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Try to imagine launching a new community from scratch without an existing audience to drive to the community.
Now try to imagine doing that in one of the most technically challenging industries with concerns about privacy and accuracy of information.
Now try doing that within a 200+-year-old organization that has never built an online community before.
There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of USP – but you’ve certainly been affected by their work. USP is an independent, non-profit, organization that sets standards for medicines, food ingredients, and dietary supplements.
Many of these standards are legally enforced within the USA and around the world. Manufacturers use USP standards to test their products and ensure they meet published specifications.
For the past two centuries, setting standards was a highly collaborative process, but a relatively slow one. It requires proactive outreach and engagement with a wide range of stakeholders.
In 2020, USP recognised a new approach was required which would be faster, overcome language barriers, and pioneer a new means of sustaining ongoing interactions with stakeholders. The goal was to launch a pilot and see if building small, focused, technical communities could succeed.
FeverBee was hired by USP to launch a successful pilot from scratch and grow it to over 1,000 active members.
Working with Naiffer Romero, the community manager, we spent the first-month interviewing dozens of prospective members.
While there was some guarded interest in the idea of the community, not all of the research was promising.
Many of the intended audience members already had a place where they liked to engage with one another. Others were concerned this would create a competing channel to existing channels of collaborating and providing feedback to regulatory bodies.
Yet the research also revealed ‘need gaps’ the Nitrosamines Exchange community could solve.
For example, many of the existing places for prospects to discuss Nitrosamines were limited to those managed by large manufacturers. Smaller organizations outside of large countries weren’t represented. Another issue was this engagement took place via live events once a month. They didn’t allow for ongoing discussions where people can ask questions and get help at any time.
There was a gap which, with the right strategy, the Nitrosamines Exchange community could satisfy.
An early critical decision was selecting the right platform.
A major consideration was the field of Nitrosamines isn’t huge. We estimated the total possible audience was less than 3,000 participants. This eliminated the larger enterprise platforms from the process.
Yet the research also strongly suggested members wouldn’t want to use Facebook or LinkedIn groups to engage with one another. They just weren’t private or professional enough. Likewise, we needed the ability to customise the platform a lot more than some of the basic white label platforms.
This need for customizations, the ability to reply by email, and the overall technical nature of the community led us to select Discourse as the community platform. Using Discourse also mean we could rapidly scale the community to launch future groups if needed.
Our goal was to launch the community quickly, gather some initial feedback, and then rapidly iterate based on what we learned.
In October 2021, we launched the community. Participation was slow at first, but thanks to the proactive engagement of Naiffer, we soon attracted an early group of founding members.
To help reach a critical mass of activity, we hosted a member workshop to identify topics we could explore, overcome barriers, help members identify what they could contribute to the community, and find any additional information which might be useful.
The workshop was well attended and showed that members did want a community, there were clearly topics they wished to discuss, but we needed to address some of the challenges.
These challenges included the website design, which scientists were finding difficult to navigate, better defining the goals of the community and helping members feel they can participate anonymously.
Shortly after the launch of the community, Naiffer began sharing the latest studies directly in the community. This soon began a commonly cited reason for members to visit the community on a regular basis.
While there were other places where members could engage with one another, they lacked a definitive place to find all the latest information about Nitrosamines in a single place. The community soon became this place.
While it was relatively easy to attract the first few members, it was also clear USP would rapidly exhaust its initial contacts. A constant supply of new members would be required to reach a critical mass of activity.
Typically, this would be accomplished through search traffic. However, this was not possible given the essential requirement for this to be a private community. Instead, we found two other channels of growth. These were:
LinkedIn. LinkedIn quickly became the primary source of newcomers to the community. The community manager, Naiffer, connected with people in the industry and shared graphics promoting upcoming discussions, events, and activities taking place within the community. This resulted in a steady stream of new members joining and participating in the community.
Events. Over time events became a far bigger source of new members. The community was frequently promoted at relevant events via webinars and in-person events. This often resulted in dozens of new members joining at once.
These two sources combined, along with word-of-mouth, resulted in a steady stream of newcomers joining the community.
Another early challenge was the registration process. We discovered early in the community’s lifecycle that 30% to 40% of members were not clicking the confirmation link after being accepted to join the community.
To overcome this problem, we began using Discourse’s ‘invites’ feature to send pre-approved links to members who we knew would otherwise be approved. This enabled us to not only let members automatically join the community, but also to guide them to a specific discussion and assign them to a specific group when they did join.
For example, if we were mentioning the community at an event, we can assign everyone who used the link from the event to a specific group and tag them into relevant discussions in the future.
The Nitrosamines community faced a major challenge with confidentiality. Multiple interviews highlighted members were resistant to participate due to the risk of their views being released into the public sphere.
To combat this we utilized Discourse’s anonymous mode and worked with Ahmed Gagan, of CanopusLabs to implement it as a ‘one click’ button. This was the first time any community had utilised the anonymous mode in this way. It means when members click the button, they could ask questions and participate anonymously without putting their reputations at risk.
To prevent abuse, we (the community team) would still be able to determine who members were. But given the scientific nature of the community, we neither anticipated nor witnessed any abuse.
The next challenge was the design of the community. The audience, while savvy enough to use digital tools with ease, had limited experience participating in a forum environment. As the workshop and private discussions showed, they often became struggled to use the platform and navigate through the experience.
As a result, we redesigned the community. The redesign is still minimalist in nature, but also displayed featured content at the top of the page, an improved navigation bar, and displayed the categories of content more clearly.
The feedback from the redesign was positive and we saw an immediate increase in all the major stats we were tracking.
A final challenge we aimed to solve was translation. Scientists from around the world engaged with Nitrosamines. As long as our community was in English, our potential audience was extremely limited.
Our initial attempt to solve this problem was to implement the plugin translator. This would translate each post to the individual’s location as set by their preferences.
However, this wasn’t initially successful. We suspected there were two problems. The first problem was each setting to change user language preferences was buried within the profile options. Few people would ever find it. The second problem was while the plugin could translate text, people had to click on a ‘globe’ symbol at the bottom of a post. It wasn’t obvious that this was a translation option.
Tackling the problem would involve creating new components for Discourse. The first component enabled people to set their language preference with a common one-click flag option which appeared at the top of the page. This let everyone quickly establish their location and preferred language.
The next step was to automatically translate the posts without a member having to click on the globe symbol. This meant connecting the translate button with Google translate and then automatically activating the globe symbol whenever it would otherwise appear.
The Nitrosamines Exchange community has thus far been a highly successful pilot. The bullseye was really clear; launch a community and show this new approach to standard setting and engaging with stakeholders could work.
The results thus far have been remarkable.
1400+ scientists from 75 countries.
61% of members are entirely new contacts (they were not known to USP beforehand).
86% of members are outside of the USA – showing the power of the translation plugin.
68% of members said it made them want to increase their engagement with USP.
83% of members said it had positively influenced their opinion of USP.
The qualitative data has also been just as important. The Nitrosamines Exchange pilot has proved to be a quick and efficient platform for USP to collect insights into the medicine quality challenges its stakeholders are facing. These insights have helped USP better identify needs and prioritize its work on medicine quality.