Get A Definitive ‘Yes’ From Legal, IT, and Marketing First

Don’t announce (or suggest) any community initiative to members until your legal, marketing, and IT teams have signed off on it.

I’ve long lost track of community leaders forced to retract bold promises under internal pressure.

False promises immediately undermine your credibility. They make you and your organisation look incompetent. Members will be less likely to trust and support any initiative in the future.

I know someone recently who sent an email out to each department about a community initiative. No-one replied. So she went ahead with the program.

Turns out legal were (slowly) investigating the program before giving a response. Once they got a full grasp of it, they shut it down.

In my experience, these departments will eventually approve your program (often with a few minor tweaks). They often just need some time. So give them as much advance notice as you can.

You don’t want silent acquiescence here, you want a definitive ‘yes, that’s fine’.

If you haven’t gotten the definitive ‘yes’, treat it as a ‘no’.

Get Members To Rate Activities They Find Most Useful

One client spent 30% of their time on the community podcast.

When we sent a survey out to members asking them to rank the activities they found useful, the podcast came dead last (behind the FAQ page).

I’d suggest sending a survey to members via SurveyMonkey. List the activities you’re working on and features of the community. And let members rank them by which they find most useful.

Then spend more on the most useful activities and stop doing the ones that aren’t driving much value.

It’s easy to fall in love with an activity – especially one that’s at the peak of its popularity. That doesn’t mean it’s a good use of your time or delivering much value to your members though.

Document Your Failures (to create a guide for the next person)

Last month, I noticed a former client launching an event series very similar to a failed experiment from 3 years ago.

Another recently changed their web design to a version very similar to one which underperformed in nearly every metric.

When asked, both told the same story. The community team had moved on since our collaboration. The new team didn’t know what had or hadn’t been tried before. The former had documented our work but it hadn’t reached the new team. The latter hadn’t documented anything.

These aren’t rare occurrences. I’ve seen several communities repeating the same failed tactics every couple of years.

But if you don’t know what has or hasn’t been tried before, you can easily come up with ideas that sound great but have been shown to fail.

New community staff need a guide to the community. They need to know it’s history. They need to know that the visible community they see is the outcome of a long-running process of trial and error.

Communities are the outcome of an ongoing and iterative process of trial and error. Part of your legacy isn’t just going to be the community, but the documentation you leave behind outlining the decisions you’ve made and why.

If people who come after you don’t know what did and didn’t work, they might repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

What Makes A Community Great?

A couple of weeks ago, I hosted a webinar sharing some of our advice and tips on what makes a great community.

These are the principles we applied to build our list of the best brand communities of 2020.

You can find the full webinar here:

Building A Community For Top People In Any Profession

I once worked with a client who wanted to build an exclusive community for top financial advisors.

Their approach thus far had been to use LinkedIn and Clearbit to gather and qualify a list of 700+ prospective members.

Then they sent a series of (unsolicited) emails inviting them to join this new community.

It had been 3 months and this legally ambiguous approach hadn’t succeeded.

A mass email from an unknown organisation inviting you to join something you have no interest in is almost certainly one you will ignore.

We took a different approach.

We identified 5 founding members and then asked them who else would be a good match. We then sent a personal email (cc’ing the person who recommended them) which read:

Subject: [friend] suggested I contact you

“Hi [name],

[Your friend] suggested I reach out to you.

We have an exclusive group of top [topic] professionals and your name has come up a few times.

I’d love to schedule a call and see if you would be a great fit for the group.

Let me know if you’re interested”

Aside from ‘out of office’ and ‘bouncebacks’ replies, the emails had a 100% response rate.

You can spot the psychological appeals here. The subject line is clear enough to be opened, credibility is established in the first sentence, and it provokes curiosity (as well as flattery).

We could have filled the email with more content about the community, its goals, and mission. But those aren’t the kind of emails people enjoy reading. That’s what the call is for.

In the call we asked prospects about their goals and vision for the topic, their passions, and who else might be a good match for the community. Around 65% of those who received our outreach messages went on to make at least 3 posts in the community.

Telling A Consistent Story

One story is ‘this is a community for the best in the field’.

Another story is ‘this is a community for the most passionate fans of [topic]’

Another is ‘this community will get you answers quicker than anywhere else’.

Another is ‘this community is a place where you can truly be yourself’.

Whatever your story is, almost everything in the community should be aligned to it.

If your community is for only the best in the field, you should be able to display a criteria, a list of current members, send personal invites (or setup calls) with each prospective member, remove those who aren’t a good match, and host discussions in the manner that top people in the field expect (virtual roundtables or private groups).

If your community is about speed, you might proudly display the average time to first response, list the members who give the fastest responses, promote the community as the place to get the quickest responses and nudge members to ask questions in such a way that will help them get a fast response.

If your community is about belonging, you might feature and encourage emotive stories from or about members. You might initiate and prioritise emotional and off-topic discussions and create a powerful experience for each shy newcomer to become comfortable participating.

Often the problem is you haven’t found the right story to tell or you’re not telling it in a consistent way. The content and discussions you feature, the way you communicate with members, and the goals you set for yourself should all trickle down from the story.

Don’t Drift From The Sweet Spot

Among the hardest things when developing a brand community is not going too far in any single direction.

You have to juggle three competing priorities.

1) What organisations want (increased loyalty, call deflection, knowledge sharing, etc..).

2) What communities can do (give members influence, support, belonging, a place to explore a topic).

3) What members want (solve problems, self-improvement, have fun, validation etc..)

As you can see in this framework here, it’s critical not to drift too far in any one direction.

If you start to pursue engagement at the expense of what your organisation needs, you wind up in the engagement trap. This might satisfy your ego but will probably leave you unemployed.

If you don’t research your audience and understand what they truly desire, you will create a ghost town.

And if you’re not creating a place where members can truly engage at a peer to peer level, you’re probably creating a CINO – community in name only (or a mirage community).

I’ve written in-depth about this here, but it’s helpful to remember that you will never be able to satisfy anyone completely. It’s always about juggling competing needs to stay in the sweet spot.

The Basics Of Creating Successful Programs Within A Community

It’s common to recruit a group of your most active members into a superuser program.

Within this program, members are rewarded for performing a range of different actions.

In practice, this often results in members being nudged to do things they haven’t done before. Members who are responding to lots of questions might suddenly be asked to give feedback, create reviews, and manage groups.

Superuser programs often become an umbrella term that encompasses a range of different members doing different activities – often with disappointing results.


Run Multiple Community Programs

As you expand, you can begin to run multiple programs targeting different members to perform different behaviors.

Click to view this table:

Finding members already performing (or nominating themselves to perform a behavior) and encouraging them to do more of it is far more effective than trying to get members to do things they haven’t done before.

1) Identifying Problems To Solve

This also lets you get really specific in the running of specific programs to address specific issues.

First, you identify the behaviors you need more of. For example:

  • If your response rate is low, you need more answers to questions.
  • If the speed of response is low, you need faster answers to questions.
  • If the number of questions is low, you need more questions.
  • If you’re struggling to properly tag, remove, and edit contributions, you need moderators (or group leaders).
  • If you want to know what members want, you need feedback.
  • If you want more members, you need external promotion.
  • If you want more value, you might need more case studies, reviews, and testimonials.

Prioritise these problems by urgency too. Not every problem is equal.

2) Recruit People Most Likely To Solve The Problem

Once you know the behaviors you need, you can select the right group of members for the program. This is pretty easy.

  • If you want people to post a lot of answers, recruit people posting a lot of answers.
  • If you want people to post faster answers, recruit the kinds of people who post quick responses.
  • If you want people to run parts of the community, ask for people to step forward to run parts of the community.
  • If you want a feedback or advisory group, recruit a diverse set of members who represent different parts of the community.

It helps to have a single dataset to filter and search for these members.

3) Design the process and reward structure

Now you can decide how each program will run and its reward structure (ideally invite members to participate in this process).

For some that might be direct access to the brand. To others, it might be points, badges, and status. A little research will uncover the best results for each audience.

For sure, don’t try to launch multiple programs at once. But a superuser program isn’t the only kind of program you can run either. You can create multiple programs targeting specific members with specific activities.

Changing The Defaults To Change Behavior

Over a decade ago, I launched a short-lived community for community professionals (Commania).

I wanted people to upload photos of themselves so we could see who’s who.

One option would’ve been to relentlessly pester newcomers and offer rewards/points for completing profiles.

I figured this would’ve been more trouble than it was worth. So I took a different approach.

I set the default profile photo to a grinning pig (in hindsight, I might’ve used something else).

No-one wanted a grinning pig to appear next to their name when they posted a comment, so in the overwhelming majority of cases, people updated their profile photo.

In all the communities I’ve worked with since I don’t think I’ve ever had a photo upload rate as high as that community.

In short, there are many ways to change behavior if you’re bold, creative, and clever enough. Pestering and prodding members is the most common, but it’s neither the only (nor the best) option.

Constant Feedback

I’m stunned by some projects where the community leader hasn’t undertaken a survey of members in years (and a handful where they have never collected feedback).

Their only inkling as to whether members are having a good community experience comes through the interactions of a handful of top members they engage with every day.

You should always be collecting feedback.

Do a survey once or twice a year. Find out how satisfied members are with the community, how relevant they find it to their work, and what aspects they do or don’t like. Use this to plot your priorities.

Try to interview a member at least once a week. Probe deep into what brings them to the community and why. What is and isn’t working for them. What would create a better experience? Use this to refine your personas.

Use polls to tackle more immediate questions about the kind of content and features members find most useful.

A Starter Home

I never understood the desire to launch a new community on a top-tier platform.

You invest hundreds of thousands of dollars and have to wait months to get started.

For a massive customer support community with clear demand, it might make sense. You’re simply redirecting traffic from one place to another.

For almost any other type of community, it simply doesn’t. It’s too slow, too risky, and too costly to make changes as you go.

Start with a platform that costs less than $5k to get started. Test the waters first.

Check your concept draws interested members. Make sure you can engage them and keep them engaged. Build up some momentum and get a sense of what features members do and don’t use. Use this time to learn everything you can about what does and doesn’t work.

When you’re ready and feel the clear need, move on to something that offers features your members are screaming for.

The Business Impact of Community

A few months ago, I spoke with The Connectors (a great new podcast for community professionals) about some of the most urgent issues in the community space today.

The podcast covers:

  • The biggest challenge businesses face when implementing community strategy.
  • Why most community strategies fail to achieve their goals.
  • What are the metrics to look out for when measuring the business impact of community?
  • How can community managers apply psychology to their work to develop successful, indispensable communities?

To listen to the podcast, click here.

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