Building a community for your audience is very different from building a community with your audience.
Building a community for your audience means researching what they want, developing a strong concept, creating the platform, and inviting them to join and participate. This is the standard approach.
Building a community with your audience means something very different. It means you embed the audience deeply within the decision-making process – even (and especially) when it makes you uncomfortable.
It means you give your audience veto rights on major decisions (what platform to use, how it should be designed, what the rules of the community should be?)
It means your audience do most of the legwork and you play a supporting/coordinating role. They take on roles within the community, invite people to join, and stimulate the early discussions.
It means you probably move slower and have less control over the process. But the benefits are tremendous. It removes the risk of launching a flop, ensures you can scale quickly and provides members with a true sense of ownership.
Both approaches can work but don’t get confused between the two. Members quickly see through listening exercises disguised as collaborative community building approaches. If your members can’t make decisions you dislike, you’re not building a community with them.
If you truly want members to take real ownership, you need to give them real control (and that includes the freedom to make mistakes).
“My members have become really negative and confrontational recently, how do we stop it?”
That’s the wrong question. The right question is why have members become negative recently?
Until you diagnose the problem, you won’t be able to develop the solution.
Have members become negative recently because of a platform change or the way the community has been managed?
Has negativity been growing steadily for a while but only recently become visible?
Is negativity stemming from lots of different members or a handful of members?
If it’s the former, are they always negative or only in specific topics? If it’s the latter is this a group which agrees with each other or do they only target specific members?
This isn’t an exhaustive list of questions, but every answer will lead you to a completely different solution.
In my experience, getting the right diagnosis is a lot more difficult than getting the right answer.
If you’re selecting a platform you’re going to spend a $50k+ on, always go through the RFP (request for proposal) process.
There are many reasons for this.
- It forces you to research your target audience. Creating an RFP without first researching your audience is clearly a waste of everyone’s time. Putting together a good RFP forces you to research your audience in-depth and develop a clear set of needs and use cases for the community. You will learn more than you suspect during this process.
- You have to specify what you need in detail. An RFP forces you to specify in detail exactly how your community will function, what you need, and typically requires you to develop your strategy in advance.
- It forces you to think through which features are most relevant and important to you. Not all features are important. Therefore it’s good to weight on a scale of 1 to 5 (or typically 1 to 3 for us) which features are most important. This is why you need to develop a strategy before developing the RFP. Without knowing your strategy you will struggle to know what features are most critical to your members.
- It helps you build strong relationships with stakeholders. In a larger organization, creating an RFP forces you to build a consensus about current capabilities, technology needs, and whether you can implement the technology yourself or need someone else. Bringing more stakeholders into the process early and building a consensus around budget, needs, and capabilities is wise. You might later find the stakeholders you consulted early are more likely to support you later on.
- You can identify potential tripwires early. You don’t want to be deep into the integration process and discover a problem which prevents you from using the platform. Having an RFP you can run past key stakeholders helps you identify and overcome potential problems before they become critical problems. Trust me, this will save you a lot of time and money later.
- You get more competitive bids. Trusting a vendor will give you a competitive quote without a competitive bidding process is like trusting a market seller to give you a good price when they’re the only stall you can buy from. You can’t make a choice without options. You never know how well your vendor compares with others until you have their competitive options. Once you have different quotes you can decide if investing an extra $20k per year is worthwhile to go with the leading platform. More information never hurts. You can’t make an informed decision without informed choices.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but the point should be clear; going through an RFP process is what professionals in this space do.
p.s. Hint: Ensure you get clarity on what features come directly out of the box and which require further custom development. It’s one thing for a vendor to say they can do [x], it’s another to be clear when it requires custom development work.
You shouldn’t buy an expensive camera if you’re not planning to learn how to compose great photos.
If you don’t know how to frame a photo, fill a frame, nor use diagonals and leading lines, an expensive camera won’t help you much. It’s like buying a better laptop to write a better novel. There could be some useful extra features, but you need to learn the principles first.
This is true for online communities too.
You shouldn’t invest thousands, even millions, of dollars in community technology if you don’t know how to properly create the results you need.
Your platform vendor can tell you how the features function (about as well as a camera manufacturer can tell you how the camera works), but that’s not going to help you compose the perfect result.
Are You Using Default Settings?
Your community website should be entirely unique to you and your members.
If you’re using your platform’s default settings, haven’t clearly prioritised specific features and topics, and you’re not nudging members towards the behaviors you need, I’ll bet you’re not even close to getting the results you should be getting.
For most of us, there is terrific potential to improve our communities. During my CMX Workshop (“Richard’s workshop“), I’m going to guide you to make rapid, incremental, changes to achieve the best possible results from your community technology.
This workshop is platform agnostic. Using a free Facebook group or an enterprise community platform matters as much as using a cheap or expensive camera when learning to compose photos. It helps, but the core principles matter far more.
By the end of the workshop, you will be able to build a roadmap of improvements to get far higher levels of participation and better results from your community platform.
Even better, you will have a group of peers to help guide your efforts and be a sounding board for your ideas.
p.s. You can watch this webinar on community design with CMX to give yourself a head-start.
p.p.s. My conversation with David Spinks about community skills is now live.
p.p.p.s. I’ll be speaking at Swarm in Sydney, Australia, this week. Feel free to join us.
People ask questions in a community when the reward (the answers) exceeds the cost (effort, uncertainty, shame, etc…).
If you want more questions, you need to reduce the perceived effort and increase the perceived reward.
After a decade in community consulting, I’ve almost universally found the most effective approach is to change what it means to ask a question.
Right now, many of your members feel asking questions is an admission of weakness, ignorance, or some sort of failure to not already know the answer.
The big win is persuading members that asking questions is what the smartest people do, it’s the secret sauce that turns amateurs into professionals.
If members feel asking questions is the only way to get access to the knowledge that can’t be taught, a habit of smart people, and the key to rapid improvement, they will ask a lot more of them.
This means you need to rebuild a member’s sense of identity where smart people aren’t the ones who never admit not knowing the answer, but instead, are the ones brave and wise enough to ask questions.
Starting at data can be useful, but a far more useful practice is to ask members if you can watch them visit the community and ask questions as they do.
- At what time do they typically visit the community?
- What triggers the visit? Do they remember to visit or is it a newsletter/email?
- Do they visit the homepage or a bookmarked page?
- When they visit the homepage, what catches their eye first? What are they likely to click on?
- What do they do after the 1st click?
- How long do they stick around for? What catches their eye about the posts they click on?
- Why do they respond/visit some posts and not others?
- Why do they not visit some areas/features of the community?
You might see the extent to what you think draws people to visit and engage in a community differs from how they typically do.
Past insights with clients have led us to change our outbound newsletters, change how we tag discussions and which discussions we use, create morning ‘one-click’ digests.
Always do this before any platform/user experience overhaul. Changes which seem insignificant to you can be huge to a regular visitor.
p.s. If you can’t do this in person, why not ask if members wouldn’t mind sharing their screen and guiding you through it?
A post is different from a contribution.
In fact, I’d argue most posts are not really contributions at all.
A contribution, to use a precise definition, is a gift made towards the creation of a greater, collective, good. Posts which are self-serving and help nobody else aren’t really contributions.
Someone sharing a thoughtful, nuanced, opinion about politics which reframes an old issue in a new light is probably a contribution.
Someone posting how much they hate Trump is not.
Someone sharing their experience dealing with a difficult medical condition, things to be aware of, useful links, resources, and an offer to help guide others through it is making a tremendous contribution.
Someone posting how they’re feeling today is (probably) not.
Someone reaching out to members who have been missing for a while, checking they’re ok, and guiding them back into the community might be making a contribution. Someone who takes the extra time to add the right background, context, categorisation, and tags to their question for future people who have that problem is making a contribution.
….someone asking how to fix their iPhone is not.
One of the biggest problems right now is we’re far better at counting and rewarding posts than we are at contributions. The people who make contributions need you to be better at recognising contributions than posts. They need you to drop them a private note of gratitude, highlight their efforts, and share their stories of the best contribution.
Not many people are going to make a second contribution if their first was quickly buried off-screen below hundreds of posts.
You can get a lot of people to join a community and ask for help by catering to their needs.
They have questions and need answers to those questions.
“How do I fix my iPhone?”
“How do I get this software to work?”
“Which tool should I use for this job?”
The problem is once you’ve solved that need there isn’t much reason for members to stick around.
Worse yet, what if your members don’t need anything today? Or tomorrow? Or ever again?
While your members’ needs come and go with the tide, their desires are constant. They desire to feel influential, to be recognised, and build relationships with their peers.
If members aren’t sticking around, it’s not because you’re not satisfying their needs, it’s because they’re not seeing the community as a place which can satisfy their desires.
Members will always desire to feel influential, socially connected, and good at what they do. A big chunk of your strategy should be how you not only satisfy the need, but satiate the desire.
If you’re waiting to be lucky to grow a community (or deepen engagement), you could be waiting a long time.
Sure, people might drift into your community (and fish might swim into a net if you leave it there long enough).
But waiting and hoping is a terrible strategy.
Search traffic is a useful bonus, not a strategy. If you’re hoping your members create content which attracts more people over time, you’re leaving yourself at the mercy of whims and currents beyond your control.
Even if they do swim into your net, they’re just as likely to swim right back out again. (Why would they stay?)
A better approach is to target and expand.
This means target the first group of members you want, satisfy an immediate need. Then take them on a journey to satisfy more desires over time. This is where your journey mapping becomes critical.
Once growth rates slow, target the next group, then the next etc…
Easy to say, harder to do.
It means difficult strategic trade-offs. You need to limit who your community supports at the beginning to maximize the value you offer to members at the end.
Doing this right means mastering a core set of skills.
You need to know how to research, analyze, and identify the clusters of members you have and what they need/desire (as specifically as possible).
You need to know how to prioritise each cluster of your members and then how to cater your technology and communications towards each of them.
You need to know how to design their entire user journey with all of the assets you have available to you today.
Next month we’re going to train a group of community professionals to maximize the level of growth, engagement, and value in a community through these techniques.
If you’re trying a scattergun of different tactics, or waiting to be lucky, this workshop will take you through a different approach to satisfying the needs and desires of your members.
(p.s. If you sign up by the end of this week, I’ll give you access to a module from our training courses for free).
I’ve been consulting for over a decade now and I’m still staggered by the legal issues which can arise.
Bad news, the legal concerns about a community are only going to increase.
- What happens when superusers claim they’ve been treated as underpaid employees and are entitled to compensation?
- What happens when you use an idea posted in the community and the poster wants royalties for those ideas?
- What happens if you’re hacked and a member’s data is posted in the community?
- What happens when an online member conflict becomes an offline member conflict? (did you take reasonable steps to prevent it?)
- What happens if you’ve collected data you shouldn’t have?
- What happens when your most popular member asks for all their contributions to be deleted (especially those which bring in the most traffic?)
- What happens if members share information or advice which isn’t true and other members act on this information? (especially in banking/healthcare)
- What happens when members share illegal/grossly indecent material in private messages you’re not watching?
- What happens if you run a competition and the winner is underage or lives in a country where the competition is perceived as gambling?
- What happens when you find yourself subject to laws in countries where you have no presence but some of your members do?
- What happens when one country demands you host any data about their members within that country? (do you even know where the community data exists?)
- What happens when employees send flirtatious messages to community members (or other staff members) via the community?
- What happens when data/knowledge from a private community leaks into the public sphere?
My experience is the less time people have spent with a lawyer, the more comfortable they are that their terms and conditions and outdated laws will protect them.
Don’t count on it.
It’s hard to tell where the laws on online communities will end up, but we can probably expect them to become more stringent than less.
Be prepared, spend time with a lawyer, and proactively identify and negate the threats in advance.
Plenty of customer communities have been shut down recently because they were deemed too much of a legal liability.
A simple rule here, if you can’t afford a lawyer, you can’t afford a community.
A simple rule, if a community question goes unanswered for 24 hours (or 48 hours in smaller communities) it should be escalated.
Why not set-up a simple mailing list which all superusers are subscribed to. Any questions which are not answered within 24/48 hours are pushed to the list (in a digest) for your expert members to answer.
If they’re still not answered within 48 hours, have another list which escalates the question to customer support (because some questions require trained staff with access to a user’s account to answer).
If you’re going to take the monumental effort of creating a community where members can ask questions, take the significantly smaller effort of designing a system to guarantee they get answers to those questions.
We grossly undervalue the importance of a coherent community strategy.
Take some common community questions….
How do I increase engagement?
Why don’t I have support?
What platform should I use?
How should I set-up the platform?
Whom should I hire?
How do I reduce churn?
What should my superuser program look like?
These sound like tactical questions, they’re not. They’re strategic questions.
If you find yourself asking these questions, I’ll bet you don’t have a community strategy in place (at least not a good one). Which means you’re likely to tackle each question individually. It means you’re likely to find yourself bogged down in petty minutia instead of taking your community to where it needs to go.
Not sure what platform you need? Your strategy should tell you exactly what features you need and when you need them in your roadmap.
Not sure how to increase engagement? Your strategy should tell you exactly what members need and desire (and how to satisfy those needs and desires).
Not sure whom to hire? Your strategy tells you what skills you need at each stage of the community journey and the kind of budget you have available.
Not sure how to gain internal support? Your strategy should include a clear list of stakeholders along with their unique needs (remember a strategy is just a worthless word doc until it’s agreed and supported by your stakeholders).
The problem with all of the above questions is no-one can give good advice unless they know what your strategy is. And they can’t know what the strategy is unless you have taken the time to create one.
If you’re finding yourself asking these questions and getting bogged down in minutia, it’s not because you have dozens of tiny tactical problems to solve. It’s because you don’t have a strategy to solve them.
It doesn’t make sense to keep spinning your wheels or put more fuel in the tank when you’re bogged down in the mud. You need a different, strategic, approach.