Accepting Targets For Your Community (Beware The Trendline)

An acquaintance recently accepted a community job with the target of increasing engagement by 20% within a year.

If the trendline had been increasing by 15% year on year, this is a reasonable target to hit. Sadly, this isn’t the case. The trendline has shown a decline in engagement by 10% over the past two years (2% the first year, and 8% in the past year).

This means he needs to reverse an accelerating long-term trend and then increase engagement. This isn’t a 20% increase in engagement, it’s a 30 to 40% increase in engagement. Unless he can drive 40% of people to visit the community or get existing members to participate 40% more, he’s almost certainly going to fail.

Worse yet, he accepted the target without any idea of how he was going to do it.

A few things are important here:

1) Don’t accept a target without first knowing the trendline. You can easily find yourself trying to hit impossible goals.

2) Find out why the trendline is heading in that direction. Find the ultimate cause of the problem. This is the only way to identify possible solutions that might work. This is also where you check if the reasons behind a decline are reasonably within your control.

3) Get approval to take risks before accepting the target. You can’t copy what the past community manager was doing and expect the results to be much different. To reverse a trendline you’re going to need to take risks and do something radically different. Get approval on this before accepting the targets.

Constant Storytelling And Engagement

This quote from Spotify’s CEO Daniel Ek has stuck with me:

“You can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough […] The artists today that are making it realise that it’s about creating a continuous engagement with their fans. It is about putting the work in, about the storytelling around the album, and about keeping a continuous dialogue with your fans.”

This doesn’t just apply to musicians does it?

It applies to pretty much every public figure. You can’t show up when it’s convenient for you, drop a new creation, and disappear. Today, people want a closer relationship. They want to feel part of the journey. The storytelling around the creation is what prompts people to buy it, engage with it, or share it.

This is community work in a different form. You need to bring members on a journey with you. You need to offer insider access and behind-the-scenes looks at what you’re doing. You need to answer questions like explain why you? Why this? Why now?

Aside: What often seems mundane to you in your day to day work and lives, is sometimes highly interesting to your followers, members, and community.

Private Messages – The Dark Underbelly of Communities

I get around 20+ messages on LinkedIn every day.

Most of it is spam.

Private messages often become the dark underbelly of a community. It’s a place where members get spammed, receive unwanted sexual advances, and personal attacks.

By nature, you won’t know what’s happening in private messages unless:

a) You track the volume of messages members are sending to other members. You can zero in on any high-volume messenger.

b) Members report abuse of private messages. This requires a clear policy and (ideally) a one-click button from members to report abuse.

Most people don’t need another inbox. If you can turn off private messages you probably should (or at least restrict it as a privilege to more senior members).

If you can’t, you need to frequently be clear about the rules of private messages and encourage members to report violations of those rules.

WIIFM Objections

If you’ve spent much time trying to persuade others about community, you’ve probably had to overcome WIIFM (what’s in it for me) objections from people who can’t imagine why anyone would participate without some sort of direct reward.

In 2018, I was hired to present to a small group of executives at a software company. One of them wanted to start a community but was struggling to overcome the objections of his colleagues. He was hoping an outsider could help overcome their objections.

About halfway through my presentation, I was abruptly interrupted with an ironic statement:

Exec: “I asked about communities in a WhatsApp group I’m in. A friend of mine at [big software company] said they had tried it and you have to either pay members to answer questions or give them free stuff. Eventually, it became too expensive and they shut it down”.

He didn’t see the irony in that statement.

Me: “Did you pay your friend to give you that information?”

Exec (looking confused): “Umm, No?”

Me: “So why did your friend at [big software company] help you?”

Exec (looking more confused): “Because he’s my friend and likes to help. Why does this matter?”

I felt I might be breaking through…

Me: “That’s the same as any other community! People like that feeling of helping each other. The more they get to know and like each other, the more they want to help. If people aren’t doing that in his community, I’d guess your friend probably resorted to giving members free stuff too quickly instead of finding out what really motivates them”.

I can’t say I persuaded him, but the other executives did seem convinced and the company eventually moved ahead with creating the community (without paying members).

My advice to overcoming WIIFM objections is to find something relatable that people in the room ‘do for free’ (or have seen done for free) and build upon that.

“You’re Not Going To Agree, So Let’s End This”

If you feel a debate has a reasonable chance of influencing the minds of participants, then let it continue.

If you feel a debate is introducing new, high-quality, information others might find useful to inform their opinion, then let it continue.

If you feel participants are simply repeating themselves, flinging selected statistics at each other, and drifting further apart, it’s probably time to step in and lock the discussion (with a short explanation why).

Sure, allowing provocative discussions to continue endlessly looks good on engagement metrics. But that’s an extremely short-term approach. Once people associate a community as a place where they spend a lot of time without gaining much value, they stop visiting.

Tough Decisions Create Clean Homepages

If you ever see a clean and simple community homepage, you can bet they had to make some difficult decisions to get there.

A cluttered homepage is typically the result of a failure to get people aligned on who the community is for, what its purpose is, and what members are meant to do.

If you can’t prioritise (or agree on) what should be featured on the homepage, the obvious solution is everything, i.e. put everything on the homepage and hope members like some of it.

If you want a homepage like Claris, Atlassian, or Temenos, you’re probably going to have to engage colleagues and make some tricky decisions.

Community Member Onboarding Journey Template [free template]

Here’s a simple summer project. Update and improve your community member’s retention rate.

There are a few steps to this.

1) Go through the typical member journey yourself. Take a screenshot of every single page you see along the journey. This might begin with a search results page in Google.

2) Drop every step into Smaply. If you have multiple audiences/journeys, then drop each in here.

3) Get data on how many people advance from each stage. You should usually be able to know how many people click and advance from one action to the next. Better yet, set up the system in Google Sheets to automatically pull this data from Google Analytics.

4) Test and improve every single step. Now go through each stage again and optimize every step of the way. Think clearly about the communications and actions you’re asking members to take.

You can begin with our free template here if you like. This video from a session with Vanilla might also help:

The Default Settings On An Expensive Camera

A relative once bought a very expensive camera.

However, she found the number of new features confusing. So she simply used all the default settings. Her photos turned out the same as her old camera.

This happens a lot in communities too.

When you move from an inexpensive to a premium platform, you have a lot of new features and settings to fiddle with. Many (perhaps most?) organisations are nervous about making tweaks and simply use the default settings. Unsurprisingly, they don’t see the results they were expecting.

Some things to consider here:

First, don’t confuse a default setting with the best practice. The default settings aren’t the combined wisdom of the platform’s many years of experience (trust me, I checked). They’re no better than the default settings on a camera or the default ringtone on your phone. They’re simply settings that you’re expected to change to suit your needs.

Second, there isn’t much point upgrading to a new platform if you’re not going to invest time and money learning how to use it properly. You need to set aside time in your calendar to learn how to do this. This is time-intensive but it’s the entire point. When you move to a new platform the slight change in how members can talk to one another pales in comparison with the extra new features you’re paying for.

Third, take the courses offered by the vendor, have a staging site where you can fiddle with the settings, talk to others using the same platform. Take what’s likely to be a big weakness and turn it into your biggest strength.

Why You Need A Community Manager (and what happens if you don’t replace one)

Back in 2017, my colleague, Sarah Hawk, left her role managing the FeverBee community to take up an incredible new opportunity at Discourse.

I didn’t hire a replacement. For the past three years, the community has been left to manage itself. I’ve dipped in occasionally to respond to discussions, remove spam, make a few tweaks, but that’s about it.

This means the community has unintentionally served as a fascinating natural experiment for what happens when you don’t replace (or don’t hire) a full-time community manager.

If you’re looking to make a case about the importance of a full-time community manager, this data should help.


Increase In The Number of Visitors

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Let’s start with the number of visitors. Things didn’t really change much at first. In fact, the number of visitors continued to increase significantly for the following year. The reason for this is simple; the community was still attracting growing levels of search traffic.


Increase In Search Traffic

As you can see below, the number of visitors is entirely driven by organic search traffic.

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My best guess is the community was still considered ‘fresh’ by Google and the rising increase in discussions kept ranking highly in search engines.

It’s only been in the past year that traffic has really begun to decline – largely the result of formerly popular topics no longer ranking highly in search engines.

Key Takeaway: Even without a community manager you will keep attracting similar (or increased) levels of search traffic for a year or two.


Rapid Decline Pageviews

This is where we can see a more immediate impact of losing the community manager.

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The number of pageviews (which is a fairly good indicator of how engaging people are finding the community) almost immediately dived. We might have been attracting most people, but they were finding the community a lot less engaging.

My guess is the failure to populate the community with fresh, interesting discussions, ensure previous discussions received a response, and do the day to day welcoming work is reflected in an instant decline.


Rapid Decline Engagement Metrics

You can see the same immediate impact in broader engagement metrics too. The number of pages (discussions) members viewed per visit plummeted and the average session duration also fell immediately.

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While the number had fallen a little before the community manager left, this is probably the result of Sarah Hawk working just 2 days a week for FeverBee just prior to her departure.

Interestingly, unlike total page views, engagement metrics seem to ‘bottom out’ at around 2 to 2.5 pages per session and average session duration of about 1:30 to 2:00 minutes. This was primarily new visitors browsing around after most of the regulars had departed.

This might be an interesting benchmark for community professionals (i.e. anything above this line is attributable to the work of a community manager).

Key Takeaway: The moment a community manager leaves you can probably expect an immediate decline in engagement. This will level out at ‘rock bottom’ within about a year.


Community Activity

As expected, when a community manager leaves you see an immediate collapse in the level of participation in the community.

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Some of this is simply the absence of Hawk’s contributions. She was making 80+ posts per month. The majority is members participating less. When she wasn’t there to proactively drive the community, the level of participation quickly declined.

Key takeaway: If a community manager leaves, you need to find a replacement quickly or you lose all the value the community has created.


Daily Active Users / Monthly Active Users (stickiness)

Once Hawk had left, the community also became a lot less ‘sticky’.

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While the data itself is highly variable from month to month, the trend-line broadly shows a clear decline in stickiness until (again) a baseline is reached.

Members who did visit (i.e. regulars), were suddenly visiting a lot less frequently. 20% is often considered the standard to aim for here. And the FeverBee community was within touching distance of that before Hawk left.



Could these results be more conclusive?

Communities can’t run themselves. Large communities might fare slightly better than smaller communities like ours, but you still need someone at the helm.

Not replacing the community manager immediately reversed the direction of the community from one which was increasing in activity and engagement to one that went into a tailspin decline.

Note: You might notice several of these metrics were in decline just prior to the community manager’s departure. I’d attribute this to a) Sarah Hawk leaving half-way through the month of July and b) she only worked 2 days a week just prior to her departure.

If you want a community to thrive and reach a critical mass of activity, you need a full-time community manager to make that work. You can’t wait for a community to be successful and then hire one. And if your community manager leaves, you better find a replacement quickly.

‘White Hat’ Trolls

Most technology platforms hire white hat (ethical) hackers to undertake regular penetration testing (simulated cyber attacks) to identify and fix potential threats.

But your community doesn’t just face cyber attacks, it faces social attacks too!

As you grow you face the constant threat of bad actors joining your community to manipulate and cause harm.

Maybe we need ‘white hat trolls’ too?

Can a ‘white hat’ troll join your community, spam other members in private messages, share fake news, and lower the quality of conversation in the community without getting caught? Are your systems for preventing manipulation of bad actors as robust as you think they are?

It’s harder to run a white-hat test of your moderation systems, but the results might just be as valuable.

Why Growth in Engagement Slows (5 reasons)

There are several possible reasons.

1) The people most likely to join your community are already members (or decided not to join). Like a virus, people are either infected or ‘immune’ to it. Those left to reach are either new to the topic or in tricky places (language barriers, technology barriers, less interested in the topic). You see this in the community lifecycle.

2) You changed something about your website or promotion. You made a tweak that affected how many people visit your community. This is either a technical tweak on the community site that hurt your search traffic or a change in the service or company website which now sends less traffic to the community. Give this up to six months. If nothing has changed, you need to make another tweak.

3) The community experience has gotten worse. The community experience has worsened. You might not have updated your filter system as you grew, the quality of responses has declined, or the community is less welcoming. Too few newcomers are sticking around.

4) Most topics have already been covered. You’re the victim of your success. Most of the common questions have already been asked. Members can find the answer without having to ask the question.

5) Fewer people are interested in the topic. The overall popularity of the topic is in decline. Less people are searching for relevant search terms or your customer-base is shrinking. New competitors might have emerged where people can have a similar experience.

Growth in engagement will naturally slow over time. That’s to be expected and isn’t a problem.

The danger begins when slowing growth precipitates a perpetual decline. When you’re not attracting enough newcomers to replace the community’s natural churn, you need to take action.

Don’t Use Pure Voting Systems

Community voting systems often create front pages filled with professional-looking content.

This might include detailed, long-form, articles, professional-looking videos and images, or podcasts few can create.

This deters most members from participating.

If a member doesn’t feel they can create content at a similar level, they don’t participate.

That’s why you usually don’t want a pure voting system. It too often reflects the skill set and resources of a core few members which sideline the rest.

Instead, you want to have featured content, discussions, and other materials that you (and a few allies) select to appear on the front page too. Call it ‘editor’s picks’ if you like.

Feature the raw content with blemishes. Show the diversity of the community (of people and their creations). Make it obvious that this is a community that welcomes all contributions.

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