Why Most Communities Suffer From Positioning Problems (and how to solve it)
How To Find The Right Positioning For Your Community
Many problems which communities face are positioning problems.
A prototypical example would be something like this:
You come up with the idea to launch (or grow) a community. You research what members want and they tell you they want a place where they can ask questions and learn more about the topic. So you select a platform that lets you do it, add in some content, start some questions on the very topics you know members are interested in, and wait for activity to grow.
If you’re lucky, you might get some activity. But often you might struggle. Over time you might find that engagement starts to decline and you’re not sure why.
The problem isn’t that members don’t want the value your community can offer. The problem is they can get it elsewhere.
Plotting Community Value
If you’re looking for help from a company, where do you turn to first? You might search on Google, visit the documentation, contact support, ask on social media, or ask friends.
We can plot these in a matrix below:
If convenience and getting answers from a trusted source matters most to you, documentation makes the most sense.
If your problem needs more personal attention and you want it from a trusted source, then you can contact customer support for help.
If you want a convenient solution from others, then you might ask on social media (channels you already use every day).
If you want personalised help from others, you can ask friends/colleagues you know.
Why would you visit a community for any of this?
The Danger Of The Squeeze
Too many communities fail to find the positioning that would let them thrive. They are positioned upon land already occupied by bigger and better substitutes.
Worse yet for community builders. These substitutes are often expanding. Not too long ago, contacting support meant picking up a phone, calling a number, and waiting for an undetermined amount of time for someone to answer.
By comparison, a community was (and in many cases still is) a blessing. You could ask your question in minutes and then get on with the rest of your day while the answers rolled in.
But now we know customer support has improved massively. We have chatbots, virtual agents, gig-workers (people paid per question they answer), in-app diagnostic tools, cognitive search solutions, improved documentation, and even support delivered by social media. There are even rival communities now on Reddit, StackExchange, and other sites where people can ask questions and get help.
Why post a question to a community when you can get support through any of these substitutes?
If all you’re offering is another place for people to ask questions and get help, you’re facing imminent danger of being squeezed.
(Re)Discovering Your Positioning
Positioning, to quote the famous book, is the place you occupy in the mind of your audience.
People are generally not attentive enough to remember every feature you offer. Instead, they tend to associate any organisation, object, etc with a single positioning.
You need to associate your community with specific attributes your audience really values. As we will explore in a second, you get to pick two.
This isn’t a comprehensive list. Feel free to add your own. The key takeaway here is there are many unique attributes you can target for your community.
You can be an exclusive community for a specific audience. You can be a community for serious discussions. You can be a community for beginners just getting started. You can be a community with the quickest response to questions etc…
While you get to pick two, don’t pick attributes at opposite ends of the same scale. You can’t be the most exclusive and most diverse community. You can’t be the most serious and most fun community.
Which Attributes Should You pick?
Let’s go through a simple example here.
It should go without saying that this isn’t guesswork. You shouldn’t be sitting in a dark room deciding what your members want. You should be asking them what they want. Most importantly, you should force them to prioritise what they want.
Interviews and surveys are great tools. You can find some template survey questions here.
Here is a client example below:
As we can see, two key factors stand out above the rest. These are the quality of information (i.e. how reliable and well presented it is) and how personalised it is to the needs of the recipient.
The next step is to plot this out and check the positioning.
Checking Your Positioning
In this process, we put the two values on a continuous axis and look to see how the community might compare against likely substitutes.
If you have data, you can plug the data into a Google Spreadsheet/Excel Bubble chart. If not, you can make a good, subjective, estimate as we have below:
There is clearly a substitute (customer support) that does both of these things better than a community. The community will never be able to match the quality or personalisation of customer support.
It’s ok if a substitute beats the community on one more, but if a substitute is better than a community on both measures, it would be ideal for customers to simply use that substitute.
In short, on this positioning, you’re going to get squeezed.
This means we need to pick a different positioning for the community.
The easiest way to do this, as we can see above, is to move to the next item on the list; convenience.
Once we change the axis to focus on convenience, we can see a different positioning beginning to take shape:
Once again we can see the customer support and documentation are more trustworthy than a community, but they’re not more convenient than asking a community for help.
Likewise, social media and a subreddit is more convenient, but they’re definitely not more trustworthy (although you could argue tweeting @ brand is more trustworthy and convenient).
This means we have a unique positioning; one that even allows the community to grow and expand over time.
But just because we have a unique positioning doesn’t mean it’s the best positioning.
Let’s try one more example and swap ‘personalisation’ with ‘speed’ and see what happens.
Now we can see that documentation beats community on both scales. It’s usually quicker to get answers to questions via existing documentation and the documentation is usually more trustworthy.
How Big A Threat Is The Substitute?
But this is where the 3rd axis (the size of the bubble) matters.
Documentation, for example, is great for dealing with common issues, but it’s not great for dealing with edge cases, unusual questions, and questions where members don’t quite know the right language or terminology to search for.
If a substitute is small and unlikely to expand much, we might well decide it’s worth occupying a similar territory (and squeezing that out). The key question here is to see it from the member’s perspective.
Community might be able to handle more volume than support, but from the member’s perspective it may always be better to call support. But documentation might not have the answer (or members might not be able to find the answer). This might make the community a priority for members.
What Is The Perfect Positioning?
The challenge when developing a community today is to find a unique positioning that:
a) Your audience really values.
b) Can’t be matched by any substitute.
c) Gives your community ample room for growth.
This is what makes your community not just a priority, but even indispensable to your members.
Ideally, you want something like this:
A Case Study – Scientific Community
We were recently hired to build a community for scientists in a particular field.
Our research showed they already had a lot of places where they could engage with one another. They had monthly webinars, industry dinners, academic conferences, a big rival community covering lots of topics, an existing mailing list, and could even learn from academic journals.
It seemed at first it would be almost impossible to find a unique position for our audience.
But our research also showed how they felt about those places (‘cold’, ‘boring’, ‘hard to have a serious discussion’, ‘too many silly fights’).
Based upon our research, we picked two axes; friendliness and exclusivity, and plotted out the competition below:
Clearly, asking friends for help and industry dinners were friendlier and more exclusive. But they were only being hosted annually at best. Our community would be a daily activity.
When we launched the community, we focused heavily on having an exclusive, but friendly, atmosphere. it quickly reached a critical mass of activity and continues to facilitate a good level of discussion amongst an elite crowd.
Examples of Positioning Statements
Now we can craft everything we’ve covered so far into a positioning statement.
This statement defines who the community is for, what will do, what value they get from it, and why it is the best place to get that value.
Or, as you can see in the example below, it typically includes a superlative, audience, verb, and value.
You change the structure as much as you need, but try to keep all these elements in there.
Examples of Community Positioning Statements
“The most exclusive place for engineers to exchange ideas. “
“Discuss the most cutting edge developments in engineering with top experts.”
“The quickest way for customers to get help with product problems.”
“A place for beginners to ask questions and get the friendliest answers.”
“The most convenient way for teachers to find and share the templates they need.”
The more precise you can be, the better the outcome.
A quick aside, try to avoid using the words ‘biggest’ or ‘best’ here. These words are meaningless unless you can translate them into specific value your audience really cares about.
Everyone thinks they’re the best and biggest is only a benefit if it helps members access more answers, get more responses, quicker responses etc…
Making Your Community Unique
You should know that a positioning statement isn’t just a semantic exercise. It defines the entire unique purpose of your community. It is the edge/boundary that you continually push towards to become bigger.
The unique superlative you pursue (i.e. the edge which makes your community the ‘best’ for your audience), will define your overriding strategy.
The difference between pursuing speed, convenience, friendliness, and trustworthiness is huge.
You can see this in the table below:
Depending upon the unique positioning of your community, you should be approaching your community in a completely different way.
Once you know which positioning you’re going to pursue, you can start drawing up a list of tactics that will ensure you are delivering on that positioning year after year.
How Do You Know If You Have The Right Positioning?
I’d guess around 75% of the projects I’ve worked on suffer from positioning problems. Often they don’t even know it. They think a lack of engagement (or whatever metric matters to them) reflects a failure to successfully execute tactics (or they blame the technology).
You can find a full webinar we did on positioning here:
But the biggest wins always come at the strategic level. They always come at the point of positioning your community to deliver unique benefits which your audience urgently desires.
Much of the community consultancy work we do is doing a huge amount of research and testing to get the positioning right. Because once the positioning is right, you know exactly what to focus on and have a community primed to thrive.
If your community isn’t as successful as you want it to be, you probably have a positioning problem. Fortunately, this is a problem you can hopefully now solve.