In The Premonition, author Michael Lewis describes how a mixed group of experts would participate in weekly (and sometimes daily) email exchanges/zoom calls to discuss the spread of Coronavirus and the response to it.
Over time, the group became the best source of up-to-date knowledge and expertise in pandemic planning and response.
Consider the four factors that made this work:
1. Speed. The group was created quickly to respond to an urgent need.
2. Privacy. Even members didn’t know who else was there.
3. Exclusivity. There was no promotion of the group. Existing members simply invited others they felt should join.
4. Convenience. The creators used Zoom and email (tools that were most convenient for members to use).
These four factors make it easy for experts in any field to jump in and participate at scheduled times each week.
It’s sad these kinds of groups, the ones which deliver the most value, are precisely those most organisations would struggle to create.
Most organisations can’t move fast enough, select convenient tools, or keep it exclusive (often because they’re measured by engagement).
Perhaps one solution is to do this within a community. You might not be able to do the above for the community as a whole, but once you have a community up and running there’s nothing stopping you from providing all of the above to members within the community.
I once had a client who noticed an oddity in their data. They were witnessing a surge in activity from people in Kansas.
This caused confusion and excitement. Was the topic going viral in Kansas? Was there a trend about to explode across the USA? They created sub-groups in the community for the influx of Kansans, the PR and marketing folks began running more ads in Kansas, and they sent a few people on the ground to investigate why their popularity was exploding in Kansas.
What nobody seemed to notice is no-one was actually joining the Kansas groups. The number of orders from Kansas wasn’t increasing. Our survey results didn’t seem to show a surge in Kansans flooding the community.
So I looked a little deeper at the tool used to collect the data and noticed the surge resembled a cliff-edge rather than a bell-curve. One day few people were visiting from Kansas and the next it was by far the most popular source of visitors. This timed exactly with an update to the data tool itself. The release notes for the update noted an ‘improved geolocating’ system.
So I called the vendor and solved the mystery in ten minutes. When the tool couldn’t determine the address of visitors, it simply assigned them to the middle point of the country. Which happened to be Lebanon, Kansas.
It’s easy to get excited about an anomaly in the data – especially one that shows a sudden change in behavior. Before you do though, I suggest looking to check if the methodology for collecting the data has changed.
I’m not sure it’s possible to gain 1,000 true fans without ten true enemies.
Ten true enemies can make you feel like a failure. Any time you announce a new project, feature, or try to celebrate a success; they will voice their critical thoughts and bring you down.
Ten true enemies can consume almost all your time. They will create multiple accounts to post abuse towards you and other members. They may attempt to hack your website or run campaigns against you. They can suck you into endless debates about rules and interpretations of guidelines.
Ten true enemies will also get personal. They might follow you personally on social media platforms just to bring you down. They will do everything possible to make you feel flawed and inferior.
Ten true enemies lead the vanguard against your community. Any time there is trouble, they are there to stir it up, identify past faults, and try to turn opinion against you. They will always refer to personal experiences or present perceived instances of bias as proof that you are ‘bad’.
The number ten is arbitrary of course. It might be one or 100. But, regardless of the precise number, you can easily spend your time (or your life) trying to avoid the criticism of a tiny minority of people who are predisposed to be critical. Some might begrudge your success (as it reflects poorly upon their own), others might be responding to a perceived slight, others are simply people in personal pain who need to bring you down to feel better about themselves.
But as loud as your ten true enemies might become, it’s important to remember the plural of anecdote isn’t data. A volume of opinions doesn’t denote facts. A vocal minority doesn’t represent a silent majority. You shouldn’t assume this group is any more representative of your community than you would assume ten people protesting outside a supermarket represent the views of your nation.
Vocal minorities need the shadow of uncertainty to have power. The spiral of silence is their friend. If the majority aren’t sure what the group opinion is on a topic, it’s easier for your members to keep silent than risk voicing the wrong opinion. If you take away that uncertainty, you take away their power.
Ten people outraged about a new feature or the state of the community are going to look pretty dumb when you can show the majority are big fans. I’ve had clients who were certain their members hated the community only for hundreds, even thousands, of anonymous survey respondents to reveal the majority think the community is very useful. Collecting and sharing survey/poll results works in your favour.
You can spend your days (perhaps your life) trying to please your 10 true enemies. I’d suggest you don’t.
What you should focus on at any given time depends heavily upon whether you need more members, new behaviors, or both.
This leads to the four distinct approaches you can see here.
This means improving the member experience with a series of incremental improvements in the technology and processes of managing the community.
If you’re happy with the number of members you have, but not what they’re doing, then your goal is to persuade members to do something different.
This is a persuasion-led strategy involving communications, working with influencers, and adding strategic nudges to the platform.
If you’re happy with what members are doing but need more members, you need a promotion (or growth) strategy.
This means integrating the community into existing target-audience journeys, optimising for search, building partnerships with individuals who have large audiences, and engaging in outreach to existing members.
If you have neither the members or behaviors you want, then you need to relaunch (or launch). This is often where you need a new platform, team, and strategy.
It seems common at times to focus on optimisation or relaunch to achieve any result. Far better to decide that you need and align the rest of your actions to match.
We’ve probably done a few dozen community redesign projects at this point (and witnessed hundreds more).
You can see our work with Sephora here.
The success of a redesign is far less about the actual design of the site than its structure.
If you get the sitemap and wireframe right, everything else fits into place quite quickly.
When things go wrong, it’s usually because:
a) The sitemap/wireframe isn’t based upon good audience research (i.e. you’re not prioritising key features by member need). This happens most often when people try to copy another site.
b) The sitemaps/wireframes aren’t approved by the right people internally. You never want the web designs to be complete only for a senior exec to ask to move a key feature from one area to another.
This is why it’s important to bring the big decisions forward by creating a sitemap and wireframe as quickly as possible. Make sure each is signed off by everyone internally before moving ahead with the actual design.
The sitemap should be organised by member need with priority given to the areas members are most likely to visit. Use terminology in the menu options which reflect the language members would use too.
For example, ‘questions’ is often a better term than ‘forum’. Categories should appear by popularity (not alphabetically).
Once you have agreed on the structure, you can begin wireframing the different pages involved.
You typically need to wireframe a homepage, unique category pages, and a standard page or two for displaying any other information. In larger communities you might need to design many more.
You can see a typical homepage example below.
At this stage you need to check what you have planned is something your community vendor enables you to actually do.
Again, every page should be targeted to the audience that’s likely to visit that page and their intent at the time. Some pages will have very different audiences. Prioritise the key features.
In the above example, if we assume the majority of people to visit the community are searching for answers to problems, putting the search at the top makes a lot of sense. But this might not be ideal for every community.
Once again, get the wireframes approved before you move on to the design phase. It sounds obvious, but then you would be surprised.
It’s (very) possible I’ll be proven wrong in the near future, but it’s worth reflecting upon the trends it’s up against nonetheless.
In short, Athleta (which creates versatile premium performance apparel), has launched a new community for women to chat about mental health, body positivity, and related topics. The goal of the community is to increase loyalty and attract new customers to its loyalty program.
In a big launch, the community acquired 2500+ members (likely through promotion to its loyalty card members) and attracted a handful of posts per day.
From a strategy perspective, we would’ve advised against this kind of community for a few reasons:
1) Member Needs. Do women want a place to talk about health and wellbeing? Almost certainly. Do they want to do it with strangers? Maybe. Do they want to do it in a forum-based community run by a for profit brand? I’m not so sure. I’d suspect the research would suggest the audience is more eager to read and learn about the topic from people they trust rather than openly discuss it with each other. Generating new organic activity will prove challenging.
2) Competition. There is a proliferation of places for women to discuss mental health and wellness today. Many of these are in the flow of the tools people use every day. The community doesn’t seem to have strong enough positioning to pull people to a new platform regularly to participate.
3) Acquisition. A community needs a steady source of new members. The high placement of the community and the loyalty program might provide that. However, I don’t believe it will attract much search traffic – which represents 80%+ of the audience in many brand communities.
4) Value. The current goals (increase loyalty and acquire new people to the loyalty program) are generally not ideal for brand communities. Communities can increase loyalty but it’s almost impossible to separate cause and effect. It’s far more likely only the most loyal customers will participate in this community. This means the community is always going to be a prime candidate to have its budget cut.
However, the one big ‘x’ factor here is whether Athleta can leverage its celebrity sponsorships with people like Simone Biles in powerful ways to drive people to participate in the community. This might drive a surge of activity in the community.
This community serves as a useful test case of whether brand communities should offer members a sense of belonging with loyalty or should satisfy information needs.
My prediction might turn out to be very wrong. So, if anyone wants to play along, we know the median no. posts in similar communities is 166 per day. Let’s check in on August 2nd, 2022 and see how we’re doing
I wrote Build Your Community because I believe a new era of building communities has begun.
Last week, 500+ of you registered for a special webinar in which I defined the five forces driving this new era and the impact they will have upon your community strategy.
If you weren’t able to make it, you can find the video here:
I recommend watching this. These forces will have a bigger impact on some community strategies than others.
To surface useful community insights you need to dive below surface level metrics.
In one client project, our top-bar navigation survey showed the community maintained an average of a 4.1 (out of 5) helpfulness score.
But that metric alone doesn’t tell us much. To gather useful insights we need to see which parts of the community are more or less popular than others.
We did this by segmenting the community data by category. You can see this chart below:
This chart gives us a wealth of great data. We can see that helpfulness varies a lot by category of discussion. Most importantly, by looking at response rate and time to first response, we can set specific goals and interventions for each category.
Specifically, we set up three clear interventions:
- Reduce the time to first response in the Product 2 category by assigning virtual agents to support.
- Increase the response rate in the Product 1 category by surfacing unanswered questions on the homepage.
- Improve the quality of response in Developer and Partner categories by recruiting experts to answer questions.
You can see the result below:
It took a lot of work, but you can see the targeted interventions had their effect. Product 2 has an improved time to first response, product 1 has a much better response rate, and the community is a little more helpful to partners and developers.
None of this would’ve been possible if we had simply looked at the overall score.
To make really targeted interventions to improve a community, you have to dig beneath the surface. If you need help getting this data, you only have to ask.
Note: Full case study here
In a webinar session two weeks ago, I asked the audience if they could summarise their strategy in a sentence.
About 75% of people simply restated their goals (i.e. reduce churn, increase loyalty etc..)
Not a single participant could effectively list a clear strategy.
A strategy is the ‘why’ you will achieve your goals (not to be confused with the strategic plan)
A strategy is the unique value you provide your members which they can’t get anywhere else.
A strategy is a statement about what you will prioritise to deliver that unique value.
A strategy is the reason why members will perform the behaviors you want them to perform.
A strategy is how you will deliver better value to your members than any other channel.
You can typically boil this down into a couple of words. Here are some examples:
- Being the quickest.
- Least effort to find information.
- Most reliable/trustworthy.
- Most exclusive.
- Most diverse.
- Most focused.
- Targeting beginners.
- Targeting experts.
These are all very valid strategies which define in a sentence the indispensable value your community provides to members.
The strategy at its very core is the critical decision about the unique value you offer your members. It’s the most important decision you will make. The only thing worse than making the wrong decision is making no decision at all.
p.s. final chance to sign up for today’s webinar; The New Era of Community Building (and what it means for your community strategy)
The difference between push vs. pull is huge.
It’s the difference between creating a need and satisfying a need.
Push strategies are common in communities of practice and most private groups. You target a group of people who might benefit from engaging with one another and set about persuading them to do it. This work involves a lot of relationship building, outbound promotion, and working at the micro-level to stimulate and sustain the first flickers of activity.
Pull strategies are common in support communities. You have a lot of people with a need they want solved and try to get them to solve that need within your community. If you’ve got thousands of people with product questions, you try to get your community in front of them (typically via search, the homepage, or outbound promotional activities). This work is about scale, quality, and optimization of metrics that matter. It’s about internal relationship building to build the relationships which will make a community flourish.
You don’t get to decide which strategy you’re taking, your audience does.
If your audience isn’t already trying to satisfy an urgent, relevant, need, you need a push strategy. This means a low-budget platform, a heavy dose of relationship building, and fighting for every member.
If members already are trying to satisfy an urgent, relevant, need, you need a pull strategy. This means superuser programs, a premium community platform, and aligning everything to go on day one.
Be very clear from the beginning which approach you’re taking. Everything else hangs upon it.
p.s. It’s an extremely huge shock to go from a community with an abundant source of newcomers to one fighting for every member.
Community redesigns are always easier from afar.
The homepage catered to different audiences, different needs, and guided every visitor to anyone they needed to go. The only downside was it buried the latest activity and thus had too many static areas of the community.
A year or two ago, this design was replaced with a new homepage design.
This was much more difficult to navigate and felt amateurish compared with what came before.
Content seemed to float randomly, there was no obvious prioritisation given to different areas, and icons were repeated several times on the same page.
Recently Alteryx have updated this community to a new homepage design.
We can probably all agree it’s a heck of a lot better. It still buries fresh discussions a little too far down for my liking (and it’s mobile version seems a bit suspect), but it does the core things well.
1) It prioritises the key actions. You can tell visitors are first expected to search for information and then either visit the academy, participate in discussions, or browse use cases.
2) It reduces overwhelm by featuring things members should see. The featured content drives members to the key activities taking place in the community at any given moment.
3) Intent-based navigation. The community lets members navigate by use-case based around participate, learn, support, groups & events, and use cases. I’m not always a huge fan of intent-based navigation (compared with navigation by products), but it works well here. The taxonomy is clean and simple.
4) Much easier on the eye. It’s much more aesthetically pleasing than either of the other two homepages. The use of white space works and it feels cleaner.
The homepage redesigns works because it’s seemingly prioritised the needs of members, made crucial trade-offs and (likely) brought in much better designers.
p.s. In my book, Build Your Community, I guide readers through the process of developing an effective community homepage.
p.p.s. You can also get some design support on the book’s resources site.
When another community/tool has grown rapidly and now matches you in size, it’s too late.
The momentum is with them and you have no obvious resources to compete.
This is why it’s useful to frequently scan the ecosystem for potential new opportunities (or threats) you can incorporate early into your community.
This might mean periodically engaging a handful of members with questions like:
- What new tools are you using recently?
- Where else are you engaging with other people in this topic?
- What other groups excite you?
- What’s new in your industry at the moment?
- What are you excited about in the sector at the moment?
This doesn’t mean you should overreact to every conceivable threat. But it does mean staying vigilant. Many of the answers might lead nowhere. But a handful can identify value your community should be offering members but isn’t today.