9 Principles Behind Successful Online Community Strategies

This is part 2 of our 6-part series on community strategy (click here to read part one).

If you like the series, consider signing up for our Strategic Community Management course.

Enrolment is now open and the course begins on October 9th, 2017.

This is going to explain the key processes behind establishing community goals and winning internal support.

About half of our clients ask for our help to set the goals for their community. The following might help.

This is a big topic, so I’ve divided it into 9 key principles.

Principle 1: Engagement Should Never Be A Goal

Many of the community and professionals we’ve worked with and trained over the past decade used to make the same mistake. They believed if they could get the engagement metrics high enough, they would finally get the support and respect they needed. They spent their time trying to get more engagement and reporting on engaging metrics.

The brutal truth is the engagement metrics will never be high enough to get you the support you need.

Chasing more engagement is a fools’ game and condemns you to the engagement trap.

Not many people working in communities today have the right goals. Setting the rights goals should be a transformational process for your community and your career. By the end you should be working towards something you know you can achieve, that other people support and that you know is valuable.

Principle 2: Goals Come From Your Stakeholders

Far too many engagement professionals set the goals for their community and then toil endlessly to win support for them. I know one director of community who has spent five years of her career trying to get internal support for her community’s goals.

The key to career success is to reverse this.

Don’t set goals and try to win support for them from colleagues. Find out what your colleagues already support and use these as your goals. It’s a lot easier to swim with the current. If you don’t want to fight every day to get support, begin with goals people already support.

Principle 3: You Don’t Truly Have Support Until You Get More Resources

Ignore what other departments say, you only truly have support when you get more resources you didn’t already have.

Your organization could commit far more to the community than they do today. For example:

  • The sales team can drive new prospects and clients towards it.
  • The PR team can promote your community.
  • The HR team can embed it within newcomer orientation for all employees.
  • The content team can test content in the community.
  • Engineering or R&D can give community direct feedback into the product.
  • The CEO can participate in the community.
  • Marketing can give-away free products to top members.
  • The web team can feature it more prominently on the website.

Imagine each department as an engine cylinder you need to fire up to support your community. It’s your job to get each department supporting the community with more resources. This is going to require building powerful alliances where you come up with the goods (more on this later).

Principle 4: The Best Goals Come From Extreme Listening

Make a list of your stakeholders (colleagues, your boss, CEO, CFO, CMO, dir. Marketing, HR, IT, and anyone else who might be interested in the community). Interview each of them to understand their priorities. Ask them what they spend their time doing, what they hope to achieve, what they’re afraid of.

Pay careful attention to what they say and how they say it.

What do you they talk about excitedly and what do they sound bored by?

Attend the meetings of other departments too. Learn how they think and what information they prioritize. Almost everyone we interviewed who has won internal support regularly attends the meetings of other teams

Your goals will come from the above information. Remember goals are personal. Most goals will be those which:

  1. Save time.
  2. Save money
  3. Avoid making mistakes/looking bad.
  4. Achieve superior outcomes/better performance.
  5. Impress boss/colleagues.
  6. Feel more important and respected.
  7. Feel better about the work they do.
    (generally in this order)

You should be able to build a clear list of goals, for example:

Your Boss
  • Wants to show improved member satisfaction.
  • Wants to be seen as someone who ‘gets things done’ in an organization that’s typically slow.
  • Worried that other people will get in her way.
Legal rep.
  • Not have anyone ‘go rogue’.
  • No surprises.
  • Wants people to appreciate what the risks are.
Boss’ boss
  • Worried about PR disasters and negative inputs reaching the exec team.
  • Wants to see better media coverage of the company.
Dir. Marketing
  • Wants to be able to reach as many people as possible with a message.
  • Worried about declining reach on traditional channels.
  • Wants the company to look innovative.
  • Present new technology at events.
  • Find ways to save money.
Team members
  • Be seen as valuable by their boss.  
  • Get to work on projects they’re most passionate about.
  • Not have their time wasted.
  • Not have new priorities dumped upon them.
  • Have a say in new ideas the organization will develop.


Principle 5: Avoid The Big, Noble, Goals Trap

Everyone believes that delighting customers, breaking down knowledge silos, and cutting costs are a good idea.

Everyone will agree these are good goals and they want to support it. But few of this group will help you because the goals are too broad and too distant to help you now.

Base your community goals in the day-to-day reality of your audience. What are they working on today? What do they need help with? What are they struggling with?

Principle 6: Use The Stakeholder Matrix To Prioritise Goals

Now prioritise this group by their interest in the community and their influence over it. Adopt the goals of those at the top of the list. For example, above, the goals might be:

  • Answer every possible question our best customers have. (stakeholder: boss)
  • Identify and resolve possible PR problems before they become major problems. (Boss’ boss)
  • Increase reach of promotional messaging. (dir. marketing)

[see goal framing here]

Notice each of these is relevant to goals right now. This is a key part of getting support.

If you can’t tackle all 3 (and 3 is a lot), focus on just the goal for whomever has the highest influence.

This framework will also guide how you interact with each of your stakeholders. You shouldn’t send the same messages to legal as you would to your boss, for example.

Principle 7: Build Stories To Support The Goal

Now you have a goal, you need persuasive stories to establish it. Anytime anyone asks you about the community goal, you should state the persuasive goal and then use a story to illustrate it. This means using Evernote, screenshots, or any system you like as a story capture system.

Your stakeholder framework will show what kind of stories to look out for.

Using the above example, you would capture stories of the top members who were happy they got their elusive questions answered quickly, of potential PR crises avoided, and the number of people your community was able to reach.

Data helps, but it’s only the backdrop to the narrative.

Remember stories have a beginning, middle and an end. Make them fun and interesting. If you don’t have stories of your own, start looking at other comparative communities. Don’t stop until you have at least a dozen great stories. Match each story to your community goals.

Principle 8: You Are Not A Jedi

No combination of words will win you the support of sceptical colleagues. What you bring into the meeting is far more important than what you say in the meeting.

If you want the PR team to promote you, bring them five incredible case studies they can promote.

If you want the sales team to help you, bring them a list of 20 useful leads.

If you want the engineering team you help, bring them valuable feedback they can immediately use. etc…

Success is going to mean building alliances where you have to give support to get support.

Figure out what the community can give to different people and departments within the organization.

Principle 9: Keeping Support Isn’t Binary

Support isn’t binary. People leave and priorities shift.

You need to set aside a big chunk of your time (at least 30%) to building and maintaining internal support.

This means attending meetings, taking colleagues out for a coffee, and finding new ways to bring value to other groups.

Community Goals

Your community goals will guide everything you do in the community.

Your goals determine what platform you select, how you set the platform up, what you ask your members to do, how you motivate them to do it, and what you report internally.

Setting community goals and winning internal support are two parts of the same process.

You should, if you follow these 9 principles, find that you can finally stop trying to fight for support and take a deliberate approach to getting the results you want.

Strategic Community Management

If you found this or the last part of our series useful, please consider signing up for the Strategic Community Management course.

The course will transform how you approach your community, help you escape the engagement trap, and guide you to deliver exactly the kind of results your organization needs.

And the fee is only $675 ($1100 if taken with Psychology of Community).

I think that’s a fair bargain.

How Do People Feel When They Visit The Community?

You’re not going to spend much time in a place where everyone complains.

This a challenge for customer support communities. People visit, complain, get a response, and leave.

Why would they want to visit the moan zone again?

This is true for functional communities too. If people are only sharing serious (but dull) questions and getting serious (but dull) answers, that’s not a place you would choose to spend much time. You might visit when you have a problem, but that’s about it.

If you want people to choose to spend more time there, you need to make sure people feel better about themselves while being there. Folksy probably does this better than most.

This means focusing on the positives, showing success, having places where members can highlight and celebrate each other’s achievements.

There are limits to this, but even within the most serious of professions, you can change the emotion people associate with the community from one of boredom to at least one of curiosity (as Figure1 have done so well).

Consider carefully what emotion you want people to feel when they visit your community and make sure that’s what you’re projecting. As a rule, people avoid misery and seek out joy.

Use your pinned posts and menu of discussions to make sure it reflects the right emotion.

Where Should The Interactions Be?

Someone asked if the best place for interactions was on the forum?

Or should they be in comments on news posts?

Or via in-person meetups?

Or through social channels like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat?

The answer is quite simple. What kind of interactions best suit your strategy?

For example…

If your goal is customer support, you almost certainly want to be answering questions on social channels and possibly on a specific forum platform too. This allows you to answer as many questions as possible and document the best information for others to easily find.

If the goal is innovation, you probably want feedback on news posts and possibly a reddit-style platform that lets people propose and vote on the very best ideas.

If the goal is emotional support/building relationships, you probably want to encourage and tag answers in social and invite discussions in a private, highly-moderated, anonymous, space.

If the goal is retention, you probably want a platform that makes it easiest to share and read the best tips or advice about the product. If you don’t have that, you might lean towards comments on advice shared.

If the goal is community advocacy, it makes sense to use a dedicated advocacy platform – complete with leaderboards, tasks you can set, and simple methods of tracking rewards earned.

So many of the decisions we wrestle with every day are solved once we have a very clear strategy in place.

You’re going to be pressured to be everywhere and respond to everyone. Resist that pressure.

It sounds obvious, but you’ll get a lot of mileage out of using the right platform for interactions in the first place.

FeverBee Explains Series [1/6]: Community Strategy – Setting Community Objectives

In the next few weeks leading up to the launch of our Strategic Community Management and Psychology of Community courses (enrollment now open), we’re going to breakdown some of the key principles behind our most successful community strategies.

Our goal is to distill the key lessons from our work with hundreds of communities (Facebook, Google, SAP, Novartis, Oracle, The World Bank, Wikipedia, Greenpeace etc..) into key principles that might help you rethink your strategy and approach.

These aren’t going to be short articles. If you’re looking for quick tips, sure-fire ways, or listicles, you’re going to be disappointed.

The first principle of our six principles is how we overcome The Objectives Problem.


The Objectives Problem

Your objectives are what you need members to do to achieve your goal.

Your objectives should read quite simply as “get [target audience] to do [x]”.

Don’t confuse these with goals.

Your goal is the result of the community (e.g. keep our best customers for life), objectives are behaviors you need members to perform to achieve those goals (e.g. get our top experts to share their best tips).

The above is an example of what we would call a strategy statement.

In two sentences it describes a clear goal and a clear logical means of achieving the goal.


The Perennial Problem

If you’ve ever tried to set behavioral objectives, you will have come across the perennial problem.

Do you let members do what they want to do or do you try to get them to do what you need them to do?

If you let members do whatever they want, you will get a lot of engagement that doesn’t help you much.

A bunch of people talking isn’t very valuable (as many organizations are discovering today). Only specific kinds of discussions are useful.

However, if you force members to do what you want, you risk driving members away to places where they can do whatever they want.

Most people decide that some engagement is better than risking no engagement and build a community solely around what members want to do.

This is a mistake. It sucks you into the engagement trap, where generating as much activity as possible becomes your sole goal.

It’s hard to escape from the engagement trap, but you can avoid it easily enough.


Revisiting Your Strategy Statement

Imagine your community goal is to increase search traffic to your company’s web properties.

A common strategy statement might be:

Goal: Increase search traffic to our community.

Objective: Get members to create content which attracts search visitors.

You might then send out messages asking members to create content via email, automation rules, direct messages, or your web copy.

If you’ve tried this before you will know not many will take action.

Can you guess why?

Imagine this from your members’ side. To write a great article that helps you they would need:

  1. Relevant experience they feel they could write about.
  2. Plenty of time to create this content.
  3. To be open to criticism and to believe their content would make an impact.

What percentage of your audience meets that criteria? Probably not many. Perhaps 5%?

This is why we have rampant participation inequality.

In most communities, 95% of the target audience can’t perform the behaviors you want. But you can change that.


Divide Into Groups And Stretch Behaviors

You overcome this problem by dividing your community into sub-groups (usually by the level of activity) and setting stretch behaviors.

This means setting objectives which help you achieve your goals without asking for something they aren’t likely to do in the first place.

If you break your community down into segments (for example, top members, regulars, newcomers, and lurkers), you can study each and see what behaviors they are most likely to perform.

For example, some members can help promote content to increase search rankings, others can update and suggest improvements to content, others can highlight what they want to see etc…

All of this still helps you achieve your goal.

A revised strategy statement might be:

Goal: Increase search traffic to the company’s web properties.

Objective 1: Get the top 50 content creators to write better quality articles.

Objective 2: Get the middle 50% of participants by activity to update and suggest improvements to existing articles.

Objective 3: Get lurkers to vote and share their favourite articles.

Now we’re only asking people to do things that they’re likely to have the expertise, confidence, and time to be able to do based upon what they’ve done already.

Using these specific objectives we can develop our strategies.

For example, we might use exclusivity and set up a VIP class that only the top 50 content creators can attend.

We might embrace excitement and organize an ‘edit-a-thon’ for regular members to update as many articles as possible with new information (or at least point out where they might be out of date).

We might use curiosity and share a list of the most popular articles each week and ask lurkers to like or share their favourite.

This isn’t a comprehensive list, but you get the idea. Once you know what your objectives are you can take a focused approach to achieving them.

This is how you develop a community that drives clear results without driving your members away.


Gathering and Using Insights From Members

Let’s take another common example.

An organization develops a community to solicit feedback and drive innovation.

This current strategy statement might be:

Goal: Use community feedback to improve our service.

Objective: Get members to give us feedback on our services.

Eugh!! Can you see the problem again? How many members will have the expertise, confidence, and time to give detailed feedback? Not many.

So let’s divide our audience into three categories again and set behaviors each of them is likely to undertake, but still supports our goal.

A new strategy statement might be:

Goal: Use community feedback to improve our service.

Objective 1: Get our 200 top customers to send direct reports to engineers about what they would change.

Objective 2: Get the middle 30% of members to share their biggest frustration with the product.

Objective 3: Get lurkers to vote on changes they would prioritize.

Now again we have three separate objectives each catered to something the audience is more likely to be able to do.

You can now develop unique, emotive, strategies to get each of them to perform that behavior.

Giving top customers a direct line to engineer might be one option.

Creating an ‘emergency response’ zone for regular members to share their biggest frustration might be another option.

Letting lurkers rank their priorities in a survey or on the site might give them a sense of influence.

You get the idea. Once you have the objectives, you start to uncover the kind of strategies to match.


You Should Have A Clear, Specific, Strategy Statement

Far too many organizations we’ve worked with were pursuing engagement as a sole goal and hoping engagement would prove valuable.

We try to steer them away from that by focusing on a clear goal and specific, valuable, objectives targeted at key audiences.

One of the tasks we ask our course participants to do is to complete and get help with their own strategy statement. Try it yourself.

Goal: The goal of this community is [valuable result]

Objective 1: Get [target audience] to do [x]

Objective 2: Get [target audience] to do [x]

Objective 3: Get [target audience] to do [x]

If you can get the objectives right, you will find everything else you try to do becomes a lot easier.

Even better, you will find you can get more results from the existing members you already have.

To learn more about our two courses, click the links below:

Strategic Community Management

Psychology of Engagement

A Dangerous Sign

StackExchange makes an important point:

“if everyone using your technology knows everything about it, that means your community isn’t growing. A healthy technology environment includes a stream of newcomers that are learning the basics, as well as experts testing the platform’s limits.”

If you’re not getting as many questions, you’re either not getting enough newcomers or not getting experts testing the limits of the topic.

The experts want the cutting edge, new ideas, and advanced topics to explore.

The newcomers need a safe space to ask beginner-level questions.

Which groups are you excluding?

Changing Community Concepts Is Emotionally Difficult

A close friend has been wrestling with a community that’s been trundling on for two years.

There is some activity, but it’s barely growing. There isn’t much sense of community.

We recommended two years ago to focus on a tiny slither of the audience and cater to their unique needs. But he couldn’t force himself to do it. It would’ve meant:

1) Admit you may have been wrong about the topic (to both colleagues, your boss, and your members).

2) Make major changes into what the community is about and who it is for. That involves design costs and explaining to a large group of members they were focusing on a smaller group.

3) Be sure that the change would work, or he would be left with an even smaller group now.

These are common fears. There are ways you can ease them.

You can test different concepts as webinars, Facebook groups, or private channels first.

You can check what kind of content and discussions seem successful.

The temptation is always going to keep pushing ahead with what you have now and hope things change. But it never will.

The best predictor of tomorrow is what happened today. Unless you want every day to be like today, you need to make that change. You need to work on something that at least has a chance of a big success.

If not, what are you doing with your community…and your career?

It’s never easy, but it’s definitely best to make the brutally tough decision and then work like hell to make it a success.

Turning Community Questions Into Long-Form Answers

Go to your community, list your discussions in the last month by the number of views, and look at the top questions listed there.

Take the top 5 to 10 and send them to an internal expert to write a detailed answer or opinion piece on one of them.

Then promote the piece internally and externally. If you have some paid social budget, you can use this to promote the answer too.

There aren’t many wins as easy as taking some of the most popular questions in your community and inviting a product or topic expert to create a world class solution for your members.

FeverBee Relaunches Community Management Courses

We first launched our community management academy in 2011.

It has since become the most popular community management training program with 1100 graduates from technology, non-profits, collaboration, healthcare, and their own business projects alongside many others.

Today we’re opening registration for two community management courses.

These are:

1) Strategic Community Management. This course will help you identify and establish your community goals throughout your organization, identify the specific kinds of activity you need to achieve your goals, learn how to persuade members to perform the behaviors you need, and how to build a tactical action plan to achieve those goals.

This course has completely changed how most participants think about their community. By the end of the course you will have stopped driving as much engagement as possible and began driving real results that you know exactly how to measure.

If you’re feeling stuck or there is room for improvement in how you build and manage your community, I strongly recommend you sign up for this course.

2) Psychology of Community. This course will redefine how you engage and interact with your members. This all begins by truly understanding who your members are and what they want. You’re going to learn how to segment members by needs and how to communicate effectively with each group.

This course will also explain how to increase member satisfaction, convert newcomers to regulars, nurture super-users and build a powerful sense of community.

This is a terrific course if you want to do more for your members, understand how to deploy psychology effectively, and get the kind of activity you need.

Both courses will begin on October 7, 2017. The courses include both live webinars and recorded sessions. Every live webinar is recorded so you won’t miss a thing if you’re on vacation or get busy at work.

Courses cost $675 separately or $1100 combined.

Contact me at [email protected] with any questions or to ask about group rates.

What Next For Community Platforms?

If you had a choice, would you launch a new community today on a forum-based platform?

You might, if you expected long-detailed discussions and high search traffic for older questions. Forums do a terrific job of this. They’re great at integrations and customizations too.

But these benefits apply to increasingly fewer companies. Most people just love to talk about the topic without any overarching structure.

Most communities, I suspect, will start to resemble social media platforms.

DriveTribe is a good example. It’s primarily an app based on instant conversations (much like real communities). You can join sub-groups (tribes), follow people, and participate in a live-chat. It’s created about cars and is focused around sharing photos, videos, and simple questions.

You can check out some of the screenshots below:

Unlike most forums, you can easily take the community anywhere you want to go. Have a car problem? Take a photo and share.

See something cool? Record a video and share. Feeling lonely? Go to the chat room. It’s going to seem increasingly antiquated when you can’t do this.

In the coming years, a lot of community folks are going to go to great trouble to try and defend their forum-based platforms. It will look similar to Kodak defending the power of analogue cameras. I urge you not to be one of them.

Thousands of business books are filled with organizations who didn’t see the change even when it was right upon them.

..and it’s right upon us now. Swim with the current, not against is. DriveTribe might well fail, as might Figure1 and other early pioneers, but the trend is pretty clear.

When the entire world has a device in their pocket that lets them capture and share their passions in powerful ways, it makes sense to build a community around it.

Using Tangible Incentives In Online Communities Intelligently

Tangible incentives have a bad reputation for encouraging the worst behaviors.

This is partly well-deserved. Tangible incentives are great when people had little interest in performing that behavior in the first place, but beyond that, they can cause more problems than they solve.

Tangible incentives (like money) are best used as part of a properly designed system. Three good options here are prize bounties, raffle systems, and tipping.

Prize bounties are when someone sets a reward for the person(s) who provide the best-accepted solution to a challenge. However, if the odds of winning are too low, why participate? It’s best to distribute the prize and offer the chance of random rewards for specific, smaller, activities. LocalMotors’ LaunchForth does this well.

Another option is the raffle system. We use a variation of this in our online community. Each month, people are allocated ‘tickets’ based upon the number of accepted solutions they’ve contributed. At the end of the month, a draw is made and the winner gets the prize. You are more likely to win with more good contributions, but it’s not guaranteed.

The final system is as a tipping system. Each member is given $x per day they can use to tip people who make great contributions. The money expires at the end of the day. Those that don’t tip get less to spend the next time, those that use it get more. Steemit uses a simple tipping system (you can replace money with points, but it’s less effective).

You can figure out the best system for you. Be aware, anytime you create a system with tangible rewards people will try to cheat. But that doesn’t mean you should avoid them entirely. You can get this right.

From ‘How Many’ To ‘How Few’

Two groups, which would you most like to join?

“Join the largest group of design engineers on the web. We have 60,000 members from around the world”

“Join the most exclusive group of design engineers on the web. We only accept 365 members per year, 1 per day”

We spend so much time talking about how many people are participating in our community, attending our events, or joining our webinars without realizing that size isn’t very motivating.

Would you rather stand in a big crowd or be part of a smaller, exclusive, group?

Being small can be a powerful asset too. ‘Who?’ is a more important question than ‘how many?’

Getting Internal Support For Your Community (it begins with the list)

If you don’t have the internal support you want, it’s usually because you don’t have a good process for building that support.

Don’t wait until it’s too late, for concerns to rise, or until you need something.

Start building your list. Few things will have as big an impact on your career as maintaining good, clear, relationships with your list.

Begin with everyone who has an interest in engaging customers in your organization.

Your boss is first on the list, but what about her boss and her boss’ boss? What about your close colleagues? What about the people on the IT team? What about PR and sales?

When you’re done, go back and think again.

Most people exclude about half the names that should be on their list.

Marketing will certainly care if you suddenly start acting human and off-brand within the community. Legal will be worried about members talking about illegal activities or posing as brand representatives. Human resources might care if you ask employees to participate openly in the community. Procurement will care how you select the platform you use.

And that’s just the start. Who else might have a vested interest in the community? Even if they don’t know it yet.

Will the video department be concerned with people sharing videos in the community? Will someone responsible for SEO care about thin content created by the community? etc…

By the end of this, you should have a list of up to 30 names.

Your community’s success (and your career progression) depends upon your ability to maintain strong relationships with this list. You can get engagement metrics as high as you like, but without good relationships here, it’s a waste of time.

Set up meetings with each of them, understand their concerns and priorities, and incorporate these into your community efforts.

Don’t wait, get started now.

©2017 FeverBee Limited, 1314 New Providence Wharf, London, United Kingdom E14 9PJ FEVERBEE