This paper reflects what I’ve been saying for years.
Once a newcomer joins a community you have a short window to influence whether they become a one-time visitor, a lurker (learner), or an engaged member.
This is decided by a few things:
1) How you guide their first contribution. Members who initiate a discussion or reply to a welcome discussion stick around for longer than those who don’t. Newcomers who share their emotions and self-disclose about themselves stick around longer than those who don’t.
2) The speed of response to their first contribution. Our data showed members who receive a response within 24 hours are 27% more likely to participate again than those who didn’t.
3) The quality of response to their contributions. Responses that include self-disclosure, empathy, and ask further questions encourage repeat visits.
4) The quantity of responses to their contributions. Surprisingly one of the biggest ones. The quantity of responses has a big impact on the length of time a newcomer sticks around for.
You need to design a system for newcomers to ensure they are guided to participate the right way, get a quick response to their first few contributions, have responses that reveal information about the responders.
Some platforms make this easy. Discourse, for example, reveals when someone is making their first contribution in the community. Others need to catch up.
You can’t come to an agreement about a topic unless you share the same definition of the topic.
Communities fall victim to this all the time.
You and I, for example, might share different definitions of what we mean by ‘community’. Your colleagues might too.
Does ‘community’ mean your entire set of stakeholders? (staff, customers, investors etc?)
Does ‘community’ only mean your audience?
Does ‘community’ only mean people who visit a specific community platform?
Does ‘community’ only mean people who visit and participate on our platform?
Does ‘community’ only mean people who visit, participate, and feel a sense of community with one another on your platform?
Does ‘community’ include or exclude people who engage with you and each other on social media?
Until you have a shared understanding of what ‘community’ means, you can’t discuss goals, strategies, or what it means to be a ‘member’ of the community.
This is a great workshop exercise. You can facilitate a session with colleagues (and, yes, members/customers). Provide a few options, let people share how they would define community, and explain the implications of each definition. Then bring people to an agreement on how to define a community.
Once you’re done, create a simple diagram showcasing what community includes (and doesn’t include). Then share this with your team and include it in any document you send out.
Iteration is the best approach to building a community.
You research what members might want, do your best to create that, and then use member feedback and your data to iteratively improve upon what you have.
But this doesn’t work well if you have a clear vision of the end result before you begin.
Two years ago, a client hired us to increase engagement in their community. They were trying to build a community on a forum-based platform. But, alas, few people were using it.
They had already done the research. They knew their audience wanted to chat on Twitter, read Medium posts, and participate in WhatsApp groups. The problem was they couldn’t let go of their vision – the same vision which had already cost them a lot of time and money.
We slowly encouraged them to support their audience on the channels they were already using. We put together a simple community experience. We created a hashtag to support the topic, used Medium (and advocates) to create and share news and information with the community. Then we invited top participants to three private WhatsApp groups to collaborate on deeper issues.
The forum never took off, but everything else did. The community is highly active, the feedback is useful, and the WhatsApp groups are still going strong.
The vision you have and the vision your members have might be very different. Be prepared to change your vision (or, better, begin without a vision of what the final community might look like).
You’re going to struggle to persuade people to add a new behavior to their day. Everyone thinks they’re busy.
Far better to figure out which behavior will visiting and participating in your community replace (and improve upon)?
Does it replace using search engines or asking colleagues for information?
Does it replace having separate calls and meetings?
Does it replace spending time on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and a dozen other social media platforms?
Does it replace calling customer support and filing tickets?
Does it replace chatting with small groups on WhatsApp?
Your community has to replace an existing, natural, behavior, and offer a benefit that is many times more valuable.
Do this deliberately. If the community replaces customer support then place the community where people would usually find customer support.
If it replaces browsing on YouTube then work with community members to curate the best videos on the topic embedded within your community. Update this each month.
This also lets you predict how often people will participate in your community.
For example, if you’re replacing calling customer support, your members will visit about as often as they call customer support. If you’re replacing social media, your members will visit as often as they visit social media.
One approach is to anticipate what members are going to do.
You can look at what products you sell, what categories you cater to, what audiences you have, and set up different areas of the community accordingly.
You can anticipate what features they’re going to want and ensure you have them too.
Another approach is to respond to what members are doing.
You can look at what members are talking about in your community and create groups, categories, and features accordingly. This is where we get Twitter’s hashtag and thread features. It’s where we get Facebook memories and StackOverflow’s new thanks button.
Starting with a relatively blank canvas and quickly responding to demand is a lot better than trying to anticipate it.
The myth is if members complete their profiles they’re more likely to participate in a community.
The reality is the people who complete profiles are already most likely to participate in a community. Asking them to do it doesn’t change anything.
In fact, asking newcomers to complete their profile is a waste of an ‘ask’.
Profiles represent how someone in a community wishes others to perceive them. If they’re visiting a community to get an answer to a question, they really don’t care how they’re perceived.
However, as they start to participate in a community beyond an immediate need, they do start to care how others see them. This is when they complete their profiles.
You shouldn’t be asking newcomers to complete their profiles. You should be challenging newcomers to figure out what they can contribute to the community – which in turn will make them more likely to complete their profiles.
“What can you contribute to the community?” is a far better ask than “complete your profile”.
It’s probably the biggest reason I’ve seen for people explaining why they don’t participate in a community.
They don’t feel they have the expertise to participate.
They don’t have any questions they need answered.
They don’t feel they can make a useful contribution to the community.
But I never believe them.
Every single one of us in every single community has something valuable to share.
Even if it’s our very first day working in that sector or learning about the topic, we know what it’s like to be new.
We know the kind of questions we need answers to. These questions and answers will help the person that comes after us. That’s incredibly valuable.
We know what resources are missing or confusing. By sharing our thoughts we can get help from others and hopefully improve the resources for the next person.
We know how it feels to be new. We know when and where it feels frustrating, intimidating, and confusing and can share that with others who can help. Again, this helps the person who comes after us.
The problem is never that people have nothing to share. The problem is you haven’t persuaded them that what they do have to share will be incredibly valuable to others.
We’re in the early phases of revamping the FeverBee Experts community (which, admittedly, has been unsupported for too long).
There are two ways of doing this.
The first is to use your personas, your understanding of the audience, and your own intuition to craft a message you think is going to resonate.
The other is to look at what’s worked really well elsewhere. But since you rarely have the data to see if another message made people take action, look at it from your own perspective.
What welcome messages in the past have made you take action?
Any time you join a community or group and then find yourself clicking a call to action and participating, capture the exact language and format used (use Evernote or similar tool). Copywriters often refer to this as a ‘swipe’ file.
This doesn’t just work for welcome messages, it works for any effective email, newsletter, digest, static copy, or aspect of any community. If it motivates you to take action, make a note of it.
Or, as a shortcut, feel free to help us out by sharing what welcome messages have worked on you (or for your community) in the past.
A client of mine sends a weekly status update.
It includes three things:
- What has been accomplished in the past week.
- The focus areas for the coming week.
- The lowlights of the week (what hasn’t gone well).
I like the format.
It keeps everyone focused on proactively developing a community instead of reactively responding to it.
If you’re leading a community and do something which reeks of favouritism, hypocrisy, or simply failing to live up to your community’s own standards, you’re going to find it very hard to regain the community’s respect.
Sure, the majority of members will continue visiting and participating as before. The majority of members don’t know who is in charge in the first place. But your top members, the ones who know the community best, they will notice.
Your top members will lose respect for you. Your top members will be less likely to participate, respond to questions, or help you in any way in the future.
One acquaintance recently found herself in this position. But, as she kept telling me, there was a loophole in her community’s terms and conditions which let her take the actions she did. So ‘technically’ she did nothing wrong.
She had a simple choice. She can keep her pride, refuse to admit any wrongdoing, and lose her community’s respect. Or she can clearly state she was wrong, apologise, and work with her community to take the necessary steps to rectify the problem.
If you’re truly committed to your community, you will do what’s best for your community in these situations – especially if you don’t think you’ve done anything wrong.
That’s something you can be proud of.
In my experience, organisations grossly underestimate how much time they will need to spend working with their vendor.
Even once the platform is live, you’re still going to need to set aside several hours each week for upgrades, customisations, and fixes of your platform. Some organisations need 10 to 15 hours per week.
If you have a small team, this becomes a problem. Time which needs to be spent developing the community is instead spent developing the platform.
Once you move to an enterprise platform, you either need to invest in a bigger community team too or bring in more colleagues to help manage the vendor start of the process.
People can drift away from a community for many reasons.
Often they lose interest in the topic or don’t have any information to request (or exchange).
An equally likely reason is a new place emerges which satisfies those same needs quicker, with less effort, or with better results than your community (as one paper shows).
This happens most to mature, established, communities who feel their sheer size or scale negates any threats. But, as history has shown, members are happy to walk away from their connections, badges, post counts, and track record when a new thing emerges.
One option is to develop the new thing. Continually survey and interview your members to unearth new needs and satisfy them. This is an ongoing part of your strategy.
Another is to scan the environment for ‘the new thing’ and react quickly to incorporate similar features within your community. This might even mean creating something outside of your current community platform to support members wherever they may be.