A Detailed Breakdown of Autodesk’s Online Community

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).

 

HOMEPAGE

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.

Key Lessons

  • 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.

 

PARTICIPATION

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.

 

PROFILE PAGES

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.

GAMIFICATION

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.

 

IDEATION

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.

 

Summary

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.

Keeping Engagement High As Your Online Community Grows

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

If you get a good, focused, community concept early on (and you’re clear about the type of community you’re trying to build), your signal to noise ratio should be strong.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. Most commented upon. This is great for most engaging topics – often the most controversial.
  3. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).

 

Summary

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.

p.s. Final chance to sign up for your Strategic Community Management and Psychology of Community courses

6 Strategic Plan Templates For Online Communities

Introduction

If you don’t have a clear and simple strategic plan you’re either relying on guesswork or using whichever tactics drive the most engagement.

Doing this work at the professional level is all about executing a strategic plan. It’s where you know your goals, you know your objectives, you know your strategy, and then you execute the tactics best designed to achieve that strategy.

In this post, I want to outline six broad strategic plans which have been successful for clients we’ve worked with in the past (or, in one case, a course student). Consider these ‘off the shelf’ strategies you can use for your community work.

Don’t use them wholesale, but adapt them to suit your needs.

 

Template 1: Advocacy Communities

Advocacy communities are designed to get customers to plead the case of the brand to non-customers.

Picture these efforts on a continuum. At one extreme you have cult fans who support you because they love you. Supreme and HarleyDavidson probably fall into this group. At the other extreme, you have reward/incentive-driven communities. Most of Influitive’s clients fall into this group.

Between the two, you have word-of-mouth marketing efforts. This is when when people who know you/like you share something you’ve created because it’s remarkable, involves them, or helps the audience look good.

Key Behaviors

The most common behaviors here, in order of value, are typically:

  • Direct selling/referrals to others. If a customer personally invites someone else to become a customer for the brand or make referrals to a sales team to someone who would be a good fit for the product, that’s a big win.
  • Writing customer reviews. This includes writing positive reviews on sites like Amazon, Goodreads, TrustRadius, and any other comparison site.
  • Creating brand-related content. This is when a customer creates positive articles, videos, or podcasts about the product. Gamers do this on Twitch and YouTube all the time.
  • Sharing content on news/content on social. This is where members share discounts, announcements of new releases, or any other brand-content to others.

 

Strategic Plan Template – Video Game Advocacy

The challenge here is to design community objectives (member behaviors) which achieve two goals. First, they must directly help the community achieve its goal and second, they must match what different member segments are likely to do.

Our strategic plan may look like the below:


All of this should be based upon research. By the end you should have a small list of 5 to 7 tactics which you will commit significant resources to executing. If you get this right, each member segment will be making their best possible contributions to the community.

 

Template 2: Engagement-Driven, Advertising-Supported, Communities

There is only one kind of community where maximizing engagement is a reasonable target and these are communities driven by advertising.

Most of the big social networks (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest) fall into this category. As do sites like Reddit, StackOverflow, and Nextdoor (plenty of smaller, hobbyist, sites fall into this category too).

Key Behaviors

The key things you need members to do here typically include:

  • Getting members to organize members in their own groups. A key principle of exponential engagement growth is fostering sub-groups to increase advertising inventory and member time on platform. This means identifying and nurturing people to run parts of the community.
  • Ensuring members join and participate in these groups. You can’t have successful groups unless you can get members to join and participate in these groups.
  • Keep members actively engaged. You need to persuade people to visit and participate frequently to keep the community going.

 

Strategic Plan Template – An Engagement Platform

The challenge for an engagement-driven community is growing at high-speed. This example included the following:

For each group you want to amplify a unique motivation. This motivation will be very different for top contributors compared with, say, newcomers or lurkers/visitors. As the platform grows larger, you will need far more specific segmentation of the audience.

 

Template 3: Lead Identification/Generation Communities

Lead generation (and identification) is one of the most underutilized uses for a community. Members provides useful information which could identify them as potential leads for the sales team.

Bringing a list of 50+ leads to your next meeting is a good way to build internal support. However, be careful not to invade the privacy of your members or spam them with unwanted offers. Any outreach from a brand representative needs to be done with careful consideration towards the mindset of the member.

Key Behaviors

Members can identify themselves as leads in multiple ways. These usually include:

  • Downloading content/attending webinars. Members who submit their details to download product/service related content/attend webinars can be considered as strong community leads.
  • Sharing problems the product can solve. If members share a problem which the company can solve, someone can reach out to them and ask if they would like help.
  • Creating content which attracts more search traffic. If members create content which attracts high search traffic, this could generate leads through natural awareness.
  • Pre-purchase behaviors. Using a lead-scoring system, you might identify potential leads through the discussions and posts members click on.
  • Completing surveys. Occasionally, members might reveal themselves as fitting a lead profile through completion of a survey.

 

Strategic Plan Template – A Large Consultancy Company

Developing a strategic plan for a consultancy company tends to be easier than any other goals. Note, below, the type of platform you use to build this kind of community might be different from a support or advocacy community. Sometimes, you might not need much member to member engagement at all.


Each of the objectives above should help drive increased search traffic and identify leads within the community.

 

Template 4: Innovation and Insights Communities

We’ve covered this recently. There are plenty of ways members can help drive new insights and innovation. These typically come in the forms of:

Key Behaviors

  • Generating product ideas. This covers all solicited ideas in ideation-driven platforms.
  • Voting on product ideas. This is self-explanatory, members vote on the ideas they like best.
  • Providing feedback on the product/service. This includes every complaint, bug, or frustration members express which can be useful feedback.
  • Participating in surveys/interviews. This is useful solicited qualitative and quantitative feedback.
  • Expressing sentiment. If you track what members say they like or dislike you can gather a lot of useful insights.
  • Engaging in trackable behavior. This includes tracking specific behavior and outcomes e.g. what content or discussions people like best.

Ideation/soliciting ideas tends to gain the more attention but is also the least successful. Better feedback usually comes in response to things members can see, touch, and do.

 

Strategic Plan Template – SaaS company

Many SaaS companies are gradually shifting their community from customer support to insights and innovation. This means rethinking what members are going to do within the community. A recent strategic template included:


This approach aims to maximize the number of valuable insights generated by the community. We could equally add surveys/interviews at convenient times as an additional objective here.

From this, you should be able to use our insights report template and capture the main insights for the engineering team.

 

Template 5: Support Objectives

Support communities are the easiest type of community to create.

You launch a platform for people with a lot of questions and divert traffic from your website to this platform. It’s also the easiest community type to connect to direct cost savings. Most organizations with 100k+ customers should consider building a support community.

Key Behaviors

  • Asking questions in the community (instead of support channels). This is obviously a critical behavior for a support community to succeed.
  • Answering questions in the community (with empathy!). This is equally as important. Questions without solutions are worse than no questions at all.
  • Searching for an answer in the community. The majority of members should be able to find the answer without asking a question.
  • Voting and rating answers in the community. You need help from members to vote and rate answers within the community. This helps the best solutions rise to the top.

 

Strategic Plan Template – A Large Consultancy Company

Strategic plans for support communities are usually fairly transferable from one type of community to the next. The key difference is you usually don’t have regulars. You usually have top contributors, a small group of irregulars, then a large group of lurkers and visitors.


There are other ways to achieve these objectives (especially with top contributor programs), but the objectives usually remain relatively the same. Most internal collaboration communities would also fall under this category.

 

Template 6: Knowledge-Sharing Communities

Knowledge management (KM) communities (and Communities of Practice) are unique in they often span many of the different archetypes above.

However, the typical KM community emphasizes documenting and keeping knowledge up to date. This saves people time and helps them do better work.

Key Behaviors

The key behaviors here usually include:

  • Documenting a best practice/lesson learned/templates. This includes actions taken, what worked, where to find useful information, revenue spent, how it was measured etc..This also covers templates for future projects.
  • Keeping and updating previous content. Once content has been shared, it needs to be kept relevant and updated in a systematic way.
  • Tagging and properly storing information. People need to be able to find the information. This means it need to be stored in the right place, with searchable names, and properly tagged.

This is a simplistic overview that becomes more complex as the volume of information increases (e.g. what if you have 5 different versions of templates floating around or 50,000 employees across 8 languages?)

 

Strategic Plan Template – A Management Consultancy

KM communities will have the most flexibility among the strategies you can deploy. Sometimes appeals to honor and pride work well and sometimes appeals to collective rewards work, and sometimes fear of punishment works best.


Above we’ve largely used appeals to the better nature of members rather than resorting to punishments. But you can adapt as needed.

Summary

This isn’t a definitive list of community types. There are plenty of communities based around collective action, crowdsourced fundraising, and plenty other archetypes.

This should, however, cover the most common community goals and the kinds of strategic plans you might develop to support them.

There are multiple different ways to achieve the same community goals through different objectives, strategies, and tactics. The principle is to ensure everything matches up in the most direct and logical way possible. The templates above might help.

p.s. We’ve opened registration for our Strategic Community Management course.

The Best Type of Community Your Company Can Build

A community’s ‘type’ is similar to a movie’s ‘genre’. It should provide you with a set of rules which should focus your community building efforts.

Community work varies greatly by the type of community you’re developing. Building a Q&A community for support is very different from building a community where your members proactively share their best ideas.

In this post, I want to highlight the three common types of community, how to build each type, and the constraints of each type.

If you completely understand what type of community you’re building, you can align everything you do to match.

 

Three Broad Types Of Brand Communities

Many people fall into the mistake of trying to build a general community about the topic. This usually happens when the company avoids making tough choices and tries to cover every possible use case for the community. Don’t do this.

General communities have weak concepts and tend to struggle to sustain much activity.

The most successful branded communities today usually fall within three core community types.

These are:

  1. Q&A (or support) communities.
  2. Idea-sharing (or education) communities.
  3. Peer groups (or exclusive) communities.

Each has positive and negative attributes. We’ll go through each in turn:

 

Type 1: Q&A / Support Communities

Most of the successful brand communities are based around questions and answers (Q&A). The most common of these are customer support communities. Customers bring their problems and get solutions from top staff/other members.

The key aim of a support community is to remove the frustration that brought the member to the community in the first place. It’s not enough just to provide an answer, you need to provide an answer with the speed, clarity, and sentiment that helps members feel less frustrated.

If interacting with the community makes people feel unhappy, you haven’t really solved the problem.

 

Benefits of A Q&A/Support Community

There are three main benefits of a Q&A / Support community:

1) Direct contribution to value. Whereas other types of communities are often several layers removed from value, support communities are fantastic for demonstrating a reduction in support costs, reducing satisfaction of disgruntled customers, and identifying/resolving potential problems early. They are also often used to solicit feedback.

2) Easier to launch. If you have a lot of customers with a lot of questions, you can usually make a support community work quite easily. Most traffic to a community initially comes via the website and email links. As you build up a base of answers, SEO traffic will usually become the prime source of traffic.

3) Member familiarity. Related to both of the above, members are familiar with the idea of asking a question and getting responses from others online. It’s a behavior similar to what we already do and doesn’t require much explanation.

All of the above explains why most successful brand communities are based around customer support and why support communities tend to have the most success.

 

Downsides Of A Q&A/Support Community

However, there are some inbuilt major problems with managing a Q&A/Support community. These usually include:

  • You need a large base of members to succeed. Companies with less than 100k customers usually shouldn’t try to launch a support community. They struggle to attract the critical mass necessary to attract the superuser group and can’t deflect enough tickets to justify the investment.
  • Negative tone of voice. Because most people only visit when they’re frustrated, the tone of voice skews more negative than other types of communities. This frustration can often turn on other members or community staff who can find themselves victims of very personal online attacks.
  • Most members only visit once. Most people only visit when they have a problem. It’s hard to build any real sense of community among people who don’t want to be in the community at all.
  • Static participation levels. The level of activity and participation is often driven by factors beyond your control (e.g. new product launches, changes to search algorithms, placement on the website). This can make it difficult to move the needle in many areas.
  • Costly to run. It’s possible to do support on cheaper forum-based platforms like Vanilla/Discourse, but the standard for a large company is typically a premium platform with the security, functionality, and analytics they provide. You want to be able to add common answers to a knowledge base, create levels for superuser programs etc…

None of these are fatal and most aren’t avoidable, but they’re likely to be an ongoing problem with the job.

 

How To Improve A Support Community

If you’re managing or optimizing a support community, you will probably spend your time working across four dimensions. These are speed, accuracy, sentiment, and integration. Specifically, this means:

1) Decreasing the time to get a solution. You want the majority of people to find the solution without having to ask a question. This means recruiting and nurturing a top contributor program to provide quicker responses. This may take up the bulk of your time. You also need to ensure questions are well categorized, tagged, and have an accepted solution where possible. You need trending or topical questions to appear high up the page.

2) Increase the accuracy and clarity of the response. You want the quality of responses to be extremely strong. This means ensuring responses are easy to read and understand. Using video walkthroughs, screenshots, and bullet points usually helps (and training your team to do the same). You also want to frequently update the top 20% of answers responsible for 80% of traffic (especially after major product updates).

3) Improve the sentiment of the responses. You need to carefully consider how you personally engage and respond to discussions within the community. You need to deeply understand the psychology of your audience (p.s. I’d strongly recommend anyone working on a support community take this program). Your answers need to be personalized, friendly, empathetic, as well as accurate.

4) Using the questions and solutions throughout the organization. You should also be spending a lot of time escalating issues internally, ensuring questions are incorporated into product decisions, and helping your company take notice of the key trends within the community.

If you’re working on a support community, most of your time should be spent in the above areas. You can’t expect your members to be happy, but you should expect to be driving really incredible results for your company.

 

Type 2: Idea/Education Communities

Many of the most popular communities today are based around the idea of members proactively sharing resources, tips, and links. These are not solicited.

This can range from full-fledged articles (Medium), sharing resources (ProjectManagement.com) to simple link sharing (Reddit).

These kinds of communities come with some incredible benefits and equally challenging downsides.

 

Benefits of An Idea/Education Community

There are three main benefits of an idea/education community.

1) Growing the business. These are the best kinds of communities to improve customer satisfaction/retention (by helping people use the products better), attract new business (via search traffic), and drive innovation. The very best of these communities become the hub of their field.

2) Positive tone of voice. These communities usually have a positive tone of voice. It’s communities filled with people sharing what they’re doing and learning from one another. People don’t visit when they have a problem, they visit to get better at what they do.

3) In-built participation habits. These communities have in-built variable-reward mechanisms. Every time you visit, there might be a great new idea you can use. This is a lurker’s paradise and are environments ripe for forming habits.

If I were to add a third, it would be these communities typically explore the cutting edge of any field or topic. This is an exciting/motivating type of community to build.

 

Downsides Of An Idea/Education Community

Very few brands try to build an idea/education community. There are many reasons for this, but the biggest include:

  • Very difficult to get started. By far the biggest problem is getting started. You need one group to attract the other. The success rate of these communities is far lower as a result. You might have better luck turning an existing, general, community into this type of community. But you need a large group of smart people willing to share great links first.
  • About the topic, not the brand. With a few exceptions, these communities are better at serving broad topic areas (e.g. inbound.org) than specific brands (e.g. HubSpot). If you try to build the community about you, you’re going to find it harder to attract a high-quality audience. People want to talk about the broader topic than just a brand. However, there are plenty of exceptions here.
  • Can be overwhelmed with spam. Once you encourage everyone to share their content, they often do. This quickly descends into poor-quality, promotional, content which drives everyone else away. It’s hard to fight this and maintain high-quality content. This leads into the next problem.
  • Customized platform requirements. While there are a handful of idea/education-based communities on forums, the vast majority are not. Forums are better designed to support communities than education communities. Education communities tend to use a custom-built platform designed to solicit these specific recommendations. These range from templates/resource sites, news/link aggregation, pinterest-style boards, etc…

While the benefits of building an idea/education community might be higher, the costs and risks are usually much higher too.

 

Optimizing An Idea/Education Community

Based upon the above, it should be relatively clear how best to optimize a support community. This will include:

1) Recruiting and helping members to share interesting things. This is obviously critical. You need to find ways to identify smart/motivated people and get them to share great stuff. In the beginning this will usually be you and your team finding the best ideas. As you grow, you should be able to gradually bring more people into the fold.

2) Developing and improving your filter for high-quality content. You need great filters to separate the good from the bad. This usually means a combination of editor’s picks, tagging, upvoting, trending items, and (less often) algorithms. You need to work on ensuring members see the best stuff as quickly as possible. Technical competence is important when building this type of community.

3) Promoting the community. These communities benefit most from traditional publicity tactics. This means getting publicity on relevant blogs, influencer outreach efforts, and doing interesting things that attract a lot of attention.

4) Turning interest into results. You also need to turn the community interest in value for the business. This might be through lead generation, ‘sponsored’ posts, etc…

As you grow, you may also need to focus on how you build sub-groups within this community for related topics or subtopics.

Type 3: Peer Groups/Exclusive Communities

The easiest type of community to create is an exclusive community. The people who join are those who meet a high criteria based upon demographics, habits, or psychographics. In these peer groups, members usually share a strong, shared, identity with other members. The connections tend to run deeper than other types of communities.

This occurs every day in your private WhatsApp and messenger groups. You also see it on platforms like Nextdoor and Meetup, as well as companies like socialmedia.org.

 

Benefits of Peer Groups / Exclusive Groups

The key benefits of peer groups/exclusive communities are:

1) ‘Lock-in’ key audiences. Building an exclusive peer group among some of the top people in your field can be a great way to ‘lock in’ a key audience. This works well for companies in the B2B space, those looking to charge for membership, and those building platforms for peer groups to thrive.

2) Easier to launch. If you don’t have a large, existing, audience, the easiest way to start a community is to keep it exclusive and targeted only at some of the top people in the field. This is motivating for those people in the field to join and participate. Many communities begin exclusively before expanding to a broader audience once they have established their reputation.

3) Members connect with each other on a deep, personal, level. These groups whether via working-out-loud or simply providing each other with emotional support can be life-changing for participants. An exclusive community effort tries to bring together a group of people with a very strong shared identity and create a sense of belonging among them. These communities tend to have a lot of off-topic discussions and real-world meetings.

 

The Downsides Of An Exclusive Community

There are also some common disadvantages to creating and managing an exclusive community.

  • Internal disputes. Exclusive communities tend to be hypersensitive to petty disputes between members. Given the small size and close relationships of the groups, these disputes can rip audiences apart.
  • Building credibility with top people in your field. You need to have relationships with high-calibre people to get the community started. If you don’t, you need to invest the time to build and maintain these relationships before you can build the community.
  • Limited growth. The very nature of having a high-barrier to entry ensures the community size is always limited to a degree. Any expansion is a threat to the close ties of the group itself. This means you have to gain the maximum benefit from the members you have.
  • A high barrier to entry. You don’t need to make it impossible, but there should be a very clear calibre of people who are allowed to join the community. These reasons should be very public.

 

Optimizing A Peer Groups/Exclusive Community

These kinds of communities tend to have the most flexibility in your daily work. A small peer group diverges significantly from a larger, exclusive, community. The focus of your work however will usually be along the lines of:

  • Programming content. You need to host events or create content that supports the community. Simply being exclusive isn’t enough unless you offer a clear benefit beyond this exclusivity. This should offer members something which they cannot get access to elsewhere.
  • Attracting and keeping the right members. You will need to invest more time to interact personally with each member and ensure they are happy and engaged within your community. This is often very difficult to do. It might mean breaking the bigger group into subgroups so members can engage and interact with each other.
  • Building a sense of community. You work hard here to build a strong sense of community among the group. This includes plenty of rituals, emotive discussions, and roles for each member of the community.

 

Summary

If you’re not sure what type of community you’re building, you’re probably not building a very strong community.

If you are sure, make sure you focus your time and effort in the areas which are going to have the biggest, possible, impact for your type of community.

Almost every organization we’ve worked with can really improve their community by better understanding what type of community they’re building in the first place.

Good luck!

Reviving A Struggling Online Community

I’d estimate around 90% of community problems we see are concept problems.

This means the very idea for a community you begin with wasn’t strong enough.

Alas, it might not be your fault, but it’s now your responsibility to deal with it.

The problem is a weak community idea can survive for a really long time on a handful of posts a day. It can be propped up by staff members creating dozens of posts per day to give the illusion of activity. It can be given spasms of promotion in the desperate hope that if it reaches just enough members everything will be ok.

But adding more members to a weak community idea won’t work, you need to completely relaunch or revamp the community.

In this post, I’m going to try and guide you through what our consultancy process looks like here using case studies and templates.

(Note: If you run a customer support community, you can skip this post entirely. Many of these principles will be different).

 

The Honest Appraisal

By far the hardest part here is being honest with yourself and the people running the community.

On the (rare) occasions we fail, we fail because we can’t get people to be honest with themselves and their company about the true state of the community.

A failing community is like a bad business. A bad business locks up capital which could be deployed elsewhere. A bad community locks up people who could be better engaged and active elsewhere. It’s also highly damaging for your career.

Your community concept is probably wrong if you match any of the following:

  • After a few months you’re still initiating and responding to most of the discussions.
  • Very few members stick around.
  • You have a dozen posts a day or less.
  • Very few people seem excited by the idea of the community.
  • Word of mouth isn’t spreading and bringing in more people.
  • The level of growth and activity isn’t increasing, yet you haven’t reached critical mass.

There are some exceptions here, but you’re probably not one of them.

Please don’t waste your career, your members’ potential, and your company’s resources propping up a bad community indefinitely. Be honest and do a proper revamp. Take the hard decisions you need to take.

Quick Case Study: Health Meets Wealth

One example might come from the Health meets Wealth community. This is a community based upon Lithium designed for people to talk about health and wealth. Yet with two staff members participating there still isn’t enough activity to justify the high investment.

This could be a promotion problem, but I’d bet it’s a concept problem. There are better communities to talk about health and wealth. No matter how hard you try to push a weak concept, it’s always going to be a struggle.

However, an exclusive community focused entirely on the health routines of wealthy people might succeed. It targets the right demographic and fits in with what wealthy people usually want (privacy and exclusivity).

There are plenty of examples here.

You can spend the next few years’ of your life feeling miserable trying to make a bad idea work or you can spend that time feeling excited about a community that will explode to life. Please choose the latter.

(aside, this is exactly where it makes a lot of sense to get consultancy support).

 

Be Brutal With Cutting Anything Holding You Back

Now you have to decide between a hard and soft change.

A hard change means closing your current community and starting a new one.

A soft change means working with your current platform and members to make things work.

In the past, I’ve advocated for the latter. Recently, I’ve found the former to be far better. You need a fresh start here. You will upset some members, but it’s far better to do a complete relaunch than try to gradually shift things. You tend to keep too many legacy attributes to do what you want. Don’t let the old stuff that caused you to fail repeat the same trick.

This is almost certainly going to mean changing or completely redesigning the community platform too. Be prepared for this. You can archive the old community so the content is still accessible, but don’t allow any further posts to the site.

Communicate this clearly in advance and explain the reasons why. Never blind side members, regardless of how few people are there.

Your colleagues will also try to push you to keep most of what you have and make minor tweaks rather than the profound change you need. This is the sunk costs fallacy. Stay strong and focused on making the big change you need.

Now you have to go through the concept phase of the community lifecycle to find and test the right community idea.

 

Conceptualization/Pre-Launch Phase

Last year, I was contacted by a car brand about revamping their community. They had already mapped out the community and hired creative companies/developers to build out the community. But they hadn’t built any relationships, undertaken any interviews, nor tested their new idea.

They wanted us to explain how to get people to join and participate in the community. Alas, that’s not how it works.

You need to identify what members need and ensure the community is perfectly designed to deliver on those needs. This is what the conceptualization phase does. The conceptualization process is to figure out the concept, build relationships, and having some sort of platform you can leverage to drive early activity.

You need to go through this process too.

If you think you’re going to develop a hit community idea without any feedback from the community, you’re delusional.

This means working at the micro one to one level. There are three core things to achieve at this stage:

  1. Build credibility among your early target audience.
  2. Nurture relationships with prospective members.
  3. Identify and validate what members really want.

 

Step 1) Building Credibility (CHIP process)

The first step is to build some credibility among your audience. This means you achieve positive awareness.

It’s very difficult to persuade people to join your community if they’ve never heard of you. Being from a big brand can help, but it’s not an all access pass to get everyone to love the community idea.

You probably ignore most of the blind outreach messages you receive right? People will ignore your messages too unless they recognise you. You need to be individually recognised here.

You need to use the CHIP process below:

Spend 2 to 6 months participating in other communities, attending events, asking questions, and interacting with people online. Be curious and friendly. Don’t try to get anyone to do anything for you at this stage.

Next, start a platform. This might be an Instagram account, a blog, podcast, whitepaper, or any medium that best suits your interests. You want people coming to you for information. This gives you the added advantage of starting to test and experiment with the idea. Share what you’re learning. Test ideas if you like.

Better yet, interview or feature people for this platform. Now you get the benefit of learning and connecting with smart people. The same people who won’t give you time of day for a coffee will give you hours for an interview. This is how Ryan Hoover built relationships for ProductHunt.

 

Step 2: Nurture Strong Relationships and Identify Key Themes

If you’ve succeeded in the above stage, you should have a few hundred subscribers/followers at this stage. These are now people who will recognise your name and be happy to speak with you.

Directly reach out to this group. Schedule coffees or calls with them. Travel to where they are if you need to. Try to have private, 1 to 1 discussions with at least 50 people (if you don’t enjoy this process, consider a different occupation).

Ben Munoz launched BensFriends by participating in other communities, responding to questions on Q&A sites, and meeting people. It’s very hard work but it is the single most reliable way to get great results.

 

Step 3: Identify and Validate The Community Idea

You should be able to sustain relationships with at least 50 people at this point and have a very good idea of what they have said. I prefer to use a spreadsheet and look for patterns in the data, but you can use whichever method works for you.

Make sure you ask people about their challenges, hopes and ambitions. Find out what they like or don’t like about the scene or their work. Find out where else they interact with each other (you don’t want to copy what already exists).

You should be able to identify a few topics that people really care about.

You’re looking for topics a handful of people really care about and don’t have a great place to talk about it today. One of these topics will become your concept.

Developing Your List of Community Concepts

Let’s use the TransAmerica example above and pretend we have interviewed 50 people in the wealth space. We might discover a few common themes:

  • Never having enough time to do anything.
  • Not being able to maintain a consistent fitness routine.
  • Not feeling part of the elite group or know how to join exclusive events.
  • Not spending enough time with friends.
  • Not spending enough time with family.
  • Uncertainty about the future.
  • Concerns about status.
  • Embarrassed by wealth.
  • Wants to spend less time doing routine tasks.
  • Who to trust when outsourcing projects/ideas.

At this point we can take this list and either;

a) do a survey asking people to rank which of these they might care about (easy to do on SurveyMonkey).
b) start testing some community concept ideas directly.

If you do the survey, use it as a rough guide and discard those at the bottom rather than pick those that the top. People find it difficult to articulate what’s most important to them.

Community Concept

A community concept is essentially the community topic (what the community is about), target audience (who the community is for), and type (action, circumstance, support etc…).

Any one of the themes can serve as a possible community and each can also yield multiple community ideas.

Let’s imagine we find health and fitness is a problem for wealthy people. You can quickly build 5+ concepts from that:

  • An exclusive community sharing the health and fitness regimes of the ultra wealthy. Members would each share their diet/food recipes, read content from celebrities and others, and be able to sign up for programs named after superstars.
  • A complete optimization community. For the wealthy to get personalized food support, training regimes, and automate/optimized every aspect of their health and fitness.
  • A peer group of wealthy people to set themselves goals with financial forfeits to charity if they don’t achieve them. Similar to Stikk, but for wealthy people.
  • A community for people with $10m in assets to share their advice on personal chefs, trainers, holidays, and the best gyms.
  • A bodybuilding club for the ultrawealthy. Members work out together or at the same time and record/share their results/photos with each other.

Not all of these ideas are good (some are terrible), but you should be able to find and validate at least one of your ideas for one of your themes.

You launch a community by focusing on just one of them!

There are more options here for a concept than you might imagine. Kaggle, for example, began as a community for data scientists who wanted to participate in competitions.

That’s a really narrow focus, but the audience loved it and word spread.

Run them past a few of the target audience to find which they like and which they really dislike. This should narrow your 30+ ideas (across all topics) to five to ten which you can test.

 

How to Test Your Community Concept

You want to test your idea as fast and as cheaply as possible. You can do this in multiple ways:

  • Create an item of content/whitepaper and see how popular it becomes. If you’re thinking of a community about the fitness regimes of wealthy people, write an article or two about it and send it to your audience.
  • Create a mailing list or Facebook group about the topic. Invite some of the members you spoke to before, start a few discussions, create some content, and see if the idea takes off. Keep it simple and quick.
  • Host an event for the topic. Host an event for the topic (or even a webinar) and see how many people attend. Have a speaker if you can and gauge the reaction. Better yet, have two events and see how many people attend twice and how enthusiastic they are.

You’re really looking for the instant win, the one idea that explodes with popularity.

What gets people to attend and generates the most positive feedback? If you’re not sure if your idea was an instant win, it wasn’t.

It’s far better to have 10 people who really love the idea than 1000 who are mildly interested by it.

Almost all of the struggling communities we see today skipped the conceptualization stage.

If you get the concept wrong, you will forever be paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in platform and staff costs on a community that will never succeed. Don’t let that happen to you. If you don’t have a hit, test more ideas down the list until you get one right.

By the end of this stage you should have achieved three things:

  1. Built a (content) platform from which you can invite people to join a community. This should have at least 100+ followers/subscribers.
  2. Nurtured 20+ strong relationships with people in the field who you know will love the idea.
  3. Tested and validated this is a great idea for the community. You know this because your community already exists via a FB group, event series, or a small mailing list.

If you don’t have all three, keep working at it until you do.

 

Inception Stage

Now you properly enter the inception phase of the community lifecycle below:

If you’ve got the concept right, this stage should be much easier than you imagined.

Your goal at this stage is to increase awareness, sustain rising activity, and develop the community platform.

 

1) Identify and develop early sources of growth

In the early days, you’re not going to get much organic search traffic or referrals, instead you need to identify and drive sustainable sources of growth.

You usually have three options here:

  1. Your existing website traffic. Most companies promote and try to drive traffic from their website or mailing lists to the community. This is the easiest and most common way to expand . However, it only succeeds if you have an existing audience. If you don’t, you have to follow one of the paths below:
  2. Existing groups. This means means subtly promoting the community on other sites and meetups. Anthony, Kaggle’s CEO, spent plenty of time in the early days promoting his online community in existing groups and speaking at as many meetups as he could across the country. Ben from BensFriends, as you might recall, participated in existing groups. This helped build a platform and attracted the earliest members to the community. Respond to every question, participate in existing communities, attract people in the 2s and 3s.
  3. Direct invites. This is you personally identifying people interested in the topic and reaching out to them. You have to use a status-based invite/approach to get someone to join and check out the community. This takes time but is often quite effective when it’s done well. This works best when you have strong relationships with a small number of people. The secret here is to get referrals from previous people you’ve contacted. This will save you a lot of time.

Later you can do the mass-promotional tactics. But, for now, you need to know you can sustainably bring in new traffic to the community to get things started.

It’s often smart to ask people to participate in discussion topics they mentioned in your interviews to get things going.

(note: some platforms, e.g. Facebook Groups, currently have an in-built source of new members via referrals to others on the platform.)

 

2) Platform

There are plenty of online community platforms to choose from. Begin with something relatively small and simple to use. Invest more in the community as the community grows (unless, as noted, you’re running a customer support platform).

Platforms vary enormously, but depending on your budget you’re probably looking at: Facebook Groups, Mobilize, MightyNetworks, Vanilla Forums, Discourse at the cheaper end and HigherLogic, Lithium, Telligent, Jive, and Salesforce at the premium level.

I’d recommend to begin at the former and later decide if you need to move to the latter.

You can develop something yourself too if the concept is really unique, but you will need a budget to hire a really top tier team. This worked for Producthunt and Kaggle. This is high-risk, high-reward territory. Go for it if you’re confident you can get the technology right.

The secret here is to focus entirely on the unique aspect of the community concept and ensures the community is perfectly suited for that.

Critically, make sure by the time you launch a new platform you have a large group of motivated people eager to use it.

 

3) Sustain and develop activity

Whichever activity your community is pursuing (discussions, tips, solutions, sharing photos, action plans etc…), you want to be able to see high-quality discussions taking place. High-quality discussions usually mean a few specific things:

  1. Very specific and relevant topics. You need discussions about topics which are relevant to the day to day lives of members. If you have done your interviews, you should be able to create these kinds of discussions.
  2. Clearly different types of discussions. You need to have discussions which expand beyond just a single niche topic. What is the next level up?
  3. Broad interest and participation. Discussions should be popular with members. People should be happy to participate in them and interact with one another.
  4. Good information being shared. You want to see new perspectives and facts being shared.

If you don’t have at least the above four, you probably need to rethink the community concept and the kinds of members you’re inviting. You either have the wrong concept or the wrong people participating in the topic.

You can test a lot of different things here. Limited-time webinars, AMAs, featured discussions, collaboration projects, predictions, leaderboards, open debates, and anything else that adds to the community concept. You will usually need a mix of things for this to work.

If things have gone well, by the end of this stage you should have something close to:

  • At least 50 active participants (people who make a contribution).
  • At least 30 discussions with 5+ responses.
  • More than 50% of the growth/activity being initiated by members.

 

Going Forward

All the metrics should be heading in the right direction by now.

Most importantly, the community should feel rejuvenated. You should sense members are more positive, happy, and excited about the community. You should also find yourself being more excited about working on the community.

Now you can start exploring some sense of community tactics, exploring more promotional efforts, and more interesting events to drive more growth, activity, and a stronger sense of community.

The secret to rejuvenating a community isn’t to try harder or big tech changes, it’s to force through the really tough decisions and let go of the thinking that dragged you into the state you’re in today. This frees you up to identify what members really want and build an entire community around them.

Good luck!

The Best Types Of Community Engagement From Your Active Members

You’ve launched your online community. You’ve got hundreds, maybe thousands, of active members.

But there is a problem; you’re not sure what you want them to do.

You’re not alone, this happens to the majority of companies we’ve worked with. Many have invested a lot of time and resources to get members to participate without ever answering the fundamental question; ‘what do we need our members to do?’

This usually leads to asking the wrong members to do the wrong things. Fortunately, it’s a very fixable problem.

In this post, I want to take you through a process we go through with clients. This highlights the most valuable things a member can do, the challenges you will need to overcome, and a framework you can use to move forward.

Only A Small Percentage Of Community Contributions Matter

Only a few contributions to your community are valuable. These are the contributions which drive the results you want. They also tend to bring in other members, set the tone for the community, and carve out a unique identity.

You can have a lot of people talking about a lot of things in a place you control (and pay for), but this doesn’t mean it’s valuable. This is like owning a popular bar where people bring their own drinks. Your members get the social benefits while you pay for the overheads.

Your mission is to get every member making their best possible contribution to the community. These are valuable contributions which help you achieve your goal.

What Should Your Active Members Do?

Let’s focus on active members here (we will cover lurkers another time).

Begin by working backward from the result you want. Use this table below if it helps.

This isn’t a definitive list. You should notice however that only a very narrow number of contributions are valuable from active members.

If you want to avoid building another opinion-sharing community, you need to be clear what you want your contributors (usually up to 10% of your membership) to do first.

Select the contributions that most closely match up your goal. Be very clear and specific in the contributions you want members to make.

e.g. ‘members writing detailed blog posts’ as opposed to ‘members sharing good advice’

By the end of this stage you should have identified the contributions you need to achieve your goal.

Great Examples Of Valuable Contributions

The best communities are defined by the great contributions members make.
If you need some examples, here are a few:

  • The Spotify Rock Star program has a few hundred people who contribute thousands of great quality solutions every year. These great contributions (quick, personalized, solutions) bring in hundreds of thousands of members and reduce support costs for 6.4m+ members.
  • ProjectManagement.com has the smartest people in Project Management sharing detailed articles and resources. These templates and resources saves thousands of people spending days, even weeks, of their lives creating their own resources to do their work. They also serve as a premium feature of the community.
  • The Adobe forums has thousands of members sharing their best tips to use the products better. These tips aren’t just targeted at the elite experts, they’re targeted at the far bigger audience of newcomers. This reduces churn, increases loyalty, and improves search traffic.
  • Goodreads has members publishing dozens of independent, quality, reviews every minute. This provides Amazon with a treasure trove of information and increases sales.

Each of the communities above are crystal clear in what they wanted members to do. They orientate their activities around these goals. They didn’t hope they would happen by chance if they got enough activity, they proactively drove those behaviors first.

Why Your Members Aren’t Making Great Contributions

Most people, perhaps you too, are making the same mistake. You’re asking members to make contributions they don’t have the skill, time, and motivation to create.

Once you’ve identified the contributions you want, it’s tempting to start blasting messages out to members asking them to make those contributions.

The problem is different kinds of contributions require different attributes from members. A newcomer to the field can hardly be expected to share expert advice.

…But that’s exactly what happens in many communities(!)

These attributes typically fall within three categories;

1) Skills/experience. Great contributions like those above require a significant experience or an acquired skill. If a member doesn’t feel they have a unique skill or experience to share with the community, they won’t participate.

2) Motivation. Motivating refers to deviance from normal behavior. This means getting members to proactively do something they wouldn’t usually do (and don’t see peers doing).

3) Time. This refers to taking an hour or more to contribute the contribution. If you’re writing a review, this doesn’t matter, but if you’re about to share a detailed resource or host an AMA, the member needs the time to create that post.

You can influence each of these a little. You can train members, reduce the time it makes to make a great contribution (e.g. pre-set resources/templates), and deploy motivational messages. This is good practice too. But you’re still going to be working within these relatively fixed restraints. You can’t get members to do things they aren’t able (or willing) to do.

So, what’s the solution?

Going Beyond An Opinion-Sharing Community

You need to match the kind of contributions you want to the members who have the skill/experience, motivation, and time to do those things.

This means identifying members who have the ability to make these contributions and spending more time on them. You can use different systems for each of these.

1) Skill/Expertise. Tag members who demonstrate expertise in a particular niche. You and your volunteers can use admin notes on profiles, create customer badges, or keep a separate list on excel/google sheets (the latter is easiest). Whenever a member makes a great contribution on a topic, tag the contribution to member’s profile/contribution.

2) Motivation. This is harder to fathom. One simple method is to look either at members who create the most posts, those who create deviant posts (e.g. publishing something different or unique), or use your own subjective observations. Listing members by the number of posts they have made is easiest. Set a mark, usually 5+ contributions in the past month.

3) Time. Create a list of members who have either spent the most time on the site or read the most posts within the previous 60 days. You can do this by either listing members by time spent or the site/posts read. You can list members from native features or, if you’re pulling data from the server logs, you can run a simple query below.

(We use Discourse with the Data Explorer Plugin).

This provides a list of members who have read more than 50+ posts within the past 60 days (you can change these variables to suit you).

You can build increasingly complex and automated systems to add people to the right list. The key principle is you should now be able to divide your regular members into active groups based upon the table below:

(yes, this list is quite subjective)

Now you place many of your active members into the categories above (feel free to add your own) and pursue those on lists which lead to the contributions you need to achieve your goals.

  • If someone appears on all three lists, you want to invite them to share a detailed resource/template based upon their expertise. Highlight the kind of resources you need, emphasize the status of those resources, identify similar resources elsewhere for them.
  • If someone appears on experience and motivation, you want to see if they can share their best tips or solutions on a semi-regular basis. Highlight the tips required, the impact they have, and make a big deal out of great tips shared.
  • If someone appears on time and motivation, guide them to volunteer or leadership roles within the community (hosting interviews, welcoming members, moderating areas of the site etc…).
  • If someone appears just on motivation, ask them to highlight or vote on the kind of content or material they would love to see in the community. Then feed this back to members creating tips/resources.
  • If someone appears just on one list (e.g. experience), you might want them to share reviews or help connect members where possible. etc…

The more resources you have, the more lists you can pursue.

You can begin with just a single list if you like (perhaps resources/templates), find people who fall into that category, and see if you can start adding some tremendous templates and resources to your community. This is terrific for lead generation.

Your goal by the end of this is to make sure every member is making their best possible contribution to the community.

Good luck.

How To Mine Your Online Community For Powerful Insights

The equation is simple. If you want more support for the community, you have to show the community is driving more value.

The common mistake is to equate value to activity and trying to attract more members to drive more activity.

Having undertaken in-depth interviews with almost 70 people for my book, I feel fairly confident to say that there is a far more effective option. You don’t need more members, you need better systems to capture and use the value you have already created.

The Insights Matrix

Online communities are rivers of powerful insights. We usually let these insights wash away because we don’t have good systems to capture and use them.

This, in turn, means our communities aren’t generating anywhere near the value they should be. Which, in turn, means were’ not getting the support we need to build the incredible communities we want to create.

If we can better capture and use these insights, we can solve these problems.

We can divide these insights down into the four distinct categories we see below.

Organization
Solicited Unsolicited
Members Aware Ideas and opinions

This includes ideation, co-creation, surveys, polls interviews, asking for ideas and feedback.

e.g. asking customers what they think about a product.

Complaints

This includes problem posts, voting on problems (or ‘me too’) posts.

e.g. finding out what customers are really angry about.

Unaware Sentiment And Qualitative Data

This includes tracking mentions and popularity of topics. It involves identifying the words and language members use.

e.g. waiting to see what your best customers say about a product.

Behavioral Insights

This includes click-through rates, conversion rates, attribution, landing page data.

e.g. tracking what people are most interested in about the product.

These insights are categorized by whether:

a) they are solicited by the organization.
b) our audience knows they’re generating insights.

Solicitation matters because asking someone what they think gives you a very different type of insight from a furious member complaining about a problem.

Audience awareness matters because members have a tendency to lie or struggle to explain what they really want. Fortunately, their clicks don’t lie.

You’re probably capturing at least one type of insight today, but you can immediately bring more value to the table if you start capturing multiple types of insights.

1) Ideas and Opinions

Any time you ask members for feedback, you’re going to get their ideas and opinions.

Ideas are useful both in themselves and also to validate or challenge existing thinking, identify great talent, and get a range of options to choose from. If no-one else can come up with a better solution to a problem than you have today, you can probably move on to the next thing.

In practice, this falls into two buckets. Insights generated through a dedicated platform and those sought after through more traditional platforms.

The dedicated platforms include:

  • Ideation platforms. In an ideation platform, members are invited to submit ideas and vote on the ones they like best. This usually involves a platform like BrightIdea, Spigit, Charodix etc…
  • Competition platforms. In a competition platform, members are set a challenge and invited to work together to come up with the best solution. Good examples here include Kaggle, Topcoder, 99designs.
  • Co-creation platforms. In a co-creation platform, members collaborate with each other to develop a bigger project. Many open-source platforms can fall under this banner. Other common examples might include Forth and platforms like Jovoto and others. Though, in practice, outside of open-source its rare for members to refine and update each other’s ideas.

You can find a bigger list of platforms here. Pricing ranges from a few hundred dollars per year to low-six figure sums for larger efforts which require high levels of customization.

These platforms are essentially efforts that align the goal of the community to a single type of insight. It’s more effective for that purpose but limiting if you want any other kind of insights.

This leads us to the second category of ideas, those sought after on a more ad-hoc basis without a dedicated platform. This includes:

  • Surveying community members. You can ask members a range of questions about their opinions on products, their problems, or what they would prioritize. SurveyMonkey is probably the simplest tool.
  • Running a community poll. You can run a poll and get immediate feedback from members on a single question. Most platforms have this as a native feature today. Getting feedback from most members on a single question. Otherwise SurveyMonkey and Doodle are quite simple options.
  • Interviewing community members. In-depth interviews give you deep, qualitative, data on members. This can help you build profiles, better understand the problems, and appreciate how people conceive the problem. I personally use Skype with SkypeRecorder for these. I also transcribe each interview in real-time with a few pre-set questions to begin.
  • Initiating discussion questions. The easiest way to get feedback is to use the community what it is there for, asking questions and getting responses. This gives you a quick and simple understanding of what your participants (not to be generalized to your community) want.

Capturing and using these ideas and opinions:

There are a lot of different ways you can make this work for you without building a dedicated platform. The easiest might include:

  • Set a competition to solve a problem your marketing/engineering teams are struggling with. Have a small prize for the best response (or top 3 responses). Be sure to check the law on competitions.
  • Ask members to review upcoming content before it’s published (I’m doing this with my book). Find out what they like about it, don’t like about it. Does it make sense? Is it relevant? Does it read well? What were their main takeaways?
  • Ask engineers what features they would like feedback on and run a poll or survey on those issues. Solicit questions from your colleagues on a regular basis to run past the community. Find out how many ideas they want, what format they want them in, and when they want them.
  • Get snapshot responses to any question raised in meetings that would benefit from quick feedback.
  • Ask members what they would most like to change about your product/service and feeding that information back to your colleagues.
  • Highlight the roadmap and ask members to prioritize what order they want these items fixed in a survey.

You can develop plenty of your own ideas here too.

Be sure to find out exactly what feedback about your product, PR, and marketing teams would most love to see and set questions, polls, or surveys in the community to gather that feedback.

2) Complaints

Complaints are often more powerful than ideas because they reveal what members really care about.

If someone takes the time and energy to write a complaint, you can be sure the problem is important to them. Solicited ideas might reveal preferences, but complaints highlight what will influence purchase decisions.

Complaints can also act as an early warning system to any upcoming problems and avoid PR disasters. They also give you a great opportunity to correct bad strategy mistakes and turn unhappy members into satisfied participants, if not eager advocates.

However, the number of complaints received via customer support tickets or calls usually dwarfs those received by the community. But the community typically contains an organization’s most dedicated fans/supporters.

A community shows what your best customers are upset about. If you lose your best customers, you have a major problem.

Many communities are launched as a customer support channel, this means they host only complaints. Others try to focus on the positive aspects of the product, but often become overwhelmed by the negative tone of discussions.

Capturing and using these insights:

  • Setup a place in the community for member complaints and share this link with the people that need to see them. This also separates the positive community discussions from the negative.
  • Tag or screenshot each complaint (or the biggest complaints) and compile these into a simple briefing for engineers or product managers at the end of the week.
  • Find out from colleagues what complaints they want to be immediately escalated internally and train your staff/volunteers on what to do with these complaints.
  • Report which areas/features get the most complaints.
  • Respond quickly (where legally possible) to every complaint that’s received within the community and demonstrate a positive approach to trying to solve the problem.

You want to develop your own system for tagging, screenshotting, or having a place for members to post complaints. Evernote is the simplest, but far from the only solution. Most platforms will either let you ‘tag’ a discussion or add a note to these discussions. This lets you pull these complaints in a query.

3) Sentiment and Qualitative Data

Every day your audience is giving you great insights in both their sentiment and the choice of words they use. Each of these has different benefits.

Qualitative data (or sentiment) is great for analyzing how much people care about a complaint they have posted. It can help prioritise which complaints to focus on. For example, a large number of members might be mildly irritated by a feature most used, but a smaller group might be furious about a less used feature. You might want to prioritise the latter or risk losing that smaller group of customers.

Alternatively, you might notice members no longer speak about a product or the company as positively as they once did. This portends a major problem you should raise at the next company meeting.

Finally, how a member describes a problem is very useful. You can find out exactly how members talk about issues and describe problems.

This can be passed on to copywriters, marketers, your PR team, and anyone involved in writing anything members read. When you start using the exact words members use, you get a better response (as well as SEO benefits).

Capturing and using sentiment:

  • Run your community logs (or URL) through a sentiment analysis tool to either track positive/negative sentiment broadly or towards a particular product. There are plenty of social media focused tools that do this, but a few others like blockspring and Haven will either let you build your own or do this for you (note: I’ve never used Haven). You can also track mentions of specific words that might be associated with positive or negative sentiment.
  • Capture the titles and words members use to describe their problems and feed this data back to the people that write the FAQ, help center, and marketing copy. This helps them ensure they’re using the language members best understand.
  • Track which topics are most popular within the community and share this information with people who provide this data. See which discussions have the highest level of positivity associated with them.

Word of warning, sentiment tools are addictive. Make sure you know what you’re looking for before you use one.

 

4) Behavior

Behavioral insights are usually the most powerful (and the most overlooked).

It’s one thing to track what members say, it’s another matter entirely to track what members do.

Behavioral insights are relatively easy to setup and use. You can use Google Analytics and other simple tools to easily see what pages most people arrive on and make inferences about what got them there. If most people are arriving at a discussion about ‘cheap conference venues in London?’, you might want to create content about the topic.

You can also see which categories (or topics) are rising and falling in popularity. Your colleagues can then devote more time to creating content or product features within these categories and devote more time to creating content or product features within those categories.

Click data reveals trends and shows what’s rising and falling in popularity. It can tell you exactly what members are doing and help you personalize activities for your members. It also helps you to optimize for key topics.

Capturing and using behavioral data

These systems can become considerably complex, but at their easiest you can usually do the following:

  • Ensure each discussion is not just placed within a category, but properly tagged. Track and report the popularity of each tag (by visits and comments) to identify possible trends and feed these trends back to colleagues.
  • Track the top 50 landing pages to the community each month. This reveals what members (and, most often, newcomers to the topic) are searching for. Your marketing team can create more content around these trends to capture newcomers.
  • Use Google Analytics to check where members are visiting from (geographic region as well as demographic data). This might reveal the need to translate your product content or sell the product to new regions. It might at least identify possible favourable markets.
  • Track where members arrive from. High-volume websites might indicate opportunities for referral/partnership programs.
  • Track visits from specific devices or on multiple browsers. This may show a need to cater the product or material to those browsers or devices.

This is far from a definitive list. Start with something simple and expand gradually to add greater depths of insights.

Your colleagues might not act on a single data point, but if the information proves credible it becomes a powerful and invaluable asset to have.

 

Pros and Cons Of Each System

Each of the options above have various pros and cons.

Pros Cons
Ideas and opinions
  • Quick, cheap, and easy.
  • Connects engineers directly to people using the product.
  • Validates or challenges existing thinking.
  • Solves problems.
  • Gathers positions on issues rather than depth of interest in those ideas.
  • Lot of wastage through bad ideas.
Complaints
  • Demonstrates influence upon purchases.
  • Allow you to publicly resolve the problem where possible.
  • Turn angry customers into advocates.
  • Acts as early warning system.
  • Demonstrates influence upon purchases.
  • Allow you to publicly resolve the problem where possible.
  • Turn angry customers into advocates.
  • Acts as early warning system.
Sentiment and language
  • Shows what the best customers think and feel.
  • Highlights intensity of attitudes towards problem.
  • Showcases attitudes and effectiveness of campaigns.
  • Captures exact words members use to describe issues.
  • Provides qualitative background.
  • Technology is still developing and is prone to mistakes.
  • Often requires expensive technology to do it well
  • Difficult to set up.
  • The volume of information makes analysis difficult.
Behavioral data
  • Tracks exactly what members are doing.
  • Highlights new trends.
  • Helps personalize activities.
  • Let’s you optimize for key topics.
  • Easy to setup and track.
  • Can be misleading if not representative or statistically significant.
  • ‘Race to the bottom’ – following data to create the most generic projects.

Download Our Reporting Sheet

Once you begin collecting your insights, you will also want to share them more broadly than just the immediate person in need. This is why you should prepare an insights report to share around at each meeting and email to a broader group at the end of each month.

This covers the summary, the key takeaways in each of the four areas above, next steps, and insights implement.

Make sure everyone is aware of previous insights which have been implemented as a result of the community.

You can download our worksheet here:

FeverBee Community Insights Template.

 

Conclusion

Getting great insights from your members to your colleagues is the most effective way to increase the value of the community. But you need to work at both ends. You need to find out what insights your colleagues most need and develop systems to capture those insights.

Your success (and the success of the community) depends not on how much activity you generate or how many members you persuade to join, but by how useful your colleagues find the community.

If you collect a lot of great insights they can use, you will quickly win them over and build the kind of community you want to create.

The Most Advanced Online Community On The Web (A breakdown Of StackOverflow’s Online Community)

In the past two weeks we’ve tackled Apple’s Support Community and Airbnb’s Host Community. This week we’re going to breakdown StackOverflow.

You can even watch the slideshare below (click here if it doesn’t appear), or read the breakdown below.

CONCEPT

StackOverflow was launched in 2008 as a Q&A site for programmers. It has since grown to 50 million monthly visitors and is the crown jewel of the expansive StackExchange network.

StackOverflow enforces extremely strict moderation policies designed to get great answers to great questions. It does not allow casual chatter on the main community platform. This is unique amongst most organizations.

Unlike other branded communities, StackOverflow earns direct revenue from the community via recruitment (talent), advertising (ads), and helping companies create their own private instance of StackOverflow within their organization.

OVERVIEW

The community consists of several core areas:

1) Questions. The community is entirely orientated around ‘questions’ which also appear on the landing page of the community.

2) Developer Jobs. Programmers can search and find jobs published by paying advertisers on the community.

3) Tags. These are keywords or labels that members can browse through to find relevant information.

4) Users. Members can browse through the list of users and search by keywords.

5) Developer Stories. This is where members can create their ‘online resumes’.

6) Business Solutions. For businesses who want to hire, advertise, or use StackOverflow in their work.

HOMEPAGE DESIGN

  • The community has a different homepage for visitors compared with logged in members. This is really smart to do. Visitors have different needs than logged in, returning, members. The focus is more upon registration.

  • The community is entirely focused on the latest activity. Members are expected to scroll through and find questions to answer. This is a fixed list rather than infinite scroll.
  • The search box is slightly hidden, but not too hard to find at the top.
  • There is a good selection of tabs. But it’s not clear what the difference between interesting and featured is. Can probably remove a few of these.
  • Clear gamification features and notifications on previous posts in the top right.
  • The ‘Ask Question’ button is a little hard to see.
  • This is a good use of showing the popularity of questions by votes, answers, and views. People know how popular a question is without having to click the link.
  • Most of the questions here seem very unpopular. This is due to the sheer ferocity of questions StackOverflow receives. Might be worthwhile showing questions which are popular but not answered yet.
  • The display of tags beneath the question is excellent.
  • Look out for the blog integration in the top right to show the latest news about the community here. This doesn’t intrude on the main activity, but lets people know the broader community news
  • The add/edit favorite tags on the right hand side is useful.
  • This advertising works. It’s not too intrusive or hurtful to the user experience.
  • The ‘latest activity’ metrics show a clearly active site. This is good to show before clicking the question.

Mobile Site

  • The mobile version of the visitor homepage removes the registration form and tags. It focuses purely on showing the latest questions.
  • The ‘ask question’ option has also curiously vanished.
  • The slimmed down nature of the site makes it ideal for visitors looking to scroll through questions – possibly without participating.

USER EXPERIENCE AND PARTICIPATION

  • StackOverflow is hosted on a custom-built site. While most main platforms have auto-complete search, StackOverflow does not. The search bar expands, but does not display the relevant questions and discussions in drop down mode.

  • Search works well. It shows not just relevant questions, but also the specific and highest voted answers to those questions.
  • The speed of search is also faster than any other community visited.

  • Next to the search results are also ‘advanced search tips’. This is an incredibly useful and interesting addition to programmers. It helps people find the answer to their question even faster.

  • StackOverflow tackles the ‘repeat question’ problem by forcing you to thoroughly research the answer first. This is the screen you see when you select ‘ask question’.
  • The tips are good and include relevant links. Although many members probably skim right past this.
  • I love this ‘tick box’ along with the ‘open mind’ text to confirm that this has been read.
  • The ‘adapted from Google’ section in the top right is something other communities can easily use.
  • Related links to ask a good question are also a nice touch. It might be a good idea to guide newcomers to read this before asking a question, otherwise I suspect most people will ignore this.

  • StackOverflow continues its maniacal focus on good questions by providing prompts at each stage of asking a question. Here there is a prompt in default, the title itself to be specific along with advice on the right hand side to provide details, share research, and ask unrelated questions about the community in the meta area.
  • StackOverflow also provides a relevant link to the help center. This ensures people begin questions with the right mindset and a good, specific, title.

  • When you click on the box to enter your question, formatting help appears on the right-hand side. These small prompts are incredibly useful. Each of the main tabs (links, images etc…) also drops down to reveal further advice as part of advanced help.
  • As you begin typing the question, it appears in preview mode below so you can see exactly how the question will appear. Similar questions will also appear on the right-hand side.

  • This appears complicated as you begin typing the question. However, if StackOverflow detects something which is incorrect, you receive a bright red notification. You cannot post the question until you’ve resolved this problem. This is another very neat touch.
  • You can also see the advanced help above the question, the preview below, and the similar questions on the right hand side.

 

  • The community shows suggested tags from those mentioned in the question or using AI from previous questions.
  • If you begin to type your own tag, a drop-down box of relevant tags appears below along with a description. This makes tagging really easy (and enforced).

RESPONDING TO QUESTIONS

  • Questions are clearly displayed with regard to the audience’s expectations. Here the coding is properly formatted and shown within the questions with simple tags.
  • Members can do one of a few things. They can either vote, favourite, comment, or answer the question. However, newcomers are not allowed to vote on questions until they have a 15-point reputation score.

  • Commenting on a question is a novel feature of StackOverflow. It’s designed to improve the quality of the question and provide feedback to the original poster as well as providing more information for people to create good answers.
  • This would be distracting in most online communities, but works well when good quality answers is the overriding part of the community concept.

  • As we can begin to expect now, answering questions contains further prompts about what to do to provide a really good answer.
  • The link to further tips on writing great answers is also a great practice to observe and easy to replicate.

  • One of the truly unique aspects of StackOverflow’s community is the ability of members to edit the questions and answers of other members. Everyone has the ability to do this, although the process is peer-reviewed.
  • Edits are used to fix grammatical errors, clarify meaning, correct minor mistakes, and add related resources. Aside from Wikipedia, I haven’t seen any other community successfully implement this feature.

  • Unlike most organisations where empathy in responses is a critical part of the response, StackOverflow is designed for an audience that only wants good, quick, answers to questions.
  • Almost all questions receive a quick response. The responses are usually detailed and specific to help the person. In this case, it’s code that the programmer might like to use to resolve the problem they are facing.

REGISTRATION AND ONBOARDING

  • StackOverflow doesn’t have a separate registration page, visitors are encouraged to register with the fields shown within the header at the top of the page. This also allows Google and Facebook sign on.
  • Allowing people to register without having a separate registration page is a really clever feature.

  • StackOverflow has the easiest email confirmation page you will ever see. They have reduced the amount of copy to just 9 words. You can consider doing something similar with your email confirmations.

  • This is really simple copy at the top to get people started. Not sure on the logo mind.
  • I like the phrasing of ‘what should we call you?’
  • Profile photo is easy to drag and drop into place.
  • Picking a few topics of interest should be a standard feature of all players. It enables members to receive updates on topics which are relevant to them. It encourages a good use of tagging.
  • Not sure why this section is relevant, possibly the only area here I’d remove.
  • Most importantly here you don’t have to write detailed ‘about me’ paragraphs. You can select the key things that matter.
  • Great way to merge in advertising opportunities.
  • Notice the ‘all fields are optional’ – I’d move this to the top of the page.

  • This welcome email is triggered by participation in the community. The quick summary, learning how to write great answers, and custom views are pretty effective ways to help newcomers get started.
  • I suspect there might be an opportunity for improvement here based upon tags people have selected and what the latest activity of the community is.

  • Once you join the community you receive a notification with a link to the tutorials page.
  • This tutorial page is detailed and explains each of the steps required to become a great participant of the community. The visual element is especially useful.

DEVELOPER JOBS AND STORIES

  • The jobs section revolves around developer stories which members are prompted to complete in the community if they want to be open to new job offers. The forms are relatively simple to complete and all fields are required.

  • The developer stories are presented really well, with tags at the top (not shown), and then a detailed timeline of previous jobs and experiences below.
  • Most communities could adapt this idea to immediately upgrade their member profiles.

  • This is a relatively standard and simple list of job adverts. With a search function and location at the top and list of ads displayed below.
  • Showing the salary, tags, and ‘be one of the first applicants’ is incredibly smart.
  • Letting applicants create job alerts is also extremely clever.
  • Showing the previous searches and job preferences is a nice touch. Easy to edit from the front page.

  • This section is a relatively simple and clean way of showing the job adverts. This might be the least innovative page of the community.

  • A major innovation of the community is to enable members to apply for the job directly within the platform. This includes using their current reputation score to apply for the positions.

MEMBER PROFILES

  • The member profiles is one of the most advanced areas of the community.
  • Showing users where they rank comparatively is a smart way to drive more participation and reward the top members.
  • Number of badges and reputation points are clearly displayed.
  • Other communities where the member participates in. Not relevant for most communities (or here, really)
  • The ‘impact score’ in the top right is genius. A great way of showing a member’s total contribution.
  • The breakdown on the right hand side of a member’s vital statistics is also useful. Not sure what ‘4 hats’ are though.
  • In the bottom right is a further good breakdown of where their expertise lies. You can clearly see where this member’s real expertise is.

  • Mid-way down the profile is a list of a member’s top posts. This is a great way of letting the member ‘show off their best work’ without looking like an ass.

  • Each member’s badges gained are displayed at the bottom, listed by date and the reason they earned the badge. This is a simple way of displaying the badges. There might be better ways of doing this.

GAMIFICATION AND REWARD SYSTEMS

  • StackOverflow also has one of the most advanced gamification systems on the web. This begins at earning privileges for taking simple actions ‘such as creating a post’ all the way up to getting access to analytics with 25,000 points.
  • The ticks next to the scores is an especially nice touch.

  • This the ‘Tom Sawyer’ effect in action. The more privileges you earn, the more likely you are to take on doing work for the community for free. Full privileges board encourages members to take on more work for free.
  • A good menu in the top right explains what’s required to progress to the next level.
  • Showing the next privilege and what’s needed to get there is also a smart idea.
  • There are multiple types of privileges members can earn, as broken down here.

  • There are a near-infinite number of badges members can earn in the StackOverflow community. These range from question, answer, participation, moderation, documentation, and ‘other’ badges.
  • The diversity of badges means everyone can and almost certainly will begin collecting badges from the very early days of the community.

  • All of the systems are fully documented and explained in detailed guides. This limits confusion and potential anger from members when they don’t get the rewards or privileges they expected. It’s usually a smart move to fully document your reward systems.

  • Interestingly, StackOverflow also operates chat rooms which members with a reputation score of at least 20 are allowed to participate in. This type of interaction allows for more general discussion which would be an ill-fit for the quality-information focus of the community.
  • This is a good balance between ephemeral and serious discussions which many organisations struggle with. However, they are hard to find on the community.

CONCLUSION – THE MOST ADVANCED ONLINE COMMUNITY ON THE WEB

StackOverflow, with the possible exception of Facebook, has the most advanced and sophisticated community platform on the planet. There are hundreds of tiny details which are all designed to support its core concept of getting great answers to great questions.

To support this mission, StackOverflow deliberately limits engagement in favour of quality contributions. This has the desired impact of attracting the highest quality programmers to share their best advice on the community, but it’s a tough path for others to follow.

However, platform vendors and organisations can learn plenty from StackOverflow’s homepage setup, gamification systems, onboarding systems, and job pages.

There is also plenty to learn here about creating tutorials and nudges throughout the platform to ensure that members make great contributions to the community.

Many organisations would benefit from focusing less on driving as much activity as possible and instead focusing on driving the right kind of activity within their community. This is the real frontier of our work today.

You can visit for yourself at: www.stackoverflow.com.

What Motivates Community Members To Stay Engaged In Online Communities?

At some point, almost everyone looks at their community and wishes they could increase engagement. This usually leads to clever ideas that members might find interesting, but soon the novelty wears off and engagement returns to the same level.

The problem is a failure to properly diagnose why engagement decreased. Much like medicine and engineering, it’s far harder to diagnose the problem than to identify the solution. If you properly diagnose the problem, the solutions usually present themselves.

Diagnosing Your Community Engagement Problem

The diagnosis begins from a motivation perspective. You can use our membership motivation model below. This identifies why people don’t visit the community, why people initially participate in a community, and what leads to healthy long-term participation in a community. You should be able to use this to diagnose the problems you need to overcome:

If Your Audience Doesn’t Visit Your Community

The most common problem is people simply aren’t visiting the community. This usually breaks down into four buckets (by descending order of priority):

1) Lack of awareness. No-one can visit your community if they either aren’t aware or have forgotten it exists. You can diagnose this by asking or surveying a random sample of your total audience. Ask them to name any communities they have heard about and see what percentage mentions your community. If it’s less than 5%, you have a big awareness problem.

2) Low value perception. This is when the audience is aware the community exists, but they are not especially motivated to visit. This means your community concept isn’t right.

Ask your audience what challenges they are tackling today and check if this matches the discussions and activities taking place in the community today. You might also want to check Google Trends and other tools to see what terms and topics people are searching for today. Is your community aligned to match?

3) Trust. Here your target audience understands what the value of the community is supposed to be but doesn’t trust you to deliver it. This happens most often when people have visited the community once but didn’t see enough value to visit or participate again. You can diagnose this by asking members if they did visit the community to highlight what advice/value they got from the community.

4) Competitor groups. You’re probably not the only community in town. Members might participate in other groups as well. Their ties to those groups might be hard to break and other groups might be better at delivering on this value than you are. This usually requires focusing on a unique, growing, niche you can dominate (if you’re smaller), or fear of missing out (if you’re the bigger community). This can also be diagnosed by asking your audience what other communities members participate in today.

These are all fundamental problems. You need to have a constant source of new visitors, a relevant community concept, to deliver value, and compete effectively against other groups.

Why People Join And Initially Participate In An Online Community

Once you’ve tackled the fundamentals, you also need to ensure it’s easy for members to make their first contributions to the community. People make their first contributions to an online community for five key reasons. These are to ask a question (or solve a problem), improve their expertise, increase their status, be part of a group, or explore a topic with a group of likeminded friends.

You can reverse engineer this to diagnose why people don’t participate in a community they visit (e.g. why do people only lurk?).

This boils down to:

1) They don’t feel they can ask a question. They either don’t have a question to ask or don’t feel comfortable asking it. The latter usually because of fear about their personal reputation or fear of getting a negative (or no) response.

2) They don’t have expertise to share. People don’t respond to questions or write blog posts because they don’t have the expertise to share or comfort to share their expertise. This happens in many fields where there are a lot of newcomers and the experts are hard to persuade to participate.

3) They don’t feel participating will increase their status. This occurs when the cost/benefit of participating isn’t worthwhile from a status perspective. This means they don’t feel their contributions will get alot of good responses and help increase their status.

4) They don’t feel they will be left behind. In many communities there is no danger of being excluded from a group by not participating. There is no urgency to participate now or fear of missing out.

5) They are not passionate about the topic. Another reason is they aren’t interested enough in the topic to explore it with others. This comes up again when we talk about healthy, long-term, participation.

You can interview or survey people who visit to see what’s preventing them. Alternatively, you can test different ideas from those listed above until you come up with an effective solution. Tip: it’s usually best to work from the top down.

Why Most People Don’t Become Regular, Active, Members

Usually the level of participation declines rapidly after the first contribution to a community. You can see this in our data below:

There are three big reasons for this.

1) They aren’t curious about the topic. They might participate when they have to (for work or to resolve a frustration), but they aren’t motivated to learn more about the topic beyond this level.

2) They don’t enjoy participating in the community. They don’t feel a part of something special when they do participate in the community. They don’t feel they have much control or ownership. They don’t feel it’s a part of their peer group where people like and respect them.

3) They don’t enjoy helping others. They don’t get much joy from helping others. This occurs most often when they don’t receive gratitude for contributions or don’t feel much of a connection to other members. It also arises when they are answering the same questions repeatedly within the community.

All of these tie back to the three root causes that you can work on. These are:

1) Limited sense of competence. If members don’t feel their abilities are growing, have opportunities to demonstrate their abilities, nor have any control over the site, their motivation is sharply reduced.

2) Limited sense of autonomy. If members don’t feel they can participate the way they like, in a way that aligns with their values, and give input into the direction of the community, they are less likely to enjoy participating there.

3) Limited sense of relatedness. In short, they don’t feel liked and respected by other members. There is no larger sense of community forming around the topic that gives people their social identity.

The key here is to gradually increase this sense of competence, autonomy, and relatedness by designing specific journeys you take members through. There are no shortage of tactics here.

Ultimately, to sustain long-term, regular, participation the community ultimately has to offer more than just solutions to problems. It has to offer members the chance to feel really smart, to feel they can finally behave as best aligns with their values, and the opportunity to build strong relationships.

Always Diagnose The Problem First

Before you move on to testing any tactics, properly diagnose the problem. Once you diagnose the problem the solutions usually present themselves.

Good luck.

A Detailed Breakdown of Airbnb’s Online Community

Last week we began the first in-depth breakdown of a large, established, online community. You can read our breakdown of Apple’s online community from last week.

This week we’re going to do a detailed overview of Airbnb’s online community.

You can view the slideshare here (or read the breakdown below)

Concept and Background

Airbnb’s online community is a community for hosts (not guests) which has existed for over five years and been through several iterations and strategies during this time.

The community is based on the Lithium platform and uses most of Lithium’s available modules. This means the community allows hosts to ask questions, share tips and tricks, connect with other hosts, suggest ideas, create and host meetup groups, and collaborate with each other in home sharing clubs.

The community also uses translation (rather than separate sites) to cater to different languages.

The main challenges for a mature, highly active, community like Airbnb usually include handling high levels of activity, being highly responsive to member questions, and ensuring members are engaging in actions which drive real value to the brand.

There may also be questions about the value of an online community. The larger the community becomes, the bigger the team required. As the size of the team grows, so does the temptation to cut the budget if the value of the community cannot be proven.

THE STRUCTURE OF THE COMMUNITY

The community umbrella includes (by order of website prominence):

1) Tips and tricks to become better hosts. The primary goal of the community is to facilitate members sharing ideas with one another.

2) Connect with local hosts. A second goal is to build sub-groups for hosts to connect locally with one another.

3) Customer Support. Much of the community activity revolves around hosts asking questions and getting support from one another.

4) Home Sharing Clubs. This is where hosts can share stories with one another and support local initiatives.

5) Host Voice. Members can suggest ideas they would like Airbnb to implement.

6) Meetups. Members can create and sign up to attend local meetups.

This list doesn’t include the host newsletter, toolkit, host stories, webinars, and toolkits which have lesser levels of activity. Nor does it include social or groups started on 3rd-party platforms (e.g. Facebook).

COMMUNITY HOMEPAGE AND NAVIGATION

  • The language and copy on the community is telling. This should highlight the main goal of the community. A community where ‘anyone can belong’ suggests Airbnb is pursuing a movement rather than a function. This is a high-risk, high-reward approach. I’m not sure it’s the best way to motivate contributions.
  • There are two very clear calls to action. This suggests this isn’t just about resolving problems but genuinely facilitating ongoing conversations.
  • Would love to see photos of some top members here instead of just hosts. The diversity within the photos selected is a smart balance of sexualities, age, and race.
  • Three clear categories here. 1) Get inspired by new ideas, 2) connect with others (validation), and 3) get support. However these don’t clearly connect to the mission-statement opposite.
  • I like the translation method of handling the multiple-language challenge.

  • Showing top posts instead of latest posts by default is a good idea for idea/tip-driven communities.
  • ‘Your latest posts’ is great for catching up on recent discussions or seeing if any answers have been received. Would be good to show date or recency of last response.
  • The mid-form display is an interesting way of displaying content. It works well when the goal of the community is to provide new ideas and get people to click on ‘blog style’ posts for inspiration. But it’s not great when it includes customer support posts that won’t be relevant to as many people.
  • Featured discussions on the right are fantastic when they support a clear goal. I’d be interested in displaying them clearly.

  • This looks like a good an interesting mix of content here, but it’s buried too far down for almost anyone to see it. I’d look to display this much higher up. Showing lengthy posts instead of just titles has reduced what can be shown on the page.

MOBILIZE OPTIMIZATION

  • The site works well on mobile with the images dropping out to reveal a simple layout above the fold. Could possibly remove the copy below the headline here.

  • The full posts take up lots of space and lead to a lot of scrolling on a mobile space. I’d reduce this to just the titles of the post to allow for easier scrolling

USER EXPERIENCE AND PARTICIPATION

Now we can begin to explore what it’s like to ask a question within the community.

  • First, you will probably enter the question in the search. Lithium’s autocomplete search works well with the related discussions appearing as the question is being typed. The tick next to the questions with resolutions is a useful touch.

  • This prompt when you first click on the search box is also a nice touch. Small nudges like these can be really effective in online communities.

  • Once you select ‘start a discussion’ you’re taken to the ‘all discussion rooms’ page which then asks you to select from relevant ‘rooms’. This feels clunky and the categories are confused. This would work better within a ‘drop down’ menu to select while writing the post itself. Also, many questions could easily be in hosting and help simultaneously.

  • Not sure this large image at the top of the page has to be here. This pushes all the other content way down the page.
  • Is the copy at the top right necessary? It duplicates the copy opposite and most people would naturally ‘start a discussion’ if they wanted help.
  • The ‘welcome to help’ area also feels like it could be shortened to something much simpler, it’s a good idea though.
  • Now you have to click ‘start a discussion’ AGAIN to start a discussion. This shouldn’t be happening.
  • Showing the community guides at the top of the page works well, I think showing the guides themselves in box/pinterest style would be better here.
  • Showing related tags works well, but would be best to organise these by priority or trending topics.

  • This is a clean interface. The autosave feature is also appreciated. The drop-down list appears again to avoid duplicated questions. Smart.
  • The box offers images, links, and bullet points but no other HTML. this is probably a good idea for Airbnb.
  • This area would benefit from some Apple-style advice sharing simple tips to help people ask good questions (e.g. give context and details).
  • Tags don’t automatically appear (nor are there any suggested tags based upon the post) – this would make it easier to select the right tags in the community.
  • Do you really need a ‘cancel’ button? People will either post or not. Feels an odd place to encourage a cancellation.

  • There are FAR too many things to do here. This is before we look at the two ‘options’ drop-down menus which show the same options. Would benefit from a like / me-too / reply and nothing else.
  • Could move the # comments and views to the top of the page to show popularity of each post.
  • ‘Join the conversation’ feels a bit weak, why not ‘reply’ or ‘help’? Can be more specific with the kind of participation required here.

RESPONSES AND EMPATHY

Now we can look at what kind of responses we get…

  • Airbnb does a very good job of ensuring almost all questions and tips shared receive a quick response. In some areas, these become sprawling discussions. In others, they are simple customer support questions which receive a good response.

  • It lists the respondee as a ‘level 10’ here but there is no other information on the community about gamification, rewards, or what these levels mean. It seems level 10 is the highest a member can reach in the community. There is great potential to further develop and improve this.
  • ‘Mark as helpful’ is a useful button. This might benefit from an additional prod to select this.

  • Most responses come from community members at a level 10 or above.
  • The responses are generally factual, but not rich in empathy and there isn’t much attempt at a follow up to check if the problem was resolved or make a solution as a featured answer. This is a missed opportunity. The low-level of responses from staff members suggests a relatively small team manages this online community

REGISTRATION AND ONBOARDING

How easy and motivational is it to join and register for this online community?

  • Accessing the Airbnb community requires using an Airbnb account. There isn’t a distinct community registration pathway. You go through the same process as you would to register for the site itself. There aren’t separate user journeys here.
  • This means there is no onboarding pathway to engage or educate members. The anti-discrimination policy acceptance is a welcome touch.

  • Because there isn’t a distinct community participation track, there is no welcome email that guides people into their ongoing contributions to the community. This feels like a missed opportunity to convert people into active participants and also hints at a limited level of integration with other areas of the organisation. This email even guides people away from the community they just tried to join.

  • A curated list of tips and help guides is a great addition, but it’s buried within the community and would benefit from being listed in an automated onboarding journey. The list is strong and potentially very useful however. It is also kept regularly updated.
  • I’d list by popularity rather than alphabetically but it’s a minor tweak

  • The community also has a list of centrally created tutorials to do basic actions on the site. I prefer these as one-time pop-up notifications, but they can work well here if they are easy to find. They appear above the fold, yet tend to push down after discussions. It’s best to showcase a tutorial next to the action where it is needed.

TIPS AND TRICKS

Now we can start reviewing the subsections of the community in a little more depth. This begins with tips and tricks which is relatively active and has good content.

  • The tips and tricks area of the community is structured similarly to other areas. This needs a good display of the top tips shared by hosts, ideally in visual form.
  • This area would benefit from best tips ever shared, top tips for new Airbnb hosts, tips to get higher ratings, and trending tips relevant right now.

  • Despite the best efforts of the community manager, many topics are filled with complaints about Airbnb or customer support questions. This brings the tone of discussions down from what it could and should be.
  • It’s impossible to upvote or rate a tip without clicking into it. Reddit-style upvoting works best when sharing new ideas. Make it easier for people to upvote ideas they like.

LOCAL CONNECTIONS

The local connections area could easily be removed.

  • Airbnb encourages members to ‘connect locally’ and join groups for their city. Very few of these groups are active and many share the same kinds of discussions as appear elsewhere. Ironically it’s not possible to send a direct message or ‘connect/befriend’ with other members.
  • This section could easily be abolished or control handed over to regional community members who could lead these groups either on Airbnb or, much better, on Facebook groups where they may already exist. At the moment too many of these groups have very low levels of activity and need to be pruned.

HOME SHARING CLUBS

Home sharing clubs have high levels of activity and great potential.

  • The goal of home sharing clubs is to educate local hosts about local laws and benefits of hosting.
  • Home sharing clubs overlap significantly with local connection groups and should be merged. These are led by community members and generally have higher levels of activity which suggests great potential in letting community members lead areas of the community.

IDEATION

This is where members can suggest ideas and improvements. It’s not working well, mainly due to Airbnb’s limited ability to implement and respond to ideas.

  • The ideation area is hidden and not very active (or clear under the name of ‘host voice’)
  • Translation of ideas is very smart.
  • The ‘how it works’ explanation would benefit from explaining the process of how an idea goes from ideation to participation.
  • It’s best to display ideas by title with their current status. The design of this area is not well suited for ideation.
  • Anger is boiling up from a lack of participation from Airbnb. This does not bode well.
  • The idea statistics in the bottom right should be at the top. However, 6 ideas under consideration isn’t a great statistic. Showing the list of ideas previously implemented would be useful.

INTERNAL SUPPORT

There are several indicators the community doesn’t have high levels of internal support. Two of the biggest are:

  • The online community is hard to find. It appears at the very bottom right below several rows of invisible scroll posts. This indicates the community has low levels of internal support.. The easiest way to boost traffic would be to increase the community’s visibility.

  • The community is interestingly not hosted on airbnb.com but has been moved to a ‘withairbnb.com‘ domain. It’s not clear why this has changed in the past year.

CONCLUSION

Overall, a confused strategy, some design issues, and far too much sprawl.

Airbnb’s online community has huge potential but feels like a smorgasbord of different initiatives which have grown under the banner of community. This leads to a confused strategy which has led to a sprawling use of Lithium’s modules and overlapping areas of participation.
The community would benefit from focusing on solving host’s problems, sharing the best ideas between hosts, and removing all other features from the website.

Local connections and meetups can be best facilitated by people submitted groups hosted on third parties (e.g. facebook.com or meetup.com) for approval to be listed. These can then be led by a committed advocate in collaboration with Airbnb.

Airbnb would benefit from customising the design for each purpose (customer support, best ideas) and making it easier to find and scroll through the trending questions or ideas and the best ideas ever shared.

The community mission of building a planet where everyone can belong is noble, but would be far less effective than focusing on the immediate needs of the hosts (e.g. booking their properties solid and solving host’s problems).

Ideation would be useful when Airbnb can communicate what ideas it needs and when it needs these ideas. There is also potential in better nurturing superusers and building a more advanced gamification system.

I hope you found this breakdown useful, drop me a line with any questions.

Emotions That Matter In An Online Community

The big three tend to be excitement, fear, and frustration.

They manifest themselves as inspiration, validation, and resolution.

Excitement and Inspiration

Excitement comes through inspiration. It’s when you see new ideas in the community you didn’t expect. You might visit for one reason, but during that visit you see several great ideas you can apply to improve your efforts. You start to visit more frequently.

This makes it worthwhile to encourage discussions and create content around:

  • Sharing relevant photos and videos of great ideas.
  • Best advice from the web.
  • Best personal tips from members.
  • Recommended books.
  • ‘Best of’ lists.

Newsletters work best when they focus on inspiration. Inspiration is what gets people returning to the community every day.

Fear and Validation

Validation is about removing uncertainty. It’s about overcoming problems you don’t know exist yet. You might be the only accountant in your company doing that job, how do you know if you’re doing it right? You want to check and compare your progress against others. Validation is about removing unforeseen mistakes.

This usually means content and discussions around:

  • Comparison of tools.
  • Equipment and product lists.
  • Reviews.
  • Working out loud / what are you working on topics.
  • Templates and resources.
  • Case studies and examples.
  • Fees and prices.

Think about different methods to get people to check and compare their efforts against each other. Newcomers are especially responsive to content that relates to validation.

Frustration and Resolution

Frustration is having a specific problem you can articulate that you want resolved. If your iPhone breaks, you visit a community to explain the problem and you want a resolution to that problem. You want the frustration removed.

  • FAQ and lists of most common problems.
  • Video and photographic guides to resolving problems.
  • Answers to questions.
  • Featured solutions.
  • Trending problems.

The problem with frustration is people only visit when they are frustrated and the tone of discussions tends to be negative by nature.

If you’re stuck with your community engagement efforts, you’re probably not embracing one or more of the big three emotions.

A Detailed Breakdown of Apple’s Online Community

This week I put together a detailed breakdown of Apple’s online community.

Here you can learn how Apple develops and manages its online community.

This includes how Apple:

  • Designs its community platforms.
  • Forces people to ask good questions.
  • Gets people to register and onboards them.
  • Encourages users to submit tips.
  • Uses gamification to attract newcomers to join and participate.
  • Responds to questions about the community.

You can view the slideshare below (and download the PDF)

Or you can read the detailed breakdown below:

BACKGROUND

Apple has had an online community ecosystem since the earliest days of the internet.

The current incarnation of the official community was launched in 2006, revamped in 2011, and has been gradually tweaked and upgraded since then to the site we see today (hosted on Jive).

The community is designed as a customer support channel. The primary goal is most likely to deflect customer support tickets (and calls) and provide a superior level of customer service customers can get through other channels.

The community also provides a less noticeable area for user tips. Members above a certain level can share their best advice to use products more effectively. This can have an impact upon customer satisfaction and retention.

COMMUNITY HOMEPAGE

  • The ‘sign in’ option is hidden and it’s not clear this is the option to register. This could be pushed below the search box next to ‘learn more about’.
  • The search bar is a very clear call to action (find answers) with the search box prominently displayed. This is common in most enterprise platforms today. This is a best practice worth following.
  • The central image takes up a lot of space and doesn’t add anything to the page. It would be better to pull up the categories beneath to help people find what they need. Or, at least, feature the top community experts in this area.

  • The featured categories are optimised by popularity with further categories hidden (but available) in a useful drop-down. This is great for navigation.
  • It’s not clear what ‘featured’ means; Are they trending? Most popular? Most useful? Could replace with ‘trending issues’ or ‘most popular issues’ or ‘top tips’.
  • There is a lot of empty space. Apple could reduce this space and have some tips appear side by side. It’s also good to personalize these tips to each member based upon their previous contributions or self-tagged interests.

  • Still a LOT of empty space here that could be used to reduce the size of the site and need to scroll down.
  • The ‘new to communities’ area is a redundant feature. There was already a ‘learn about support communities’ just below the search box. Could easily remove this and bring the bar below higher up.
  • These three benefits are really interesting but relatively downplayed. Might be worth seeing if they can be moved up or have different versions of the site for return visitors/regulars.

PRODUCT-SPECIFIC PAGES

Each product has it’s own support community with navigation, top communities, and latest posts. These are generally well-designed.

  • Using the top banner for major announcements is a good idea.
  • ‘Ask question’ is probably better than ‘start a discussion’ given the nature of the support community.
  • Apple has 60+ communities across several major product lines. The navigation of these is pretty good, clean, and simple. You can get to any community in three clicks using the sub-menu. They are also well prioritised.

  • Using the top banner for major announcements is a good idea.
  • I suspect very few people want to ‘follow’ the discussions of an entire community (top right). Might be better to include an easier to find search bar here.
  • The structure of these sub-communities feels a little odd. It’s unlikely the last 3 questions will answer the visitor’s question, so display these by most popular at the time rather than latest. This stops you showing a lot of unanswered questions to members.

MOBILIZE OPTIMIZATION AND RESPONSIVENESS

  • The homepage feels designed for mobile, which works extremely well. Product tips vanish from the mobile version of the site.
  • The site is also responsive with product tips disappearing at about 1/3rd of the screen.

PARTICIPATION EXPERIENCE

  • Autocomplete Search. Jive’s autocomplete search is a little slow but works well to find relevant communities and discussions. This is definitely a best practice today and forces members to check if a similar question exists before asking a repetitive question. However, it’s unclear if these discussions have been resolved or not. Many of the questions may also seem old and out of date.

  • ‘Tell us what is on your mind’ works better on Facebook than someone who wants to get their problem solved right now. This isn’t a place people will casually chat about Apple.
  • How to write a good question is minimised here, but should be expanded by default – especially for first-time posters. Anyone that forgets the basic principles won’t get the answer they need.
  • Relatively simple, clean, interface. Allows HTML and other styling.
  • It’s always REALLY hard to get people to post in the right areas. Apple makes it easier by autofilling from relevant keywords to help you select what community to post to. Very clever.
  • Turning categories (used here more as tags) into buttons that people can easily select is really clever too.
  • Asking people to select their product and operating system really helps people answer the question. The ‘add to Profile’ is also smart. Apple nails this section.

  • This is a really awesome profile information integration here. It highlights what products you already own and helps you answer questions.

  • Not immediately clear to the visitor if the question has a solution or not. This appears below the question, which it could be positioned here.
  • Need to add prompts when people are writing the question, that any question < 200 characters should include the exact product, describe the exact problem or include a screenshot so people can answer it.
  • “I have this question too” is an extremely useful feature (better than like) as it highlights what questions Apple should focus on resolving.

RESPONSES AND EMPATHY

  • Apple suffers greatly from not being able to get an accepted answer to most of the questions which appear in the community. This is the single biggest flaw the community faces today. Most of the online communities we looked at, the number of solved questions was extremely low. These were questions asked days, if not weeks ago. This discourages future people from responding. Questions with solutions should be featured near the top along with any trending or ever-present questions.

  • Who is this person? Do they work for Apple? Are they an expert supporter? Showing the level is good but would be ideal to make clear distinctions.
  • The ‘solved’ green icon is a little too hidden away.
  • The content of the response could use a little work, but we’ll go into that later.
  • View answer in context is good when there are a lot of responses and the answer builds upon previous answers. Likely to be irrelevant for most answers.

  • It’s a clever static bar at the top. This keeps the question present as you scroll down.
  • What is a community specialist? Why does this person not have a real name or photo? Is this someone that can access my customer record and have real power or not? Is it an employee or a helper? Is it an external contractor (probably).
  • Repeating the question back for clarity is good. Taking the information out of the resource and dropping it into the question is also smart. Don’t make people make that extra click if you don’t have to.
  • Bullet points are ALWAYS a good idea in longer answers. Remember your responses have to be scannable.
  • The ‘sign off’ feels a bit insincere. Let’s have a real person’s name sign this.
  • Generally the responses are personalised and contain good knowledge, but they score badly on friendliness, checking for resolution, and giving the member a sense of influence over the outcome. Could use this as an opportunity to be more friendly, show more personality. Suspect this work is outsourced to a western contractor with a quota of questions to get through. For a contractor, it’s generally ok.

REGISTRATION AND ONBOARDING

  • Apple unsurprisingly requires you to log in with your Apple ID or create one to be able to participate in the community. The single sign on and security is one of Jive’s strengths and works well here.

  • This email is repetitive and badly written. Would be better to send after someone has participated. Most people who register will have one single-goal in mind; getting an answer to a frustrating question. The welcome email should acknowledge this and guide them to where they can get their answer as quickly as possible. This is the only thing that matters at this time. Would also sign it from a named community manager.

  • This tutorials page is a REALLY good idea and works well here. Easy to navigate and learn more about the community.

Post-registration

  • After registration there is no further on-boarding program via email or series of notifications from Apple to help anyone get more engaged in the community or identify people who could become top participants from those who just want a response to the question. If you want to turn a one-time visitor into a regular, look at the on boarding of newcomers and your autoresponder series. There is usually a great opportunity here to establish a perception of the community and the idea someone can become seen as a top member.

GAMIFICATION

  • As a mature community with hundreds of thousands of members, Apple deploys a seemingly complex reward system which covers points/leaderboards, levels and perks, specialities, and ‘unique awards’. In reality, it’s actually two-related systems. A points-based system and a specialist-based system. Can easily remove ‘unique awards’ from this area.
  • Points and leaderboards target each person’s competitive nature and create a habit.
  • The perks target people’s need to feel a collective sense of identity with Apple. This works by giving members access to exclusive stuff.
  • Specialities are rarely used, but really smart to have. They let each member ‘own’ their own small part of the community and feel an incredible sense of competence.
  • The bottom ‘unique awards’ area feels a bit redundant. Could easily skip these. Also ‘adding colour to a profile’ is the least enticing perk imaginable, what’s the best perk to feature here?

  • The points system is designed to convert newcomers into addicted participants by getting a quick ‘hit’ to their first question and then rapidly raising their score with the next few actions which gets them to socialise with other members or learn more about the community.
  • After the first hit, the focus shifts to asking ‘good’ questions and eventually attending community conference calls or sharing community tips. It’s generally a logical and smart progression.

  • Now we can see how the points translate to unique perks across 10 levels. The structure of these seems odd, reporting posts could easily be something to gain points.
  • These levels are incredibly spaced apart and make it difficult to imagine progression from getting 4 to 10 points to a level where we’re on 1000+ points. The perks seem relatively minor too. Though note this is the first appearance of conference calls and user tips. Would be easier to show the perks for the higher levels here too. No reason to hide this.

  • This is an incredibly clear and specific table about moving up the specialist levels. The levels get exceedingly more difficult at the higher end. Would be interesting to know of any special perks at these levels. What is the benefit of being a specialist compared with a generalist?

  • It’s relatively easy to get a few badges. I’m not sure the value of these early badges for simply browsing the community are useful. Could raise the barrier to getting the first badge to at least some kind of active contribution, even clicking ‘me too’ on a single question.

USER TIPS

  • Behind the home page the content section becomes a more typical ‘no thrills’ Jive experience.
  • User tips are presented without much fanfare. This does a huge disservice to many of the excellent tips shared which should be featured at different levels.
  • Apple would benefit from designing a proper tips section or only including tips on each product page (where some tips are already featured). Far too many tips are not getting the audience they should in this format.

  • This is simple and clean. Not sure whether this person is a specialist from the profile page but the layout is clean.
  • Does this need both the user rating and the ‘like’ button? Does the ‘like’ button add anything the user rating doesn’t have? Could merge at least the like button and the follow button similar to Facebook
  • Would be better to show the reputation at the beginning of the question. Move the average rating to the top. It’s one of the first things people need to see.

SNAPSHOT SUMMARY OF THE APPLE COMMUNITY

  • Apple’s online community is strong on everything to do with technology. It’s level of integration with existing systems is terrific, navigation is extremely good, posting is simple enough and tackles the common challenges of repeat posts. The community makes the best use of Jive’s functionality.
  • Use of the gamification modules are also among the more complex we’ve seen. Generally it is logical and is well designed to hook members who would most likely become regular, active, members.
  • Apple is a little less strong on the social side. The answers are ok, but far too many discussions aren’t getting a response. This is a huge problem that can’t be tackled solely by technology.

Visit for yourself: https://discussions.apple.com/

Let me know if you found this audit useful, [email protected]

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