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.

What Are Community Managers? Why Do We Need Them?

If you’re a community manager, you know communities don’t happen by chance. You make them happen.

You use your powerful skills of persuasion, understanding of psychology, and knowledge of technology to build powerful online communities.

Today we’re publishing this video to help you explain what community management is, why having a great community manager is so important, and the skills you need to be a great community manager.

If you’ve had to explain the importance and value of your work as often as we have, this video might be as great a primer for you as it has been for us.

Keep doing the work you’re doing. You’re not alone. Your work matters.

Stopping Declaration Dan

You know the type.

Every statement the member makes is written as a debate-ending truth.

More savvy and empathetic members know it’s best to preface or caveat their statements i.e.:

“According to….[xyz],”
“In my experience…[xyz]”
“I feel…[xyz]”

Now a debate can continue with conflicting sources of information, experiences, and opinions without heading into an argument. Prefacing your belief with the source of that belief allows an ongoing discussion.

We once wrestled with this problem recently in a small community of practice. A handful of Declaration Dans were causing arguments and ending discussions simply by their belief in their own rightness.

We first tried soft messages to reason with them, but these were largely ignored. So we tried social pressure instead. We created a cartoon character called Declaration Dan which appeared on the homepage sidebar with a short warning to “Don’t Be Declaration Dan”. The image was clickable and gave (made up) examples of Declaration Dans and what they should do instead.

Two volunteer members also helped by calling out the next few examples of Declaration Dan they saw. Other members began picking up on it too and referring to similar comments as Declaration Dan.

Soon becoming a Declaration Dan was a term of light mockery and a sign of one’s insecurity.

It didn’t completely eradicate the problem. But it drastically reduced it.

Email, Call, Or Ask The Community?

I took this screenshot on the Amazon KDP site.

Putting email, call, and community together without any explanation of the pros and cons of each is silly.

For most people, the obvious answer is to send an email. Why pick up the phone or try to figure out a community (and ask your question in public) when you don’t need to?

Alas, this limits community participation and increases (rather than reduces) the number of questions customer support needs to resolve.

If you have a similar contact form, be clear about the unique benefits of each or which questions are the best fit for each channel.

If it were me, I’d recommend something like:

Search for an answer (search for terms in community/documentation)
This should appear above any other option across the top.

Ask the community (avg. response time [x minutes])
For questions about payment, processes, publishing and using the site

Email (avg. response time [x minutes])
For questions involving some personal information, i.e. [x], [y], [z].

Call (avg. response time [x minutes])
For complex questions requiring a lot of personal information.

These are just examples, but you get the idea. Don’t simply lump the three options together without any explanation of each.

Do You Need A Full-Time Community Manager?

In some projects, the client will ask if they need a full-time community manager.

My answer is usually the same, ideally…yes.

This usually cues some nervous shuffling, side-glances, and disgruntled mumbling about budgets and headcounts.

The follow-up question is more telling.

“If we can’t get a full-time community manager, what is the minimum amount of time someone can invest in a community and make it succeed?”

One problem here is success isn’t binary. There isn’t a magic number of hours per week that suddenly flips a community from unsuccessful to successful.

The second problem is it’s not about time, but commitment. Someone doing community around other tasks will often try to do community more efficiently. They give shorter, quicker, responses to questions. They don’t check back in previous discussions to see if the problem was resolved. They don’t reach out and build relationships with top members. They don’t put in the extra mile of effort that makes the community succeed.

The rapid decline in commitment makes calculating the minimum amount of time required problematic. Someone who splits community with another job role is probably only 25% as good as a full-time staffer. They do the basic stuff but are unlikely to go the extra mile.

The Real Value of Surveys (and one to complete today)

The real value of community surveys lies in three areas:

1) Identifying trends over time.

Every community scores well in the answer to the following member survey question:

“Overall, how helpful or unhelpful do you find the community?”

You can probably see why. The people who don’t get value from the community stop visiting and don’t respond to the invitation to the survey.

So why bother even asking this question knowing we’re going to get a good response to it?

Because it lets us track success over time. Knowing the community scored 4.1 (out of 5) this year doesn’t tell us much. Knowing it was higher or lower than the year before tells us much more.

2) Identifying demographics of most engaged members.

One survey I issued recently returned demographic data completely at odds with Google Analytics data. Our most active members were significantly older than casual visitors.

The same people who complete surveys are also the most active members of the community. Community member surveys let you build detailed personas that understand exactly what members need in the community.

3) Identifying the 20% of features/content that matters.

The 80/20 principle applies to communities as much as anywhere else. Surveys let you identify which features or needs really matter to members. For example, if you look at this data:

From a strategist perspective, you should probably stop storytelling videos immediately and reconsider the time you spend on member profiles, events and blogs. You then invest that additional time, resources, and attention) into forums, groups and news.

Note: If you ask members to complete surveys, you should pay it forward by completing surveys yourself too. I recommend you complete this survey (now running for more than a decade) by our friends at the Community Roundtable.

Also check out Organising Communities by the team at

Don’t Make Anyone Angry!

…isn’t a smart philosophy when it comes to managing a community.

It’s like asking a politician to lead without upsetting anyone.

Not only is it impractical, but it causes more harm than good.

The most important decisions you need to make will upset some members. If they didn’t then they wouldn’t be decisions at all, they would just be obvious next steps.

Every time you remove a feature, some members will be upset – even if it improves the experience for the many. Every time you remove members who aren’t a good fit, you’re going to infuriate some members. Every time you feature or promote the work of members, you might upset the members you didn’t feature.

Of course, it’s emotionally difficult to accept that members are going to be angry as a result of your actions. But remember that the things which might delight the many will probably upset the few.

If you’re managing a community, you’re likely to make a few enemies. That might not be a bad thing.


It’s hard to build a community if your boss is always questioning your work, overruling your decisions, and keeping you guessing about their vision for the community.

It’s equally hard if you’re keeping your members guessing, overruling (or ignoring) their ideas, and keeping them guessing about your vision for the community.

There seems to be a relationship between the two.

Matching The Tone of Members

I worked with a community of practice recently which was having trouble reaching a critical mass of activity.

Reading posts and email templates, there was a clear difference between the tone members used when engaging with one another and the tone the community manager used.

The community manager was bright, bubbly, used lots of exclamation points, sent everyone best wishes for holidays and weekends.

Community members were direct, generally serious, and rarely bothered to inquire into each other’s weekends or wish others well for the holidays.

On paper, the community manager was absolutely the kind of person you want to get a community started. But members I interviewed frequently mentioned finding the community manager offputting. One mentioned (“she stuck out like a sore thumb”).

Finding the right person for a community isn’t just about their experience and attributes, but also about their tone. A community manager who is great for one community can be a poor fit for another.

If you can’t match the tone of members, they won’t consider you as one of them. For sure, be positive and optimistic, but somewhere in the continuum, there’s a line that’s acceptable for your members. You need to figure out where that line is pretty quickly.

Featuring Members

Imagine you received a letter today which revealed your face had been selected at random to be featured on a billboard everyone in the local community would see every day.

How would that make you feel?

If you’re like most people, the answer is probably a little uneasy.

You might have questions like….Do I want that attention? Will my photo look good compared with others? How long will it be there for? Do I get any say in this?

This is also true online. Random featuring a selection of members on your homepage feels like a good idea…until you stop to think about how members might actually feel about it.

This idea that everyone wants more attention, regardless of the type of attention, is plain wrong. The nuances of attention matter. Featuring members at random doesn’t make anyone feel better (and can cause plenty of problems).

Featuring members because of their achievements, those with a long track record of participating in the community, and those who have opted in – that’s a different matter.

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