In Build Your Community, I spend a lot of time talking about how we can improve our core engagement skills.
In this post, I want to share what these skills look like at a very practical level.
Being a community manager is a little like being a racing car driver. It helps to have an amazing team and technology around you, but eventually, everything hangs upon you and your skillset.
In a community, the success of projects often costing thousands, even millions, of dollars depends upon your abilities to effectively engage their members.
Engagement Skills Are Undervalued (even by community professionals)
If you’re a computer programmer, you would expect your skills to be tested when applying for a job.
In the community space that doesn’t happen. Most jobs simply try to make sure the community manager has been involved in a successful community at some point. The actual core skills of engaging members are never tested (or even inspected).
That’s likely because most companies aren’t even sure what community skills are. Many job descriptions might ask for someone to be a ‘good communicator’, but it’s never specified what ‘good’ means here.
Typically, it implies an applicant can write content in a coherent way and without making too many spelling and grammar mistakes. But these aren’t good community skills, they’re just basic writing skills.
Even community professionals struggle to identify the ‘skill’ bit of their work. Sure we host events, create content, initiate discussions etc…but what is the skill we have developed and refined which we can do better than people who don’t work in the field?
If we can’t identify the unique ‘skill’ in community building, we can’t identify ways to improve it. Instead, we accumulate knowledge. This is like learning to become a public speaker by reading books on public speaking. There’s some useful stuff in there, but eventually, you need to practice and improve your abilities.
What Is The Skill In Community Building?
Let’s be clear about the specific ‘skill’ in community skills.
The skill in community engagement is to consistently persuade members to make great contributions to the community.
This skill will be reflected in everything you do. It works at both the group level and at the individual level. It works internally and externally. It works for the engagement skills we do every day and those we do rarely. It works in every engagement we have with an audience through whatever channel we use.
You can see a breakdown of some of the most common below:
Now we know what the ‘skill’ in community building is and the types of engagements we have, we can review almost any community and see how good most engagement skills are today.
How Good Are Your Engagement Skills? (a simple test)
In our training courses, we often invite people to assess how good they are at engaging members on a scale of 1 to 5. Most people give themselves a 4.
Then we begin reviewing their past five contributions to the community using a scale we’ve developed and seeing how they do.
Many responses are short and abrupt. A large number lack empathy and feel rushed. A few are incredibly patronising.
When we sample the past few responses, we typically find the scores are closer to 2 to 3.
Over the past decade (and having reviewed thousands of community contributions), it’s clear most community professionals are nowhere near as good at engagement as they think they are.
Ironically, while most people would agree that public speaking or copywriting are skills that people can improve through practicing key techniques, engagement skills are still seen as something ‘anyone can do well’.
And that’s somewhat true, but only with a good level of knowledge and some practice.
Upgrading Our Community Skillset
Let’s go through a few examples.
Notice the direct tone and harsh language in the responses on the right compared with our suggested responses on the left.
Here’s another example:
The responses on the right aren’t terrible but they’re nowhere near the level they could be. They don’t invite further debate, they don’t show a meaningful level of empathy. They don’t make the participant feel better about themselves.
Even if you’re not likely to turn that member into a superuser, they can still be improved by applying some very basic principles of engagement.
Now let’s compare this with a great example below from Colleen Young at the Mayo Clinic.
At face value it’s easy to see this post and think ‘so what?’
It doesn’t seem especially complex. However, there’s a range of things happening here when we explore it in detail below.
Notice almost all the elements are present in this:
1) Personalization to the member. Colleen has referenced the specific details of the questions and @mentioned the member by name.
2) Friendly. The language is optimistic and informal – she’s also added a personal welcome.
3) Knowledge. She’s invited in contributions from others (which also makes them feel like experts). She’s also provided a link to useful information.
4) Resolution. She’s asked for an update from the member and wants to make sure she helped.
The response is almost flawless. And Colleen has done this over 7,000 times for the Mayo Clinic. This is the difference a skilled community manager can make.
Community Support Isn’t Customer Support
A quick aside here. Community isn’t customer support (even when it’s owned by customer support). You might have the same goal (answering as many customer questions as possible) but the methodology differs in an important way.
In a community channel you want members to help answer questions. That’s how it scales. This means giving someone an answer isn’t good enough. You have to make them feel they can make unique, useful, contributions to the community too. The better the community makes them feel, the more likely they are to return and visit again.
Compare two examples from the same company below:
The answers on the left are customer support responses. The person receiving these responses might get an answer but they will probably never come back and participate in the community.
The person receiving responses from Phoebe on the right is very likely to engage in the community again. Looking at her short response, all of the core components are in there (friendliness, personalization, knowledge etc…).
The Impact Of Great Community Skills
If we look at the graph below, we can see clearly how important community skills really are. Since hiring Colleen Young, the entire community at Mayo Clinic Connect has gone from a ghost town to a thriving hub of activity.
Don’t Just Acquire More Knowledge, Improve Your Skills
We can all agree that all the books about comedy or public speaking in the world won’t turn you into a world-class comedian or public speaker.
At some point you need to get out there, test what you’ve learnt, and improve your ability to do it. The same is true with engagement skills too.
If you were a comedian, you know if a joke is landed by how many laughs you’re getting. You can tell if you’re an engaging public speaker by how many people are looking at you versus their phones.
And in communities we can tell how engaging we are by how many members reply and keep participating in the community. Yet most of the time we ignore this feedback and simply move on to the next discussion (and then the next and the next).
A few people turn up to our courses frustrated by the lack of members engaging in their communities (or their inability to get members to stick around). The majority have never actually looked at whether members who they replied to are continuing to engage in the community or not.
Most community professionals receive great amazing feedback every day and ignore it.
If you bring up a list of your responses from a month ago, you can literally see if the person replied or engaged in the community again. Then you can look at your message to them, see what you might want to adjust, and try for future members.
Not every word or idea works for every audience, but over time you can refine your approach and the way you connect with members. But you have to take the effort to do it.
Every Interaction Matters
While we have focused on replying to posts here, this applies to every interaction you have with members. The same principles apply when you’re replying to direct messages, emails about forgotten passwords or helping members wanting to change usernames. It also applies when you’re reaching out to top members and inviting them to make great contributions to your community.
Every interaction is a unique opportunity to help deeper engage the members within your community by making them feel they can make unique, useful, contributions.
The other skill here is being able to do this consistently. It’s easy to use a template example like those above and respond to a few members better in your next few posts. It’s far more difficult to do it in every interaction. Especially when you’re having a bad day. But the more you practice doing it, the easier it becomes.
Once it becomes a habit, it won’t matter what kind of day you’re having.
Get the book
If you want to learn more about upgrading your community skills, buy my new book.