There Often Isn’t A Perfect Solution

I’m writing this in a London cafe on a cold day.

Each new customer opens the door and expects it to swing back closed behind them. But the door doesn’t do that. Instead, it stays open and the cafe starts to get cold.

At first, the staff shouted at customers to close the door behind them. But then their manager suggested shouting at customers before they’ve paid wasn’t the best strategy.

Instead, staff began to close the door behind each customer. But this wasn’t sustainable either. It took time away from serving customers and was clearly frustrating staff to do this every time a new customer enters (about every two minutes by my count).

So they wrote a sign and posted it on the door reminding customers to close the door behind them. But the sign was written in ink and was too small. Most customers ignored it.

Next, the staff wrote a bigger and clearer sign in bold marker and posted this on the door. This didn’t help either. There’s already five other notices on the door and window. Too many for any customer to bother reading any of them. They could remove the other signs, but that would upset management.

I’m struck by how often we’re faced with equivalent problems in a community.

We have a technology problem and there isn’t a perfect solution. We’re forced to choose between:

a) Simply allowing it to happen (i.e. allowing existing members to be disrupted).
b) Shouting at new members to behave the right way.
c) Politely trying to nudge members to do something (with little effect).
d) Posting really big signs (at the expense of other notices).
e) Doing a lot of extra work ourselves.
f) Paying (and waiting) for the technology to be fixed.

There’s no useful advice here – just a lesson that you’re not alone in these dilemmas. There’s no easy solution even to the most simple of problems. Sometimes you just have to figure out which is least painful.

The staff have settled upon the cafe getting cold.

The Myth Of The Miracle Feature

Too often we move or evaluate platforms based upon a specific feature (or set of features).

I’ve seen organisations demand specific features such as:

  • Ability to live stream events directly through the platform.
  • Collaborate on documents together within the platform.
  • Ensure all members use two-factor authentication to log in.
  • Develop complex automated rules-based upon past behaviors.
  • Universal point systems combining internal and external behaviors.
  • Integrate social media content seamlessly as discussions.
  • Customise their member profiles with unique designs.

The reality is the features that often get the most excitement internally are often the least used internally. Worse yet, once you begin customising the platform, you’re responsible for the maintenance of that customisation which can cause endless trouble. None of these will have a major impact on participation.

If you look at a few hundred communities (as we have), you start to notice the majority of members use the same few areas in almost every platform (typically discussions, direct messages, search, and knowledge base).

What really impacts participation isn’t adding major new features, but usually tweaks in the most commonly used features which makes them easier and more satisfying to use. This often includes the layout of discussions, being able to reply by email, length of snippets which appear in digests, quantity (or lack thereof) of text which appears on pages, simplicity of logging in and remembering details, cognitive vs. federated search tools, taxonomy, etc…

The tragic thing about most RFPs (and the people evaluating them) is they rarely account for this. They lack the breadth of features and assume one platform’s discussion forum is as good as the next. It’s like evaluating a restaurant by whether they have a kitchen instead of understanding the little details that make one restaurant better than the next.

The solution is to join a bunch of communities on different platforms and participate meaningfully for a week. Notice the little details. Evaluate the experience you’re having and what you’re feeling as much (if not more) than the features you’re seeing.

Geotab’s Feedback Form

After this post, a few folks shared examples of their own feedback forms.

I especially like this one from Geotab’s (a former client) feedback hub.

There are some clever things going on here.

First, the feedback hub isn’t just gathering ideas, but feedback on a range of tools, features, and even customer service. This is a genuine place to also highlight complaints outside of the typical community channels. Feedback can also be directed to the person responsible for each feature/aspect of the service.

Second, the form captures what people want to accomplish, why they want to accomplish it, and the situation in which the need occurs.

Finally, the form captures the frequency and urgency of the need. It also captures what tools and software the member uses today.

This is the kind of data that’s needed to make feedback informative and practical.

Pretend A New Feature Is Already Live

Here’s my favourite way to test the viability of a feature; pretend it’s already live.

If you’re planning on launching a new group, category, ideas area, event series, etc…pretend it’s already live.

Go through the motions of coming up with discussions for the group, write draft emails to people to respond to those discussions, write draft emails for prospective people you would interview, book time in your calendar for a 30 to 45 minute meeting to discuss the call, find someone who can edit the interview, write draft emails to product managers to respond to ideas, schedule fake times in your calendar to engage with each of them to get support.

Do everything you can do without directly engaging with people. You will soon find every new feature you plan to launch takes up far more time than you imagined. I’ll bet you begin putting these tasks off to focus on the urgent things happening right now.

Coincidentally, this is precisely why most new features fail. You launch new features without allocating more time and resources to ensure they succeed.

And if you succeed in this, you’ve got a huge amount of content and actions already lined up for when you do launch the feature.

A Simple Tweak To Asking Questions

I’m noticing in a few client communities recently that the community manager (and members) often don’t structure their questions to get the best (or most) responses.

Here is one simple tweak you can make. If you want more people to respond to questions, ask them to talk about themselves.

Compare two questions

Question 1: “What metrics are most useful for measuring [x]?”

Question 2: “What metrics do you use to measure [x]?”

Question 2 will usually get a bigger response. The reason is simple. People love to talk about themselves. Not only that, the response will usually be more valuable. People aren’t speculating about metrics anymore, they’re sharing what they actually do.

Consider another example:

Question 1: “What resources are most useful to newcomers to [x]”?

Question 2: “What resources most helped you when you were a newcomer to [x]”?

People are more likely to respond to the second one and the quality of responses will be better.

One more example:

Question 1: “What is the best way to solve [problem]?”

Question 2: “How did you solve [problem]?”

Now you’re getting responses from people who have actually solved the issue instead of people speculating about how to solve the issue.

Try it on Twitter/LinkedIn if you like, you might be surprised.

Attracting Better Quality of Ideas

Several of the product managers I’ve met with over the past few years disdain ideas submitted by members.

The problem isn’t that an idea is especially good or bad (although there is a trend of wanting more while spending less). The problem is the ideas submitted don’t contain anywhere near enough information.

For example, it’s unclear whether:

a) What the idea actually is (instead of a complaint e.g. “improve [feature x]!”)
b) What the current use case is.
c) What the current approach to achieving that goal is.
d) How relevant it would be to different segments of customers.
e) Whether it’s an urgent priority or a minor annoyance.
f) Who the idea should be sent to.

The problem often lies in using the same (or similar) tools to create questions as we do for ideas. Ideas get a title and a body – then members are left to write whatever they please.

Okta, a client, has a more interesting and better approach.

Now it’s clear what the idea is, what the use case of the idea is, and how customers are approaching that solution today. Members can select the product area (which should ensure this gets sent to the right person).

Useful Pop-Up Survey Data

I quite like the simplicity and ease of use of FitBit’s survey (hosted by Getfeedback).

This question alone gives you invaluable insights into what benefits to offer members of the community and what attracts the majority of visitors. I’d estimate around 90% of communities are relying upon assumptions here rather than guesswork.

Better than the NPS score, is the answer to this question. This suggests whether people got the outcome they wanted from the community or not.

This data lets Fitbit drill deeper into whether specific groups of customers have a better or worse experience than others.

Like the above, this enables Fitbit to see if newcomers, veterans, or intermediate-level members are having better experiences with the community and they can adjust their efforts accordingly.

If you’re looking for a dead-simple survey that gives useful insight, this is a good place to start.

Search vs. Social

If you want to test an idea or build some initial traction, social media tools are great channels. You can create a group, hashtag, host an event and see how many people turn up.

This is where algorithms and habits work in your favour. People use these tools every day and your content/group will appear in the timelines of non-members. If you don’t have an existing audience to start from, social media tools might be the way to go. I can think of plenty of people who began with zero and saw their group grow rapidly.

But here’s the rub. The force that makes this successful in the short-term, works against you in the long-term. It’s harder to browse and follow discussions on social media tools once it starts to get busy. Worse yet, you don’t benefit from search traffic which can generate 90% of the traffic most communities attract.

And, believe me, search is a far more important channel of newcomers over the long-term than algorithms.

You might build an audience much quicker on social media tools, but you’re far less likely to attract the same size of an audience if you stay on social media tools. First, it helps you, then it hurts you.

There’s No Excuse For A Bad Audiovisual Setup Anymore

Me and 312 others spent 30 minutes staring at a human shadow and listening to unclear, muffled, audio. It undermined the entire presentation the community manager was giving – a rather important presentation too.

The community manager was using the default laptop camera for both the webcam and audio – and had the window (or light source) behind him.

What might’ve been the norm a few years ago now looks distracting and unprofessional. Almost two years into this pandemic, there really isn’t a good excuse for still giving members a poor experience like this. Especially when you can take four relatively simple steps to fix it.

1) Make sure the light is in front of you (turn your desk around if you need to).
2) Invest in a simple ring light. Even the cheapest one will have a big impact.
3) Get a simple microphone (I’ve had a handy transportable one for years).
4) Buy a good webcam (I use this one).

Then take twenty minutes to set it up and test it all before your next meeting. For a relatively tiny amount of money, you can give members the experience they deserve.

No one is asking you to deliver a world-class experience, just to recognise the baseline has moved.

Reviving Communities on Life-Support (4 options)

If you’re managing a community on life support (i.e. there’s only a blip of activity when you generate the activity), it’s hard to optimise your way to activity.

Relatively small tweaks like improving the site design, how the community team engages members, or the gamification/MVP systems won’t make much of an impact. If few people are visiting the community, they won’t see any changes in the community anyhow.

You usually need to make a major change to revive a ‘life support’ community.

This usually falls into the four categories shown below:

1) Change the benefits. This isn’t just changing the text, it means changing the core purpose and nature of the community. A community for members to explore and share best practices might become one dedicated to solving immediate problems. A community to foster belonging and relationships between members might become one to share and comment on the latest news developments etc…

2) Change the target audience. This typically means going more or less exclusive. You can either become more focused on a niche group or more broad. Do your research on possible audiences and choose carefully. Also note this also affects whether the community is public vs. private.

3) Change the platform category. Sometimes you simply can’t persuade people to visit a certain type of platform to obtain the benefits you offer. In this scenario, you need to use a platform they are likely to visit. This might mean walking away from an expensive platform.

4) Invest more in promotion. Sometimes you simply need more people to reach that magical number of 100 actively participating members. This usually means building partnerships with people who have existing audiences, promoting more to your mailing list, positioning the community better, optimising for search, and using paid social ads. Be warned, if you can’t engage the members you have there’s no guarantee you will engage the members you don’t have. You should only pursue this route if you’re sure none of the above is the problem.

In my experience, when presented with options like the above most opt for 1) changing the benefits because it requires the least amount of pain. Yet, most of the time, the real solution lies in options 2 to 4.

Persuading Members To Bring Sufferable Problems To The Community

In politics, the biggest possible win is to persuade non-voters to vote (preferably for your side).

The community equivalent is persuading people with questions to ask them in your community. Most people are good at bringing insufferable problems to the community. The pain is high and the solution is needed urgently.

But the biggest way to increase engagement is encouraging people to bring their sufferable problems to the community. These are the problems which aren’t urgent and people could live with.

For example…

Insufferable problem: “My excel sheet won’t load, help me!”

Sufferable problem: “Is there a better way of displaying the dates in Excel?”

If you can persuade your members to bring sufferable problems to the community, they get more value, learn to use your products/services/information better, and you get more engagement.

There are two important steps to take here.

The first is to specifically list the types of questions members might want to ask in the newcomer email and welcome email.

Make sure some of these discussions are featured (or pinned) on the homepage too. Members shouldn’t feel their questions are too frivolous to bring to the community. Make it clear in the member journey that members can share what they’re working on for feedback on what they might improve, share any fears they might have to see if they’re justified, or simply ask for help to resolve small annoyances (with examples).

The second is to reduce the pain of asking the question. People suffer with tiny problems because the effort to resolve them is considered greater than the benefit of the solution. If people can simply share a screenshot and ask for help, ask their question by email without having to visit the community, or get a prompt to solicit any questions on different topics each week – you will start to collect a lot more sufferable problems you can resolve.

How To Execute On A Community Idea

It’s easy to come up with community ideas, executing on them well is often the hard part.

To execute an idea well, I’ve found it helps to:

  • Research/gather data to support the value of the idea.
  • Gain widespread support for the idea by sharing and gathering feedback from others.
  • Identify numerous examples of the idea in practice.
  • Check if the idea is possible with the technology platform you’re using.
  • Flesh out every step involved in implementing the idea.
  • Cost the idea in time/resources and know when development work can begin (i.e. who will be doing it, what exactly will they be doing etc…?)
  • Speak to those who have undertaken the same thing and identified what could go wrong (and how to avoid it).
  • Prioritise the idea against the other activities which will be undertaken at the same time.

It’s sadly common to have great ideas fail because they were poorly executed.

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