Me and 312 others spent 30 minutes staring at a human shadow and listening to unclear, muffled, audio. It undermined the entire presentation the community manager was giving – a rather important presentation too.
The community manager was using the default laptop camera for both the webcam and audio – and had the window (or light source) behind him.
What might’ve been the norm a few years ago now looks distracting and unprofessional. Almost two years into this pandemic, there really isn’t a good excuse for still giving members a poor experience like this. Especially when you can take four relatively simple steps to fix it.
1) Make sure the light is in front of you (turn your desk around if you need to).
2) Invest in a simple ring light. Even the cheapest one will have a big impact.
3) Get a simple microphone (I’ve had a handy transportable one for years).
4) Buy a good webcam (I use this one).
Then take twenty minutes to set it up and test it all before your next meeting. For a relatively tiny amount of money, you can give members the experience they deserve.
No one is asking you to deliver a world-class experience, just to recognise the baseline has moved.
If you’re managing a community on life support (i.e. there’s only a blip of activity when you generate the activity), it’s hard to optimise your way to activity.
Relatively small tweaks like improving the site design, how the community team engages members, or the gamification/MVP systems won’t make much of an impact. If few people are visiting the community, they won’t see any changes in the community anyhow.
You usually need to make a major change to revive a ‘life support’ community.
This usually falls into the four categories shown below:
1) Change the benefits. This isn’t just changing the text, it means changing the core purpose and nature of the community. A community for members to explore and share best practices might become one dedicated to solving immediate problems. A community to foster belonging and relationships between members might become one to share and comment on the latest news developments etc…
2) Change the target audience. This typically means going more or less exclusive. You can either become more focused on a niche group or more broad. Do your research on possible audiences and choose carefully. Also note this also affects whether the community is public vs. private.
3) Change the platform category. Sometimes you simply can’t persuade people to visit a certain type of platform to obtain the benefits you offer. In this scenario, you need to use a platform they are likely to visit. This might mean walking away from an expensive platform.
4) Invest more in promotion. Sometimes you simply need more people to reach that magical number of 100 actively participating members. This usually means building partnerships with people who have existing audiences, promoting more to your mailing list, positioning the community better, optimising for search, and using paid social ads. Be warned, if you can’t engage the members you have there’s no guarantee you will engage the members you don’t have. You should only pursue this route if you’re sure none of the above is the problem.
In my experience, when presented with options like the above most opt for 1) changing the benefits because it requires the least amount of pain. Yet, most of the time, the real solution lies in options 2 to 4.
In politics, the biggest possible win is to persuade non-voters to vote (preferably for your side).
The community equivalent is persuading people with questions to ask them in your community. Most people are good at bringing insufferable problems to the community. The pain is high and the solution is needed urgently.
But the biggest way to increase engagement is encouraging people to bring their sufferable problems to the community. These are the problems which aren’t urgent and people could live with.
Insufferable problem: “My excel sheet won’t load, help me!”
Sufferable problem: “Is there a better way of displaying the dates in Excel?”
If you can persuade your members to bring sufferable problems to the community, they get more value, learn to use your products/services/information better, and you get more engagement.
There are two important steps to take here.
The first is to specifically list the types of questions members might want to ask in the newcomer email and welcome email.
Make sure some of these discussions are featured (or pinned) on the homepage too. Members shouldn’t feel their questions are too frivolous to bring to the community. Make it clear in the member journey that members can share what they’re working on for feedback on what they might improve, share any fears they might have to see if they’re justified, or simply ask for help to resolve small annoyances (with examples).
The second is to reduce the pain of asking the question. People suffer with tiny problems because the effort to resolve them is considered greater than the benefit of the solution. If people can simply share a screenshot and ask for help, ask their question by email without having to visit the community, or get a prompt to solicit any questions on different topics each week – you will start to collect a lot more sufferable problems you can resolve.
It’s easy to come up with community ideas, executing on them well is often the hard part.
To execute an idea well, I’ve found it helps to:
- Research/gather data to support the value of the idea.
- Gain widespread support for the idea by sharing and gathering feedback from others.
- Identify numerous examples of the idea in practice.
- Check if the idea is possible with the technology platform you’re using.
- Flesh out every step involved in implementing the idea.
- Cost the idea in time/resources and know when development work can begin (i.e. who will be doing it, what exactly will they be doing etc…?)
- Speak to those who have undertaken the same thing and identified what could go wrong (and how to avoid it).
- Prioritise the idea against the other activities which will be undertaken at the same time.
It’s sadly common to have great ideas fail because they were poorly executed.
Many organisations post product news on the community homepage.
These announcements often take up prime real estate on the community’s homepage.
This isn’t usually a good idea. The overwhelming majority of members don’t visit to read news and those that do probably aren’t the right people you want to engage in the community. When you begin posting news in the community, the community can quickly become a dumping ground of announcements.
I’d suggest you either create a group for people specifically interested in news and post it there or simply don’t post it at all. Instead include a link where people can get news and keep the majority of the site there for what people want to do most – exchange useful information with each other.
Speaking at an event recently, I was struck by two different approaches undertaken by speakers.
About half the speakers went on stage and shared really valuable information. If you were taking notes, these notes would be very useful for you later.
The other half served shared compelling, memorable, stories.
Writing this on the train journey home, I can recall every one of the stories. But I’ll need to refer to my notes to recall the information from other speakers.
When communicating with any audience (especially a community), take a second to decide if you need the information to be memorable (and persuasive) or if it’s simply information members can refer back to later.
And if you want your message to be remembered and acted upon, you probably need to tell a compelling story.
Three years ago, a client was recruiting a community manager. We sourced three candidates with great track records. Preliminary discussions with each suggested a figure of $135k would be enough to attract interest in the role.
Unfortunately, this turned out to be $25k higher than the client was willing to spend. It took several months to get the increase approved. This is several months the client continued to pay for a platform they couldn’t use and incur an opportunity cost of not developing the community quicker (the former alone exceeded $25k).
Community managers with a great track record of consistently developing communities at top brands don’t come cheap. You will be lucky to find anyone below $135k a year.
Yet in context, this figure is a bargain. The goal for our client’s community was to generate $7m in annual cost savings within 2 years. Spending an extra $25k to get someone proven (as opposed to someone with potential) is a no-brainer. It’s barely a fraction of what was being spent on the platform.
I suspect we need to massively adjust our salary expectations for community talent in the coming years.
Whenever you remove any content a member has posted, they will assume the worst possible intent.
Last year, a client recently faced a product problem. This led to dozens of members starting new, repetitive, and negative discussions in the community. To prevent the community becoming overwhelmed, they decided to remove all but one post.
Naturally, this led to outrage amongst members claiming the brand was trying to cover up the problem.
This led to an internal debate about whether the community team should be removing ‘discussions’.
The problem is ‘removing discussions’ isn’t a helpful way to frame a problem. Better to identify the specific problem you’re trying to resolve.
For example, instead of removing discussions you might want to think about:
- Quality of new discussions. How much research and effort do you expect a member to make when posting a question? Below what threshold should it be removed?
- Quantity of discussions. How many posts should a member be able to initiate within 24 hours?
- Age and recency of discussions. Should you remove old discussions? How will you know if discussions are outdated and should be pruned? When and where will you do this?
- Dealing with critical problems. What do you do when a product problem has emerged which members are creating endless new discussions about (filled with complaints?)
- What counts as spam/self-promotion? Where do you draw the line between what is the promotion of something of value and what’s self-promotional?
This is far from a comprehensive list, but you get the idea. Instead of deciding whether or not to delete discussions, you should be deciding which rules you are creating/enforcing/refining? Arbitrarily removing a discussion without a rule to explain why is never a good idea.
The majority of community homepages I’ve seen are designed for the wrong audience.
People visiting your community homepage aren’t looking for an answer to a question. In the data of almost every public community I’ve worked with, the majority of people arrive at a specific discussion. They typed their question into Google and landed on a discussion (note – not the homepage!)
The majority of people visiting your homepage fall into one of two categories.
a) People who have clicked a link (probably your homepage). These folks are often newcomers to the topic/product/company and found the community in the ‘getting started’ experience.
b) People who are returning to the community. These folks have participated before and are visiting to see what’s new. They’re not going to spend a lot of time browsing, they simply need to know if there’s anything interesting happening.
In an ideal world, you can use the information gathered about them (i.e. did they join within the past month or not) to show entirely different community experiences.
When that’s not possible, you need to abide by a couple of rules here.
1) Keep newcomer content visible, but minimal. Once someone has seen the newcomer areas, they don’t need to visit again. Avoid the big ‘welcome’ banners/messages for the same reason. People ignore what they’ve already seen.
2) Create the definitive newcomer location (and link to it prominently from the homepage). Create a destination and set of resources to help newcomers get up to speed. Combine this with your knowledge base, member journeys, best practice examples, top newcomer tips, and safe places where newcomers can ask their beginner-level questions. Your community should offer the definitive place for the newcomer experience.
3) Showcase the latest activity prominently above the fold. This should go without saying these days. The easier you make the community to scan to see what’s new, the more engagement you will get. It’s impossible to sustain a highly responsive community if it’s hard to see everything that’s new at a glance.
4) Highlight the ‘MVP/champions’ program. If people are already visiting frequently to see what’s new, they’re the most likely group to be interested in taking things up a notch. In the majority of communities the majority of members don’t even know a top member program exists. Make it visible (or make members aware they’re eligible to apply) after [x] contributes in the community.
5) Highlight high-signal, low-noise, content at the advanced level. Things like release notes, latest additions to the knowledge base, new announcements, a digest of the top tips/upcoming events is extremely useful for this audience.
This is far from a comprehensive list, but you get the idea. The people coming to your homepage are complete newcomers (who need some guidance) and returning visitors who need to see what’s fresh (and useful) to keep returning.
Take a look at the screenshot of the Logitech community below:
If you’re going to ask people asking for help in a community to contact the support team, what’s the point in having a community? (p.s. This is just two of countless similar responses posted in the community).
Surely it would make far more sense to send support staff to unanswered questions than unanswered questions to support staff?
If you do the former, support staff provide an answer that prevents more questions. This is better for everyone (and stops repeat questions). If you tell posters of unanswered questions to file that same question to support, you’re not only wasting their time but guaranteeing more people ask that question in the future.
For sure, if questions require private information or appear to be an emergency, guide them to support (or automatically escalate it to support). But for the rest, get support to answer in the community.
It’s tempting to post broad questions which are easy for most members to answer.
In theory, this should increase participation. In reality, it tends to depress participation.
General questions aren’t exciting for genuine experts to answer. They’re too general to produce any useful information. They’re also close cousins of the dreaded ‘what do you think?’ discussions.
Dumbing down the questions simply dumbs down the value of the community. It erodes any unique value your community can offer the audience.
People don’t come to a community to have general conversations, they (typically) come to get insights that will help them be better at what they do. Communities are a place for the nerdiest (or most passionate) people about a topic to have the kinds of discussions they can’t have anywhere else.
We also need a quick clarification here. Don’t confuse specific with advanced. You don’t need to have advanced discussions to deliver great value. Compare the two questions for newcomers below:
General Question 1: “How did you get started in [topic]?”
Specific Question 2: “Which software did you use to get started [xyz], what were the costs, pros and cons?”
Answering the former question doesn’t let members feel smart and doesn’t give the reader any useful insights. The latter question, however, clearly offers much better value to both.
Generally speaking, the more specific the question, the greater the value in the answers (and the greater the value of the community).
A session is the duration of a visit to your website/community. If you leave and come back later, that counts as a new session.
I’ve noticed a couple of organisations recently trying to measure communities by tracking session data. i.e. do people make a purchase or cancel their service after visiting the community?
This is a terrible way to measure value.
In a recent example, a customer asked the community how to cancel a service. The community did its job and provided an answer. The response was so good that it soon became one of the most visited posts in the community (thanks Google!). But on the stats this shows the community is now causing people to cancel!
That’s the problem with session data. Session data attributes the outcome to the last action in the chain of events before that outcome. This is a lot like attributing sales at a restaurant to the menu.
Not many people make a snap decision to cancel/buy a service because of a single experience on a single visit.
To really estimate value you need to build a dataset with a broader set of variables. This is likely to (at least) include:
- Member ID
- Community participant? (yes/no)
- Date of community registration
- Date of first post
- Date of last post
- No. visits/logins to community
- No. posts
- No. topics
- Date of subscription (customer)
- Date of cancellation (customer)
Once you have this your data team can run an analysis (or you can get help) and start building a meaningful picture and range of the community’s impact.
This won’t give you causational data, but it’s a start.