In a mature community, the challenge isn’t getting more questions, but getting better questions.
You have to tackle several challenges at once:
- Repeat questions.
- Questions with terrible headlines.
- Poorly tagged or categorized questions.
- Questions which don’t provide enough detail.
Mature communities should make it slightly harder for non-veteran members to ask a question, not easier.
StackOverflow is a good example of this process. If you want to ask a question, you can either go through the wizard or traditional mode. Let’s use the wizard.
First you have to highlight what kind of question you have:
If you select hardware recommendations, you’re taken to a separate site where you can get hardware recommendations.
This immediately prunes a lot of the bad questions which will appear in the community.
Next you highlight what topic your question is about.
Notice the power of sharing good and bad examples. This tackles the problem where members are bad at tagging their posts (or reluctant to tag their posts).
Next it’s the question title.
Again notice how useful it is to provide examples of real titles in the community. Specific examples make it a lot easier for members.
The fourth step is to check there are no existing solutions to the question.
Forcing people to check for existing answers before asking a question is a powerful way to eliminate duplicate questions. It also helps members find answers to questions they were not able to formulate themselves.
Only now, after jumping through these five steps, can you write your actual question.
In every step, you’re guided to create the best possible question. This is a lot of practical advice in a short amount of time. You’re told to explain your goals (with examples), provide background context on what you’ve tried, highlight code you’ve used, and describe the results you’re getting compared with what you want.
Only after completing all these steps can you ask a question.
The power of this should be obvious. Not only does it help members get better responses, it also excites veterans with new questions they can solve.
If you’re trying to increase the percentage of questions which are solved, the secret isn’t to get more experts to answer questions, but to provide fewer, better, questions for them to answer.
The data is pretty clear.
You don’t need a huge mass of members to reach a critical mass, you need a relatively small group of super passionate members.
10 super-committed members trumps 1000 casual visitors.
This is implicit in our online community lifecycle too. You don’t grow by nurturing the masses, with big promotional pushes, or paid advertising.
At least not at the beginning.
You grow by identifying the most passionate members and engaging with each of them directly so they feel they can make useful contributions to creating something incredible.
This group may include your best customers, the members with the highest open-rates, those who are already talking about you on social media and other channels. Ideally, you begin with the group you already have great relationships with.
It’s a lot easier to get a community started with 50 super-enthusiastic members than 5000 who stumbled in from the mailing list. You can ask each of the 50 what they want from the community, what they can contribute to the community, and design specific, unique, ways they can contribute to the group.
If you’re struggling to reach critical mass, it’s unlikely because you don’t have enough relationships. It’s more likely you don’t have strong enough relationships with existing members. Get closer to a small group, narrow the focus of the community, and find unique ways they can contribute to the group.
One client’s community has seen a huge increase in responses all because of 1 member.
The community manager reached out to 5 members for interviews and found 1 who was enthusiastic and eager to help.
That one member is now providing 30% of all accepted solutions in the community.
If you could put your members on a bell curve of enthusiasm, there will always be a tiny few who are a few standard deviations from the norm. They typically want to feel connected, have access to you, and see the impact of their work.
Personal calls are so powerful because you can identify people with enthusiasm and provide them with exactly the access, sense of connection, and feeling of impact which tips them into becoming a super-superuser (not a typo).
Call 1 member a week and, sooner or later, you will find someone who will answer a thousand or more questions a year.
Call 2 members per week and you will find them a lot sooner.
Too many professional communities fall into the trap of becoming a place of frustration. Members only visit when something is broken and they want it fixed.
Once they get a solution, they leave and don’t come back.
You can change this by proving value members didn’t expect. The easiest value is often career advice. In B2B communities, most people have similar careers and a lot of expertise they can share.
This means changing the content, activities, and discussions members see on the homepage to incorporate the three main areas of advice.
- Best practices (i.e. what is the best way to….?)
- Fears/Threats (i.e. I’m scared about [x], what should I do?)
- Time-sensitive requests (i.e. I have an urgent problem, how do I fix it quickly?)
The more you can support your members throughout their day, the more they visit your community for help. You can be the widget-fixer community, or you can be their trusted peer group they visit several times a week for advice and new information.
I’m constantly astounded by the vast number of brands who invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in a platform and end up offering a subpar community experience.
Most of the problems in a community experience are fixable and there is plenty of low-hanging fruit for improvement. In the below webinar, I’ve pulled together our best examples, advice, and practical steps you can take to improve your community website.
I recommend taking some time to watch it with your team and put together your technology roadmap.
You might also benefit from benchmarking your community using our standards.
Note: The TomTom community featured is built upon the Vanilla platform, not inSided as stated in the webinar. My apologies.
A scientist who doesn’t publish dies in obscurity. Scientists know publishing results is simply part of the job and give it the time it deserves.
Community organizers (those in your local neighborhood) can spend as much time proving they had an impact as doing the work.
They know success is only one half of their job. The other half is proving their success.
It doesn’t matter if you do a good job this month if your funding is cut next month.
Failure to gain internal support kills a community as effectively as managing one badly.
The best community practitioners know this and spend 40% to 50% of their time (and budget) gaining and sustaining this support. They build sustaining support into their strategies and weekly plan of action.
Imagine the difference if you:
- Proactively schedule meetings with those who both support and don’t support the community each week to better understand their needs and align the community towards their goals.
- Systematically collect emotive community stories each week which you can drop into every conversation about the community.
- Take responsibility for measuring the community’s impact to world-class standards (not dubious call deflection or correlation metrics, but actual studies which demonstrate the statistically significant impacts of the community).
Much of the reason communities struggle to gain support is community managers don’t treat the process seriously enough. They don’t give it the time and budget it deserves.
No job description is going to read ‘you must persuade us not to kill the community each month’, but squint and read between the lines a little and it’s there.
Don’t teach newcomers how to use the platform, teach them about the topic.
Typically around 70% of your newcomers are new to the topic too.
Learning how a platform works is boring, learning about the topic (which brought them to the community) is far more interesting.
I recommend inviting all newcomers to watch a recorded webinar offering a 101 beginners guide to the topic.
You can include an overview of the topics, lessons from top members (what do they wish they knew when they started?), a list of useful resources, and some practical tips for getting started.
At the end, include a few tips for using the community too.
Don’t bore newcomers with tedious platform information, surprise and inspire them with unexpected expertise in the topic. A 101 webinar is the perfect way to do it.
Online communities have different trust requirements compared with your local community.
These can be defined as cognitive and affective trust.
Cognitive trust is the belief that other members are reliable, dependable, and skillful (or competent) at what they do. This specifically means:
- Confidence in the skills of other members with relevance to the topic.
- Confidence in the knowledge of other members about the subject.
- Believing other members have specialised capabilities to add to the conversation
- Believing other participants are well qualified on topics being discussed.
- Other members are capable of performing tasks in regard to the topic
- Other members seem successful in activities they undertake.
If you want to help members feel better connected, you need to help create the belief that members are informed, smart, and eager to improve themselves. This means creating opportunities for members to shine (questions, challenges, and special projects) while reporting on the success of those whom do.
This is also why it’s easier to feel closely connected with members at your level than people beneath it.
Affective trust is caring and being concerned for the wellbeing of other members. This means:
- Members are very concerned about the ability of the group to get along.
- Members would not knowingly disrupt the conversation.
- Members are concerned about what is important to others.
- Members will do everything within their capacity to help each other.
- Members try hard to be fair in dealing with one another.
- Members behave in a consistent manner.
You achieve this via your moderation approach. If you and your team respond with high empathy standards, refuse to tolerate snarky and ungrateful members, and build a culture of mutual support, everyone in the community wins. But this comes at the cost of moderation (both resources and removing a lot of members who aren’t a good fit for this kind of community you’re trying to create).
It’s not easy to build a public community which attracts smart members who are eager to get along. However, if you’re selective about who you recruit, create opportunities for members to shine and reward those whom do, you can retain smart people. If you can sustain high moderation standards, you can have them get along too.
The purpose of a sense of community survey isn’t to discover whether members feel connected to one another, it’s to identify the areas where you can have the biggest impact.
The end result of the survey is a scorecard broken down by four categories. You then design interventions to improve the scoring in the weakest areas. For example:
If members score low in membership, you might narrow the focus of the community (or create more sub-groups), solicit more immediate personal investments in the community, nurture in-jokes and reference past history, talk about more emotive topics, and initiate projects members can work on together.
If members score low in influence, you might provide members with more opportunities to run areas of the community, create groups for members who want to give their input into the community’s future, feature more contributions from members, and nurture stars among your audience.
If members score low in integration of needs, you might focus on turning active membership into a status symbol. You might introduce badges members will be proud to display, highlight relevant media reports on the community, share community success stories, create the community’s core values, and spend more time bringing the top experts in to the community in highly visible roles.
If members score low in shared emotional connection, you might create a shared history/timeline of the community, host online or offline events, introduce more bonding-related discussions, and increase the level of ‘fun’ discussions you initiate.
Most of our strategies have guiding principles.
These are the assumptions upon which the success of the community is built.
They often cover a combination of:
1. The unique target audience we’re targeting. Who is the community for and who is it not for? What is the rationale (data) behind this?
2. The unique advantage of the organization. What does the organization bring to the table which no-one else building a similar community can match?
3. The unique value to members. What is the unique value of this community to members?
4. What is the unique value of the community to the organization? What does the community offer to the organization it couldn’t get from elsewhere?
5. How the community survives in a changing world (i.e. incorporates trends). What are the major trends in the sector and how does the community negate them/thrive within them?
6. What is the key challenge that must be overcome? Most communities have a key challenge they must overcome to succeed. It might be getting questions, competing for experts, or budget issues. What is yours and how will it be tackled?
Guiding principles aren’t plucked from thin air in some virtuoso act of creativity. They’re the summation of everything the organization knows about its members, the sector, and itself.
For example, a set of guiding principles might include:
- Our community is for newcomers to our sector. We aim to help newcomers progress quickly up the learning curve. We acknowledge we, therefore, won’t be the destination for experts looking for advanced, niche, tips.
- The community drives retention of free trials to paying customers. Too many customers are lost to churn. The purpose of the community is to increase retention of customers through the trial to paid accounts.
- The community reduces frustration for members. The community provides members with an easy way to get quickly up to speed. We filter out the best content for newcomers, proactively tackle their most likely questions, and do everything we can to reduce their sense of frustration.
- The community will be distributed across many platforms. We expect less traffic to come from Google in the future. We will therefore proactively share the best members tips and address questions across any platform mentioned, used by more than 50% of our members.
While the strategy might change over the years, the guiding principles generally don’t.
The guiding principles act as constraints that focus everything you do. Once you know you’re building a community to reduce the frustration of newcomers, you can design an entire experience, recruit members, and take steps specifically to satisfy that strategy.
Develop your community guiding principles and share them with your colleagues, you might be surprised just how much it improves all your strategic efforts.
Angry members make angry posts.
If a member is angry when they visit the community, you can’t stop them from making an angry post. But remember it’s the previous touchpoints (frustration with product, customer support etc…) which made them angry, it’s not the community.
But you can address and resolve their anger.
You can make members feel listened to, understood, and respected. You can give them a sense of influence and control over the outcome. You can make them less angry and less likely to spur on others with negative, snarky, comments.
A few tips here.
1. Respond to each negative post. You can’t always give the answer members want, but you can ensure they know they were listened to and their comments were understood. Be sure to ask for extra clarifying information and questions. Ask members what they would like to see and explain what the options are.
2. Be honest. Don’t announce when the problem will be resolved if you don’t know. Once members mark you as a liar, it’s game over. Avoid the temptation to tell members what they want to hear instead of what’s possible.
3. Pin a topic that’s the source of most negative criticism. It’s better to have a single thread (most members can ignore) pinned to the top than hundreds on the same topic. This ensures minority opinions aren’t treated as majority opinions others will go along with.
4. Have an ‘I have this problem too’ feature on each topic post. If people can register how they feel without having to post, you will get less snarky comments and better quantifiable feedback.
5. Schedule webinars with product engineers/leadership to tackle the biggest frustrations. You might not be able to solve them, but you can show members you’re taking their issues seriously and get recommendations from people with influence.
And follow up on previous discussions to check they were resolved. You can’t stop members from making their first angry post, but you should be able to stop them from making a second angry post.
Most of us intuitively accept emotions drive behaviors better than facts.
But we get clumsy with the messaging to make people feel the emotion.
Too often we make the mistake of naming the feelings we’re trying to amplify. i.e. –
“Don’t be frustrated, ask for help!!”
“Build a powerful reputation in your field”
“Be empowered to take control of your health”
This intends to provoke revolution. No-one likes to be told what they’re thinking (or what to think).
The magic is stoking the emotion without having to name it. The magic is telling stories which connect to your members’ frustrations. You have to find the objects and situations that represent those emotions.
You don’t need to say waiting in line is frustrating, we know waiting in line is frustrating. Likewise not knowing how to solve a problem is frustrating and exasperating, you don’t need to name the emotion. You don’t need to say building a reputation is joyful, you need to find objects that represent that feeling. The more visual the objects are, the better. The more people can imagine encountering those objects, the more effective they are at amplifying the emotion.
This has to be reflected in the copy you use, images you deploy, stories you share etc…
If we think frustrating people with problems will drive someone to ask a question in a community, we’re not going to use the word ‘frustration’ at all.
We’re going to find objects which represent the alleviation of that frustration. We’re going to share stories of people who solved their problems, features images of collective time saved in the community, and posts about mistakes avoided etc…
The secret is always not to name the feeling you want to amplify, but to find the objects (words, ideas, images, etc… ) that will make people feel it.