You might also notice from yesterday’s post that a community needs a few hundred posts per month to sustain any level of viability.
A challenge with any client when we begin a community project is to ramp up quickly to 300+ posts per month.
If you’re falling below that level, you’re probably not going to make it.
This sounds like a bigger number than it is.
The secret to this isn’t to have a huge number of members, but to ensure that the members you do have actively participate. This might be 300 people sharing 1 post per month or 50 people sharing 6 posts per month (the former is preferable).
Within the first two weeks, you should know how often people participate and how many members you’re going to need to hit that target.
This means you need to aggressively follow through on the inception stage of the online community lifecycle. Reply to discussions, @mention other members to be involved, initiate new discussions, nudge people to participate, uncover and talk about problems members have.
You don’t need a big bang launch, but you do need a small bang to quickly reach a few hundred posts per month.
See the data below from 20 communities we’re tracking below (selected relatively at random). The Y-axis is the total number of posts.
What do you notice?
You should hopefully notice the irrelevancy of spikes.
A sudden surge of activity is not a portent of future success. In fact, it often appears between a sudden, sharp, decline (I suspect it’s a community manager taking a desperate action).
The problem is actions which drive spikes get a lot of attention. We’ve sat through more than one conference talk explaining how the speaker drove a spike in activity. You rarely see the long-term trends.
Real success almost always comes through getting the fundamentals right.
This means increasing the supply of new members, tweaking and refining the community concept for relevancy, improving the newcomer journey, and continually improving the utility or entertainment value of the community. If you get those things right, success will come.
Not sexy to speak about at events perhaps, but far more effective over the long-term.
Many (most?) communities began under the corporate radar with a limited budget and no authority. Yet they’re successful today.
Working solo under the radar is a useful practice. You have no budget, but no expectations. That’s a useful shield. It lets you test and refine different community concepts.
If you begin the community as a major project, with a big budget and a big announcement (the dreaded big launch), the pressure is on. You only have one chance to get this right. You either show rapid growth or you and the community are gone.
The problem is it’s tough to predict which concepts will explode to life.
You can do all the research possible, but you won’t truly know if you’ve got the right concept until you test it. Does the audience stick or do they visit once and bounce? If they’re bouncing, it’s going to be a hard slog to build a community (if it feels like a slog today, this is why).
Yet your odds of getting that perfect concept first time out are low. The odds of testing several concepts until you find the right concept are pretty high. And this is exactly what you can do with small groups (>250). You can test, test, and test until you find the right concept that sticks.
Which means the key to success might well be to fly under the radar.
Besides your senior staff are far more likely to support a community they can see thriving already.
Some people were afraid to post using their real names. So we recently switched on anonymous posting in our community. This could be a powerful tool if it were a ‘tick box’ alongside a comment someone was writing (like submitting reviews on our online community platform comparison tool below)
It doesn’t work well on Discourse. On Discourse it’s a strange symbol hidden beneath an avatar option no-one will see. Nice idea, bad implementation.
That small detail might prevent hundreds, possibly thousands, of people from sharing valuable posts.
One prospect has an SSO implementation which, when you log in, will take you away from the community site you were on initially. You can write a response to a post, click reply, be prompted to log in and wind up on a different site.
This is a community-killing problem.
We want to make it easier to share interesting links. It gives people a reason to return every day to see what’s new. Sharing links works when it’s just an URL and a short title. But the current forum requires the title, URL, a description, and categorization. Who has the time for that? Easier to wait for someone else to share the link.
One client introduced an activity stream without realizing it would be filled by most members replying to the same discussion. It was a costly waste of real estate.
Just because a problem feels small and niggling doesn’t mean it can’t completely undermine engagement in your community. You don’t realize how important it is to simplify, remove a click, and reduce the mental effort required until it’s too late.
When you’re developing a community platform, don’t assume your developer/implementation partner will get this stuff right. They often opt for the easiest solution to implement instead of the best option for your members.
Go into minute detail and detail exactly how you would like every single feature to work (and keep a record of everything you’ve agreed in meeting notes shared with everyone involved – trust me).
If the first question is what do you want a visitor to do, the second is what do you want a visitor to your online community to know?
Do you want them to know this site is unique or special in some way? If so the site has to offer something unique or different from any other community in its field. This will require custom development. Place it prominently.
Do you want them to know this is a popular place to hang out? If so, show lots of activity taking place, display the number of members participating, and highlight any other success metrics.
Do you want them to know they could build a powerful reputation here? Show the people who have built a powerful reputation in the community. Feature them highly.
Do you want them to know to know this is a private, exclusive, or even secret community? If so, show nothing. They have to join first.
Do you want them to know they shouldn’t be scared or feel they have to be an expert to participate? Place beginner-level topics and a newcomer option on the homepage.
Do you want them to know the guidelines for participating? Then prominently display the guidelines.
Do you want them to know the latest news or most popular topics? If so, feature these prominently (Sonos does this well).
The problem is most platforms aren’t sure what they want people to know. Unable to decide they go with most of the above. Don’t do this.
If the call to action (CTA) is the single action you drive everyone to take, everything else tackles the emotion that gets them to take that action. Make a clear choice what emotion will drive the action you want. This should be linked to your online community’s strategy and where your community lies within the online community lifecycle.
What you want the audience to know will change over time.
Continuing our platform-themed week; a quick primer for those looking at costs of community platforms.
In theory, this means you begin at a low level (usually an estimate based upon existing traffic to your website) and gradually pay more as the community grows. In practice, you’re more likely to be transitioning from one platform to another and stay within a single pricing tier.
The objective of tiers is to make the community affordable to more organizations but create a ‘lock in’ to the platform as your community (and presumably your investment in the community) grows.
For most external communities, the usage tier means the level of traffic (often unique visitors). For internal (employee) community platforms this is the number of registered users (usually a few dollars per user per monthly). Though some platforms (HigherLogic/Salesforce) use different structures.
The usage tiers for a typical external community (let’s imagine, 1m visitors per year) begin at around $1k per year for reduced-featured (forum-based) platforms (Discourse/Vanilla) and rise to $100k+ per year for a similar tier at a full-fledged enterprise platform (Lithium, Jive, Insided).
You can use the slider of the community platform comparison tool to see which platforms become available at which pricing level (see below).
You will notice at 1m visitors per year (833k visitors per month) anything below $50k per year will leave you with one of the smaller community enterprise platform vendors. These come with their own pros (more responsive to customer requests – especially key accounts) and cons (less development resources, fewer features etc…).
The Risk of Multi-Year Contracts And Importance Of Being On The Right Tier
As most enterprise platforms request a 1 to 3 year contract, it’s important to be placed in the right traffic tier at the beginning.
You can always move up (this is why the tier structure exists) but not many platforms let you move down if you’re attracting less traffic than predicted. One prospect recently signed a six-figure multi-year contract with an enterprise platform at a tier which was far too high for them. This can be a very costly mistake to make.
Some platform vendors will talk up the potential of your community and absolute reach to put you on a higher tier. It’s inspiring talk, but it’s better to be conservative here.
Estimate 10% of your current web traffic (at most) if it’s behind a community tab.
If you’re signing a multi-year contract you should usually request some sort of discount. Lithium has given 66% discounts on long-term contracts, other platforms have been known to negotiate aggressively to lock customers into multi-year deals.
In addition to the license, a few platform vendors charge for additional usage. Lithium charges for API calls above 10m per year (an API call is a request to their server via an application), Jive charges for high video usage etc…
The pricing tier is a license to use the community platform for a given duration of time and for specific uses. If this is all you pay for, you will get a barebones platform with limited design or customization. In addition to the pricing tier, you also need to customize the design, integrate the community into any existing systems (CRM/single sign on etc…) and add any additional functionality too.
This usually requires paying an additional setup fee to either the platform vendor or implementation partners. Companies like Grazziti and 7Summits specialize in these implementations. Most vendors will have a recommended list of implementation partners. Make sure you check the financial relationship between these partners and vendors (money often exchanges hands to get referrals).
Implementation costs vary wildly. At the lower end, a typical enterprise platform integration will begin at around $15k. At the upper end this may cost $500k+. This depends very much upon the complexity of the integration and design requirements. Migrating data from one platform to another especially can be expensive. A recent client recently invested a high six-figure sum on data migration.
Be aware that during the implementation time, you’re still paying for the license. Any time wasted here costs you money. Line up the implementation partner and your set of requirements before signing the contract. We’ve seen many people get stung here.
Some vendors will require you to use them for the implementation – at least part of the installation and require a one-time setup fee to help you get started. This is usually in the mid five-figure range.
Additional Charges and Paid Modules
If you wish to use the community for specific purposes (gamification, collecting and storing knowledge, generating ideas, or deploy specific security requirements, hosting events, creating groups) you may have to pay for additional modules to be added to your community.
This is essentially pre-written software which can be lightly adapted or switched on for any client community. At the enterprise level, these cost between $20k to $75k each (this can become expensive quickly) at the lower end HigherLogic offer basic modules for $1.5k each. You may be able to negotiate having these modules included as part of a multi-year package.
It’s worth nothing you shouldn’t sign up for any module you might use. Only those you definitely will use. No platform vendor will refuse to let you buy a new module if you decide you need it later. You can be conservative here and add more modules when you need them.
Note that these modules too are on a license to you for a specific time (usually a year). They are not usually one-time additions. This adds to the total annual cost of the community. In some cases, the additional modules can exceed the license fee itself.
Training, Support, and Consultancy Costs
Most vendors include training and support costs within the license fee. Some will offer premium support or higher levels of training at additional cost, but these usually cover how to use the platform (which they should teach you to do anyway) rather than how to build a community instead (I’d recommend our courses instead here).
A few will include an additional 10 to 20 hours of consultancy time to get your community started. This often isn’t negotiable and tends to be billed at $100 to $200 per hour. You should not be paying more than $20k.
External Consultancy And Other Costs
When beginning the process of picking a platform, be aware of the total cost of the community. This includes not just the cost of additional modules and support, but also the cost of any additional changes later on. Anything you ask for which is not included within your contract will be billed at a $150+ per hour level.
In addition, be aware of your own time. It’s tempting to pick cheaper vendors or developers to help you launch the technology, but if you’re spending half your time every week on the process this costs escalates quickly.
If the risk of a mistake is high or your time to manage the project is limited, you can retain support from community consultants (including ourselves) in this space who have experience guiding clients through the process and developing platforms.
I can’t speak for other consultants, but our costs tend to range from $20k to $100k+ for more complex projects (around $40k to $50k is feels more common).
Be Aware Of The Total Costs
The total cost of a community is usually higher than you imagine. At the lower end of enterprise platform, $20k would be a good bargain. At the higher end you could easily spend seven-figure sums – especially if large migrations are required. Ensure you have a contingency budget in place for additional changes after the platform is live.
Do you think Reddit’s homepage would be better if it was shorter?
What if it was divided into different sections with a featured top 5 list, a place to get involved, a place to search, and a big graphic announcing members can ‘join, share, and connect’ with people like themselves?
Reddit’s homepage works so well because it doubles-down on what the audience most wants to do; browse discussions to find something entertaining.
It’s important to double-down on the most important call to action instead of trying to cater to every possible CTA. Almost every wildly successful community I can think of doubled-down on a single CTA instead of appeal to every possible CTA.
This matters a lot. If (like Reddit) you have the top 25 discussions instead of 5 you are 500% more likely to find a discussion that engages you. This has a HUGE change upon participation habits.
Spend some time browsing the most popular communities and social networking sites. You will usually see the same thing. They found one single CTA that gripped their audience and devoted almost everything towards doing it well.
It turns out, hedging your bets on a community homepage isn’t a great strategy.
The Goal of A Homepage Is To Persuade A Visitor To Take Action
The goal of a homepage is to persuade a visitor to take action (even if that action is reading).
The secret isn’t in the language you use to persuade someone to take that action (although that’s not irrelevant) but determining what causes people to take that action in the first place. The design doesn’t matter if you’re driving people to the wrong action.
This task has to make their lives better. It also has to help you achieve your community goals. This is the critical task you want every visitor to perform.
This call to action (CTA) typically falls into seven common categories.
1) Share what you’re doing and thinking (Facebook/Twitter/Nextdoor). This works best in social networks where members have cultivated their own following/relationships. It’s less successful in communities with a strong common interest (niche/topic focus), but weaker connections between members. The benefit here is people constantly update what they’re doing to build and maintain their social status.
2) Share something interesting (Reddit/ProductHunt/Inbound). This works in communities where members have weaker connections but want to build their reputation, gain validation, or get attention. This is excellent when filtering large quantities of information for quality is a problem. It doesn’t work in small sectors with limited sources of information. The major benefit here is people visit every day to be entertained or see new ideas they can use.
3) Search for solutions / information (ATT / Airbnb etc..). This works in support communities with a lot of repetitive questions with a large potential audience who most critically want a good solution to their problem. You want people to find the answer before they need to ask the question.
4) Share a problem/get help on a problem you want to solve. This works in new or small communities where getting new questions is more difficult than delivering good answers. This helps drive traffic and activity. It can help people get answers to questions they may ask elsewhere.
5) Participate in interesting discussions. This works in communities of interest where discussions have no clear purpose beyond getting to know and talk about a topic members enjoy. Most hobbyist communities fall into this category.
6) Connect/join/subscribe/follow. This works best when you have lots of newcomers (to the topic) visiting the site who need guidance to understand where they belong within the field. You can help guide them to the right group of them. This works best in communities for large subject matters with lots of subgroups
7) Learn and read information. This works in content-driven sites where activity is based on new information shared from a leader, expert, or established the source. Many news sites fall into this category.
This isn’t an exhaustive list (Kaggle wants people to join and host competitions for example). However, it’s a list you can use to begin testing calls to action to find the best fit. While you can and should) research your audience (interviews, surveys, and observational analysis) to make an educated guess about the best CTA to use, the best feedback will come from testing.
Once you find the right CTA, double down on it. Don’t try to appeal to every possible use case for the community.
Find the single thing your community most wants to do and devote most of the available space, content, and activity towards it.
It’s probably not what you think it is today.
p.s. We’re looking for a few more reviews on our community platform comparison tool, can you share yours?
Replacing your community platform with another might replace your current set of problems with another.
Switching platforms is not a silver bullet to increasing engagement or the end of your technology challenges.
This doesn’t mean it doesn’t help. Some of our clients have seen great success switching platforms. But it’s a calculated risk. You need to know the risks and how to navigate them.
- Members will be upset for 1 to 3 months. They will express this publicly. Prepare both your community and your team to ride this out. Watch what people are doing not what they are saying.
- Visiting and participation habits will be disrupted. The greater the change, the bigger the disruption. The metrics you’re measured by might drop significantly. Don’t panic. Ignore the sudden spikes or dips immediately after the launch. Wait and see the trends after a few weeks.
- Your search traffic might decline. Any structural change will affect search rankings of hundreds (or thousands) of content items. This can become a sharp decrease in new visitors to the community. Speak to a technical SEO consultant before you’ve made the shift. New platforms can easily create a lot of thin content.
- New technology challenges will arise. You might solve one set of challenges to be replaced by many others. Be informed about the likely challenges. Read reviews of Lithium, Jive, Salesforce, Telligent, HigherLogic, and Vanilla etc… to learn what these problems might be. They won’t come up on sales calls.
- The implementation will take longer and cost more than you anticipate. Prepare for the implementation to take far longer than you expected and for additional costs to arise to fix new bugs. Add a 15% contingency budget. Even the more detailed of plans need revision once they’re live.
Switching platforms often makes sense, just don’t underestimate the total cost of doing it.
I was recently honoured to participate in a podcast with Sitevisible on the current climate of online communities and what happens next.
The podcast covers:
1. Maximising the utility of the community rather than the use
2. Making sure it’s easy to find answers to the questions being asked
3. Helping to give people a sense of autonomy within a community
4. Understanding the difference between joining a community and participating in a community
5. What to measure and report in online communities.
If the topic isn’t part of a member’s identity, you can’t build a typical community.
No-one is in AT&T’s community by choice. Something broke and they want a quick resolution. You shouldn’t try building a sense of community, initiating off-topic discussions, and interviewing your newcomers*.
The name of this game is speed and quality. You need to solve a member’s problem before they’ve had to ask a question. That’s the gold standard you edge closer towards each day.
If the topic is part of a member’s identity, you’re playing a different game. Your members don’t want answers, they want a place to belong. They want to know their peers and see how they compare. They want to achieve a positive distinctiveness.
Most successful communities today are like AT&T. They are customer support based. Members want good answers to tough questions.
If you’re not sure, here’s a simple test. Ask members of your audience to describe themselves. If they mention your topic (e.g. “I’m a programmer”), you can build an identity-based community. If not, build a support community.
Both types of communities work. The secret is being clear about which you’re building.
* you can build a community of superusers among this group.
It’s hard to select and implement a community platform.
You need to know the different platforms, their pricing tiers, comparable features, and know if others liked the platform.
Then you need to see demos of each and negotiate with each. It’s an exhaustive, risky, process.
We’ve spent 5 months pulling together our experiences (and data) into a simple tool that can do this for you. Today, we’re happy to launch our online community platform tool which lets you compare, filter, and read the reviews of the top platforms.
If you want to know what these platforms cost, what features they offer, what community professionals think of each of them, and get quotes, click here.
The tool is entirely free to use – we only ask you to help us out by submitting a review of platforms you’ve used in the past.
Don’t believe a community is a forum with good questions and helpful responses.
This pervasive mindset limits the potential of your audience.
Kaggle has 500k members. It’s the most important data science community in the world. It’s a huge success. And it’s almost entirely oriented around competitions. Companies post data sets, prizes, and members compete to solve them.
This is entirely different from how most people approach communities.
It’s worth exploring what lies beyond the typical range of community approaches. The fastest growing communities aren’t based around forums, they’re based around competitions, group sharing, and collaboration.
Some people want to be challenged and compete. Some want to feel safe and secure. Some want to share funny photos. Communities don’t need to be text based questions and answers. Explore the wide range of opportunities out there.
If you want to stand out, find an edge you can push.