The Best Community Investment

…is in you.

Specifically, investing in the skills and knowledge of the team running the community.

Every community needs a highly trained and highly skilled community professional.

But which skills and knowledge matter most? Should you learn strategy, data analytics, persuasion, habits, community engagement tactics, or dive deep into technology?

This Monday (August 5), I’ll be speaking with CMX Founder David Spinks to answer this (and many other) questions.

We’re going to cover the critical community skills at different stages of the community lifecycle and what you can/can’t learn on the job.

Click here to sign up.

I hope you will join us.

In other news…

  • New coaching program. We’ve recently launched a new community coaching program and want your feedback. I’m recruiting 12 people to complete a free 3-month trial. If you want to join them, email me.

Telling The Story In A Sentence

An important part of our work is summarising the entire community in a single value sentence.

Because you only get a sentence to tell your story to members and colleagues alike.

This story defines what makes your community so unique, valuable, and timely that members would be nuts not to be involved.

Your story might imply why the community exists, why it was brought about by you, and what its future might look like.

There’s no shortage of options. For example;

  • No-one has brought together the sector’s top experts, until now.
  • We’re putting all the best answers in a single place, help us.
  • Explore the thrilling cutting edge of the industry.
  • A private peer group to support your growth.
  • Get expert feedback before you launch your project.
  • Test your ideas here, stop wasting time, and stop making mistakes.
  • Share your successes, commiserate on your failures.
  • Exchange quick tips to grow your business.
  • Get serious about your data, a no chit-chat zone.
  • We’re going to change the future of [industry].
  • Rapid responses to your pressing questions.

It’s tempting to string together every possible benefit hoping one finds the mark.

But that ends up in a muddle where no message stands out.

Focus on a single benefit, the one members can’t live without and make sure all your discussions, events, communications, and activities exemplify that benefit.

Taking A Community Off Life Support

It doesn’t make sense to keep a community on life-support.

If, after a year, there’s no activity unless you initiate and start the discussions, create events, and constantly prompt people to participate, it’s time too be honest and admit it’s not working.

It’s tempting to keep trying to generate ever-bigger, temporary, spikes on the community EGK chart. You might believe that if you can just get a big enough spike the community will magically come to life.

Alas, it’s not going to happen (and nor will a technology change fix the problem).

Your problem isn’t technological, it’s perceived value. Members don’t see the value of joining and participating in the community. You need to revamp the concept and try again.

That means tweaking the target audience, the purpose of the community and what happens within the community.

You haven’t failed, you just tested an idea that didn’t work. Now it’s time to move on to the next idea.

The real failure would be to stick with a failing idea.

The Cost and Consequences of Customizations

Customizations can simultaneously make your community unique and costly.

Yet, every customization you add to a community website is also a liability.

It’s something you have to develop and maintain. If it extracts data, you have to worry about its security. If your platform vendor releases an update, your customizations can suddenly break (or find themselves unsupported).

Yet, customizations are also what can make a community unique.

Our work helping develop and design the BecomeAnEx community involved customizations. They weren’t easy but made the community unique and invaluable for members.

Some rules here.

  • Only use customizations when it is an absolute, critical, deal-breaker for the success of your community. Bodybuilding.com, for example, has customizations which allow members to share their before/after photos. What is the one (or maybe two) completely game-changing customizations for your audience?
  • Show precisely how it looks (literally, sketch out every screen). Before you begin developing anything you should have the idea fully formed and tested with the audience.
  • Describe precisely how it works (write every action which takes place – even those behind the scenes). Where is the data entered, how does the event-tracking work, where does the data go, etc? What happens when members delete their profiles? Update their names? Or things change?
  • Budget as much for maintenance as development. Treat customizations like mini nuclear reactors. Building them is one thing, but maintaining them in a state of constant updates/flux will cost equally as much. Assume they will take a lot more time and resources than you’re first quoted.

Customizations can help you stand out from the crowd, deliver value no other community can easily match, and ensure you’re supporting members with exactly what they need.

But be aware of the costs. Some companies find they have so many customizations to maintain it’s more effective to develop their own platform.

Some Community Skills Are Too Important To Learn On The Job

In 6 weeks time, I’m hosting a different kind of community workshop.

This is a workshop for those of you whom:

  • Have been running communities for a year or more and know the basics.
  • Feel comfortable responding and engaging to members directly.
  • Are looking for more advanced skills to take your community to a higher level.

Some Skills Are Too Difficult (Or Too Costly) To Learn By Trial and Error

These are some skills that are difficult to learn on the job.

For example, you can incrementally get better at engaging with members directly but it’s hard to incrementally map out a user journey and know it’s the right one for your audience.

Likewise, you can incrementally get better at building internal support, but it’s hard to get incrementally better at designing your community website to have the biggest impact (you also don’t want to be fumbling around with your community website hoping something works).

Sept 4, 2019 – First Workshop in the Bay Area.

On Sept 4, we’re going to focus on three of the biggest skills you can master to immediately have a big impact on your community’s success.

These are:

1) Member Mapping and Designing Effective Journeys.

At the advanced level, you should spend less time focusing on each individual member and far more thinking about the entire picture.

We’re going to explain how to identify member segments, understand what they desire and then configure your tools to ensure each of them makes their best, sustained, level of contributions to your community.

We’re also going to show you how to keep this updated, design decision trees to make changes, and how to expand your community in a sustainable way.

If you don’t have validated member segments, unique approaches to engaging them, nor considered how to configure the tools you have (whether a premium enterprise platform or tools like FB groups/Slack), this will be a game-changer in how you manage your community.

2) Designing Your Community.

Most communities are badly designed, we’re going to help you design the best community site possible (don’t worry, you don’t need a technical background).

This includes what to prioritise, which features are most important, how to customise those features (if you’re using the default settings, you really need this workshop), and help you go through your technology (whatever it may be) and upgrade every aspect using core principles.

Design is such a critical part of our work and gets so little attention.

If you’ve ever felt unsure about whether you’ve set up your community right, whether you could be getting more from your technology, or you’re thinking about moving platform, this will equip you with the expertise you need.

We will even share our default templates for RFPs, feature specifications, and examples of great community designs you can learn from.

3) Building the Roadmap and Prioritising.

Do you know what you will work on next? Are you working on the things which have the biggest impact for the longest amount of time? Or are you putting out fires?

If you’re not sure if you’re working on the biggest impact tasks, we’re going to change that by helping you build out your community roadmap, identify the key steps along the way, and make sure you’re prioritising the tasks which really matter.

Most importantly, your roadmap is going to cover the kind of resources, skills, and expertise you need. By the end, you will know exactly what to work on throughout the year and the resources you need to get there.

Believe me, this is a game-changer in how you approach your work, will stop you becoming bogged down in petty minutiae, and help you stay focused on your big wins.

Sign Up Before Prices Rise

If you’ve been doing this work for a year or so, feel comfortable engaging with members directly, it’s time to step up to the next level.

The workshop takes place the day before CMXSummit, which means you can also attend the conference.

The fee for the workshop is $599 (or $539 if you use this link)

NOTE: Scroll to the bottom and select “Richard’s workshop” from the list.

I really hope you will join us.

Default Names

Too many communities don’t have a name.

They’re simply ‘community’ (or, worse, “discussions/topics”). It’s like calling your business ‘business’.

Typically these ‘default names’ reflect a lack of strategy. You’re not sure what else to call this thing you’re creating, so why not ‘community’?

It’s not a major problem if you’re building a community on behalf of a brand with whom your audience already shares a strong sense of identity. But the Supreme’s and Harley Davidson’s of this world are few and far between.

It is a bigger problem if, like the majority of us, you’re working for a brand which doesn’t immediately inspire a cult following. The community name is a terrific opportunity to make a clear positioning statement. It’s a chance to indicate who the community is for, what the community is about, and why members should join.

But if you have a strategy you should know what inspires your members, what challenges they overcome, and the kind of identity they hold, it becomes easier to select a name for the community to match.

A name should be entirely unique to you, it should be a symbol that represents a place where members want to go to, and ideally, it should not clash with other obvious connections.

You can’t change the name of the company, but you probably do want to be deliberate over the name of the community.

Growth vs. Expansion

The typical approach to growing a community is to hope members drift in through search, referral traffic from the website, or sheer luck.

Sometimes it works too, but hoping to be lucky isn’t a good strategy.

Instead of waiting for miraculous growth, plan for deliberate expansion.

First, you target a small segment of your audience with unique desires. Target them deliberately and overwhelming satisfy those unique desires. This means deliberate outreach to this small segment of your audience (direct messages, content, promotion etc…). When the number of new members begins to plateau, expand to the next segment.

Trying to grow by targeting everyone at once and hoping people drift in isn’t smart. Start with a tiny audience, satisfy their unique needs, and then expand the concept a little by little.

It’s a lot easier to grow through deliberate expansion than dumb luck.

Designing Complex Communities for Multiple Audiences

Our larger projects typically involve building complex communities for multiple audiences; users of the product, resellers, consultants, partners etc…

One approach to these communities is to keep them separate. A better approach is to identify the value they each offer one another. Not every group supports every other group, but it’s usually possible to design a system which benefits everyone.

For example, a typical map of what each group wants might include:

  • Users want answers to questions.
  • Users want to learn how to use the product better.
  • Users want to avoid making costly mistakes.
  • Resellers want to attract more customers.
  • Consultants want to build a reputation and attract clients.
  • Partners want to sell more apps
  • Developers want answers to questions.
  • Developers want great documentation.
  • Developers want to know the roadmap.

Based upon this we might design a community where:

  • Only users can ask questions and share their current challenges in the community. Users who ask questions with the most views get special VIP status at events and possible discounts on the product.
  • Consultants can apply to be experts which allows them to submit long-form advice/content and provides special status when they answer questions from members in a community (i.e. their responses are more visible). These consultants appear in a ‘recommended consultants’ page and are invited to speak at conferences.
  • Resellers can answer customer questions related to products and appear on a leaderboard of top resellers. They are also the only members who can have links to their companies in the signature of their profiles.
  • Partners can respond to user questions and reviews of their product in the community. The speed of a response is a factor in where/how the apps appear within the community. Members who receive a good response are allowed to adjust their rating of the apps accordingly.
  • Developers who provide the most advice/add the most documentation are given early access to the roadmap and staff within the company they can ask for help.

The goal is to create a dynamic where everyone benefits the more they participate. The best dynamics ensure the most one group participates, the more value they provide to another group too.

Sometimes it makes sense to create a completely separate group for each audience. But it’s usually far better to structure a community with different profiles, permissions, requests, and tasks for each member which benefit the entire group.

Develop Five Ideas and Test Them

Too many organizations only come up with one, single, risky, all-encompassing idea for a community.

This typically means: ‘we’re going to build a community for customers to ask and answer each other’s questions’.

The problem is the odds of hitting a home-run on your first-ever swing of the bat isn’t great.

If the concept works and takes off, great! If it doesn’t, it’s game over. And far too often, it’s game over.

Our approach is usually different. We use our surveys and interviews to identify several possible audience clusters and related community concepts. Then we test them and see which performs best.

For example, instead of a single, generic, community for all customers to ask and answer each other’s questions, you can instead have:

  • Test 1: A community for beginners in your field to get started and receive help from select mentors.
  • Test 2: A private community just for top customers at Fortune500 businesses.
  • Test 3: A tightly moderated community where members can’t post without sharing the source of their opinion.
  • Test 4: A community that helps customers advance in their careers (i.e. discussions beyond the product/software).
  • Test 5: A community for people who want to use a data-driven, modern, approach into the topic.
  • etc…

Once you’ve used your research to come up with several possible concepts, test your concepts.

Host webinars, post tweets, write blog posts, start small groups on Facebook/WhatsApp/other channels, host a small meetup on the topic.

You will find some ideas have legs and some don’t. You will also learn how easy it is to reach the audience, embrace the questions/feedback you get, and end up developing a far more successful community.

Don’t risk everything on a single idea. Test five ideas and see which comes up top. Then invest heavily in your top-performing idea(s).

Fixing The Broken System

Two approaches to improving a community.

The first is to come up with new strategies, ideas, and tactics which will bring you closer to the results you want.

The problem is if you’re not getting the results you want with your current approaches, there’s no guarantee your next approach will fare much better. In short, there’s no point in us providing clients with a new strategy if the underlying problems which led to a failed strategy remain.

The second is to improve the people and processes responsible for the community. The more you improve the community skills of the community team, the more effectively they can deliver better results. That’s the value of acquiring new skills, they are something you can use indefinitely to deliver better results.

I’ve lost track of the number of organisations I’ve seen investing six and seven-figure sums on their technology and not spending a dime on training the people to an advanced level to run the project. Almost every community can deliver much better results by investing in the team behind it.

On September 4, we’re hosting the first-ever advanced community skills workshop. If you’ve mastered the basics of engagement already, this workshop will equip you with the techniques to identify and deliver the maximum value to and from your community.

We’re focusing specifically on the areas which have the greatest possible leverage, that are rarely covered elsewhere. This includes things like:

  • Identify the full value members need from a community.
  • Developing successful user journeys to keep members highly engaged.
  • Designing the community for specific motivations and use cases.
  • Establishing benchmarks to guide your roadmap.
  • Persuading members to make their best contributions.

I hope you will join us, it will change how you think about your community.

Click here to sign up (10% discount).

The workshop takes place from 1-6pm on Sept 4 at the Fox Theatre in Redwood City. You can combine the workshop with a regular CMXSummit ticket.

Massively Overprepared

It took me too long to learn I need to be massively overprepared to win people over to a community approach.

I’d recommend it to you too. Don’t enter a meeting with a vague idea of what you will say, spend an hour or three preparing for it. This might include:

  • Researched the attendees’ background(s) and identified any relevant/previous experience with community to build from.
  • A good list of relevant case studies and powerful stories you can drop in.
  • A clear, tight, pitch about the value of the community and the incredible opportunity it presents right now.
  • A clear idea of what success looks like framed in their terms.
  • Useful metaphors or analogies to make it easier to comprehend what you’re trying to do.
  • Conversation starters (if you need any to begin the meeting).
  • Identified the attendees most likely fears and how the community will address them.
  • A clear list of asks and what you will need from them.
  • Powerful answers to most likely or most common questions.

Treat this as a starting point, not an exhaustive list.

If you’re walking into a meeting with an idea of what you want to say and nothing more, you’re probably going to walk out disappointed.

Far too much of your success hinges upon your ability to gain support for what you want to do. Don’t leave it to chance, over-prepare for the big moments.

Strategy Is A Full-Time Job

A web developer friend once told me that most companies grossly underestimate the amount of copy needed for their new website.

At a large company, the website might host 30k to 50k words. That’s the typical length of a business book. Worse yet, this needs to be 30k to 50k approved words.

Companies similarly underestimate the time it takes to develop a community strategy.

You can easily spend 50 to 100 hours alone interviewing stakeholders, community members, gathering the data, and reviewing existing information. Then you need to develop a powerful community concept, test the concept, build the roadmap, identify the objectives, tactics, and build out an action plan.

Even then you need to again speak to stakeholders, ensure they are aligned with the strategy, and make sure it’s accepted and supported throughout the organization.

Altogether, it’s not unreasonable to assume the community strategy will take up 500 hours of your time (or 3 to 4 months of work – full time).

You can cut corners, save a little time here and there, but you’re still going to struggle to create a great strategy while looking after the community. This isn’t an ‘add on’ to your current job, it is your new job (at least until it’s done).

If you’re going to develop a community strategy (and you certainly should), you either need to find someone else to look after the current community in the meantime or find someone to do the strategy for you.

You can’t step up to pilot the plane while still serving drinks in the cabin.

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