The Role of Status In Community Building

Status permeates deep within community building. Asking people who perceive themselves as high status to connect with those they see as low status (even if they don’t admit it) almost always fails. You can have limited success with time-limited engagements which present the individual as a high-status person, but otherwise you’re going to struggle.

A few years ago, I was sitting backstage at a conference waiting to give my talk. Fellow speakers in the room included Presidents, CEOs, and CMOs of known technology companies.

One speaker, having just preached the values of community onstage, asked our host how to sneak out the back without being seen.

Slapping a community label on an activity doesn’t disguise underlying social dynamics. People who perceive themselves as high status – even the most fervent believers in community – still aren’t keen to connect with community members they perceive as low status.

Part of this is understandable. Had the speaker tried to exit through the main foyer, the speaker would likely have had to engage with a large number of people who wanted something (answers to questions, pitch an idea, help with a specific feature of their product, validation by association etc…).

It’s feasible the speaker might have found someone who would have solved an urgent problem or become a lifelong friend. But the odds are low and the immediate pain too high. So the speaker slipped out the back.

I’m seeing many well-intentioned community initiatives fail because they ignore, rather than embrace, status.

Both the high status and low-status group still crave community.

But one group craves a community that offers privacy, intimacy, and an environment that reflects their status (luxury). They want a small number of strong ties with people like themselves. (hint: this probably won’t happen in a discussion forum). The other wants connections, purpose, and opportunities to grow. They want a large number of weaker connections.

Whether you like it or not, status permeates through all community work. A message (ghostwritten) from the CEO will have a far bigger impact on industry experts than the same message sent by a junior community manager. It’s impossible to even build a community in some sectors unless the founder is perceived as high status.

As you begin developing your community skills, you should become increasingly better at engaging people how they desire to be engaged, a desire based upon their perceived status.

Unsatisfied Needs

A simple exercise.

In interviews, polls, surveys, or even a discussion post, ask what challenge members need help to overcome (and haven’t been able to solve anywhere yet).

You should get a big list of problems. List them by frequency (or urgency) and put them onto a content (or event) roadmap.

Each month make it your mission to engage members in solving each need.

Embracing The Communities Which Already Exists

Take a look at the Snowflake community for a second (it’s one of the better Salesforce communities).

You might notice the primary navigation tab is driving people to StackOverflow for discussions.

Embracing the existing communities (or native platforms members use) is both an incredibly smart and often an incredibly difficult decision to make.

It means you’re ceding control to a platform over which you can’t moderate and manage activity. Sure, you can participate and reply, but you can’t collect any data, easily escalate issues and plenty more.

Which is why so few organisations take a similar approach. They want control.

It might be psychologically hard to give up this control and simply link to a tag on StackOverflow, Reddit, or even a Twitter hashtag. But it’s far harder to persuade people to participate in your platform, when they’re so comfortable and familiar with participating in another.

You have to forge new habits, offer something members can’t get anywhere else, and force members to jump through additional hoops each time they want to connect.

But it’s worth considering the benefits of this approach.

StackOverflow probably has the best platform experience today. It’s a platform most technical audiences are very familiar with. Snowflake saves itself the trouble of hosting (and managing) the majority of discussions by directing people to another platform already filled with vibrant discussions.

Instead of competing with the existing ecosystem, Snowflake embraces it and adds value with distinct groups (which members can put themselves forward to run), user groups/events, documentation, ideas, and features StackOverflow can’t provide.

If there is already a place where members have discussions about the topic, it’s typically a good idea to embrace it rather than compete against it.

Navigation Problems

In surveys in around a third of our projects, members cite navigation problems as one of their biggest challenges.

This creates a battle where we try to make it dead-simple for members to get to every important area of the community within a single click (while still leaving space for banners, announcements, search, and the latest community activity).

Our work with Sephora is a good example of this process in action.

This is why communities like UIPath work so well.

You might not think it’s the most attractive site, but I love it.

Every visitor can easily see and reach every part of the community. The latest discussions, categories, and links are all in one easy place – with a banner for new information.

In 90% of cases, ease of navigation massively trumps aesthetics.

Communities Creating Email Overwhelm

Counting the number of emails a member received from one organisation upon joining the community recently.

  • 1x Weekly newsletter from the company.
  • 1x Special email announcing the community.
  • 1x Confirmation email when they registered.
  • 1x Welcome email when they clicked the confirmation email.
  • 1x Email congratulating the member on making their first post.
  • 1x Email letting the member know they had received a response to their post.
  • 1x Email letting the member know they had received their ‘first post’ badge.
  • 1x Email letting the member know they were now being followed by the admin.
  • 1x Email letting the member know they had received a direct message from the admin.
  • 1x Email letting the member know they had reached a new level.
  • 1x Weekly community digest.
  • 1x Curated monthly community newsletter.

Timing was a factor, but all 12 emails were sent within 3 days.

You can intuitively see how receiving each email individually makes sense.

But combined they create overwhelm which almost guarantees members will never read any of your emails again (aside, while you distinguish between emails from the community and the rest of the organisation, a member doesn’t).

A few basic tips:

1) Limit distribution of emails. If your platform allows it, limit the number of emails a member (especially a newcomer) will receive to just 2 to 3 per week.

2) Don’t send out gamification emails. For newcomers who quickly move up levels, this creates far too many meaningless emails. Either limit this to the higher ranks or turn it off entirely.

3) Don’t send out DM or follow emails. DMs should only be for active members who regularly visit the community and follow-related emails are pointless.

4) Don’t enroll newcomers automatically in the newsletter or digest. Either wait a week or two or invite members to opt-in when they’re ready.

5) Delay the welcome email. Wait until after a member has made their first post or been a member for a week.

Try going through your registration process yourself. You might be surprised just how many emails members receive.

Search, Support Centers, And Community Edge Cases

If I visit the Bose support center and ask a question in search, this is the resulting page:

Not one of the 530,000+ posts in the community will ever show up in the answers here.

The incredible collective wisdom of the community is wasted because the support center doesn’t use a federated search tool. Worse yet, the option on the right doesn’t invite people to ask the community but instead contact support.

Two things here…

First, the amazing thing about a community is that over time it covers so many edge cases which can’t be covered in the relatively small number of articles on the support center.

I don’t know how many articles Bose has created to support its products but I’m going to wager it’s less than the half a million posts the community has created.

Every different way a member might describe or solve a problem has been covered in the community. Being able to search for everything in one place is a win for everyone. Prioritise help center articles if you like, but don’t ignore the community content.

Second, if people can’t find the answer in the help center, they probably have an edge case that should be added to the community. The side button shouldn’t be to contact support, but to ask in the community. Questions that are unanswered thereafter [xyz] hours can be escalated to support anyway.

Changing The Onboarding Trigger

Too many communities try to take newcomers through onboarding journeys at the exact moment a newcomer is least receptive to them.

Most of the time, newcomers only care about solving their problem. Everything that comes between them and asking a question is bad.

If they join and an onboarding journey pops up, a newcomer quickly clicks through all the steps so they can ask a question. They ignore the guided community tour, they don’t bother following other groups or members, and they don’t care about other important benefits of the community.

Good onboarding journeys begin after the visitor has asked their first question.

The best onboarding journeys begin when a visitor has posted their first response. This is the moment they’re most interested in the broader community.

If your onboarding journey isn’t having the desired impact, it might’ve begun at the wrong time.

Communities Create Emotional Value, Try Not To Destroy It

Not many of us would volunteer to sit in a call center for a major tech company and answer calls from disgruntled customers for free.

But many thousands of people are doing this in online communities every single day.

This is because of the feeling a community creates.

In a community, you’re not working for free, you’re helping friends and people in your tribe solve problems.

In a community, you get to experience personal satisfaction at helping people overcome their problems.

In a community, you get to appear smart to people you want to impress and develop an identity as someone important.

In a community, your help might lead to job opportunities or connections that can open up new opportunities.

In a community, you feel you have a purpose and you’re contributing to the greater good. You have a mission.

This is what makes a community different from any other support activity. The community creates lasting relationships that enable all these things to happen. A community lets people earn rewards they value more than money.

If you want more people helping each other, the key isn’t to resort to tangible rewards but to do a far better job amplifying the feelings of the emotions above.

Something Specific Within The Community

A useful reminder today, don’t tell people to join a community.

Tell people to do something within the community.

Joining a community feels like work with no obvious value.

Sure, some people might see communities = good and dive straight in. But the majority will be too preoccupied with everything happening in their own lives to bother.

Invite people to do something specific within the community. This ‘something’ should touch an emotional nerve.

Solicit their feedback on an upcoming decision so they feel important. Ask them to share some expertise they recently discussed on Twitter. Invite them to be among a small, exclusive, group of people to attend an online event. Ask them to share how they overcame a topical challenge or what content they want to see.

Have them participate in things that make them feel important, useful, and helpful.

Servants and Leaders

You’re more likely to comply with a request from someone of high status rather than low status.

Maybe that’s not the way things should work, but, alas, it’s how it does.

This is true in online and offline communities too…and it matters more than you might think.

If you are giving off low-status vibes, responding submissively to every member whim, desperately begging members to engage and participate, you’re not getting a great response.

While you might see yourself as a servant of your community, how can you best serve the community? By responding to every member whim or need? Or determining what’s in the best interests of the community as a whole and leading them there.

For the community to thrive, you need to thrive. You need to have a high status within the community. You need to create desirable opportunities for people to be more engaged, not be seen as begging members to participate. You need to build your reputation and have both authority and integrity within the group. You need to identify the symbols of high status within your field and ensure you’re not violating them.

Perhaps one reason why social media types often struggle when building online communities is they can’t move the mindset from a servant of individual members to leaders of their community.

Audiences and Research

If you want your current participants to participate more, then research the members who already participate, uncover their unmet needs, and build this into the community.

If you want members who don’t participate to begin participating, survey and interview solely these members. Find out what led them to join the community. Uncover why they don’t participate (do they feel they have nothing to share or get their needs satisfied elsewhere) and adapt accordingly.

If you want more people to join your community (typically customers/audiences you can reach that haven’t joined yet), then survey and interview this group. Find out if they’ve heard about the community, what they’ve heard about it, and why they decided not to join. Is it an awareness issue or a messaging issue? Identify if you need to change the message or do a better job promoting the community.

Each type of research is fine, just be clear about what you’re trying to achieve.

Creating Better Community Content

The purpose of community content is to disseminate the best expertise from members across the rest of the community.

Too often communities have blogs filled with content like ‘top 5 ways to [xyz]’ or ‘how to [xyz]’ – often created by an author who isn’t an expert on the topic. Sometimes this content is created without even attempting to gather and validate the incredible expertise of members.

Our approach with clients is different.

1) Source the topic ideas. Aim to create one ‘pillar’ content per quarter. Post a question in the community and invite members to suggest what topics they want covered. Remember who shared each idea.

2) Let members vote on the topics. Once the list is created, use a survey or poll and invite members to vote on the topics to find the top 2 to 3.

3) Create a shared Google Doc and let members list the sub-topics to cover. Specifically ask members to list any challenges within the topic. You can @mention the members who voted and suggested the topic to help guide this process.

4) Post questions in the community asking for experiences and expertise. In each section, post questions asking members to share how they overcame the challenge, share relevant resources, and any other useful tips.

5) Invite members to share any useful templates they use. In most topics, having some useful diagrams or templates can be handy. If members don’t have any they can share, help co-develop your own with members.

6) Co-write the resources. You might need to take the lead on pulling all this together, but invite feedback at each stage of the journey. Ask your small group of insider members to proof-read it and make comments.

7) Create a specific page for it (forget eBooks). eBooks help gather email addresses, but over the long-term, creating specific pages for this content works better. You can see this on our ROI, strategy, or superuser articles. If they were published as eBooks they wouldn’t have had anywhere near the longevity. You should set aside a small budget for the design and development of this work.

8) Plan a promotional campaign. In the weeks leading up to the publication, reach out to members to promote it when it goes live and plan to host a launch day sharing the best advice. You might even put a small social ads budget here too.

9) Keep it updated once per year. The hard part isn’t just creating a useful resource, but keeping it updated. This allows newcomers to pose new questions, new expertise to emerge, and helps with search optimisation too.

This type of content is frequently referred to newcomers and outsiders, typically becomes a useful landing page, and provides the most value to members over the long-term.

This process takes a lot longer, but it also creates content that helps the majority of members, which makes members feel proud, and puts the incredible expertise of your members to work.

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