A community’s ‘type’ is similar to a movie’s ‘genre’. It should provide you with a set of rules which should focus your community building efforts.
Community work varies greatly by the type of community you’re developing. Building a Q&A community for support is very different from building a community where your members proactively share their best ideas.
In this post, I want to highlight the three common types of community, how to build each type, and the constraints of each type.
If you completely understand what type of community you’re building, you can align everything you do to match.
Three Broad Types Of Brand Communities
Many people fall into the mistake of trying to build a general community about the topic. This usually happens when the company avoids making tough choices and tries to cover every possible use case for the community. Don’t do this.
General communities have weak concepts and tend to struggle to sustain much activity.
The most successful branded communities today usually fall within three core community types.
- Q&A (or support) communities.
- Idea-sharing (or education) communities.
- Peer groups (or exclusive) communities.
Each has positive and negative attributes. We’ll go through each in turn:
Type 1: Q&A / Support Communities
Most of the successful brand communities are based around questions and answers (Q&A). The most common of these are customer support communities. Customers bring their problems and get solutions from top staff/other members.
The key aim of a support community is to remove the frustration that brought the member to the community in the first place. It’s not enough just to provide an answer, you need to provide an answer with the speed, clarity, and sentiment that helps members feel less frustrated.
If interacting with the community makes people feel unhappy, you haven’t really solved the problem.
Benefits of A Q&A/Support Community
There are three main benefits of a Q&A / Support community:
1) Direct contribution to value. Whereas other types of communities are often several layers removed from value, support communities are fantastic for demonstrating a reduction in support costs, reducing satisfaction of disgruntled customers, and identifying/resolving potential problems early. They are also often used to solicit feedback.
2) Easier to launch. If you have a lot of customers with a lot of questions, you can usually make a support community work quite easily. Most traffic to a community initially comes via the website and email links. As you build up a base of answers, SEO traffic will usually become the prime source of traffic.
3) Member familiarity. Related to both of the above, members are familiar with the idea of asking a question and getting responses from others online. It’s a behavior similar to what we already do and doesn’t require much explanation.
All of the above explains why most successful brand communities are based around customer support and why support communities tend to have the most success.
Downsides Of A Q&A/Support Community
However, there are some inbuilt major problems with managing a Q&A/Support community. These usually include:
- You need a large base of members to succeed. Companies with less than 100k customers usually shouldn’t try to launch a support community. They struggle to attract the critical mass necessary to attract the superuser group and can’t deflect enough tickets to justify the investment.
- Negative tone of voice. Because most people only visit when they’re frustrated, the tone of voice skews more negative than other types of communities. This frustration can often turn on other members or community staff who can find themselves victims of very personal online attacks.
- Most members only visit once. Most people only visit when they have a problem. It’s hard to build any real sense of community among people who don’t want to be in the community at all.
- Static participation levels. The level of activity and participation is often driven by factors beyond your control (e.g. new product launches, changes to search algorithms, placement on the website). This can make it difficult to move the needle in many areas.
- Costly to run. It’s possible to do support on cheaper forum-based platforms like Vanilla/Discourse, but the standard for a large company is typically a premium platform with the security, functionality, and analytics they provide. You want to be able to add common answers to a knowledge base, create levels for superuser programs etc…
None of these are fatal and most aren’t avoidable, but they’re likely to be an ongoing problem with the job.
How To Improve A Support Community
If you’re managing or optimizing a support community, you will probably spend your time working across four dimensions. These are speed, accuracy, sentiment, and integration. Specifically, this means:
1) Decreasing the time to get a solution. You want the majority of people to find the solution without having to ask a question. This means recruiting and nurturing a top contributor program to provide quicker responses. This may take up the bulk of your time. You also need to ensure questions are well categorized, tagged, and have an accepted solution where possible. You need trending or topical questions to appear high up the page.
2) Increase the accuracy and clarity of the response. You want the quality of responses to be extremely strong. This means ensuring responses are easy to read and understand. Using video walkthroughs, screenshots, and bullet points usually helps (and training your team to do the same). You also want to frequently update the top 20% of answers responsible for 80% of traffic (especially after major product updates).
3) Improve the sentiment of the responses. You need to carefully consider how you personally engage and respond to discussions within the community. You need to deeply understand the psychology of your audience (p.s. I’d strongly recommend anyone working on a support community take this program). Your answers need to be personalized, friendly, empathetic, as well as accurate.
4) Using the questions and solutions throughout the organization. You should also be spending a lot of time escalating issues internally, ensuring questions are incorporated into product decisions, and helping your company take notice of the key trends within the community.
If you’re working on a support community, most of your time should be spent in the above areas. You can’t expect your members to be happy, but you should expect to be driving really incredible results for your company.
Type 2: Idea/Education Communities
Many of the most popular communities today are based around the idea of members proactively sharing resources, tips, and links. These are not solicited.
This can range from full-fledged articles (Medium), sharing resources (ProjectManagement.com) to simple link sharing (Reddit).
These kinds of communities come with some incredible benefits and equally challenging downsides.
Benefits of An Idea/Education Community
There are three main benefits of an idea/education community.
1) Growing the business. These are the best kinds of communities to improve customer satisfaction/retention (by helping people use the products better), attract new business (via search traffic), and drive innovation. The very best of these communities become the hub of their field.
2) Positive tone of voice. These communities usually have a positive tone of voice. It’s communities filled with people sharing what they’re doing and learning from one another. People don’t visit when they have a problem, they visit to get better at what they do.
3) In-built participation habits. These communities have in-built variable-reward mechanisms. Every time you visit, there might be a great new idea you can use. This is a lurker’s paradise and are environments ripe for forming habits.
If I were to add a third, it would be these communities typically explore the cutting edge of any field or topic. This is an exciting/motivating type of community to build.
Downsides Of An Idea/Education Community
Very few brands try to build an idea/education community. There are many reasons for this, but the biggest include:
- Very difficult to get started. By far the biggest problem is getting started. You need one group to attract the other. The success rate of these communities is far lower as a result. You might have better luck turning an existing, general, community into this type of community. But you need a large group of smart people willing to share great links first.
- About the topic, not the brand. With a few exceptions, these communities are better at serving broad topic areas (e.g. inbound.org) than specific brands (e.g. HubSpot). If you try to build the community about you, you’re going to find it harder to attract a high-quality audience. People want to talk about the broader topic than just a brand. However, there are plenty of exceptions here.
- Can be overwhelmed with spam. Once you encourage everyone to share their content, they often do. This quickly descends into poor-quality, promotional, content which drives everyone else away. It’s hard to fight this and maintain high-quality content. This leads into the next problem.
- Customized platform requirements. While there are a handful of idea/education-based communities on forums, the vast majority are not. Forums are better designed to support communities than education communities. Education communities tend to use a custom-built platform designed to solicit these specific recommendations. These range from templates/resource sites, news/link aggregation, pinterest-style boards, etc…
While the benefits of building an idea/education community might be higher, the costs and risks are usually much higher too.
Optimizing An Idea/Education Community
Based upon the above, it should be relatively clear how best to optimize a support community. This will include:
1) Recruiting and helping members to share interesting things. This is obviously critical. You need to find ways to identify smart/motivated people and get them to share great stuff. In the beginning this will usually be you and your team finding the best ideas. As you grow, you should be able to gradually bring more people into the fold.
2) Developing and improving your filter for high-quality content. You need great filters to separate the good from the bad. This usually means a combination of editor’s picks, tagging, upvoting, trending items, and (less often) algorithms. You need to work on ensuring members see the best stuff as quickly as possible. Technical competence is important when building this type of community.
3) Promoting the community. These communities benefit most from traditional publicity tactics. This means getting publicity on relevant blogs, influencer outreach efforts, and doing interesting things that attract a lot of attention.
4) Turning interest into results. You also need to turn the community interest in value for the business. This might be through lead generation, ‘sponsored’ posts, etc…
As you grow, you may also need to focus on how you build sub-groups within this community for related topics or subtopics.
Type 3: Peer Groups/Exclusive Communities
The easiest type of community to create is an exclusive community. The people who join are those who meet a high criteria based upon demographics, habits, or psychographics. In these peer groups, members usually share a strong, shared, identity with other members. The connections tend to run deeper than other types of communities.
Benefits of Peer Groups / Exclusive Groups
The key benefits of peer groups/exclusive communities are:
1) ‘Lock-in’ key audiences. Building an exclusive peer group among some of the top people in your field can be a great way to ‘lock in’ a key audience. This works well for companies in the B2B space, those looking to charge for membership, and those building platforms for peer groups to thrive.
2) Easier to launch. If you don’t have a large, existing, audience, the easiest way to start a community is to keep it exclusive and targeted only at some of the top people in the field. This is motivating for those people in the field to join and participate. Many communities begin exclusively before expanding to a broader audience once they have established their reputation.
3) Members connect with each other on a deep, personal, level. These groups whether via working-out-loud or simply providing each other with emotional support can be life-changing for participants. An exclusive community effort tries to bring together a group of people with a very strong shared identity and create a sense of belonging among them. These communities tend to have a lot of off-topic discussions and real-world meetings.
The Downsides Of An Exclusive Community
There are also some common disadvantages to creating and managing an exclusive community.
- Internal disputes. Exclusive communities tend to be hypersensitive to petty disputes between members. Given the small size and close relationships of the groups, these disputes can rip audiences apart.
- Building credibility with top people in your field. You need to have relationships with high-calibre people to get the community started. If you don’t, you need to invest the time to build and maintain these relationships before you can build the community.
- Limited growth. The very nature of having a high-barrier to entry ensures the community size is always limited to a degree. Any expansion is a threat to the close ties of the group itself. This means you have to gain the maximum benefit from the members you have.
- A high barrier to entry. You don’t need to make it impossible, but there should be a very clear calibre of people who are allowed to join the community. These reasons should be very public.
Optimizing A Peer Groups/Exclusive Community
These kinds of communities tend to have the most flexibility in your daily work. A small peer group diverges significantly from a larger, exclusive, community. The focus of your work however will usually be along the lines of:
- Programming content. You need to host events or create content that supports the community. Simply being exclusive isn’t enough unless you offer a clear benefit beyond this exclusivity. This should offer members something which they cannot get access to elsewhere.
- Attracting and keeping the right members. You will need to invest more time to interact personally with each member and ensure they are happy and engaged within your community. This is often very difficult to do. It might mean breaking the bigger group into subgroups so members can engage and interact with each other.
- Building a sense of community. You work hard here to build a strong sense of community among the group. This includes plenty of rituals, emotive discussions, and roles for each member of the community.
If you’re not sure what type of community you’re building, you’re probably not building a very strong community.
If you are sure, make sure you focus your time and effort in the areas which are going to have the biggest, possible, impact for your type of community.
Almost every organization we’ve worked with can really improve their community by better understanding what type of community they’re building in the first place.