aside, it’s often staggering how effective most of these ideas are, yet so few people talk about them).
Once complete, we pursued the process systematically.
Step 1: Increasing the number of visitors to the community
Remember the motivation model below?
Establishment-phase communities need to ramp up their awareness. This has to be done within the very structure of the community.
This began by looking at where members came from today and doubling down on the most successful channels. The data quite conclusively showed the Eventbrite site was the biggest driver of traffic (especially the blog).
We doubled down on this source of traffic at the expense of social. This included:
1) Inserting community-related messages in blog posts. This meant going through many of the old, but frequently visited, content published and adding simple links to the community.
2) Adding pop-up notifications during community webinars with top experts. These are very effective to drive traffic from a popular blog to a community and sourcing good questions.
3) Getting better at mentioning and promoting community activities on the blog in general. Going forward, we would collaborate better with the writers of the blog to mention and feature community activities where relevant.
As a result, traffic from the blog increased steadily and exploded with a monthly increase, so far, of nearly 230% (shown below).
We also undertook a detailed technical audit of the community. All SEO activities in a community are constrained by the platform (in this case Discourse), but the audit highlighted several opportunities. These included:
1) Shortening the title/banner of the community on Discourse. The current title tag and meta-description were too long, so we shortened this.
2) Reducing the size and content of the title of popular topic discussions. Same as the above, we had long category names which hurt our search traffic. So we reduced the size of the category titles.
3) Creating discussions around topics most likely to drive traffic (this included venues/vendors, AV needs etc…). Very specific topics (e.g. top event venues in London) seemed to be very popular for search (albeit less good for discussions).
4) Merging related discussions together. This is still a work in progress but will become increasingly important going forward.
5) Adding better meta-descriptions and copy to the category pages (e.g. the event planning page). Like most communities, EventTribe had category pages which were devoid of almost all SEO-optimized content.
These changes (almost certainly combined with the natural growth in long-tail search terms) increased traffic by around 37% (excluding Christmas period).
We also tried to build good relationships with partners and drive referral traffic. This proved to be a colossal failure. Generally speaking, partners weren’t as invested or interested in the community as we were.
However, overall the results were extremely positive. Traffic to the community has risen by 50% since September.
It’s definitely possible to increase this, but with limited resources we also need to ensure we can convert this traffic into engaged members of the community. This is where the real challenge begins.
Step 2: Increasing the number of visitors who register
Most communities, with some glaring exceptions in specific categories, have conversion (sign-up) rates that hover from 0.1% to 2%. By the time we had begun working on the visitor to registered members ratio, it had dropped to 1.77% (this often happens when you drive more traffic, the registration ratio declines).
Replacing the banner
The biggest problem was the design and layout of the community. At the time, it wasn’t great:
The background image was slightly jarring, the message was bland and contrasted badly with the background, and the sign up button was hidden in the top right corner.
The banner suffered from the same problem as most banners. It was dull, impossible to hide, and showed the same message to every member regardless of how engaged the member had been.
It was wasting the most valuable real-estate in the community.
Fortunately, because the community was on Discourse, we could revamp this to almost anything we want. We used some conditional logic rules to design a banner which had a clear call to action for new members. We also added a clear reason to join the community (i.e. what people get by joining). This came directly from the interviews we had undertaken.
This not only guided people to participate, but also highlighted the exact first steps we needed them to take. The ‘hide banner’ option in the top left was a useful touch for regular members.
Featured discussions at the top
We also worked harder to ensure fresh, engaging, discussions appeared at the top of the community. This meant people would genuinely want to join and participate in the discussion. The community is best for the ‘editors picks’ type of filter.
This was easy enough to do and was great for testing different things to see what people participated in.
These small tweaks doubled the number of visitors who registered to join the community from 1.77% to 3.43%.
These might sound like small figures, but consider this ensures our awareness efforts are now twice as effective. It means thousands of new members every year.
You can beat this if your community is brand new, by using pop-ups, and dangling incentives (e.g. sign up to get this free report), but we didn’t want to go down this path for various reasons.
Step 3: Increasing the number of registrants who participate.
The messaging on the conditional logic banners didn’t just ask members to sign-up and get started, it also guided them to introduce themselves to the community and ask their first question.
As they complete each task, a ‘strikethrough’ would appear (we might replace these with ticks soon) so they could follow the journey.
If they completed all three, they would be moved to the ‘second banner’ where they would get a different set of tasks to complete (more on that in a second).
More than anything else, the banners immediately increased both the percentage of new members who made their first contribution and encouraged many lurkers to make their first contribution too. The percentage of newcomers who made a contribution has doubled to around 32%
While the overall number of new contributors has risen by 220%
I suspect it would be very difficult to increase these conversion metrics any higher. Beyond 30% there tends to be a law of diminishing returns.
Step 4: Increasing the number of registrants who participate.
The next step was to increase the number of members who participated overall (i.e. get members to stick around and participate more).
This required some content programming, direct engagement via @mention groups, more conditional logic tweaks, improving @mentions too.
From the survey we identified the key topics members wanted to learn about and found experts who wanted to talk about them. Some of these proved more successful than others, however, they also spiked the traffic.
We even designed a custom banner for each person where we can quickly tweak the wording/photo for each new expert.
It would be interesting to test having multiple panelists to discuss topics over the course of a week. We tend to run sessions once a month, but these can last longer.
Thus far they have been successful, but there is plenty of scope to improve these. We’re still testing ideas.
Direct engagement via @mention groups
An often cited problem was the relevance of the content. There is a huge difference between people working on a global festival and those hosting a look bookclub meetup. We needed to increase the relevancy of content.
Discourse allows you to drop people into groups and @mention the entire group at once. Most people aren’t using these features at all.
The Eventbrite community allows people to add the events they’re most interested in on their profiles. We created a SQL query using the data explorer plugin on Discourse to list all members (and then all new members) by event type and then use the ‘bulk add to group feature’ to drop them each into unique groups.
We now have almost 30 groups separated by biggest interest. We’ve only just begun testing this, but I suspect it will prove quite effective at @mentioning small groups of people into relevant discussions (you can also use this for all newcomers).
SQL Queries For Other Members
We also created a few other queries to identify members at specific times when a direct interaction with the community manager could prove most valuable. This included:
- New registrations previous 7 days.
- Top 10% of participants (over past 60 days)
- Members who were active 2 months ago but not the past month (i.e. people drifting away).
- First-time contributors in past 7 days (see below)
- Members who have joined but not participated.
These queries aren’t too complicated to create (or find someone to create) (see below) and they help the community manager build quick lists of people to reach out to with a specific message at a specific time.
Adding the badge to a banner
Another innovation we tried (we try new ideas on almost all client projects) was adding a badge to the banner below. This helped members see how they compared with other members and where they ranked overall based upon their user levels.
This needs a few tweaks (we might switch to ‘likes received’ rather than use levels), but the idea seems to be effective in driving more contributions as we will soon see:
Ongoing Conditional Logic in Banners
We also experimented with adding more conditional logic to the banners (so every option wouldn’t be struck out, as shown in the option above). The final list of conditional logic will include:
(note these all link to discussions/activities).
- Banner 1: Getting Started
– Sign up and get started.
– Introduce yourself to the group.
– Share a challenge and let’s solve it together!
- Banner 2: Building the habit
– Share your best event promotion tip.
– Tell us what resources would help you run your events?
– What’s the best event venue you’ve used?
- Banner 3: Becoming a top member
– Help answer five questions (and get your badge!)
– Suggest a potential AMA speaker/interviewee for us.
– Become a community volunteer.
This is in addition to the temporary webinar banner we add to the community. All these banners are implemented with some custom CSS in the Discourse themes.
The results have proven fairly positive. The number of questions asked by members has increased by around 35% (with some variation over Christmas/Easter).
The number of posts from active community members also rose by 35% from an average of 1.7 to around 2.3 (these will be skewed by the extremes, the median is probably a little lower – note this excludes posts by the community managers):
The Ultimate Metric – Active Participants
Perhaps the ultimate metric of any community’s success has been the ongoing increase in posting members as seen below. Thus far it’s risen by almost 160%.
There are still a lot more things we can do here. It’s still a fledgling community with a relatively small target audience (event professionals in the UK). We haven’t yet done enough with gamification, a top contributor program, community volunteers, and lead qualification, but it shows how much you can achieve without any of these things.
1) You can achieve major increases without major platform changes. As we’ve tried to show here, you can achieve sustainably great results simply by making a few small tweaks in the right places without investing a fortune in a new technology.
2) Invest a lot of time to understand members. The interviews, survey data, analysis of community data take a lot of time to undertake, but they reveal almost everything you need to optimize engagement. Set aside 4 to 6 weeks just for this phase.
3) Law of diminishing returns. It’s not about trying to optimize everything to the max, it’s about investing your limited resources to achieve the best results. Beyond a certain level, it’s not worth the time to spend more time trying to optimize things. Focus on things which have the biggest, long-term, impact upon the majority of community members.
4) Beware of external events skewing your stats. Try to use a three-month average as disruptions such as Christmas, Easter, and February’s shorter month can play havoc with the stats.
5) Some things aren’t worth quantifying. These are plenty of things above we’re fairly sure are working, but we aren’t sure how best to quantify them. Some things take a longer period of time to have an impact. We also added the terrific community team to our training courses and tried to be better in how/what discussions we responded to within the community.
6) Learn quickly from your hits and misses. Not every discussion or activity is a hit and many are outright misses. Over time we test new ideas and get a sense of what it / isn’t working. Don’t keep pursuing a tactic which clearly isn’t working.
Over the years, we’ve become increasingly confident at following a process to increase participation and outputs in almost any community. The process begins with getting a full picture of the community data and then making laser-focused interventions over a period of time.
There is some technical work involved, but nowhere near as much as you might imagine. The majority of the work is understanding members in an unbiased and empathetic way. This is harder than you might imagine.
None of the above took a prohibitively long amount of time, cost a huge amount of money, or was technically impossible to implement. I really hope you can borrow a lot of these ideas in your own community.
p.s. if you’re running any sort of events, I strongly recommend you join EventTribe.
It’s hard to work in an industry without a clear roadmap for what you should be doing.
It’s quite likely you’re unsure how to benchmark how well you’re doing today or figure out what you should be working on next.
Even many of the community managers behind the web’s largest and most successful communities aren’t sure what they should be working on next. For example:
Should you move to a new platform?
Should you build subgroups for connecting members?
Should you find ways to integrate the community with the product?
In this post, we’re going to try an answer most of these problems by sharing an updated community template with reference points to guide your actions.
This post will hopefully help you figure out where you are now, what you need to do next, and avoid most of the common mistakes.
Benchmarks For Your Online Community
It’s common to find community managers toiling away developing a premium platform or a complex MVP program without having enough members to use it or plenty of questions to answer.
This ends up being a distraction. You should only be working on the activities which take you to the next stage of the community lifecycle.
It’s really easy to plot a path forward when you know where you are now.
This means benchmarking your community against others and general principles of growth and development. To accomplish this, you can use the updated community lifecycle below:
In each category of the lifecycle (on the left), you can identify approximately where you are now and what to work on next.
It’s not an exact science (and you’re probably going to be further along the lifecycle in some areas than others) but it’s a broad guide to help you develop your next steps.
For example, a client of ours is at the stage below:
Now this gives us a broad idea of what to work on next. You generally don’t want to be too far ahead or behind your current average in any single category.
We want to focus on the highest priority areas first to move everything into the maturity stage. Then we might work on advancing further. This would mean (by approximate order of priority):
- Add a simple gamification and reward system for great contributions.
- Develop an MVP program for top community members.
- Create content to satisfy likely search queries for the topic.
- Better categorize the best community content to be easy to browse.
- Aligning the community website copy to solve existing problems/seize new opportunities.
- Build a system for members to vote/rate the best content.
- Ensuring the community is better featured on the main company site.
- Driving specific promotional activities.
- Securing additional funding for the community team.
- Develop specific metrics to measure health and success.
- Building a data-driven framework for making engagement decisions.
- Improve the community newcomer spaces.
You wouldn’t try to tackle all of these at once, there could be 6 to 12 months of work here. But you would want to build a roadmap to tackle the first 3 to 6 tasks over the next few months.
You need to balance everything out and make consistent, steady, progress.
Avoiding The Biggest Mistakes When Developing A Community
1) Understanding the influence of the curve.
The curve is the absolute number of new members who join the community.
Under normal conditions, you start slow, gradually speed up, hit a peak, and then reach a maintenance level where you have a consistent number of new members which reflects the topic itself.
Be very aware here the total size of the audience and broader interest in the topic will have a bigger impact upon the community’s growth and development than any activity you undertake.
This is usually beyond your control. Your rate of new members will look more like a hockey stick if the popularity of the topic is exploding. Likewise, if you’re a private community, the rate of new members will probably flatline much earlier without a peak.
2) Critical Metrics
The number of active members, newcomers, and traffic above is a simple mean from studies of a few hundred communities. The standard deviation is extremely high however, so treat these as a rough guide rather than fixed rules.
If you’re looking to benchmark and track success, this is a simple way of doing it. Some organizations with million of customers should easily surpass this.
As you grow, you should have a rising number of active contributors, single posters, and visitors. Visitors tends to be 100x of the active members. If you run a private/closed community, these metrics will be completely different.
Avoid setting metrics over which you have no control. Notice how slowly growth happens in the early stages of the community and plan for it.
With a few exceptions for customer support communities, you should begin with a simple platform that is already a habit for your target audience and try to drive activity there. This will usually mean a mailing list, slack, or (more likely today) Facebook groups.
As you grow, you might move to a hosted, licensed, community platform. This is largely to take advantage of lurkers who will want to find the useful information from your community and a handful of other unique features.
Some of the largest organizations also tend to develop their own bespoke platform to satisfy unique needs, but this comes after several years of work. Try to avoid using a premium platform or bespoke platform until you have a huge base of members eager to use it.
4) Strategy/Business Integration
You begin with a simple pilot program to validate the research you undertook in the concept stage. If that works, then you develop a complete strategic plan and start building more support for the community. Over time you should align the community to multiple benefits within the organization.
Eventually you become more specific about the ROI metrics, proving clear value, and becoming a community-first organization. This means seeking community support for initiatives and ideas before announcing them elsewhere.
For example, imagine you want to get a strategy approved by multiple stakeholders. You need to spend more time building relationships, understanding their needs, and adapting the strategy to ensure they feel they’ve had some control over the process.
Remember that building support will take a lot of time. Don’t try to force the community upon people. Instead figure out what your colleagues need and align the community to help. This is the simple secret to getting the support you want.
5) Growth Channels
The common mistake is to do a mass promotion of the community to the entire mailing list before validating the concept.
You don’t want the majority of your potential audience to see the community until it’s a fantastic hub of activity. This means initially you work from direct invites and biggest fans then expand gradually.
If you don’t have an existing audience, you can usually aim to attract members via paid social ads at around $1 per visit and up to $10 to $15 per conversion into a registered member.
Once the community has taken off, you want to ensure better placement for referral traffic, develop content and activities for search traffic, and try to drive word of mouth from existing members. Just don’t promote the community too widely, too soon.
6) Why New Members Join And Initially Participate
This changes over time. With the exception of customer support communities, people usually join to be part of something unique, different, and exclusive. They have a strong connection to the founder(s) and comprise the most hardcore fans or customers.
Over time this shifts as the community jumps from the most topic enthusiasts to those who have problems they want solved or want to be better within the field. This group requires more instant gratification to their problems.
The most common mistake here is to use copy in your touchpoints which doesn’t match what members need. For example, promoting the size or success of a community to members still seeking something unique, special, and exclusive. The second biggest mistake is never changing or adapting the copy as the community develops.
Eventually, most of the newcomers to the community will inevitably be newcomers to the field as well. This means you need to adjust the copy and content people see when they first visit your community to match.
The process for turning newcomers into active participants also shifts over time.
You might begin by @mentioning every member to the community as a personal welcome. But this doesn’t scale well (and it’s too effective). You gradually develop automated systems for converting members with welcome emails, an automation series, and volunteers.
You might also figure out a system to give newcomers unique roles and responsibilities within the community.
Avoid trying to develop advanced systems too early. In the early stages you can manually welcome every member. But beyond a certain scale this feels impersonal (e.g. mass welcomes) or simply doesn’t work. Make sure you slowly adapt your systems to do this automatically.
8) Visitors (lurkers)
Most people don’t do anywhere near enough to support the lurkers to their community. Most of the time, lurkers are restricted to browsing the latest posts or using the search box to find the information they want.
You need to build systems to highlight the best content for your members. This begins with editor’s picks and eventually goes one level further to create content that members can search for. You need to make sure this content is properly tagged and categorized so other members can quickly find it.
At the more mature level, you need to have accepted solutions, a knowledge-base, and a system for regularly updated old content to keep it fresh. Rating systems are also useful here.
9) Top Contributors
Don’t start jumping into your perfectly designed MVP system until you have a highly active, mature, community. Start by getting to know your top members and building good relationships with them.
Over time, you want to have them interact with each other and solicit their ideas and feedback on community content and activities.
Once you have a good group of top members, you might want to build an incentive program with gamification and unique privileges.
This is probably the most variable part of the process. But, generally, you can expect the inception stage to take up to 3 months.
If it takes longer, you probably need to rethink the concept. The establishment stage will usually last 3 to 9 months (in total) – this largely depends on developing diversified sources of growth.
The maturity stages and beyond may take a few years.
Steady, Monthly, Improvement
There is rarely a silver bullet that will change anything. The successful communities on the web today were the result of steady, monthly improvement, with community managers tackling the next thing on the list.
When you begin working tomorrow, or move to a new job, benchmark where the community is now using this resource and design your plan of action to steadily improve the community. It isn’t easy work, but it’s exactly what you’ve been hired to do.