Managing Communities

The Science Behind Growing A Thriving Online Community

There is a lot of superstition behind community growth.

This superstition often leads to the doomed big bang approach or the equally unsuccessfully big promotional push (competitions, challenges, giveaways) to save struggling communities.

If you understand the science behind community growth, you will know why both efforts are always doomed to fail.

Better yet, you will know how to check your community is growing at the right speed and increase your growth rate.

By the end of this post, you should be able to change your approach to increase the speed of growth (and dazzle your boss with your scientific expertise).


How Fast Should Your Community Be Growing Right Now?

If you’ve created a highly transmissive community concept, have a focused target audience with dense connections with other members, and you’re keeping your members active when they join, the graph showing your number of active members should look like this.

Health Community Growth

graph 1

This chart essentially shows that you begin with a small handful of members, see a sudden rise in active members as word spreads, before plateauing in the maturity phase.

This is the ultimate healthy growth chart for any online community.

You want your growth rate to as closely resemble the chart above as possible (we’ll explain why soon). Unfortunately, most communities don’t resemble this at all. Most communities resemble one of the four graphs below:

group of graphs


Check your active membership levels are healthy

The first check to see if your growth rate is healthy is to export the number of daily active members (or returning visitors if you need a proxy) and create a graph (used curve lines / trendlines) to see what your growth looks like.

This also gives you a very good indication of future growth potential as well. If things used to grow quickly and are now levelling off, it’s fair to say you’ve reaching peak potential.

Of course, if you revamp your focus (say, begin targeting SEO professionals and expand to inbound marketing professionals) your graph might more resemble an horizontal S shape below.

graph 6
And this is the secret to communities that escape beyond their initial confines. They don’t perform some remarkable marketing tactic, they expand their focus to accommodate more members (while cleverly not losing their existing members).

Here’s a simple task. Export the number of active members since the community launched and create a chart showing this level of community growth.

If you can’t access this data, then use returning visitors from Google Analytics.

To make sense of this you might need to add a trendline as shown below.

graph 7

Data from a former client above follows (despite a recent spike, we improved their platform), the path of healthy community growth (almost) perfectly.

The community grew to a level where the number of monthly active member is beginning to plateau. This is as big as the community is likely to get without a big change in focus.

And this is the part that might save your job one day. If you’re managing a mature online community (let’s say one that’s been around for 5+ years) and the number of active members is holding steady, don’t ever agree to increase this figure. Increasing the number of active members in a mature community can be a difficult (possibly impossible) task.

To understand why, we need to understand the bell curve and the rate of growth.


The Bell Curve, The Rate Of Growth, And The Spread of Diseases

The rate of growth is how many members you attract compared with the previous month.
If you attracted 200 members this month compared with 150 last month, your rate of growth is 50.

If next month you attract 230 new members your rate of growth has dropped to 30 (even though your absolute growth has increased).

Most communities have a zero rate of growth.

This means they’re still attracting new members but it’s almost exactly the same number of new members each month. It might be 30 this month, 30 the month before, and 30 the month before that. For mature communities, this is fine. For everyone else, this isn’t so good. This number should be steadily rising.

The ideal community resembles a bell curve below.

graph 8
The rate of growth should (in perfect conditions) follow the bell curve above. It begins at 0, rises slowly at first until it hits the critical mass point. Then it rises rapidly until peak growth has been achieved before falling back down to 0.

Here’s the important thing to remember here.

The long-term rate of growth for all communities will always return to 0 on a long-enough time scale.

This doesn’t mean they stop growing, but they stop growing at any increased speed.

You see this bell curve in many places. Google Trends isn’t the best proxy, but you can see similar curves in many popular communities:

Product Hunt, for example, has probably just passed the peak of its bell curve. .
It’s probably still growing, but not as fast as it used to.

Mumsnet too is probably on the other side of the bell curve for now.

Facebook also fits the mold particularly well.Reddit, perhaps surprisingly, probably hasn’t yet (I suspect we’ll see a sudden flashover point soon).

Sometimes these are less easy to predict. Instagram might be near it’s peak while Snapchat is about to be close to the flashover point.

(note, if you’re reading this post months/years later after publication, these graphs might look very different. Let me know how our predictions did).


The Basic Reproduction Number And The Bell Curve

Your bell curve will follow your basic reproduction number.

The basic reproduction number is a term network scientists have borrowed from epidemiologists (people that measure the spread of diseases). It simply means the number of additional cases (infections) each individual case generates.

The higher the number, the faster the spread of the disease. Your rate of growth is dictated by your basic reproduction number.

In our context, this means the number of active members each additional active member generates.

How might an active member bring in a newcomer? There are four main channels:

1) Members might create content that is found via search engines and brings in more traffic whom become members.

2) Members might share content on social channels and bring in others.

3) Members might mention the community to their friends offline.

4) Members might write about the community on their own sites which have significant traffic (this also increases search rankings).

(p.s. The more you can encourage members to do the following, the faster you grow).

Your basic reproduction number is influenced by:

1) Contacts. This is the number of contacts made between your regular members and the susceptible population (the no. people interested in this topic).

The easiest way to calculate this is to track mentions of your community URL and estimate the reach of those mentions (twitter is easy, web traffic/Facebook is more difficult). There will be a big overlap here (many susceptible members follow the same people on Twitter, for example). Some tools let you estimate this overlap (hootsuite, brandwatch insights), others might not.

2) Probability of transmission. This is the likelihood of each contact ‘transmitting’ the community to someone else (i.e. someone joining the community as a result of that contact). Highly transmissive communities have a powerful, relevant, community concept and excellent UX / calls to action that invite a newcomer to join and participate.

You can measure this by dividing the number of new registrations each month by the number of external mentions of your community. If your combined reach of mentions is 200,000 people and you have 100 new members, your transmission rate in each contact is 0.05% (this is the most simplistic method, it overlooks the overlap mentioned above).

3) Duration of active membership*. This is the length of time someone remains active in the community compared with that time period. The longer someone remains actively sharing community content, the higher your reproductive number. If you’re churning through members, your reproductive rate is lower. This is calculated by average length of actively talking about the community for that same time period (for example, 30 days would be 1. 15 days would be 0.5).

Your basic reproductive number is the contacts * probability of infection * duration of infection.

If each additional member doesn’t bring in at least 1 new member (directly or indirectly) your community will enter a death spiral.

This is the really critical lesson here.

If your basic reproduction number is below 1 (i.e. if you’re not getting at least 1 additional new member for each member you bring in, no marketing tactic on earth can save you). All that time and money you spend promoting the community is inevitably wasted.


Explaining The Bell Curve

This also explains why growth begins slowly, suddenly rises, and then falls almost as fast (the bell curve).

In the beginning, you have a small number of ‘infected’ members and a large number of ‘susceptible’ members. The probability of being ‘infected’ with the community concept is small but rises exponentially with each additional member that joins.

If you meet two infected people, for example, you have twice the probability of contracting their disease. This will grow slowly at first before reaching a sudden flashover point (or tipping point) where the probability is rising so quickly due to infinitely more people becoming infected. The probability of transmission isn’t change, just the number of infected members.

This rises until you reach the peak growth, after which your rate of growth declines because you begin to run out of susceptible people to ‘infect’. Everyone already likely to join the community already has.

So why doesn’t the number of new registrations eventually fall to zero?

Because there are always new people becoming interested in the topic. In mature communities your long-term rate of growth will closely mirror the number of newcomers becoming interested in the topic for the first time. If this number rises, the community rate of growth might rise again for a period. If it falls, your growth rate falls too.

This is also why new communities should focus on people with plenty of experience in the topic while mature communities need to better cater to newcomers.


The Bell Curve And The Online Community Lifecycle

We use the bell curve of new registrations in our online community lifecycle too.


Again you see how the number of new members rises as you progress through the lifecycle before eventually falling to a more sustainable rate based upon newcomers to the topic.


What Actions Do I Need To Take To Improve My Rate Of Growth?

Everything we’ve covered before gives us some scientifically valid ways of growing our online communities.

1) Measure your current number of new members (or clicks on your registration page). Is this speeding up, slowing down, or holding steady? Compare it to the charts above to see if they are healthy.

2) Increase the number of contacts between members and interested non-members. You can increase this by making it easier to share content (prompting people, including sharing options, providing invites members can use, integrating their social accounts etc…). You can also increase motivation to share (involving members in the creation of content, improving the quality of content, creating really useful material to share that helps newcomers, doing remarkable things). You might create a social norm that it’s expected to talk about the community.

3) Increase the size of the susceptible audience. If you’ve hit maturity, most members are in competitor communities, or you’ve already churned through most people, you need to expand the audience you’re targeting. You can change the topic focus to attract newcomers, focus on newcomers to the topic or deliberately make the jump across a barrier to a new group (e.g. different languages/locations).

4) Create a more transmissive concept. By far the most powerful way to increase growth is to make your community more transmissive. Some communities explode to life because the concept (the very idea) of the community is so relevant and exciting. Change the name, unique focus, type and purpose of the community. This is the most cost-effective improvement you can ever make.

5) Keep regular members active for longer. If you can increase the retention rate of your members (you measure this right?), you can increase the amount of time someone in your community might transmit the community to others. This is going to mean increasing their sense of competence, relatedness, and autonomy within the community.

You’re probably thinking “but I’ve already tried to do that and it isn’t working!”

Believe me, if this isn’t working then neither will any typical marketing tactic.

Marketing tactics accelerate the speed at which a community with a >1 reproductive number spread, but won’t save one with a reproductive number

You get a short spike in activity followed by a longer decline.

Speaking from personal experience, the best way to improve your community is to improve the concept. Everything else tends to stem from how transmissive the concept of the community is. Sadly this is also the thing we most quickly overlook.



Don’t compare the growth of your community against another, especially a mature community. A mature community with thousands of members, millions of inbound links, a hard-earned high search ranking/reputation will attract more members than your fledgling effort.

What’s more important than absolute growth is the rate of growth. Is this rising or falling? Does this match where you are on the lifecycle. Don’t ever try to promote a community until you’ve managed to get a reproductive rate >1 . Throwing more members at a failing community simply delays the inevitably agony.

Measure and track your growth rate against the examples above. Slowly increase the growth rate by making it easier to share community activity, expanding the susceptible audience of the community, creating a more transmissive concept, and keeping your regular members active for longer.

This sounds more complicated than it is. The key message is to forget promoting your way out of your problems. Instead go deeper and increase your reproduction number. Everything else improves from there.

*technically this is the length of time a member stays actively promoting the community, but this is almost impossible to track

Tackle The Relevancy Problem To Sustain High Activity

July 4, 2016 Comments Off on Tackle The Relevancy Problem To Sustain High Activity

You have a relevancy problem.

It’s easy to understand, harder to solve.

You launch a community focused around a tight concept (e.g. beach metal detectors instead of metal detecting).

Your first members join and participate because they love beach metal detectors. To them the gap between beach metal detecting and any other kind is as wide as a canyon. Right now, your community is 100% relevant to their unique interests.

As the community grows a more diverse group joins with increasingly diverse questions. This means the overall relevancy of questions begins to decline and the percentage of members who participate declines with it.

You can tackle this if you understand relevancy and the methods to sustain it.


What Is Relevancy To Communities??

Relevancy isn’t binary. An issue (discussion/activity etc..) isn’t either relevant or irrelevant. There are plenty of degrees between the two. Where an issue falls on your relevancy continuum depends upon the impact the issue has and how immediate it feels.

Impact is the perceived weight (or value) of the problem/opportunity/social connection being discussed. Immediacy is how quickly we need to solve it or can take advantage of it etc..

Let’s imagine an update to Discourse terrifyingly breaks our community. We urgently need to fix this problem or risk losing members (and prospective clients!). This makes the problem high impact and high immediacy (HIHI). HIHI issues are those most relevant issue to us.

When members visit your community, you want the majority of your menu of discussions to be HIHI discussions.

But there’s a problem here. A HIHI issue to one member will be very different to another.

What’s most relevant to me isn’t what’s most relevant to you. On a mass community scale, this soon becomes a big problem.

For example, we might ask in our community if anyone else using Discourse knows how to fix the problems caused by the update. While this is the most relevant issue to us, it’s not relevant to the 99% of members using other platforms.

Previously 10 of the previous 10 were relevant. Now you have 9 relevant discussions and 1 irrelevant discussion. Of course 1 irrelevant question doesn’t matter much in the great scheme of things. But when that 1 creeps up to 3, 5, and then 9 (as it inevitably does), you can spot the problem.

If the number of responses to discussions, the level of activity per active members, and the amount of time spent on the site is in decline, you have a big relevancy problem.

The challenge is to keep the experience highly relevant while allowing for growth.


3 Methods To Tackle The Relevancy Problem

Even if you do spot the relevancy problem, you need a method to tackle it.

There are three common methods.

1) Curated Relevancy. This is where you curate a list of the most popular discussions. The assumption is what’s most popular is also most relevant to most people. These tend to be either high impact to a large’ish group of people.

You limit other notifications and send these out as email digests or newsletters. If you can’t do anything else, do a ‘best of’ list and try to find the best content that will be most relevant to most of your members (try not to automate this, that’s lazy).

2) Self-Select Relevancy. This is when you create a list of possible preferences (topics, groups etc…) that members can select from and join. Members then only receive notifications or messages about this content.

The problem is members usually don’t choose at all, they stick with the defaults you give them. To make this work you need to be firm in encouraging members to decide what content they want or which groups they wish to join. They then only receive content about these preferences (an updated level is to let members set up preferences/groups themselves that others can choose from).

3) Automated Relevancy. At the highest level is where you use an algorithm to send people content you suspect will be most relevant to them. This combines what people have viewed so far, what discussions they have participated in and only showing/notifying them of related discussions.

Amazon, Quora, and Facebook use machine learning algorithms to do this well. Each member receives a highly personalised experience.

None of these options are ideal. The first has only a small impact the second is tough to enforce, and the third requires a lot of technical expertise and a customisable platform.

Your solution will probably lie at the outer limit of what your technology (and your boss) lets you do. You might have automated autoresponders based upon member actions which drops them into segmented groups. They then receive unique ‘best of’ newsletters based upon what’s best within that particular topic.

You might run a semantic analysis to identify word trends and set up groups based upon those trends and encourage members to join those groups.

You won’t find a single answer to solve the problem. It’s more important that you’re thinking about how to solve the problem. You need to explore what your technology can and can’t do here and develop the best solution you can with what you have.

Stop Being Busy And Achieve Your Branded Community’s Big Wins

June 28, 2016 ,Comments Off on Stop Being Busy And Achieve Your Branded Community’s Big Wins

If you’re doing the same community activities as last year, if the work feels easy and repetitive, or if your growth has flatlined, you’re probably stuck.

Being stuck doesn’t feel great. You lose inspiration and feel burnt out.

You have two choices. You can find a new gig or work on a big win.

A big win is something that has a >10% impact on your community metrics. To achieve a big win, you need to free up your time, stop doing the low-impact tasks, and identify what has the biggest long-term impact for the largest possible number of members.

Step 1) Define This Week’s Goals and Current Activities

The first step is to define this week’s goals and activities.

This shouldn’t take you more than a few minutes.

Create a table with two columns. List your current community goals on the left. Typical community health goals might include:

  • Increase the number of active members.
  • Improve the newcomer to regular conversion rate.
  • Increase the number of posts per active member.
  • Build a stronger sense of community.
  • Improve the quality of discussions.
  • Reduce the number of negative posts.
  • Recruit volunteers to help grow the community.

(as a tip, you shouldn’t have any more than 3 of these at any one time).

Now write down your tasks for the week alongside the relevant goal on the right hand side. These often include:

  • Replying to discussions.
  • Welcoming new members.
  • Creating content/posting updates.
  • Searching for images.
  • Hosting a webinar.
  • Updates on Facebook/Twitter.
  • Collecting data.

If a task doesn’t help you achieve a goal, stop doing it. You should be able to free up 10% of your time in this task alone.

Now estimate how much time you spend on each activity per week. Alternatively, install RescueTime and track it directly.

Let’s imagine you follow this process and achieve something like this:

1 - withholdingtest

This is a snippet of the list rather than the entire list.

Step 2) Run A Withholding Test

Now we run a withholding test to find out how important each of these tasks are.

A withholding test is used by pharmaceutical brands, direct marketers and many others to determine the impact of a variable. It’s simply the process of withholding (stop doing) an activity for a select group of time/people and seeing what happens.

What happens if we cut the amount of time we spend initiating discussing, replying to discussions, and sending out newsletters by 50%? Does the number of active members/any metric you track also drop by 50%? If not, you can spend less time on that task.

You will usually find there is some negative impact (perhaps a 15% drop). After all, there was a reason you were doing these tasks. But it’s clear it doesn’t justify the amount of time you spend on it. If you cut your time on these tasks by 50% and activity drops by only 15%, you might want to drop the time by 25% and see activity fall by 7.5% for now.

At this stage you usually find that your most time-consuming activities have very little impact upon the level of activity in a community. You should be able to save 25% to 50% of your time using withholding tests alone.

Your goal is to cut out any task which isn’t the best use of your time. You’re going to need this time to focus on your big wins.

Step 3) Automate the repetitive (none-empathy) tasks

Next we look at automating as many of your remaining tasks for the week as possible. Any task that doesn’t require empathy or complex thinking can usually be automated.

For example, most members ask the same few questions. These can be added to an FAQ members receive when they join. You can add messages in the initiate discussion process to suggest they ‘search’ for the answer before asking the question.

Some common targets for automation here would be:

  1. Adding any question that appears 3+ times to an FAQ.
  2. Creating a document/wiki as a beginner’s guide for newcomers to easily find the most common answers to their questions.
  3. Using autoresponders to onboard newcomers to the community.
  4. Using autoresponders to nudge members to participate in relevant discussions.
  5. Automated segmentation into topical groups to contact about relevant activities.
  6. Open-calendar 1 hour sessions for members to book ‘support calls’ to get quick responses.
  7. Automated generation of sales leads from the community.

Ask yourself during every task, is there a way I can avoid ever doing this again?

Set aside one week and determine with each activity you perform if there is a way you can avoid ever doing it again? This should free up another 10% to 15% of your time.

Step 4) Delegate Remaining Empathy Tasks

The final time-saving step is to delegate tasks which require a human touch but aren’t the best use of your time. You should only be doing the work only you can do.

If someone else can do a task at a lower pay grade than you, they should do that task.

You have three groups of people you can delegate tasks to. These are:

  1. Volunteers (unpaid community members).
  2. Colleagues (paid staff, but not directly working on your community)
  3. Paid help (virtual assistants and community team members)

The kinds of tasks you might delegate to each will vary.

 Delegate Group Tasks they can perform How to engage this group
  • Initiating and replying to discussions.
  • Welcoming new members.
  • Moderation.
  • Publish content.
  • Host webinars.
  • Create high visibility volunteer roles members can apply for.
  • Designate a clear field of responsibility.
  • Share control/power
  • Provide recognition.
  • Include functional tasks with the fun stuff.
  • Answer product questions.
  • Answer brand-related questions.
  • Solve outstanding problems.
  • Profile colleagues in the community.
  • Host interviews or ‘ask me anything’ sessions with employees related to particular topics/problems.
  • Organize problem-solving question sessions with colleagues over 30 minutes to 1 hour.
  • Post a list of ‘toughest questions’ from members to motivate colleagues to prove their skillset in the community.
Paid support (team members or virtual assistants)
  • Scheduling posts / updates.
  • Researching future posts / content.
  • Finding stock images.
  • Replying to member tech questions using a checklist / FAQ.
  • Collecting data / producing reports.
  • Welcoming newcomers (maybe).
  • Recruit virtual assistants who know a little about the field.
  • If growing a community team, establish clearly unique roles.


Volunteers can perform most of the growth, content, activities, and moderation tasks in the community management framework.

Create high-status volunteer positions that include the kind of tasks that people want to do.
You can include some monotonous tasks too, but you have to also create opportunities for volunteers to do things they will enjoy. These are tasks which will increase their status and where they feel a strong sense of efficacy.

A good volunteer role should include:

  • A specific name (don’t call it a volunteer, give it a powerful name).
  • A clear field of responsibility (what part of the community are they most interested in?).
  • Power elements (give the volunteer unique access to the platform).
  • Recognition elements (provide volunteers with ways to build their reputation).
  • Functional elements (these are the relevant tasks you don’t want to do).

For example, if you manage a surfing community, you might let people apply to be your Surfboard Expert (name). This would be someone whose role is to stimulate and manage all activity related to surfboards within the community (field of responsibility).This might mean being able to initiate discussions, publish content, organize webinars, and remove discussions related to surfboards (power & recognition). They would be listed in a unique area and have the ability to speak on behalf of the group (recognition). Their role would also be to prune the bad surfboard discussions, invite more people to join and talk about surfboards, and schedule regular events (the functional tasks).

Next, engage your colleagues in community activities. You’re not a customer service professional. It shouldn’t be your job to answer every product/service question if others in the company can do it better. If volunteers can’t answer these questions from a checklist, you need your colleagues to help out.

Finally you may have the opportunity to secure paid support to help tackle many of these expanding roles. This might be additional community people to help you expand or virtual assistants (underutilized tool) to take on time-consuming tasks that aren’t the best use of your skills.

With a small amount of training, virtual assistants can perform many of the tasks which require empathy but not your direct involvement.

By this point you should have been able to whittle the number of tasks you perform down to the core few. These should be tasks that have been shown to have a significant impact upon your community that only you can perform.

This should free up most of your time to work towards your big wins.

What Is A Big Win?

A big win changes the behavior of a large amount of members for a long period of time.

A big win is something that boosts your desired metric by more than 10%.

A big win is a one-off activity that has a sustainable, long-term, impact.

Once you’ve managed to generate a sustainable level of activity in any community, you should focus on your big wins.

The problem as we’ve noted is most community professionals work at the bottom left of this table. Your goal is to move towards working at the top right of this diagram.


(this isn’t an exhaustive list)

Four Types Of Big Wins

There are four broad types of big wins:

1) Increasing the level of traffic to the community. This means getting more people to visit the community site for the first time. If this declines, activity gradually dries up. Ultimately getting fresh members is critical to long-term success in a community.

2) Increasing the conversion rates. This means increasing the number of visitors who participate. Most participation ratios hover around 1 in 1000 (first-time visitors to participants). This breaks down to 1 in 100 registering to join and 1 in 10 of those participating. There is huge scope for improvement here.

3) Increasing the levels of participation. This means increasing the level of activity from your current members. This means making your current members more active (without resorting to quick thrills).

4) Increasing the value of the community. This means generating a larger return on investment from the activity generated by the community. This might mean improving the quality of discussions, reducing the costs of managing the community, or aligning activity with clear ROI goals.

Sustainably increasing the level of traffic to the community.

Most people doing community work wait for people to arrive and then try to keep them. The easiest way to improve a community is usually to attract more members.

This must be sustainable. There are many ways to get the numbers up (hosting competitions, rewarding registration, hosting big events), however we need numbers to stay up. This is a long-term game.

There are four methods of doing this.

  1. Search traffic. Get more people to find you via relevant search terms.
  2. Direct traffic. Get more of your existing audience to visit.
  3. Referral traffic. Get traffic from existing large audiences (and members)
  4. Paid traffic. Get more people to visit through paid sources.

Your tactics here will probably fall within the following buckets:

Search Traffic Content
Inbound links
Onsite optimisation
Referral Traffic Guest posts
Direct Traffic Email campaigns
Community awareness
Paid traffic Social Ads (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube)
Social Ads Search Ads (Google, Yahoo, Bing)
Paid elsewhere (Blogs, paid media buys etc…)

Improving SEO Results

Read the Moz SEO guide first, then read some of the latest advanced material about SEO.

To increase SEO, you usually need to:

  • Improve the site speed and layout.
  • Improve the site’s mobile experience.
  • Revamp your site’s best performing content to better satisfy user intent (and reduce the bounce rate).
  • Write guest posts to attract inbound links.
  • Engage in digital PR to attract key links from major sites.
  • Combine similar discussions into one.
  • Create regular resources from discussions.
  • Help members optimize their discussions (headlines etc)
  • Create newcomer focused content series (a beginner’s guide like that below works well. Include the questions which appear on search most frequently)

This should gradually increase your search traffic. For most communities, this is the best source of newcomers (especially newcomers to the topic).

The majority of your member’s will find you via search. If you can spend time on only one thing to grow your community, this is probably the best use of your time.

Referral Traffic
We cover many of the referral traffic techniques in our Successful Community Management program. These tactics will broadly fall within the following:

  • Writing guest posts for relevant mainstream sites.
  • Interviewing / hosting webinars with popular figures in your field (notably bloggers, journalists, and others who can link to the interview).
  • Creating useful, powerful, video content which links back to your community.

Link outwards to people you wish to link back to you. Occasionally, simply asking for links helps too.

Direct traffic
Direct traffic usually comes from your existing audience and direct invites. Your mailing list is critical here. Most of us begin a community with an existing, large, mailing list and need to convert this audience into active community participants.

Alternatively we might find a large number of people follow us on other sites (social media) and we struggle to convert them into registrants for the community. This requires a process of testing different messages until you find the appeal which is most likely to convert a member into an active community participant.

These appeals might include:

  • A specific problem they want to solve.
  • An idea that might help them get even better at what they do.
  • Exclusivity of joining.
  • The group norm of conforming.
  • Something new about the passion they can learn.
  • A chance to build their reputation.

Social traffic includes all traffic which originates from social channels such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+, Pinterest, and others. This isn’t usually a large percentage of your traffic and isn’t worth as much of your time as any of the above methods. The best process here is to share popular community discussions on these sites to drive traffic back to your community efforts and prompting people to share discussions they post on social channels.

Increasing Conversion Rates

This can be divided into three areas:

  1. Improving the number of visitors that click on the registration page.
  2. Improving the number of registration page visitors who become new members.
  3. Improving the number of new members who sign up to become active participants.

Your goal is to try and squeeze a 10% improvement from this process. If you can increase conversion by 3% at each stage, you’re nearly there.

There are several steps you can test to improve each of these:

Visitors to registrations
Registration page visitors to new members
  • Reaffirm the motivation with a quote/case study.
  • Reduce copy required to sign up.
  • Use single sign on.
  • Tweak who the confirmation email appears from.
  • Tweak the confirmation email subject line.
  • Tweak the copy of the confirmation page.
New members to participants
  • Improve the automated messages.
  • Send better direct messages from the community manager.
  • Tweak the welcome / confirmation email.
  • Change the post registration-page.

You can measure each of these in turn to check the number of people that visit, click, and perform the next step.

Your mileage with each test will vary, but the process remains relatively the same.

Increasing the level of participation.

The third big win is to sustainably increase the level of participation from those already actively participating in your community.

This is the process by where you convert participants into regulars and regulars into veterans. This combines self-determination theory with automation.

Specifically you’re looking to:

  • Increase your members’ perceived level of competence within the topic.
  • Increase your members’ perceived level of autonomy within the community.
  • Increase your members’ sense of relatedness to one another.

You can find an overview here.

Increasing sense of competence
  • Creating opportunities to demonstrate skill level.
  • Develop a skill/knowledge training program to increase the skill level.
  • Creating optimal challenges to tackle.
  • Developing recognition systems.
  • Developing achievement systems.
  • Ensuring members feel a sense of progress.
Increasing sense of autonomy
  • Providing choices over their behavior
  • Ensuring they can participate without feeling pressured.
  • Uncovering what members really care about so they can participate authentically.
  • Soliciting opinions of members in how they want to participate.
Increasing sense of relatedness
  • Increasing familiarity with other members.
  • Ensuring members like other members and have close friends in the group.
  • Ensuring members admire the skills and knowledge of other members.
  • Ensuring members connect with the community culture and develop a sense of community.

This works both in your one to one messages as much as any other content.

In your current messages do members feel more competent, autonomous, and better connected to one another? You can perform a touchpoint analysis of every message to check.

Increasing the value of the community.

The final big thing is increasing the value of the community to the organisation.

We covered this last week. This essentially means increasing the retention rates by aligning community behaviors with retention rate activities, increasing the number of customers, improving staff productivity, improving innovation, or making members happier/more informed/better supported (for non-profits).

You can find the full list from last week below:

This is where you would also find activities like improving the quality of discussions or performing tasks more efficiently to reduce costs.


In short, you want to save as much time on possible on work that you can eliminate, automate, or delegate to others. Then you need to focus on your big wins. These big wins will be things that increase the level of traffic, conversion rates, participation levels, or value from activity by more than 10%.

What We Look For When Reviewing A Community

June 23, 2016 Comments Off on What We Look For When Reviewing A Community

My colleague Hawk and I recently launched a weekly breakdown of communities.

If you’re feeling brave, you can submit your community here and we’ll share our thoughts each week. It’s free for you and fun for us.

If you’re not feeling brave, there are some relatively simple things you can check here.

1) The concept. Is it about the brand or based clearly round a problem people know they have, an opportunity they believe exists, or a passion they want to learn more about? Is there any evidence that this is a strong common interest? Are lots of people talking about it elsewhere?

2) The user experience. Is the user experience positive? Is content easy to read? Does it contrast well with the background? Are there long, block, paragraphs? Can the copy easily be scanned? What is the font / font size? Do the CTAs stand out? What is the line length?

3) The CTA. Is there a clear call to action for new visitors and/or existing members? Is this based around solving a problem, seizing an opportunity, learning something interesting, social inclusion (exclusivity)?

4) SEO. What are the title tags/meta description? Is the title tag optimised for what the audience might search for (and less than 60 characters)? Is the meta-description likely to be clicked?

5) Registration form. Does this only ask for the email address, username, and password? Is there any unnecessary copy that could be removed? Is social sign on well implemented? Is the design clear and present? Are there any unnecessary clicks required here?

6) Post-registration page. Are you immediately taken to a page that is likely to drive you to make an immediate post? Do you receive a notification or a special message tailored solely to someone who has just joined? Is it clear what the next immediate action is?

7) Welcome/confirmation message. Does this give you a consistent message to take the next action? Is it clear here what the next step is? What do you want people to do right now? Are there multiple CTAs inserted here?

8) Removing unnecessary/unpopular pages. Are there pages that are rarely visited or have limited content? Can we remove them and condense activity a little further?

9) Topic categories. Are these based around problems that people want to solve, unique passions, or opportunities that people want to seize? Can we combine/merge any of these?

10) Landing page / homepage. Can you easily see what’s new, what’s popular or who’s new and who’s popular? Is there a good menu of discussions to appeal to a broad type of member each time they visit? Is it easy to see the most popular discussions of all time?

11) Priming. Is there any negative or unintentional priming here in choice of words, images or anything else we might want to tweak?

12) Tone of discussions. Is the tone of discussions reflective of the type of community you’re trying to create? Is it fun and sarcastic? Positive and constructive? Serious and substantive? Do most posts and responses reflect that tone of discussions? Are all discussions receiving a good, quick, response?

13) Messages from community manager / Automation messages. Do messages from the community manager feel personalised and unique to me? Are they designed to either build a relationship or get me to take an immediate action? Do they avoid any cliches ‘thank you for joining….’ Does the automated email journal apply a motivational principle to encourage participation? Does it indoctrinate me better into the culture of the community?

14) Newsletter. Is this automated or cultivated? Does it only contain value or does it simply fill spaces regardless of quality? Does the newsletter remind people about the community or increase the perceived value of the community?

15) Social status. Is there a clear sense of community? Do people seem familiar with each other? Do they reference the history of the group? Do they seem emotionally on the same page? Do they have influence over what happens within the group?

16) Brand interaction. Does the brand participate well? Do they respond to discussions about themselves personally and with genuine care? Do they act like real people? Do they solicit opinions? Do they give exclusive information / previews to members first?

17) Integration. Is the community well integrated with the rest of the company? Are discussions clearly linked from various areas of the content. Is the community highly visible?

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but hopefully it’s a few simple things to consider if you review your own community.

If you want us to review it, share the link here.

It’s Time To Focus On Generating A Positive ROI For Your Online Community

Many community professionals are measured and rewarded by their ability to increase activity.

But the gap between activity and value is wide and growing.

The tasks which best boost activity (e.g. controversial discussions, less challenging interactions, and games/quizzes/events) don’t create more value…they just create more activity. You incur extra costs managing that activity.

Thus increasing activity tends to boosts costs more than value.

If we exclude advertising-supported communities, only a tiny percentage of interactions generate anything resembling value. You can see these in the following table:

Online Communities ROI Table

A table showing the ROI of online communities

You might have a community with millions of members participating in thousands of discussions, but how many of those discussions help you?

It’s probably not many, but we can increase that number.

Increasing Valuable Behaviors

Let’s imagine your goal is customer retention (for example).

What is likely to lead to retention?

Loyalty? Yes, but what causes loyalty? Three things stand out:

1) Perception of brand value compared with competitors. This is when you sincerely believe the company’s products/services are better. To increase this members would need to ask questions in the community and receive good, quick, responses from the brand. They would need to read and accept information about the brand’s products/services. Those are two very specific behaviors (asking questions and reading information)

2) Acceptance and attachment to the brand group identity. This is when you believe in the company’s mission and feel close bonds with other customers. For this to happen members need to make genuine friends and connections with other members. That means personally getting to know other people. Specifically this means introducing themselves to other members, having private discussions, and disclosing personal information about themselves. Again these are 3 specific, distinct, behaviors.

3) Switching costs. If you lose something tangible or intangible by switching, you’re less likely to switch. They would have to answer questions to earn points or status which afford them discounts on the product or credibility among the group.

Now we have 6 very specific behaviors which we can measure and try to encourage to increase retention rates.

  • Ask questions about the products.
  • Read information about the products/services (and mission)
  • Introduce themselves to others.
  • Participate in private discussions.
  • Reveal personal details to others.
  • Answer questions to build credibility.

This doesn’t mean we need to stop members broadly doing what they want.

It does mean we need to focus on also persuading members to perform the behaviors that generate value.

Changing Behavior

There are four key tools to change members behavior.

1) Building social norms around those behaviors.

2) Persuading members of the value of those behaviors.

3) Simplifying the behaviors you want members to make.

4) Better rewarding these behaviors.

Let’s take just one behavior, asking questions about the product.

How can we proactively encourage members to do more of that?

At the moment, members don’t do it for many reasons. They can’t think of questions to ask, they’re worried what others might think of them, or they don’t see the benefit of doing that.

Let’s use the norms, persuading, simplifying, and rewarding framework here:

table 2

These are all relatively simple ideas for just one single behavior you want to encourage. You might do some of these by accident already, but imagine how powerful it would be to deliberately plan activities around these sorts of behaviors.

You could do the same for another behavior, perhaps introducing themselves to others.

table 3

You came come up with far better ideas I’m sure, but the framework should help.

The goal is to be deliberate in getting more members to perform the behaviors which deliver the value you need.

If your goal is activity, that’s easy enough to do. But you will only end up increasing the cost without seeing results. If your goal is value (which it should be) you need to take a different approach.

Look at the table above. Decide the behaviors you need members to perform. Then persuade members (emotively) to perform those behaviors, build social norms around those behaviors, simplify these behaviors, and reward those behaviors.

Solving Major Problems In Online Communities

June 5, 2016 Comments Off on Solving Major Problems In Online Communities

Olivier has an interesting question about community board structure.

How do you simplify 300 boards spread across 100 products in 9 languages developed over 15 years?

One solution is to distinguish the good boards from the bad ones. Define what makes a healthy board. Archive the unhealthy boards. Identify your members’ core needs today. Restructure the community categories around those needs. Build categories around clear use cases instead of legacy products that age and die.

The missing problem here is the problem. What problem is this trying to solve?

If you’re going to embark upon a massive restructure of a platform, disrupt every member’s learned behavior, and spend a huge amount of time and money, you better be darn sure you have a clear problem you’re trying to tackle.

And you can’t have a clear problem without a hypothesis. Thus a better approach is to begin with that testable hypothesis.

1) Begin with a testable hypothesis

Let’s begin with a list of possible problems here.

a) Members can’t find what they’re looking for and leave.

b) So much thin content is hurting search traffic.

c) The engagement rates of members is lower as discussions are spread across so many places.

d) So many discussions overwhelms newcomers and hurts the newcomer to regular conversion ratio.

Each one of these is a falsifiable hypothesis. You can prove it false. This is where you should begin with any major community activity.

2) Look for evidence that supports and refutes the problem

You can then begin looking for evidence that both supports and refutes the hypothesis.

  • Members can’t find what they’re looking forUse Google Analytics, exit surveys, and member interviews to tell you if this is true. Look carefully at the bounce rate and the % of members who say they couldn’t find what they were looking for. If the % is >10%, you might have a clear problem to solve.
  • Thin content is hurting search trafficTools like SEMRush, Moz, and Google analytics can give you a good idea if your search rankings are dropping for key terms as activity becomes increasingly disparate and duplicated.
  • Low social density is hurting engagementYou can run a small trial with one product to see if concentrating discussions significantly increases engagement from active members. Benchmark the increase against other forums over the same period and you might have an answer.
  • Bad newcomer to conversion ratioYou can study the newcomer to regular conversion journey and identify where people are dropping out. Do they visit but not register? Do they register but not participate? Do they participate and not stick around? Cross-reference this with how long they spend on the page (i.e. did they get their answer) and you have a pretty good idea of what’s causing people to vanish.

Remember here that unless we also look for evidence which refutes the hypothesis, we’ll inevitably prove it true. You’re bound to find the 1 person in 100 that supports your viewpoint if you ignore the other 100. Make your assumption on the balance of evidence.

3) What is the best way to solve the problem?

This is the part we really screw up. Because we’ve begun with the platform question, we only see platform solutions. But if one of the above problems does exist, we need to identify the best solution to that problem.

This tip could save thousands of organisations millions of dollars on expensive platform migrations and redesigns.

Changing the entire board structure might be the best way to tackle the above challenge. But I doubt it. I think there are better ways to tackle the above problems than disrupting everyone with a new structure.

Consider, for example,

  • Help members find what they’re looking forUse search data, surveys, and interviews with members to identify the 20% of topics which generate 80% of the discussions/requests. You can then feature these discussions more prominently within each category, create eBooks around these topics, or send them to newcomers in the community. Which do you feel will have the biggest long-term impact upon your community?
  • Increasing search trafficYou could simply remove articles/discussions which don’t attract any search traffic at all. Or you might instead try to plan discussions, activities, and content around the key things people search for. You might simplify or combine existing discussions into single definitive discussions for each topic.
  • Increasing engagement rateNotice the problem with this goal? It’s not specific. Do we mean increase the number of active members? Increasing the level of activity per active member? Let’s get more specific, how about we decide to get existing members participating more. We might go for some big wins, like having major VIP interviews, handing over more control to members, or host a major event to drive more activity.
  • Improve newcomer to regular conversion ratesRevamping the boards might help, but I suspect that getting the right automation journey, personal welcomes, and build giving members an early sense of competence, autonomy, or relatedness will have a much bigger impact.

I could easily be wide of the mark here and changing the board structure might be the solution. But given how quick, cheap, and non-disruptive it is to implement most of the above solutions, I’d certainly test them out before embarking on a huge, expensive, project which is likely to upset a lot of members.

Before you do something this big, this expensive, and something that disrupts the community for every single member you want to be dead clear about the goal and exhaust the other methods to achieve that goal here first.

There are countless organisations whom have invested vast sums of time and money into major revamps and not seen any impact. I’m tired of hearing about them. Usually they don’t know what goal they were trying to hit in the first place.

Believe me, it’s much easier to hit the target once you know where it is.

Plan 3 Month’s Of Community Activities In 10 Minutes

Too many people are guessing what discussion, item of content, or activity to work on next.

You don’t need to guess in 2016.

Let Google guide you. Google knows more than you about your audience. You can do 10 minutes of research and put together a big list of discussions to initiate, content to create, and activities to host.

Step 1: Enter the Basic Topic Search Terms Into Google

Let’s imagine you want to build a community about surfing.

That’s quite a broad topic with a lot of competitors. So you might slice a niche for yourself…perhaps surfboards…and decide to build a community around this concept.

You need to figure out what audience to target (beginners, experts?) with what format of content (guides, blogs, pdfs, videos, images?), and what type of content (discussions, news, resources etc..).

Our first step would be to put surfboards into Google and look carefully at what comes up:


Note: Answerthepublic is also a useful site for relevant questions.

What do you notice here? Knowing where to buy a surfboard takes a lot of the top places, but the other categories (images and news) are really interesting.

This gives you some immediate discussion ideas for the community.

Discussion ideas based upon first search

  • Where did you buy your surfboard from? And would you buy from there again?
  • The ultimate surfboard photo thread – share your board!
  • Your favourite surfboard design (share photos!)
  • Do you think ‘competitor’s board’ helped ‘competitor’ ?

This feeds into other activities too. You might invite a top design expert for an interview, interview someone close to the competitor to ask about their board etc..But these questions are still far too vague for our liking.

While this is better than what 90% of community professionals do, you can still do much better by diving slightly deeper.

We want our discussions and content to be as specific as possible. So let’s look at the related searches.

Step 2: Using Related Searches To Get Specific Discussion Questions, Content, And Ideas for Activities

If we scroll to the bottom of the page, we see this:


This is really useful information!

While some of this audience wants to know where to buy them, a large number clearly want cheap surfboards, others want to know how to get the right size surfboards for them.

We can also see ‘beginners’ ranks highly here.

If we click on ‘beginners surfboard’ we soon see the exact terms and questions people ask to help us refine our discussions:


Step 3: Compile Unique Segments and Engagement Activities For Each

We can probably see 3 distinct types of beginners here.

  1. Beginners who only want the cheapest surfboards.
  2. Beginners who want to know the best surfboards for beginners.
  3. Beginners who want the best surfboards possible (cash-rich beginners!)

If you like, you could dig further into each of these.

For now, however, we can begin to create a few categories and drop the discussions, content, and activities into relevant places.

For example:

(click here for full image)

Audience Discussions Content Activities
Beginners who want cheap surfboards What is the least you would spend on a surfboard?
Where did you buy your surfboard from? Would you recommend it?
Selling your surfboard? – post it here.
How to negotiate a great surfboard deal
Survey results – how much members would spend on their first surfboards today
Surfboard price list – get the latest prices that members paid for their boards
#surfboardgraduation day. Sell your old surfboard to a newcomer today.
Interview with a surfboard scout – how Joe Smith got an [xyz] surfboard for $350!
Beginners who have money (but not knowledge) to buy the best surfboards If you could have any surfboard you want, what would it be?
Can beginners custom-design a surfboard?
What size surfboard should I get if….
Just bought your first board? Share the picture here..
The top 5 surfboards as voted by you.
And the surfboard brand of the year is…
5 Members describe their dream surfboard if price wasn’t a factor
ASK the experts: What surfboard would you buy for … ?
AMA with a surfboard manufacturer – get tips and tricks to get the best surfboard
Beginners who want to know how to be good beginners What advice would you give to a newbie buying his first surfboard?
What size surfboard should I get if….*
What board are you thinking of buying? Get advice from experts.
Should all newcomers begin by using foam surfboards?
What was your first surfboard and why?
What our top 10 members wish they knew when they bought their first board.
What’s changed about surfboards in the past 3 years?
15 warning signs of bad surfboards.
Surfboarding for beginners induction. Join our monthly live discussion to help newcomers get the best boards for them!

*there’s some natural overlap in these.

This is all activity to target to increase engagement among a specific segment with a unique need you can satisfy.

But beginners was just one of the key stakeholders interested in surfboards, now consider which other segment of surfers might have a unique interests in surfboards?

Step 4: Research The Second Biggest Segment

If we go back to the first results, we noticed that images ranked second.

Clearly images are important to a big segment of the audience…but who is this audience and what do they want?

If we click on images, we notice that design is the number one result….

Surfboards.003 (1)

We can probably assume that designing surfboards and customising surfboards is a big segment (we probably all knew this already, but the process matters).

We can also safely assume two things here.

  1. There is a group of surfers who love to customise their own boards.
  2. This group loves sharing images of customised boards.

We can infer that their motivations are impressing each other (why else share the images?)

Let’s do a proper search for terms like surfboard design and customising surfboards to see what comes up…



We can assume that the average level of knowledge of this group is quite low (note: the danger of this process is always appealing to the newcomers/beginners who are most likely to search for knowledge).

Now we have a good list of potential engagement topics:

  • Basic knowledge & discussion of the basics.
  • Theory of surfboard designs.
  • Sharing your design.
  • Findings and seeing the designs of others.
  • Video guides on designing surfboards
  • Get to know the big names in surfboard design.
  • Learn the software involved in design.

We can start to make some further educated guesses about the different groups here:

1. Design beginners. They need to know the basics. What software to use, how to design, what products to use, what’s in style etc.

2. Design experts who want to impress others. They want to take images of their boards, share images, and build their reputation.

3. Performance enthusiasts. They care less about aesthetics and more about how the design affects the performance. They want to get every edge for the top performance.

You can drill deeper into any of these if you like to get more specific questions and discussion topics.

For example, if we dig deeper into surfboard design theory we find:


Now we have 8 potential topics we can initiate discussions (within design theory alone) and create content around which we know are going to be useful to a large number of this audience.

We’ve also discovered a potential competitor term to our own community efforts (shaping forums)..

Likewise, if we dig deeper into surfboard anatomy (for the performance enthusiasts) we find:


I haven’t surfed, but Dave Parmenter might be a good person to interview.

Discussions about fish foot boards might be interesting, discussions on insight surfboards and rails would also be quite popular.

Once again, we can start making educated guesses about what each of our 3 new audiences might want here:

(click here for full image)

Audience Discussions Content Activities
Beginners designing their first surfboards What is the least you would spend on a surfboard?
What colours fade and which colours last for life?
Where can you buy a blank board to design?
How did you pick a design for your board?
The ultimate list of resources to design your first surfboard.
The basics of design theory. Avoid embarrassing mistakes in your surfboard design.
Five enduringly cool surfboard designs
Hands on workshop – our expert will guide you through designing your first surfboard
Correct your mistakes. Join our team in a live panel discussion to help you correct those design errors.
Design experts who want to impress others Who’s your favourite surfboard design expert?
Favourite surfboard design of all time…go!
What design would you love to create but can’t?
Struggling with a design? Post it here and get feedback.
Should you be culturally sensitive in your design?
Which designs for which location?
Most embarrassing design mistake…anyone?
The best designs from our Instagram this month.
Nominate your favourite design from these favourites.
What’s trendy in design today?
The story behind ‘xyz’ design (background, templates, and resources to use)
Design of the month competition.
Interview with the design of the month winner (how he selected, designed, and created this month’s top design)
AMA with the world’s top surfboard designer
Performance enthusiasts Is your board salvageable? Post pictures to get feedback.
How to solve the ‘xyz’ problem?
What is the most innovative design change you’ve seen this week?
Lift vs. drag – which do you prefer?
Speed benefits from fish foot surfboards?
Repairs a surfboard
How [person] created the [innovative performance] surfboard.
15 warning signs of bad surfboards.
LIVE DEBATE: [xyz] surfboard vs. [xyz] surfboard…which gives you the cutting edge?

You can design a much better table than this I’m sure.  

Now we have 2 core segments (beginners and designers) each comprising of three distinct groups of people we can target with dozens of messages, content, and activities

…and we’ve only been researching potential engagement activities for 10 minutes!

Step 5: Project Planning

From here you can begin eliminating groups you don’t want to target, focusing on the activities you feel will get the best return and start delegating who is going to do which of these (and when).  

This could easily be 3 months of community activity all mapped out.

What we’ve done today is to give you a really simple process to begin developing your engagement activity in a community.

You can use this to drive activity in an existing community (cater to new segments) or launching a new community (or sub-group).

In practice you probably want to supplement your research with interviews, surveys, studies of existing communities in the sector and similar communities. This helps you overcome the focus on beginner problem. Test relevant search terms, explore, see what comes up and use that within your community.

You should be amazed at just how quickly you can put together 3 month’s of activity on any topic you like.

Also see:

p.s. Workshop in New York next week, sign up here if you want to use psychology to build better communities.


What’s Missing In Moderation?

May 23, 2016 Comments Off on What’s Missing In Moderation?

If you want a less inclusive debate, let the diehards dominate it.

Soon everyone with a moderate view is a ‘sympathiser/traitor/idiot’ and ‘doesn’t get it’.

Those with opposing views are bullied out of the discussion altogether.

The diehards win because others simply don’t care enough to keep going (hence why they’re not diehards).

Get a group of people with a moderate view together and the most popular members will be those who can express the most extreme form of that view.

Moderators are trained to remove posts and people which violate rules which can be written. They’re rarely trained to spot and tackle diehards who break unwritten rules.

They don’t remove members who violate codes of conduct which can’t be easily transcribed. They’re so rarely trained to stick up and encourage a minority view to have a more inclusive debate.

If you catch members making huge assertions (‘x’ is dead/ ‘x’ is the future) without referencing evidence, you have a diehard problem.

If you spot any variation of the phrase ‘s/he doesn’t get it’, you have a diehard problem.

If you see a discussion which began with opposing viewpoints and is now dwindling into a tiny minority of people discussing the small differences between extreme versions of that viewpoint, you’ve got a diehard problem.

If moderation is about moderation it needs to not just remove the rule breakers but prevent the extreme view drowning out the less engaged or interested moderate view through sheer force of self-assertion.

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