Yesterday we overlooked something important.
The real decision for members isn’t whether your audience uses a community or an information site, it’s whether they use your community or another social destination to achieve the same goals.
Have you noticed your members posting the same question on your community, on social media, on other communities, and elsewhere? They don’t care where they get answers as long as they get good, quick, answers. This is becoming a more difficult challenge by the day.
Your members can probably find answers faster by searching Google.
Your members can post questions in social media and get good responses from people they know and trust. They can post questions in similar communities and can get help from a totally independent group of experts.
Your members can build their reputations by creating their own blogs, posting on LinkedIn, Medium, and other aggregation sites.
Your members can find a stronger sense of community by creating their own groups on Slack, Telegram, WhatsApp, Facebook, and only inviting people they like.
Each of these can (and probably will) peel away your best and most enthusiastic members until you’re not left with much.
Worse yet, each platform has benefits you will never be able to match.
You can’t be as much of a habit as Facebook, you will never offer as much information as Google, and you can’t match the sense of community felt by a few people hanging out in a private group with their friends.
Far too many brand communities don’t find a way out of this problem and slowly watch their community enter a terminal decline. Worse, they often try to mimic competitors along the way.
Don’t compete on another platform’s turf. You’re going to lose. Instead, if you want to build a sustainable community, bring to bear the full armament of your resources to build a community no-one can match.
You might not be able to compete on speed, depth, and quality of questions, answers and expertise shared. But what you can do?
In the Indispensable Community, we write how the best brand communities do precisely this. They use their natural unfair advantages.
Your best assets are:
- Scale – You can reach more people. You can ensure the best content in your community reaches more people than ever. You can include it in product material, support discussions, and link to it throughout the community. You can ensure any post in your community reaches more people than any other site.
- Access – You can give members unique access and exclusive information they can only get from being a great contributor to the group. You can award them with early trials, introductions to key staff members, superior product support, and anything else.
- Influence – You can take their feedback and use it to develop better products. You can make them feel like partners working to create something fantastic. You can set challenges, competitions, and give them interesting problems to solve.
- Prominence – Your PR team can turn top members into quotable superstars. You can put them on stage at your conference. You can give them recognition, badges, and prominence. You can help them gain work.
- Verified – You can be the judge, to determine what’s verified and what isn’t. You can anoint the people who really know their stuff and distinguish them from those that don’t. You can be the ultimate arbiter of what’s good and what’s bad. You can approve the people who are doing the things that most help the community.
The key is to take the psychological benefits from a community and use your unique advantages to turbo-change them.
Because if you’re not going to bring something to the party, something only you can bring…and only you can offer…why bother having a party at all?
If you want to build an indispensable community, you have to offer something no-one else will ever be able to match.
In The Indispensable Community, I explain the only communities which thrive in the long term are those which are truly indispensable to their brands and their members.
It’s incredibly hard to build a community that offers members something they find absolutely necessary and would struggle to get elsewhere (and you need both). Yet it’s the only way your community can thrive today.
If you’re wondering why your community doesn’t seem ‘sticky’ (why so few people stick around), this is it.
What’s Absolutely Necessary To Our Members?
The reason you have a community and not just a help (or information) portal is a community offers unique benefits that your members can’t get from just browsing and reading.
A community offers four unique psychological benefits; a sense of belonging, greater influence, a chance to explore things we find interesting, and mutual support.
If you’re building a community today, you have to push hard towards at least one of these benefits.
Each avenue takes you down a completely different path, and each has its pros and cons.
1) Sense of belonging.
You focus on creating a powerful sense of community.
You build a warm, welcoming, friendly, environment. You introduce rituals and traditions. You create a shared, written, history. You make it private and exclusive. You bring people together for shared events and activities as much as possible.
CampJeep is an incredible example of this.
Warning – this only works if people feel your brand is already a strong part of their identity. This usually means it’s something we spend a lot of time doing, invest resources in, or represents our identity in some way.
VERY few brands fall under this category (yet most think they do).
2) Greater influence.
You build a smaller, more dedicated, group of people around you who want to have an impact (either helping you or each other).
You set targets and drive people towards them. You celebrate wins, commiserate the losses, and provide the support people need at each stage.
Critically you’re targeting a tiny slice of your audience who are most committed to you (look for highest NPS/satisfaction scores) and working with them to have maximum influence.
3) Exploring exciting things.
You provide a unique environment for members to share and test ideas. You might host competitions, set challenges, and highlight the newest and most exciting things.
This works well for Kaggle, Github, Lomography, ProductHunt, and many others. Each has created an entirely unique platform where people can test things, report back something new, and adapt/improve their efforts.
Warning – this only works in fields which are genuinely new and exciting. Technology figures highly here, but it’s not the only option.
4) Mutual support.
You help people with questions get answers as quickly as possible.
You ensure members feel empathetically listened to, appreciated, and respected. Many of these are about discussions you can’t search for. This means you offer information via members that isn’t easy to search for. Google can tell you warning signs of cancer, but it can’t easily prepare you (and support you) for the emotional journey you’re about to go through.
Become Absolutely Necessary To Your Members
If you want your community to be absolutely necessary over the long-term to members you have to zero in on something that offers incredible psychological value.
Something that goes beyond just providing members with information and lets them feel emotions they crave, emotions they can’t easily find anywhere else.
Pick at least one of the above and push it to the edge. If you’re doing belonging, really push that sense of belonging. If it’s exploration, then design your entire community around that principle etc…
The last thing we need is just another brand community creating yet another forum and praying members want to hang out and chat. That’s not indispensable.
Identify which of the four above you’re targeting and go all the way to the edge with it. Create something unique, different, and remarkable. Create something indispensable.
If you want to buy my book, click here.
p.s. Speaking at CMX Summit in Portland tomorrow. If you’re around, please say hi!
Last week StarlingBank announced they were closing their brand community.
“We had hoped the forum would be a place where customers could openly discuss with each other questions they may have about our app. In reality, however, we’ve found that a small but vocal minority of forum members have had unrealistic expectations of what it is for. In addition, the conversations that take place there often expose potentially sensitive customer information.”
A lot of communities have closed down in the past few years because of similar complaints.
- “A lot of our members now talk on social media”
- “Too much spam”
- “Vocal minority causing problems”
- “Legal liability”
These aren’t the real reasons of course. They’re simply the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Every one of these problems has been overcome by others in the past. Facebook doesn’t shut down when moderating becomes a pain, they hire 3000 more moderators.
The real reason is the organization isn’t willing to invest the resources to overcome these problems. They might have plenty of engagement, but it’s not delivering results that matter.
Do you think the community would shut down if it had delivered 500+ great sales leads, nurtured 250 raving advocates, converted 2000 newcomers into premium customers, been the primary source for great PR stories, was the main tool to collect service feedback etc…etc…?
The community is closing down because it’s not delivering the results that make investing extra resources a no-brainer.
Indispensable communities, those which are absolutely necessary, don’t get shut down.
Metal detectives trawl a patch of land, dig up anything that beeps, and then look to see if any of it was valuable.
Archeologists, however, know they’re looking for something valuable. They research where the ancient battle (probably) took place and then go looking for the arrowheads.
Too often community work is more similar to metal detecting than archeology.
Instead of beginning with a clear objective and driving exactly the activity to achieve it (archeology), we drive a lot of engagement and hope some of it was valuable (metal detecting).
If you’ve ever wondered “what is the value of my community?”, you’re metal detecting.
Sure, random engagement might influence loyalty, sales, support, satisfaction, and productivity (and you can measure this too). But why leave it to chance?
You’re far more likely to get results if you’re really clear about the results you want to begin with. If you want great case studies for the PR team, terrific feedback for engineering, more newcomers progressing beyond the trial period etc…you can ask members to do the very things likely to drive these results and measure how many members did them.
Metal detecting is for hobbyists, archeology is for professionals.
They tend to sit in frustrated, isolated, silos at the bottom of the organizational chart.
They often feel they need to protect the community from the evil, capitalist, demands of their colleagues.
They spend their time trying to keep the community healthy, engaged, and happy.
They find themselves first in line for the axe when times are tight and last in line for support when there are resources to invest.
However, the people driving their communities forward are realistic pragmatists.
They don’t protect their communities from their colleagues, they engage their colleagues to support and benefit from the community.
They don’t complain their boss “doesn’t get it” but work hard to get their boss.
They don’t try to maximize engagement but try to maximize the results they’re delivering for their colleagues.
They don’t walk into a meeting with engagement metrics, they walk into meetings with specific results to share (problems resolved, feedback gathered, leads identified, case studies collected etc…)
It’s a lot easier to have 1000 engaged community members than 1 senior, supportive, stakeholder in the community.
Today I’m sharing two free chapters highlighting the difference between the idealists and the pragmatists. You can sign up here to get them.
Spoiler alert: we need more pragmatists!
The biggest reason why most communities aren’t indispensable is most community managers aren’t doing any of the work which makes communities indispensable.
If you were to make a list of all the tasks you’re doing today, it would probably include activities like:
- welcoming newcomers
- initiating new discussions
- replying to current discussions
- removing spam
- replying to individual member queries
- creating content etc…
Do these tasks make your community indispensable to your colleagues (or your members)? Or do they simply keep engagement metrics up?
While researching The Indispensable Community, there was a clear difference in the work of the typical community manager and the work of indispensable community manager.
The indispensable community manager spent far less time on the activities above and far more time doing the following:
- Building internal relationships. They spent far more time attending meetings to build stronger internal relationships and understand exactly what colleagues need. They focus on urgent needs (i.e. not “generate more sales” but “collect powerful case studies”). They worked to proactively identify and overcome concerns.
- Plug the community into broader goals. They pulled together all engagement activities (events, social, customer support, etc…) into a single unified community approach. This is far harder than it sounds.
- Develop long-term roadmaps. They built long-term roadmaps which they used to drive discussions. These roadmaps highlighted which goals they would tackle, in which order, and what financial, people, and technological resources they needed to get there.
- Build useful decision-making systems. They didn’t just collect data, but developed dashboards which highlighted where to focus limited time and resources to have the biggest impact. Activities were properly measured and acted upon. Most of this was automated.
- Design unique user segments and journeys. They built unique user segments based upon a member’s time, talent, or motivation to contribute. These were validated into user journeys and for members through the community based upon their time, talent, or motivation to contribute. They validated these user journeys with data too.
- Spend a lot of time talking directly to members. They tended to spend a lot more time in the field talking to members or scheduling calls and discussions with members.
- Set specific activities for members. They didn’t just ask members to participate but identified specific valuable tasks (advocating, leading, learning, innovating, educating, and supporting) instead of just countable participants.
- Establish clear technology goals. They didn’t randomly use whatever features came with their platform, they identified the specific tools they needed (from their roadmap) and went deep into ensuring they supported exactly what the community needed to do. Many even developed their own platform. They tended to spend a lot more time in really specific areas of the platform (notably gamification, integration, and onboarding journeys).
- Develop a pipeline of future recruits. They didn’t wait for a job opening to start prospecting future recruits, they tended to attend events and build a pipeline of prospects they could reach out to when a job became available.
It’s not a comprehensive list. Once you pass a certain (low) level, engagement metrics become largely irrelevant.
Instead, it becomes far more important to make your community indispensable to your colleagues and your members. That requires a different set of skills, knowledge, and resources. It’s about time we adjusted to this work.
Join our private community for indispensables.
Is your brand community indispensable?
Is it absolutely necessary to the work of at least one of your colleagues?
There is a simple test for this.
Are you going to your colleagues trying to persuade them of its value or are they coming to you seeking value?
Do you send product feedback to product engineers and hope they use it or do engineers come to you looking for feedback?
Do you send case studies to the PR team or do they come to you seeking case studies?
Do you send leads to the sales team or does the sales team come to you seeking leads?
Do you escalate relevant issues to customer support or does customer support come to your community to resolve most issues there first?
Do you highlight possible value to your boss or does your boss come to you asking how the community can save money?
If your colleagues aren’t coming to you, you’re not indispensable…sorry!
I believe everyone building a community today should work to become indispensable to the organizations they work for.
But it’s hard to do this alone. You need help from people who have been there and done it. You need access to data and persuasive arguments to show what works.
Therefore this week I’d like to invite you to join an indispensable-only community.
In this community, we’re going to share things like our data dashboards, our most persuasive arguments, audience research techniques, and break-down the tactical steps we each use to make our communities indispensable.
It’s the kind of discussions that need both honesty and privacy. The contents of this community will never be made public.
To join you need to do three things:
1) You have to be committed enough to buy and read the book ($19.95). This is a relatively small step to filter out the serial joiners of every possible project from those committed to making progress. You can buy it from Amazon in paperback or Kindle.
2) You have to commit to sharing openly and honestly. We’re limiting membership to just 100 members (for now) and we’ll be pruning members based upon their level of participation. There are some great communities for lurking and learning, this isn’t one of them. We expect you to share your struggles and successes with the group.
We’ll be inviting people in batches. This is strictly on a first come, first serve basis with the earliest members being those who get to join first.
See you on the inside!
I’m incredibly excited to announce the launch today of my second book; The Indispensable Community – Why Some Brand Communities Thrive When Others Perish.
If you’ve ever struggled to explain the value of your community, if you’re not sure how to get the best results from your community, or your members aren’t doing what you need, you need to buy this book.
There are hundreds of thousands of brand communities around today, but how many are truly indispensable to either the brand or their members? How many brands or members would truly suffer if the community disappeared tomorrow?
Far too many of us today are stuck driving engagement. We spend our days responding to what happens in our community, trying to get the metrics up, and creating content we hope will be popular. It’s a big mistake. Even if we succeed, we lose. Engagement doesn’t drive results.
This book will share a new approach towards building community, an approach which will help you stop driving engagement and instead work your members to get their best possible contributions to the community.
If you’re feeling stuck, struggling to prove the value of your work, get the support you need, or simply want to accelerate your career to a higher level, this book will help.
You can buy the book on Amazon.com.
A huge thank you to everyone that made this book possible.
You can constantly tweak the titles of member posts to attract better SEO traffic.
Members are prone to posting a question as quickly as possible rather than trying to craft a title which is distinctive, clearly describes the question, and is unique compared with previous questions.
Over time, search engines tend to punish communities with 50+ discussions titled “iPhone problem” or “flight“.
So the obvious solution is to tweak the titles (or nudge members to do so). You can make any title distinctive, unique, and merge related discussions into one. It’s a lot of work, but if search drives most of your traffic it usually makes sense.
But you can go beyond this too. You can add related images and videos to the solution to search up in media search results too. You can add more detailed information from elsewhere and ensure the most popular discussions are frequently updated with new information. You can add step by step bullet point information too.
Trying to attract greater search traffic is a perfectly valid goal, but if you’re going to do it…take it to the best possible level.
(p.s. a draft version of this post went out by email, sorry!).
Clients often ask us questions about new tactics. For example:
“Let’s create a video channel in our community for members to record and share videos”
It makes sense. Videos are rising in popularity, more platforms are pushing it, and it sounds fun. If you pull it off, your community can become the YouTube for its topic.
If you don’t have a framework for making decisions on tactics like these, you can easily go off-strategy and exhaust yourself chasing new ideas. Many communities become a graveyard for forgotten ideas.
Here’s how we tend to think about any new tactic.
1) Does it directly link to a community goal? How would sharing videos help a community achieve its goal? Certain kinds of videos might help members overcome common problems in better detail or help customers get more from a product.
You can also see what the tactic might look like at this stage. If videos are about problems, we might create a channel to tackle specific problems no-one else can solve. If they’re about success, we might use them for beginner or advanced level tips etc…
2) Is it the best way to achieve the goal? Having customer sales reps write answers to previously unanswerable questions or share best tips might be easier and more effective. What makes videos unique? They make it simple to follow what’s happening as it’s happening. This probably suggests targeting newcomers.
3) Have members expressed an interest in recording/viewing videos from each other? Most of the time the answer is no. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it (members often struggle to express an interest in something they haven’t seen). But it does mean you need to do a trial of the idea first to see if it’s popular before investing much time and resources in it.
4) How do we trial this idea? You might run a simple competition, have a video week (or month), allow just the very top members to create and share videos, pull in existing videos from other sources and see if they’re a hit etc…Most of the time, a tactic is a complete dud and needs to be refined or tossed out. Never do something big without a small trial first.
5) What will we stop doing to make time and energy to do this well? Running a successful video channel well takes a lot of time and resources. What tactics will we stop doing to make sure we can do this well? Who will be responsible for it?
What you might notice is now the idea of “Let’s launch a video channel for members to create and share videos” becomes “Let’s host a newcomer video week for top members to share how they tackled their earliest challenges. If it works out, we’ll stop our weekly MVP calls and focus on collecting best videos instead on a new channel of the community”
Don’t get sucked into investing huge amounts of time and resources into ideas which aren’t clearly powerful, proven to work, and you don’t have time to do them well. Go through the process and reject or adjust the idea until you know it’s worth doing.
As a rule, give members the benefit of the doubt.
They’re not bad people, they’re just having bad days. They didn’t sleep well last night, they just came out of a major relationship, they’re stressed about work, and broken their ankle yesterday.
Anyone of these could explain why they lashed out at another member in that message.
In the broad realm of possibilities which may explain an awful post, an external cause is rather likely. If you assume the best and drop the member a personal note to check they’re ok, you’re far more likely to bring them back into the fold (compared with punishing them with an instant ban).
The odds on any member being so bad a person they need to be instantly removed and punished is slim. External causes are far more likely than internal attributes.
The flip side of this is you don’t get the benefit of the doubt. You’re judged by your last contribution. If you’re having a bad day and lash out, even just once, that’s the ball game. A single provocative, aggressive, or cynical post is how you’re judged as a person and you’ll struggle to recover from it.
If you didn’t sleep well last night, are feeling angry and aggressive, it’s probably best to summon the strength to step away from the keyboard (while assuming your members don’t).