Why Communities Don’t Grow As Fast As You Might Think

I often see an implicit assumption in community strategies along the lines of:

If we keep doing what we’re doing, activity and participation in the community will grow.

Why would that be the case?

It’s far more likely if you keep doing the same things you will get the same level of activity as you do now.

Activity will only grow if one of three things is happening:

1) The sector is growing. A rising tide lifts all boats and your community will benefit from that. In which case your targets should reflect the rate of growth in the sector (or new customers etc..).

2) Search traffic increases. If your community is public and properly indexed in search engines, more questions should naturally result in more search traffic as you hit more search terms. However, often communities create ‘thin content’ which reduces search traffic. This becomes a bigger problem as you grow.

3) Word begins to spread. This only happens if a) prospective members are connected to
each other through other channels and b) they mention and talk about the community in those channels. That doesn’t happen much unless you give them something to talk about.

Even when one (or more) of these is true, the rate of growth is usually around 10% per year.

Which means, if you want to grow activity in your community, you need to radically shake up what you’re doing today. That typically means you either need to expand the focus of the community (to target more people) or satisfy more of their desires to come back to the community more frequently.

A Good Banner

I’ve mentioned before the impact of banners.

I really like this one from CodeAcademy.

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The banner provides simple links for navigating around the community and satisfies the needs of the majority of members that visit.

Too many banners take up too much space to say very little. Getting your banner right can solve a lot of challenges members face.

A Simple Community Measurement Framework

I’ve recently been using a much simpler measurement framework with a client which I like.

Instead of getting sucked into all the things you could measure and hope some of it is interesting, you simply measure the execution of your strategy against a handful of core metrics.

See the image below:

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Now you drop in the results each month. Either you’re hitting your goals or you’re not. If you’re not, then probe deeper into the engagement-level metrics to see what is and isn’t working.

Who Decides Who Is A Grandmaster?

Chess has been around since the 6th century – but there wasn’t a grandmaster until a journalist used the phrase in 1838.

Even for the next decade, it was largely an informal term – used at the subject whim of journalists and players to describe great players in history. A grandmaster recognised by one player (or by one country) wasn’t necessarily recognised as a grandmaster by others.

This changed in the 1950s when FIDE (The World Chess Federation) put together a simple criteria which has gradually grown in complexity over the years.

The criteria doesn’t aim to identify the best players, chess has another system for that. It instead recognises players whose achievements can’t be fully captured within the rating system. It’s a title many will aspire to but few will ever gain.

You can probably see the parallels. I suspect many more communities would benefit from a dedicated leader like yourself putting together a simple criteria to recognise their grandmasters. Simple badges and superuser systems don’t quite cut it. You might put together a criteria that includes:

  • Speaking on stage at a major event in your industry.
  • Publishing a popular book in the field (or publishing an article/video with 50k+ views)
  • Replying to over 1000 questions with 500 accepted solutions.
  • 3 ideas incorporated into the community or the product.

If you research the people who have created a hall of fame, launched industry federations and associations, or set up their own grandmaster systems, you soon find they were rarely given permission. They simply saw the need and created it. Over time, it stuck.

Who are your Grandmasters going to be?

We Value Your Opinion, Here’s 20 Points…

This email from McDonald’s below is a classic example of the wrong way to motivate members to do anything:

There are two clear ways to motivate members to participate in a survey:

Engender members with a sense of importance and being able to make a unique impact for the greater good.

Use points and chances to win prizes.

The problem above is a) mixing the two messages and b) pushing neither message hard enough.

If you’re trying to make members feel they can have a unique impact, you need to make the message credible.

Highlight what kind of decisions might be taken as a result of what members share. Detail where you are stuck and why members are uniquely able to help. Share previous examples of changes made as a result of decisions made by members. Explain the time-frame for future changes and what they can expect afterward.

If you’re using points and prizes, be clear about what those points and prizes can earn members. Make it exciting. Breakdown what 20 extra points could mean in direct terms. Give a time-frame for feedback and make it a scarce opportunity.

p.s. This doesn’t just apply to surveys.

Create Definitive Resources For Your Community

Your community should be the definitive resource for its topic (however narrowly or broadly you define your topic).

At first cater to the newcomers:

  • A filtered set of top and most popular resources on the topic.
  • A list of the recommended books people should read.
  • A 101 guide to getting started in the topic.
  • A list of recommended people members should follow both inside and outside of the community.
  • A list of recommended equipment/product reviews.
  • A list of common mistakes/questions and how to solve them.

Solicit the questions of newcomers in interviews and ask members what they wish they knew when they got started. Then create those resources and solve those questions.

Next, cater to the needs of intermediate members:

  • Tackle individual topics and the complexities at each level.
  • Share advice for reaching rankings or becoming a top community member.
  • Identify how members with more resources or expertise tackle problems compared with newcomers.
  • Create groups just for more advanced members etc…
  • Research the most popular topics via search traffic and have members share their best advice on each in your community.

For most advanced members, host private mastermind groups. The kind of expertise they need is rarely one that’s available in the public domain already. Invite members to share their templates and resources in the group. Have free-following sessions and share the results with other members once they reach the higher ranks of your community.

What People Want vs. What People Do

When the behaviors most people do in a community aren’t the behaviors most people value, you have a problem.

Your members are creating a large amount of noise and a low amount of signal.

In my experience, this is only going to get worse.

Common examples include posting job links, sharing obscure links, self-promotional posts, beginner-level questions, off-topic questions etc…

You have a few options here:

1) Forbid these behaviors (which probably won’t be popular).

2) Find a place for these behaviors (job boards, promotional zones, beginner areas).

3) Find a time for these behaviors (limit them to certain days).

4) Find the people for these behaviors (get people to subscribe to activities tagged with beginner-level questions, off-topic chatter etc..)

1 and 2 are easiest, 3 and 4 are probably more effective.

Newcomers Are A Leverage Point

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.

p.s. Here’s a talk from 2014 covering this topic in more depth.

You Need Shared Definitions

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.

The Power Of Changing Your Vision

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).

What Behavior Does Your Community Replace?

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.

Anticipating vs. Responding to Demand

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.

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