Can you imagine a brand website that only offered a list of solutions to potential product problems?
No information for new customers, job opportunities, about pages, latest news, case studies etc…just an online product manual.
Likewise, it’s hard to imagine a brand website which was just a digital product catalogue.
We’ve long accepted that a website offers multiple benefits to multiple audiences. There aren’t many single-function websites these days.
But there are still plenty of single-function communities.
The same people who want answers to questions also, by nature, want to use the product better. They want case studies, to get to know the staff, and to share their ideas for developing better products. They want the full range of things a community can provide.
If you’re not giving members the ability to do this, you’re only offering a tiny fraction of the value a community can offer.
The reason we haven’t seen many single-function brand websites in the past 20 years is no-one wants to miss out on the full benefits a website provides.
That logic applies to community too. If you’re focusing on only a single benefit you’re missing out on the full range of benefits a community offers.
Back in the day, setting up a forum was so beyond the skill set for the average internet user that simply having one was your competitive advantage.
You were the only game in town and you won big. Many of these forums still survive today, decades later, as active as they’ve ever been.
Alas, a decade ago social media came along and blew most forums out the water. Now any of your members can set up a group for free (or next to free) for your audience on Facebook, Reddit, StackExchange, Slack, LinkedIn, MightyNetworks, Whatsapp, and a growing number of other tools.
Many of these tools are better embedded into your members’ habits, provide a frictionless joining experience, and siphon growth from other groups already in the platform.
Your platform might have a better design, better personalization, and be an easier place to follow discussions, but the last decade shows most members simply don’t care.
It’s like a local grocer trying to compete against a supermarket by learning the customer’s names, providing a more personal experience, and better quality of goods. Ultimately, most customers only care about price and convenience. That convenience is true in communities too.
If you want to prevail as a single community site, you need a competitive asset no-one else can match.
The integrated community hub is a seductive idea.
Imagine it! A single destination which combines blogs, forums, groups, events, training, ideation, advocacy, webinars, case studies, documentation. Better yet, it’s integrated with your customer database. You will know exactly what kind of activities your customers participate in.
Every member can access everything through a single login.
The problem is this often works better in theory than in practice.
Part of the problem is members don’t see it this way. Members who have loved visiting the same forum, scanning activity, and reading the discussions that interest them now have to trawl through much more clutter.
Often the single, secure, login automatically logs members out every week (or, sometimes, every day). Which drives members nuts. No-one wants to log in every time they want to participate. Sometimes members simply have no interest in doing all the other things.
A bigger problem is the benefits aren’t as clear as you might think. Migrations like these are costly in both time and resources. They put all other community projects on hold for months, even years. And few organizations genuinely do much with all the extra data they have on their customers/community participation.
Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. But before you do it you should be clear about the problem you’re trying to solve.
If your current web platform will soon be unsupported, has security issues, or may go out of business, that’s a good reason.
If members are complaining about the limited functionality, that’s also a good reason.
If staff can clearly articulate what extra data they need and what they will do with the data, that too might be a good reason.
Remember the goal isn’t to make a better experience for you managing the community, but for members experiencing the community. This means you need members involved and guiding the process. If you can’t do that, you should probably stick with what you have.
I’d add something like this to the community newcomer journey:
Reputation is the output of the perceived value of a member’s total contributions to the group.
The best way to improve your reputation isn’t to game the system, make an excessive number of contributions, or add lots of friends in the hope they add you back.
We’ll clamp down on that quickly and you’ll soon find yourself lumped with a reputation you will struggle to maintain.
The best way to improve your reputation in this community is to consistently make better contributions to the group.
You can do this by being more honest, open, and truthful about your experience.
You can do this by sharing your expertise with the group.
You can do this by being helpful, finding answers for others, and taking on support roles in the community.
This community is a fantastic place to begin building your reputation in the field, but do it with integrity, do it sustainably, and do it by giving to the community, not taking from it.
You probably wouldn’t let an intern have responsibility for your biggest clients.
Community MVPs can easily be worth more than your biggest clients.
So why would you let junior staff be responsible for them?
A single antagonistic comment, a perceived lack of respect, an inconsiderate request, taking too long to reply to questions or simply failing to maintain a strong relationship can wipe out millions of dollars in community value.
I’m continually staggered by how many community professionals are hired on the basis of a short job interview and then given responsibility for one of the company’s most lucrative assets.
Three simple tips here.
- Don’t hire junior people to do what’s clearly a senior person’s job.
- Review any recruit’s contributions to a past community carefully. Do they engage with empathy, understanding, and tackle different challenges well?
- Include MVPs on the hiring loop. Get feedback on who they would like to see as their point person in the community process.
Changing community staff members can be as delicate (and expensive) a process as changing community platforms.
If you’re moving on from (or moving into) a community role, get opinions from your top members in the process.
After speaking to a dozen or so product managers over the past two years, it’s fairly clear community ideation isn’t close to achieving its potential.
At worst, ideation areas of a community become a dumping ground for the same complaints any customer support rep could easily name. Sometimes they’re the last resort when a customer complains about a problem an organization can’t fix (“hey, why not suggest it as an idea and maybe an engineer will see it?”).
Ideas suffer from three common problems.
1) The ideas are bad. Members often suggest ideas which are unfeasible (inconsiderate of constraints), unique to their situation (i.e. no broader business benefit), or simply outside of the company’s strategy. Often ideas just haven’t been fully thought through or fully formed.
2) It’s hard to respond to ideas. If you get a lot of ideas, it’s not always feasible to respond to every idea. Which ideas do you respond to? The best? The most recent? Those with the most support? Those from top members/best customers? Idea areas often become a ghost town of formerly popular ideas.
3) The ideas aren’t executed. Ideas are just one signal product managers have to determine what to work on next. Ideas come from customer support staff, focus groups, long-term corporate strategy, the CEO, and plenty of other channels. No product manager is going to focus solely on executing customer ideas (and their job might be boring if they did).
To do ideation better we need to help members create better ideas, effectively respond to ideas, and develop a system to execute ideas.
Getting Members To Submit Better Ideas
Idea submission is usually pretty terrible, here’s an example:
When ideas are cheap to submit, you can expect to get a lot of cheap ideas.
We need to add friction at this stage. Force members to do some more legwork to submit an idea (otherwise it’s just a customer service complaint). It’s better to imagine themselves pitching the idea rather than submitting the idea (think Dragon’s Den, but without the silliness).
Revamp your idea form to include separate options for:
1) The problem they’re trying to solve. What is the specific problem they need to resolve? Provide an example and include some helpful tips to members to define the problem.
2) The business outcome of solving the problem. What will be the business impact if they solve the problem? Provide examples and in-form nudges.
3) Clearly describe the solution. How it works, any relevant examples, and why this solution has been chosen.
4) List other use cases for the solution. Does it only apply to the member or could it be useful to others? Can it solve other problems too?
5) Highlight the popularity of the idea. Is there any research, comments, posts, or information which suggests this idea could apply to others.
6) Promote your idea. Once members have submitted an idea they should need to promote and lobby others to support the idea. This provides a reasonable standard to judge the popularity of the idea.
You will get far fewer ideas, but the ideas you do get will contain far more useful signals for product managers.
You might find the solution isn’t as valuable as members clearly defining the problem and business impact of solving the problem.
Responding Effectively to Ideas
If you’re not prepared to respond to every idea, don’t have an ideas section.
Of course, if you’re getting 50 ideas a day, it’s going to be hard to respond to every one. So you need help from your colleagues or other community members. This help should fall into three areas.
1) Improving the quality of the idea. This can be provided by other members (or the community team). This is when the idea isn’t complete, has been suggested before, it needs further work before it can move into the ‘need validation/acknowledged’ phase.
2) Progressing the idea to ‘acknowledge/validated’. Once it has achieved this level, the community manager or other staff can put this into the ‘in consideration’ stage. During this process, the member should be encouraged to get others to support the idea, provide any further information, and help others.
3) In consideration. If the idea seems popular, then it should be routed to the relevant product manager for a monthly/quarterly review of ideas. At this stage, they can be added to the roadmap, rejected, or analyzed for elements which are useful to other areas of the business. It is best to have a fixed date for this.
4) Added to the roadmap, partially used, rejected. Don’t let ideas linger forever without ever receiving a response. Every idea should either be approved/tweaked and added to the roadmap, sent back down for further information, partially used, or rejected as impractical/not significant enough to make a big business difference.
Develop a Better System For Gathering Ideas
To achieve the above, you probably also need a better system for routing ideas to the right person, understanding and explaining what ideas are needed (and when).
1) Sharing the roadmap. To submit good ideas members need to know what’s on the current product roadmap. Within reason, this should be made public to members in the pitch process. Let members suggest ideas for specific time-zones of the roadmap.
2) Set time-limited feedback or challenges. Unsolicited ideas can be useful, but so can using the ideas section to solicit specific feedback on specific topics at specific times. Likewise, they can set specific challenges with prizes for members who submit the best ideas to tackle a challenge.
3) Previews of upcoming features. Any time an engineer or product manager has a question, they should be able to call for feedback as an idea within the community.
Community idea areas have incredible potential, but in their current form, they rarely deliver a fraction of what they promise. You can change that.
Trying to nurture dozens, even hundreds, of successful groups is clearly different from managing one. Many organizations make the same mistake. They create a platform which enables members (or others) to create their own groups.
They soon find their community is filled with dead and inactive groups which harm the community experience for everyone.
A few rules have helped us in the past.
1) Begin one major success story. Over-invest your resources in making one community a clear success. If you can’t make one community thrive, don’t try to nurture a dozen others. Until you can get one community right, you have no business trying to build any others. One big success both shows you how to do it, stops you passing on mistakes to others, and it proves to others it can (and should) be done.
2) Expand slowly and with fixed criteria. Jumping from one success to 100 won’t go well. Expand slowly based upon clear criteria. Let members propose groups they want and put themselves forward to lead them. Each group must have a named founder, who can prove they can attract the first 10 to 50 members and keep them engaged. This demonstrates the need for the group and proves it delivers value to members (see the StackExchange model).
3) Promote the successful groups. As groups reach the criteria above, you can help by promoting them to the rest of the community/mailing list/other channels. This ensures you’re not promoting struggling groups to community members.
4) Remove groups which don’t achieve much. Remove any groups which don’t quickly hit these criteria or linger without achieving much in the way of growth or activity. This ensures you’re focusing resources (including audience attention) on successful groups.
5) Set benchmarks. You can’t control how every leader engages their members, but you can set effective standards and check them quarterly (sample of recent posts from leaders in the community). If these aren’t adhered to, issue a warning and then consider replacing the leader of the group. This is the only form of control you should exercise over the community (and even these standards are usually very flexible).
6) Invest in training. If you’re encouraging others to build communities, especially those with limited experience, providing training is critical. Training has to be condensed into the simplest nuggets. Our training in the past falls under three categories. 1) Creating internal courses, 2) In-person workshops, and 3) Online courses. In my experience, the first two work better than the latter. Training has to be customized to an audience with limited time and attention.
7) Gradually increase resources as groups grow. As a community grows, it should naturally gain more resources (investment, time, manpower, and skills). The best performing groups should be better promoted, receive more support etc…
You have far less attention than you imagine.
Most members aren’t going to open your communications, read the copy on the website, and can’t tell you if you even have a terms and conditions section.
Every extra word reduces the chance the member will read the message. Worse yet, every extra point reduces the chances a member will remember any points.
Go through your announcements, web copy, emails, welcome videos, notifications, podcasts and anything else and cut the length by at least a 1/3rd.
You might be surprised just how much this helps get your point across.
The shorter the message, the more members remember.
If you want to earn more attention, you have to use the attention you have wisely.
More and more, we’re seeing communities need to pick a side.
You can have a ferociously moderated community which attracts smart, generous, people and produces high-quality content. You invest heavily in moderation, support the smart folks, and apply tight controls in who can do what.
You can have a lightly moderated community which supports intense debates, attracts people who enjoy expressing contrary opinions, and facilitates a powerful sense of community between members.
If you’re like most people, you’re muddling somewhere in the middle between the two. You’ve set a few ground rules and hope people don’t violate them. You respond to issues as they arise without any guiding strategy for what you want the community to be.
The basic rules of “don’t be a jerk” don’t suffice anymore, so decide now what kind of community you want to build.
The hardest community managers to replace are the ones who care the most.
These are people who don’t just answer questions but go the extra mile to make sure the members feel respected, cared for, and appreciated for bringing issues to the community’s attention.
These are the people who realise they are a vessel for every member to feel like they have influence, support, and are important to the brand. Sure, your organization might not be able to adapt to the whim of every customer with a problem, but you certainly can.
These are the people who don’t just respond to the question but acknowledge the frustration, find a solution instead of just an answer and try to end the interaction on a positive note. Better yet, they follow up to check the answer work.
These are the people who realise you’re not just spending time crafting an answer to a single member but to the dozens, hundreds, possibly even thousands of people who will read the answer.
The best way to find these people isn’t by asking them if they care in a job interview, but by seeing how they participated in their last community.
If you’re not sure if you’re one of these people, you can test yourself. Take your last 5 community posts and see how you would fit into the community standards below.
Next month repeat the process and see if you improved. Caring might be free but the community managers who really care are rare and worth the premium you should pay for them. Anyone who goes the extra mile often enough is going to cover a lot of distance.
You can ask this question about their lives or about the community.
It works on two levels.
1) It reveals what members are proud to have/have achieved which they can share with others. This creates a more positive atmosphere in the community.
2) It also reveals which aspects of the community members are proud of. You can spend more time promoting these aspects (or relevant metrics) to members.
What are your members proud of?
Most of our communities are tragically undervaluing members like Steven.
The top 0.000001% (that 1 special member in 100,000) posts thousands of times a year (sometimes a thousand times a month).
That’s a lot of answers to a lot of questions. If each answer is seen by just 20 people who need it, that’s 20 people who don’t need to call support or file a ticket. If each call costs $5, each then each answer becomes worth $100. Now we measure the value of Steven’s thousands of contributions per year in six to seven figures.
Of course, most Steven’s don’t just answer questions, they create blog posts, share advice, remove spam, advocate etc…
If the lifetime value of a customer is what they buy over the course of their lifetime, the lifetime value of a member is the total value of all their contributions. Someone like Steven is easily worth millions of dollars.
You shouldn’t just be flying people like Steven in to meet your company, you should be flying them first class, putting them up in a penthouse, helping them plan the most amazing week of their lives. Investing $20k…even $50k…on members who are creating millions of dollars in value is an absolute bargain.
You shouldn’t have them connecting with junior community managers, they should be connecting with the senior managers and other senior leaders.
Sure, you can offer badges, access, and insider looks on future products to motivate people like Steven. Each of them plays a handy role. But it wouldn’t even compare to photos of Steven sitting in a First Class airline cabin with the CEO on the way to the next annual conference.
What could be more motivating to the next Steven than seeing photos of the very top members sitting in first-class sharing a drink with the CEO?
Don’t do the minimum required to keep Steven happy…blow his expectations completely out of the water.
It’s a bargain.