Why Partner Communities Usually Struggle To Sustain Activity

Try building a community for competitors operating within a relatively small sector.

You’re probably not going to get far. Few people want to share their expertise and advice with competitors (at the extreme, there are even laws preventing close cooperation between competitors).

This is why most partner communities aren’t really communities at all. Few partners proactively share information with one another or participate in discussions. The majority, by far, are information portals filled with announcements, tools, resources and, sometimes, events, where people can learn more from the brand.

Sometimes partners might ask a question about a problem, but they expect an answer from the brand.

The primary source of member-to-member information distribution in these communities are events – often in the form of featured member interviews or webinars.

One solution to this is to try to change the culture and build a more cooperative dynamic between partners in the same ecosystem. To be blunt, that’s a very hard sell. The other is to work with it and accept that discussions probably aren’t going to thrive. But that doesn’t mean you can gather great examples, resources, and host amazing events for partners.

Template Examples Of How To Engage Your Community Members

Over the years, we’ve developed a large number of template responses for community teams to adapt to their situations. The idea is to get people to consider how they can participate in a community with empathy.

I’ll share a few that have worked well here (all names/details have been tweaked):

Example of A Direct Welcome Message From A Community Manager

This post is used in smaller communities where the community manager welcomes each new person. The purpose is to build instant rapport, provide useful information, build connections between existing members, and solicit a follow-up.

“Hi @Raphael,

Welcome to the community. It’s great to have someone with a remote-first background here. Have you recently moved to California as well?

Your question is probably going to be of interest to a lot of our newcomers. I’d highlight two resources we have at the moment available here and here. Both give you a great overview of places to get started.

I’d also suspect some of our veterans like @nikita77, @benj, and @crystalCK can jump in and help here too.

Let me know if this helps at all!”

 

Example Of Responding To A Product Problem Post

This post is used where the original poster is asking for help to resolve a product problem but failed to provide enough information to get a good response. The goal is to keep the mood light, solicit more information, make the member feel seen, and bring in others who might be able to help.

“Hey @Clare6

Nooo, don’t break out the hammer just yet! I’m 100% sure we can get this fixed.

The first step is to get a little more information from you first. Can you share what operating system you’re using and what you’ve tried so far? Feel free to share any screenshots too!

Also what is the ideal outcome you want? I think that would help our members give good responses here too.

I know @Vix-ed had this problem before so might also be able to help.”

 

Example Of Launching A New Initiative

This post is used to launch a new initiative within the community. The goal is to get members excited, ensure the post gets responses, deliver the information quickly, and ensure members quickly grasp the concept. Notice the use of @mentions to bring in others to respond to get things started.

“Hello community, I have some awesome news!

It’s a new month and we’ve been working with some of our top members (@AK22, @SusanS, and @KDOVE) to launch a new challenge.

In this one, we want you to share your favourite masks. You can post as frequently (or infrequently) as you like. If you have unique designs, custom masks, or have simply seen something you love, this is the place to share it!

Ready, set, go!”

 

Example Of Clamping Down On Bad Behavior

This post is another real-life situation in which bad behavior began to infect the community and had to be addressed (without antagonising members). The goal here was to be kind, but clear. Understanding, but firm.

“Hi @community,

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen a rise in posts with messages like “remove this if this is against the rules” – typically followed by something against the rules(!).

We’ve taken a lenient approach so far – typically just removing the post and sending a polite note to the creator that the post was indeed against the rules. Alas, this leniency is resulting in a growing influx of self-promotional posts.

So, here’s a warning (we send with kindness), please check the updated rules before you post. None of us want to whip out the banhammer, but we also want to make sure the community isn’t filled with self-promotion.”

 

Example Of Attracting Collaborators

This post was to attract some early members to participate in our upcoming resources. We wanted to make this feel like a rare opportunity for members to get more involved in supporting the community. Notice here we’re not providing a detailed outline of what we want to do. Instead, we’re provoking interest and then making members make the first commitment.

“Hello everyone!

In the coming year we’re going to create 4 universal resources.

These are detailed guides tackling specific areas of our topic and challenges people want to overcome.

We’re looking for a couple of you to step up and help us create these guides. We want your help to source the best ideas, solicit your expertise and knowledge, and develop the project.

If you’re interested, simply reply here. Myself and our @communityMVP team are eager to hear from you.”

 

Example Of Responding To A Highly Emotive Situation

This was the most challenging post. In this community, members shared some of their most harrowing personal situations and looked for emotional support. The temptation here is to try to inform/educate this group. Unless the member asks for help, they simply want you to be there for them. This post is simply to acknowledge and be there for the member.

“Hi @adamS,

Thanks for this honest and detailed post. The entire community team and I were touched by it and we can’t begin to imagine the pain you’re in and what you’re going through.

Believe me when I say, you’re not alone.

I’m with you. Our entire community team is with you. And our entire community is with you too.

Anytime you need someone to speak to, looking for support, or just want to invest. You only have to reach out. If other members want to lend their support, share their experiences, please do reply in the comments. “

Feel free to adapt or use these however suits you. Hopefully, they provide some help as you develop your skills and train your community teams.

Archiving Outdated Discussions And Content In A Community

Among the biggest wins from this consultancy project was archiving old and outdated discussions within the community.

There are far better guides than I can write on this topic, but it’s handy to know how it applies to a community.

As communities mature, so do discussions. The same advice which may have been relevant and useful five years ago might not be relevant today. This means members are increasingly landing at pages with bad advice. Worse yet, a search for information might not take you to the latest and most useful advice.

In our interviews, we noticed members frequently mentioned landing at old posts with outdated information alongside the other problems you see here.

The Problem With Removing Old Discussions

We could simply remove old posts, but that presents a host of new problems. For example:

  • Members might lose their post counts.
  • The community might lose traffic from incoming links to those pages.
  • It might create a lot of broken links on the site from discussions/content which link to other discussions/content.

Listing Discussions To Remove

We combined data from ScreamingFrog with our own analysis to list discussions which had:

1) Attracted less than 10 visits in the past month.
2) Had received less than 2 posts in the past year.
3) Had been published more than 2 years ago.

We also combined this with any discussion which had received a response within the past 2 years which included the phrase ‘outdated’, ‘out of date’, and ‘old’ (we probably could have had a better system for this). This was a small list of a few hundred discussions which we manually checked and tagged for updating (or archiving if there was a newer discussion on the topic).

This created a list of around 17k discussions.

Archiving vs. Removing Discussions

Instead of deleting content, which would have likely caused a lot of disruption, we deindexed the discussion from public search engines and the community’s own search engine.

All of the discussions are still there, but they are extremely difficult for anyone to find. This means members don’t lose their post counts and it doesn’t create broken links. But it also prevents members from landing on discussions with outdated advice.

It didn’t completely resolve the problem, but in the last survey we undertook, landing on discussion with outdated information didn’t rank in the top 10 problems anymore.

The exact numbers to remove are somewhat arbitrary, but if you’re looking to clean up your community and need a criteria to start with, I’d begin with the above and adjust it to your situation.

(p.s. Read the full case study here).

Your Job Isn’t To Make It Rain

It’s generally recognised that the hotel manager is responsible for looking after guests once they step through the front door. They’re not responsible for increasing the number of guests in the first place. Managing and promotion are two very different tasks.

A job description sent my way this week listed targets for a community manager to quadruple the number of community visitors in a year.

For sure, you can have some influence over the number of visitors. But, overwhelmingly, the biggest sources of growth are likely to come from channels over which you may have little direct influence (no. customers with questions, no. visitors to your brand website, promotion of the community by the brand to its audience etc…).

Job descriptions like these seem to be setting the community manager up to fail. In my experience, it often happens when someone wants to saddle a new hire with an extreme target from a senior level.

The reality is if you want 4x the visitors, you’re going to need 4x the promotion you’re getting today. If that’s not on the table, walk away from the table.

Don’t Blunder Into A Community Persuasion Strategy

It’s ok to pursue a persuasion approach as long as you’re aware and prepared to do the work of persuading.

The problem begins if a) you’re not aware you’re pursuing a persuasion strategy and b) you’re not prepared to do the work of persuading.

As you can see in the matrix here, if you’re trying to get existing members to perform a new behavior, you’re pursuing a persuasion strategy (or if you’re launching any new community which isn’t based around an immediate need).

 

Launching a new feature and hoping members will use it? That’s a persuasion strategy.

Starting a group for people to discuss a topic they’re not talking much about today? That’s a persuasion strategy.

(Incidentally, almost all superuser programs are persuasion strategies).

There are nuances to persuasion, but the basic approach is pretty clear.

You need to deliver persuasive messages from credible people to a receptive audience.

Each needs a quick background.

1) Persuasive message. This typically takes the form of an emotive story that fits with the audience’s existing worldview and changes their attitudes. This should match your positioning and strategy. Common archetypes include: “people like you do things like this…”, “you are the best/future/important”, “there’s a small window to [make change happen]”, “help contribute to the greater good”.

2) Credible people. You’re not likely to trust a message delivered by a stranger (or someone sending low-status signals). They’re not one of your tribe. You will listen to people you know, trust, or are perceived as high credibility.

3) Receptive audience. Even the best-written email won’t do well if members are seeing it in the spam or ‘promotions’ folder. Context matters. Your members are more likely to be receptive to a message if they’ve opted into it or the context explicitly commands attention (like a meeting).

When we’ve done this work with clients, we begin by identifying possible stories.

Let’s imagine you want to improve retention by having veterans share their best tips for newcomers. Most people would send an email inviting members to share their best tips. But if we’re using the key principles of persuasion you might come up and test a few different emotive stories.

“Are you as passionate about helping others as we are? Can you share your top 3 tips?”

“Newcomers are struggling and only people with your expertise can help…”

“We’re inviting just our top 5 members to share their best tip for newcomers by this Friday, you’ve made the list. What is your best piece of advice?”

“Help make this the friendliest and most welcoming community for newcomers in the world..”

Notice each hits at a slightly different emotional appeal and tells a different story (but all lead to the same outcome).

Next we look at who the messages should come from. The best options are either:

a) Who does the audience know best within the community team?

b) Who does the audience look up to and recognise in the organisation?

Finally, we think about the best medium to deliver the message. You could send out a mass email. But that’s the quickest and least effective medium.

Other options might include:

  • Signing up to a private webinar to hear directly from the organisation.
  • Scheduling individual calls and meetings.
  • Sending personalised emails to each recipient.
  • Posting an announcement in the forum.
  • Recording a special video message and sharing it.
  • Etc…

It takes skill and experience, but each time you take a persuasion approach you get better at doing it. The key lesson is if you’re trying to get members to undertake a behavior they’re not doing today, you need to persuade them to do it. Persuasion is about emotive stories which change attitudes. The messages need to be sent from a credible person in a context to which the audience will be receptive to.

The ‘Person Workaround’ Usually Fails

A workaround is a temporary fix.

You might tape over a (small) windscreen crack until you can get the car serviced. But you probably don’t want to begin a road trip without figuring out who’s going to drive the car.

This seems to be happening too often in communities. Due to ‘headcount issues’, ‘recruitment delays’ or some other uncertainty, community projects are going full-steam ahead without any clarity on who’s going to run the project.

Trust me, ‘Mike from customer support’ isn’t going to cut it. It’s not his job, he’s not accountable for its success, and it will always be something he tries to get around to at the end of the day. You could outsource the community, at least for a while, but that problem is they’re juggling multiple communities.

I have no problem with temporary technology workarounds when needed. But when it comes to people, you need to push the stop button and figure out who’s going to be running the show before you launch.

Authenticity vs. Polish

One of my first gigs was working at the UN Refugee Agency in Geneva.

My boss, without anyone’s permission, managed to get cheap flip cameras out to some refugees with the goal of filming their lives. We hoped to use the footage in some of our community channels.

The results weren’t great at first. Imagine those old, shaky, video camera family videos and you get the idea. But after a couple of days, the refugees did something interesting. They flipped the camera around and began filming themselves. They spoke directly to the camera and told their stories.

Sometimes it was a bit shaky, sometimes several takes were oddly stitched together, and none of the footage had anything resembling professional lighting or audio setup.

However…it was incredibly raw, powerful, and authentic. Naturally, the video team hated it (“there wasn’t even a panning establishing shot”).

A few months ago, working with the Sephora team the topic of authenticity came up again. Do we need a top community member programme when there’s already a top influencer outreach programme? My take is of course! One group can give you professionally produced content they can share with their vast audiences. The other can give you emotive, authentic, content which persuades people just like them.

There’s definitely value in producing professional-level content to share with the community. At a certain point, poor production values just begin to look bad. There’s a reason top influencers gradually up their production game over time.

Yet, there’s tremendous value in raw, authentic, content too.

Undermining A Strategy With Poor People Skills

A great strategy needs to be matched by good people skills.

I remember one project where we spent months working with an organisation to develop the community strategy. A few days before the presentation, the community leader fell ill and his direct report, the community manager, stepped in to do the presentation.

18 of us were in the room. The CEO opened the meeting with a short, enthusiastic, speech about the importance of community and how the organisation needed to be more engaged in all of the organisation’s community channels; forums, social media, YouTube and more…

The community manager quickly chimed in to say:

“Social media isn’t really community, it’s building an audience not connecting members to one another”

For sure, it’s an argument shared by many of us. But contradicting a highly supportive CEO in front of almost the entire executive team before beginning the presentation is an extreme act of self-sabotage.

It went downhill from there. Throughout the presentation, the community manager was stubborn and inflexible. She saw every question as a potential attack instead of an opportunity to better align and incorporate the needs of others. When the exec team began to discuss key points of the presentation between themselves, she jumped in with a ‘definitive’ answer to shut the discussion down instead of facilitating the discussion and ensuring key people were heard.

She didn’t speed up through the less important parts or slow down at the key parts. Her tone of voice wasn’t excited and enthusiastic but projected an air of ‘this is the thing you must do’. She didn’t give the audience a sense of autonomy. The strategy was presented as ‘this is the strategy, take it or leave it’.

In hindsight, this was our fault (mine and the community leader). We should have pushed back the meeting to allow more time for her to practice and prepare.

A great strategy doesn’t succeed if you appear nervous or argumentative when presenting (or executing) it. People have to like and respect you before they can like and respect your strategy. Improvement here begins with awareness. You need to solicit honest feedback from peers to find areas of improvement. It might not sound like the community work you signed up for, but it really is.

“WHY AREN’T YOU FIXING THIS???”

From the member’s perspective, it’s a simple equation.

They have a problem and your organisation should fix it.

Better yet, they can see other members complaining about the same problem!

It’s a no-brainer!

In their minds, if you’re not going to fix the issue, you’re either incompetent or greedy (i.e. you’re taking their money without offering a quality service).

The reality is progress is complex and there are plenty of valid reasons why you can’t fix a problem yet. For example:

  • The roadmap is established on highest priority issues and there’s no spare resource to solve it.
  • You might be working on it, but it’s going to take time.
  • You plan to depreciate that feature anyway.
  • You can’t fix that one issue without fixing a number of other issues.
  • Only a tiny number of people are voicing concern about it.
  • Etc…

Worse yet, as much as your organisation might work internally to supply and validate the feedback and ensure people are aware of the concern, you might not be allowed to explain why the issue can’t be fixed.

You might not know how long it’s going to take, there might be laws that prevent you from discussing it, your organisation has concerns about competitors knowing what’s coming next etc…

This is a frustrating situation to be in. But two things might be helpful here.

First, be open from the very beginning that there are some things you might not be able to share. Have it in a document (perhaps with examples) and refer to it when a topic like this comes up.

Second, don’t just ignore the member. Always hear them out, be empathetic, and make sure they know you’ve read and considered their post.

Third, don’t promise anything you’re not 100% sure you can deliver on.

Why Top Experts Shun Brand Communities

It’s hard to engage genuine experts in a public community.

Which is a shame, because this is the audience which could offer the most value to other members.

The problem is usually simple; the community doesn’t offer enough value to top experts. Points, badges, and gamification appeals to a very narrow segment of any audience.

In my experience, top experts typically want a few very specific things:

1) To improve their expertise by gaining exclusive access to the organisation.
2) Access to other experts in a private, exclusive, environment.
3) Increase the size of their following and control over that following.

This is why at the highest levels, experts prefer either private WhatsApp groups, zoom meetings, or to post content on platforms they control.

If you want to engage top experts, you need to offer the above. Provide support to verified experts with direct access to members of your team (not just the community manager). Create and host private working sessions (in person is ideal). And link to the preferred channels (twitter, blogs, medium etc…) of top experts in your community providing they keep participating in the community.

A Framework For Hosting A Successful Workshop To Gain Alignment On Community Goals

It’s far, far, better to guide executives to decide the goals of the community for themselves rather than tell them.

This is an exercise we sometimes run with clients which has proven extremely effective.

You begin on Mural (or any tool you like) with a simple chart that looks like this.

Step One – Identify Possible Community Goals

The first step is to list all the possible community goals by importance on the vertical axis. Don’t allow any goals to have equal weight (that allows people to fudge difficult decisions). This means you often need senior people in the room to make final decisions.

Some goals might be close in relative value to one another, but there should be a clear hierarchy in place. This is a recent example:

You can keep this fairly broad to begin with just to surface every possible goal.

 

Step Two – Convert Goals Into Specific Behaviors

Every possible goal of the community should now be listed by order of importance. The next step is to convert these goals into specific member behaviors.

This is what makes it real.

In our workshops, participants typically begin with goals such as:

  • Improve the customer experience.
  • Reduce customer effort score.
  • Improve NPS
  • Reduce support costs.
  • Generate leads!
  • Change perception of our brand!

But what does that mean in terms of actual member behaviors in the community? What will members actually be doing? Try to get as specific as possible at this stage to tease out the precise behaviors you need (guide the process if you like, but it’s good to let your audience come to their own conclusions).

Everyone should now have a pretty good idea about how the community might achieve each goal. The next step is to discuss feasibility.

 

Step Three – Rank By Feasibility

Now you need to adjust these goals by how feasible they are. Feasibility is usually a combination of three things:

1) Are the behaviors something members want to do/require a lot of effort?

2) Do members perform those behaviors today (or show a strong desire to perform those behaviors)?

3) Is there strong competition for members to perform those behaviors?

For each of the behaviors you can ask these questions to come to some agreement. Your own expertise probably plays a bigger role here than anywhere else.

By the end you might have a chart that looks like this:

If you’ve got the right people in the room, you should now be able to determine the goals of your community. In the example above, you might begin with support, then increasing utilisation, and then gathering feedback.

This might also help you avoid the common pitfalls (especially creating a community around a behavior members don’t currently perform (or offers no value to the organisation).

The Zoom Community (design and member needs)

Zoom launched a community recently.

It’s a good implementation of a new community and worth spending some time exploring:

The value of the community is clear; solve your zoom problems.

Zoom isn’t trying to fight against the tide by encouraging members to perform behaviors they’re not doing. They’re simply redirecting existing behaviors (trying to solve problems) into a more efficient place.

(It might be better to communicate this on the header though).

The design of the community follows most best practices too.

The Banner

The banner is kept to a minimal height (although the image is familiar) and the search box is positioned in the most prominent location.

Navigation

The community uses a two-level navigation system with the top level navigation letting members quickly browse through products, industries, and resources and the second-tier navigation menu using small icons to find the areas that the majority of members are looking for.

In addition, the getting started area is easy to find and the latest activity is above the fold on the homepage.

Dev Forum

Zoom also know developers need their own communities (typically on Stackoverflow, Reddit, Slack or Discourse) and have created a separate zone for developers.

While it doesn’t appear efficient to be hosting two different platforms, it typically results in a better experience for both audiences.

Topic, Industry, Dev, Resources

The taxonomy of the site is one of its strongest assets. The site avoids the usual taxonomy problems by guiding members by topic rather than intent. Members can quickly browse by topic, industry, resources, or get help using the community.

There are some downsides too. There are some small bugs on the site, gamification feels poorly implemented, and just listing topic titles would probably be better than including content on the homepage.

Overall, however, the community has a strong purpose which is well implemented and likely to thrive in the long-term.

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