A Tough Lesson About Viral Growth in Communities

It won’t happen…at least not at the beginning.

When was the last time you reached out to friends and invited them to join any of the communities of which you’re a member?

I’m betting it wasn’t recently (if ever).

People don’t invite friends to join communities because they don’t want to put their credibility on the line. If you think you can invite the first few members and then your community will organically grow, you’re going to be extremely disappointed.

There are two things to understand here.

First, people don’t invite friends to join communities, they share content within those communities with their friends.

If you want viral growth your community has to be filled with content which is so interesting, valuable, and unique that members will be eager to share it. And the bar for this is very high indeed.

Second, relying on viral growth for success is a terrible strategy. A better approach is to identify how many people you can reach (existing names in your database), how many you can divert from existing traffic flows (your website etc..) and estimate the conversion rate. Then see how you can increase the conversion rates of both while getting people to stick around.

To rely on viral growth is to rely on chance. Don’t do it.

Working with Smaller Communities

A while back I participated in a podcast for indiemedia.club talking about the do’s and don’ts of launching successful communities, how to develop a paid membership site, and other bonus tips.

If you have a spare 45 minutes, you can find it here:


A community manager was recently hired to help start a new community.

She told me she was too busy right now to begin engaging with members. She had calls with the vendor to be involved in, welcome emails to create, SWAG to organize, and more.

In three weeks, she hadn’t spoken to a single prospective member of the community.

If you’re starting a new community, you need to invert this thought process. Spend the first two hours of your day reaching out to and engaging with prospective members of the community. Simply tell them you’re launching a community soon and are keen to learn from their expertise.

Then squeeze in all the other activities around this.

The Helpful / Solved Score (and comparing support channels)

Questions like “was this answer helpful?” or “did this answer solve your problem?” are a powerful means of evaluating the success of many community programs.

Most platforms enable you to have at least some form of this – 

It’s one of the easiest measures of tracking the success of many community programs. For example, if you invest more in your superuser program, you should expect a greater percentage of answers to questions being marked helpful. If you decide to pay people to answer questions, you can see whether this is having the desired impact.

But this metric can also cause problems.

Some organisations use the same question to compare phone support, online tickets, knowledge-based articles, and the community. This isn’t a bad idea – as long as the numbers are taken in context.

Most of the easiest questions can be solved through documentation and knowledge-based articles. So we expect these to score well. Phone and ticket support is one to one contact from a paid professional, these would score well too.

A community, however, often gets the questions other channels can’t answer. Visitors are often frustrated by the time they visit. Thus a community will naturally score below other channels.

But this comparison overlooks three important things.

1) Volume. What % of questions is the community solving and thus ensuring people don’t need to visit any other channel?

2) Cost. If a community solve has a 15% lower satisfaction rate at 50% of the cost, that’s a huge win.

3) Other benefits. The community offers benefits in retention, loyalty, advocacy, feedback, research, and more which won’t show up in these metrics.

By itself, this question and the result can lead to a misunderstanding about the value and benefits of a community. Don’t use the number in isolation. Attach a cost, volume, and measure that allows a better appreciation of the community.

p.s. Be aware that changing the question from ‘was this answer helpful?’ to ‘did it solve your problem?’ will have a big impact upon the number.

More Community Organizing

A community organizer knows the people she serves are unlikely to stand before a group of strangers and share their problems. That kind of courage (or vulnerability), will take a lot more time and a lot more trust.

So she goes from person to person, building one relationship at a time.

She earns the trust of one person and then the next.

Pretty soon, she can spot the patterns. She connects people with similar problems to discuss potential solutions. Better yet, she connects people with similar problems to people who have the skills, experience, or resources to help.

Each of these common problems forges new relationships between members. Each solution builds momentum and a sense of possibility for what the community can become. And it’s relationships and momentum which drive the community forward.

If you find yourself stuck when building a new community, whether for a few hundred or a few thousand members, go back to community organizing.

Reach out to a dozen people a week, have calls with them, connect them privately to one another, and find safe places within a community where they can work towards solutions.

Your community might need less community management and more community organizing.

Next Christmas

In late November, you will probably realise Christmas is coming up and try to come up with some ‘Christmassy’ ideas for your community.

But by late November it’s too late to do anything important.

So you might wind up sending a generic season’s greeting and slightly change the theme of your site.

Doing something is probably better than nothing, but not by much.

How many of the Christmas greeting messages from various organisations you belong to do you even bother to read?

What if you began planning some game-changing ideas right now?

What is the most amazing gift you could give to the community? Or the community could give to each other? What if you worked backwards from that gift and determined the actions and resources required?

It could be anything. Maybe it’s community-personalised swag, a community yearbook, sponsored training or resources, or a major non-profit campaign to give back to others. But if you want next Christmas to have more impact than last Christmas, plan early.

Banning People

A few rules:

1) It should take less time to ban someone than it takes the offender to commit the offence. If you’re spending time engaging in counter-arguments and engaging in lengthy debates, you’re losing the battle. If you’re going to ban someone, don’t get sucked into a lengthy debate about it.

2) You can ban anyone who does more harm than good to the community. There is no law that prevents you from removing any member who isn’t a good fit. If you’re hosting a dinner party and someone is clearly causing trouble, you remove them for the benefit of the masses. They don’t need to have broken a specific rule, they simply need to do more harm than good.

3) Your reasons must be consistent. If someone repeats the same offence and isn’t banned – that’s going to lead to problems. Every ban sets a precedent. If you ignore the precedent next time you’re going to rattle a hornet’s nest.

4) The person you ban might will probably first try to seek revenge. First, they will try to rejoin the community. If that fails, they will try to harm you or the community. Try to imagine, if you were them, what would you do to cause the most harm? Don’t be alarmed, just be prepared.

5) Everyone is replaceable. No figure is ‘too big to ban’. People assume available roles within a community. When you remove a top member, you open a slot for another member to take their place. The success of your community never hinges upon one or two people. You might find the very person you thought was too big to ban was actually holding everyone else back.

Good luck.

The Wrong Way To Pick A Community Platform

“I’ve already reached out to a few platform vendors”

….is a sentence message I’ve learned to dread.

It’s usually a sign they’re trying to select a platform before determining the best approach to a community. Once people reach out to vendors, they fall in love with a particular vision for the community which is hard to shift.

A friend of mine recently reached out for advice on which platform to pick.

He had narrowed the list down to four options.

What surprised me was how different the four platforms were. One was a major enterprise platform, one was a forum-based platform, one was an instant messaging platform, and one was a hybrid of all three.

Each platform was suited to an entirely different approach to building a community.

One would’ve been great as a customer support channel and enabling members to share content with one another. Another would’ve been great for creating a tighter, more intimate, sense of community.

One platform might’ve been ideal for an organisation that needed to tightly integrate the community with existing systems, another was perfect for a separate, undercover, experience that could be launched quickly and cheaply.

You should decide the approach your community is taking before you shortlist (and contact) potential communities.

If you’re trying to decide between different platforms in different categories, you have a strategy problem.

This is a terrible way to build community!

For starters, you’ll end up picking the platform with the most persuasive pitch (often the one that promises success in the most hyperbolic terms) instead of looking for the platform which best suits your needs (you don’t know your needs yet).

Second, you’re beginning with the needs of the vendor rather than the needs of your audience and your organisation.
For sure, you might get lucky. The platform you pick might wind up being the perfect platform for your community’s needs. But if you haven’t undertaken your audience research, gathered detailed requirements from your stakeholders, prioritised a list of items you need, you have no way of knowing that.

The Best Example Of Discussion Tagging

At the bottom of most areas where you type your question for a community, you have an option to add a ‘tag’.

This seemingly benign option has such a huge impact over a community it’s bewildering how little discussion it receives.

When tagging is done well, it achieves three things:

1) Ensures the right posts appear in front of the right people. Experts in particular topics can browse a page of properly tagged discussions and answer questions. This increases both the quantity and quality of answers. Sometimes people can even follow particular tags.

2) Enables you to create topic pages. You can use tags to create unique topic pages filled solely with discussions, articles, and other material relevant to that particular tag. This gives you far more flexibility than category pages.

3) Lets members follow tags. Members can follow and receive questions related to particular tags they’re interested in. You can even find the top experts by each particular ‘tag’ in the community.

However, tagging is rarely done well in the community. Most communities fall victim to one of three mistakes.

Mistake 1: Forcing members to come up with tags. This is the worst option. If members have an open text box to create a ‘tag’, you’re going to get dozens of variations of similar tags ranging from (‘iphones’, ‘brokeniphone’, to ‘dfgdfg’).

Mistake 2: Forcing members to start typing for tags to appear. This is slightly better, at least relevant tags will appear as members type them. However, members still have to know what a tag is and can still misclassify their answers.

Mistake 3: Presenting too many tags. This at least lets people select tags, but often there are so many tags to choose from members just select anything to make the boxes go away.

The Right Approach to Tagging

The right approach to tagging is to use your existing member data to suggest relevant tags.

The Apple community is the best example of this. To ask a question, you first need to log-in. Once you log-in, you can start typing your question in the search box (this helps reduce duplicate questions).

Once you click the link to ask a question, the platform uses your data to suggest the most likely tags.

This is about as good as it gets.

You can select what you’re asking about and what topic your question is relevant to. You can still change it if it’s not a good fit, but thus far I’ve found these options to be spot on.

If you’re looking for a project to massively improve your community in the new year, I’d start here.

“Bad Things Will Happen”

It’s common when trying to build support for a community to pretend nothing bad will happen.

But this is going to hurt you and your community when it does. Worse yet, if you’ve pretended nothing bad will happen you probably don’t have an agreed plan to deal with the risks.

Instead of trying to pretend it won’t happen, it’s better to pretend it will.

But you need to explain three things here:

1) You’ve identified the risks. You have worked with various teams (marketing, PR, IT, legal, product to identify the most likely risks (legal, reputation, risk to members, risk to staff etc…). Invite stakeholders to add their concerns to the list.

2) You have a plan to respond and mitigate each of them. You’ve taken proactive steps to reduce the likelihood of something bad happening and have a plan to respond when it does. Invite anyone with concerns to help develop your plans here too.

3) The incredible benefits of a community far outweigh these risks. Much of the business world is shifting towards community. Control is in decline. You can figure out how to do community now or later, but at some point it will happen. The benefits of a community are too important to not pursue because of concerns about risks.

The more active your community becomes the bigger the risk that something bad will happen. On a long-enough time scale, it’s almost inevitable.

If you want to mitigate the concerns of colleagues, engage them in the journey of identifying and mitigating the risks (and identifying the benefits they need from the community).

Active Members vs. Search Traffic

A while back we began looking at how many active members a community should have.

We looked at the number of active members of a few dozen communities and began comparing them by platform, size, maturity, revenue, and a bunch of other characteristics.

Few had a statistically significant impact. But the biggest predictor, by far, was search traffic for the brand.

The more people search for the brand, the more active members a community tends to have.

There is an obvious reason why this is a far bigger predictor than company size, customers, revenue, or any other attribute; it reflects how many people need help.

A thousand customers using a complicated product are likely to have far more questions than the millions of customers eating cornflakes for breakfast every morning.

Other factors play a role too. Where else can the audience get help? Will a community add value these other channels can’t? How big is the ecosystem etc…

But we’ve found search traffic for the brand to be the best predictor by far for active members.

What this also shows is some very large communities are significantly over-performing and some are significantly underperforming.

If you’re looking for benchmarks to compare yourself to others, the relative search traffic to active members of your brand vs. others is a good place to start.

Missing the Oomph

A familiar story last week.

Someone tried to start a community of practice within a niche field.

He reached out to prospective members. They all agreed it was a good idea and seemed keen to be involved. He created a group on an existing social network, initiated a few discussions, and invited them to join.

Then nothing much really happened. Few people replied. Discussions never really took off. Within 2 weeks the community was pretty much dead.

On paper, the founder had done almost everything right.

But the community was missing a spark. It was missing the oomph.

It was missing the thing that was going to make this community more exciting than anything else they can do at the time. It’s very hard to build a community if you’re going through the motions.

Sometimes the oomph is just the overwhelming passion and belief of the founder. Some people are simply magnetic and make communities happen. Sometimes it’s daring to do something new for the first time, maybe something that might not work. Sometimes it’s an especially exciting, audacious, goal. Sometimes it’s a feeling of having a secret and flying under the radar. etc…

I’d love to be able to list how to put the oomph into your community. But it doesn’t really work like that. You have to spend enough time with your audience that you notice things no-one else does. Maybe an unmet desire, or a cluster of people forming, or a desire for change.

Then you have to have desire and belief to think you can make it happen.

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