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Solving Major Problems In Online Communities

Richard Millington
Richard Millington

Founder of FeverBee

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.

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