Over the past year, I’ve seen numerous organizations and community managers rely on platform vendors to help them make membership projections. This is like walking into a shop and asking the owner how many things you should buy. The answer is going to be a lot more than you need.
Unsurprisingly, these organizations soon find themselves locked into a 3+ year contract based on these membership projections and paying ranges of 2x to 5x more than they need.
One community launched in the middle of last year was supposed to have 67k members by now. Instead, it has 18k. This means they’re overpaying by around 400%*.
This isn’t a trivial figure, it’s hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
The Numbers You Need To Make An Accurate Membership Projection
We’ve found we can make more accurate membership projections from a few hard numbers and a lot more conservative benchmark conversion percentages.
Your initial speed of growth and likely audience size is reliant upon the size of your existing audience.
1) Existing web traffic to your company website. How many people visit your community now determines how many you can redirect to the community.
2) Existing earned audience size. This is your mailing list, social media audiences, and any other way you have of contacting your members.
3) Paid advertising promotion. This is rare but happens when the company doesn’t have a big audience list or permission to access it.
Later this also includes search traffic – how many people arrive at your community directly via search.
Not every person counted above will register, there will be a huge overlap, and we have to think about annual churn from the community. We, therefore, caveat the above metrics with the conversion percentages we see below:
- % of search visitors who register to join the community.
- % who visit the community from the company site (redirected traffic).
- Average % click-rate on messages to existing audience.
- Average % recruitment from existing audiences.
- % who make a first contribution.
- % churn rate from those who make a first contribution.
When we combine this, we can put together a relatively simple model to project how many members a community is likely to have:
These are standard benchmarks from our observations, yours will vary by the type of community you’re running (open/closed, internal/external, support/discussions/ideas), the sector you’re in (tech, non-profit, gaming etc…) and other factors. You can adjust them…but always rely on some data rather than your own ambitious intuition.
Note here how growth changes over time.
The speed of your initial growth is largely determined by how many people you can reach to begin with. Over time, this is usually replaced by search traffic.
There is more complexity here (total size of market, speed of company growth, how good the community management team is etc)…but the message should be clear.
Don’t rely on the company you’re buying from to tell you how much to buy, make your own membership projections.
* Assuming visitor projections were equally skewed.
Graffiti, broken windows and trash isn’t just a problem because it looks bad, it’s a problem because of what it represents; neglect.
Who wants to buy a home, start a company, or participate in a neglected community?
For most of us, spam isn’t the problem it once was. Our neglect instead shows up in a lack of fresh content, a page of unanswered questions, and an antiquated, poorly designed platform.
If a member visits a homepage and sees a list of unanswered questions, why would they post their own?
If a member sees the last blog post/news update was posted more than a month ago, will they come back often to see what’s new?
If other platforms are clearly better designed and easier to use, why would they use the old, neglected one?
You might get away with each of these for a while, but the harsh reality is your growing community might start to seem neglected.
Responding to every question within 24 hours is great when you’re getting 10 questions a day. Every visitor can see recent questions that received a response. But when you get 100 per day, the 10 that appear on the homepage might not have an answer.
This happens in technology too. There might be nothing wrong with the technology you use today, it stills works fine, but people want to use the best and easiest tools out there.
I suspect the moment the community begins to seem neglected is the moment when you think you’re doing a ‘good enough’ job instead of aiming for better, getting more resources, and always striving to create a better community.
Don’t ask newcomers to update their profiles, read guidelines, or tick some boxes to follow.
Can you think of anything more boring for newcomers to do?
You have a tiny window to convince members this is where they should spend their time. This is your one chance to make an amazing first impression. So give it everything you’ve got.
You want newcomers to think of the community as high-value, exciting, engaging.
You need to show the newcomers the best of your community. There will be plenty of time for updating profiles later.
You want newcomers to participate in the most exciting discussions today, follow the most interesting members, share challenges and problems to solve, talk about their goals/aspirations for the future etc…
Just because most communities are doing something doesn’t make it the ‘right’ thing to do. This is one of those times.
If you ask a question and you don’t receive a quick response, you’re going to be annoyed, frustrated, and probably call customer support.
If you ask a question and receive 50 responses, that’s going to be pretty frustrating too.
Do you really want to test 50 solutions to find the one that works for you? Too much advice can be as frustrating as too little.
Usually, those 50 responses coalesce around a few similar ideas to test – but you still need to sift through a lot of responses to work that out (and then test the top ideas).
Somewhere between 0 and 50 lies the optimum number of responses. That number is 1. You only want 1 response…the right response (note: this obviously varies in discussion communities)
The more responses you have to sift through to find the solution, the more exasperated you’re going to feel.
Once a community has a high answer rate to questions (usually > 90%), your time is far better spent increasing the quality of answers in your community than the quantity of answers. This might result in fewer responses (less engagement!), but happier members.
Far too many people keep tackling the ‘too few answers’ problem (updating gamification systems, MVP programs, more recognition etc…) when they should be tackling the ‘too many’ problem. This is a very different type of work. Often more based in technology, relationships, and moderation.
I want to share one final element we cover in our courses (which launch next week) which I think has a huge influence upon the success of a community.
When we begin working with a new client, we assess how they are doing against a set of standards in multiple areas. These are our benchmarks. They cover best practices in:
- Community Strategy.
- Engagement Experience.
- MVP/Superuser Programs.
- Onboarding newcomers.
- Community staff/team.
- Overall levels/ratings.
Once we’ve benchmarked how a client is doing today, we can identify the next level they need to reach and begin training for that.
Most importantly, this gives us a set of standards for how the community is run.
If we’re hiring someone new, redesigning the website, managing a superuser campaign we can set a reasonable level (based upon skills/resources) and ensure nothing falls below that level.
Everyone can see what’s expected of them in every engagement.
This also serves as a useful tool for clearly summarizing to others internally (and sometimes externally) how well the community is managed, what we need to work on next, and what kind of resources/processes/training is required to reach to do it.
In short, it provides a set of standards for people to easily assess our work and a system for managing future community activities.
We recommend you have standards which clearly distinguish bad, ok, good and great in your community activities. You can develop your own, but ours are based on 10+ years of experience with hundreds of clients.
And if you sign up for our courses, you can get them for free. I think it’s a good deal.
p.s. If you’re on the fence about our course, here’s a case study which will hopefully tip you off the fence (watch your landing!)
Another concept from our Psychology of Community course.
At the top of many communities sits a banner. This banner makes an offer.
Often this offer is mundane and forgettable (i.e. “connect with others”, “share your expertise”, or “join the conversation”)
You can do these things elsewhere. It’s not indispensable.
The real purpose of the banner is to make what we call an unrefusable offer.
It has to pack so much value into a few short words that people would be nuts to reject it.
It has to suggest what makes your community indispensable (i.e. what value does it offer that members can’t get anywhere else?).
It has to clearly imply what the community is, what it’s about, what actions are needed, and why people should perform these actions.
Socialmedia.org has a fantastic offer: “Conversations you can’t have anywhere else”
What emotions will people feel in the community which they can’t feel anywhere else? What kind of mental associations will they form?
Your words can imply a wide range of different emotions.
- Confidence – “Equip yourself with a private network to [x]”
- Frustration – “Solve your problems in minutes, not days”
- Fear – “Avoid making common mistakes, follow our members’ roadmaps”
- Confidence – “Swap tips with the people who have done it”
- Safety – “Have conversations you can’t have anywhere else”
- Proud – “Get help to create the best [x] you can”
- Superiority – “Collaborate with the top experts in the field”
- Proud – “Help contribute to the best collection of [x] resources on the web”
My advice is to make your offer bold, wildly different from anyone else out there, and touch upon the deepest desires of your audience.
Of course, once you’ve made an offer you have to deliver on it. Every touchpoint your members have has to match the offer you made. And your offer might well change as you grow. The offer you make to a few dozen members when you’re getting started will probably be different from the offer you make to a few hundred members.
The ‘Unrefusable Offer” defines the mental association members make with your community which will have the biggest influence on whether they participate or not.
Don’t waste it on something mundane or easily imitable.
p.s. You have until Monday to sign up for our Psychology of Community course.
In this post, I want to share a basic primer in member psychology and how it affects your day to day work.
The very essence of our work is understanding what really motivates members.
There are things members say they want such as:
- Answers to questions.
- Ability to quickly find information.
- Connect with others in a similar position
We can call these things the ‘surface’ needs.
They’re the things that pop up in member interviews, surveys etc…
Then there are the things members are really motivated by:
- Feeling confident to solve a problem by themselves.
- Reducing the fear that something might go wrong.
- Being part of a special group/not being left out.
- Having a unique impact/not being ignored.
- Being respected and appreciated
Let’s call these our deeper desires. They’re based on the emotions we feel.
If you want to boost engagement, improve member satisfaction, increase loyalty, or achieve almost any of your goals you usually need to satisfy these deeper desires – not just their surface needs.
A community which delivers the maximum value to members is one which makes members feel better about themselves (which, unsurprisingly, becomes a place where members want to spend more time).
If you (or your team) blitzed through 30 responses to open questions today, you’re probably only providing customer support. A community manager would see this as 30 missed opportunities to satisfy these deeper desires.
But we need a useful framework to do this.
A Simple Member Motivation Framework
We’ve tried many frameworks over the past decade (Maslow, habit theory, etc..) and only found one consistently useful (and predictive of success) across all communities.
You can see this below:
We explain this at a deeper level during the course, however, the key takeaway here is you can align every possible touchpoint your members have to make them feel more competent, more autonomous, and better connected to one another.
Go through your last five responses in the community, did you provide an answer or did you make members feel better about themselves?
Were you providing customer support or were you satisfying the deeper desires members have?
Yahoo was well known for doing this terribly:
Not only is the answer unhelpful, but it also makes the member feel dumber. Do you think anyone who gets a response wants to participate in the community again? Use more Yahoo products? Or do anything to support the company?
Most of the people we might consider natural community have trained themselves to excel in a few very basic things. This might include acknowledging the frustration, personalizing their responses, giving members a sense of control in how they want the problem solved etc…
Once you know what the deeper desires are, you can design a system and set of standards which permeate through every response, every hiring decision, every item of content you create, how you design the technology etc…
Creating A More Valuable Community
And it’s here that you can build a community which delivers so much more than just answers to questions.
Getting answers is good, but it’s just a tiny slither of the value your members can and should get from your community.
Next week we’re launching our Psychology of Community course to help you identify the deeper desires of your members and infuse this throughout your entire community experience.
I hope to see you there.
Here’s a common mistake we help people cover in our Psychology of Community Course.
Imagine you design a gamification system which allows newcomers to earn points for simple actions and move up the first few levels relatively quickly.
(e.g. 1 point per post, 3 points per response, 5 points for an accepted solution with new levels on 4, 10, and 20 points).
However, since levels are usually linked to perks (i.e. every 5th level unlocks a new benefit), this can’t be a straight linear process (i.e. members move up a level for every 10 points gained).
That would result in members reaching the highest levels too quickly and you would have to create hundreds (probably thousands) of perks which would condemn your community to a short lifespan.
Instead, you might design a system where members require exponentially more points to reach the next level. This would look like the curves below.
On their own, neither chart seems too extreme an increase. But when you combine them you can see the problem:
Soon top members reach a point where (as one member pointed out last week) they would need “50,000 responses to progress to the next level”.
Now the same motivational forces which were driving members to reach the highest level begin to work against them. If they can’t feasibly progress any further, why bother?
Plenty of video games have a similar exponential curve but with one critical difference. As you progress through the game you’re also provided with the tools to earn more points than beginners.
(i.e the baddies you kill on level 1 might be worth 1 point each, but on level 10 they’re worth 10 points each!)
This means while it does become more difficult to reach a new level, it doesn’t become impossibly more difficult. You don’t want the time to progress to each new level to have a similar exponential curve as your gamification system.
An exponential curve in a gamification system only works if the perks you offer members also enable them to sustainably earn more points too.
(i.e. members at level 10 can create blog posts, submit knowledge-based articles, earn new badges, and complete new missions which earn them hundreds, even thousands, of points.)
If you don’t do this, you’re not getting the most out of your gamification efforts.
(To learn more about designing the community experience, sign up for our Psychology of Community course. The course begins on January 28th).
Some 20 years ago, I used to play an online video game called Red Alert 2.
I once racked up 45 straight wins and my username was listed among the top 10 players in the world with a unique ‘unstoppable’ badge.
I don’t think I ever played another game using that account. The fear of losing my top 10 status and breaking my streak was too high.
Instead, I created another account and began playing for fun again.
To a game designer, it probably made a lot of sense to list and celebrate the top players – especially those with great streaks like mine. But they didn’t truly emphasize with how it made top players feel.
We make these mistakes all the time in our communities too and it’s what our psychology of community course is really about.
It’s about being able to very clearly see and understand what members want.
There aren’t any Jedi mind tricks here, just a practical understanding of how to identify what different segments want (you can’t just ask them) and deliver on those wants.
This depth of understanding should inform everything you do, from developing the community platform to welcoming newcomers, rewarding members to punishing members etc…
The more you understand how members actually think, the easier it becomes to deliver on their wants and avoid common mistakes. Some examples:
- Members care far less about any reward than what the reward represents. How many people received it? How publicly was it given? How does it relate to other rewards?
- Once you begin calling members experts or giving them badges, they feel pressured to always have the right answer and maintain their reputation (see above). This is as likely to reduce their level of motivation than increase it.
- Members care far less about 1 million people liking their post than 10 close peers loving their post. If the top 10 people in a field love their article, they’re thrilled.
- Letting members submit ideas without being able to see the impact of those ideas (even if they’re rejected) harms their motivation and attitudes towards the company.
- Members want consistent moderation processes, yet they want to feel special and unique when you engage with them.
- It’s far more motivating for members to participate in a small, exclusive community than it is for a big, mass community. Mental associations with a community are critical in determining when and how people participate.
- Asking someone to help out in a small way is likely to drive people away, creating a big opportunity only a tiny number of people can apply for attracts people.
Psychologists have long dropped the notion that people are rational actors who make decisions based upon which option offers them the biggest tangible reward.
It’s time we did too.
Instead, your members (and you) are far more likely to take action based on how you conceive your own identity in relation to the group you feel you/want to belong to.
If you want to get better at understanding what your members truly want, I recommend signing up for our Psychology of Community course.
(reminder prices for our Strategic Community Management course rise tonight).
It’s a mistake to believe that you win the argument if you have the right data. During this week’s webinar, I presented this slide and asked attendees whether the level of traffic was going up, down, or staying the same.
The audience was split between the three.
We’re all looking at exactly the same graph and coming to completely different interpretations.
That’s pretty incredible don’t you think?
But this is true of most data. Do you look for the line of best fit, the trend in the past few months/years, or some sort of average over them?
You can see this in the images here:
This happens with almost every possible metric. Everyone brings their own biases into their interpretation of data. If they don’t know you, don’t believe in you, or don’t understand the community then the same metrics you’re delighted to present can be perceived negatively.
You might be delighted to show the community solved 20% more customer questions than last year while the head of customer support might note it’s still only 5% of the total questions the support team receives. Why bother?
Data is one of many signals that helps people understand how the community is doing/what it’s worth. It isn’t the strongest or weakest. Others include the relationships you’ve developed with senior people, whether you’re delivering impact for them, what the narrative of the community is, who else supports the community, whether they’re engaged in the process of community etc. etc…
It’s better to have great data than not, but don’t imagine it will be a silver bullet solution to get the support you want.
- Why most community strategies are pretty terrible.
- Why it’s important to define the problem (or opportunity) before suggesting solutions.
- The components of a community strategy.
- How to collect and interpret community data.
- And a lot of practical tips on deciding and executing your tactics.
Don’t worry if you missed it, you can now watch it below (or click here).
We also highlighted a lot of the resources we share and teach people to use during the course. This includes:
- A big strategic community management resource.
- Our list of 1600+ brand communities.
- Our member survey template.
- A (simplified) example roadmap.
- A typical project plan template.
- Our community benchmarks.
- And our detailed community strategy template (course only)
I believe learning to think strategically about a community and putting together a clear and comprehensive strategy you actually execute is a skillset every one of us should have.
If you’re working without a strategy today (or if your strategy is missing key elements such as a logical plan of action, risk factors, governance, resource allocations, etc), this course will help.
The course fee rises this Friday, you can sign up using the links below:
Here are responses to a client’s survey question distributed by length of time they’ve been working in the field (n=356).
Take a second and think how you would interpret this data.
One interpretation is to look at the newcomer group (and possibly the veteran groups) and decide to have more relevant discussions, content, to cater to that audience.
For example, a beginner’s guide to the topic, introductory level discussions, topic overviews etc…
Perhaps a more exciting interpretation is to look at these same groups and conclude “hey, maybe my community isn’t for them”
The survey data could equally be telling you to focus on people with 1 to 10 years of experience in that field.
Instead of trying to balance out the mean, you increase the inequality to focus entirely on a small group of members.
Remember, the danger in trying to accommodate newcomers is the content might become less relevant to the people who find it most relevant today.
It’s often a lot easier to double-down on what is working than trying to fix what isn’t. You can design the entire community concept solely for those who find it most relevant today.
Sometimes, it’s just easier to focus on the good than the bad.