Teach People About The Topic, Not About The Platform

Don’t teach newcomers how to use the platform, teach them about the topic.

Typically around 70% of your newcomers are new to the topic too.

Learning how a platform works is boring, learning about the topic (which brought them to the community) is far more interesting.

I recommend inviting all newcomers to watch a recorded webinar offering a 101 beginners guide to the topic.

You can include an overview of the topics, lessons from top members (what do they wish they knew when they started?), a list of useful resources, and some practical tips for getting started.

At the end, include a few tips for using the community too.

Don’t bore newcomers with tedious platform information, surprise and inspire them with unexpected expertise in the topic. A 101 webinar is the perfect way to do it.

Two Types Of Community Trust

Online communities have different trust requirements compared with your local community.

These can be defined as cognitive and affective trust.

Cognitive Trust

Cognitive trust is the belief that other members are reliable, dependable, and skillful (or competent) at what they do. This specifically means:

  • Confidence in the skills of other members with relevance to the topic.
  • Confidence in the knowledge of other members about the subject.
  • Believing other members have specialised capabilities to add to the conversation
  • Believing other participants are well qualified on topics being discussed.
  • Other members are capable of performing tasks in regard to the topic
  • Other members seem successful in activities they undertake.

If you want to help members feel better connected, you need to help create the belief that members are informed, smart, and eager to improve themselves. This means creating opportunities for members to shine (questions, challenges, and special projects) while reporting on the success of those whom do.

This is also why it’s easier to feel closely connected with members at your level than people beneath it.

Affective Trust

Affective trust is caring and being concerned for the wellbeing of other members. This means:

  • Members are very concerned about the ability of the group to get along.
  • Members would not knowingly disrupt the conversation.
  • Members are concerned about what is important to others.
  • Members will do everything within their capacity to help each other.
  • Members try hard to be fair in dealing with one another.
  • Members behave in a consistent manner.

You achieve this via your moderation approach. If you and your team respond with high empathy standards, refuse to tolerate snarky and ungrateful members, and build a culture of mutual support, everyone in the community wins. But this comes at the cost of moderation (both resources and removing a lot of members who aren’t a good fit for this kind of community you’re trying to create).

It’s not easy to build a public community which attracts smart members who are eager to get along. However, if you’re selective about who you recruit, create opportunities for members to shine and reward those whom do, you can retain smart people. If you can sustain high moderation standards, you can have them get along too.

Improving The Sense of Community

The purpose of a sense of community survey isn’t to discover whether members feel connected to one another, it’s to identify the areas where you can have the biggest impact.

The end result of the survey is a scorecard broken down by four categories. You then design interventions to improve the scoring in the weakest areas. For example:

If members score low in membership, you might narrow the focus of the community (or create more sub-groups), solicit more immediate personal investments in the community, nurture in-jokes and reference past history, talk about more emotive topics, and initiate projects members can work on together.

If members score low in influence, you might provide members with more opportunities to run areas of the community, create groups for members who want to give their input into the community’s future, feature more contributions from members, and nurture stars among your audience.

If members score low in integration of needs, you might focus on turning active membership into a status symbol. You might introduce badges members will be proud to display, highlight relevant media reports on the community, share community success stories, create the community’s core values, and spend more time bringing the top experts in to the community in highly visible roles.

If members score low in shared emotional connection, you might create a shared history/timeline of the community, host online or offline events, introduce more bonding-related discussions, and increase the level of ‘fun’ discussions you initiate.

It’s hard to do everything well at the same time. So run the survey in your community and design your interventions to improve your community.

Guiding Principles

Most of our strategies have guiding principles.

These are the assumptions upon which the success of the community is built.

They often cover a combination of:

1. The unique target audience we’re targeting. Who is the community for and who is it not for? What is the rationale (data) behind this?

2. The unique advantage of the organization. What does the organization bring to the table which no-one else building a similar community can match?

3. The unique value to members. What is the unique value of this community to members?

4. What is the unique value of the community to the organization? What does the community offer to the organization it couldn’t get from elsewhere?

5. How the community survives in a changing world (i.e. incorporates trends). What are the major trends in the sector and how does the community negate them/thrive within them?

6. What is the key challenge that must be overcome? Most communities have a key challenge they must overcome to succeed. It might be getting questions, competing for experts, or budget issues. What is yours and how will it be tackled?

Guiding principles aren’t plucked from thin air in some virtuoso act of creativity. They’re the summation of everything the organization knows about its members, the sector, and itself.

For example, a set of guiding principles might include:

  • Our community is for newcomers to our sector. We aim to help newcomers progress quickly up the learning curve. We acknowledge we, therefore, won’t be the destination for experts looking for advanced, niche, tips.

  • The community drives retention of free trials to paying customers. Too many customers are lost to churn. The purpose of the community is to increase retention of customers through the trial to paid accounts.

  • The community reduces frustration for members. The community provides members with an easy way to get quickly up to speed. We filter out the best content for newcomers, proactively tackle their most likely questions, and do everything we can to reduce their sense of frustration.

  • The community will be distributed across many platforms. We expect less traffic to come from Google in the future. We will therefore proactively share the best members tips and address questions across any platform mentioned, used by more than 50% of our members.

While the strategy might change over the years, the guiding principles generally don’t.

The guiding principles act as constraints that focus everything you do. Once you know you’re building a community to reduce the frustration of newcomers, you can design an entire experience, recruit members, and take steps specifically to satisfy that strategy.

Develop your community guiding principles and share them with your colleagues, you might be surprised just how much it improves all your strategic efforts.

Addressing Anger

Angry members make angry posts.

If a member is angry when they visit the community, you can’t stop them from making an angry post. But remember it’s the previous touchpoints (frustration with product, customer support etc…) which made them angry, it’s not the community.

But you can address and resolve their anger.

You can make members feel listened to, understood, and respected. You can give them a sense of influence and control over the outcome. You can make them less angry and less likely to spur on others with negative, snarky, comments.

A few tips here.

1. Respond to each negative post. You can’t always give the answer members want, but you can ensure they know they were listened to and their comments were understood. Be sure to ask for extra clarifying information and questions. Ask members what they would like to see and explain what the options are.

2. Be honest. Don’t announce when the problem will be resolved if you don’t know. Once members mark you as a liar, it’s game over. Avoid the temptation to tell members what they want to hear instead of what’s possible.

3. Pin a topic that’s the source of most negative criticism. It’s better to have a single thread (most members can ignore) pinned to the top than hundreds on the same topic. This ensures minority opinions aren’t treated as majority opinions others will go along with.

4. Have an ‘I have this problem too’ feature on each topic post. If people can register how they feel without having to post, you will get less snarky comments and better quantifiable feedback.

5. Schedule webinars with product engineers/leadership to tackle the biggest frustrations. You might not be able to solve them, but you can show members you’re taking their issues seriously and get recommendations from people with influence.

And follow up on previous discussions to check they were resolved. You can’t stop members from making their first angry post, but you should be able to stop them from making a second angry post.

Make Your Messages Emotive To Be Effective

Most of us intuitively accept emotions drive behaviors better than facts.

But we get clumsy with the messaging to make people feel the emotion.

Too often we make the mistake of naming the feelings we’re trying to amplify. i.e. –

“Don’t be frustrated, ask for help!!”

“Build a powerful reputation in your field”

“Be empowered to take control of your health”

This intends to provoke revolution. No-one likes to be told what they’re thinking (or what to think).

The magic is stoking the emotion without having to name it. The magic is telling stories which connect to your members’ frustrations. You have to find the objects and situations that represent those emotions.

You don’t need to say waiting in line is frustrating, we know waiting in line is frustrating. Likewise not knowing how to solve a problem is frustrating and exasperating, you don’t need to name the emotion. You don’t need to say building a reputation is joyful, you need to find objects that represent that feeling. The more visual the objects are, the better. The more people can imagine encountering those objects, the more effective they are at amplifying the emotion.

This has to be reflected in the copy you use, images you deploy, stories you share etc…

If we think frustrating people with problems will drive someone to ask a question in a community, we’re not going to use the word ‘frustration’ at all.

We’re going to find objects which represent the alleviation of that frustration. We’re going to share stories of people who solved their problems, features images of collective time saved in the community, and posts about mistakes avoided etc…

The secret is always not to name the feeling you want to amplify, but to find the objects (words, ideas, images, etc… ) that will make people feel it.

Going On Tour

I’m in San Francisco meeting people all week.

There’s no agenda for any of these meetings.  

I do this about 2 to 3 times a year. I book a flight, stay in a hotel, and meet as many interesting people in our community as possible. It’s not cheap, but the results are invaluable.

Every single meeting yields something valuable; a future blog post, a resource idea, a feature idea, a connection to make with another member. At the very least, they confirm or refute ideas we’ve held about community building.

The idea from my last book, the training courses we create, the events we’ve hosted, and many potential clients, have all come from in-person meetings with no agenda.

I’m surprised organizations investing hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in a community don’t invest just $2k more to have their staff meet their members on their own turf.

Try it, you might be surprised a) just how many members are happy to meet and b) the incredible information they give you. 3 to 5 meetings a day really adds up.

Problems vs. Inspiration

Many online communities are filled with frustration.

People have problems and go to the community to find answers. They begin in a state of frustration and hope the community alleviates that frustration.

All members see are problems.

What if they saw successes instead?

What if instead of seeing an endless list of problems which need to be solved they saw an endless list of member achievements?

What if instead of soliciting more problems we solicited more success stories and how those successes were achieved?

What would happen if we changed the very tone and nature of the community from ‘come here when you need an answer’ to ‘come here when you want to be inspired’.

You have an amazing opportunity, in the present time more than ever, to create a destination people want to visit as opposed to one they would rather not visit at all.

Social Failures

A community strategy should contain ‘risk factors’.

These are the biggest causes of community failure. Each risk factor should highlight the risk (i.e. technology failure), the likelihood of it happening (be Bayesian about this), the impact of it happening (from light to severe), the mitigation plan, and who’s responsible for implementing the mitigation plan.

The biggest risks are called ‘failures’. Put simply, this is when the community dies.

Technology failures are just one of the three things that can kill a community. It’s the least common and comparatively easy to mitigate against.

The two more likely failures are 1) your company will shut the community down (internal failure) or b) members leave (social failure).

Social failures tend to come in three forms, each of which you can mitigate against.

1) Decline in topic interest. Members gradually drift away because the topic becomes less interesting. Measure the number of unique new visitors to your community and search traffic trends for relevant terms. If you see a decline, you need to adjust the community’s topic scope to accommodate for where members are going.

2) Competitors. A new platform or community arises with a more focused topic or better technology which sucks in members. Measure average contributions per active member. If it declines, survey and interview members to ask where they are participating and learning about the topic today. Analyze these competitors too and either adopt their biggest features or develop unique benefits of your own. Facebook has shown if you move quickly enough you can ward off almost any threat (Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat etc..).

3) The community manager leaves. This is why the community manager should not be solely responsible for mitigating risk factors. A sudden community manager transition (i.e. where two don’t work alongside each other for a few weeks) is a recipe for disaster in smaller communities. The new community manager often struggles to maintain the same relationships, initiate discussions as engaging as before or create and facilitate the same quality of content. The best mitigation is to build a pipeline of potential recruits in advance, have two community professionals work alongside each other, and build an internal resource of best practices to quickly bring a newcomer up to speed.

In my experience, most communities both grossly underestimate the risk of failures and then increase the risk by taking no steps to mitigate against them.

Total Platform Failure

…is rather unlikely (although MySpace is testing this theory)

But if it does happen, at least you have the email addresses of all your members to invite them to a new platform.

…unless you’re using Facebook groups.

Facebook groups aren’t likely to experience a permanent platform failure, but isn’t reducing organic reach to 0.1% the same thing? This isn’t happening overnight, it’s happening gradually (already).

But just because you’re being boiled slowly doesn’t mean you’re not still getting cooked.

Worse yet, it’s extremely hard to mitigate against once it’s happened. The best mitigation strategy is to move when your reach is still high enough to tell people you’re moving.

Following vs. Leading

If you’re trying to figure out what your members will like, you’re following.

If you’re persuading members to do something you like, you’re leading.

Following is more common. It’s easier, involves a lot of research, and you get to test ideas until you find out what members want to do. Once you know what members want, you just need to do more of it. Your main challenge is research.

Leading is harder, the chances of success are lower, but the rewards are much greater. You begin with a vision and need to rally others to your vision. You’re working in the dark, often without data, to make your vision a reality. Your main challenge is persuasion.

The problem with following is you might end up with a drama-filled, click-baity, apocalypse, the problem with leading is no-one might be following.

Both approaches can work just be clear about which you’re doing. You either need to solve a research problem or a persuasion problem.

Spamming 95% Of Your Members To Engage 5% Doesn’t Make Sense

Opodo presumably sent this email out to their entire community mailing list telling them they didn’t win a competition.

Do you think members who received this email are more or less likely to read future messages from the community?

Any time you send an email which isn’t relevant to members, you’re reducing their likelihood of participating in the community again.

Emails about events most members aren’t attending, competitions most people didn’t win, website updates members don’t care about all do more harm than good.

This applies in other areas too. If you’re sending a mass email asking members to contribute, remember 95%+ of the recipients are lurkers who don’t have the time, expertise, or motivation to contribute. That 95% is now less likely to read future emails from your community.

The only time you should email the entire community is when you have major, important, news which is relevant to the entire community. The rest of the time you need to segment, use group @mention updates, or design a better system for reaching the people you need to reach.

If your update is only relevant to a small number of members, only email those members. Audience attention is a precious resource, don’t waste it.

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