Vetting Community Leaders

An acquaintance recently expressed frustration at being rejected for a job interview at the final hurdle.

He had been through five rounds of interviews and still hadn’t got the job. I sympathise, but I admire the company.

We should be vetting leaders of our communities with a similar rigour as we do when selecting the technology platform.

When we select a platform, we might create personas, use cases, a key list of requirements, invite vendors to spend hours completing RFPs to be invited to interview and potentially host a demo of their community. From there the vendor might face a security test, usability test, further negotiation and have to go into depth about what their platform can and can’t do.

Yet, I’ve seen many situations where an organisation will spend 2 to 3 hours interviewing a handful of candidates for 30 minutes and make a decision. That’s nuts.

It’s good to vet your community leaders properly. Listen not just to what they say in interviews but look at their current communities. See how they engage with members. Is the tone of voice and guidance about right? Do they specifically match the skillsets your strategy has indicated you need to take your community to the next level? Can they demonstrate that?

The problem isn’t usually wasting time through an endless intensive interview process, it’s not investing enough time in the recruitment process to find the right person.

Nothing Scales To Infinity

Even the universe isn’t infinite.

If every single living person in the world is spending every waking second in your community, what would your goal be then?

Probably not more growth or engagement.

Now peel it back a little. What if every person in your topic was visiting your community as frequently as they needed to, then what would your goal be?

Communities have natural plateaus both in membership and engagement. At some point you’ve reached everyone you’re likely to and the audience is as engaged as they need to be. If you’re measured by either metric (membership/engagement) you’re setting yourself up for failure.

At this point your goals might reflect things like:

  • What resources or shared artefacts are the community co-creating?
  • How well is the community supporting members through each stage of their journey within the topic (surveys, interviews etc…)?
  • What value is the community providing to each area of the organisation? How integrated is the community in the processes of the organisation?
  • How satisfied/happy are members with the community and the community experience (beware of the natural plateau here too)?
  • Are the costs incurred by the community efficient and proportional to the value gained by the organisation?

The sooner you shift to more meaningful metrics than the number of members and level of engagement, the better.

Private, Exclusive, High Signal Communities

In a research call this week, a prospective member told me about the most valuable community they participated in.

To gain entry, you have to be at the VP level (or higher) and be one of the 300 firms or partners funded by their VC.

When members join, they complete detailed bios and identify precisely which topics they can and can’t help with.

When members create a question, they tag the question from a set number of topics and anyone with expertise in that topic receives a notification (if the question doesn’t match an existing list of topics they advise you to ask the question elsewhere).

Communities like these, which are private, exclusive, and high signal, are probably the most valuable professional communities out there today. But we’re so rarely willing to make the painful trade-offs to create them.

We want the community to be public rather than private so it might attract more search traffic.

We let in people who don’t quite meet the criteria to get more members (at the cost of the members we want).

We accept any kind of question in a community, regardless of whether our audience is likely to have the answer or not, for fear of upsetting a single member at the expense of the majority.

The lesson is fairly clear. The most valuable you want your community to be, the more difficult decisions you’re going to make.

The Problem With “Just Launch It”

Just launching a community and seeing what happens doesn’t sound like a terrible idea. You learn quickly and can pivot fast.


1) You only get one chance to make a great first impression.

2) If you choose the wrong platform, you’re sabotaging your community efforts.

3) If you have a bad community concept, you’re going to struggle to gain any activity.

You can spend months trying to unpick errors made in trying to launch a community quickly.

I’m always nervous about client projects which want to “build the strategy while developing the community”.

This doesn’t mean you can’t do anything while undertaking your research. You can be testing a lot of different community ideas to see what gets traction.

  • You can use Twitter to test different topics and hashtags.
  • You can host live events and promote them to your audience and see how many people show up.
  • You can work to build relationships with the audience and see how many are receptive to you and your ideas.
  • You can invite members to share guest posts on your website.
  • You can create content and see which formats and topics are most popular.

All of these things are part of the early community-building process but don’t commit you to any particular technology, topic, or approach to building a community.

They can quickly identify what does and doesn’t work best.

So if you’re feeling pressured to ‘just launch it’, try launching a bunch of tiny tests instead.

Your Supermarket Layout Has Changed!

Would you visit your local supermarket more frequently if they announced a change in layout?

What if they told you the milk, bread, butter, and vegetables are now more convenient to find than ever before?

For most people, the answer is no. You might notice and appreciate the differences when you arrive, but it’s really not going to change whether (and how frequently) you visit.

(Of course, you’re going to notice if it becomes more difficult to find the items you want).

This is true for communities too. Don’t be surprised if members don’t seem to care about the redesign you’ve been working on for months. It might benefit members when they visit, but they’re not going to be too bothered about it either way.

Sending an excited mass email announcing the redesign of a community is mostly a waste of time. Members simply don’t care.

But they do care about the contents within the community. If you want your redesign to get noticed then launch it at the same time as something members do care about. That might be an incredible new resource, a genuinely exciting new feature, an event or discussion series you haven’t had before, or some activity with a VIP.

“Don’t talk about [x] here”

Imagine going to a conference afterparty and being told by the host you can’t discuss key aspects of your work with fellow professionals.

If you’re like most people, you would step outside (or head to a bar down the street) and talk there.

This is the problem with creating a community and telling members they can’t talk about key topics.

For sure, you might not want members rambling on about their personal lives or swapping their favourite cat photos (unless you do). These discussions are outside of the common interests and should take place on social media. You also probably want to avoid legal landmines too.

But to restrict what people can talk about within the common interest is generally a really bad idea.

Create sub-groups for certain discussions if you like. Use your subtle influence to guide discussions in a certain direction. But be sure to push back against preventing members talking about things they want to discuss. This is a community killer.

These discussions help bond members, they give members a reason to repeatedly visit the community, they increase the likelihood that they will (perhaps eventually) talk about the topics that deliver the results you want.

Everything Takes Longer

If you’re managing a community, you’re frequently going to be dragged into murky, unfamiliar, waters. These waters might seem calm on the surface, but they hide rocky terrain which can easily delay your community ambitions.

Some examples…

You can’t update the platform without your IT team first doing a security/penetration test and that might take a few weeks.

You can’t send out an email to members because of GDPR rules (members opted out) or because marketing has capped the number of emails that can be sent out.

You can’t launch the community until legal reviews all the documentation. This might take a few weeks.

You can’t send out a digest, newsletter, or approve members to join because the platform doesn’t have that feature.

You can’t send tangible rewards to members because of internal policies or challenging distribution sending content around the world.

You can’t get the community featured on your site because staff are worried about members saying something incorrect (or being seen to endorse it).

None of these things (and these are just a handful of examples) seemed like issues beforehand. It’s only once you dive below the surface you find out that everything is going to take a lot longer than expected.

It’s probably similar to someone in marketing wanting to promote a new feature in a mass email to community members. It sounds simple to them, but we’re going to have problems with it.

There’s no easy path to navigating around them. You simply need to dive below as early as possible and figure out what you didn’t know.

Or, less metaphorically, explore the realities of any task in your project plan as quickly as possible. The sooner you identify the unknown unknowns, the sooner you can overcome them.

Solutions, Problems, And Gratitude

On a community project last year, the client was nervous that the number of posts and community was declining.

They had tried a few special events, tweaking the gamification system, and changing the registration process, but nothing had a big impact.

The real problem was they had tried to come up with solutions before isolating the problem.

When we began investigating, we found that the number of newcomers and registrations to the community had barely budged. The community was still attracting as many questions as ever – but the number of responses had declined.

Either questions were becoming too difficult for members to answer or there were fewer members to answer them. A quick browse of the data showed that the ‘superusers’ had declined by just over half in the past 7 months.

I reached out to 10 previously active participants to ask why.

Almost all identified the same problem. A year ago the community manager had changed. They found the new community manager cold, ungrateful, and almost hostile. Where they once received likes on almost every post, frequent direct messages with gratitude, and often hung out on zoom calls, the new community manager did none of that.

Worse yet, they increasingly felt like their input was ignored by this community manager rather than welcomed as it was by the past community manager.

Sometimes problems need big, bold, solutions to fix. Other times they just need a little more gratitude.

But you can’t resolve any problem until you get to the true source of it.

Tiny Tests To Optimise the Community

If you’re not sure what belongs in a navigation bar or whether a certain feature belongs in a certain place on the homepage, you can test it.

First create a list of the options. What could theoretically go in that position. It’s fine to have disagreements internally at this stage.

Second, use a platform like Optimizely to split test your options and see what gets the most clicks.

Or, if you can’t do that, simply test each option each month and see what gets the most clicks (relative to the volume of traffic each month).

Running 5 to 7 of these tiny tests each month can have a big impact upon the community.

Also consider how you name each area in the navigation bar. Changing the label from Forums, to Questions, to Topics etc…can have a surprisingly big impact.

Run a few tests and see what happens.

Responding to “Let’s Start A Group/Community For [x]”

Your response should be simple:

“How many people are asking for a group about [x]?”

Nine times out of ten you will get a response along the lines of:

“No-one yet, but….”

That’s when you know you shouldn’t start a group.

If people aren’t requesting or asking for a group or community, don’t create one. Instead work the audience to create the demand for such a group.

You can save a lot of time and money this way.

Guiding A Better Discussion Around Measurement

A client was recently asked to change how they measured the community because the results were ‘too high’.

Clearly, changing the methodology to get an acceptable outcome is a terrible way to establish metrics. Not only does it move the goalposts after you’ve scored, it also undermines trust in the team and any metrics related to the community.

A better approach is to engage stakeholders in the process of measurement early.

Ideally, I try to engage people in a real-time workshop where we can probe deeply into questions such as:

What do you care about changing?

How will you know if that change is happening?

What is the anecdotal evidence we would expect to see?

What are the metrics that we would expect to change?

Can anything besides the community influence these metrics?

What is the minimum the community needs to show to be viable?

What is a number that would blow you away and persuade you to increase support for the community?

The great thing about doing this live is everyone is able to give input, agree/disagree with one another, and take ownership of the metrics going forward.

You might find the real metrics that matter to you are completely different from what you had first expected.

It will also be harder to move the goalposts everyone has had a hand in putting up.

What Matters In Responses?

During the past few months, we’ve been running surveys on a number of client communities.

Two of the responses merit some attention (because the pattern is repeated in most clients we work with).

The first is who members prefer to get a response from here:

This shows that most people who ask a question don’t really mind who the response is from.

You might spend time agonising over whether members are getting enough responses from staff members or superusers, but your members probably don’t.

Which raises the question, what do members really care about? We’ve asked this frequently and the answers are usually similar to the example here:

Members care most about the detail (or quality) of response, the speed of response, and (to a lesser extent) getting a response which is personalised to them.

This probably reflects that the majority of members in the majority of communities don’t see themselves as part of a community. They’re not looking to bond and form friendships. They’re simply there to resolve a problem and move on.

I’ve known community professionals who have wasted a huge amount of time and resources trying to fight against this mindset and convert information seekers into committed community members.

A better use of that time is to work with a handful of top members who do feel a part of a community and want to help out. You can work with them to ensure members do get good, quick, responses to questions – even responses personalised to them.

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