Managing Communities

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.

Community Strategy And Emotions

August 24, 2016 Comments Off on Community Strategy And Emotions

A community strategy is essentially the emotion you wish to amplify to change human behavior.

Changing the platform, revamping social norms, launching a new event…these are all tactics. Sometimes very effective tactics, but tactics nonetheless.

What changes behavior over the long term is emotions. A good tactic might significantly amplify an emotion. But a good strategy will amplify the efficacy of all tactics (even the bad ones).

We so rarely consider what we want members to feel about the community and their contributions to it. When we do consider emotions, we default to positive-sounding emotions. (e.g. we want members to feel excited and happy).

But are these the most powerful emotions? I’m not so sure.

Ask members how they feel about the community and how they feel when they make a contribution to the community (this works better in an interview than a survey). The data here will always surprise you.

The answers will be more nuanced than joy, happiness, and excitement. Really push for people to explain how they feel when they make a contribution. Now translate this into an emotion you can amplify.

For example, members might say they want to be seen and recognised by others, see how other people react to their posts, or appear as an expert. These are motivations, not emotions. They might feel lonely and want to be accepted by their peers, anxious that no-one will respond or excited when people do, and jealous of the top experts.

This gives you some pretty interesting strategies then. You might amplify loneliness and build the sense of community to overcome it. You might focus on the excitement of getting a response and the surprise of a good idea. You might focus on the jealousy of the top experts.

This leads to some pretty clear tactics too. Let’s use a simplified example:


“Our strategy is to get regular members to feel jealous of top experts and encourage others to share their tips to also be recognised as an expert by their peers.”

Growth N/A
Content Interview experts who share the most tips.

Provide guest columns to top experts.

Solicit the opinions of top experts on regular news items.

Moderation Provide top experts with moderation rights.

Add a ‘star’ or ‘recognised expert’ next to those who collect the most likes on their tips. Turn tips created by top experts into sticky threads more frequently.

Influence @mention the top experts more frequently in discussions.
Events and Activities Invite top experts to attend and speak at relevant events.

Host webinars with top experts.

User Experience Feature the top experts on the front of the site.  List the number of tips shared or likes received next to each contribution of experts.
Business Integration N/A

Notice now the tactics directly connect to the strategy and the research you gained from the interviews you conducted.

Right now we’re seeing a big search for more tactics at the expense of a sound, researched, strategy. Going mobile, hosting an AMA, or writing a roundup article without a clear idea of the emotion you’re trying to amplify is like throwing darts without a dart board to aim at.

Try to deeply understand how members feel when they join and participate. Now look at possible tactics to amplify that emotion. These are often cheaper, more effective, and easier to measure than what you’re trying today.

Measure Whether Your Community Is A Habit

August 23, 2016 Comments Off on Measure Whether Your Community Is A Habit

You can easily measure whether your community is a habit. Divide the average daily active users (DUAs) over the month by the monthly active users (MUAs) and multiply by 30 days (or 30.42).

For example, if you have 100 daily active users and 1000 monthly average users, your active members visit on average 3 days per month. 3 days per month isn’t terrible, but you would be hard pressed to say the community had become a habit for most members.

The most successful communities, apps, and websites become part of our personal or work habits. We visit them every day to see who or what is new. If we don’t visit, we worry that we might be missing out.

Of course, this stickiness metric could rise while the overall number of members falls (lower growth, losing the less interested members). Which isn’t so great. So this data alone isn’t useful. To avoid the broken thermostat problem we need to turn this data into something actionable.

Two useful ways to use this data.

1) As an overall health indicator. If this figure begins to rise, keep doing what you’re doing. If it begins to fall, stop and drill deeper into lower metrics to identify the problem. You want to discover if your triggers are the problem, if motivation is the problem, the platform is the problem or the reward is the problem.

2) To track specific interventions. If you’ve recently changed your strategy, this will be a great indicator of whether that strategy is successful. This tells you whether the new types of discussions you’re posting, events you’re creating, or content you’re writing (which seems popular) is changing habits. Very often the things that are popular don’t change habits.

There are plenty more complicated (and important) metrics out there. Fortunately, this one is easy to track and reveals an important piece of the puzzle.

Leave The Best Discussions To Last

My colleague Hawk lives in New Zealand.

She’s usually participating in our community when most members are asleep. At the beginning of each day she sees a list of discussions like this:

Screenshot 2016-08-12 11.11.28

And she gets to decide which discussions to reply to and in which order.

The easiest methods are FIFO (first in, first out) or LIFO (last in, first out). FIFO means beginning at the bottom and working your way to the top. LIFO means beginning at the top of new discussions and working your way down. If you use FIFO, the discussions are flipped. What was top is now bottom for the next member. If you use LIFO everything remains the same.

These might be the two default options, but they’re not the only options here.

Why not take this opportunity to leverage influence in the direction of discussions?

Review discussions before you begin and decide which discussions are most popular and which would be most interesting to most members? Now structure your order of response accordingly leaving the ‘best’ discussions to last.

One of the easiest ways to kill a popular discussion is to bury it beneath a dozen others. Let’s not do that.

Share Of Attention

August 8, 2016 Comments Off on Share Of Attention

Do you want to become the most relevant place about the topic or about the audience?

Most people choose the former. But think carefully for a second.

Imagine you want to run a community for investors. You can go through the process of launching a community for investors. You can identify their challenges and aspirations and ensure that the community is the most relevant place to solve their challenges and achieve their aspirations.

But do you think investors only want to talk about being investors?

That’s a very limiting view of their identity.

Can you imagine only talking with your friends about whatever brought you together? That friendship wouldn’t last long.

You want to share what you’re up to, how you’re feeling, what your friends/family are doing, what gossip you’ve heard, and a range of other events going on in your life.

This infinitely expands the kind of discussions you can nurture over time. They increase self-disclosure, build a stronger sense of community, and increase engagement. Perhaps most importantly, they increase the range of triggers that will bring someone to your community.

An investor might visit your investor community once a month with an investment question. The trigger here would be an investment problem. But they might not have that many investment problems.

But if the investor community is truly a community i.e. a place where investors can talk about what’s going on in their lives, then any major or minor event becomes worth sharing. They might want to share what they’re up to right now, a promotion they’ve received, a funny story from work, or a wide mixture of things. Each one of these becomes a trigger which can massively increase the number of visits.

This is the very genesis of community, but it also presents a big, huge, problem.

These kind of discussions are great for regular members, but often terrible for newcomers. Newcomers don’t know the group yet. They won’t want to share their news with strangers or get the latest gossip about people they haven’t (figuratively) met. Things get cliquey fast.

Two lessons here then.

1) Go beyond the topic and increase your share of attention. Your members don’t just want to talk about what brought them together. Make your community the place that forms friendships and lets people talk about whatever is relevant to them right now (this has the useful effect of making the entire community more relevant to your audience).

2) These discussions shouldn’t heavily feature to non-registered members or newcomers. Consider dividing them by user levels that newcomers can see after {x} number of posts or months of being a member or working on the community onboarding journey to gradually expose people to more non-topic posts.

If you’re competing to be the most relevant place about the topic, you’re going to be in an indefinite war with a lot of competitors. If you’re competing to be the most relevant place to whatever unique audience you’ve carved out from the group, you will be peerless.

Beware Of Quick and Simple

August 1, 2016 Comments Off on Beware Of Quick and Simple

You wouldn’t want your CEO to follow a quick and simple guide to running a business.

Running a business is complicated. There are lots of moving parts. Each moving part affects the direction of other moving parts. Sure, you can plan out what you’re going to do. But everyone else has their own motivations and is making their own plans too. The magic in running a business isn’t so much what you plan to do. The magic is quickly adapting to new information to achieve the best outcome possible.

The same is true with building a community. Lots of moving parts. Lots of adapting to new information.

Our search for ever simpler templates ignores a simple reality; building a community is complicated. The simpler and shorter the template, the more material has to be cut out.

Simple templates lack the very thing that make most communities succeed, adaptability. You can map out the community against stakeholder objectives. You can develop a clear plan of action, but what happens when the stakeholder objectives conflict and a major news story makes the entire plan redundant?

Or the board splits 3 to 4 against what your research says would make your community amazing?

Or the community manager fights with his boss and quits? Or your boss’ boss disagrees with your boss on your idea?

Or traffic isn’t growing as fast as you predicted?

Or the platform vendor raises their prices without warning at the last minute?

Or someone insists the platform can’t go live until it integrates with another platform – but this wasn’t mentioned beforehand and you’ve already gone live?

Or 10 of your most popular members insist on removing another member (who hasn’t broken any rules) or they’ll start their own community?

Or a new free platform like Reddit/Facebook begins swallowing up your members?

Or Google Analytics data conflicts drastically with platform data making any analysis impossible?

Or members aren’t talking about the things you need them to talk about?

Or a flood of disruptive members target your community to make their protest on a political matter?

Or activity is skyrocketing but you don’t seem to be getting enough value from the community?

Every one of these situations has happened to our clients over the years. Simple templates didn’t help us tackle any of these challenges.

Situations like these feel like the exception. But you’ll soon discover these exceptions take up the bulk of your time. The exceptions are the norm in this work. To get better we don’t need simpler solutions, we need to get better at tackling each unique situation as it arises. That means seeking out people who have been through something similar. It means understanding more universal principles behind what motivates people and how they’re likely to respond to different situations. It means looking for more complex information.

Simple plans will rarely help because the very simplicity which makes them popular and palatable to a mass audience also removes the complexity that makes them useful for the unique challenges you

The Discussions You Can’t Google

We often wrestle with how advanced discussions in a community should be.

Should we let people come and ask the simplest, easiest, questions in our community?

Or should we demand that discussions should take place at a more advanced level?

Here’s a simple rule of thumb. Discussions in a community should focus on answers you can’t Google.

If we’re looking for a designer, we can search for designers. If we want to get a list of trusted designers that others have worked with and would recommend, that probably requires asking the question.

If I am overwhelmed with information on a topic and want to know which information is most accurate by the experiences of others, I need to ask others.

If we’re looking to find an accountant that has experience working with UK companies with staff employed in the USA and the tax issues involved, that’s probably not an easy question to Google.

If we want to know what everyone else is working on this week, we’re going to need to ask others like us.

If we’re looking for a sense of connection and to get a sense of how people like us setup their ideal workday, we need to ask that question of people like us. Google won’t help much there.

If we want to know how others afflicted by the same disease we have have handled feeling exhausted while expected to appear strong, we probably need to ask that in a community.

Most of the discussions you have with friends are probably questions you wouldn’t be able to Google.

I’d argue if people can Google the answer to a question, it probably doesn’t belong in a community. You can’t compete with Google. But Google shouldn’t be able to compete with you.

Big Wins And Incremental Improvements

July 27, 2016 Comments Off on Big Wins And Incremental Improvements

Last week we ran a split test on our mailing list.

You can see the results below (or click here).


We predicted that ‘collaboration book’ would be the most opened subject line (all three were ahead of Mailchimp’s benchmarks), but the difference was surprising.

A +5% difference is relatively rare. This jives with what we’ve seen before. Namely that highly specific subject lines and question-related subject lines are associated with spam and are opened less. Interestingly, the unsubscribe rates for the first two emails were 25% to 50% higher than the last too.

Incremental improvements like this matter. Big wins (those that give a +10% increase in any metric that matters) are rarely the result of a one-off action. Big wins are the result of a deliberate process of incremental improvement.

You test newsletter and email subject lines/confirmation lines. You test what content ranks highly in search engines. You test what questions or activity gets people to participate for the first time. You test what discussions attract the most activity. You test different ideas for webinars and events.

In each test you’re looking for a few percentage point difference. About 5% is good. Over a long enough period of time, each of these add up into double-digit wins.

We’ve worked with hundreds of organisations. Rarely has any organisation rapidly increased growth or activity with a single big win. Yet most continue to embark upon huge platform changes and replacing staff searching for silver bullets that don’t exist.

The big wins are nearly always incremental. You test something, see what works, and adapt (you might be surprised just how simple some of these big wins are).

This means incremental improvement is also related to something even more important, the search for a better way of doing things. In our community we see many discussions based around problems people have, but few based around better ways to do things which aren’t clearly a problem.

If we want to get much better, we need to be on the hunt for fresh ideas to test in every aspect of our community efforts. This includes all the things you take for granted. You’re as likely to gain a few percentage points improving something you already do well as you are on something less successful today.

Asking People Why They Don’t Participate (and deciphering answers)

Here is a fun task. Keep a notepad next to your laptop. Any time you participate in an online community (or even an online discussion) write a quick note to yourself about why you did it.

What was your motivation? Be honest.

If every answer is ‘to help people’, I don’t believe you.

Next ask your colleagues why they don’t participate in your brand’s community. Assume any answers about ‘not enough time’ are about the utility of the community (i.e. the community isn’t relevant or useful enough to their work).

Ask what communities they do participate in and why.

Now ask some members why they don’t participate (try not to do this via survey).

Classify your answers into categories like:

  • Utility (usually ‘not enough time’ or ‘too busy’).
  • Competence (usually variations of ‘nothing to say’).
  • Fear (worried about ‘looking bad’ to someone).
  • Fun (no friends there, didn’t like the experience, didn’t enjoy the experience).

This isn’t a definitive list. Now look to see where most people cluster around. This highlights what you need to work on next. For example:

Utility Increase the relevancy of the community to daily challenges. Increase the speed of responses. Improve the quality of responses (i.e. recruit experts to answer questions from members or ensure each question does resolve the problem).  
Competence Ask people to share if an answer solved their problem. Create an educational guide on the major topics. Set opportunities for people to show their progress. There are no shortage of tactics to increase competence.
Fear If it’s fear then create a more welcoming environment. Have an area to ask beginner questions and get help. Focus on guiding those first contributions. Let people share their biggest challenges. Consider making the community exclusive or allowing members to participate anonymously.
Fun Make the culture more personable. Initiate more lighthearted discussions. Use off-topic areas more frequently. Looking for universal discussions you can promote.

You might be surprised what your research reveals about why members don’t participate. Most of these problems are easy to tackle with a little effort.

Functional Communities And Remarkable Edges

July 25, 2016 Comments Off on Functional Communities And Remarkable Edges

There’s a gap between the communities that die and those that thrive.

It’s filled with communities that lack a remarkable edge. They lack the ‘thing’ that’s going to get people to rave about it, invite others, and decide to associate their identity with it.

It’s filled with communities that are functional. People use them when they have to (i.e. to solve a problem), but they’re not going to grow much neither.

If your community feels static, if it’s not growing, if you feel stuck you need to find and push an edge.

Your edge is the remarkable part of your community. It’s the unique gift that only you, through your vision, creativity, and determination, can bring to the group.

There are no shortage of edges, here’s a few.

Practical Actions Hypothetical Ideas
Serious Fun
Cutting Edge Proven
Expensive Cheap
Compassionate Professional
Newcomers Experts
Hyperlocal Global
Advanced Beginner
Scientific Street Savvy
Masculine Feminine

You can add plenty of your own too I’m sure.

Spend 10 minutes with your team. Agree which edge(s) you’re pushing. Go through your upcoming plan of action. Align every item of content, every discussion, web copy, and events with that edge. Mentally prepare yourself to stick with it.

You need to go all in here.

If your edge is practical, remove anything theoretic. Ensure every discussion lists practical next steps. Demand event content lists how it applies to members. Remove discussion posts which don’t meet the criteria.

This is going to upset some people. Don’t worry about how many people you upset, worry about how many people you delight. The people that love the concept will participate a lot, they will bring in others that love the concept too. This is the very thing that gets you the kind of growth you need and want. Track your referral rates and online mentions.

However, this is the easy part. The hard part is sticking with the edge when the going gets tough.

What will you do when your boss’ boss suggests you broaden the focus?

Will you remove members who don’t have enough experience for your edge?

Will you remove posts and upset members to prevent blunting that edge?

What will you do when people get upset you’re not letting them talk about what they want?

If your community is about what your brand sells (e.g. a customer service community), you might be fine without an edge. There’s not much competition there. If you’re the biggest community in your field, your focus is on appealing to the masses, you can probably skip the edges too.

If you’re neither, you need to identify the edge you’re trying to push.

An edge is what’s going to attract the people you need. It’s going to attract the people who are dissatisfied with the status quo, the people who aren’t highly engaged in existing communities. The people most open to joining and being a part of something new.

Getting And Letting

July 18, 2016 Comments Off on Getting And Letting

Too many discussions begin with ‘how do we get….?’ usually followed by something people don’t want to do.

How do we get people to join and participate?
How do we get people to stop posting links to their own sites?
How do we get people to invite their friends?
How do we get people to create groups, initiate discussions, and remove posts?

It’s hard to get people to do something they don’t want to do. It takes time. You need to change the attitude towards that behavior. That’s possible to do, but you shouldn’t try to do it too often.

If most of your discussions are about getting members to do something, you’re always going to be fighting against the tide.

Better discussions begin with ‘who do we let…?’.

Imagine how that conversation changes things…

Who do we let join and participate in our community?
Who do we let post links to their own sites?
Who do we let invite their friends?
Who do we let create groups, initiate discussions, and remove posts?

Suddenly that same object can be seen as a positive. Instead of asking people to start creating their own groups, you can reach out to the smallest few with a good track record. Tell them you’re giving them a power no-one else has.

Instead of constantly removing links to personal sites you can reach out to a few people with a good track record and see if any of them might want to be responsible for this. Now members can submit their links to him/her for approval in a weekly ‘best of the web’ roundup.

When you change the type of discussion you’re having internally, your actions and tone of voice towards the community changes. The authoritative desperation (“Please stop spamming the site..or we’ll remove you!”) is replaced by a sense of control and rewarding the good members of the group (“Good news, we’ve decided to let each one of you submit your external articles for a weekly roundup. We have 2 volunteer editor places up for grabs!”). .

The best way to get members to do anything is very often to let a few of them do it.

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