In theory, member directories are fantastic.
Members can search and network with members who match a specific criteria – like being in their location or possessing unique skills and experiences. Members can find precisely the people who can help them.
In practice, member directories rarely function well. Even when they do, they’re rarely used. How often have you genuinely tried to find people matching a particular skill set or location? And when they are used, they’re mostly used by spammers and recruiters (which in turn lead to those with expertise hiding their expertise from directories).
As strange as it might sound in this day and age, asking around still yields better outcomes than a directory. Fortunately, within a community, reputations naturally develop and spread. It turns out asking around is exactly something a community supports well.
Don’t base your technology decisions on whether a platform does or doesn’t offer a member directory. If you build your community right, you’ll have a natural directory anyhow.
Take a second to think about what the purpose of members profiles in your community (really) is before making further decisions about what should appear on it.
The best profiles tend to support one of three needs:
- They let members find their recent activity. Members use profiles to find a list of the recent discussions they’ve participated in and keep track of responses. It’s easy for members to visit their profiles and check in on past discussions and content they’ve shared.
- They let members show off their achievements. Members use profiles to highlight the equipment they’ve used, tools they use, events they’ve attended, awards they’ve earned, status they’ve gained etc… StackOverflow is a good example of this.
- They let members create and show an identity. Members can customise profiles to suit their needs. This is often better for younger or more creative audiences. Members can create unique avatars, change the colors, update the design etc…
If members don’t have a pressing need for any of the above, you probably don’t need to spend too much time on them.
If you ask members if they want something, the answer will usually be ‘yes’.
Why would they say no? There’s no downside.
This is why the best questions also present a downside or, at least, a contrast.
For example, if you ask members if they want a private community, they will usually say yes. Privacy sounds good and there’s no downside.
But if you ask questions like:
- Would you like your posts to be read by 5 people you know and trust or 500 people who might be helped by your responses?
- Do you want this to be a small close-knit group of peers for intimate discussions or a larger group to build connections and gain diverse perspectives?
…you get more valuable results.
Likewise, if you ask members if you should add a new feature or category, they will usually say yes. Again, there’s no downside. But if you ask questions like:
- Approximately how many questions within [proposed category] have you had in the past month?
- How frequently have you needed to use [proposed feature] in the last month?
- Which topic do you feel isn’t properly addressed by our current categories today?
….again, you get more useful results.
Presenting an option without a downside isn’t research, it’s confirmation bias. Asking members to choose between competing priorities will yield far better outcomes.
In short, mixing stronger benefits with weaker benefits dilutes the overall argument.
For example, compare the following two statements:
This community is an exclusive place where you can learn and share best practices with the top experts in the industry.
This community is an exclusive place where you can learn and share best practices with the best experts in the industry. All members also get a free SWAG box and a $10 Amazon gift card.
This is an extreme example, but you get the idea. Even though the latter statement offers more, the former statement is more persuasive.
This applies to any message you send to persuade any members to do anything. When you mix weaker benefits with stronger benefits, it dilutes the stronger benefits.
Consider this when you promote your community, try to recruit superusers, host events, or send any communication to members. Figure out what members really need and lead with it.
While undertaking around a dozen interviews for an upcoming client community, the community manager and I noticed two conflicting desires.
The first was to have a community where they could engage only with people at an advanced, but not too advanced, level within the community.
Prospective members wanted to engage with peers who were in the trenches ‘doing the work’ but had also achieved a senior role within their organisations. This meant we would have to know and approve members to join the community.
The second was a fear of ‘saying the wrong thing’ or saying something which could be interpreted negatively by regulatory bodies or by their peers. Members clearly wanted to discuss and share information, but they didn’t want their names attached to anything.
The final community concept we designed was private (i.e. we would invite and approve members individually to be sure we got the audience we wanted) but pseudonymous (i.e. we would ask members not to use their real names).
The upside is they can share more openly and freely without having to be concerned for how they’re perceived. The major downside of this is members don’t gain a reputational benefit from their contributions.
So far it seems to be working extraordinarily well.
As time goes on, I suspect we will see more private, pseudonymous, groups for peers to discuss highly technical matters with one another. The pseudonymous nature might even become a big appeal of many communities.
Last week, Microsoft hosted one of the best community presentations I’ve seen.
The presentation covers the growth of the Microsoft Answers community, shares how the community suffered a budget cut but increased satisfaction, and covers some of the most innovative approaches to ensuring high response rates and tackling translation challenges I’ve seen in a while.
Everyone managing a support community should watch this (hint: skip the first 7 minutes)
And yes it’s hosted on LinkedIn because, well, it’s Microsoft.
Everyone is data-driven until they see data they don’t like.
Then they seek (and inevitably find) flaws in the data.
Sure, they’re “just being thorough”. But they weren’t anywhere near as thorough when they like the data.
Two examples spring to mind.
Example One: What Members Really Want
The first is what members want. I’ve undertaken over a hundred client surveys over the past decade. The results usually show a variation of the following.
Asking useful questions and getting useful answers are at the top, feeling a sense of belonging and making friends ranks at the bottom.
Put simply, the overwhelming majority of people visiting a brand community today aren’t interested in making friends or feeling a sense of belonging with others.
That might sound unsettling given the nature of community work, but it’s where the data naturally leads (p.s. Emotional support/belonging is just one value a community provides).
Example Two: What activities have an impact
The second area where people ignore data is measuring which activities they’re engaging in have an impact.
For example, if you stop doing a lot of the tasks you’re doing today, do members notice (not just the noisy few, but the majority).
If we look at this slide from an upcoming case study, we can see that when we removed the tasks which were taking up 60% of the community manager’s time, it had almost no impact upon the number of visitors or the satisfaction of members.
This freed up time to focus on the areas which our surveys and data results indicated would have a big impact. These areas were in major resources, the superuser program, better navigation, and more access to engineers.
Being Data-Driven Means Accepting Data You Really Dislike
If you dismiss data you dislike (or don’t collect data you might dislike), you’re neither data-driven nor acting in the best interests in the community.
There is a goldmine of valuable insights in your data which can direct you to what to work on and what members care most about.
The key is taking the steps to gather the data and accepting the data you find (especially when it contradicts your beliefs).
Brand communities often fall into two categories; first resort or last resort.
1) First resort. They’re the first place members go to ask questions and get help. When members have an issue they are taught (or learn) to visit the community first. If the community can’t help, then they call support/file a ticket etc….In this scenario, support handles the difficult cases which might involve private data or are so rare no-one else has a solution.
2) Last resort. They’re the place of last resort for members to go and get help. If customer support didn’t resolve the issue and they can’t find the answer through any other channel, the community is the final destination where customers can try to seek help from others. This often crops up if a customer is ‘out of warranty’.
Both options are fine, but it’s good to be clear about which role your community is fulfilling.
If your community is the place of first resort, then your goal is to reduce the effort and speed to first response. Your community is usually tackling easier questions asked multiple times in different ways. You need superusers who are enthusiastic who you can train and nudge in just the right way. A great search experience is also important and you need the community to appear in places where people might usually contact support.
If your community is the place of last resort, you often need the involvement of customer support agents and to offer stronger rewards for the handful of experts who might have the ability to answer the more difficult questions. You have to focus on the satisfaction and resolution rate more than the speed and effort of asking questions. You can also expect members to be a lot grouchier.
Which type of community is yours?
An acquaintance recently expressed frustration at being rejected for a job interview at the final hurdle.
He had been through five rounds of interviews and still hadn’t got the job. I sympathise, but I admire the company.
We should be vetting leaders of our communities with a similar rigour as we do when selecting the technology platform.
When we select a platform, we might create personas, use cases, a key list of requirements, invite vendors to spend hours completing RFPs to be invited to interview and potentially host a demo of their community. From there the vendor might face a security test, usability test, further negotiation and have to go into depth about what their platform can and can’t do.
Yet, I’ve seen many situations where an organisation will spend 2 to 3 hours interviewing a handful of candidates for 30 minutes and make a decision. That’s nuts.
It’s good to vet your community leaders properly. Listen not just to what they say in interviews but look at their current communities. See how they engage with members. Is the tone of voice and guidance about right? Do they specifically match the skillsets your strategy has indicated you need to take your community to the next level? Can they demonstrate that?
The problem isn’t usually wasting time through an endless intensive interview process, it’s not investing enough time in the recruitment process to find the right person.
Even the universe isn’t infinite.
If every single living person in the world is spending every waking second in your community, what would your goal be then?
Probably not more growth or engagement.
Now peel it back a little. What if every person in your topic was visiting your community as frequently as they needed to, then what would your goal be?
Communities have natural plateaus both in membership and engagement. At some point you’ve reached everyone you’re likely to and the audience is as engaged as they need to be. If you’re measured by either metric (membership/engagement) you’re setting yourself up for failure.
At this point your goals might reflect things like:
- What resources or shared artefacts are the community co-creating?
- How well is the community supporting members through each stage of their journey within the topic (surveys, interviews etc…)?
- What value is the community providing to each area of the organisation? How integrated is the community in the processes of the organisation?
- How satisfied/happy are members with the community and the community experience (beware of the natural plateau here too)?
- Are the costs incurred by the community efficient and proportional to the value gained by the organisation?
The sooner you shift to more meaningful metrics than the number of members and level of engagement, the better.
In a research call this week, a prospective member told me about the most valuable community they participated in.
To gain entry, you have to be at the VP level (or higher) and be one of the 300 firms or partners funded by their VC.
When members join, they complete detailed bios and identify precisely which topics they can and can’t help with.
When members create a question, they tag the question from a set number of topics and anyone with expertise in that topic receives a notification (if the question doesn’t match an existing list of topics they advise you to ask the question elsewhere).
Communities like these, which are private, exclusive, and high signal, are probably the most valuable professional communities out there today. But we’re so rarely willing to make the painful trade-offs to create them.
We want the community to be public rather than private so it might attract more search traffic.
We let in people who don’t quite meet the criteria to get more members (at the cost of the members we want).
We accept any kind of question in a community, regardless of whether our audience is likely to have the answer or not, for fear of upsetting a single member at the expense of the majority.
The lesson is fairly clear. The most valuable you want your community to be, the more difficult decisions you’re going to make.
Just launching a community and seeing what happens doesn’t sound like a terrible idea. You learn quickly and can pivot fast.
1) You only get one chance to make a great first impression.
2) If you choose the wrong platform, you’re sabotaging your community efforts.
3) If you have a bad community concept, you’re going to struggle to gain any activity.
You can spend months trying to unpick errors made in trying to launch a community quickly.
I’m always nervous about client projects which want to “build the strategy while developing the community”.
This doesn’t mean you can’t do anything while undertaking your research. You can be testing a lot of different community ideas to see what gets traction.
- You can use Twitter to test different topics and hashtags.
- You can host live events and promote them to your audience and see how many people show up.
- You can work to build relationships with the audience and see how many are receptive to you and your ideas.
- You can invite members to share guest posts on your website.
- You can create content and see which formats and topics are most popular.
All of these things are part of the early community-building process but don’t commit you to any particular technology, topic, or approach to building a community.
They can quickly identify what does and doesn’t work best.
So if you’re feeling pressured to ‘just launch it’, try launching a bunch of tiny tests instead.