Your Supermarket Layout Has Changed!

Would you visit your local supermarket more frequently if they announced a change in layout?

What if they told you the milk, bread, butter, and vegetables are now more convenient to find than ever before?

For most people, the answer is no. You might notice and appreciate the differences when you arrive, but it’s really not going to change whether (and how frequently) you visit.

(Of course, you’re going to notice if it becomes more difficult to find the items you want).

This is true for communities too. Don’t be surprised if members don’t seem to care about the redesign you’ve been working on for months. It might benefit members when they visit, but they’re not going to be too bothered about it either way.

Sending an excited mass email announcing the redesign of a community is mostly a waste of time. Members simply don’t care.

But they do care about the contents within the community. If you want your redesign to get noticed then launch it at the same time as something members do care about. That might be an incredible new resource, a genuinely exciting new feature, an event or discussion series you haven’t had before, or some activity with a VIP.

“Don’t talk about [x] here”

Imagine going to a conference afterparty and being told by the host you can’t discuss key aspects of your work with fellow professionals.

If you’re like most people, you would step outside (or head to a bar down the street) and talk there.

This is the problem with creating a community and telling members they can’t talk about key topics.

For sure, you might not want members rambling on about their personal lives or swapping their favourite cat photos (unless you do). These discussions are outside of the common interests and should take place on social media. You also probably want to avoid legal landmines too.

But to restrict what people can talk about within the common interest is generally a really bad idea.

Create sub-groups for certain discussions if you like. Use your subtle influence to guide discussions in a certain direction. But be sure to push back against preventing members talking about things they want to discuss. This is a community killer.

These discussions help bond members, they give members a reason to repeatedly visit the community, they increase the likelihood that they will (perhaps eventually) talk about the topics that deliver the results you want.

Everything Takes Longer

If you’re managing a community, you’re frequently going to be dragged into murky, unfamiliar, waters. These waters might seem calm on the surface, but they hide rocky terrain which can easily delay your community ambitions.

Some examples…

You can’t update the platform without your IT team first doing a security/penetration test and that might take a few weeks.

You can’t send out an email to members because of GDPR rules (members opted out) or because marketing has capped the number of emails that can be sent out.

You can’t launch the community until legal reviews all the documentation. This might take a few weeks.

You can’t send out a digest, newsletter, or approve members to join because the platform doesn’t have that feature.

You can’t send tangible rewards to members because of internal policies or challenging distribution sending content around the world.

You can’t get the community featured on your site because staff are worried about members saying something incorrect (or being seen to endorse it).

None of these things (and these are just a handful of examples) seemed like issues beforehand. It’s only once you dive below the surface you find out that everything is going to take a lot longer than expected.

It’s probably similar to someone in marketing wanting to promote a new feature in a mass email to community members. It sounds simple to them, but we’re going to have problems with it.

There’s no easy path to navigating around them. You simply need to dive below as early as possible and figure out what you didn’t know.

Or, less metaphorically, explore the realities of any task in your project plan as quickly as possible. The sooner you identify the unknown unknowns, the sooner you can overcome them.

Solutions, Problems, And Gratitude

On a community project last year, the client was nervous that the number of posts and community was declining.

They had tried a few special events, tweaking the gamification system, and changing the registration process, but nothing had a big impact.

The real problem was they had tried to come up with solutions before isolating the problem.

When we began investigating, we found that the number of newcomers and registrations to the community had barely budged. The community was still attracting as many questions as ever – but the number of responses had declined.

Either questions were becoming too difficult for members to answer or there were fewer members to answer them. A quick browse of the data showed that the ‘superusers’ had declined by just over half in the past 7 months.

I reached out to 10 previously active participants to ask why.

Almost all identified the same problem. A year ago the community manager had changed. They found the new community manager cold, ungrateful, and almost hostile. Where they once received likes on almost every post, frequent direct messages with gratitude, and often hung out on zoom calls, the new community manager did none of that.

Worse yet, they increasingly felt like their input was ignored by this community manager rather than welcomed as it was by the past community manager.

Sometimes problems need big, bold, solutions to fix. Other times they just need a little more gratitude.

But you can’t resolve any problem until you get to the true source of it.

Tiny Tests To Optimise the Community

If you’re not sure what belongs in a navigation bar or whether a certain feature belongs in a certain place on the homepage, you can test it.

First create a list of the options. What could theoretically go in that position. It’s fine to have disagreements internally at this stage.

Second, use a platform like Optimizely to split test your options and see what gets the most clicks.

Or, if you can’t do that, simply test each option each month and see what gets the most clicks (relative to the volume of traffic each month).

Running 5 to 7 of these tiny tests each month can have a big impact upon the community.

Also consider how you name each area in the navigation bar. Changing the label from Forums, to Questions, to Topics etc…can have a surprisingly big impact.

Run a few tests and see what happens.

Responding to “Let’s Start A Group/Community For [x]”

Your response should be simple:

“How many people are asking for a group about [x]?”

Nine times out of ten you will get a response along the lines of:

“No-one yet, but….”

That’s when you know you shouldn’t start a group.

If people aren’t requesting or asking for a group or community, don’t create one. Instead work the audience to create the demand for such a group.

You can save a lot of time and money this way.

Guiding A Better Discussion Around Measurement

A client was recently asked to change how they measured the community because the results were ‘too high’.

Clearly, changing the methodology to get an acceptable outcome is a terrible way to establish metrics. Not only does it move the goalposts after you’ve scored, it also undermines trust in the team and any metrics related to the community.

A better approach is to engage stakeholders in the process of measurement early.

Ideally, I try to engage people in a real-time workshop where we can probe deeply into questions such as:

What do you care about changing?

How will you know if that change is happening?

What is the anecdotal evidence we would expect to see?

What are the metrics that we would expect to change?

Can anything besides the community influence these metrics?

What is the minimum the community needs to show to be viable?

What is a number that would blow you away and persuade you to increase support for the community?

The great thing about doing this live is everyone is able to give input, agree/disagree with one another, and take ownership of the metrics going forward.

You might find the real metrics that matter to you are completely different from what you had first expected.

It will also be harder to move the goalposts everyone has had a hand in putting up.

What Matters In Responses?

During the past few months, we’ve been running surveys on a number of client communities.

Two of the responses merit some attention (because the pattern is repeated in most clients we work with).

The first is who members prefer to get a response from here:

This shows that most people who ask a question don’t really mind who the response is from.

You might spend time agonising over whether members are getting enough responses from staff members or superusers, but your members probably don’t.

Which raises the question, what do members really care about? We’ve asked this frequently and the answers are usually similar to the example here:

Members care most about the detail (or quality) of response, the speed of response, and (to a lesser extent) getting a response which is personalised to them.

This probably reflects that the majority of members in the majority of communities don’t see themselves as part of a community. They’re not looking to bond and form friendships. They’re simply there to resolve a problem and move on.

I’ve known community professionals who have wasted a huge amount of time and resources trying to fight against this mindset and convert information seekers into committed community members.

A better use of that time is to work with a handful of top members who do feel a part of a community and want to help out. You can work with them to ensure members do get good, quick, responses to questions – even responses personalised to them.

Products vs. Interests (products win)

It seems every couple of months someone comes up with a seemingly great idea; ‘let’s organise our community by interest!’

This is when you structure the community not by the product or activity people are engaged with, you structure the community by what you think they’re trying to do/achieve/the broader interest.

For example, a company which provides HR products might structure the community by ‘getting started, managing a team, handling payroll’ etc…instead of product 1, product 2, product 3 etc…

The problem with this approach is it ignores how people think and, more importantly, behave (it’s also bad for SEO).

It’s like if your supermarket organized shelves around the type of meal you were trying to create and put chicken, onions, curry powder, rice, tomatoes, rice, and garlic in one area.

You can kind of see the logic to it. But it just isn’t how people think.

There are many places to be clever when building a community, how you structure the categories and interests isn’t one of them. Keep it simple and follow how your members behave today.

Taking A Much Deeper Dive Into Community Data (new framework)

A common mistake is to track a community by a single metric (i.e. member satisfaction, number of active members, number of posts, % of audience participating etc…)

There are two problems with this.

The first is that a single metric is easy to game. If you want to increase member satisfaction, find excuses to remove the unhappy members. If you want more posts, host more frivolous off-topic discussions etc…

The second is you can’t extract many useful insights about what to do next from simplistic data points. It’s the contributors to these metrics that matter.

Recently we’ve been pioneering an approach that segments a community by different audiences, categories, features, and/or topics and comparing them on four dimensions which typically correlate to the best member experience.

These areas are:

  1. Size of topic (by active participants or posts – relative to each other).
  2. Average time to first response (mins).
  3. Average response rate to questions (%).
  4. How helpful members find the responses (average of 1 to 5 scale)

Any attempt to game one metric will show up in the others. Then we plot these on a graph as you see in a slightly modified client example below:

Once you have data visualised like this you have a far more complete picture of what’s happening within your community and you can begin setting more specific targets.


Using Data To Identify Key Community Problems

We can see above while we’re answering more developer and partner questions quickly, the responses clearly aren’t good enough (off-topic responses also aren’t seen as helpful but we don’t really mind here).

We can also see that we’re not responding to as many product 1 questions as we should be.

Finally we’re also not responding to as many product 2 questions as we should be, the speed of response is poor, and, worse still, the quality of responses aren’t good enough.


Setting Community Targets For The Next Quarter

Now we can start setting more specific targets and some tactical steps:


  • Reduce the time to first response in ‘product 2’ questions by assigning virtual agents to help.
  • Increase the helpfulness score and response rate in ‘product 1’ questions through increasing the visibility of questions within the community.
  • Improve the quality of responses to developers and partners by recruiting experts to answer questions alongside staff members.

The challenge here isn’t coming up with the right actions or identifying the problems when you have the data, the real challenge is in extracting the data and presenting it in a way where you can identify exactly what is and isn’t working well in your community.

Don’t accept single overarching metrics, dive a lot deeper.

Overcoming Empty Community Knowledge Bases

It’s not uncommon to want a community-driven knowledge base.

Yet most organisations who enable this feature (i.e. members being able to share long-term content) soon realise it’s hard to get off the ground.

Very few people want to contribute. Ironically, the same people recommending community knowledge bases would struggle to name a single one they’ve ever contributed to (and not see that as a problem).

Your members are not going to casually drift by and decide to create a detailed piece of content.

There is a huge difference between enabling members to do something and motivating them to do it. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to boost motivation.

1) Create the first 100 articles. No-one wants to be the first person(s) to contribute to an empty knowledge base. It’s even worse when you only have your first 15 articles or so. Then it just looks sparse and empty. If you’re going to launch a new feature, commit to doing it well.

Prior to the launch, you should have dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of articles created by yourselves and (possibly) a few superuser accomplices. By the time you launch the knowledge base, it should already look incredible.

2) Run sprints (or knowledge hackathons) on specific topics. Create a challenge once a month (or every few months) for members to share their best resources on a specific topic (or tackling a specific challenge) in a given week.

3) Put people in charge of specific topics. The same member who wouldn’t contribute voluntarily is likely to try to gather plenty of articles together if they feel they are the custodian of the topic within the community. Sometimes you simply need to select someone with a good track record and put them in charge of a specific set of topics or resources.

4) Limit who can contribute to the knowledge base. If everyone can do it, there’s nothing special about doing it. Another option is to make contributing to the knowledge base something members get to do once they’ve reached a high level – and make a big deal about members who reach this level.

Don’t launch a community knowledge base to your members until you have a large number of existing articles there and a clear plan for gathering more.

The Annual Survey

Some platforms have great survey features which let you continuously survey a random sample of members each month and track results over time.

This is a great way of showing not just the improvement you’re making in the community, but also running multi-regression analysis to determine which metrics are strongly associated with the key metrics you want to move.

If you’re tracking member satisfaction, you can analyze whether things like time to first response, number of accepted solutions, number of questions/responses etc…are the biggest drivers of the results you want to see.

Once you know that, you know which metrics to focus on moving (this becomes the basis of your engagement plan).

If you don’t have this, I suggest you run an annual survey. Use the same questions each year. Track the results over time. It might be one of the simplest ways to prove the improvement you’re making within the community each year.

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