How To Optimize An Online Community Platform

Optimizing the platform (the user experience) is part of the community manager's role which tends to get overlooked. Once it's developed, most people leave it. 

It should be an ongoing process. The goal is to increase the number of interactions which take place in the platform. This is a process which can be continually refined. 

There are some guiding principles for this:

Guiding principles for optimizing the user experience

  1. Refine the most used features. Don't spent too much time developing features members wont use. Refine the most used features. Small refinements on discussion boards, notifications, layout/design, and profiles yield better results than adding new features.
  2. Look for things to remove, not things to add. It's usually better to remove things (text, elements that aren't used, pages with low traffic). If you begin with the goal of figuring what to add, you'll never optimize the site (and waste a lot of time/money). Keep a high social density
  3. Highlight the popular stuff. Rank things by popularity. Put the most popular forum discussions first. List the most popular pages nearer the top. Shine attention on the most popular things. The more you can highlight what's popular, the more activity you will get. 
  4. Respond to what members do, not what they say. Members say many crazy things. Much of which can be ignored. Focus upon what they do. If they don't like something, they wont use it. If you ask members what they want, use it for inspiration – don't let them vote. 
  5. Test & measure. This is a process. You wont get it right first time. You will get it right over time. Benchmark, change, and measure. The more data points you collect, the more accurate you will be. So comparing one day against the previous day isn't good. Comparing the same day one week against a similar day the next. But it's better to compare weeks and months against each other. Just be careful. November will trump December. Summer months are usually a little less active. Just be sure to measure like for like.

A few practical ideas for optimizing the user experience

Within these principles, what can you do? Quite a lot. 

  • Notifications. Tweak the notifications. These affect every member. Shorten the message, change the text, tweak the subject line, change the 'from' field. Try provoking curiosity. Test, measure and assess. Over a period of time you should be able to optimize these. 
  • Landing page. Ensure the latest activity is above the fold. Tweak what you use. Typically 'latest activity' is filled with friend requests, comments on profiles and other boring information. Try displaying the latest discussions instead. Ensure upcoming events are listed above the fold.
  • Tone of copy. Try tinkering with the copy. Remove out the redundant words. Use shorter sentences. Remove entire paragraphs when the information is easier conveyed in other ways. Also try changing the tone, make it more/less formal, more/less funny, add more personality.
  • Remove blogging. This isn’t true for every site but many would benefit from removing the blogging feature for members (groups too). In most communities, few people use it. Disable as many features as possible to concentrate activity.
  • Change the colours/design. Make small, tiny, tweaks in the colour and design of the platform. Try using a smaller number of colours. Ensure you follow consistent design principles.
  • Show unanswered posts. Have an option to show the unanswered posts on the community-landing page. Encourage members to answer these especially tough questions. Make it a challenge.
  • Reduce the information requited to register. Reduce the information required at sign-up to just a single page (ideally asking for the e-mail and password. Members can fill in the rest of the information later. Try using an application form instead.
  • Remove threading (or add single-threading). Classic example of a small, potentially important, optimization; change how the discussions appear in the community. Consider removing deep-threaded discussions (or removing it to one-thread deep).
  • Integration. Improve the integration with social media platforms. Have popular discussions posted to followers on FB/Twitter/G+ with a question and a link to where they can participate. Ensure tweets mentioning the topic appear on the community site.
  • Automation. Automatically deactivate inactive member accounts (with a reminder), welcome new members with a responsive series of e-mails that reflects their action {after your 5th post we recommend you …}. Improve the feature to retrieve lost passwords. Congratulation members on milestones achieved. Close old discussions after 3 months.
  • Reputation. If the community has been going for a while, consider embracing a reputation system. A reputation system encourages people to actively share what they know to increase or maintain their reputation within the community. We cover this in great depth as part of the course.
  • Member profiles. Ask more interesting questions in the profile page. Where were you when you heard Michael Jackson died? (or something more relevant to the community topic. Ask questions that other members will be keen to click on the profile to find out the answer. Have a funny default image until members change it.
  • FAQ. Add the most common questions in the FAQ. This doesn’t just have to be about the site, or the community’s history, but about the common questions people have about the topic. Make this an incredibly useful document that people want to read.
  • Go mobile, maybe. You might also consider a mobile version of the site. Only consider a mobile version if it will increase the amount of activity on the platform from mobile users. If mobile users are still participating as much as regulars, this might not be the case.

The best way to identify things that might work in your community, is to look at other top community platforms and see what they have done.
 
However, be careful. Community platforms evolve. A community should launch with relatively few features and gradually expand from there. The community you’re imitating must be in the same stage of the lifecycle as you.
 
Finally, remember that optimizing the platform is an on-going process, not a one-time event. Prioritize which elements you’re going to optimize (perhaps one a month), and gradually test to see what works best. Dedicate a certain amount of time to it (perhaps 5 hours a month?) and schedule when optimization will be undertaken (I like Friday afternoons).

Some examples of platform I like include:

These platforms aren't the prettiest, but they're very effective at facilitating interactions between members. This is the sole goal of community platforms. 


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