…is something you and your team should never have to say.
Our clients don’t see how the community reacts to anything. They already know. They’ve run the idea passed a decent-size group of members, they’ve refined it, they’ve gotten the buy-in from the top members (if they don’t, they don’t launch).
Usually, they’ve persuaded a small group of members (5 to 7) to share it and promote it positively within the community.
Dropping a new concept (platform, project, or anything else) might work well for record artists, but I wouldn’t recommend it for the rest of us. Most people don’t know whether something new is good or bad. They use the first reactions of other members to form their own opinions. Once that opinion has taken hold, it can spread rapidly.
So either don’t surprise members with something new (big changes should always be anticipated) or ensure you have respected community members engaged in the process and lined up to promote it (even better, do both).
It’s tempting to rush the launch of something new, but slow down a little. Get feedback, run the idea past people, and adjust your plans accordingly. Otherwise, the very project you’ve spent countless hours working on can hurt the very community you’re trying to help.
Once the community hits the maturity phase of the community lifecycle, it needs people to help lead sub-groups. Without them, you get trapped with a small group of members driving all the activity.
To nurture leaders you need to resolve the tension between their need for competence, autonomy, and relatedness against your own need to have enough control to ensure they don’t tarnish your community.
The most common mistake is to enable everyone to create groups. This leads to a lot of dead groups littering the community. There are better models out there:
Model 1: ‘Anything Goes’
This is the Eve Online/CCP Games model. Anyone can create a corporation in the game, build out their own communication channels (Discord, Slack etc…), and run their fiefdoms as they please. The game’s creators, CCP Games, let natural selection work its magic.
The upside is leaders get full autonomy and dead groups don’t appear in any single list. The downside is CCP Games has very little control. Most discussions happen outside of the game. Leaders can (and sometimes have) tarnished the brand in a channel the game’s developers can’t control.
Model 2: Enable Anyone To Create Groups On Site
This is the most common model, best encapsulated by Reddit. Reddit provides a popular platform which attracts people to create subreddits (groups). Reddit exercises the fewest possible restrictions on the site. Anyone with a 50+ Reddit score can create a group. These subreddit leaders are largely left to build their subreddits as they please. Multiple subreddits can be created for the same topic.
This provides leaders with a large degree of autonomy but can lead to a lot of dead groups, protests when Reddit tries to enforce reasonable restrictions, and a confusing experience for visitors confused about the wide variety of site naming rules.
This works if you have a very popular platform to begin with, a culture where people do expect to join multiple groups, and people hear about the groups outside of the community (i.e. people don’t browse for the right groups to join).
Model 3: Back The Proven Winners
This is most recently the Facebook model. Anyone can (and does) create a group, but Facebook will invite the leaders of the best groups into private circles, provide training, and offer scholarships to the best of the best.
This supports the people who have proved they can succeed. Leaders have a huge degree of autonomy. But it might miss great leaders in less mainstream topics and doesn’t resolve the problem of dead groups. It does provide Facebook with considerable influence over their leaders.
Most importantly, it concentrates support in the areas where it is likely to have the biggest possible impact.
Model 4: Pick Great Potential Leaders
This is the Wikimedia Foundation model. Anyone can come up with a project and apply to Wikimedia for support. If the project matches Wikimedia’s goals, it gets financial backing to cover expenses (e.g event venues for edit-a-thons).
The upside is this provides WMF with influence and direction over their leaders. Leaders can thrive without them, but WMF grants guide contributions to the areas with the biggest impact. Leaders also retain a great degree of autonomy (they build their own sub-groups off-site). The downside is it can waste resources if leaders fail.
This is the easiest model to follow. Any brand can give support (promotion, technical, financial, expertise) to people who apply for it. But you need a very popular community to make it work.
Model 5: Create a Limited Number of Roles
This is the Nextdoor model. Nextdoor restricts the number of groups which can be created but allows anyone to create one. However, you must prove you can attract people to the site, drive activity, and keep things going or you might be replaced by someone else.
This works because Nextdoor essentially leases leaders land upon which they can build a community. However, because land is both scarce and popular, Nextdoor can enforce fairly rigid rules on the design of the groups, force leaders to prove their worth, and replace those which aren’t doing well.
This approach trades a leader’s autonomy (they have to abide by fairly tight constraints on the platform) with an opportunity to have an impact. The downside is it requires a structure with a finite number of groups and only 1 group can be created per topic. This in turn requires a reasonably popular community to begin with.
Model 6: Find The Best Leaders (filter out the weak)
The process is complicated, but essentially members with good scores need to propose a site idea, define what it will be about, gain committed members for it, initiate and sustain discussions, and gather momentum before it gets added to the community. One site has been in Area51 for 8 years.
This approach flips the traditional model on its head. Instead of trying to attract leaders, StackExchange tries to drive them away until only the best are left standing. The advantage is it results in only well-run communities which add value appearing on the site. The downside is the brutal gauntlet might drive away many who could have been nurtured into great leaders.
Which Model To Pick
The best model depends on your site’s popularity, goals, and the kind of members you have. This table below might help:
|Who can lead?||Level of support||No. of groups||Pros||Cons|
|Anyone||Tech only||Unlimited||Leaders have full control, low cost||No control over leaders who can harm the brand by association|
|Members with a 50+ Reddit score||Tech/social||Unlimited||Supports people who want to maintain a good relationship||Doesn’t focus on those who can have biggest impact
|Support the best
|Anyone||Best groups get promotion and expertise||Unlimited||Supports people who prove they can succeed
|Great leaders might slip through the cracks|
|Pick the winners
|Anyone||Financial||Unlimited||Biggest impact for resources
|Can waste resources if they fail|
|Create limited roles
|Need to apply||Training program/full access||200||Retains power
|Limits potential no. leaders|
|Prove they can lead a group||Promotion on very popular site||One-group per topic||Retails power and keeps only the best leaders||Deters many great leaders
Very high cost
The bigger your audience, the more you can set strict rules around participating.
Enabling everyone to create a group is probably a bad idea. But if forced, you need to decide whether to support the good or filter out the bad. Try experimenting and see what works for you.
Today we’re launching a database where you can explore 1300+ examples of successful brand communities and share your own efforts.
Getting good community examples has always been a challenge. Many people work in isolated silos with no ability to see what others like themselves are working on. For the past 18 months, we’ve been gathering data, cleaning data, and working to find a way to display the best brand communities on the web.
We’ve highlighted what we believe to be the top 10 communities by 4 different sectors and over a dozen of the most popular community platforms. In the coming months and years, we’re going to frequently update our ranking of communities and add to our database.
If you want to see your community featured, please add it to the database (you can also help us by suggesting new categories you would love to help create). You can also claim your own listing and keep it updated.
You can find our examples of brand communities here.
We hope you find it useful.
The community sends remarkable stories and case studies to the PR team. The PR team promotes the stories which drives more people back to the community. This generates more remarkable stories to share with the PR team.
The community sends leads to the sales team. The sales team send prospects/new customers to the community. This creates a bigger community which generates more leads to the sales team.
The community sends innovative ideas to product engineers. Engineers start soliciting the opinions of community members more frequently. This drives better engagement in the community and more innovative ideas to engineers.
The community begins reducing the workload on customer support agents, who begin driving more people to the community, which further reduces the workload of customer support agents.
The top 5 questions each week are sent to the content marketing team. They create content based upon these questions with links back to the community for more discussions. This leads to more questions for the content marketing team to answer.
There are plenty of upward cycles you can start today.
A potential client explained they would have to use a community platform neither of us liked because it was part of a CMS package they had just agreed to use.
Another noted their staff wouldn’t be allowed to participate in a community and they couldn’t let members talk about some of the most controversial product topics.
It’s incredibly tempting to agree to concessions like these to move a project forward. Often they’re presented as immovable facts which are impossible to change. But these are community-killing compromises. They will always come back to haunt you.
Organizations are far more flexible than they often admit. It’s down to you to do the hard work of building the relationships internally, putting together a clear (visual) case, and then standing your ground.
For sure, adapt the community’s goals, its concept, and many of the tactics to suit the organization’s objectives, its audience, and its resources. That’s the nature of collaboration. But never use a terrible platform, agree to topic-restrictions, or rules which are clearly going to hurt the community.
Most established communities have gone through a kill zone.
The kill zone is the time between when the community is so young, cheap, and full of potential it’s not worth killing and when it’s proven itself indispensable. It’s typically when the community grows from a cost of less than $500 per day to more than $1k per day.
Once the community gets serious investment, it needs to show clear impact. The time it takes to show impact is the kill zone.
The more time a community spends in the kill zone, the more likely the business will suffer a downturn, a new CFO will arrive, or priorities shift. This makes the community a logical target to cut costs.
You can’t avoid the kill zone, but you can reduce the time you spend inside it. You reduce the time when you make the results of the community as tangible as possible.
This means sharing case studies from the community, clearly showing the products features improved because of the community, bringing big lists of community-generated sales leads to the next meeting, showing the number of calls deflected etc..
The kill zone isn’t the time to talk about the community’s potential or it’s connection to the organization’s mission. It’s the time to show tangible, indisputable, results.
The irony is your community’s most dangerous time is immediately after you’ve got the resources you’ve wanted for so long.
…when there is an overwhelming demand for one.
Most organizations launch their community far too early. They stagger along for years without ever reaching a critical mass of people. You don’t need a big bang launch, but you do need a decent pop. You need to launch and quickly get to a few hundred people within a few weeks. These people should be passionate about the community concept already.
If you don’t have relationships with the top influencers in your sector, an audience of hundreds (or, ideally, thousands of people), or a solid group of 50+ members committed to participating in the community, keep going until you do.
This is what the CHIP process is for. It’s to build huge demand for the community before it exists. You should be constantly out there scheduling coffee meetings, attending meetup groups, and reaching out to potential attendees to get the community going.
You should design a community that breaks new ground, brings together a different group of people, and solves new problems. People should be incredibly excited by the idea of it before it exists.
Few people will casually drift by and join the community. It’s all on you to make it happen. To find people, talk to them, and gradually build your tribe. The time to launch a community (i.e. with a platform for people to chat to one another) is when your audience practically demands it…when you can’t keep up….when there are just too many great ideas to share.
My wife and I spent the past few weeks at the World Cup in Russia.
Players might take home a trophy, but the real winners are fans. Not all the fans mind, but those who go home feeling a stronger sense of pride, who made new friends, who feel an integral part of the group.
This isn’t just true for football (or, sigh, soccer), but for any kind of in-person community events.
Much of this happens naturally. When you drop a group from home into a foreign environment they naturally feel closer to each other (a good reason to host events in a different environment). When you have the presence of other tribes around, they feel closer still. When they go through joys and hardship together, it bonds the group ever tighter.
But most community events do none of this. They force people to sit through 6+ hours of talks to spend an hour or two talking to each other at lunch or at the afterparty.
Or, worse yet, they force everyone to say their name and an interesting fact about themselves (please don’t ever do this).
If there is one great lesson from the world cup (and there are many) it’s to make feeling a powerful community spirit the priority. People can learn anywhere, but they can meet face to face with other people in their tribe only at your event. That’s what the event is about. Don’t waste this rare and precious opportunity.
Give attendees interesting problems to solve in different groups. Have experts on hand not to give lectures, but guide their contributions. Celebrate the successes, commiserate the failures after each project. It can be related to the topic, but it doesn’t have to be.
Teach members about the history of the community and where it’s going. Ensure first-timers know what the community is about. Help nurture stars.
Make it easy to wear group symbols (or, better yet, let them choose from several depending upon what sub-group they best identify with). T-shirts work best, but they’re not the only option.
Have tangible results. What is the tangible outcome of the event people can share and hold? What can they feel they have had a hand in creating? Put something in the hands of attendees they can walk away with. Create artifacts which re-appear at every event.
Have awards for best contributor, best newcomer, top group, and personality of the year etc…
Experts are just the excuse people use to justify going to an event, they really come to the event to feel a part of the community (or not feel left out).
The goal of an event is to send people home feeling the strongest possible sense of pride in the group.
Once a brand community starts to really grow, the number of high-quality interactions shrinks.
Newcomers with less experience, passion, or commitment sign up in droves. They skew the questions towards newcomer issues. This results in top members leaving, followed by the next bunch and so forth.
This is sometimes known as the evaporative-cooling effect.
Over the long term, most organizations find themselves with large communities filled with members asking average-level questions and getting average-level responses.
You might have a few experts, perhaps those incentivized by some unique access or rewards, but most people have moved on.
This is the natural result of trying to grow as big as possible. It’s also the best argument against it.
To attract the most people, you need to cater to the average member. But to attract and keep the smartest members, you need to cater to the smartest members. Top members in almost every field usually want the same things:
1) A private area. They want a private place where they can interact and engage with others at their level. Today this largely happens in WhatsApp groups no-one else can see or find. Newcomers can join only by the invitation of an existing member.
2) Impress their peers. Top members want to impress other top members. This means raising the standards for content so getting an accepted submission is a badge of honour (many journals do this today).
3) Identify new opportunities. They want access to unique opportunities (especially work opportunities) which others don’t have access to. This can also include invites to events hosted by the brand etc…
This doesn’t have to be a completely binary choice. Big doesn’t have to be bad. However, if you want top experts to stick around, you need to cater to their needs more than the average member.
You need to enforce tougher moderation standards, make having an article or post accepted as a badge of honour, and provide support for them to have private meetings and discussions.
It’s harsh to tell average members their contributions weren’t good enough, but it’s what keeps the signal to noise ratio high enough for top experts to stay.
At its most successful, what is your brand community going to become?
Think bigger than you do today. Think about the ultimate role it’s going to play in the lives of
your members. Think about the number of people it’s going to serve. Think about the different ways it’s going to help your organization.
Don’t be afraid to be incredibly ambitious. Ambition can mean different things
It can mean doubling down on what you have, it can mean expansion, it can mean entirely rethinking what community is to your organization.
A simple way of looking at this is in this adaptation of Ansoff’s matrix below:
There are four possible strategies here based on what audience you want to target and how the community helps the company you work for.
We can list these by order of ambition. They are:
- ENGAGE: Increase engagement from existing members.
- EVOLVE: Get better results from existing members.
- EXPAND: Expand to target new and related audiences.
- TRANSFORM: Develop new communities for new value.
1) ENGAGE: Get members more engaged.
The most common strategy is to increase engagement, it’s also the least effective.
Unless you’ve just launched or made a hideous mistake, members are usually participating as much as they’re going to. You can make plenty of tweaks, but you’re always restricted by the law of diminishing returns.
Pursue this strategy when you’re not likely to get support for anything else. Interview two dozen members, find out what brings them to the community, and then cater overwhelmingly to that desire.
If, for example, members visit to resolve problems, the community must provide every person the best possible solution in the quickest amount of time. At the tactical level that means you need to build powerful programs to encourage top experts, teach members to ask better questions, feature the best answers, and tweak the platform relentlessly to get the best results.
The key challenge is to narrow your focus to the few things members really care about and design every activity to make your community the best place to resolve the problem or achieve their goals.
2) EVOLVE: Get More Value From Members
A far better (and more ambitious) option is to expand the nature of the community so it helps other departments.
A customer support community can become a community which helps companies be more successful (customer success), collects insights (ideation), or encourages members to help promote them (advocacy).
A single community can reduce support costs, improve retention, help build better products and attract new customers.
Almost every brand community strategy should at least be trying to expand the ways it helps a business.
You still have the same group of members, only now you’re asking them to make different types of contributions.
This requires you to offer members the chance to earn rewards, gain unique access to you/your company, or build their reputations. The hard part is working internally to make this possible.
The upside is you usually expand the reach of the community to your entire customer base, not just those who have problems today. You give members a reason to visit every day to see who’s new, what’s new, what can they get? What can they learn etc?
The downside is two-fold, there is less of a trigger to visit the community in the first place and it’s a lot harder for people to do these tasks than simply answer a question, proactively share their expertise rather than ask a question.
3) EXPAND: Reach New Audiences
There are plenty of ways to expand to new audiences.
You can expand into new languages, locations, ages, or related audiences. A community for users of your accounting product can become a community for all types of accountants around the world.
Language and geographic regions are usually easiest areas to expand to. You already have the platform and processes in place. Expanding into areas with high numbers of non-English speakers makes sense.
Tackling different audiences is harder. You have to overcome the reason they haven’t joined already. The failure rate for communities targeted at younger audiences is extremely high.
Expanding to fill the broader sector is the most ambitious. Sephora’s BeautyTalk, Lomography, FitBit, and Nike Runner’s Club are all good examples. They’re less about the product and more about the purpose of the product.
You do this to extend community members beyond your current base and bring in new customers. The downside is this usually requires a unique identity beyond just the ‘brandname’ community. There is a limit to how often you can promote yourself too.
4) TRANSFORM: Get new value from new audiences
The most ambitious strategy is to completely transform your company or your approach to the community. This usually comes in three forms.
1) The community becomes a platform/social network for others to build and maintain their own groups/profiles. (StackExchange, BensFriends, HealthUnlocked, DeviantArt, Care2 and others fall into this category).
2) The community becomes a business and acts as a service for members to achieve their goals. Good examples might be TripAdvisor, Kaggle, RealSelf, Rover etc…these communities usually tend to be acquired or spun off into separate businesses.
3) The community runs itself/runs areas of the company. It’s hard to find good brand examples of this. (Eve Online might be a notable mention). Members collaborate together to produce the collective value of the company and divide the spoils. Ideas are sourced by members, driven by members, and implemented by members. The company acts as a support service for the community to flourish (Airbnb has flirted with this along with several Blockchain-based companies).
Most Growth Requires A Big Change
Don’t limit yourself to just trying to deepen engagement with the members you already have. This limits the growth of your community. There are far bigger wins by looking to expand to new types of communities you’re building (customer success, advocacy) or the audiences you’re targeting.
You can achieve some short-term success by focusing on engagement, but the really big wins, the kind of wins which other people take notice of, is by expanding the community to be more useful to more people.
Support and Ambition
An old rule of thumb is the more support you have, the more ambitious you can afford to be. This is half-true. Often the very act of being able to articulate a big, noble, goal is what brings others around to supporting the community idea.
People are more likely to support a community which serves a far bigger audience and drives more results. Even without the support you need, you can still set a lofty goal and work hard to earn that support. It might take years, but at least you’re working towards something that matters.
Build a Multi-Year Roadmap
If you’re worried, again plot this into a roadmap over three years. This might look like:
- Year 0 – 1: Deepen engagement and build support.
- Year 1 to 3: Evolve to customer success, advocacy, and ideation.
- Year 3 to 5: Expand to Latin America and South-East Asia.
- Year 5+: Become a platform for others.
Now you have a vision you can articulate to both your colleagues and members. Something motivating and something which merits your requests for support and resources.
There is a chronic lack of ambition today about what a community can and should become.
It’s never just a place for members to engage with one another. It’s a place to harness the amazing potential of members to the maximum possible effect. You can’t achieve that with a narrow focus on what you’re doing today.
Be ambitious, more ambitious than you’ve dared to be in the past.
Last week, I listened to two people argue about which platform they should use to build their community.
Should they use Slack or Discord?
Today, most of their audience is on Slack. Tomorrow it might be Discord…at least for a while. Within 18 to 36 months, it will be something else.
Chasing after your audience from one platform to the next is an expensive, wasteful, approach to community building. A far better approach is to invest those same resources in building a strong sense of community.
If your audience feels a strong sense of community with one another, it doesn’t matter what platform they use. That sense of community follows them wherever they go.
But building this strong sense of community requires investments in intangible areas. You can make this tangible by running the sense of community survey first and designing specific actions (see the worksheet) to improve the sense of community.
This might include:
1) Provide funding to leaders. You might copy Wikimedia and provide resources for leaders to step forward and create their own groups or run their own events. You would help train them, give them unique access, fly them in to meet your team, and promote the groups they create. If you’ve built strong relationships with leaders, it doesn’t matter if one of them moves a chunk of your audience from one platform to another.
2) Bring the community to customers. You would bring the community into the natural journey customers go through when using a product. ‘Have a question? Want to get better? Here is our community who can help…’. You would entwine the community(ies) as closely as possible with the product. Updated links to relevant discussion topics embedded within its use would help.
3) Design rituals. After a member has made a certain number of contributions, they would be invited to give their feedback, share their toughest challenge, or how they got into the topic. Something which opens members up to the group. You may consider special features for members on their anniversary of using the product.
4) Develop a unique identity. You would give community members a unique name and a place which documents the history of the community. Who were the top members, how did they get started, what were the major milestones of the group? This would be shared and communicated to all new customers.
5) Have a newspaper. Each week you would publish the community newspaper, edited by members, featuring the best contributions from the community. This might include the best advice, funniest stories, or anything else which could be interesting to the group. This would cover communities across all platforms, including those that aren’t involved with you at all. Let everyone pitch their ideas and stories to the group. This newsletter helps build and establish the social hierarchy within the group.
6) Host and promote events. Three types of events can work well. The first are events you host just for your top members. Spotify’s Rock Star Jam is a good example. This builds close relationships between anyone building any kind of community for your brand. The second are member-hosted meetups. Provide some limited funding (perhaps $100 per meetup for food/drinks) and plenty of local promotion for any member who wants to host meetups with others. The third is big conferences. If you have a big audience, it may be worth bringing them together once a year. These build strong relationships between members.
7) Gather and identify useful feedback through any channel. Scan all social and community channels run by members for any useful feedback you can send on. Answer questions in these communities and let them know how their feedback has been used.
8) Setting clear goals and targets for members. You can set goals for the community to achieve. Better yet, get members to list their skills, knowledge, and experience. Then find ways for them to contribute these things to the community.
This is a handful of ideas rather than an exhaustive list. The point is investing in the channels above will give you a community which outlives the demise of any single platform.
If you’re doing your job well, you should see the sense of community felt among regular customers (remember to skip the newcomers) steadily improve over time. This is the tangible success of your work. People move platforms a lot more frequently than they feel a sense of community.
It’s never a good idea to try and contain members in one place, nor chase after them from one platform to the next. That’s expensive and wasteful. You can gain better results from building a strong sense of community among members regardless of which platform they use.
Hosting and managing a community platform can help you achieve your goals, but nowhere near as much as fostering a powerful sense of community.
The engagement trap is very real, it’s very dangerous, and most of us are caught in it.
But engagement itself isn’t bad. The problem is when:
a) You align your efforts to drive the most engagement.
b) Engagement is all your colleagues understand about building community.
In a perfect world, you would ignore engagement metrics entirely and focus on the outcomes of this engagement (i.e. if engagement drives more loyalty, satisfaction, leads, search traffic etc…you would measure those things instead of engagement).
But often you can’t easily do this.
Sometimes you can’t get the data you need. Other times, no-one seems clear what the goal of the community should be. And, most often, someone senior just wants to have a big active community at the moment for a reason even they struggle to explain.
You can push back a little, but pushing too hard to be measured by outcomes can create more value than it solves.
This happens often in our consultancy work too. The solution is to build your boss/client’s wishes into a longer-term strategic roadmap for your community.
If everyone understands driving engagement is part of a stepping stone to driving clear results, you can avoid the engagement trap.
In practice, this usually means you create a 6 to a 24-month roadmap with goals to hit such as:
- Months 0 to 6: Reach a critical mass of activity
- Months 6 to 12: Drive up engagement.
- Months 12 to 24: Align members behaviors to most valuable actions.
Each of these will also need its own strategic plan.
Now you have engagement as part of a longer-term process to driving results. You know exactly how much engagement you need to move to the next phase. Better yet, everyone can get on board and track progress.
Chasing engagement or chasing value doesn’t have to be two mutually exclusive options.