Products vs. Interests (products win)

It seems every couple of months someone comes up with a seemingly great idea; ‘let’s organise our community by interest!’

This is when you structure the community not by the product or activity people are engaged with, you structure the community by what you think they’re trying to do/achieve/the broader interest.

For example, a company which provides HR products might structure the community by ‘getting started, managing a team, handling payroll’ etc…instead of product 1, product 2, product 3 etc…

The problem with this approach is it ignores how people think and, more importantly, behave (it’s also bad for SEO).

It’s like if your supermarket organized shelves around the type of meal you were trying to create and put chicken, onions, curry powder, rice, tomatoes, rice, and garlic in one area.

You can kind of see the logic to it. But it just isn’t how people think.

There are many places to be clever when building a community, how you structure the categories and interests isn’t one of them. Keep it simple and follow how your members behave today.

Taking A Much Deeper Dive Into Community Data (new framework)

A common mistake is to track a community by a single metric (i.e. member satisfaction, number of active members, number of posts, % of audience participating etc…)

There are two problems with this.

The first is that a single metric is easy to game. If you want to increase member satisfaction, find excuses to remove the unhappy members. If you want more posts, host more frivolous off-topic discussions etc…

The second is you can’t extract many useful insights about what to do next from simplistic data points. It’s the contributors to these metrics that matter.

Recently we’ve been pioneering an approach that segments a community by different audiences, categories, features, and/or topics and comparing them on four dimensions which typically correlate to the best member experience.

These areas are:

  1. Size of topic (by active participants or posts – relative to each other).
  2. Average time to first response (mins).
  3. Average response rate to questions (%).
  4. How helpful members find the responses (average of 1 to 5 scale)

Any attempt to game one metric will show up in the others. Then we plot these on a graph as you see in a slightly modified client example below:

Once you have data visualised like this you have a far more complete picture of what’s happening within your community and you can begin setting more specific targets.


Using Data To Identify Key Community Problems

We can see above while we’re answering more developer and partner questions quickly, the responses clearly aren’t good enough (off-topic responses also aren’t seen as helpful but we don’t really mind here).

We can also see that we’re not responding to as many product 1 questions as we should be.

Finally we’re also not responding to as many product 2 questions as we should be, the speed of response is poor, and, worse still, the quality of responses aren’t good enough.


Setting Community Targets For The Next Quarter

Now we can start setting more specific targets and some tactical steps:


  • Reduce the time to first response in ‘product 2’ questions by assigning virtual agents to help.
  • Increase the helpfulness score and response rate in ‘product 1’ questions through increasing the visibility of questions within the community.
  • Improve the quality of responses to developers and partners by recruiting experts to answer questions alongside staff members.

The challenge here isn’t coming up with the right actions or identifying the problems when you have the data, the real challenge is in extracting the data and presenting it in a way where you can identify exactly what is and isn’t working well in your community.

Don’t accept single overarching metrics, dive a lot deeper.

Overcoming Empty Community Knowledge Bases

It’s not uncommon to want a community-driven knowledge base.

Yet most organisations who enable this feature (i.e. members being able to share long-term content) soon realise it’s hard to get off the ground.

Very few people want to contribute. Ironically, the same people recommending community knowledge bases would struggle to name a single one they’ve ever contributed to (and not see that as a problem).

Your members are not going to casually drift by and decide to create a detailed piece of content.

There is a huge difference between enabling members to do something and motivating them to do it. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to boost motivation.

1) Create the first 100 articles. No-one wants to be the first person(s) to contribute to an empty knowledge base. It’s even worse when you only have your first 15 articles or so. Then it just looks sparse and empty. If you’re going to launch a new feature, commit to doing it well.

Prior to the launch, you should have dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of articles created by yourselves and (possibly) a few superuser accomplices. By the time you launch the knowledge base, it should already look incredible.

2) Run sprints (or knowledge hackathons) on specific topics. Create a challenge once a month (or every few months) for members to share their best resources on a specific topic (or tackling a specific challenge) in a given week.

3) Put people in charge of specific topics. The same member who wouldn’t contribute voluntarily is likely to try to gather plenty of articles together if they feel they are the custodian of the topic within the community. Sometimes you simply need to select someone with a good track record and put them in charge of a specific set of topics or resources.

4) Limit who can contribute to the knowledge base. If everyone can do it, there’s nothing special about doing it. Another option is to make contributing to the knowledge base something members get to do once they’ve reached a high level – and make a big deal about members who reach this level.

Don’t launch a community knowledge base to your members until you have a large number of existing articles there and a clear plan for gathering more.

The Annual Survey

Some platforms have great survey features which let you continuously survey a random sample of members each month and track results over time.

This is a great way of showing not just the improvement you’re making in the community, but also running multi-regression analysis to determine which metrics are strongly associated with the key metrics you want to move.

If you’re tracking member satisfaction, you can analyze whether things like time to first response, number of accepted solutions, number of questions/responses etc…are the biggest drivers of the results you want to see.

Once you know that, you know which metrics to focus on moving (this becomes the basis of your engagement plan).

If you don’t have this, I suggest you run an annual survey. Use the same questions each year. Track the results over time. It might be one of the simplest ways to prove the improvement you’re making within the community each year.

An Example of Great Community Design

DigitalOcean hosts one of my favourite communities.

Take a look at the homepage design below and see what you notice.

There’s a lot going on in this simplicity.

1) There’s an announcement of an upcoming event that is clear but doesn’t intrude upon the rest of the site.

2) The main navigation is really simple. Members can read useful information, ask questions, or ‘get involved’. The simplicity of the navigation here is great.

3) The top right shows the navigation to the rest of the corporate site. It’s there for people who need it but it doesn’t dominate the rest of the navigation.

4) The popular topics bar at the top enables the majority of members to quickly find the place where they should be. This solves any navigation issue for the majority of members.

5) The three-word header clearly shows who the community is for and its goal.

6) The subheader highlights precisely what members are expected to do and why. It appeals to the greater good.

7) The call to action (ask a question) is about as prominent as it could be.

You can see a clearer breakdown of this below:

The community isn’t perfect. There is no activity on the homepage, the banner is a little too large, and search isn’t in the prominent place where it should be.

But I’m betting if you can incorporate half of what DigitalOcean has done above, your community will be better for it.

Best Practices, Daily Digests, Member Interviews

For years, I’ve been advising organisations not to send a daily digest of new activity.

‘It overwhelms members and they stop reading all your emails!’

Last month I began working with a client who sent members a daily digest of new activity. I was hoping to pull a few quotes from member interviews to support the need to change it.

However, when I asked members about the daily digests and how they visited the community, they often gave the same response. They skimmed through the daily digest and clicked on the items they were interested in. Email digests were the primary route for most regular members to visit the community.

For sure, they wanted improvements to the daily digest, but almost unanimously they liked having a daily digest of new community activity.

There are a few lessons here.

1) Daily digests can be useful. For certain audiences, a digest is precisely what they need or have become accustomed to.

2) There are exceptions to every best practice. What’s best for most audiences might not be best for your audience. If in doubt, test it out. Don’t change things without checking with members first.

3) Don’t neglect member interviews. If you’re not interviewing a few members each month, you’re missing out on an incredible wealth of information.

Put your assumptions to the test in member interviews.

Question Visibility

If you see a question on Facebook or Twitter (and you know the answer) odds are you will reply with the answer.

You’re not looking for points, rewards, or some other incentive, you simply want to help (and maybe feel smart).

In fact, out of every factor we’ve ever looked at, seeing questions you know the answer to is by far the bigger determining factor in whether someone will participate in the community.

It’s easy to get hooked up developing gamification programs, superuser programs, trying to build a powerful sense of community, creating onboarding journeys etc. But the biggest bang for your buck is usually improving question visibility.

How do you get more questions in front of more people who might know the answer?

First improve the site design, notifications (and digests), and improve the notification systems. Then look at everything else.

Cashing In On Reputations

Someone recently asked what would be the best reward for members with a high reputation score?

Should they offer digital gift cards for $10 to $15?
Should they send out free SWAG and samples?
Should they let members exchange their points for unique perks?

These are terrible ideas.

The benefit of having a great reputation is having a great reputation!

Points, badges, and (to a lesser extent) leaderboards are simply indicators to make it easier to determine who has earned a reputation.

Sure, there might be some indirect financial benefits too. You might be approached for jobs, make valuable connections, or even get book deals. But the primary benefit of a great reputation is having that great reputation.

Your members don’t want cheap goodies for having a great reputation. They want to know their reputation matters. They want to be consulted, treated like a wise village elder, and be able to have input and impact on decisions.

In a completely rational world, members would like the $10 gift card. $10 is better than $0 after all…

But, in the real world (where people experience emotions), your members want things money can’t buy….like a great reputation.

“We’re Live” vs. “You’re Invited”

On launch date, many organisations send an email out to their audience with the following words:

“Our community is now live!”

This makes sense. If you’ve worked hard for months to get the community ready to launch, you’re excited to announce its launch to the world.

But the words “we’re now live” are indicative of the wrong approach. They focus upon your state of mind, not your members’.

Believe me, your audience isn’t clutching their phones trepidatiously awaiting the launch of your community. They’re going about their daily lives.

The problem with announcing the community “is now live” is the audience’s natural reaction is “so what?” (or, more likely, complete indifference).

The better way of thinking about this is to use the phrase:

“You’re invited…”

“You’re invited” instantly provokes curiosity.

Then craft the invite like an invite to a conference afterparty. But imagine your afterparty is being hosted at the same time as 20 others. What would you say, do, an offer to get someone to attend to yours?

Will it be the unique and powerful people they can connect with?
Will it be the most exclusive afterparty in town?
Will the afterparty break new ground or have amazing features others don’t?
Will you want them personally because of something they’ve said and done in the past?

Instead of writing a message announcing a community’s launch, write a message pretending you’re inviting busy people to a party.

Ideas vs. Assumptions

Anyone can look at any community and say ‘hey, why not do [x]?’

You might implement, members might engage in it, and the originator of the idea claims success and comes up with more ideas.

None of this really helps anyone though. At least not in the long-term. You haven’t learned or incorporated anything new.

You shouldn’t be coming up with ideas, you should be testing assumptions.

They’re not the same. An assumption is built upon research, data, and observations. You develop a test and define success and failure in metrics before you begin. If the assumption is proved correct, you incorporate it into how you engage the community.

An idea might be “let’s get members to share their equipment stack!”

An assumption would be: “We know from survey data that newcomers want to make the right purchase decisions and don’t trust influencer reviews. We assume they would find recommendations from our members more useful. We will test this in three ways:

1) We will invite newcomers to highlight their toughest challenges when they join the community. If 1/3rd of them list knowing what equipment to buy/setting up the right equipment in the top 3 answers, we will consider this a success and move on to 2)

2) Create a survey sent only to top members asking them to select the equipment they use. We will publish this list and measure how many newcomers click on it. If it ranks in the top 20% of pages clicked, it will be a success and we will move on to 3)

3) We will initiate a discussion asking members what equipment advice they would recommend for newcomers. If this ranks in the top 10% of discussions by views in this month, we will consider it a success and turn this into an annual ‘best of’ equipment list curated by top members (and create a category for these discussions).

Notice how based upon the results of the test, you can decide whether to continue performing the activity, expand it, or incorporate it into a major plank of the community.

Coming up with random ideas is a waste of time (so is listening to the ideas of others). Working on assumptions and adapting quickly…that’s much more useful.

Increasing Community Diversity

While pitching for a community project a couple of years ago, I was asked:

“We want to increase the diversity of the community – particularly with younger black audiences. How would you go about that?”

I looked at the room of five white, middle-aged, men and women and replied:

“Well, I think the first step is to increase the diversity of this room”.

While I didn’t get the project, I did get a lecture about how diverse the experience was of the people in the room and how considerate they were to the needs of the audiences they were trying to reach.

I’ve noticed in the years since, the community has completely failed to gain any traction among its target audiences.

Last year, I worked on another project which sought engagement from younger minority audiences. We hired representatives of each audience to work for the community, gave them real decision-making power (even making decisions we strongly disliked), and supported them with the resources to pursue their goals.

They decided what technologies to use, what activities should take place, what outreach messages should look like etc…They began by sending the outreach messages themselves to their friends.

And it worked! The community today has hundreds of participants from this exact target audience. All of whom appear highly engaged and motivated.

Being considerate and empathetic are terrific skills to have. But they’re not a substitute for having a reputation and lived experience amongst the audiences you want to attract. IF you want to increase diversity in your community, increasing the diversity of the community team is the best place to begin.

Outreach To Top Creators

I received this outreach message recently.

It was so poorly targeted I nearly skipped over it.

However, poor targeting aside, it’s not actually not a bad offer (or message).

If someone in your industry has been sharing useful templates and resources, reaching out to them with an invitation to share it within the community which would massively increase their reach is a win-win.

If you reach out to the top 25 people in your field and get a positive response from 10 of them, you’re suddenly building an incredible repository of great resources in your community. And probably attracting people willing to respond to comments and posts about their work.

If you want to know how to attract some of the bigger names in your industry, this isn’t a bad way to go about it.

Just make sure you’re targeting the right person(s).

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