Reviving A Struggling Online Community

I’d estimate around 90% of community problems we see are concept problems.

This means the very idea for a community you begin with wasn’t strong enough.

Alas, it might not be your fault, but it’s now your responsibility to deal with it.

The problem is a weak community idea can survive for a really long time on a handful of posts a day. It can be propped up by staff members creating dozens of posts per day to give the illusion of activity. It can be given spasms of promotion in the desperate hope that if it reaches just enough members everything will be ok.

But adding more members to a weak community idea won’t work, you need to completely relaunch or revamp the community.

In this post, I’m going to try and guide you through what our consultancy process looks like here using case studies and templates.

(Note: If you run a customer support community, you can skip this post entirely. Many of these principles will be different).

 

The Honest Appraisal

By far the hardest part here is being honest with yourself and the people running the community.

On the (rare) occasions we fail, we fail because we can’t get people to be honest with themselves and their company about the true state of the community.

A failing community is like a bad business. A bad business locks up capital which could be deployed elsewhere. A bad community locks up people who could be better engaged and active elsewhere. It’s also highly damaging for your career.

Your community concept is probably wrong if you match any of the following:

  • After a few months you’re still initiating and responding to most of the discussions.
  • Very few members stick around.
  • You have a dozen posts a day or less.
  • Very few people seem excited by the idea of the community.
  • Word of mouth isn’t spreading and bringing in more people.
  • The level of growth and activity isn’t increasing, yet you haven’t reached critical mass.

There are some exceptions here, but you’re probably not one of them.

Please don’t waste your career, your members’ potential, and your company’s resources propping up a bad community indefinitely. Be honest and do a proper revamp. Take the hard decisions you need to take.

Quick Case Study: Health Meets Wealth

One example might come from the Health meets Wealth community. This is a community based upon Lithium designed for people to talk about health and wealth. Yet with two staff members participating there still isn’t enough activity to justify the high investment.

This could be a promotion problem, but I’d bet it’s a concept problem. There are better communities to talk about health and wealth. No matter how hard you try to push a weak concept, it’s always going to be a struggle.

However, an exclusive community focused entirely on the health routines of wealthy people might succeed. It targets the right demographic and fits in with what wealthy people usually want (privacy and exclusivity).

There are plenty of examples here.

You can spend the next few years’ of your life feeling miserable trying to make a bad idea work or you can spend that time feeling excited about a community that will explode to life. Please choose the latter.

(aside, this is exactly where it makes a lot of sense to get consultancy support).

 

Be Brutal With Cutting Anything Holding You Back

Now you have to decide between a hard and soft change.

A hard change means closing your current community and starting a new one.

A soft change means working with your current platform and members to make things work.

In the past, I’ve advocated for the latter. Recently, I’ve found the former to be far better. You need a fresh start here. You will upset some members, but it’s far better to do a complete relaunch than try to gradually shift things. You tend to keep too many legacy attributes to do what you want. Don’t let the old stuff that caused you to fail repeat the same trick.

This is almost certainly going to mean changing or completely redesigning the community platform too. Be prepared for this. You can archive the old community so the content is still accessible, but don’t allow any further posts to the site.

Communicate this clearly in advance and explain the reasons why. Never blind side members, regardless of how few people are there.

Your colleagues will also try to push you to keep most of what you have and make minor tweaks rather than the profound change you need. This is the sunk costs fallacy. Stay strong and focused on making the big change you need.

Now you have to go through the concept phase of the community lifecycle to find and test the right community idea.

 

Conceptualization/Pre-Launch Phase

Last year, I was contacted by a car brand about revamping their community. They had already mapped out the community and hired creative companies/developers to build out the community. But they hadn’t built any relationships, undertaken any interviews, nor tested their new idea.

They wanted us to explain how to get people to join and participate in the community. Alas, that’s not how it works.

You need to identify what members need and ensure the community is perfectly designed to deliver on those needs. This is what the conceptualization phase does. The conceptualization process is to figure out the concept, build relationships, and having some sort of platform you can leverage to drive early activity.

You need to go through this process too.

If you think you’re going to develop a hit community idea without any feedback from the community, you’re delusional.

This means working at the micro one to one level. There are three core things to achieve at this stage:

  1. Build credibility among your early target audience.
  2. Nurture relationships with prospective members.
  3. Identify and validate what members really want.

 

Step 1) Building Credibility (CHIP process)

The first step is to build some credibility among your audience. This means you achieve positive awareness.

It’s very difficult to persuade people to join your community if they’ve never heard of you. Being from a big brand can help, but it’s not an all access pass to get everyone to love the community idea.

You probably ignore most of the blind outreach messages you receive right? People will ignore your messages too unless they recognise you. You need to be individually recognised here.

You need to use the CHIP process below:

Spend 2 to 6 months participating in other communities, attending events, asking questions, and interacting with people online. Be curious and friendly. Don’t try to get anyone to do anything for you at this stage.

Next, start a platform. This might be an Instagram account, a blog, podcast, whitepaper, or any medium that best suits your interests. You want people coming to you for information. This gives you the added advantage of starting to test and experiment with the idea. Share what you’re learning. Test ideas if you like.

Better yet, interview or feature people for this platform. Now you get the benefit of learning and connecting with smart people. The same people who won’t give you time of day for a coffee will give you hours for an interview. This is how Ryan Hoover built relationships for ProductHunt.

 

Step 2: Nurture Strong Relationships and Identify Key Themes

If you’ve succeeded in the above stage, you should have a few hundred subscribers/followers at this stage. These are now people who will recognise your name and be happy to speak with you.

Directly reach out to this group. Schedule coffees or calls with them. Travel to where they are if you need to. Try to have private, 1 to 1 discussions with at least 50 people (if you don’t enjoy this process, consider a different occupation).

Ben Munoz launched BensFriends by participating in other communities, responding to questions on Q&A sites, and meeting people. It’s very hard work but it is the single most reliable way to get great results.

 

Step 3: Identify and Validate The Community Idea

You should be able to sustain relationships with at least 50 people at this point and have a very good idea of what they have said. I prefer to use a spreadsheet and look for patterns in the data, but you can use whichever method works for you.

Make sure you ask people about their challenges, hopes and ambitions. Find out what they like or don’t like about the scene or their work. Find out where else they interact with each other (you don’t want to copy what already exists).

You should be able to identify a few topics that people really care about.

You’re looking for topics a handful of people really care about and don’t have a great place to talk about it today. One of these topics will become your concept.

Developing Your List of Community Concepts

Let’s use the TransAmerica example above and pretend we have interviewed 50 people in the wealth space. We might discover a few common themes:

  • Never having enough time to do anything.
  • Not being able to maintain a consistent fitness routine.
  • Not feeling part of the elite group or know how to join exclusive events.
  • Not spending enough time with friends.
  • Not spending enough time with family.
  • Uncertainty about the future.
  • Concerns about status.
  • Embarrassed by wealth.
  • Wants to spend less time doing routine tasks.
  • Who to trust when outsourcing projects/ideas.

At this point we can take this list and either;

a) do a survey asking people to rank which of these they might care about (easy to do on SurveyMonkey).
b) start testing some community concept ideas directly.

If you do the survey, use it as a rough guide and discard those at the bottom rather than pick those that the top. People find it difficult to articulate what’s most important to them.

Community Concept

A community concept is essentially the community topic (what the community is about), target audience (who the community is for), and type (action, circumstance, support etc…).

Any one of the themes can serve as a possible community and each can also yield multiple community ideas.

Let’s imagine we find health and fitness is a problem for wealthy people. You can quickly build 5+ concepts from that:

  • An exclusive community sharing the health and fitness regimes of the ultra wealthy. Members would each share their diet/food recipes, read content from celebrities and others, and be able to sign up for programs named after superstars.
  • A complete optimization community. For the wealthy to get personalized food support, training regimes, and automate/optimized every aspect of their health and fitness.
  • A peer group of wealthy people to set themselves goals with financial forfeits to charity if they don’t achieve them. Similar to Stikk, but for wealthy people.
  • A community for people with $10m in assets to share their advice on personal chefs, trainers, holidays, and the best gyms.
  • A bodybuilding club for the ultrawealthy. Members work out together or at the same time and record/share their results/photos with each other.

Not all of these ideas are good (some are terrible), but you should be able to find and validate at least one of your ideas for one of your themes.

You launch a community by focusing on just one of them!

There are more options here for a concept than you might imagine. Kaggle, for example, began as a community for data scientists who wanted to participate in competitions.

That’s a really narrow focus, but the audience loved it and word spread.

Run them past a few of the target audience to find which they like and which they really dislike. This should narrow your 30+ ideas (across all topics) to five to ten which you can test.

 

How to Test Your Community Concept

You want to test your idea as fast and as cheaply as possible. You can do this in multiple ways:

  • Create an item of content/whitepaper and see how popular it becomes. If you’re thinking of a community about the fitness regimes of wealthy people, write an article or two about it and send it to your audience.
  • Create a mailing list or Facebook group about the topic. Invite some of the members you spoke to before, start a few discussions, create some content, and see if the idea takes off. Keep it simple and quick.
  • Host an event for the topic. Host an event for the topic (or even a webinar) and see how many people attend. Have a speaker if you can and gauge the reaction. Better yet, have two events and see how many people attend twice and how enthusiastic they are.

You’re really looking for the instant win, the one idea that explodes with popularity.

What gets people to attend and generates the most positive feedback? If you’re not sure if your idea was an instant win, it wasn’t.

It’s far better to have 10 people who really love the idea than 1000 who are mildly interested by it.

Almost all of the struggling communities we see today skipped the conceptualization stage.

If you get the concept wrong, you will forever be paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in platform and staff costs on a community that will never succeed. Don’t let that happen to you. If you don’t have a hit, test more ideas down the list until you get one right.

By the end of this stage you should have achieved three things:

  1. Built a (content) platform from which you can invite people to join a community. This should have at least 100+ followers/subscribers.
  2. Nurtured 20+ strong relationships with people in the field who you know will love the idea.
  3. Tested and validated this is a great idea for the community. You know this because your community already exists via a FB group, event series, or a small mailing list.

If you don’t have all three, keep working at it until you do.

 

Inception Stage

Now you properly enter the inception phase of the community lifecycle below:

If you’ve got the concept right, this stage should be much easier than you imagined.

Your goal at this stage is to increase awareness, sustain rising activity, and develop the community platform.

 

1) Identify and develop early sources of growth

In the early days, you’re not going to get much organic search traffic or referrals, instead you need to identify and drive sustainable sources of growth.

You usually have three options here:

  1. Your existing website traffic. Most companies promote and try to drive traffic from their website or mailing lists to the community. This is the easiest and most common way to expand . However, it only succeeds if you have an existing audience. If you don’t, you have to follow one of the paths below:
  2. Existing groups. This means means subtly promoting the community on other sites and meetups. Anthony, Kaggle’s CEO, spent plenty of time in the early days promoting his online community in existing groups and speaking at as many meetups as he could across the country. Ben from BensFriends, as you might recall, participated in existing groups. This helped build a platform and attracted the earliest members to the community. Respond to every question, participate in existing communities, attract people in the 2s and 3s.
  3. Direct invites. This is you personally identifying people interested in the topic and reaching out to them. You have to use a status-based invite/approach to get someone to join and check out the community. This takes time but is often quite effective when it’s done well. This works best when you have strong relationships with a small number of people. The secret here is to get referrals from previous people you’ve contacted. This will save you a lot of time.

Later you can do the mass-promotional tactics. But, for now, you need to know you can sustainably bring in new traffic to the community to get things started.

It’s often smart to ask people to participate in discussion topics they mentioned in your interviews to get things going.

(note: some platforms, e.g. Facebook Groups, currently have an in-built source of new members via referrals to others on the platform.)

 

2) Platform

There are plenty of online community platforms to choose from. Begin with something relatively small and simple to use. Invest more in the community as the community grows (unless, as noted, you’re running a customer support platform).

Platforms vary enormously, but depending on your budget you’re probably looking at: Facebook Groups, Mobilize, MightyNetworks, Vanilla Forums, Discourse at the cheaper end and HigherLogic, Lithium, Telligent, Jive, and Salesforce at the premium level.

I’d recommend to begin at the former and later decide if you need to move to the latter.

You can develop something yourself too if the concept is really unique, but you will need a budget to hire a really top tier team. This worked for Producthunt and Kaggle. This is high-risk, high-reward territory. Go for it if you’re confident you can get the technology right.

The secret here is to focus entirely on the unique aspect of the community concept and ensures the community is perfectly suited for that.

Critically, make sure by the time you launch a new platform you have a large group of motivated people eager to use it.

 

3) Sustain and develop activity

Whichever activity your community is pursuing (discussions, tips, solutions, sharing photos, action plans etc…), you want to be able to see high-quality discussions taking place. High-quality discussions usually mean a few specific things:

  1. Very specific and relevant topics. You need discussions about topics which are relevant to the day to day lives of members. If you have done your interviews, you should be able to create these kinds of discussions.
  2. Clearly different types of discussions. You need to have discussions which expand beyond just a single niche topic. What is the next level up?
  3. Broad interest and participation. Discussions should be popular with members. People should be happy to participate in them and interact with one another.
  4. Good information being shared. You want to see new perspectives and facts being shared.

If you don’t have at least the above four, you probably need to rethink the community concept and the kinds of members you’re inviting. You either have the wrong concept or the wrong people participating in the topic.

You can test a lot of different things here. Limited-time webinars, AMAs, featured discussions, collaboration projects, predictions, leaderboards, open debates, and anything else that adds to the community concept. You will usually need a mix of things for this to work.

If things have gone well, by the end of this stage you should have something close to:

  • At least 50 active participants (people who make a contribution).
  • At least 30 discussions with 5+ responses.
  • More than 50% of the growth/activity being initiated by members.

 

Going Forward

All the metrics should be heading in the right direction by now.

Most importantly, the community should feel rejuvenated. You should sense members are more positive, happy, and excited about the community. You should also find yourself being more excited about working on the community.

Now you can start exploring some sense of community tactics, exploring more promotional efforts, and more interesting events to drive more growth, activity, and a stronger sense of community.

The secret to rejuvenating a community isn’t to try harder or big tech changes, it’s to force through the really tough decisions and let go of the thinking that dragged you into the state you’re in today. This frees you up to identify what members really want and build an entire community around them.

Good luck!

Comments

  1. Anton says:

    This is a great topic. In a book I’m writing about online community management, I dedicated a chapter about reviving topics, which sounds complimentary to the article above.

    Reviving a category in a community is also a case a-la reviving the whole community – just the scale is smaller.

    My experience demonstrated that you can successfully activate a struggling category by reviving topics in it by using different means, like restructuring, retitling to broad or narrow a topic, or change its angle of view, repeatedly inviting members when they are online and many more.

    It is absolutely true that a weak community idea makes it much harder to activate members. Still, with the right approach, any idea can find its “followers” and people interested in it. The point here is that you should pay as much attention to smaller things that implement your idea as you would pay to the idea itself.

    A proof example would be the following: take 4 Ukrainian communities about keeping goats and making cheese and other milk products (one is mine). There is only one idea those communities are built around. The community mission statements are very similar. However, only one eventually flourished. This means implementation of the idea is as important as the idea itself. As a result, when you think your community as a whole needs reviving, you should also think about reviving individual topics and categories, and pay attention to the current implementation of your idea – before you rush to fix the idea itself.

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