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:


[click here to view the full image / download the PDF]

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):

  1. Add a simple gamification and reward system for great contributions.
  2. Develop an MVP program for top community members.
  3. Create content to satisfy likely search queries for the topic.
  4. Better categorize the best community content to be easy to browse.
  5. Aligning the community website copy to solve existing problems/seize new opportunities.
  6. Build a system for members to vote/rate the best content.
  7. Ensuring the community is better featured on the main company site.
  8. Driving specific promotional activities.
  9. Securing additional funding for the community team.
  10. Develop specific metrics to measure health and success.
  11. Building a data-driven framework for making engagement decisions.
  12. 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.

 

3) Platforms

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.

 

7) Newcomers

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.

 

10) Timeline

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.

Good luck.

How Many Members Do You Need To Build A Million Dollar Online Community?

Most of us believe we need thousands, maybe millions, of members to have a really valuable community.

Even those that don’t dream of making their community bigger and having more active members.

This is usually because we believe three things:

  1. More members makes the community better.
  2. Getting more members is a good use of time/resources.
  3. Getting more members improves the value of the community.

There is a grain of truth here. If you’re just getting your community started, you definitely want to grow quickly to reach critical mass.

But once you’ve reached critical mass, adding more members doesn’t help you build a million dollar community. What does help is getting the best out of the members you do have.

In this post, I’m going to outline how many active contributors you should aim for, what a typical breakdown of a community looks like and the numbers that go into creating a million-dollar community.

 

Most Brand Communities Have Far Fewer Members Than You Imagine

Two years ago, we began to suspect most branded communities had far fewer active contributors than we believed.

So we scraped a random sample of communities from Lithium below and analyzed the results (shown below).

It’s possible our scrape missed a lot of data (and there is plenty of activity behind closed doors). However, we broadly discovered most communities have between 51 to 389 active contributors at any one time.

But is Lithium reflective of most communities?

In the past year, we’ve worked with Community-Analytics and two academics to collect data from around 200 communities hosted on Discourse. The communities were broken down by size (no. messages) and the results are shown below.

Again, the number of active contributors varies wildly, but there is a clear trend within the 50 to 400 region.

Most branded communities really don’t have that many members.

Unless you’re an outlier (work for a brand with a massive audience, using a totally different platform, or have a really explosive idea), then you’re not going to get more than a few hundred active contributors during any given month.

This gives you some reasonable benchmarks to aim for:

  • Bad = <100 – bad (unless you’re just starting out)
  • OK = 100 to 200 active contributors
  • Good = 200 to 400 active contributors
  • Great = >400 active contributors

(of course, if you feel your community is an outlier, set outlier goals. Just be clear about why your community is an outlier).

But how valuable can a brand community be with just a few hundred active contributors? Extremely.

 

How Can A Community Be Indispensable With Only A Few Hundred Active Members?

This is a lot like asking how your customer call center or marketing team can be valuable with only a few dozen staff members.

It’s not the size of active members, it’s the multiplication of their contributions which matters.

For most benefits of a community, innovation, call deflection, customer success/support, you really don’t need that many active members. Instead, you need members to do valuable things which are seen by a far bigger audience.

But not all active members are equal. If we break-down participation habits and tenure of members within a community, we get the data we see below (from 139 Discourse communities):

I’d interpret this as community contributors tending to fall within three buckets:

  • Single Posters. The single-poster group (typically people who have a question they need to be resolved), comprise around 43% of membership. They ask a question and then leave when they have an answer.
  • The Irregulars. This is the 2 to 4% of contributors who stick around to either ask one or two more questions or answer a question. The community isn’t a habit and they tend to come and go sporadically.
  • The 90+ Day Group (Top Contributors). This is the 16% of members whom have stuck around for 3+ months and tend to contribute most of the responses/replies to a community.

Pay careful attention to that 16% figure there. It means most of the value in branded communities is driven by only a few dozen (active contribs * 0.16) regular members.

That’s it….just a few dozen.

This might be the community equivalent of 1000 true fans. These few dozen are the critical group.

It really doesn’t matter how many active members you have, it matters how many true believers you have.

It ultimately matters how many people you have on the far right side on the member motivation model below:

I’ve seen plenty of communities struggling to succeed with a few hundred active members. The reason is simple, they don’t have any truly committed members creating real value. They just have irregulars and single-posters.

This is so important to understand. Almost all the truly valuable contributions to a community are coming from just a tiny group of active members.

This is the group you need to nurture through the motivation model above.

However this comes with the big caveat. These contributions only matter if you have a lot of people willing to read them.

 

The Lurker Multiplier

Lurkers multiply the value of your top members.

A single member might write a single post answering someone’s question, but if 10,000 people read it, it might deflect 10,000 calls.

It’s far better to have 100 members creating content read by 10,000 lurkers, than 10,000 members creating content read by 100 lurkers.

There isn’t much hard data on the number of lurkers most communities have. The client data we have varies between 99.80% and 95% of all visitors to the community. I wouldn’t be surprised if it stretched way beyond that for the larger communities too.

This is also heavily influenced by community type (esp. customer support) and community age (older = more lurkers). The bigger and older you are, the greater the imbalance of lurkers.

Let’s imagine you have a reasonable 1% ratio (99% of lurkers for every active member).

The median brand community will have around 162 monthly active contributors and 16,200 visitors.

This might not sound like much, but let’s start breaking down how valuable a community like this might be:

Imagine those 16,200 lurkers find the answer to their problem and don’t need to call customer service. At $3 to $5 per call that’s a cost saving of $48k to $81k per month ($576,000 to $972,000 per year).

Imagine just 5% of this group become customers. For a typical SaaS company with a $100 per month subscription, this could again be $81k per month ($972k per year)

Imagine if this 5% of these visitors become customers as a result of the community, again, we’re looking at $972k per year.

Imagine if you advertise jobs in the community and save $10k in headhunting costs per recruit or save $15k on every focus group project you used to run.

These aren’t fanciful made up numbers. They’re very real and very possible metrics that explain why just a tiny group of top contributors creating content read by a standard group of lurkers can be so valuable. But we haven’t even gotten to the big win yet.

 

The Big Win

As you grow, you want to align the community to achieve multiple goals.

You might begin with customer support and then also include feedback, lead generation, recruitment etc…

Now a community can quickly go from driving up to a million dollars return into several million dollars. All of it generated by just a core group of a few dozen active members.

You wouldn’t really need to think about trying to get as many members as possible, if your members are providing as much value as possible.

This is the incredible value that a seemingly small community with just a few dozen active contributors can provide to an organization. This is what makes a community the most cost-efficient way to achieve goals. It’s what turns a small community into an indispensable asset.

Putting It All Together

Ok, let’s put this all together into some key benchmarks and core principles:

1) Hit the upper quartile range for brand communities. This would be 163+ active contributors per month, 26+ regular members, and 16,300+ visitors. By all means keep optimizing search results, building partnerships, inviting people to join, and encouraging members to share material until you hit that number. Use the motivation model above to keep members active. Don’t let anyone bully you into trying to be Reddit.

2) Nurture your top contributors. Build strong relationships with each of them, connect them into their own tribe, deploy a super-user program, and guide them to make the best type of contribution they can make. This group needs to be as respected, connected, and as valuable as they possibly can.

3) Multiply the value of top contributors. This is the overlooked part. Make sure the best content is really easy to find. Drive a lot of traffic to it. You should see your visitor numbers steadily growing. Then align your community to achieve multiple goals (call deflection, feedback, retention, recruitment etc…). This is where you can double and triple the value of every member.

When most people think of a successful community, they usually think of the mega-communities and the big social networking platforms like (Reddit, Facebook, LinkedIn etc…).

But if you were to plot branded communities on a bell curve, you would notice the mega-communities aren’t just rare, they’re outliers. They’re statistical anomalies which bear no resemblance to the work you will be doing.

Ignore the big fish and focus on getting the most out of the members you do have, not chasing the members you don’t have.

Good luck.

Community Website Design: Rules for The Banner

What do you notice about the following four communities?

Oracle Community

NTEN Community

IDERA Community

Dropbox Community

….they all have terrible banners.

Most community banners today are doing more harm than good. They’re static monstrosities filling far too much real-estate with bland messaging trying to appeal to every member segment.

A banner is not a game-changer for any community, but it is a useful tool to drive the kind of behavior you need, help with the signal to noise problem, and set the tone for a community.

But banners come at a big cost, they push activity off the page. They make it harder for members to see who or what is new in the community. The bigger the banner, the greater the cost. Your banner comes at the direct expense of activity.

 

The Big Problems With Most Banners

The problem with banners comes in 5 areas. These are:

1) The design. Many community banners have curiously bad design. This often includes an ugly palette of colors, text that doesn’t contrast well with the background, or bland photoshopped images.

2) The size. Most are far too big and take up far too much space. You generally don’t want to push activity below the fold.

3) The contents. No-one really cares much about being ‘welcomed’ to the community. Online communities have been around a while, most people know they can ‘connect’, ‘share’, and ‘learn’ from each other in one. What makes your community unique/different/surprising?

4) Static. The same message is often shown in the community regardless of whether members have already read it 10,000 times. It’s rarely updated with new information and members can’t get rid of it even if they wanted to.

5) Same banners appear to everybody. Far too often, the same banner is shown to every visitor regardless if they’re arriving for the very first time or visiting for the 10,000th time.

There are some exceptions to these challenges. A customer support community, for example, should have a question box right at the top for all visitors to easily ask questions. However, even this should be regularly adjusted and augmented.

 

The Design

Most organizations easily have the budget to do a better job with the design of their community banners and avoid most of the common mistakes. These tend to fall within 3 categories.

1) Not using brand colours. Sometimes you want the community to have a unique brand, but generally you want to keep the colors relatively on brand. Try to avoid using a full palette of primary colors here.

2) Stock images of people. Stock images of people don’t tend to work well in brand banners. Use either a generic image (like Fico) or avoid using images entirely. You don’t need an image for a banner to work well.

3) Contrast. Make sure the text contrasts well with the background. If it doesn’t, either change the color of the text/background or add a layer behind with a degree of opacity behind it. You can use any text if you had a layer behind it. We do this on FeverBee experts too.

FitBit Community

Notice how difficult it is to read the text above because of the weak contrast between the text and its background. 

Microsoft Community

Not a work of art, but the text contrasts well against the background, it avoids using stock images of people, and the calls to action are clear.

Nutanix Community

Try to avoid using stock photos of people. They appear on almost every community. Also avoid text that blends against the background.

Unbounce Community

On brand, easy to read, with key actions at the top.

 

Getting The Size Right

This should be easy. A banner should be as short as possible. It should take up 30% of the page at best, 50% at the very worst.

Any more than that, and you might want to consider removing copy. As we can see in the examples below, you can often move a few features around to reduce the size of the copy.

The Spotify Community

The banner takes up a huge amount of space which could be easily tweaked for a better experience.

Alteryx Community

(notice how by pushing the metrics to a side box they have freed up a lot of space for the activity)

You might need more height than Alteryx, but you should be able to reduce the copy or contents of a banner until it fits to less than 50% of the page.

 

The Message And The Call To Action

This is by far the critical part of it. It’s inseparable from the message itself. What you don’t want is a bland “welcome to the community” banner which offers nothing.

The right messaging and call to action may include:

  • Headline personifying what makes the community special (this is usually critical)
  • Clear next steps to take.
  • A search box (vital for customer support communities).
  • Trending topics
  • Most popular topics/questions
  • Registration/login information.
  • Videos/multimedia messaging.
  • Community Statistics (although these can usually be avoided)

The messaging and calls to action you use should depend largely upon who the audience is trying to reach and what you want them to do.

This will depend upon the type of community you’re trying to build as well. Trending topics works well for fields where there are new, major, issues. Registration/login works well for visitors. Videos/multimedia messaging works well when there are major announcements that you can frequently update. Search boxes work well for customer support communities etc…

Square Seller

The Square Seller community provides a pretty clear and handy headline.

Smartbear

The Smartbear community can remove the welcome message, but at least it gets the CTA messages directly at the top.

Optimizely

The messaging in the optimizely community is actually quite clear and specific, but the weak contrasts hurts the design.

AT&T

This is the opposite of what you want to do in the community messaging. A generic banner that adds nothing to the community

Zuora (90% of screen)

The Zuora messaging is weak, but the trending topics beneath the banner is really good.

Fico

The Fico community banner is clean, if not very inspiring.

Static/Never Changing Banners

With few exceptions, a banner which is static and rarely changes is never a good sign. There are two good solutions to this.

1) Regularly update the banner with new, useful, information. This means with new content/activity that members need to see. This works well when you make frequent new announcements and there are new things to see.

2) Let members hide the banner. One common problem is members can’t get rid of the banner even if they wanted to. This doesn’t make much sense. If members have read/seen the message, you may want to let them hide it.

Both are reasonable options. You can also update the banner based upon a member’s previous contributions to the community.

Secops

Once you’ve read it, you can click ‘got it’ and the banner is hidden. You can expand it later if you need to.

Intelex

You can use a banner to make regular, big, announcements. But try not to make them quit this big.

Showing the same banner to everybody

It make no sense to show the same banner to your first-time visitors, your newly registered members and your top community members.

The most common solution to this is to create two separate banners for members who are logged in from those who aren’t. The former focuses on activity, the latter focuses on signing up.

An even better solution is to use conditional logic to guide members to the next action they should take based upon their previous contribution to the community.

We’ve been exploring this below in our community.

FeverBee (visitors)

Visitors are shown the next action to take.

FeverBee (newcomers)

Members who have registered are then shown a banner guiding them to the next contribution they need to make.

FeverBee (regulars)

Once people become comfortable asking a question and getting a response, they’re nudged to provide more value.

FeverBee (Top members)

Very top members are shown their current level of activity and how they can get more involved in the community.

Summary

If you’re running a community, you probably should have a banner. The banner though has to drive real value.

It has to be well designed, not take up too much space, have a clear call(s) to action, allow members to hide it, and be updated frequently.

Don’t let the banner be an afterthought, it takes up the community’s most valuable real-estate.

What Motivates Community Members To Stay Engaged In Online Communities?

At some point, almost everyone looks at their community and wishes they could increase engagement. This usually leads to clever ideas that members might find interesting, but soon the novelty wears off and engagement returns to the same level.

The problem is a failure to properly diagnose why engagement decreased. Much like medicine and engineering, it’s far harder to diagnose the problem than to identify the solution. If you properly diagnose the problem, the solutions usually present themselves.

Diagnosing Your Community Engagement Problem

The diagnosis begins from a motivation perspective. You can use our membership motivation model below. This identifies why people don’t visit the community, why people initially participate in a community, and what leads to healthy long-term participation in a community. You should be able to use this to diagnose the problems you need to overcome:

If Your Audience Doesn’t Visit Your Community

The most common problem is people simply aren’t visiting the community. This usually breaks down into four buckets (by descending order of priority):

1) Lack of awareness. No-one can visit your community if they either aren’t aware or have forgotten it exists. You can diagnose this by asking or surveying a random sample of your total audience. Ask them to name any communities they have heard about and see what percentage mentions your community. If it’s less than 5%, you have a big awareness problem.

2) Low value perception. This is when the audience is aware the community exists, but they are not especially motivated to visit. This means your community concept isn’t right.

Ask your audience what challenges they are tackling today and check if this matches the discussions and activities taking place in the community today. You might also want to check Google Trends and other tools to see what terms and topics people are searching for today. Is your community aligned to match?

3) Trust. Here your target audience understands what the value of the community is supposed to be but doesn’t trust you to deliver it. This happens most often when people have visited the community once but didn’t see enough value to visit or participate again. You can diagnose this by asking members if they did visit the community to highlight what advice/value they got from the community.

4) Competitor groups. You’re probably not the only community in town. Members might participate in other groups as well. Their ties to those groups might be hard to break and other groups might be better at delivering on this value than you are. This usually requires focusing on a unique, growing, niche you can dominate (if you’re smaller), or fear of missing out (if you’re the bigger community). This can also be diagnosed by asking your audience what other communities members participate in today.

These are all fundamental problems. You need to have a constant source of new visitors, a relevant community concept, to deliver value, and compete effectively against other groups.

Why People Join And Initially Participate In An Online Community

Once you’ve tackled the fundamentals, you also need to ensure it’s easy for members to make their first contributions to the community. People make their first contributions to an online community for five key reasons. These are to ask a question (or solve a problem), improve their expertise, increase their status, be part of a group, or explore a topic with a group of likeminded friends.

You can reverse engineer this to diagnose why people don’t participate in a community they visit (e.g. why do people only lurk?).

This boils down to:

1) They don’t feel they can ask a question. They either don’t have a question to ask or don’t feel comfortable asking it. The latter usually because of fear about their personal reputation or fear of getting a negative (or no) response.

2) They don’t have expertise to share. People don’t respond to questions or write blog posts because they don’t have the expertise to share or comfort to share their expertise. This happens in many fields where there are a lot of newcomers and the experts are hard to persuade to participate.

3) They don’t feel participating will increase their status. This occurs when the cost/benefit of participating isn’t worthwhile from a status perspective. This means they don’t feel their contributions will get alot of good responses and help increase their status.

4) They don’t feel they will be left behind. In many communities there is no danger of being excluded from a group by not participating. There is no urgency to participate now or fear of missing out.

5) They are not passionate about the topic. Another reason is they aren’t interested enough in the topic to explore it with others. This comes up again when we talk about healthy, long-term, participation.

You can interview or survey people who visit to see what’s preventing them. Alternatively, you can test different ideas from those listed above until you come up with an effective solution. Tip: it’s usually best to work from the top down.

Why Most People Don’t Become Regular, Active, Members

Usually the level of participation declines rapidly after the first contribution to a community. You can see this in our data below:

There are three big reasons for this.

1) They aren’t curious about the topic. They might participate when they have to (for work or to resolve a frustration), but they aren’t motivated to learn more about the topic beyond this level.

2) They don’t enjoy participating in the community. They don’t feel a part of something special when they do participate in the community. They don’t feel they have much control or ownership. They don’t feel it’s a part of their peer group where people like and respect them.

3) They don’t enjoy helping others. They don’t get much joy from helping others. This occurs most often when they don’t receive gratitude for contributions or don’t feel much of a connection to other members. It also arises when they are answering the same questions repeatedly within the community.

All of these tie back to the three root causes that you can work on. These are:

1) Limited sense of competence. If members don’t feel their abilities are growing, have opportunities to demonstrate their abilities, nor have any control over the site, their motivation is sharply reduced.

2) Limited sense of autonomy. If members don’t feel they can participate the way they like, in a way that aligns with their values, and give input into the direction of the community, they are less likely to enjoy participating there.

3) Limited sense of relatedness. In short, they don’t feel liked and respected by other members. There is no larger sense of community forming around the topic that gives people their social identity.

The key here is to gradually increase this sense of competence, autonomy, and relatedness by designing specific journeys you take members through. There are no shortage of tactics here.

Ultimately, to sustain long-term, regular, participation the community ultimately has to offer more than just solutions to problems. It has to offer members the chance to feel really smart, to feel they can finally behave as best aligns with their values, and the opportunity to build strong relationships.

Always Diagnose The Problem First

Before you move on to testing any tactics, properly diagnose the problem. Once you diagnose the problem the solutions usually present themselves.

Good luck.

Emotions That Matter In An Online Community

The big three tend to be excitement, fear, and frustration.

They manifest themselves as inspiration, validation, and resolution.

Excitement and Inspiration

Excitement comes through inspiration. It’s when you see new ideas in the community you didn’t expect. You might visit for one reason, but during that visit you see several great ideas you can apply to improve your efforts. You start to visit more frequently.

This makes it worthwhile to encourage discussions and create content around:

  • Sharing relevant photos and videos of great ideas.
  • Best advice from the web.
  • Best personal tips from members.
  • Recommended books.
  • ‘Best of’ lists.

Newsletters work best when they focus on inspiration. Inspiration is what gets people returning to the community every day.

Fear and Validation

Validation is about removing uncertainty. It’s about overcoming problems you don’t know exist yet. You might be the only accountant in your company doing that job, how do you know if you’re doing it right? You want to check and compare your progress against others. Validation is about removing unforeseen mistakes.

This usually means content and discussions around:

  • Comparison of tools.
  • Equipment and product lists.
  • Reviews.
  • Working out loud / what are you working on topics.
  • Templates and resources.
  • Case studies and examples.
  • Fees and prices.

Think about different methods to get people to check and compare their efforts against each other. Newcomers are especially responsive to content that relates to validation.

Frustration and Resolution

Frustration is having a specific problem you can articulate that you want resolved. If your iPhone breaks, you visit a community to explain the problem and you want a resolution to that problem. You want the frustration removed.

  • FAQ and lists of most common problems.
  • Video and photographic guides to resolving problems.
  • Answers to questions.
  • Featured solutions.
  • Trending problems.

The problem with frustration is people only visit when they are frustrated and the tone of discussions tends to be negative by nature.

If you’re stuck with your community engagement efforts, you’re probably not embracing one or more of the big three emotions.

9 Principles Behind Successful Online Community Strategies

This is part 2 of our 6-part series on community strategy (click here to read part one).

If you like the series, consider signing up for our Strategic Community Management course.

Enrolment is now open and the course begins on October 9th, 2017.

This is going to explain the key processes behind establishing community goals and winning internal support.

About half of our clients ask for our help to set the goals for their community. The following might help.

This is a big topic, so I’ve divided it into 9 key principles.

Principle 1: Engagement Should Never Be A Goal

Many of the community and professionals we’ve worked with and trained over the past decade used to make the same mistake. They believed if they could get the engagement metrics high enough, they would finally get the support and respect they needed. They spent their time trying to get more engagement and reporting on engaging metrics.

The brutal truth is the engagement metrics will never be high enough to get you the support you need.

Chasing more engagement is a fools’ game and condemns you to the engagement trap.

Not many people working in communities today have the right goals. Setting the rights goals should be a transformational process for your community and your career. By the end you should be working towards something you know you can achieve, that other people support and that you know is valuable.

Principle 2: Goals Come From Your Stakeholders

Far too many engagement professionals set the goals for their community and then toil endlessly to win support for them. I know one director of community who has spent five years of her career trying to get internal support for her community’s goals.

The key to career success is to reverse this.

Don’t set goals and try to win support for them from colleagues. Find out what your colleagues already support and use these as your goals. It’s a lot easier to swim with the current. If you don’t want to fight every day to get support, begin with goals people already support.

Principle 3: You Don’t Truly Have Support Until You Get More Resources

Ignore what other departments say, you only truly have support when you get more resources you didn’t already have.

Your organization could commit far more to the community than they do today. For example:

  • The sales team can drive new prospects and clients towards it.
  • The PR team can promote your community.
  • The HR team can embed it within newcomer orientation for all employees.
  • The content team can test content in the community.
  • Engineering or R&D can give community direct feedback into the product.
  • The CEO can participate in the community.
  • Marketing can give-away free products to top members.
  • The web team can feature it more prominently on the website.
    etc…

Imagine each department as an engine cylinder you need to fire up to support your community. It’s your job to get each department supporting the community with more resources. This is going to require building powerful alliances where you come up with the goods (more on this later).

Principle 4: The Best Goals Come From Extreme Listening

Make a list of your stakeholders (colleagues, your boss, CEO, CFO, CMO, dir. Marketing, HR, IT, and anyone else who might be interested in the community). Interview each of them to understand their priorities. Ask them what they spend their time doing, what they hope to achieve, what they’re afraid of.

Pay careful attention to what they say and how they say it.

What do you they talk about excitedly and what do they sound bored by?

Attend the meetings of other departments too. Learn how they think and what information they prioritize. Almost everyone we interviewed who has won internal support regularly attends the meetings of other teams

Your goals will come from the above information. Remember goals are personal. Most goals will be those which:

  1. Save time.
  2. Save money
  3. Avoid making mistakes/looking bad.
  4. Achieve superior outcomes/better performance.
  5. Impress boss/colleagues.
  6. Feel more important and respected.
  7. Feel better about the work they do.
    (generally in this order)

You should be able to build a clear list of goals, for example:

Person(s) Wants/Fears
Your Boss
  • Wants to show improved member satisfaction.
  • Wants to be seen as someone who ‘gets things done’ in an organization that’s typically slow.
  • Worried that other people will get in her way.
Legal rep.
  • Not have anyone ‘go rogue’.
  • No surprises.
  • Wants people to appreciate what the risks are.
Boss’ boss
  • Worried about PR disasters and negative inputs reaching the exec team.
  • Wants to see better media coverage of the company.
Dir. Marketing
  • Wants to be able to reach as many people as possible with a message.
  • Worried about declining reach on traditional channels.
CEO
  • Wants the company to look innovative.
  • Present new technology at events.
CFO
  • Find ways to save money.
Team members
  • Be seen as valuable by their boss.  
  • Get to work on projects they’re most passionate about.
IT/Tech
  • Not have their time wasted.
  • Not have new priorities dumped upon them.
  • Have a say in new ideas the organization will develop.

etc…….

Principle 5: Avoid The Big, Noble, Goals Trap

Everyone believes that delighting customers, breaking down knowledge silos, and cutting costs are a good idea.

Everyone will agree these are good goals and they want to support it. But few of this group will help you because the goals are too broad and too distant to help you now.

Base your community goals in the day-to-day reality of your audience. What are they working on today? What do they need help with? What are they struggling with?

Principle 6: Use The Stakeholder Matrix To Prioritise Goals

Now prioritise this group by their interest in the community and their influence over it. Adopt the goals of those at the top of the list. For example, above, the goals might be:

  • Answer every possible question our best customers have. (stakeholder: boss)
  • Identify and resolve possible PR problems before they become major problems. (Boss’ boss)
  • Increase reach of promotional messaging. (dir. marketing)

[see goal framing here]

Notice each of these is relevant to goals right now. This is a key part of getting support.

If you can’t tackle all 3 (and 3 is a lot), focus on just the goal for whomever has the highest influence.

This framework will also guide how you interact with each of your stakeholders. You shouldn’t send the same messages to legal as you would to your boss, for example.

Principle 7: Build Stories To Support The Goal

Now you have a goal, you need persuasive stories to establish it. Anytime anyone asks you about the community goal, you should state the persuasive goal and then use a story to illustrate it. This means using Evernote, screenshots, or any system you like as a story capture system.

Your stakeholder framework will show what kind of stories to look out for.

Using the above example, you would capture stories of the top members who were happy they got their elusive questions answered quickly, of potential PR crises avoided, and the number of people your community was able to reach.

Data helps, but it’s only the backdrop to the narrative.

Remember stories have a beginning, middle and an end. Make them fun and interesting. If you don’t have stories of your own, start looking at other comparative communities. Don’t stop until you have at least a dozen great stories. Match each story to your community goals.

Principle 8: You Are Not A Jedi

No combination of words will win you the support of sceptical colleagues. What you bring into the meeting is far more important than what you say in the meeting.

If you want the PR team to promote you, bring them five incredible case studies they can promote.

If you want the sales team to help you, bring them a list of 20 useful leads.

If you want the engineering team you help, bring them valuable feedback they can immediately use. etc…

Success is going to mean building alliances where you have to give support to get support.

Figure out what the community can give to different people and departments within the organization.

Principle 9: Keeping Support Isn’t Binary

Support isn’t binary. People leave and priorities shift.

You need to set aside a big chunk of your time (at least 30%) to building and maintaining internal support.

This means attending meetings, taking colleagues out for a coffee, and finding new ways to bring value to other groups.

Community Goals

Your community goals will guide everything you do in the community.

Your goals determine what platform you select, how you set the platform up, what you ask your members to do, how you motivate them to do it, and what you report internally.

Setting community goals and winning internal support are two parts of the same process.

You should, if you follow these 9 principles, find that you can finally stop trying to fight for support and take a deliberate approach to getting the results you want.

Strategic Community Management

If you found this or the last part of our series useful, please consider signing up for the Strategic Community Management course.

The course will transform how you approach your community, help you escape the engagement trap, and guide you to deliver exactly the kind of results your organization needs.

And the fee is only $675 ($1100 if taken with Psychology of Community).

I think that’s a fair bargain.

Building Peer Groups

February 8, 2017 ,Comments Off on Building Peer Groups

Two weeks ago, we hosted an exclusive community event with Lithium to bring 20 of the highest ranking community people together to discuss and share issues in a safe, private, environment. We all learned a lot from it.

The remarkable thing here is just how cost-efficient this is. People leave with a sense of not being alone, a collective validation of their efforts, and an assortment of new ideas and thought processes. Most of all, they get a group of people they can contact for help in the future.

I’ve lost track of the number of solutions private peer groups have helped us with over the years. This ranges from the prices of different platforms, opinions on prospective recruits, feedback on different implementation vendors, information on potential leads, heads up on possible problems, and solutions to some of our toughest challenges…along with all the emotional support.

It’s hard to talk about some things in public. This is especially true in places where community members, colleagues, or your friends might read your innermost fears.

I suspect there are opportunities in every sector and for each of our careers to build more of these. It doesn’t cost much and can save you huge amounts of time, money, and prevent mistakes.

p.s. blog post from Joe here.

24/7 Moderator Coverage

The Google community was recently flooded with accusations of racism in search results.

Checking in on a Monday morning a few weeks ago, no-one seems to have been around over the weekend.

Once a perception forms, it’s hard to shift. Past a few hundred thousand members you need 24/7 moderator coverage to respond to issues like this.

The costs are relatively low and the risks are worryingly high.

What happens if on 5.01pm on Friday afternoon someone posts a suicide threat and no-one from the company reads it until 9.00am on Monday?

It’s a possible tragedy and a headline of “Company {x} did nothing for 4 days after member posts suicide threat”.

Now consider illegal/illicit activities, death threats, security bug reports and the whole gamut of worst-case scenarios. Hoping the community manager checks in on their days off isn’t a solution.

You don’t need someone there every second, but at least have someone checking in once or twice a day. Hire an intern for the weekend, use virtual assistants, hire paid moderators, or a professional moderation company. It doesn’t cost much and can avoid a catastrophe.

Goals, Objectives, Strategy, Tactics, Action Plan And Improvement

November 4, 2016 Comments Off on Goals, Objectives, Strategy, Tactics, Action Plan And Improvement

It’s easy to get confused.

Here’s a simple cheat-sheet.

Goals This is the direct value your organization gets from the community.

e.g. Increased customer satisfaction scores

Objectives This is what you need your members to do to get this value.

e.g. Experts answering questions in the community faster.

Strategy This is the emotion you will amplify to get them to perform this behavior.

e.g.  Build a superior group of top experts

Tactics These are the exact things you will do to amplify this emotion.

e.g.  Fly top experts to your HQ to meet the CEO, give them inside information on the product roadmap, and solicit their feedback.

Action Plan This is who will do these things and when they will do them.

e.g. Mark will identify and invite the top experts for Jan 3rd, Jenn will introduce them to the product roadmap on Jan 11th.

Improvement This is how you learn to do things better.

e.g. Did the meeting with the CEO, the inside information, or having their opinions have the biggest impact? Let’s do more of what worked best.

This is a community strategic plan broken down to its most simplest form. You can use it to build a huge number of simple strategic plans for your work if you like.

The art of developing community strategy is to figure out the best things to do to achieve your goals.

Think Strategically About Everything You Do

I want you to think strategically about everything you plan to do in your community today.

Are you doing these things because they are clearly directly connected to the layer above and have been shown to drive results?

Or have you just gotten into the habit of doing them?

The biggest way to improve today is to do far fewer things really, really, well.

That means you need to stop doing all those things which might drive engagement but aren’t strategic. Be really ruthless with your time and devote your time to your biggest wins instead.

What We Learned From 1k Community Professionals

We’ve worked with over 1k+ community professionals in our academy and we’ve found almost every single person can deliver more results simply by cutting out the tasks that don’t drive results.

If you’re not sure, try working upwards from the table above. Begin at the actions you’re taking today and identify the tactics, strategy, objectives, and goals. You might be surprised to see your own mismatch.

p.s. Registration for our Strategic Community Management program will open next week. If you’re tired of chasing metrics and want to work on the things that matter, I hope you will consider joining us.

FeverBee’s Target Audience Matrix

November 1, 2016 Comments Off on FeverBee’s Target Audience Matrix

I want to spend the next few weeks talking about strategy.

We often have the entirely wrong idea about what strategy is and how we pull one together.

Over the next few weeks, I want to challenge some of our biggest assumptions about strategy.

Today I’m going to share one of the most useful community building resources we use. It’s based on an old business framework called Ansoff’s Matrix.

Understanding FeverBee’s Audience Matrix

You should never try to target your entire community with any activity. The needs of each group vary considerably.

You should instead target the group that is most likely to drive the kind of behavior you need (check the 3rd column of this table to understand what behavior is valuable).

Once you know the behavior, you can decide which audience can most increase the quantity of that behavior in your community.

This feeds into some natural strategies as you see below.

feverbeetargetaudiencematrix

This means every strategy should be based on these specific questions.

1) Is it easier to get existing members to perform more of the behavior (easy unless they are participating as much as they can)?

2) Is it easier to get existing members who don’t perform their behavior to do it (ideal if they are easy to persuade)?

3) Is it easier to get new people who perform the behavior elsewhere to do it in your community? (often easier than persuasion).

4) If these don’t seem especially easy, you need to reconceptualize your entire community.

Your answers to these questions will play a critical role in your strategy.

Quick Example

Imagine you want to increase the quantity of useful knowledge shared about your sector.

You could target top members who already share knowledge to do more of it (perhaps via a reward program or habit-building process).

You could target regular members to improve the quality of knowledge they share (perhaps with training, newsletters, and other content).

You could target people who already share great knowledge to join your community and do it there (perhaps via a growth strategy).

There are three very different audiences and three very different strategies.

Determine Your Target Audience

Before you do anything else today, decide which of the four quadrants you’re working on.

Do you want existing members to do more of what they’re doing? Do something new? Or do you want new members?

The strategy for each of these will be very different.

Once you have your answer, it becomes a lot easier to identify the kind of tactics you need.

p.s. This material is taken from our upcoming Strategic Community Management program. We’re going to train a group of passionate community managers to rethink their work and take a strategic approach to everything they do. Registration will open in two weeks.

War On Kittens

October 31, 2016 Comments Off on War On Kittens

If you follow your data to maximize engagement, you will fill a community with listicles, frivolous discussions, and kittens (probably).

You can spend your days dumbing ideas down, trying to shout louder, and optimizing the packaging instead of the contents. If you succeed, you will attract the most transient, disinterested, and fickle audience in history. You might prop up the metrics for a few winters, but it’s a terrible contribution to make to the world.

The majority of people will always want the simplest ideas, in the most digestible form, with a surprising twist.

But you’re not trying to attract the majority of people.

This is such a critical concept to understand (and a harder one to embrace because you’ve set expectations that more is better).

The best way to stand out today and attract the audience that matters is to build an island and raise a flag to appeal to the right sort of people.

The Economist proves that being good still matters. There is an audience out there for creating valuable assets that empower a community in their lives – or simply engages communities on a deeper level. We might watch a gazillion YouTube clips, but we also binge-watch on Netflix.

There is an audience for people who want to read that asset you spent 3 months creating or that free course you’re working on. There’s a market for people who don’t want an expert to just fill a slot in your calendar, but a real expert with new insights delivered in an engaging way.

The people you really want to attract are the people whose trust you need to earn by doing things that are good and valuable, not those attracted who will give you a fleeting glance if you show them something shiny enough.

You don’t need to play the metrics game if you don’t want to. Create real meaning and the community will reward you for it. Let go of the misleading idea you can create and sustain the interest of millions. Focus on the few thousand (or even hundreds) who really matter to you.

This is the perfect time for it. The best time to zag is when everyone else is zigging.

Boxing Against A Tidal Wave

You can’t knock out a tidal wave. You might land with a few good jabs, but the tide of water will eventually crush you (and you will look silly).

A common question in our community is can forums survive?

A better question might be should forums survive?

When social media platforms make it easier and more fun to have a discussion, what is the point of forum-based communities? Many forums (and similar types of communities) are up against tidal waves from both sides.

From one side discussions around shared passions which might have taken place in a forum now take place on Facebook (or Reddit or other large platforms). These keep us in-flow with our existing habits. We don’t have to remember to go elsewhere each day. The platforms are often better too.

From the other side, it’s simply easier to Google an answer to a question rather than ask other people. If you need facts, Google is your answer. Worse yet, perhaps, Google is only going to get better.

You could try to build higher walls around your community and make it better, but you’re in the same boat as the independent video store when Blockbuster came to town (and blockbuster when Netflix appeared).

Don’t fight against the tidal wave, figure out how to swim with it. That means two relatively clear options:

1) Move to popular platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Reddit etc..). Many online comment sections have already done this. You can keep most of your members but lose a lot of control (and existing content/advertising revenue).

2) Play to a forum’s strengths. Focus on deeper discussions around answers you can’t find on Google. You will have far fewer people (more lurkers) but far better quality discussions. You get to focus on creating an asset. A lot of customer service channels fall into this bucket.

3) Get exclusive. Focus on an exclusive feeling of being a part of something different and less mainstream. Hide your content from search and tell those who don’t meet your criteria to go to social media to chat. You will have fewer people, but a strong sense of community and a decent level of discussions.

This isn’t a new dilemma. Independent book stores, groceries, record labels, and many, many, more faced this same dilemma. The biggest mistake is to fight against a tidal wave. Make a decisive decision and push it all the way.

©2018 FeverBee Limited, 1314 New Providence Wharf, London, United Kingdom E14 9PJ FEVERBEE