I spent much of the summer browsing through just under a thousand communities to create a list of the very best brand communities today.
I looked at things like the quantity and quality of participation, time to first response, the structure of the superuser program, the design of the site, and more to identify the top 10 communities in 14 categories.
If you want to see who makes our list of top communities, click here (no email required!)
Webinar: What Makes A Community Great?
On Friday, Nov 6, I’ll also be hosting a free webinar deconstructing the factors and criteria we use to identify great communities.
During the webinar I’ll share:
- Benchmarks in how we evaluate communities and make recommendations.
- What makes the best communities stand out from similar communities.
- The common mistakes to avoid in the design and management of communities.
- Practical actions you can use from some of the top communities today.
- The kind of resources you need to reach each level.
- Where to spend your time for the biggest impact.
The goal of the webinar is to equip you with some simple tools and knowledge to take your community to the highest possible level.
To sign up, click here.
Once you look beyond support-based communities (communities which people visit for need rather than desire) you find members follow a fairly similar assimilation process into the group.
First, your members will try to understand the group norms.
They will look for clues about the language to use, the topics members discuss, what the group’s likes and dislikes, the agreed common-knowledge of the group, and, in the analogue world, how the group dresses and behaves with one another.
Aside, this is why you often see newcomers who have read 50+ posts while contributing few of their own. They’re trying to figure out the group norms. Sure, some jump right into the fray (or are dragged immediately into it), but most people tentatively try to understand the group first.
These newcomers will then increasingly adopt the group norms until they feel they’re seen by others ‘as one of the group’. This might be as simple as making a few close friends within the broader group.
However, members also want to be seen as unique within the group. Or achieve what psychologists call ‘optimal distinctiveness’. This often leads people to start blogs, podcasts, customise their equipment, get tattoos, etc…The challenge is balancing the need to be unique against the desire to still be accepted within the group.
i.e. you want to be as unique as possible while still being seen as a member of the community.
If you’re managing a community, you can help members at every stage of the process. You can highlight group norms and ‘what you should know about this community’ material early on. You can use labels and references in content to help people be seen as part of the group. And you can find unique roles for members and promote their unique efforts to the broader community.
Large communities are often a numbers game.
You know if you have an audience of several thousand, a small % of them will become active members of the community and 1 – 2% of them will become your top members. You plan accordingly.
But managing communities of smaller groups is a different ball game.
You can’t churn through members. You’ll soon have none left. You can’t develop a community platform and strategy for them and hope it works. You don’t have the numbers to do frequent tests.
Instead, you begin at the very core. By talking and getting to know each person. You build close relationships with them. You gather feedback and start collaborating with them to develop the community. You’re the facilitator of the community. You identify the unique assets of every person (even the newcomers who know which questions newcomers have) and their shared challenges.
Then you collaborate together to discover how members can use those assets to help one another solve their challenges.
If you’re working to develop a small group, you’re going to be spending far more time in direct one to one interactions compared with managing a larger community.
A reader asked this week why I spend so much time in the minutiae of community when there are bigger strategic battles to be won?
Almost eight years ago, I was brought in to review the strategy of a struggling community of investment professionals.
The strategy seemed good, the platform was ok, but very few people were engaging with one another.
The problem lay in the subject line of the outreach message, the contents of the message, and how the community manager was engaging with the few who did join.
For example, the subject line (“OFFICIAL INVITE: [BRAND] COMMUNITY”) felt like spam. The copy of the email began with:
My name is [xyz], I am the community manager for [name], the official community for [brand].
I am delighted to send you a warm invitation to …”
If your communications remind members of a spammy LinkedIn request, your audience will treat it like one. Worse yet, the link to join was buried in two hyperlinked words way down at the bottom of the email.
The email had an open rate of less than 7% (compared with 18% for the newsletter). The click-through rate was around 0.3%. Less than a dozen people were reaching the community each week. Not enough for a critical mass of activity to form to get this community started.
The entire time and resource investment in the community was going to waste because of a few simple mistakes.
We redesigned the communications members received and trained the community manager to better engage with members (much of this became the basis for the Psychology of Community course), the open-rate tripled and the click-through rate rose to 6%.
Better yet, we now had several hundred people arriving at the community each week. A critical mass began to form and the community began to finally grow. Aside from our consultancy fee, these mistakes cost nothing to fix yet turned the community from a failure to a fledgling success.
I’ve never met anyone who didn’t think they were good at engaging with their members.
Yet, the constant struggles community leaders face when trying to get and keep members engaged suggests there’s huge room for improvement here. Often the communications are riddled with things which have unintentionally resembled spam or upset members.
Too often, too much time, money, and potential go to waste because people don’t spend enough time in the weeds of what’s going on in the community.
That’s why the minutia matters.
The traditional way to start a community was to find a forum-based platform and invite your members to join. You initiate discussions and hope things take off.
And this is still the main approach for most brands today.
But it’s increasingly just one of many possible approaches.
I was recently on a call with a vendor that uses various techniques to identify fans of the brand on social media and invite them into a private group. Within these groups, members get exclusive information and are rewarded for sharing messages/responding to criticism.
Other vendors, like Meetup, will let you find existing groups about your brand and either sponsor or collaborate with the owners.
Other vendors, like TokyWoky, will let you integrate community discussions directly into the sales path throughout the company website. Members can engage with people via a chatbox while visiting different pages.
Other organisations begin with a blog, build up an audience, and then try to start a community from the commenters on the blog.
Others begin by hosting a series of virtual events, see who turns up, and then expand to have bigger events or a platform that lets attendees chat to one another.
Others start by hosting a series of challenges, figure out which are most popular, and slowly expand upon that.
Others just engage with their fans and audience on social media. They ask members to tag photos and share those photos on their site.
Others stitch together their own community experience using Medium, Slack, Zapier integrations, and a virtual events platform.
Others invite the smartest customers into mastermind groups and use that as the basis to gather feedback and stimulate ideas.
Others start a virtual book club and grow from there.
The traditional approach gets the most attention not because it’s the best, but because it is the most visible when it works.
Yet your approach might be completely different – and that’s probably good. If you can’t reach a few thousand people, trying to launch a new community from scratch through a public forum probably isn’t the right approach.
Increasingly, you get better results from targeting fewer people. And that’s probably going to mean using a non-traditional approach too.
Around 18 months ago, during a community strategy breakdown, I asked participants whether they had a strategy.
It was a snapshot poll and only a few hundred people replied, but the results were illuminating:
I doubt much has changed since then. There is a real and severe strategy deficit in our approach to communities right now.
Some communities never evolved from the trial and experimentation phase. Others are managed by community leaders who never find the time to pull everything together into the bigger picture.
This results in far too much-wasted effort, a failure of communities to achieve their real potential, and communities that never become indispensable to organizations nor members.
Even the strategies I do see are often a restatement of the community’s goals (“drive engagement”, “improve collaboration”, “reduce support costs”) rather than a logical process to achieve goals which recognise competing priorities and the trade-offs which must be made for the community to thrive.
If you don’t invest in and value a community strategy, the best you can ever hope for is small incremental improvement. Creating a strategy isn’t something you can do in your spare time. For starters, you don’t have any spare time. It’s a full-time role (or consultancy project) for several months.
If you want to make that big leap head, invest the time it takes to create a community strategy.
To follow on from yesterday’s post, we also looked to see whether asking a question gets more responses in a post title than posting a statement.
Comparing post titles which included a ‘?’ with those that didn’t, the data was pretty clear:
Posts which include a ‘?’ (i.e. ask a question in the subject line) get around 52% more responses.
Here are two graphs from some data we scraped last month.
The first graph shows the average number of replies based upon the words used in the subject line.
Posts that have ‘what’ in the subject line get 3x more replies (on average) than any other type of ‘question word’.
This might lead some to conclude you should post more questions with the word ‘what’ and encourage members to do the same.
But take a look at the second graph.
This shows the word ‘how’ shows up almost 6x more frequently than ‘what’.
Two simple theories here.
The first is fairly obvious. Far more people want to know how to do something as opposed to learning what to do.
The second is more interesting. It’s clearly a lot easier to reply to ‘what…?’ questions than ‘how…?’ questions.
When you respond to a what…? question you’re usually giving an opinion. Opinions are fun to give and don’t require much effort or expertise.
But replying to a how…? question is harder. It requires genuine expertise to walk people through the steps of doing a task. It takes more time and effort. Fewer people possess both.
This is a classic example of where the tactics which drive the most engagement don’t drive the most value.
Sure you can post more what..? questions and probably get more responses. But you deliver more value to members by asking, responding to, (and nurturing experts to respond to) the how…? questions.
It’s painful to lose members of your community team.
But don’t compound the pain by trying to do the same things with fewer people.
You will burn yourself out and deliver a worse experience.
If the community team is cut, you need to cut some of the activities you’re doing too.
That might be content, running the MVP program, hosting events and activities, or something (please don’t cut moderation). Engage members in the process of deciding what to cut if you like.
Remember, it’s always better to do fewer things extremely well than many things badly.
The best way to respond is with compassion and gratitude to the member who raised the criticism.
Thank them for their viewpoint and for caring. Provide the rationale for things you can’t change, provide updates on the things you can, and do everything in your power to build a bridge of understanding between you both.
You can ask for more information, solicit their input on what they would like to happen, and how. Maybe they even want to be involved in making that change happen?
This turns critics into friends and, maybe, friends into dedicated supporters.
Good community leaders are great at putting their gut emotional reaction aside and building these bridges of understanding. They know how valuable this criticism is.
The worst way to respond is to attack the person who raised the criticism, question their credibility, and attack their motives (worse still is do this in front of other members).
This not only risks creating a division within the community but turns members into enemies and shows to others that criticism isn’t tolerated here.
Criticism is incredibly valuable. Without criticism, you can’t have an authentic community. No-one wants to feel they can’t speak freely within a community.
One negative voice opens the door for others to express similar views and prevents a spiral of silence from forming. Criticism helps you stay close to what your members really want and not what you hope (or think) they want.
Personally attacking a member for voicing criticism is never the right approach.
Don’t reject criticism, seek it out, and welcome it. Validate it when it arrives and show members you want their views even especially when they are critical of you.
We recently looked at a large dataset of several dozen communities to determine if the time to first response influenced the odds of someone participating again.
This is what we found:
After just 18 hours, the likelihood of a member ever participating again drops precipitously.
If you’re looking at a community system today, I’d suggest:
1) Develop a system to flag when a newcomer has made their first post.
2) If the newcomer didn’t get a response within the first few hours, flag the post to the community team or participants of the MVP program.
3) If there still isn’t a response after 18 hours, respond yourself as a priority.
I’d love to see community platforms that could prioritise questions to reply to by attributes like this. But until we have this, it’s worth doing yourself.
Nick writes about the role of experts in communities of practice (although the post is appropriate for any kind of community).
He also shares this table:
In most situations, expert predictions perform worse than both AI and the wisdom of the crowd. Nick terms this ‘the expert squeeze’.
In many support communities, deep subject matter expertise isn’t worth much more than someone who solved the problem yesterday. Once someone has given you the answer, you can share the answer with the next person.
In fact, the majority of questions asked are so far below their level that a real expert would be bored to tears answering them. It’s like asking a scientist to answer questions on Twitter.
Hence, many superusers aren’t top experts, but simply people who like helping out and have solved the 20% of problems which account for 80% of the problems people face.
For some projects – especially big, internal, collaboration projects real experts are important, as Nick notes, for guiding the debate and identifying what’s needed to move the discussion forward. But in many other communities, someone who solved the problem yesterday is as good as anyone else.