Some dynamics are outside of your control.
A common one is whether members are in a competitive environment.
If your members are in industries where they might compete with one another for jobs, money, or attention, they’re far less likely to show any vulnerability.
They’re not likely to share their problems, admit what they don’t know, or cede ground on disagreements. The flip side is they’re far more likely to publish expertise, answer questions, and, sometimes, share their case studies.
The greater the success of one member might impact the success of others, the more you will see these dynamics play out.
However, if members work or live in relative isolation from one another, where they might be the only one in their organisation or location engaging within the topic, they’re far more likely to be open and vulnerable with one another.
Before deciding what members will do, it’s good to take stock of the existing dynamics and feelings within your ecosystem.
An acquaintance was agonizing over how to get activity going in a community he was due to launch.
It’s easy to overthink this (and you really don’t need to).
If you’re not sure what the first discussions should be ask your members.
You don’t need to be scared of your members. You can simply ask questions like:
“How should we get activity started here?”
“What should this community become?”
“What would you like to see in the early days of this community?”
A community doesn’t need to launch with a fully-formed plan to drive activity. It’s an iterative process. You build a community with your members, not for your members.
Ironically, the more you engage members at this stage the more likely they will engage in the community.
I was speaking recently to a community leader whose company had begun paying members a small reward to answer questions within the community.
The results have been interesting.
On the downside, volunteer superusers (who were also invited to join the gig program) are upset at being cast aside and have begun causing a ruckus.
On the upside, the speed of response and the number of questions receiving answers has increased significantly. Members are getting faster answers which are more likely to resolve their problem.
But the answers are less warm and friendly than before.
However, member satisfaction ratings within the community have increased since the program began. The speed and quality of an answer trumps the warmth and friendliness of the answer.
I think this shows two things. First, there are still plenty of ways to do community and avenues to explore. Second, every decision which improves one aspect of a community causes challenges elsewhere. The magic is knowing which trade-offs make the most sense for you.
If you have some time coming up, here are a few books I’d suggest. Some are community-related, others less so.
- Priya Parker – The Art of The Gathering. One of the best books I’ve read all year. A game-changer in how we create powerful, transformative, experiences for our community members. Applies primarily to in-person gatherings but almost all of the lessons can be applied online too.
- Marshall Rosenberg – Nonviolent Communication. Explains how to engage with members in challenging situations. Anyone doing ‘in the trenches’ community management should have this on their shelf (preferably well-thumbed through).
- Richard Rumelt – Good Strategy Bad Strategy. Too often we blunder our way into a strategy without truly defining what ‘good’ strategy looks like. Reading this will help you identify the purpose behind strategy and how to do it well.
- Daniel Coyle – The Culture Code. If you’re working with smaller groups or internal communities, this will explain how to create a cohesive team and build a sense of trust.
- Jono Bacon – People Powered. Jono’s breakdown of his approach to building thriving communities in the developer space and other sectors. A great read packed with clever, practical, tips.
- Carrie Melissa Jones & Charles Vogl – Building Brand Communities. An approach to building true and authentic communities when so many brand communities become customer support channels.
Similar to yesterday’s post.
Your goals and the value to your members must align.
For example, you might assume the more frequently members visit, the more your members will benefit. But one study shows visit frequency and tenure had little impact on community attachment or its key benefit (reduced emotional distress).
A community manager who constantly pesters members to visit more frequently is doing a disservice to a member.
Some, perhaps most, communities are simply there and available to members when they need them. In these communities, you look at the culture, the speed of response, the empathy of the response and work to improve each. You refine rules and nurture new social norms with top members. You develop systems to get faster responses. You work to help each person feel safe sharing parts of themselves they can’t anywhere else.
You might measure a satisfaction rating via a pop-up poll or survey every 6 months to a sample of members.
Ultimately, remember the engagement paradox here:
The engagement paradox.
Everyone wants more engagement, except community members.
— Richard Millington (@RichMillington) November 10, 2020
Alignment is harder than it looks.
Plenty of communities show pointless social stats on their homepage.
But does showing 7 million registered members (as opposed to say four, five, or six million) really make a difference? Are you more likely to join and participate in a community with 30k+ solutions as opposed to 20k+ solutions?
Above a relatively low level, these sorts of metrics become meaningless to members. They don’t reflect the quality of the community experience.
A better approach would be to show metrics that members do care about. For many communities this might be:
- % of questions that receive a solution.
- Average time to get an answer.
- Overall satisfaction rating of the community.
These metrics are more likely to tempt newcomers to join and ask questions. Showing these metrics lets you set goals for superusers and celebrate your successes with them. These metrics let you and your top members feel a part of a common mission together.
Most importantly, these metrics put you on the hook for a number that can go down as well as up. They serve as a promise about the things you care about. They tell your members that you care about more than cramming as many people into your digital space as possible. They tell your members that you want their help as part of that journey.
I’m a member of a private WhatsApp group with precisely 12 members.
Early on, the group host encouraged each of us to share our goals (both personal and professional).
We each tried to be as honest as possible and pushed each other to be so too. Any time someone mentioned a vague goal, they were given helpful suggestions to clarify it and why they want to achieve it. In the process, some of us changed our goals entirely.
Anytime someone needs something to help them achieve their goals, they ask in the group. Sometimes that’s emotional support, sometimes that’s someone to take a look at their work, and sometimes it’s referrals for great web designers, video developers, or places to host events etc…
Helping someone achieve their goals is an incredible feeling. Being a part of a group where you all help each other to achieve their goals even more so.
If you’re managing communities based around small groups (I’m not sure this scales especially well), I’d suggest encouraging each newcomer (and existing member) to openly share their goals and commit to helping one another achieve them.
Too few brand communities deliver the value they should be delivering.
The problem isn’t usually a lack of resources, but a lack of awareness in how the community can support so many areas of the business.
This graphic below gives a number of examples:
A successful community supports every stage of the funnel. For a breakdown
In the awareness stage, communities can:
- Attract more search traffic.
- Help build a mailing list.
- Create retargeting opportunities through pixel tracking.
- Nurture advocates for the brand.
- Host events that attract new prospects.
- Provide PR teams with success stories to promote.
- Provide statistics that can be promoted publicly.
- Be targeted in a particular topic to attract a broader base of customers.
In the interest stage, communities can help members become more interested in buying the product or service. This includes:
- Members getting answers to product questions (notably which are best for them).
- Community-created lists of recommended products/services for different use cases.
- Members publishing reviews on shopping and comparison sites.
- Members creating content that is featured in marketing material.
- Members creating long-form guides solving particular problems with your products/services.
- Automated email campaigns guiding members to buy items based upon community participation.
- Members giving ideas and feedback to improve products.
In the conversion stage, communities can increase the number of interested prospects who make a commitment. This includes:
- Sales staff using community data to help convert leads (knowing what people have searched for and looked up before).
- Member testimonials and quotes featured on product pages.
- Including purchase links directly to mentioned products.
- Members getting referral fees to help sell products.
- Short-term exclusive offers to members only.
- Using social proof and statistics throughout the community.
Communities play a role (although often overstated) in retaining members. This comes via:
- Members having an improved experience by getting high-quality support from other members.
- Members sharing and learning tips/best practices to get more value from their products.
- Members feel a powerful sense of community.
- Members participating in shared activities together and befriending others.
In the advocacy stage, communities can:
- Turn members into advocates who promote the brand through social channels.
- Members sharing content created within the community with others.
The biggest win for many of us building communities professionally is to build the relationships, processes, and features necessary to ensure our community supports as many aspects of the business as possible.
When you get a new community job, you might be tempted to dive in on day one and begin engaging with members in the community.
A few things to consider before you do this:
1) Do members know who you are yet?
2) Do you know who members are?
3) Do you have sector/product expertise or knowledge to properly respond to and engage with members?
Imagine a stranger jumping into a technical discussion with you and your colleagues without knowing who any of you were, what contributions you had made before, and sharing information that wasn’t accurate.
It’s probably not going to go well. It’s easy to cause long-term damage to your reputation based upon your first few contributions within a community.
It’s perfectly ok to reach out to a few members, introduce yourself (ideally via a referral), and say you’re keen to get their views on the community while you get up to speed.
Likewise, if your organisation has a training course or certification you can go through on the products, it’s worthwhile going through it and reading up on the top 50 or so discussions ever posted in the community.
Taking a couple of weeks to familiarize yourself with the community and its topic now can save you plenty of problems later.
Over the past few years, I’ve spent copious amounts of time diving deep into the minutia of community data to extract insights that you can use to improve your community without investing a huge sum of money.
I’ve shared some of these in this blog before, but now you can find the whole webinar below.
If you want to know how quickly to reply to posts, where the biggest wins are, and how much engagement you should have, watch this webinar:
A couple of times, I’ve been invited by a major platform or a social network to provide strategic direction.
One of the overlooked considerations in these ‘mega’ projects is what will competitors do?
For example, you can use your audience research and intuition to determine features or activities which will prove popular with members. For smaller communities (or those without natural competitors i.e. most support communities), hitting a home-run here is good enough.
But at the ‘social network’ level, you can be sure if a feature proves popular, a competitor’s first move will be to copy and improve upon it. This is why the pioneers of a particular feature are rarely those who build long-term success upon them.
If the competitor has better resources than you do, having a head start of 6 months won’t help you much. You’re simply saving them some market research time.
So what can you do?
The best option is to integrate features with other features to deliver value that proves increasingly difficult to copy, i.e. adding disappearing images isn’t hard to copy. But combining this with a powerful and existing distribution system using a member’s existing connections is hard to copy.
Whatever feature you develop, you need to combine it with your unique advantages (unique focus, unique skill set, unique niche), in such a way that any major competitor will be unable or unwilling to copy it. This in turn should lead you to only develop features that can be configured in such a way that your competitor’s simply won’t be able, or willing, to copy them.
Of course, if you have better resources than competitors, you have to be ready to double down and constantly improve upon the feature quicker than competitors can catch up.
Don’t overlook what competitors will do.
Engagement can’t continue rising indefinitely. At some point, it has to plateau and the closer you get to the plateau, the rate of growth will naturally slow.
Most communities follow an S-Curve of growth. Participation begins slowly, hits a critical mass, and starts to grow rapidly, and then plateaus as most of the likely people to participate are already participating.
There are some exceptions. Customer support communities often explode to life simply by redirecting traffic from one channel to another. And some organisations might just have a big launch and then struggle to sustain the initial base of activity.
If you’re being asked to increase engagement, the next obvious question is to what level?
There are many ways of tackling this question.
If you’re managing a support community, then the total number of answerable questions (those not requiring a member to share personal details) is a fair place to start.
If you’re managing a success based community, where members are expected to proactively share ideas and knowledge with one another, you might try to get a figure on how many people are already doing that today (and whether that rate of growth is increasing or decreasing).
If you’re managing an interest-based community, you might look at how many people are searching for related terms today and making a rough calculation based upon that.
Ultimately, you need some baseline metric that describes the type of engagement that matters to you, how much of it is happening elsewhere today, and what the top figure looks like. Once you have these metrics, you can plot your S-Curve accordingly.
(Aside, shifting behavior is a lot easier than initiating it. If you’re asking members to do something they’ve never done before, your estimates should be a lot more conservative).