Response Rate vs. Organic Response Rate

You can increase the response rate easily enough, just spend more time answering questions.

The problem is answering questions in a community instead of via customer support is nowhere near as valuable as encouraging members to answer each other’s questions.

This is better known as the organic response rate. It’s the % of questions answered by fellow members.

The only way to boost this metric (without sneakily removing posts) is by making members smarter and more motivated to help each other.

This is why a superuser program is typically the best approach to increasing the organic response rate. You’re supporting and training the very members who are eager to listen and have already indicated a willingness to help.

The more posts you receive, the more superusers you need. If the organic response rate is declining, you typically need more superusers or to do a better job supporting and motivating the superusers you do have.

This makes the organic response rate a far better measure of your work than most other metrics.

Finding The Ultimate Cause

A lot of our work diagnosing communities is finding the ultimate cause of problems.

You can’t really improve a community until you know the ultimate cause behind a problem.

To find the ultimate cause, you need to dive deeper into your data.

Let’s imagine a typical problem, your posts are declining.

To diagnose this you have to go through a series of specific, binary, questions.

Question 1: Why Are Posts Declining?

For example, imagine the number of posts in your community has dropped by 25% in the past 3 months.

There are two possible causes behind this you can investigate.

  1. Members are posting less when they visit (measure # posts/# visits has dropped).
  2. Fewer members are visiting the community (# visits has declined).

By looking at the number of visiting members and posts per visit, you can soon identify the answer.

Let’s assume it’s the second answer. This means it doesn’t really matter what you do within the community as fewer people will see it anyway. This guides you into your next question.

Question 2: Why are fewer members visiting the community?

For example, let’s assume fewer members are visiting. This too leads you into two unique options.

  1. Members are visiting less frequently (visits/active members).
  2. The community isn’t attracting as many newcomers as it used to (visits from newcomers).

By looking at first-time visitors to the community and visits per month you will soon get to the answer.

Let’s assume it’s the latter (few newcomers). This means you’ve still got the same level of visits from regular members, but fewer newcomers are arriving to replace the churn.

Any activity you take to resolve this problem should be focused on newcomers.

Question 3: Why is the Community attracting fewer newcomers?

Again, you can see this as a binary option based upon whether fewer newcomers are reaching the site in the first place or whether fewer are completing the registration process.

This would tell you whether it’s an acquisition problem or a registration problem.

  1. Fewer members are arriving via search (search traffic).
  2. Fewer members are completing the registration process (registrations per visit).

If we assume the answer is the former, we now know too fix the problem we need to focus on search traffic.

Question 4: Why is search traffic declining?

Search traffic is fiddly but you’re working within two obvious reasons why search traffic has dropped. Either you’re not ranking as highly or fewer people are clicking on the terms you do rank highly for.

  1. Community ranks lower in search terms.
  2. Fewer people are clicking the relevant search terms.

Notice at this stage you can’t start to think of really specific resolutions to these problems. If we assume it’s the latter again.

We now know the answer lies in something which has changed about the people rather than about our website or Google algorithms.

We need to figure out what.

Question 5: Why are fewer people clicking on our search results?

Now we can get to the final question. Has the terminology our audience used changed (relatively rare) or has the popularity and interest in the sector/topic begun to decline?

The community is optimised for the wrong search terms.

The popularity/interest of the sector is in overall decline.

We might research metrics that show interest in the sector to identify if this is the solution and accept or eliminate based upon the results.

If we again, finally, assume it’s the latter we can make a really specific problem diagnosis.

Problem Diagnosis

Our 25% decline in post quantity over the past 3 months has been the result of a declining interest in the topic which in turn caused a decline of search traffic to our website, fewer registrations, and fewer newcomers to replace the natural churn of members.

Possible Solution

Once we have a clear diagnosis, it’s obvious that the typical approaches we might’ve tried (more on-site engagement activities) would only have resulted in a short-term boost at best. The real solution, as you can see in the decision tree below, must be to expand the community to cover a broader array of topics which are of interest to the same audience.

If you want to see the full decision tree, click here:

We can interview and research our members to identify additional needs and expand the community to accommodate those needs.

Trust me, never try to improve a metric without being crystal clear about what has caused it to go up or down.

The Law of Diminishing Returns in Many Community Strategies

Too many community roadmaps have goals which look like….

You have a goal (i.e. resolve xx% of customer support questions via the community) and progressively try to increase that number.

But this also becomes progressively more difficult (and expensive)!.

Once you resolved the easiest questions, solicit the simplest ideas, or attract the members most likely to be attracted, the costs (time and money) begin to rise rapidly.

For example, a typical customer support community can answer 60% – 70% of support questions relatively easily. These are the most common questions, the ones many other customers have the answer to, and the ones which staff have been trained to answer.

But the remaining 30% become progressively more tricky.

These are the harder questions which require more information and advanced technical expertise, they are the questions in multiple languages, and questions which might require a bigger team to provide more rapid answers before they reach typical customer support channels.

It might look like this:

Which is why you will usually gain the most value from a community not from pursuing a single goal to the extreme level, but instead getting it to a higher level and then moving on to another goal.

Once you’ve reached a 75% response/resolution rate, that might be a good time to build systems to solicit and implement great ideas, reduce newcomer churn through community mentoring programs, or start collecting testimonials and reviews from members.

The biggest bang for your buck isn’t to single-mindedly pursue a single goal, but to expand continually to new goals.

Moving From Needs To Identity

…so do the discussions, activities, challenges, and anything else you create.

If you want to be a community which members visit every day, you need to expand the nature of activities from problems to desires and identity.

Below is an example:

While you might begin helping a member pick the right drill bit (yes, it’s a metaphor), over time you want to satisfy the need that drove them to tackle that problem.

Finally, you might want to connect them to others who share the same identity.

Two risks here. The first is moving too fast to build a sense of community before members have internalised their shared problems/desires. The second is moving entirely to identity needs and ignoring the problems members still need to solve.

Fewer Tactics, More Strategy

You’re probably doing far too many tactics.

With clients we often ask the community manager to keep a list of what they’re working on for a week. Typically the community manager is working on 15 to 20 tactics each week.

That’s nuts.

It’s impossible to be successful if you’re dividing your time into smaller chunks while hoping for bigger results. Spending 2 hours a week on a tactic is the equivalent of trying to learn a language by speaking it for an hour or two a week. It gets you nowhere.

This happens when you don’t have a clear strategy. Without a strategy you wind up trying to do ‘all the tactics’.

Our goal is to focus the community team on 3 to 7 tactics they can completely commit to. But this first requires a strategic plan to be in place (see below).

Once the strategic plan is clear, finding the right tactics becomes considerably easier. One reason to invest the time to do the strategy now is precisely because of the time it will save you later. Better yet, it will make you far more successful.

Internal And External Validation

Internal validation is validation by other members of the community.

When members publish a book, achieve a promotion, get married, or achieve any major goal, it’s powerful to see that success validated by other members of the community.

Having a place where members can share their successes is a powerful way to help build a powerful sense of community among members.

External validation is validation of the community by 3rd parties.

When members are featured on the news, or the community is featured in some external source, it’s powerful to share this within the community. It validated everything the community is doing.

15 years ago in my earliest gaming communities, I featured every mention of online gaming or ‘eSports’ within my community. Not only did it generate activity, it always made us feel we were on to something unique and special.

Don’t underestimate the power of external validation.

Don’t Send Outreach Emails Like This

I received this email a while back.

It’s not great, to put it mildly.

First, sending a mass email to your current audience to attract a new audience is clearly dumb. The audience you’re trying to reach won’t see it and the audience which receives it will find it irrelevant.

Second, I doubt ‘young Londoners’ refer to themselves as ‘young Londoners’. Instead they are a collection of dozens, even hundreds, of smaller sub-groups within the city, each with unique identities and unique needs.

You attract them by spending time with each audience and learning exactly what they need and how they communicate with each other (ideally, you would want members of the target group to write the email which gets sent only to other members).

Third, privacy policies, reporting functions, and preview features are far less exciting than whatever the audience can do on YouTube, Facebook, and whatever is on TV right now. You’re not competing with how the community used to be, you’re competing against whatever is the most exciting and interesting things the audience can do this minute.

If you want any audiences, and perhaps especially young audiences, to share ideas about the future of London, I’d suggest making it deeply personal to them. What do they want their futures to look like? What does the city need to provide for them to make that happen? That’s how you get better ideas and feedback.

Only send emails to the specific target audience with the most exciting updates which help them achieve their goals. Anything else is a waste.

Get the Context In The Question, Not The Answer

The majority of questions require more context than provided to answer well (indeed, true experts will always ask for more context before trying to provide an answer).

Let’s take a typical question, “Which drill bit should I use?”

You can’t really answer this question without much context.

What sized hole do you need? What are you trying to build? What is your budget, risk tolerance, and current level of skill with drilling holes?

The more context a member provides, the better answers they will receive.

Problems begin when well-intentioned members try to provide answers without much context.

Since few repondees hedge the answers (i.e. “if you’re trying to do [x], use this, but if you’re trying to do [y], use this…”), the majority of these answers will be only applicable in specific contexts.

This means you need to focus on getting the context in the question rather than hoping for it in the answers.

You can learn from StackOverflow’s system below:

Summarize the problem?
What are you trying to achieve?
What have you tried already?
What tools and technology do you use?
etc..

These are all really useful nudges to ensure members are providing the context they need to get the answers they want.

You might not be able to use the same approach as they do, but you can provide the right nudges at the moment members are writing the question or, failing that, when they join the community.

You’re probably not going to get much context in the answers, so work hard to get the context in the question.

It Doesn’t Have To Be Neat, It Just Has To Work

A recent client wanted dozens of people to run small groups of 50 to 75 people in different territories around the world.

They had identified 50 possible leaders and invited each of them to form a Slack group.

It’s a neat solution, the main channel kept all the leaders connected and members could then find the right sub-channel for them.

Alas, the neatest solution is rarely the best solution. A handful of people gave it a shot but they soon lost interest.

It’s very hard to attract and retain active leaders if you’re trying to exert control over what technology they use, how they manage the community, and how they can engage the audience. Neatness and autonomy don’t play well together.

More importantly, the people you want to run groups (especially local groups) know far better than you what’s likely to work, what technology their audience will respond to, and how to run the groups. You can equip them with knowledge, but you can’t exert control.

We took a different approach. First, we encouraged leaders to use whichever tools they felt would work best. Next, we began asking how we can support them instead of asking them to support us. A handful said they didn’t need any support, a few asked for promotion, and a couple wanted some advice to keep members engaged.

It’s still early days, but there are now 20+ active groups (instead of just 3 before) and the relationship with each leader is far less strained. It’s not a neat solution, but each leader has far more autonomy and receives exactly the support they need.

P.S. Speaking at Khoros Engage in Austin this week. Tickets available here.

How Is It Defined?

What is your community?

  • Is it just your forum?
  • Is it your forum + social media?
  • Is it your forum + social media + in-person events?
  • Is it your forum + social media + in-person events + your help center? etc..
  • Is it all your customers?

How you and your organization define community changes the work you do.

Just keeping a forum busy is very different from building a powerful sense of community among all your customers.

It also changes the value of your work to your colleagues.

If you want to expand your worth, you might first need to expand the definition of community you and your colleagues share.

Going Narrower

If a community isn’t reaching critical mass, you might be tempted to expand its scope, drive more people into it, and hope it takes off.

Alas, it never works.

If you can’t engage the members you have, you’re unlikely to engage the members you don’t have.

A better approach is to go narrower. Reduce the scope of the community. Focus on a more niche target audience or topic. Better understand the unique needs of a smaller, more connected, group of members better. Figure out exactly what they need, desire, and what identity they share.

Then start building out a community from there.

If it’s not working, it doesn’t make sense to go broader. Try going narrower instead.

Earn Their Attention First

The most common projects we turn down are those from people who want to create an online community but don’t yet have an existing audience.

It’s very hard to build a community if you haven’t yet earned the attention of an existing audience.

You don’t need a huge audience, but you do need a group of a few hundred people who will happily listen to what you have to say.

If you don’t have an existing audience, the alternatives are to buy an audience’s attention with social ads (expect to spend around $10 per each active member) or create a community concept so risky and so daring people will naturally spread the word.

Generally speaking, it’s best to earn the audience’s attention first. Follow the CHIP process. Create content, host events, interview people, and participate in existing groups.

You will always find it’s easier to start a new community if you’ve participated and supported related communities in the past.

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