It’s tempting to post announcements and major updates as a discussion topic.
Why wouldn’t you? It (feasibly) helps your announcements reach a broader audience.
I can think of communities (especially internal communities) that are filled with nothing but announcements and news updates. Often it’s types of content or updates about upcoming events.
The irony here is the more of these announcements you post the fewer people will read any of the discussions. Posting an announcement as a discussion is a clear sign of an organisation’s priorities (you wouldn’t announce a new discussion would you?)
I’d suggest a simple rule. Don’t do this. Don’t post any announcements as discussions. Instead, start a discussion about it (and not ‘what do you think about [announcement]?’).
Not only will you get more participation, but you might also get some useful insights too.
The more you treat your community like a noticeboard, the more your members will ignore it like a noticeboard.
- The average support employee can handle 21 tickets per day.
- The average response time is 7 hours and 4 minutes.
- The average resolution time is 3 days and 10 hours.
If the goal of your community is solely to provide support to customers, these are the metrics to beat.
The solution to a lot of community problems appears to be to ‘go macro’.
i.e. do things that affect a lot of members at once.
You can do a big promotional push, create more content, host big events, and try to get a large number of members to change their behaviors in a small way.
But if you’ve been in the game a while, you realise that the solution is nearly always to ‘go micro’.
i.e. do things that have a big impact upon a relatively small number of members.
You can build relationships and engage with a tiny number of top members, you can initiate discussions and solicit responses from members to generate the first flickers of activity, you can win over key individuals one at a time and directly invite people to join.
The other benefit from going micro is you learn a lot extremely quickly about what really triggers members to engage in a community.
We often imagine people arriving at the community homepage, finding the registration option, and becoming a member.
This is the front door route. We design most of our efforts to optimise for this journey.
But in the majority of public communities, people search for a topic in Google, find a discussion within the community, and then will register to ask a question if they don’t find the answer they want.
This is the back door route.
Looking at the data from the four client projects right now, around 75% of visitors who join a public community do it via the back door. The mismatch should be obvious.
If you put clearer calls to action to join alongside discussion, prompt people to register, show related content and discussions alongside existing discussions, more people join and participate.
It’s a relatively easy win, but few people do it.
Too many community teams pluck targets out of thin air and it needs to stop.
Here’s a typical example. A community that attracts 15k visitors per week will set themselves a target of attracting 20k visitors per week within 6 months.
Why 20k you (hopefully) ask? ‘Because it’s a nice round number!’
Can you imagine a more ridiculous way to set a target for a community? You’re holding yourself accountable to a target that doesn’t relate to anything.
There are five things to consider when setting targets for a community.
1) Trendline. If your community engagement was 30k per week two years ago, 20k per week last year, and 15k per week this year – it’s silly to expect you can reverse the trendline and deliver a 20k uplift in the short-term. Simply halting the decline could be a big win. Equally, if the trend shows 100% monthly growth in the community, going from 15k to 20k might be far too small of a target.
2) Potential. One community team I worked with accidentally set themselves a goal of attracting more community participants than they had customers. Another had a goal of deflecting more support tickets than the company was receiving. You need a reasonable estimate of the community’s full potential and an appreciation that the greater the % of the total audience in your community, the harder it becomes to attract the remainder.
3) Ratios. How many customers typically contact support? Visit your website? Click on links in your newsletter. You need some estimate of how many people in the community you can meaningfully reach. If you want the community to outgrow the organisation’s growth rate, you have to figure out how to improve these ratios.
4) Resources. If you’re expected to achieve a 20% increase in participation with a 0% increase in resources, that’s not going to be easy. If you’re facing a resource cut, simply keeping what you have might be a win. If you’re expected to drive improvement without more resources, you have to be really clear about what new activity you’re going to undertake and the trade-offs you expect.
Organisation needs. In a perfect world, you can use the above four to set realistic targets. In reality, organisations like to believe setting higher targets (miraculously) drives better results. It doesn’t, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be aware of what targets can feasibly be accepted. Make sure in meetings here you have data from the previous four bullet points.
A common misguided belief is the greater the reward or punishment, the more you control the behavior of community members.
This is because of dissonance.
Essentially, members justify performing behaviors they dislike by telling themselves it was worth the reward (or worth it to avoid punishment).
Members will keep doing it (or not doing it) depending upon how powerful they perceive the reward/punishment.
Since the same reward yields less power over time (and the power of threats fade every time they’re used), behavior-based upon powerful rewards declines over time.
Yet if the reward is relatively small and the threatened punishment is minor, members reduce the dissonance by telling themselves the behavior was enjoyable, satisfying, and performing it reflects who they are as a person.
Contrarily, this means the challenge isn’t coming up with the biggest possible threat or reward to influence members to perform behaviors you want (or prevent behaviors you don’t want). The challenge is to identify the smallest possible reward/threat to get the behaviors you need.
How To Find The Right Positioning For Your Community
Many problems which communities face are positioning problems.
A prototypical example would be something like this:
You come up with the idea to launch (or grow) a community. You research what members want and they tell you they want a place where they can ask questions and learn more about the topic. So you select a platform that lets you do it, add in some content, start some questions on the very topics you know members are interested in, and wait for activity to grow.
If you’re lucky, you might get some activity. But often you might struggle. Over time you might find that engagement starts to decline and you’re not sure why.
The problem isn’t that members don’t want the value your community can offer. The problem is they can get it elsewhere.
Plotting Community Value
If you’re looking for help from a company, where do you turn to first? You might search on Google, visit the documentation, contact support, ask on social media, or ask friends.
We can plot these in a matrix below:
If convenience and getting answers from a trusted source matters most to you, documentation makes the most sense.
If your problem needs more personal attention and you want it from a trusted source, then you can contact customer support for help.
If you want a convenient solution from others, then you might ask on social media (channels you already use every day).
If you want personalised help from others, you can ask friends/colleagues you know.
Why would you visit a community for any of this?
The Danger Of The Squeeze
Too many communities fail to find the positioning that would let them thrive. They are positioned upon land already occupied by bigger and better substitutes.
Worse yet for community builders. These substitutes are often expanding. Not too long ago, contacting support meant picking up a phone, calling a number, and waiting for an undetermined amount of time for someone to answer.
By comparison, a community was (and in many cases still is) a blessing. You could ask your question in minutes and then get on with the rest of your day while the answers rolled in.
But now we know customer support has improved massively. We have chatbots, virtual agents, gig-workers (people paid per question they answer), in-app diagnostic tools, cognitive search solutions, improved documentation, and even support delivered by social media. There are even rival communities now on Reddit, StackExchange, and other sites where people can ask questions and get help.
Why post a question to a community when you can get support through any of these substitutes?
If all you’re offering is another place for people to ask questions and get help, you’re facing imminent danger of being squeezed.
(Re)Discovering Your Positioning
Positioning, to quote the famous book, is the place you occupy in the mind of your audience.
People are generally not attentive enough to remember every feature you offer. Instead, they tend to associate any organisation, object, etc with a single positioning.
You need to associate your community with specific attributes your audience really values. As we will explore in a second, you get to pick two.
This isn’t a comprehensive list. Feel free to add your own. The key takeaway here is there are many unique attributes you can target for your community.
You can be an exclusive community for a specific audience. You can be a community for serious discussions. You can be a community for beginners just getting started. You can be a community with the quickest response to questions etc…
While you get to pick two, don’t pick attributes at opposite ends of the same scale. You can’t be the most exclusive and most diverse community. You can’t be the most serious and most fun community.
Which Attributes Should You pick?
Let’s go through a simple example here.
It should go without saying that this isn’t guesswork. You shouldn’t be sitting in a dark room deciding what your members want. You should be asking them what they want. Most importantly, you should force them to prioritise what they want.
Interviews and surveys are great tools. You can find some template survey questions here.
Here is a client example below:
As we can see, two key factors stand out above the rest. These are the quality of information (i.e. how reliable and well presented it is) and how personalised it is to the needs of the recipient.
The next step is to plot this out and check the positioning.
Checking Your Positioning
In this process, we put the two values on a continuous axis and look to see how the community might compare against likely substitutes.
If you have data, you can plug the data into a Google Spreadsheet/Excel Bubble chart. If not, you can make a good, subjective, estimate as we have below:
There is clearly a substitute (customer support) that does both of these things better than a community. The community will never be able to match the quality or personalisation of customer support.
It’s ok if a substitute beats the community on one more, but if a substitute is better than a community on both measures, it would be ideal for customers to simply use that substitute.
In short, on this positioning, you’re going to get squeezed.
This means we need to pick a different positioning for the community.
The easiest way to do this, as we can see above, is to move to the next item on the list; convenience.
Once we change the axis to focus on convenience, we can see a different positioning beginning to take shape:
Once again we can see the customer support and documentation are more trustworthy than a community, but they’re not more convenient than asking a community for help.
Likewise, social media and a subreddit is more convenient, but they’re definitely not more trustworthy (although you could argue tweeting @ brand is more trustworthy and convenient).
This means we have a unique positioning; one that even allows the community to grow and expand over time.
But just because we have a unique positioning doesn’t mean it’s the best positioning.
Let’s try one more example and swap ‘personalisation’ with ‘speed’ and see what happens.
Now we can see that documentation beats community on both scales. It’s usually quicker to get answers to questions via existing documentation and the documentation is usually more trustworthy.
How Big A Threat Is The Substitute?
But this is where the 3rd axis (the size of the bubble) matters.
Documentation, for example, is great for dealing with common issues, but it’s not great for dealing with edge cases, unusual questions, and questions where members don’t quite know the right language or terminology to search for.
If a substitute is small and unlikely to expand much, we might well decide it’s worth occupying a similar territory (and squeezing that out). The key question here is to see it from the member’s perspective.
Community might be able to handle more volume than support, but from the member’s perspective it may always be better to call support. But documentation might not have the answer (or members might not be able to find the answer). This might make the community a priority for members.
What Is The Perfect Positioning?
The challenge when developing a community today is to find a unique positioning that:
a) Your audience really values.
b) Can’t be matched by any substitute.
c) Gives your community ample room for growth.
This is what makes your community not just a priority, but even indispensable to your members.
Ideally, you want something like this:
A Case Study – Scientific Community
We were recently hired to build a community for scientists in a particular field.
Our research showed they already had a lot of places where they could engage with one another. They had monthly webinars, industry dinners, academic conferences, a big rival community covering lots of topics, an existing mailing list, and could even learn from academic journals.
It seemed at first it would be almost impossible to find a unique position for our audience.
But our research also showed how they felt about those places (‘cold’, ‘boring’, ‘hard to have a serious discussion’, ‘too many silly fights’).
Based upon our research, we picked two axes; friendliness and exclusivity, and plotted out the competition below:
Clearly, asking friends for help and industry dinners were friendlier and more exclusive. But they were only being hosted annually at best. Our community would be a daily activity.
When we launched the community, we focused heavily on having an exclusive, but friendly, atmosphere. it quickly reached a critical mass of activity and continues to facilitate a good level of discussion amongst an elite crowd.
Examples of Positioning Statements
Now we can craft everything we’ve covered so far into a positioning statement.
This statement defines who the community is for, what will do, what value they get from it, and why it is the best place to get that value.
Or, as you can see in the example below, it typically includes a superlative, audience, verb, and value.
You change the structure as much as you need, but try to keep all these elements in there.
Examples of Community Positioning Statements
“The most exclusive place for engineers to exchange ideas. “
“Discuss the most cutting edge developments in engineering with top experts.”
“The quickest way for customers to get help with product problems.”
“A place for beginners to ask questions and get the friendliest answers.”
“The most convenient way for teachers to find and share the templates they need.”
The more precise you can be, the better the outcome.
A quick aside, try to avoid using the words ‘biggest’ or ‘best’ here. These words are meaningless unless you can translate them into specific value your audience really cares about.
Everyone thinks they’re the best and biggest is only a benefit if it helps members access more answers, get more responses, quicker responses etc…
Making Your Community Unique
You should know that a positioning statement isn’t just a semantic exercise. It defines the entire unique purpose of your community. It is the edge/boundary that you continually push towards to become bigger.
The unique superlative you pursue (i.e. the edge which makes your community the ‘best’ for your audience), will define your overriding strategy.
The difference between pursuing speed, convenience, friendliness, and trustworthiness is huge.
You can see this in the table below:
Depending upon the unique positioning of your community, you should be approaching your community in a completely different way.
Once you know which positioning you’re going to pursue, you can start drawing up a list of tactics that will ensure you are delivering on that positioning year after year.
How Do You Know If You Have The Right Positioning?
I’d guess around 75% of the projects I’ve worked on suffer from positioning problems. Often they don’t even know it. They think a lack of engagement (or whatever metric matters to them) reflects a failure to successfully execute tactics (or they blame the technology).
You can find a full webinar we did on positioning here:
But the biggest wins always come at the strategic level. They always come at the point of positioning your community to deliver unique benefits which your audience urgently desires.
Much of the community consultancy work we do is doing a huge amount of research and testing to get the positioning right. Because once the positioning is right, you know exactly what to focus on and have a community primed to thrive.
If your community isn’t as successful as you want it to be, you probably have a positioning problem. Fortunately, this is a problem you can hopefully now solve.
A couple of weeks ago, I participated in a workshop hosted by CMX London focusing on some of the techniques you can use to upgrade your community skills.
You can find the video here:
Side note – we don’t often discuss the specific and precise skills community professionals master to build communities.
Your audience is unlikely to be a homogenous group who all share the same behaviors, needs, and desires, so segmenting into smaller groups is usually a good idea.
The problem is there are so many ways to segment audiences.
You can segment audiences by:
1) Demographics (age, gender, ethnicity, customer ‘type’ etc..)
2) Behavior (purchase habits, length of time/level of activity within the community etc..)
3) Geographics (region, country, city)
4) Psychographics (attitudes, beliefs, goals etc..)
More frustratingly, there isn’t a single ‘best way’ to segment your community. It depends upon your goals, audiences, and technology.
But there are two rules to bear in mind.
1) Your segments have to be practical. There is no point developing segments if you can’t practically use them. This is the common problem with psychographic segments. You might have ‘Nervous Nick’ and ‘Angry Agatha’ as representatives of groups of people. But this doesn’t help you if you have no means of automatically identifying the ‘Nervous Nicks’ and ‘Angry Agathas’ from anybody else and developing unique experiences for them.
We waste a lot of time developing segments which are interesting, but have no practical value.
2) Your segments have to want different things. If the needs of your segments don’t differ much from one another, then there isn’t much point in segmenting them through that prism.
The most common segments we use in our consultant work are activity-based segments (i.e. the number of posts/visits a member has made in the past month) or ‘member-type’ based segments (i.e. reseller, customer, developer, partner etc…).
Both make it easy to segment members into unique groups by data we’ve collected (activity) or they’ve provided (member profiles). Then we can design unique experiences and journeys for each of them.
If it helps, we’ve created some simple templates and examples you can explore here.
A reminder from the field of social influence.
You can punish or reward people until they comply with what you want them to do. They still want to perform the behaviors (or not perform the behaviors) as before, but they will go along for now.
You can highlight and showcase possible examples members might identify with. As long as members keep liking and respecting this/these person(s), they will identify with that behavior and do it/not do it themselves.
Or you can make the behavior itself so enjoyable and internally rewarding, that members internalise their rationale for doing it. This happens most when members build a sense of connection with other members or find the behavior itself a positive experience.
Too many of the discussions about changing member behavior focus on the compliance level. It’s the easiest to influence and control. But it only offers a short-term impact.
Far better to focus on identification with top members and making core behaviors something members are proud to undertake.
We often do a bad job at identifying and communicating the core value of a community members want.
Here’s an example from a recent client. You can see the initial post on the left and our change on the right.
Notice the difference? It avoids the cliches and clearly articulates what members are about in a way they will remember.
The more benefits you squeeze into the community value statement the fewer benefits people remember. Find the thing people really care about and run with it.
For example, look at the Airbnb community below:
I suspect a ‘global community of hosts like you’ isn’t something hosts are proactively looking for. I also suspect the community attracts only a fraction of the engagement it could if it improved its value and positioning.
Imagine the community articulated a clearer benefit and purpose statement like we see below:
Do you notice the difference? Now there is a clear and obvious purpose for the community. This even guides people in the kinds of questions to ask, tips to share, and content to create.
Changing a few words at the top of the page alone won’t completely drive more engagement, but those words are a value statement. If you aligned everything to them the level of engagement would increase enormously.
For most of us, we can do a far better job at communicating the core value of our community.
There is a point in the launch of many new communities (especially communities of practice/non-support communities), where the first few curious members join and you need to engage them deeper within the community.
You need to prompt a second post, engage them deeper within the conversation, and deliver some sort of value.
Two common problems emerge in this stage.
1) The community manager isn’t proactive enough. In the very early stages you usually can and should respond to every post within the community. You should also be reaching out to other members to reply too. This not only helps the community look a little busier, but encourages people to return.
2) The responses and posts aren’t authentic. Members can sniff out inauthentic attempts to simply drive activity. Look at any brand promoting a hashtag today and you get the idea. Sometimes this means the responses are too repetitive. Other times they just sound ‘off’.
In a recent client project, we worked closely with the community manager to bring the community to a critical mass of activity. This meant going through each response together at first to ensure we got the response right. I want to share some of the basic scripts here as they might be useful to others:
Response 1 – Asking a Follow-Up Questions (and being honest)
Thanks for joining us, I’m glad we can have you as one of our first members here. Are there any particular issues you’re having within [topic] at the moment that you would like to ask the community?
We’re just getting started and have a few experts here looking for some challenges to solve!
This is personalised and solicits a contribution and is honest about the community just getting started. It encourages people to take a very specific next action.
Response 2 – Helping the member identify unique contributions they can make
Great to have you here. The industry working group sounds really interesting. I would definitely be interested in inviting them here too if you think it might be a good fit.
Feel free to create posts and drop your papers into the research category we have here. We can create a custom tag for them if you like? I know other members will find them useful.
This was responding specifically to a member who mentioned they were part of an industry working group to begin with. This is both a promotional opportunity for us but also makes the member feel they can make unique, useful, contributions based upon their past experience.
Response 3 – Engaging someone with pre-existing expertise
Given your background in [xyz], I suspect you’re exactly the kind of person we want to have in this community, thanks for becoming one of our first members.
Do you feel there is [question about something they mentioned]
If you have a second, can you respond to one or two of the outstanding questions we have at the moment to get things started? I know other members would benefit from your experience.
This was a response to a member who we noted had a ‘high status’ within the field and needed to feel recognised and appreciated for their past contributions.
The DM Messages
Hi [name] just to reiterate my welcome to you to join the community. I was genuinely glad to see someone from [company] had joined us. We actually used one of your [resources] to [activity].
I’m reaching out to see if you can help two of our members who have questions about [topic].
One is about [topic], the other is about [topic].
Do you happen to have any input you can share? We’re a bit stumped at the moment.
This was a typical direct message to a member who we felt needed an extra prompt. Again we make sure it’s personal to them and highlighted how they had already helped the community (commitment effect).
Then we were honest and authentic about what we wanted from then and asked nicely.
In my experience, so many community efforts fail at this stage due to lack of authenticity.
The key lessons here are to be authentic, honest, personalised, and recognise that people want to feel valued. If you can make every member at this stage feel they can make unique, useful, contributions to the community they probably will.