The Right Way To Design Your Online Community’s Homepage

As we’ve covered in our ‘Designing World-Class Online Community Experiences’ session, the purpose of the homepage is to let regular visitors quickly scan for new content they can either reply to or learn from.

Too many homepages make this surprisingly difficult to do.

There are three common problems.

1) Pushing latest activity ‘below the fold’.

The Apple Community is an example of this. It looks great but pushes activity way too far down the page.

(If you can’t see the image, click here)

Don’t have large graphics or banners which push activity below the fold. Ensure members can hide the banner and remove anything which doesn’t let members immediately see what’s new in the community.

Remember that this is equally true in mobile too. Well-intentioned ideas to make the community look good typically force members to endlessly scroll through static images to find what they want.

Compare the SAP community mobile experience with the Unbounce community below.

                       

(If you can’t see the images, click here and here)

Big images look good, but completely limit the amount of content members can see. Even Unbounce can remove the large icon and make it easier for members to scan the community.

 

2) Showing navigation options instead of activity.

 

Another common problem is showing navigation options instead of activity.

Navigation options should be clear but condensed. Compare the acres of space the TomTom community uses to display categories. Atlassian displays more categories in about 1/8th of the same space:

(If you can’t see the image, click here)

If you need to add navigation within the homepage as well as the navigation bar (which is often smart), make sure it’s minimal so members can still see the latest fresh activity in the community.

 

3) Showing static content instead of new activity

Don’t show static content to members who have seen it hundreds of times before.

Too many communities violate this rule. 70%+ of the content on your homepage should show fresh activity members can easily scan through.

For example, the Kronos community homepage features almost 100% static content.

(If you can’t see the image, click here)

Returning members see the same material every single day and have to click through to find anything interesting. Not many are going to bother to do that.

The Alteryx community is similar, most of the ‘above the fold’ content is static.

(If you can’t see the image, click here)

Make sure that the majority of the space on your community is filled with dynamic content/new activity which is regularly updated.

 

Redesign Your Community Homepage

Improving the community homepage is the beginning of a positive community cycle. The easier it is to scan, the more people will view and participate.

The more participation, the more people want to contribute good content to get noticed.

…and the cycle goes on.

This is just a few of the best practices in developing a community homepage. We’ve consistently increased participation in client’s communities by 25-50% by redesigning their homepage.

You can get a lot more from your homepage if you know how (or let us do it for you).

Don’t Use Bogus Metrics For An Online Community

Almost every community health metric is bogus.

Increasing the number of registered members is easy to measure. Every platform shows this figure. However, it’s a metric which only rises as members don’t delete their accounts. This better shows the age of the community than its success.

Increasing the number of questions or active members sounds reasonable except this is more controlled by how many customers your brand attracts in the first place. It also relies heavily on a) how many problems members have with products and b) how many new customers the company is attracting.

Increasing the number of questions with an accepted solution sounds smart. However, once you’ve answered all of the easy questions, it becomes progressively harder to answer the rest. Your rate naturally stalls. Sneakier community professionals have realised it’s easier to delete questions they can’t answer.

Increasing the % of newcomers who become active members makes sense until you consider the quality of newcomers declines over time. Your best customers/audience are likely to join in the inception/establishment phase of the community lifecycle.

Increasing the number of visitors is great but suffers from the same input problems. You can’t control how many customers you attract, how much the organisation spends on marketing and promotion etc…

Increasing member satisfaction is great until you realise members rarely distinguish between satisfaction with the products and satisfaction with the community. If the company released a bad product, member satisfaction naturally declines too. It doesn’t measure your performance.

Increasing call/ticket deflection is great until you realise no-one really knows if someone visiting a question with a solution actually received the answer they needed or just gave up (or even called customer support). This often doesn’t track any reduction in support costs, but theoretical reductions.

The list goes on, but the lesson is simple. There is not a single metric to fully measure community value. Every metric is flawed and can be (easily) gamed.

So what should you do?

Three things…

1) Don’t let yourself be measured by anything you can’t reasonably control and influence. Most metrics fail because they rely upon inputs outside of the community manager’s control. If you can’t directly influence it, you shouldn’t be measured by it. This is by far the biggest problem in measurement today.

2) Measure changes in customer behavior, not activity. Do members who join the community buy more after joining the community? Has the community improved customer satisfaction since it launched? Do people buy more or make more referrals? Track time-series data showing how customer behavior has changed. This should focus on the ultimate impact of the community. Who in the organisation is the community supposed to help? How will you know if it’s doing that?

3) Tell persuasive stories. A story needs a verifiable fact, an emotional hook, and a narrative from one state to another. Use the inputs you have to tell persuasive stories about changes in behavior. What are the tangible outputs of the community that make it indispensable to the organization?

Get the measurement wrong, and none of the good work you do will matter.

What Access Levels Should You Assign To Members?

In one client gamification project, we’re looking at permissions members can achieve as they level up.

This raises some interesting questions.

  1. How valuable is each permission to the user?
  2. How will they use it?
  3. What is the risk?

For example, letting members that reach ‘level 25’ mark answers as accepted solutions sounds handy…until they begin marking every answer they give as an accepted solution.

Or, just as likely, mark the answers of their friends as accepted solutions. Of course, if only 20 members have that permission, you can look out for these problems and manage it. If 200 have that permission, it quickly descends into chaos with accusations of cheating flying around.

If you’re giving members internal permissions, you need to balance the value of the permission with how members could abuse it (and multiply this by how many people will likely have that permission).

This lets you reasonably decide if you can award members with that access. A typical example might show below:


(click here if you can’t see the image)

You will notice the absolute number of members with each permission drops sharply with each access level.

It’s also relatively within the control of most community teams to handle members abusing each level.

Better yet, each level gives members an advancing level of control and prestige they are likely to use and appreciate.

The key is to be relaxed with benefits members can’t abuse (access to a quarterly webinar), while tight on those which could cause challenges (deleting inappropriate posts).

Flagrant Anger

A flaw of communities is the more emotional the post, the more persuasive it seems.

Angrier posts are more likely to be accepted as true by new members and attract more likes/comments (thus appearing at the top of the community for all members).

It doesn’t take long for members to realise that the angrier they post, the more attention they get.

If you let angry posts stand, your community soon becomes filled with them.

Two approaches can help here. The first is to have a rule or create a norm, against posting angry (frame it as posting unprofessionally).

If the post is clearly provocative or incites further anger, you need to address the issue directly with the member and remove the post. Members can be critical as much as they like, but they can’t use flagrantly angry words to incite anger from others.

The second is to copy Denise’s approach and have a group of members who step in with a friendly tone and prevent issues from escalating.

“Help Us Make It Amazing”

If you’re about to launch something new to your community (new platform, feature, product, etc..), you could try telling members how great it is.

This sets high expectations and you’re going to blend in with everyone else also declaring their new project is amazing.

A better approach is to ask your community to help make it amazing.

This lets members point out flaws without dumping on the project. It gives members a sense of influence and ownership. It increases the number of members who will promote the project at the end.

A tiny difference in words creates a big difference in mindset.

Take All the Scary Stuff Away

One member in a client research interview said “I just want someone to take all the scary stuff away”.

This is the reality which drives most people to your community.

They’re new to the topic and overwhelmed, scared, and frustrated.

They’re not going to ask questions because they don’t know how to formulate the question.

They’re not going to respond to questions because they don’t feel they have the expertise.

They’re not going to spend hours browsing content because there’s just too much there.

Too many communities do a terrible job of emphasizing with this mindset and making things less scary.

A few things here.

1) Provide a list of resources members should read when they join (keep it relatively short). Even better, have a 101 guide created by your veteran members.

2) Highlight the top member’s people should follow – or have mentors who newcomers can ask any questions.

3) Make it clear it’s ok to ask a “stupid” question, but it’s stupid not to ask the question – even provide a place for them to do it.

4) Cover some unwritten rules of the sector members can see (yes, write the unwritten rules).

5) Create a thread where members can share the biggest mistakes they made and what they learned from them (trust me, this thread is addictive).

Don’t just make the community less scary, make the entire topic less scary.

Strategy Before Technology

We’re working with a client to launch a new community in a competitive space.

A review of competitor communities noted a growing trend in people sharing the lessons learned from achieving their specific goal.

This trend could be the basis of a powerful community concept. Instead of creating another generic forum about the topic, similar to competitors, we could laser focus on the part people really love. It would be a completely unique community concept.

Instead of posting a question, we can let members publish their achievements and lessons learned using a pre-designed template to showcase them properly.

We can ensure the profiles reflect the date they achieved their success and the key lessons learned below. We can let them set their next target to achieve. We can have a field to highlight their top successes.

We can create eBooks of successes in different varieties etc..etc..

There is scope to use our research to create a really unique, powerful, community we know members will love.

But this all depends upon the strategy guiding the technology. Not the technology guiding the strategy.

Far too often, however, the community platform is decided before the strategy has been decided. I’d guess in 50% or more of our projects, clients have already agreed terms with the platform vendor before the strategy process has even begun.

Now the strategy isn’t enhanced by technology, it’s constrained by it. The community is less powerful and less effective. Everything and everyone suffers as a result.

Word of advice, always be really clear about your community strategy before you decide the technology.

Real Change Happens Among Small Groups of Peers

Joining a community dedicated to quitting smoking will make you slightly more likely to quit smoking than not.

But connecting with a small group of peers within that community will make you much more likely to quit smoking.

This shows up in many studies. People who join the community are already more likely to join the behavior.

The real power of an online community is to help members establish a peer group who they want to impress and emulate.

Most online communities are meant to change some sort of behavior, but few are properly designed to do it. A dozen or more sub-groups and buddy lists don’t cut it. You need to design the social structure, supported by technology, to make that happen.

When people join, they need to be guided into a small, close, group of peers (not have 30 possible groups they could join).

They need to have a private place (on your community or off it) to engage with their peers, share advice and have a mentor who can support them.

They need to make real, strong, relationships by being encouraged to speak openly about their thoughts and feelings.

They need to have a high level of optimism driven by the group leader.

Whether you’re managing a community for personal or professional goals, if you want members to make a major change in behavior you need to help them build small groups of peers.

Supporting Members Who Stumble

What do you do when someone in your community stumbles (professionally or personally)?

Do a number of members respond with encouraging words to cheer them up?

“You’ll do better next time!”

“Don’t worry, things will be ok!”

“You deserve better than that anyway!”

While well intentioned, the authors would probably admit they really have no idea if these are true.  

Blind empathy between strangers isn’t very useful in the long-term. Any random group of friends can give the member the same blind empathy. The power of an online community is to provide practical support. It’s to have members who can step in and say:

This happened to me too, here are 3 things you can do to do better next time…”

“You can get help from these sources….”

“A few things to consider if this is the right path for you..”

Don’t just commiserate with members, help them put together a practical plan of action to do better next time.

Not as heartwarming perhaps, but in the long-term, it’s far more valuable to members.

Your challenge when you see members who are sharing a struggle is to have you, your team or volunteers step in and challenge members to provide their best advice to help members…not just encouraging words.

Getting More Of Your Community’s Questions Answered

In a mature community, the challenge isn’t getting more questions, but getting better questions.

You have to tackle several challenges at once:

  • Repeat questions.
  • Questions with terrible headlines.
  • Poorly tagged or categorized questions.
  • Questions which don’t provide enough detail.

Mature communities should make it slightly harder for non-veteran members to ask a question, not easier.

StackOverflow is a good example of this process. If you want to ask a question, you can either go through the wizard or traditional mode. Let’s use the wizard.

First you have to highlight what kind of question you have:

If you select hardware recommendations, you’re taken to a separate site where you can get hardware recommendations.

This immediately prunes a lot of the bad questions which will appear in the community.

Next you highlight what topic your question is about.

Notice the power of sharing good and bad examples. This tackles the problem where members are bad at tagging their posts (or reluctant to tag their posts).

Next it’s the question title.

Again notice how useful it is to provide examples of real titles in the community. Specific examples make it a lot easier for members.

The fourth step is to check there are no existing solutions to the question.

Forcing people to check for existing answers before asking a question is a powerful way to eliminate duplicate questions. It also helps members find answers to questions they were not able to formulate themselves.

Only now, after jumping through these five steps, can you write your actual question.

In every step, you’re guided to create the best possible question. This is a lot of practical advice in a short amount of time. You’re told to explain your goals (with examples), provide background context on what you’ve tried, highlight code you’ve used, and describe the results you’re getting compared with what you want.

Only after completing all these steps can you ask a question.

The power of this should be obvious. Not only does it help members get better responses, it also excites veterans with new questions they can solve.

If you’re trying to increase the percentage of questions which are solved, the secret isn’t to get more experts to answer questions, but to provide fewer, better, questions for them to answer.

Get Closer

The data is pretty clear.

You don’t need a huge mass of members to reach a critical mass, you need a relatively small group of super passionate members.

10 super-committed members trumps 1000 casual visitors.

This is implicit in our online community lifecycle too. You don’t grow by nurturing the masses, with big promotional pushes, or paid advertising.

At least not at the beginning.

You grow by identifying the most passionate members and engaging with each of them directly so they feel they can make useful contributions to creating something incredible.

This group may include your best customers, the members with the highest open-rates, those who are already talking about you on social media and other channels. Ideally, you begin with the group you already have great relationships with.

It’s a lot easier to get a community started with 50 super-enthusiastic members than 5000 who stumbled in from the mailing list. You can ask each of the 50 what they want from the community, what they can contribute to the community, and design specific, unique, ways they can contribute to the group.

If you’re struggling to reach critical mass, it’s unlikely because you don’t have enough relationships. It’s more likely you don’t have strong enough relationships with existing members. Get closer to a small group, narrow the focus of the community, and find unique ways they can contribute to the group.

That One Motivated Member

One client’s community has seen a huge increase in responses all because of 1 member.

The community manager reached out to 5 members for interviews and found 1 who was enthusiastic and eager to help.

That one member is now providing 30% of all accepted solutions in the community.

If you could put your members on a bell curve of enthusiasm, there will always be a tiny few who are a few standard deviations from the norm. They typically want to feel connected, have access to you, and see the impact of their work.

Personal calls are so powerful because you can identify people with enthusiasm and provide them with exactly the access, sense of connection, and feeling of impact which tips them into becoming a super-superuser (not a typo).

Call 1 member a week and, sooner or later, you will find someone who will answer a thousand or more questions a year.

Call 2 members per week and you will find them a lot sooner.

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