It’s tempting to post broad questions which are easy for most members to answer.
In theory, this should increase participation. In reality, it tends to depress participation.
General questions aren’t exciting for genuine experts to answer. They’re too general to produce any useful information. They’re also close cousins of the dreaded ‘what do you think?’ discussions.
Dumbing down the questions simply dumbs down the value of the community. It erodes any unique value your community can offer the audience.
People don’t come to a community to have general conversations, they (typically) come to get insights that will help them be better at what they do. Communities are a place for the nerdiest (or most passionate) people about a topic to have the kinds of discussions they can’t have anywhere else.
We also need a quick clarification here. Don’t confuse specific with advanced. You don’t need to have advanced discussions to deliver great value. Compare the two questions for newcomers below:
General Question 1: “How did you get started in [topic]?”
Specific Question 2: “Which software did you use to get started [xyz], what were the costs, pros and cons?”
Answering the former question doesn’t let members feel smart and doesn’t give the reader any useful insights. The latter question, however, clearly offers much better value to both.
Generally speaking, the more specific the question, the greater the value in the answers (and the greater the value of the community).
A session is the duration of a visit to your website/community. If you leave and come back later, that counts as a new session.
I’ve noticed a couple of organisations recently trying to measure communities by tracking session data. i.e. do people make a purchase or cancel their service after visiting the community?
This is a terrible way to measure value.
In a recent example, a customer asked the community how to cancel a service. The community did its job and provided an answer. The response was so good that it soon became one of the most visited posts in the community (thanks Google!). But on the stats this shows the community is now causing people to cancel!
That’s the problem with session data. Session data attributes the outcome to the last action in the chain of events before that outcome. This is a lot like attributing sales at a restaurant to the menu.
Not many people make a snap decision to cancel/buy a service because of a single experience on a single visit.
To really estimate value you need to build a dataset with a broader set of variables. This is likely to (at least) include:
- Member ID
- Community participant? (yes/no)
- Date of community registration
- Date of first post
- Date of last post
- No. visits/logins to community
- No. posts
- No. topics
- Date of subscription (customer)
- Date of cancellation (customer)
Once you have this your data team can run an analysis (or you can get help) and start building a meaningful picture and range of the community’s impact.
This won’t give you causational data, but it’s a start.
Better To Be Community-Driven Or Community-Powered?
It’s more important to be powered than driven by a community.
In community driven, members drive the behaviors of the organisation. By some definitions, customers identify as members and the goal of the organisation is to strengthen and support the community.
You can probably spot the two obvious problems.
First, how many companies do you feel you are a member of right now? 2? 5? Taking a spot poll amongst some friends this morning, the answer is 0. Did you wake up with a strong urge this morning to increase that number? Probably not.
Second, if you let members drive the wheel, we’re reminded of Henry Ford’s (probably apocryphal) quote about getting faster horses instead of Model T cars. Or, to use a modern example, you get Boaty McBoatface. Your audiences simply don’t share the same goals, expertise, or understanding of the constraints as you do.
For example, let’s say you announce you’re going to depreciate a product feature because it’s built upon outdated technology/processes. If the feature is popular, the entire community might rise up against you doing it. Do you back down because you’re community-driven? Generally speaking, communities always want you to spend more, create better products, while they pay less.
I’m far more excited about organisations which are community-powered. This is a pragmatic approach. It recognises customers generally don’t identify as members. Instead they participate to satisfy their immediate needs (usually for information and to highlight things they want to change). A handful will also feel the urge to help others. You can use the activities and insights which take place within these communities to support all parts of your organisation (sales, marketing, customer support, success, product/engineering) – but you always retain control of the wheel.
In community-driven, the goal of the company is to build a better community.
In community-powered, the goal of the community is to build a better company
Perhaps it is semantics, but I suspect the latter will prove far more successful than the former.
…is no-one thinks they’re being a jerk.
They think they are:
- Being funny and irreverent.
- Responding fairly to provocation.
- Doing what they’ve seen other members do.
- Behaving as they behave elsewhere.
It’s tempting to reduce a complicated set of expectations to a simple ‘don’t be a jerk’ command. But it fails for the same reason telling kids to ‘just behave’ fails. People try to just be themselves and the results naturally follow.
This is why you need to be more specific, have clear examples, and set very clear expectations of what is and isn’t acceptable. This means you need to get into the messy field of defining clearly what’s ‘funny’ and what’s ‘jerk behavior’.
One of our clients is building private communities in a very technical and highly regulated field.
Our research noted two contradictory themes.
The first was members wanted to know who else was a member of the community. This suggests building out a good member directory where people can browse profiles and contact one another if needed.
The second was members often held back from participating because of strict regulations within the industry and the potential ramifications of being seen to speak officially on behalf of the company.
At first, these two issues seem impossible to reconcile. We couldn’t allow members to use pseudonyms and still make it possible for members to see who else is in the community.
But diving a little deeper into the data, we realised even though members want to know who else was a member, they didn’t need to know specifically who was replying to their posts. The desire to know who else was there was simply to know they’re in a group of trusted peers (i.e. we’re letting in the right kind of people).
Discourse, the platform we’re using, has a little-known feature called ‘anonymous mode’. This mode enables any registered member to reply anonymously. This means they can share advice and ask questions without their reputation being on the line.
The problem with this mode, as you can see here, is Discourse buries this option 3-clicks deep (after you ask them to enable it) where no member would find it.
So we hired someone to develop a simple button positioned next to the very place where people would usually post a new topic.
This makes it almost impossible to miss as you can see here.
I really like the balance of this. The community is private. Everyone has been approved to join. So the anonymous mode is unlikely to be abused to spam or troll members. Yet, at the same time, it opens the door for everyone to participate without putting their reputation on the line.
This is one of the data-driven solutions which combines the best of user research and technology to create something unique. I’m not sure any other community offers this right now. It’s a feature I’d love to see offered by other platform vendors.
p.s. If you’re on Discourse, you can now pull the component from here for free.
An acquaintance asked me to look at a business case he was building for his community recently.
His goal was to win over two colleagues who had been against the community since its launch two years before.
The business case was compelling, the facts were on his side, and it was fairly clear the community was delivering great results (especially given the relatively low spending outlay).
But it didn’t take much digging to realise this wasn’t going to win them over. The problem wasn’t that the two colleagues didn’t believe the community helped the organisation. The problem was they saw the community as a threat to their own status and standing within the organisation.
Put simply, the community trod quite significantly on their turf but they didn’t have authority over it. A strong business case doesn’t resolve a territorial dispute.
Territorial disputes require persuading, not convincing (see the difference here). Persuasion is about emotions, convincing is about facts.
You can resolve a territorial dispute in two ways.
First; brute force. Go to the person above them and force them to comply. This isn’t ideal for obvious reasons.
Second, set up meetings with the detractors and simply try to listen. Understand and appreciate their concerns. Don’t try to convince them of anything. Try to gather their input in what they want to see in the community and let them come up with ideas for how it might help them. Connect them with peers at their level who have communities.
It might not solve the problem entirely, but it will certainly help to know what the real issue is.
I was honoured recently to join some of the smartest marketers I’ve ever met who put together a brand marketing degree with CXL.
The full mini degree course takes you through:
- The brand fundamentals (branding and user-centric marketing).
- Brand Success (positioning, differentiation, and strategy)
- Brand marketing (product messaging, storytelling, digital psychology, and PR)
- Community building (audience building, organic social media, community building and community strategy)
- Measurement (data-driven influencer marketing, user research, voice of customer data)
- And more.
The community aspects feature the incredible Carrie Melissa Jones, covering community building, and myself, explaining community strategy.
I believe to thrive over the long-term you need a skillset that extends beyond just immediate community skills.
There aren’t many other courses I’d recommend, but I would suggest this one.
Recently there seems to be a surge in requests for various types of community training for different community stakeholders.
This seems to be matched by confusion over what type of training is required for each type of stakeholder. Often all types of staff members, regardless of whether they’re going to be directly engaging in the community (or how they’re expected to engage) attend the same training.
This doesn’t lead to the best outcome.
So here is how we advise on training for each group and how we usually structure different training options for different groups.
It varies a lot by the organisation, but the broad contours of what’s required are usually similar from one organisation to the next.
- Executives. Train your execs to understand what a community is, why you need one, what resources are required, and what time-frame is realistic (make sure you have lots of examples). Make sure this is participatory so they are ‘co-designing’ the solution with you. This will be custom material we (or you) develop for them.
- Success/support/product staff. You want to motivate this group to respond to questions, but not in a customer-support style. Teach them to engage with empathy and how to harness the value generated by the community. This will be a mixture of custom material and on-demand material.
- Community Managers. Train this group in the full process of engaging and building a community. They need to understand the full picture. You can use on-demand training courses people can progress through at their own speed or host intensive in-person workshops to get people rapidly up to speed quickly.
- Directors of Community. At this level, your challenges become niche and not covered through common training programs. Instead, you need mentors, good relationships with your vendors, and to find a peer group who can share their hard-earned expertise with you. You need a small budget for this.
- Members. Depending upon your community, this group might mean (your founding members, superusers, or, for private communities, employees/member-based groups). These groups need to be motivated to engage, identify what they want from the community, as well as what they can contribute (along with advice about being a leader).
Pound for pound, investing in training usually delivers the single biggest return for community professionals today. Set aside the time to train your stakeholders. You will be amazed by the results. And if you don’t have time, get help to do it.
A short reminder, read your community platform’s release notes.
Subscribe and sign up for them if you can.
I’ve lost track of the number of times a client has mentioned not having a feature they want only to be told it’s been an available feature for some time.
In theory, your platform provider should reach out to you individually and tell you what’s new in each release. In practice, in inexpensive providers, this isn’t feasible and often your customer success rep might be overwhelmed.
So, find out where the release notes of your platform are published and subscribe to them (and read them!).
It’s common for organisations to have entirely false predictions about the level of engagement they should have in their communities (and how best to influence that level of engagement).
This diagram outlines how we think about engagement in a community:
The simplest way to increase engagement is to increase the number of interested visitors while reducing the rate of churn. However, we can go deeper into each aspect of this.
By order of importance, these are the biggest factors affecting your level of engagement right now.
The ultimate level of engagement in a community is limited by your potential audience. This is the total number of people who could feasibly become a member of the community with its current scope (you can expand the scope, but that’s a separate discussion).
The potential audience is the outcome of:
- The number of people interested in the topic (or no. customers). This includes anyone who is realistically interested in the topic (or, when considering a brand community, a customer).
- The number or percentage of people within that audience with questions. This is important, if people have no questions to ask, they usually have no reason to visit the community.
- Less the number of people already churned. If a member has already experienced your community and left, they’re no longer in the potential audience (we’ll cover this group soon). This is extremely important for employee communities where you can burn through an audience really fast.
The biggest error when predicting engagement, by order of magnitude, originates from a poor understanding of the total potential audience.
The next biggest factor influencing engagement is your ability to convert a potential audience into an interested visitor. This is sometimes who is visiting the community out of an interest. This ratio depends upon the following factors:
- Search traffic. When people search for related terms and topics, do they land upon your community? If you’re not well optimised for search, your engagement will be limited. If your community is private, engagement will be drastically reduced.
- Outreach / promotion. This covers both the medium and the messages you use to promote the community. Many organisations don’t effectively develop powerful messages to their audience or use all the tools at their disposal to drive people to a community. This covers email to members, placement on your homepage, paid search, integration with the product, federated search, and any other tool.
- Word-of-mouth. Are members mentioning and talking about the community elsewhere? Are natural algorithms working in your favour? Are employees/colleagues talking and sharing community content on social media channels?
- Less competition. If there are other more convenient, quicker, or better places for members to satisfy their needs for information, they will use those channels instead. The intensity of competition creates a downward pressure upon the number of interested visitors.
As the community grows, you benefit from positive feedback loops with more search traffic and word-of-mouth.
The Community Experience
Once people visit or join the community, you have the power to manipulate the community experience in several major ways. These include:
- The Technology Experience. This is the platform you use, how members experience and feel about the platform, and everything connected to the means through which members engage with one another. This includes the configuration of the platform, number of groups, discussion setup and layout, gamification etc…
- Benefits. This is the value your community creates. Is it a support or success community? Is it a place members ask questions and leave or stick around and stay engaged? Is it a sense of exclusivity and feeling of importance? The value you position the community to deliver to members and how effectively you deliver it is critical in the community experience. If there are lots of unanswered questions or poor-quality advice, people won’t stick around for long.
- Top Member Program. This is your ability to nurture a small group of top members to drive participation in the community. Can you motivate a small group of people (the right people) to volunteer their time to make the community thrive? Your program for making this work is a critical part of the experience. When staff are responding to most of the questions, a failure to develop a top member program is usually the reason.
- Community Management. This is your ability to stimulate and sustain discussions, directly engage members, moderate the community, and keep the discussions lively and engaging for the audience. Your skillset here is a critical part of the community experience.
- Onboarding (or newcomer experience). Many communities do a terrible job at attracting and satisfying the needs of newcomers. Developing the right journey and helping newcomers have a welcoming, engaging, and exciting experience is a key part of retention.
Rate of Churn
How well you design the community experience has a major impact upon your rate of churn. Your community experience can be configured to retain members. Members will stick around if your community offers the following
- Relevance. Does the community remain relevant to their needs? The biggest reason why members depart is they have no further questions that need to be solved. The community stops being relevant to their daily needs so they leave.
- Satisfaction. Does the community satisfy the needs and wants of members? Do members feel they get information that actually helps them? Did they feel satisfied with the experience they had in the community? Did they get what they wanted? You should be measuring this.
- Convenience. Is the community experience convenient for them to use? Increasingly the security requirements put in place by organisations are driving members towards other platforms which are easier to use. If members can’t quickly and easily find what they want, they depart. The speed of response, quality of response, and level of effort required to get the response are critical factors here.
- Fun and fulfillment. Did members find the experience fun and fulfilling? This is critical for smaller communities that aim to foster a sense of belonging and for retaining the very top members of a community.
The better you configure the community experience, the less the rate of churn.
Long-Term Inactive Members
By far the biggest waste of your time is to try and re-engage your long-term inactive members. This is the audience least likely to become regular participants in your community again. This is because it’s hard to change the fundamental reasons why members become inactive. This includes:
- Poor community experience. They had a bad experience with the community and no longer want to return.
- Lost interest in the topic. They’ve changed careers or moved on in life and are no longer interested in the topic. Coincidentally this is the biggest reason why people unsubscribe from a mailing list.
- Joined a competitor. They discovered another place that can satisfy their needs better than your community.
- No needs the community can help with. They simply don’t have any reason to visit the community. They have no pressing needs which a community can solve for them.
If increasing engagement is a goal for your community, work through the system above optimizing each stage of the process in turn.
Here’s a common conundrum:
If you (the community manager) respond to a question in a community, other members are less likely to respond. This makes it harder for top members to earn points and feel a sense of influence.
But if you don’t respond to a question in a community, it can linger and look bad. It also means the person asking a question is waiting for a response and becoming increasingly frustrated.
Most community folks treat this as a binary problem and resort to either answering every question they can or only answering questions after 3 to 4 days have passed. Neither is ideal and reflects a lack of thinking about which questions you should or shouldn’t be answering.
There are two levels to this depending upon what data you have access to.
If you have limited data, you immediately respond to questions which:
- You know it will be hard for most members to answer.
- Don’t have a solution.
- Stress a high level of urgency/frustration.
- Are from first-time participants.
- Are from high-value members/customers.
If you can scrape or analyse the data, you can If you have limited data to see what kind of questions will or won’t be responded to.
You can see an example below:
Product categories 3 and 4 – leave for members
In the above example, you probably don’t need to jump in for questions in several categories (especially product 4 product 3).
Developers and partners – check responses and add value
It’s also clear that developers and partners aren’t getting good responses. So you may want to check the responses you do get and add value where you can.
Product 1 – Escalate after 300 minutes
It’s also clear that the ‘product 1’ category has a high time to first response, but a low response rate. This suggests members are answering the easy questions, but the rest linger. You might set a rule that if a question lingers here for more than 300 minutes you jump in.
Product 2 – Jump in immediately
Finally, product 2 has poor responses all round. You should immediately jump in and answer these questions because the community doesn’t seem to have the expertise to do it.
Like most things, this isn’t a binary problem. You can dive deeper and develop a much better solution.
p.s. If you want to be really fancy, you can build a model using category, subject title, post length, and sender information to predict which questions will receive a response and jump in those that are unlikely to get a reply.
The definition and value of each has come up a few times recently, so here’s an easy way to think about it.
Here’s a simplified way to think about it:
- Documentation (the manual). Documentation is the manual that tells you how to use a product or service. It should cover every feature of the product and how to use it. Documentation is created and maintained by the organisation, not by its audience/members.
Like a manual, it needs to find the balance between providing enough information that the audience can learn everything they need to learn without providing so much information that it becomes overwhelming. More importantly, documentation also needs to be written from the audience’s perspective using the terms the audience would and with empathy for how the audience learns.
- Knowledge Base (the FAQ). The knowledge base is the troubleshooting guide (or FAQ). It provides up-to-date information and resources to solve the most common questions asked by members. As a result, it’s often created (or co-created) by community members sharing their best advice with one another. When an issue comes up often in the forums or support tickets, it should be turned into a knowledge-based article. The knowledge base helps members get the most from the products by providing the resources members are likely to need.
- Forums (the experts). Forums give you access to the best experts who can help. They are the place to ask for help when you don’t understand something or are looking for ideas, opinions, and suggestions. Forums connect you with people who have been through your situation and can provide you with advice and support to guide you through whatever situation you’re facing. Forums are unofficial. Sometimes they suggest workarounds a company cannot endorse.
- Customer support (emergency support). Customer support channels are the emergency services of getting help. They’re the fire brigade, police, or ambulance of the support world. Unless you’re paying for a premium support package (a lot like living in a building with private security), it’s the place you turn to for a) urgent help b) support which requires you to share private information c) when no other channel can help.
Documentation = Learn how a product/service works.
Knowledge base = Solve common problems.
Forums = Get the best advice.
Support = Get urgent help.
There are a few more things to note about each of these channels.
1) Update the documentation. If forum posts and customer support tickets frequently seem confused about how a product feature works, you need to update the documentation for that feature. There should be a constant loop between forum inputs (especially) and updated community documentation.
2) Turn common questions into articles. Common questions in a community should be turned into a knowledge base article (with links to that article in the popular discussions for the topic).
3) Don’t start a knowledge base unless you have a huge audience. You need a huge number of members and queries to sustain a member-curated knowledge base. Many organisations don’t have the audience scale to create, sustain, and maintain one.
4) Promote forums before support channels. If you promote customer support channels more prominently than community, people will use support channels instead of the community.
Also, see this take from UCLA.