This August, I’ll be coming back to Sydney, Australia, to speak at Swarm about building communities which are indispensable to both your organization and your members.
It’s one of my favourite events and this year brings together people like Evan Hamilton from Reddit, Bill Johnston from Structure3c, and the incredible Shira Levine of SEPHORA fame.
If you’re reading this from Australia, g’day…I hope you will sign up. I think it will be an incredible event.
p.s. Drop me a line if you want to meet up while I’m in town.
I scraped a large sample of data from the Sonos community and reviewed what percentage of contributions the top 20 members are responsible for.
It’s not precise, but the broad picture is in these two images below (click to enable images):
The top 20 members collectively contribute around 31% of all posts.
If the top 20 members are responsible for 31% of the community’s value, it’s not illogical to invest 31% of your time, available budget, and energy to supporting and nurturing this group of 20 members.
And if one member is responsible for 9% of all value, nor it’s logical to invest 9% of your resources on that top member.
Likewise, you probably don’t want to spend more than 31% of your time on this group. That’s another trap entirely.
Spend 10 minutes watching Priya Parker discuss The Art of Gathering (trust me).
Imagine a gathering where:
- You can’t mention your work.
- You can’t talk about your kids.
- Whoever checks their phone first pays the bill.
The lesson is remarkable (neigh, ridiculous) rules create remarkable communities.
StackOverflow proved this years ago. When other communities were trying to collect as many responses to a question as possible, they wanted just one…the best one. They removed off-topic chatter, bonding discussions, and anything which don’t facilitate a person with a question getting the best answer possible.
In return, they created what I believe to be the best online communities on the planet.
Remarkable rules – rules that seem crazy, contrary to what people want, and against the status quo – can create remarkable communities that stand out among the crowd.
Creating remarkable rules is one of the easiest and most powerful ways to stand out among the crowd. If members engage in your community as they would anywhere else, what’s the point? What unique value does your community add to the world?
My favourite example is ChangeAView (formerly ChangeMyView on Reddit). The concept is entirely unique, it runs against what most members want/do, yet has proved fantastically popular. Skim the rules too.
And the most remarkable rules are those which sound ridiculous, are hard to enforce, and those which (at first) few members want to abide by.
Communities innovate not just by testing the limits of technology, but by testing the limits of human behavior too. There are so many innovations here. For example:
What if you banned opinions?
…and every assertion has to be supported by verifiable facts? What if members had to add examples or experiences to discussions? What if debates were ended by a vote between several options on the best way forward?
What if you banned solutions?
…and members could only reply to problems with further questions until the original poster had solved the problem for herself?
What if every member got a personal feedback scorecard?
…and they could see the anonymous comments of what others thought of them and their behavior in the community? They could see if they were trusted, respected, and seen as friendly and helpful? What if the undeniable truth was staring right at them?
What if you banned questions?
…and members could only share experiences and new information they thought others would find useful?
What if every member had to mentor at least one other member?
…and helping newcomers get up to speed quickly was the most prestigious role in the community any member could have?
What if members applied to the community?
…and existing members went through the list and voted on who they were willing to accept. They could only accept ‘x’ number of members per month?
If you’re creating an online community today, the safe option is to create like those you see already. But it doesn’t make sense to create a community that’s similar to your competitors when they have a head start. Far better to create a remarkable community with remarkable rules.
Many communities devote their homepages to showing a list of categories.
Don’t do this.
A member with a burning question should be able to ask in the search bar or click a button to create a question immediately.
Almost no-one randomly browses through an endless list of questions hoping one has the answer.
When people visit they usually need to be able to search, ask a question, or see what’s new and popular in the community. Keep the categories small (like Atlassian does).
Quick Note – I’ll be in Amsterdam July 22-23, I’d love to meet community pros in the area.
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It’s not too tricky.
When a member submits an idea they want:
- To know the entire process of how an idea becomes implemented in the product, what milestones they have to reach to be considered.
- To see it immediately appear in the community without approval.
- To see it promoted to other members.
- Quick, constructive, feedback from other members.
- To gain endorsements from key community members.
- To interact with staff members about the idea.
- To see where their idea is in the process at all times and be notified of changes.
- To see how close they are to reaching the next phase of the process.
- To get an update on whether the idea was accepted/rejected (with reasons).
- To be thanked for submitting ideas which aren’t accepted.
- To be shown gratitude if an idea advanced to the product stage.
- To be considered a key influencer who can sponsor future ideas.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but if you can get even halfway there you’re doing better than most.
p.s. Just because an idea/feedback isn’t submitted through a specific ideation platform doesn’t mean the process doesn’t apply.
There’s little point in having a private community if it’s not exclusive.
You lose all the benefits of an open community, without the gains in intimacy, privacy, and sense of belonging.
Exclusivity means members are either invited or have to apply. It also means you reject the majority of applicants (people soon realise when everyone is accepted).
Exclusivity means there is a barrier applicants have to cross (skill acquired, experience gained, track-record established, contributions made, relationships nurtured, payment processed etc…) to be one of the whole group.
The purpose of having a private community (or area of the community) is to enable members to share information which might harm them if made public, create a sense of belonging, or ensure a high standard of contributions.
If your private community isn’t doing that, why make it private at all?
Community goals tend to fall into two buckets, umbrella targets and precision targets.
If your target is to increase the number of active participants, reduce churn rates, or increase the number of posts with a response, you have umbrella targets.
Umbrella targets reduce the sum of all community activity into a trackable metric to determine if the community is doing ‘well’.
Umbrella targets are clunky, confusing, and tend to reflect a lack of strategy, understanding of the community’s value, or limited access to data.
Umbrella targets also often reveal entirely the wrong thing. For example, a customer support community which answers an increasing number of potential questions will see a decline in active contributors (members find their answer without having to ask the question) while delivering an increase in community value.
Worse yet, umbrella targets don’t easily lend themselves to strategy. Want to increase active contributors? There are a dozen good (and bad) things you can do to achieve that.
The better approach is to set precision targets.
Precision targets highlight very specific metrics which yield the biggest results.
For example, here is a sample of a thousand posts on Spotify’s community I scraped, broken down by time to first response:
My data scraper tells me the community has:
- Response rate: 40.7%
- Accepted solution rate: 6.18%
But if we dig deeper, we get some really interesting results:
If we’re only looking at median time (please don’t use averages!) to first response, all the categories and elements of the community are treated with equal value. i.e. a response on an off-topic discussion is treated as valuable as an urgent question from a premium customer locked out of their account.
That doesn’t make sense.
This is why we need precision targets such as:
- Reduce the median time and range (IQR) to responses to questions in accounts, subscriptions, and premium from [x] to [y].
We can also look at not only the time to first response, but also whether questions even receive a response.
We can see above the response rate per category and see some areas (like accounts, premium, and subscriptions) do get high response rates while others have far lower response rates.
This is how it should be – some questions are more valuable than others.
Our precision targets might be:
- Increase the response rate to questions in ‘accounts’ and ‘premium’ to 100%.
Now you have achievable precise targets which reflect the most valuable aspects of your community.
These are easier to explain to your boss than vague umbrella targets about increasing activity.
They are also things which you can generally control and lend themselves to strategy.
For example, if you want to reduce time to first/answer rate in accounts, you might:
- Hire community managers/moderators in other regions to provide 24/7 coverage.
- Increase points for MVPs who provide the first answer to questions in accounts.
- Have an alert system which emails MVPs of questions in accounts which are unanswered for 5+ hours.
- Prioritise showing account questions on the landing page of the community.
Believe me, it’s a lot more motivating to work towards a specific target this quarter over which you have control than chasing some vague umbrella target which you don’t.
p.s. I’m hosting a workshop for community professionals looking to move to an advanced level at CMXSummit on September 4.
In 2013, we were hired to try and revive a community in the finance sector which had struggled to reach critical mass since it was launched 6 months prior.
The problem wasn’t the technology or the audience, it was the community manager.
He simply wasn’t able to get the audience to do what he needed them to do.
Diagnosing The Problem
The problem was his interactions with members.
He was polite, sometimes friendly, but never warm. He rarely left a member feeling inspired by the potential of the community and their ability to help the community reach that potential. His newsletters, emails, and webinars had plenty of factual information, but no persuasive power.
This is what makes community skills unique, in a community role you need to persuade, inspire, and motivate members to believe in themselves and the community.
This is especially true when you’re just launching the community. Your persuasive power is the only thing that’s going to motivate people to create something new from nothing.
If you haven’t done this kind of work before, this isn’t easy.
Level 1: Community Management Skills
First, we developed a mentoring program to immediately upgrade the community manager’s skills.
This covered the very core basics of communication.
- The psychology of both why people join and continue participating in the community.
- Creating a powerful shared vision of the future (covering passion, metaphors, speechwriting etc..)
- Helping members identify their unique skills and how they could be useful to the community.
- Engaging members beyond the immediate need, but at the emotive, identity, level.
- Adjusting the time spent asking for ideas/expertise to sharing information from 0 to around 50%.
- Using self-disclosure to build trust and connection.
- Enjoying the experience of connecting with members.
- Bringing passion into the conversation.
At the end of each week, we reviewed his communications for the past week and provided the training, recommendations, and mindset to improve. The results were slower than expected, but it worked. Within 3 months he had a core group of regular, active, members and activity was finally beginning to take off.
(At the end we turned the materials into an online package any future recruit could access and reference before starting work in the community).
Training The Members
Next, we wanted to train members too.
Members who are used to dealing with only factual information often don’t do well within a community.
Aside: too few community managers tell their member how to be great members. They tell members what they shouldn’t do, but not what they should do, especially how to become a top member of the community.
We developed a playbook of tactics for members who wanted to become key contributors to the community with a roadmap they could follow. This included:
- Making a good impact as a newcomer.
- Knowing what separates top members from the rest.
- Examples of contributions of top members.
- Building strong relationships in the community.
- Contributions the community really needs.
- How to engage with deeper empathy.
We also supplied a few resources (video editor, graphic designer, and promotional support) for members who took the time to create a really amazing contribution. We set the bar as high as we dared.
The response to this training was immediate. Over 300 signed up for it within 3 months and this group was soon creating 500+ items of content per month. We also had a 2x increase in the number of members applying for community roles or offering to create their own.
The top contributor group swelled from around 0 to 35 (and then shrank to about 25). Most importantly, the behaviours of the community changed almost overnight. And we gained over 50 really remarkable contributions to support.
Training community members was one of the best investments you can make in your community.
The final step was to train the company beyond the community manager.
If someone with no community experience is running a community, the problem clearly doesn’t start (nor end) with the community manager. Others need to understand what a community requires, to engage the community themselves, and otherwise lend their support.
Getting people in the room was tricky, so we simplified our pitch. Once members begin to experience a community they’re going to expect a community experience across the organization.
If you’re used to getting warm, friendly, responses in the community and then receive a fast, formal, and seemingly terse response from customer support, that’s a problem.
This training included:
- Identifying opportunities in community.
- Identifying required resources and tactics to achieve those community benefits.
- What community members need (and don’t need).
- Engaging members with deep empathy.
- Dealing with difficult members.
- Testing ideas/co-creation with communities.
- Spotting and resolving problems.
Our ulterior motive was to increase the motivation of employees to use the community in all aspects of their work.
We delivered this training through in-person workshops (it’s easy to do internal training via workshops). Not everyone bought into it, but enough did to see a rising level of tangible support in the community. About two-thirds of the room were still visiting and/or participating in the community 2.5 months later.
Better yet, a year later, the company was acquired and our training was adapted into the employee handbook.
Community skills are unique from other skills. Investing in acquiring them is almost always a bargain. In too many communities, six-figure (plus) investments hang upon the skills of a community manager with no training and/or limited experience.
That doesn’t make any sense.
Invest in making sure you (and your community team) are highly trained in what they do. In almost every situation, the results are clear. Communities become more active and more positive places to be. Better yet, train your members and your organization too and completely transform your community.
Once the staff above identified their own benefits from the community, they began providing support to achieve them. It’s a mutual win for everyone.
p.s. If you’ve already been in the field, I’d suggest my workshop at CMXSummit might be valuable.
One of our common observations with clients is they want their communities to be bigger and more active without doing anything to deliberately attract more members or get them more active.
Most wait to be lucky. Their community creates a lot of content and they hope more people find it and join the community. That can work, but it’s slow and far from certain.
Most of your community’s size and activity is determined by two big decisions you made (or neglected to make) early on.
When we work with clients, we help them grow deliberately and strategically. We help them change the rules of the game by answering two major questions with the community and evaluating those answers frequently.
If you get these two decisions right, everything else falls into place a lot easier.
If you don’t, it’s going to feel like you’re always fighting to get people to join, visit, and participate.
Key Decision 1: Who Are We Targeting?
The biggest mistake you can make is targeting too many people too soon.
You’re always going to be tempted to target all of your existing audience to attract the maximum number of members. But the more people you try to attract, the harder it becomes to satisfy each of their unique needs.
This works for a tiny number of customer support communities, but it’s the wrong approach for the rest of us.
The easiest way to launch, grow (or revamp) any new community is to find the tiniest slither of your audience with unique needs which you can satisfy better than any other community can.
Segmenting your audience
You can slice up your audience in many ways, most methods usually involve some form of demographic, habits, or psychographic factors.
Some common ones:
- How long someone has been a customer/involved in the topic or a member of the community.
- How skilled or experienced they are within the topic.
- Their location.
- Their unique job roles.
- Beliefs about the future of the topic.
- Beliefs about the past of the topic.
- Hobbies in their spare time.
- Aspects of the work they’re uniquely excited by.
- Aspects of the work they’re uniquely frustrated by.
The best means to identify segments is through a combination of member interviews and surveys. You first do the interviews to surface possible needs and then you add questions to the survey to evaluate the strength and possibilities of each segment.
For example, if in your interviews you notice a small group of members are heavily frustrated by the lack of quality information, you then add relevant questions to the survey to determine the size of this group and segment answers from this group from the rest to determine their unique needs.
If you’re building a community for IT security professionals, you might find you have unique groups of audiences in:
- IT security pros in their first job role.
- IT security pros with 3 to 5 years of expertise and looking to move into a senior role.
- IT security pros based in New York.
- IT security pros at Fortune 500 companies.
- IT security pros dealing with social attacks.
When you launch a community, target it specifically at the small, unique, slither you’re attracting. Once you’ve done well attracting this group, target the next segment and the next. This is how you stop growing randomly and start growing deliberately. Now growth is fully within your control.
Key Decision 2: What Unique Needs and Desires Are You Satisfying?
Once you have identified the unique segments you’re targeting, you need to figure out which unique needs and desires you’re satisfying. This is how you increase participation from existing members.
You have to satisfy the unique needs and desires of your audience better than anywhere else.
If you do this right, you shouldn’t be competing with anyone…you’re the only game in town.
The most common mistake here is to focus solely on a member’s need for information. But information is a competitive space. Your community will be competing against Google search results, YouTube breakdowns, and communities set up by your own customers on Reddit/Slack/StackExchange.
Push beyond the need for information.
Three Types of Needs
We can divide member needs into three levels; external, internal, and deeper beliefs/identity (h/t Storybrand).
- External need: This is the most immediate practical need a member has.
- Internal desire: This is the internal driver of that practical need.
- Beliefs/identity: This is the deeper belief or identity related to the topic.
Let’s imagine you run a community for a SaaS IT product. You have multiple needs you can target.
- External need: I need to get this product to work or I risk a poor performance review.
- Internal desire: I want to feel confident that I can solve problems like this myself.
- Beliefs/Identity: I want to feel part of an elite group of IT professionals.
Find a small group of members with unique needs and design the first community for them. Target the discussions, content, activities, and more solely for them.
Creating The Value Only You Can
The secret to keeping members hooked is to tackle as many of your members’ needs and desires as possible.
Your decisions here will completely change the entire concept of your community.
Be warned, it’s a lot easier to get a community started by tackling the immediate need. However, you will soon find people visit, get an answer to their problem, and leave. This leaves you with two options. You can tackle more of their needs beyond just the immediate topic or satiate more of their deeper desires.
You can see an example of your options in the chart below:
Generally speaking, the more desires you satiate, the stickier your community becomes.
However, it’s also increasingly more difficult to build these kind of communities because the immediate need to visit the community disappears. But if you want to build something more than a community where members visit, receive an answer, and leave…you need to move up the desire chain.
Most customer support communities, for example, focus on the immediate external need. The benefit is members have a clear and obvious reason to visit the community.
The downside is members have no reason to stick around (and they usually don’t).
Increasing Growth and Activity
If you want to increase the level of growth or participation, don’t tweak around the edges and wait to be lucky. Take control of the process and change the rules of the game. Gradually and deliberately expand the audiences you’re targeting and the needs you’re satisfying.
This is how you can have deliberate, sustained, growth within the community.
p.s. I’m going to be covering techniques like this as part of my CMX Workshop this September (select Richard’s workshop). I strongly recommend investing the $599 to redefine how you grow and scale your community.
In 2016, Microsoft replaced its Yammer Office community with TechCommunity on the Lithium platform. This cannot have been easy. There are plenty of other platforms for different purposes. If Microsoft made a mistake, they will have thousands, perhaps millions, of angry members.
This week, we’re going to do a breakdown of the Microsoft Tech Community and dive slightly into Microsoft’s broader community structure.
This is our 6th community breakdown, you can find the others below:
Overview and Structure
As we can see below, Microsoft has multiple communities across multiple platforms for multiple audiences and purposes.
Making this even more complicated is the incredible speed of growth in the community. Since launching in 2016, the community has grown at a staggering pace with 500+ new members every day, 600 new posts, and over a thousand new conversations.
One potential problem here is the number of conversations per day far exceeds the number of posts. This means either a huge number of conversations are being started which do not receive a response or there is a flaw in the data.
Based upon the community lifecycle, we would consider this community at the very peak of its speed of growth. However, given the overwhelming size of Microsoft, we would note the community in many aspects has already jumped ahead to the mitosis phase.
* Note: per day numbers are collected by comparing figures listed on the website today vs. several months ago (via Archive.org) and averaging the results. This will not account for any posts which have been removed.
The Microsoft Tech Community comprises of 99 distinct communities (70 distinct product and service categories, 16 ‘solution’ based communities and several hidden communities).
Each community has one or more ‘spaces’ where members engage with one another.
It’s important to distinguish between the TechCommunity – for IT professionals and the answers community for end-users here. The community is designed to help IT professionals get the most from Microsoft products.
However, despite the complexity of the community, the community uses a relatively basic set of features from Lithium (Khoros).
The lack of groups and knowledge base is interesting. This could be because either group is a relatively new feature from Lithium or because it’s outside of the community strategy.
The community essentially uses a small number of templates with minor variations for both the homepage and each sub-community/space/other areas. This ensures a consistent (if somewhat unexciting) experience. It also makes it a lot easier to review the community.
The community does well to clearly articulate its purpose, provide a place for newcomers, and show some of the latest activity above the fold. It could be improved by reducing the static boxes to half the height, adding in trending topics, and possibly removing the in-line answers which take up a lot of space, but make it harder for members to scroll through the page.
We would also like to see clearer calls to action in both the search and a registration box. Both are relatively well hidden but are pretty important.
The display of blog posts alongside the content is handy and something other communities could embrace.
The mobile experience is good but could also be significantly improved. Moving the search to the top of the page (and keeping it there when members scroll) is a really smart move on mobile. It would also be good to bring the rest of the activity up by removing the static banners and other content.
The image on the left would be an ideal mobile experience. It also makes sense to show the expanded content here. The community also has a great display of blog posts. It would even better if members could quickly swipe to the next blog post for simplicity.
Final Design Rating: B-
Using our benchmarks, the community design hovers somewhere around a B-. It has simple enough navigation, somewhat guides newcomers, and displays most activity fairly well. Its mobile site is ok, but calls to action could be a little improved. It’s not going to win any awards for being aesthetically pleasing but neither is Microsoft.
The community uses Lithium’s native search function which performs ok. This enables members to search for information from posts, ideas, blogs, and the tribal knowledge base (which is only used for older Yammer articles). The results appear to be prioritised by 1) Relevancy to key terms 2) Accepted solution 3) Date and 4) Likes. This is a good standard.
Like many communities, this could benefit from a unified search option which retrieved information from the rest of the site alongside search results. This ignores all existing documentation.
We can break onboarding down into three areas; pre-registration, registration, and post-registration.
At the time of writing, Microsoft is the most valuable company in the world with a huge array of products, services, and information to communicate to different target audiences. We’re less than surprised the community does not appear prominently on the company homepage. Most links to the Tech Community are buried down the pages for each product.
While this likely attracts a lot of traffic, it also means most traffic is going to come via search.
Like many brands which require extensive product documentation, the community must compete with documentation to appear higher in search results. There is likely scope to improve and prioritise how discussions appear in search results to attract more traffic and differentiate from product information. We suspect the community attracts the long-tail of search results which documentation can’t easily cover.
When members do visit, it’s difficult to see where to register. Members have to click on the ‘login’ section instead of a registration link. It might be better to show a registration call to action for visitors who haven’t logged in.
The Microsoft community uses SSO (single sign-on) but without Facebook/Twitter support. To join the Microsoft community you need to have a Microsoft (or Skype) account. To join you need to give the community access to your Microsoft account. This is a little clumsy, but probably understandable.
Like most, SSO-based communities, this is a little clunky. But it seems to work easily enough.
The process is simple and only takes a minute or two (even without an existing Microsoft account).
Once a member has registered, they’re immediately asked to highlight the areas which most interest them. This ensures members aren’t overwhelmed with irrelevant information.
Below this, members are asked for some very basic profile information. This is a great example of understanding what members want and asking for as little information as possible. It might also be useful here to have a separate Code of Conduct tab.
Once complete, the homepage shows an activity feed filled with content members chose to follow. This is ideal for communities where members are likely to use multiple products.
However, there are no further onboarding or automation rules here to better engage newcomers within the community. An email campaign or a clear next step would be useful.
Final Rating: C+
A very mixed onboarding experience. We would probably give the community a C+ (ok) grade here. The pre-registration is ok, the registration is great, and the post-registration is somewhat non-existent.
The Engagement Experience
The Microsoft engagement experience is spread across multiple areas. The core of the community is the Q&A discussions which take place within each space of each community. However, this is slightly augmented by a community section, an ideas area, blogs, and events.
There is a lot to like here and a little to dislike. At the core of engagement in Microsoft communities is a Facebook wall-like structure as opposed to a typical forum community. Members respond by entering their replies directly in the box provided beneath previous discussions. The benefit is it makes participating easier for casual browsers.
The downside is it takes up space and members might reply without reading the entire topic. It might also be simpler to adopt the open text box at the top of the page for members who want to ask a question.
The search bar clearly needs to be moved to the banner. It’s far too small here for the thousands of people who need to search for answers to their questions. All three boxes on the right, however, are pretty much ideal and relevant to the situation. We really like this page layout. It’s not aesthetically pleasing, but it functions perfectly for a primarily tech audience.
The interface for Spaces is clear and focused on function over form. This too would benefit from a clearer search box. We would also recommend replacing ‘like’ with ‘I have this question too’ which reveals more information about the visitor’s needs. Related conversations on the right is also a good touch.
Ideas and feedback is where the structure of the community becomes strange and murky. At one level, there is a fairly good ideation page for community feedback hosted on the community below:
There is room for improvement, but generally, it’s a good way to see the latest ideas and the status of these ideas. However, this ideas section isn’t used for any of the product categories. These are still hosted on the external UserVoice site.
It’s odd to pay for ideation from Lithium and barely use it. The Uservoice community has a high level of engagement with thousands of items of feedback and new idea updates. While most links direct you back to the relevant community, it’s strange to have two places for the same function.
The community generally does a great job of displaying blogs. Staff are highly engaged in creating a lot of topical content within their area of expertise. This suggests widespread support for the community across the business.
All the contributions to the blog currently come from Microsoft employees. It may be valuable to enable trusted members to share their best advice as well. This is motivating and helps scale the community. This may enable staff to filter for quality instead of creating all the contributions personally.
The Microsoft Tech Community has an interesting approach to events. Any related social group can seemingly add an event to the calendar with their own page which takes members to a separate registration link on Meetup/Eventbrite or possibly other communities.
Events are shown by their respective popularity with the biggest even given the dominant position.
Another interesting innovation is to create a list of the top speakers searchable by category and field of expertise. This enables anyone hosting an event to find people to speak to and may attract top people to visit and maintain their profiles.
Final Rating: B
Microsoft delivers a fairly good engagement experience with high levels of activity across almost all areas of the community, unique innovations, and a friendly, if not overwhelming friendly, response to many questions. However, the response rate is a concern and may be the result of competing with similar Microsoft-owned properties for the same audience and attention.
The Microsoft community uses standard Lithium gamification with multiple levels based upon a combination of actions members have performed and badges reflecting individual achievements. There doesn’t appear to be any integrations with other areas of Microsoft (which is a huge missed opportunity) or any interesting innovations.
Community seems to have a relatively small number of levels with unimaginative names and confusing hierarchy. These include visitor, occasional visitor, frequent visitor, contributor, trusted contributor, respected contributor, MVP, ‘Microsoft’ etc…
But is trusted better than respected? Levels could be greatly improved (perhaps with numbers instead of names). Clearly, some members have become stuck on the top level and the community is less than 3 years old.
However, it’s good to see user levels appear high up on the member profile and reflected in a colour change on that member’s profile.
One major annoyance is the community sends notifications to members who haven’t made a contribution telling them they have increased a level as a result of their contribution. This devalues the effort required to reach new levels for everyone.
Another problem is these notifications almost always winding up in the spam folder through poor design.
The community has fewer achievements members can earn than other communities. It also tends to mix important badges (member of the week) with unimportant badges (5 consecutive days visiting).
Microsoft isn’t alone in doing this. It seems to be a default Lithium option.
Each of the 99 communities has a leaderboard of top contributors. However, these are buried too far below the fold on the homepage of each community to be meaningful to (or seen by) most members. It would be nice to bring them closer to the top and increase their visibility within the community.
Final Rating: C+
Microsoft doesn’t appear to have put much thought into its gamification system and instead used the defaults provided by Lithium which are less than ideal.
The Microsoft MVP Program
It’s almost impossible to evaluate an MVP program on the scale of Microsoft’s within a few relatively short paragraphs. In a sentence, it is the program other companies should aspire towards.
Microsoft has perhaps the most successful and best-supported MVP program of any company. Microsoft has over 3000 MVPs (although it’s unclear how many of these are active). The MVP program has its subdomain featured prominently on the Microsoft website.
Members can be nominated or apply to join the MVP program. There doesn’t appear to be a rigid standard, but more of a fluid criteria which evaluates the contributions of an applicant across multiple projects, communities, blogs, user groups, and more.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the entire program is there is no outlined reward scheme. As shown in the copy, it’s simply a way of ‘showing thanks’ to members. This demonstrates that MVPs don’t need rewards, they need to feel they have an impact, have some asset of exclusive information, and a sprinkle of status.
Members do gain access to a five-day event for MVPs at company headquarters. Most MVP programs have a single-data event. It’s clearly a big deal.
Each MVP has a distinct bio. The bios are clear and simple enough which clearly list a member’s expertise. They are also searchable by their region and level of expertise. One area where the bios really shine is listing members contributions to the entire Microsoft ecosystem into a single stream. This shows exactly how each member has helped the community. This clearly shows speaking at conferences, forum participation, hosting user groups, blog posts etc…
Final Rating: A
Perhaps the best MVP program in the world right now.
OVERALL RATING: B
The Microsoft community is one of the most complex and challenging communities to evaluate (let alone manage). It exists in a challenging environment, with veteran users, and long-established habits. This creates challenges which Microsoft has largely done well to overcome:
The community has a consistently high level of engagement, benefits from a terrific MVP program, and has a design that enables a community of this size and complexity to work. However, it also suffers from poor gamification and onboarding experiences – both of which should be improved.
In addition, the community is still competing against its own, more popular, legacy communities. This is less than ideal and needs to be resolved. Our recommendations would be:
1) Develop a communications plan to ensure all IT pros and developers are focused on a single platform beginning with TechNet and then the Microsoft Developer network. This will cause annoyance but yields benefits in the long-term.
2) Use the ideation functionality provided by Lithium to replace that used by Uservoice. Sending members away from the community to post feedback and ideas doesn’t make sense.
3) Improve the post-registration experience of community members to have a longer automation journey highlighting how they can become top community members.
4) Remove the worthless gamification badges and focus them on big achievements. Revamp levels to ensure there are more of them and they have a clear hierarchy of value to everyone. Make sure leaderboards are more prominently displayed.
5) Develop a system to flag unanswered conversations and ensure a large group of members in each community are dedicated and rewarded for tackling these.
When you first begin building and managing communities, you rightly spend the majority of your time engaging members and responding to what happens. This is what helps get your community off the ground and helps you learn core community skills.
But if you’re still spending most of your time doing this kind of work a few years’ later, you’re probably not delivering on your full potential.
Design Processes and Interventions To Take Your Community To The Next Level
As your community grows through the community lifecycle (and your career develops) your work should shift from daily one-to-one interactions with members to designing systems that help your community achieve its big wins – the things it was set up to do in the first place.
At the moment, too few of us are doing that (and fewer still are doing it as well as we could).
This September, I’ll be hosting an Advanced Skills Community workshop at CMX Summit to help those of whom have mastered the basics, design the systems that will take their community to the next level.
The Advanced Community Skills Workshop
We’re going to focus on some of the biggest wins and how you can achieve them.
- Understanding research techniques to know what your members truly want from a community.
- Developing successful user journeys for each of your community’s personas.
- Optimizing your community technology to achieve increasingly better results.
- Establishing standards for how you and your team engage your community members.
- Designing community decision trees.
- Setting benchmarks for your community and building a roadmap from your benchmarks.
- …and plenty more.
This workshop is targeted entirely on the areas where you have the biggest and most immediate impact upon the level of participation and success of your community.
If you don’t have validated personas, clear user journeys, engagement standards or find yourself using default platform options, this workshop will help you.
Learn Advanced Community Skills
If you’re a beginner, this isn’t a good workshop for you yet.
However, if you’ve already got an active community and want to take it to the next level, this workshop might be ideal.
I strongly believe every community needs a highly trained community professional at the helm. A community needs someone with the expertise and toolkit to take their community to where it needs to go. This September we’re going to give you the skills to do just that.
You can sign up here:
(p.s. You get a discount if you use this link)
For a few weeks we’re going to be taking a deeper dive into some of the more advanced aspects of running an online community.
If you’re looking to up your game, move up to a strategist level, or get an insight into what top community pros work on; this should help.
Last year, we analyzed a few of the top communities around (Apple, Autodesk, StackOverflow, and Airbnb). We’re going to add to this collection today by taking you on a deep dive of the Spotify Online Community.
Let’s begin by looking at the basics from available information (note this data is accurate up to May 2019).
However, it’s worth noting community growth (0.4% per year) lags far behind customer growth (2% to 4% per year). Most members join and don’t ask a question.
This is clearly a mature community (based upon the community lifecycle).
* Note: per day numbers are collected by comparing figures listed on the website today vs. several months ago (via Archive.org) and averaging the results. This will not account for any posts which have been removed.
The Spotify community has a relatively simple structure with five key elements. These are:
To support this, the community is using the following features provided by Lithium:
The lack of groups is interesting. This could be because either groups is a relatively new feature from Lithium or because it’s outside of the community strategy.
Either way, it’s likely the addition of groups would support the ‘Music Chat’ where members could form groups and exchange playlists around topics of interest.
Layout and Navigation
The community design has two clear calls to action for visitors. These are to sign up for a premium account, and search for an answer to a question. Both drive an immediate return on investment (new accounts/call deflection). However, the size of this banner means it’s likely most members won’t see the four key areas of the community below.
We would recommend reducing the size and ensuring people can get an immediate insight into what the community is about.
Navigation is hidden in a hamburger menu at the side of the page. This probably works great for mobile, but it might be easier if they used a standard tabbed navigation bar. Especially given how difficult it is to find the knowledge base.
We would also recommend renaming ‘Spotify Answers’ as it’s not clear that this refers to the knowledge base compared with ‘Help’.
Overall, the navigation is relatively simple and uncluttered with a few areas of improvement.
The community design gets almost everything right. It matches Spotify’s brand well, there is a clear contrast between different areas of the site. The site avoids stock images and is generally uncluttered. However, two downsides stand out. The first is the call to action asking people to sign up for premium at the top of the page. This looks too much like a cheap banner advert. The second is the level of static content.
In most support communities, the majority of questions come from relatively new customers. It usually makes sense to provide an obvious place for newcomers to get started. Spotify hasn’t yet done this on the homepage. Given the community uses single-sign-on, it might be useful to provide an obvious place for newcomers to get answers to their questions.
Spotify has taken a unique design decision to only show contributions from staff members and top members (Rock Stars) on the homepage. This means the community only shows posts which have been answered.
Given how unlikely it is an average newcomer is searching for that solution, it might be better to show either the latest unanswered posts (which regulars/top members can then answer) or trending/top posts (which helps most users get the answer to their questions).
Another downside is staff/Rock Stars are likely to respond to multiple posts at once. This means almost all the posts shown on the community homepage could come from the same person.
We would also like to see trending topics/discussions shown beneath the search bar at the top of the page to drive more traffic to those areas.
The community seems designed primarily for mobile and functions well with boxes dropping down to a single column. However, it would be wise to remove some of the static text to make it easier for members to find what they’re looking for.
The two major calls to action (create a premium account and search) are clear. Perhaps the only downside is the ability to ask questions directly from the homepage – which is what most members are likely to want to do. The community also lacks any dynamic CTAs which vary by a member’s stage in the community. Newcomers are shown the same CTAs as veterans.
Using our benchmarks, the community design hovers somewhere between ok to good overall.
We can break onboarding down into three areas; pre-registration, registration, and post-registration.
Despite the community’s size, it’s curiously absent from the Spotify homepage.
It doesn’t even appear under the ‘Communities’ option at the bottom of the page(!). Both the ‘help’ tabs direct members to the support center. To find the community members have to click on ‘help’ and then scroll down below the fold to find the community. Even after they click on this, they’re not taken to the main community homepage but to the lesser-used knowledge base (which is unlikely to provide better answers than those available in the support center).
What this implies is the community isn’t used as the primary customer support channel, but as the ‘catch-all’ for when members couldn’t get the answer from anywhere else. It also means that while the community has general music chat, it’s not utilized anywhere near as much as it could be.
This feels like a major missed opportunity. It also suggests almost all traffic comes via search.
Here the Spotify community competes with its own support center (more on that later) to display results. However, when results do appear, they are often displayed as featured snippets (see below). This is a major benefit of using Lithium as the community platform.
When members do visit, it’s difficult to see where to register. Members have to click on the ‘log in’ section instead of a registration link. It might be better to show a registration call to action for visitors who haven’t logged in.
The Spotify community uses SSO (single sign-on). To join the Spotify community you need to have a Spotify account. You can sign-up via a Facebook account. The upside is this makes the registration process simple, the downside is it becomes far more difficult to create a unique user journey for newcomers (i.e. members who sign up via the community aren’t usually distinguished from those who sign up via any other method).
However, once someone does sign-up for an account, they are taken back to the community homepage. The process is relatively simple and the community can track when a member first visits the community.
Outside of badges shown here, there is no further communication or support for community members. There are no on-site tips or emailed information to guide members towards different aspects of the community. The music section of the community could be thriving, but it won’t be anywhere near as active as it could be if the only people who can find it are those who have problems with their Spotify account first. The poor navigation is significantly hampering the community’s success.
It’s hard to feel a sense of community with other members when you don’t know who the community team is, who other members are, and what the community is about.
Spotify’s community onboarding is ‘ok’, largely thanks to a simple registration experience. It should do a lot better at attracting new members and keeping them in the community after they register.
We’ve recently broken search into its own category.
Spotify’s community shows the problems with using the native search function of a community platform. Native search only pulls content from the community. The Spotify community search bar can pull content from Lithium’s forum and tribal knowledge base, but not from the support center.
This means the same search for an answer on the community and the support centre leads to two completely different results – typically with Lithium’s user-generated content given the poorer answers. In fact, Lithium’s default search results are worryingly bad in the few examples we tested.
I suspect this is because the search has less content to retrieve information from and has been customized to prioritize the results with the most ‘likes’ instead of the best relevancy.
This means emotionally charged topics which encourage a lot of people to like (as shown above) appear above what might be the best answer. This happened across multiple search requests we tested. It’s a major problem which needs to be solved (also note: showing topics which are 7 years old is not normally ideal).
The other downside of using a native search feature is you end up duplicating what’s in the knowledge base and help center which hurts your search results. The solution is to use Coveo, SearchUnify or another option which retrieves content from multiple databases and shows the best result. This means the support center could show results from the community and vice-versa. This would immediately improve the support experience for all customers (the Zuora community is a good example)
The Engagement Experience
The Spotify engagement experience is spread across three areas;
- Help/Support (Q&A).
- Music Chat (Forums).
- Ideas (Crowdsource Ideas).
Help/Support: 201k posts (approx 40 posts per day – 2019)
The support community is where Spotify’s community really thrives.
The Help Q&A has generally good taxonomy with limited overlap between categories. However, the categories are listed in an odd mixture of alphabetical and by popularity. We would recommend sticking with either (ideally with the most popular categories at the top).
A few things we can pick up instantly here:
- Most question titles are reasonably clear (although with a few which need improvement).
- The community has a near 100% response rate to questions from top members. Around 80% of responses seem to be from community Rock Stars with the remainder coming from rising stars, moderators, and a handful of other members.
- The accepted solution rate which seems to hover around 15% to 25%. This isn’t necessarily bad (most members who ask a question don’t take the time to mark an accepted solution).
- It’s clear which questions have an accepted solution and which have been answered by a moderator.
The average time to respond seems hard to determine, but a random sample of questions and responses suggests around 15 to 30 hours. This is too long for a community of Spotify’s size and a reasonable target for improvement should be to bring this down to a handful of hours. In a community with 40 new posts per day, it should be possible to reduce this to 3 to 5 hours.
If we dive deeper, the quality of responses is generally extremely good. Community Rock Stars (who provide the bulk of the answers) respond with friendliness, empathy, clarity, and often ask clarifying questions to get to the crux of the issue.
It’s also clear who is an employee and who isn’t by the signature within the posts. This is an excellent and clear way of helping members understand who a response is from (and potentially avoid any legal liability for the responses).
The only downside (and this is minor) is after viewing a dozen or so they all start to sound the same – often using the same words and mannerisms. This suggests they’re trained to use a template and this might feel impersonal over time. However, given how unlikely it is anyone is going to browse through many answers, it’s a minor issue. The tone of responses is generally at a world-class standard.
Music Chat: 40k posts (approx 42 posts per day – 2019)
The ‘Music Chat’ section has incredible potential which isn’t being fully utilized at the moment.
It’s interesting to note music chat appears to have just overtaken help as the most popular activity in the community (by posts per day). The section is broken down to include:
- Featured discussions.
- A full list of discussions (with pinned topics).
- The blog posted as a discussion.
- A featured playlist.
- ‘Content Questions’ Q&A.
- Playlist exchange – you can submit your playlist (albeit it’s not clear where these go).
This section is a mishmash of different ideas all under a single umbrella of generic Music Chat. It clearly has huge potential but also a clearer strategy. Playlists are likely to be huge, while content discussions might be a better fit for the help forums.
I’d suggest renaming it from ‘Music Chat’ – which feels like a placeholder, to something that closer represents the benefit of the area (finding and sharing your Favourite Music).
Next, it would be ideal to feature the most popular member-submitted playlists, followed by general music discussions and content questions. Given Spotify is also moving into podcasts and concert ticket sales, there is potential to build a huge music community around these topics. It’s a little surprising this hasn’t happened yet.
Ideas: 51k posts (14 new posts per day)
The ideas area is one of the most successful we’ve seen with both a large number of ideas submitted and a considerable number of new ideas per day – many of which get a good level of support.
The design of the ideas section isn’t great. The blog post takes up far too much space and lingers for the rest of the month even after members have read the post. In this case, the top March 2019 ideas post is still featured as of May 20. The display of the most popular ideas is great and should replace the blog section. The live ideas area should also appear higher up along with a breakdown of their current status.
This would also benefit from showing the latest implemented ideas (to encourage future ideas). The FitBit community generally does a great job of showing these benefits.
One interesting innovation is Community RockStars are enabled to change the status of ideas submitted within the community.
All ideas also receive a reply and the most popular ones often receive updates on status. There seems to be a reluctance, however, to reject highly popular ideas which can linger for 5 years after they’ve been posted.
The Spotify community is one of the only ones we’ve seen which delivers a world-class level of engagement. There are still areas for improvement, but it’s far better than most.
The Spotify community uses standard Lithium gamification with multiple levels based upon a combination of actions members have performed and badges reflect individual achievements. There doesn’t appear to be any integrations with other areas of Spotify (which is a shame).
Spotify offers dozens of different badges to recognise behaviors ranging from logging in twice in one day to posting 500 replies. As a rule, we’re not generally a fan of giving badges for minimal behaviors. Top badges are prioritised for member profiles, but not on the badges page.
Spotify has a handful of levels ranging from 0 to 21 (at least).
These levels aren’t based solely upon providing answers, but by a range of behaviors (i.e. you can’t just post relentlessly, you have to provide [x] number of accepted solutions and receive [x] amount of kudos etc..).
Spotify’s gamification is largely reflective of Lithium’s gamification offerings and advice. You could easily argue this is a great implementation of Lithium. However, compared to what else is out there, I would disagree.
The Spotify Rock Star Program
The Spotify Rock Star program is widely regarded as one of the best MVP/Superuser programs around. The Rock Star program has 132 members from 20 countries who have provided around 60% of all accepted solutions in the community.
Participants of the Rock Star program don’t just answer questions in the community, they also have access to a shared @AskRockStars Twitter account.
In this account they don’t just respond to questions mentioning the handle, they proactively respond to anyone mentioning a problem with Spotify. It’s rather impressive.
The level of access and permissions granted to RockStars is higher than we’ve seen in most other programs.
The process is also fairly well documented with the top rockstars listed by participation over a fixed time period (instead of since the beginning of the program).
The Rock Star Program also has an interesting reward system based upon the number of points members have accumulated. However, it’s not clear how points are determined (Lithium doesn’t have a default point scheme). Rewards range from a beach ball (15 points) to Marshall Monitor Bluetooth headphones – $250 (2,800 points).
This works out to each point being worth around $0.09 making each accepted solution probably worth somewhere in the region of $0.45 (this could be wildly wrong without knowing what point multiplier Spotify uses). Points are likely an accumulation of kudos, accepted solutions, and total posts.
The top 10 Rock Stars each year receive an all expenses paid trip to attend the Rock Star Jam in Stockholm, Sweden.
By almost all metrics, the Rock Star program is world class.
OVERALL RATING: B
The Spotify Community is a mature community with some remarkable strengths.
These are its broadly enthusiastic community, a fairly high level of activity, an outstanding MVP program (which answers almost every question), a thriving ideas section, and a rapidly growing music-chat community.
However, it also faces several key challenges. Our recommendations would be:
1) Address the limited visibility within Spotify, it’s a major concern. It’s almost impossible to find from the main website today.
2) The lack of a unified search feature is also another clear drawback. The community and support section shouldn’t be in competition with one another.
3) Improve the on-boarding of new members (which is non-existent today).
4) Redesign the homepage to show trending questions/unanswered questions.
5) Redesign the music-chat area.
In short, Spotify has a really great community which could also be even better.