Building An Online Community: From Getting Started To A Community-First Organization
It’s hard to work in an industry without a clear roadmap for what you should be doing.
It’s quite likely you’re unsure how to benchmark how well you’re doing today or figure out what you should be working on next.
Even many of the community managers behind the web’s largest and most successful communities aren’t sure what they should be working on next. For example:
Should you move to a new platform?
Should you build subgroups for connecting members?
Should you find ways to integrate the community with the product?
In this post, we’re going to try an answer most of these problems by sharing an updated community template with reference points to guide your actions.
This post will hopefully help you figure out where you are now, what you need to do next, and avoid most of the common mistakes.
Benchmarks For Your Online Community
It’s common to find community managers toiling away developing a premium platform or a complex MVP program without having enough members to use it or plenty of questions to answer.
This ends up being a distraction. You should only be working on the activities which take you to the next stage of the community lifecycle.
It’s really easy to plot a path forward when you know where you are now.
This means benchmarking your community against others and general principles of growth and development. To accomplish this, you can use the updated community lifecycle below:
In each category of the lifecycle (on the left), you can identify approximately where you are now and what to work on next.
It’s not an exact science (and you’re probably going to be further along the lifecycle in some areas than others) but it’s a broad guide to help you develop your next steps.
For example, a client of ours is at the stage below:
Now this gives us a broad idea of what to work on next. You generally don’t want to be too far ahead or behind your current average in any single category.
We want to focus on the highest priority areas first to move everything into the maturity stage. Then we might work on advancing further. This would mean (by approximate order of priority):
- Add a simple gamification and reward system for great contributions.
- Develop an MVP program for top community members.
- Create content to satisfy likely search queries for the topic.
- Better categorize the best community content to be easy to browse.
- Aligning the community website copy to solve existing problems/seize new opportunities.
- Build a system for members to vote/rate the best content.
- Ensuring the community is better featured on the main company site.
- Driving specific promotional activities.
- Securing additional funding for the community team.
- Develop specific metrics to measure health and success.
- Building a data-driven framework for making engagement decisions.
- Improve the community newcomer spaces.
You wouldn’t try to tackle all of these at once, there could be 6 to 12 months of work here. But you would want to build a roadmap to tackle the first 3 to 6 tasks over the next few months.
You need to balance everything out and make consistent, steady, progress.
Avoiding The Biggest Mistakes When Developing A Community
1) Understanding the influence of the curve.
The curve is the absolute number of new members who join the community.
Under normal conditions, you start slow, gradually speed up, hit a peak, and then reach a maintenance level where you have a consistent number of new members which reflects the topic itself.
Be very aware here the total size of the audience and broader interest in the topic will have a bigger impact upon the community’s growth and development than any activity you undertake.
This is usually beyond your control. Your rate of new members will look more like a hockey stick if the popularity of the topic is exploding. Likewise, if you’re a private community, the rate of new members will probably flatline much earlier without a peak.
2) Critical Metrics
The number of active members, newcomers, and traffic above is a simple mean from studies of a few hundred communities. The standard deviation is extremely high however, so treat these as a rough guide rather than fixed rules.
If you’re looking to benchmark and track success, this is a simple way of doing it. Some organizations with million of customers should easily surpass this.
As you grow, you should have a rising number of active contributors, single posters, and visitors. Visitors tends to be 100x of the active members. If you run a private/closed community, these metrics will be completely different.
Avoid setting metrics over which you have no control. Notice how slowly growth happens in the early stages of the community and plan for it.
With a few exceptions for customer support communities, you should begin with a simple platform that is already a habit for your target audience and try to drive activity there. This will usually mean a mailing list, slack, or (more likely today) Facebook groups.
As you grow, you might move to a hosted, licensed, community platform. This is largely to take advantage of lurkers who will want to find the useful information from your community and a handful of other unique features.
Some of the largest organizations also tend to develop their own bespoke platform to satisfy unique needs, but this comes after several years of work. Try to avoid using a premium platform or bespoke platform until you have a huge base of members eager to use it.
4) Strategy/Business Integration
You begin with a simple pilot program to validate the research you undertook in the concept stage. If that works, then you develop a complete strategic plan and start building more support for the community. Over time you should align the community to multiple benefits within the organization.
Eventually you become more specific about the ROI metrics, proving clear value, and becoming a community-first organization. This means seeking community support for initiatives and ideas before announcing them elsewhere.
For example, imagine you want to get a strategy approved by multiple stakeholders. You need to spend more time building relationships, understanding their needs, and adapting the strategy to ensure they feel they’ve had some control over the process.
Remember that building support will take a lot of time. Don’t try to force the community upon people. Instead figure out what your colleagues need and align the community to help. This is the simple secret to getting the support you want.
5) Growth Channels
The common mistake is to do a mass promotion of the community to the entire mailing list before validating the concept.
You don’t want the majority of your potential audience to see the community until it’s a fantastic hub of activity. This means initially you work from direct invites and biggest fans then expand gradually.
If you don’t have an existing audience, you can usually aim to attract members via paid social ads at around $1 per visit and up to $10 to $15 per conversion into a registered member.
Once the community has taken off, you want to ensure better placement for referral traffic, develop content and activities for search traffic, and try to drive word of mouth from existing members. Just don’t promote the community too widely, too soon.
6) Why New Members Join And Initially Participate
This changes over time. With the exception of customer support communities, people usually join to be part of something unique, different, and exclusive. They have a strong connection to the founder(s) and comprise the most hardcore fans or customers.
Over time this shifts as the community jumps from the most topic enthusiasts to those who have problems they want solved or want to be better within the field. This group requires more instant gratification to their problems.
The most common mistake here is to use copy in your touchpoints which doesn’t match what members need. For example, promoting the size or success of a community to members still seeking something unique, special, and exclusive. The second biggest mistake is never changing or adapting the copy as the community develops.
Eventually, most of the newcomers to the community will inevitably be newcomers to the field as well. This means you need to adjust the copy and content people see when they first visit your community to match.
The process for turning newcomers into active participants also shifts over time.
You might begin by @mentioning every member to the community as a personal welcome. But this doesn’t scale well (and it’s too effective). You gradually develop automated systems for converting members with welcome emails, an automation series, and volunteers.
You might also figure out a system to give newcomers unique roles and responsibilities within the community.
Avoid trying to develop advanced systems too early. In the early stages you can manually welcome every member. But beyond a certain scale this feels impersonal (e.g. mass welcomes) or simply doesn’t work. Make sure you slowly adapt your systems to do this automatically.
8) Visitors (lurkers)
Most people don’t do anywhere near enough to support the lurkers to their community. Most of the time, lurkers are restricted to browsing the latest posts or using the search box to find the information they want.
You need to build systems to highlight the best content for your members. This begins with editor’s picks and eventually goes one level further to create content that members can search for. You need to make sure this content is properly tagged and categorized so other members can quickly find it.
At the more mature level, you need to have accepted solutions, a knowledge-base, and a system for regularly updated old content to keep it fresh. Rating systems are also useful here.
9) Top Contributors
Don’t start jumping into your perfectly designed MVP system until you have a highly active, mature, community. Start by getting to know your top members and building good relationships with them.
Over time, you want to have them interact with each other and solicit their ideas and feedback on community content and activities.
Once you have a good group of top members, you might want to build an incentive program with gamification and unique privileges.
This is probably the most variable part of the process. But, generally, you can expect the inception stage to take up to 3 months.
If it takes longer, you probably need to rethink the concept. The establishment stage will usually last 3 to 9 months (in total) – this largely depends on developing diversified sources of growth.
The maturity stages and beyond may take a few years.
Steady, Monthly, Improvement
There is rarely a silver bullet that will change anything. The successful communities on the web today were the result of steady, monthly improvement, with community managers tackling the next thing on the list.
When you begin working tomorrow, or move to a new job, benchmark where the community is now using this resource and design your plan of action to steadily improve the community. It isn’t easy work, but it’s exactly what you’ve been hired to do.