“Can’t The Community Run Itself?”

There’s a difference between a self-sustaining community and a self-managing community.

Your community might be able to sustain itself with fresh activity, but it can’t revamp the website, prioritise certain features or discussions to meet your objectives, or build close relationships between top members.

It can’t weed out threats or optimise the member journey. It also can’t easily improve the quality of the conversation without the impetus of a community team. This is more valuable than you might think.

As one study from online health communities clearly shows:

“The presence of a moderator increased user engagement, encouraged users to discuss negative emotions more candidly, and dramatically reduced bad behavior among chat participants.

Moderation also encouraged stronger linguistic coordination, which is indicative of trust building. In addition, moderators who remained active in conversations were especially successful in keeping conversations on topic.”

When you cut the community team, you might not see it in the level of activity – but you will certainly see it in the quality of activity. You will find yourself with a less trusting, more toxic, and less valuable community.

When You’re Not Being Paid Enough For Community Work

Some organisations (and industries) neither understand nor pay, community professionals very well.

Alas, no amount of jedi mind tricks will persuade an organisation to dramatically increase your salary for doing the same kind of work.

So, if you want to get paid more, you have three options. You can take on a more senior role within your organisation, move to a larger organisation, or move to an industry that pays community professionals more.

A rapidly growing startup is one option. More senior community roles are likely to evolve over time and you would find yourself well-positioned to move into them.

Moving to a larger company within your sector is another. They’re likely to have more resources and a bigger budget to support more customers.

Or move to a sector that already understands and pays the community well (usually technology).

Thoughtful Personal Invitations vs. Mass Emails

One of my clients recently launched a new community focused on a very small (but very important) sector.

We had done the surveys, interviewed dozens of members, and developed exactly the kind of community website they needed. We knew we had a concept which should take off.

Now it was time to get people participating.

The manager of the project wanted to send out an email to the mailing list of people who participated in the surveys and interviews. This would save time in the short-term, but the conversion rate would’ve been between 1% to 10% of the mailing list.

You need to work backwards in these situations and ask:

‘What kind of emails are people likely to open and respond to?’

The obvious answer is we open emails from people we personally know and we respond to emails that affect us emotionally.

Instead of a mass email, we began sending out thoughtful, personal, invites from whomever on the team had the closest relationship with the intended participant (often replying to a previous email thread – another way to ensure it gets opened).

The email explained exactly how their contributions so far had helped shape the project, what we felt they could contribute to the community (based upon their interviews), and what we would like them to do to get started. Our goal was to make them feel they could have a big impact in helping others.

As each person joined over the next two weeks, we ensured each person gained a quick response and we connected them to other members.

It took three weeks longer than a mass email, but so far almost 90% of our intended audience has joined and 50% have made at least three contributions.

Mass emails save time in the short-term, but can hurt you in the long-term. If your audience is small, or you’re just getting started, send a personal invite from someone they know instead.

Reaching Out To Inactive Members

You have thousands, maybe even millions, of members who haven’t visited your community in years.

It’s a good idea to find out why not.

HealthUnlocked has a very simple survey here you can adapt.

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It’s personal, it’s really quick, and it fills in the most likely responses for me.

The options reflect the most common reasons I’ve seen over the years for people drifting away too. i.e.

  • I’ve forgotten about [community].
  • I couldn’t find what I needed.
  • I found what I needed, no need to return.
  • I have been using [community], I just don’t log in to my account.
  • I haven’t had time.
  • Other (please specify).

You can adapt this pretty quickly for your community and the data you collect should prove invaluable.

Being A Team Player

Fresh out of university, one of my first jobs was working for the United Nations in Geneva.

I quickly felt bombarded with tedious rules and dull training sessions explaining where to properly store and tag documents, update internal tracking systems and communicate with others.

Frankly, I didn’t have any time for this ‘administrative crap’. I was too busy doing the work.

My first performance review said my work was good, but I wasn’t being a ‘team player’.

Ouch! That stung.

That single phrase ‘being a team player’ resonated. It didn’t only compel me to change my ways, but I’ve found it’s useful to change the motivation of participants in many communities since.

Team players don’t consider themselves too important or too busy to properly tag, store, and share their work.

Whenever we work on an internal community or a project where members are sharing vast amounts of information (which require some tedious rules), we spread the message as clearly as possible – this is what team players do.

Feature Fixation

It tends to happen like this.

In member interviews, one or two members say it would be great to have a specific feature.

For example, letting members live stream themselves within the community.

Your colleagues love it and the feature scores the highest marks in your audience survey.

But you soon discover almost no platform offers it. So you end up ruling out all the top community platforms in favour of either building one yourself or using some obscure platform that does this one feature extremely well.

Both approaches are going to cause major headaches later on and sabotage your community effort.

If you find yourself dismissing most of the top platforms because it’s lacking a single feature, the problem isn’t the platforms but your fixation on the feature. It’s far better to hack together a solution for the feature (i.e. embedding Twitch live streaming within a community) than dismiss most of the top platforms.

None of the top community platforms is going to offer everything you want, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use any of the top platforms.

Baking Bread

You might’ve tried baking bread recently.

Did you head to The Fresh Loaf or Breadtopia to ask questions and get started?

Did you look for any community to help?

Probably not. You didn’t know those communities existed and you didn’t really have any questions to ask even if you did. If you’re like most people, you typed the kind of bread you wanted to bake into a search engine and followed a recipe.

But I bet you shared photos of your loaf once it was done.

The motivation to participate with others isn’t driven by fear of making a mistake (and thus asking for help), but taking pride in what you created and seeing reactions from others.

A smart community builder would recognise this and create a Fenty-Style community where members can submit their loaf (with a recipe). Others could vote on it, learn from it, and adapt it. You would have a loaf of the week as voted by members etc..You could even name new recipes after members who created them etc…

It’s far easier to copy other communities than to step back and really see what motivates people to participate in the topic. Consider, however, if the motivation to participate isn’t driven by fear and frustration but by pride and a need for self-comparison.

Happy baking.

Group @mentions

Being able to assign members into a group and @mention (notify) the entire group at once of a discussion they might want to respond to and participate in is a powerful tool.

I’m surprised more platforms don’t allow group @mentions.

You can assign newcomers to cohorts and invite the entire cohort to introduce themselves without having to tag each person in individually.

You can create groups for experts in specific areas and @mention people in that group when a relevant discussion comes up.

You can create an @mention group for your top members and use it to draw attention to unanswered questions.


If you have this feature (Discourse, Hivebrite, and a few others do), make sure you’re using it. In some clients it’s proving to be a powerful way to sustain a high level of participation.

If you don’t have this feature, it might be worth asking your vendor to work on it.

Sharing Makes You Stronger

I love this post by Ben at The Overflow.

“After interviewing several developers, a pattern started to become clear: great developers share a lot. This takes different forms for different people but is very often a blog. “So what?” you might say, you would expect successful people—“thought leaders”—to use their position and platform to share their own ideas and projects. But the interesting thing is that for many top developers, their sharing mindset came before their success, and was the direct cause of it, not the result of it.”

Ben shares two powerful thoughts:

1) The most successful people give more than they take.

2) Sharing makes you stronger.

If you’re looking for two emotive messages to encourage more contributions from top members; I’d try these.

Moving From Big To Small

Be careful about moving from managing a community at a large organisation to managing a community at a small one.

You might be frustrated with the multiple stakeholders and having many hoops to jump through on even the smallest initiatives.

But is that more frustrating than having no budget for any development work, having to find your own designer for newsletters and emails, and having only a tiny audience to promote the community to?

Managing a community of millions of members is an entirely different experience from fighting for the attention of every new member.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, just be aware of what you’re jumping into. It feels easier to go from small to big than big to small.

Why Aren’t Members Asking More Questions?

A client wants members to ask more questions in the community.

Before suggesting tactics, you need to get to the source of why aren’t they asking more questions.

The best thing to do is interview 5 to 10 members and build out a table like that below which finds out what information members needed, where they went for that information, and why they did or didn’t ask in the community.

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Do you notice how valuable these insights are?

We now know not only the types of discussions and content we might create in the community (vendor list, a ‘review my effort’ area, list of examples, trouble-shooting), but also the resistance members have about asking questions in the community.

We know people feel intimidated about having their name attached to a question so we can add and promote a ‘post anonymously’ feature. We can create a button where members could email their questions to the community manager to post.

We know the community is great for questions where there are a ‘variety’ of responses (e.g. examples) so we can promote that as the main call to action to ask a question. It’s the best way to get the most responses.

We can also run a short email series campaign encouraging members to give feedback on each other’s work and remove the self-promotion stigma.

If you want more questions, find out why members aren’t asking questions first. What questions do they have, where do they ask them, and why don’t they use your community. The insights will be invaluable.

Better Icebreakers

‘Tell us something interesting about yourself’ is the worst one.

Everyone panics trying to think of something not boring/but not arrogant to say about themselves. I’m not sure I can remember a single interesting fact anyone has shared in these icebreakers.

What’s your favourite book, movie, music album, TV, vacation spot, or memory is a lot easier and a lot more fun. People begin thinking of something positive – something they’re excited and happy to share about themselves.

How did you get into [topic]? Is also pretty good.

Great icebreakers don’t cause anxiety attacks.

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