The answer probably isn’t what you think.
90% of the activities we find most people working on to increase engagement won’t have a lasting impact.
I’ve spent the past decade achieving extremely strong results for clients by focusing on sustainable processes to improve engagement.
This means zeroing in on the handful of things which really matter (i.e. the handful of critical ‘leverage points’) and then apply the best possible processes to optimise these zones.
On Sept 28th, I will be participating in a webinar hosted by Tribe to share the best approaches we’ve used over the years to keep members highly engaged in a community
Date: Sept 28, 2021
Time: 12.00pm EDT (5pm BST)
Registration link: https://tribe.so/webinars/community-engagement (sign up to get the recording too).
A quick warning here. If you’re looking for simple tweaks or ‘quick wins’ you’re probably going to be bitterly disappointed. But if you want to look at engagement as part of a bigger system and learn how you can influence that system, this might be the right webinar for you.
I spent a year working with Sephora to develop a new community strategy.
A major plank of this strategy was integrating authentic community content into the product pages. This includes reviews, photos etc…
All that content you see at the bottom (questions and answers, images, and reviews) is community-generated content. It’s managed by the community team.
Community-generated content isn’t like content created by a marketing team or top influencers. It’s not professionally created and refined. It’s raw, authentic, and breeds trust. It showcases real people doing real things and sharing their real opinions. This in turn has a huge impact upon product purchase conversions.
For sure, it’s not easy to do and you often have to corral lots of different technologies to work with one another. But if you can make it work, you’ll find creating genuine, authentic, content which shows up in the buyer journey is an astonishingly powerful benefit of nurturing a brand community.
Note too, that once you have a goal like this, your metrics begin to shift. It’s no longer the level of engagement or participation that matters, it’s the quantity and quality of authentic content which has been created.
The common belief is you can grow a community by improving the community experience.
For example, you might add new features, improve the experience, make members feel better connected etc.
Improving the community experience does help (it can reduce churn), but it doesn’t drive more people to visit the community in the first place. Long-term growth and sustainability in a community requires you to find eternal sources of new members.
That eternal part matters. A big promotional push can be great for getting a community going, but it’s not an eternal source of new members, i.e. there are only so many times you can send a mass email to your audience to persuade them to join.
To make a community thrive, you have relatively few sources of eternal community growth. These are (by order of importance):
1) Search traffic. For most communities, search is by far the biggest source of growth. However, it comes with risks. Sudden changes to the Google algorithm or Google keeping more traffic for itself is going to make this harder. If you’re a private community, you’ve lost 80%+ of potential visitors before you begin.
2) Customer/topic journey. This is when the community is naturally integrated with the customer or topic journey. As part of being a customer or becoming engaged with your organisation (or the topic) people are naturally introduced to the community. How and where the community is featured on the homepage/product/support really matters here.
3) Platform recommendations/referrals. This is when a major technology platform naturally recommends or drives traffic to your community from others (most common in Facebook Groups, LinkedIn, StackOverflow, Reddit etc…).
4) Links and partnerships. Getting links and referrals from major websites/publications can be a huge win. Community.co built an entire business doing this. If you reach out to others in your sector and persuade them to drive people to your community, that can be a sustainable source of new members.
5) Staff/member advocacy. By far the most underutilized asset is advocacy from existing staff and community members. If members and staff share posts on their social media profiles, you can attract a large number of members quite easily.
The best way to grow a community is to build the relationships, processes, and incentives to make each of the channels which are relevant to you work as best as they can.
Sure, other things can help, but these are the big wins.
Two organisations I’m working with are dealing with the same intriguing challenge; customers have already launched successful communities for their brand!
On one hand, this is a great sign. It shows the audience cares and wants to engage with one another. They’re helping each other already and the organisation doesn’t have to do anything. It’s a free bonus.
On the other hand, it presents several problems. The information shared in member-hosted communities is often poor and outdated, it attracts troublemakers (self-promoters), and there’s no way for the organisation to build a process to support those who don’t get help (i.e. in a hosted community, unanswered questions can be automatically redirected to support teams after [x] hours).
This also raises another dilemma. Both clients need to launch communities on platforms that integrate with existing systems, have adequate security measures, and provide access to data. By nature, that means it will be less convenient for members to use than the platforms hosting existing communities (Facebook Groups, WhatsApp, Slack, Subreddits etc…). Why would members use your community when a more convenient option exists?
You have two broad options here.
The first option is to engage with existing hosts of member-created communities and try to develop a relationship that will enable you to respond, correct false information, and gather what information you can. This can work well, but it’s rarely a long-term solution by itself. You’re at the mercy of people whose primary objective may not align with yours.
The second option is to build your own community, but offer a value proposition so strong it overcomes the convenience problem. This usually means a combination of:
1) Access to staff. Members can engage in member-created communities or get trusted advice from staff and validated members in the brand-hosted community. This requires staff to be heavily engaged in the community.
2) Personalisation. Design the community to be integrated into accounts with members receiving the news, information, and updates that are relevant to them. Free social media tools can’t share the latest product updates, top five known issues, progress on reported issues, and a list of relevant discussions – but your community can. Likewise, members can’t vote on ideas or see unanswered questions immediately escalated in other tools.
3) Unique features. Zero in on the specific features members want and show these in the community. This might include searchable documentation and knowledge base articles, leaderboards and badges, or the ability to contribute to the community in a unique way.
Whatever you do, don’t select a similar platform and try to compete against existing, established, communities. That’s a loss for you, your new competitors, and your members.
Analysing the data from two new clients recently.
Let’s begin with this graph here.
When you see a sudden drop like this (or major drop compared with data from the year before), the cause is almost always a major external event. If you want to grow a community, you first need to determine what the major event was.
The most common examples (by order of frequency) include:
- Changes to the registrations process (often a new SSO system)
- Changes to the company homepage design.
- Changes to the community design.
- Changes to the Google algorithm.
- A ‘black swan’ event (given the date of the drop, this might be our first hunch to explore).
Typically here, you can ask around and find what other changes occurred in each of the above until you find the source. You can play detective here and ask around each of the above to determine what’s happening.
A sudden drop is bad, but not disastrous. It can usually be reversed if you can identify the cause. The interests of members haven’t fundamentally shifted.
Now consider this graph:
When you see a more gradual drop like this, the cause is social in nature. A slow decline is far more likely to be fatal than a sudden drop. The needs and motivations of members are fundamentally changing and you need to change too.
The most common explanations here include:
- You have fewer potential people to engage (fewer people interested in the topic / fewer new customers).
- Members have fewer questions to ask.
- Rising competition from other channels.
- Declining community experience drives people away.
Before you can reverse the trend, you need to gather a few metrics to identify what the problem is. This usually includes comparing the trend against :
- The number of visitors to the company website.
- No. new customers the organisation has attracted.
- Search traffic to the community.
- No. of support tickets being filed from support teams.
If any of these are also declining, you have usually found your cause.
For example, if there has been a comparable decline in support tickets filed, you know the drop isn’t community-centric. It’s part of a broad shift of either attracting fewer customers or customers having fewer questions to ask.
Before trying to change any metric, you need to understand what’s driving it. Solve that and everything becomes a lot easier.
Last week, I hosted a founding member workshop with a client community.
We guided a few dozen participants to answer some questions about what they wanted from the community, forged connections between members, and helped members make the key decisions about the community.
Once the work is complete, the client was keen to send out a ‘thank you’ note. Instead, we suggested sending out a ‘next steps’ note.
The difference here is important. Thank you notes feel like the right thing to do in these situations. The problem is people tend to give them little time or attention. The moment they see ‘thank you’ in the subject line, they know what to expect. A thank you note is the final message. It ends the discussion. It feels good to send (and sometimes good to receive). But it doesn’t really achieve much.
But listing out the next steps a member can take drives more activity. It shows the recipient you want to keep them involved. It shows the recipient you think they have more to give.
It sounds counter-intuitive perhaps, but I’ve found in communities the best way to thank members is to give them more things they can do to be more involved.
We do a lot of work with Salesforce communities. It’s clear that the smallest design tweaks often have a big impact on participation.
If you spend much time browsing Salesforce communities for example, you might soon notice something odd. In many communities, a member will post the entire question in the subject line like this.
Now compare this to what a good question should look like:
Notice the difference? The subject line is clear, the context is included within the body of the email, the screenshot provides everything someone needs to provide an answer. It’s also cleaner and easier to read.
So, what’s happening in these situations? It’s more simple and important than you might think.
In the former community, when members click the ‘ask question’ button they are shown this screen:
Naturally, they click the category at the top and then assume they only have 255 characters to ask a question.
In the latter example, when members ask a question they’re invited to use this screen:
You can probably spot the critical difference here. By showing the ‘details’ option without having to click the word, members are naturally more likely to assume the context belongs here and the question actually means ‘subject line’.
It’s staggering how big of an impact this simple tweak can have. It can change the entire community experience from one with questions filled with long subject lines and not enough context to respond, to one filled with good-quality questions which top members enjoy replying to.
Note: Of course it would be a lot easier if Salesforce simply turned ‘question’ into ‘subject line’ and ‘details’ into ‘question’.
In about half the projects we work on, members complain about the navigation of the site.
The story here is often the same. Instead of following data and asking members what they wanted (and identifying the terminology they used), the organisation made assumptions and created their own navigation menus.
This is the primary cause of the navigation problems today.
A recent example proves the point. Looking at data from HotJar, Google Analytics, and speaking with members, less than 1 in 100 visitors clicked on 2 of the 7 navigation tabs in a client’s community.
So we removed them. There hasn’t been a single complaint about their removal yet.
This is your regular reminder that the best way to improve the navigation of most communities is to reduce the number of roads people can take.
Here’s a more extreme example.
Try building a community for competitors operating within a relatively small sector.
You’re probably not going to get far. Few people want to share their expertise and advice with competitors (at the extreme, there are even laws preventing close cooperation between competitors).
This is why most partner communities aren’t really communities at all. Few partners proactively share information with one another or participate in discussions. The majority, by far, are information portals filled with announcements, tools, resources and, sometimes, events, where people can learn more from the brand.
Sometimes partners might ask a question about a problem, but they expect an answer from the brand.
The primary source of member-to-member information distribution in these communities are events – often in the form of featured member interviews or webinars.
One solution to this is to try to change the culture and build a more cooperative dynamic between partners in the same ecosystem. To be blunt, that’s a very hard sell. The other is to work with it and accept that discussions probably aren’t going to thrive. But that doesn’t mean you can gather great examples, resources, and host amazing events for partners.
Over the years, we’ve developed a large number of template responses for community teams to adapt to their situations. The idea is to get people to consider how they can participate in a community with empathy.
I’ll share a few that have worked well here (all names/details have been tweaked):
Example of A Direct Welcome Message From A Community Manager
This post is used in smaller communities where the community manager welcomes each new person. The purpose is to build instant rapport, provide useful information, build connections between existing members, and solicit a follow-up.
Welcome to the community. It’s great to have someone with a remote-first background here. Have you recently moved to California as well?
Your question is probably going to be of interest to a lot of our newcomers. I’d highlight two resources we have at the moment available here and here. Both give you a great overview of places to get started.
I’d also suspect some of our veterans like @nikita77, @benj, and @crystalCK can jump in and help here too.
Let me know if this helps at all!”
Example Of Responding To A Product Problem Post
This post is used where the original poster is asking for help to resolve a product problem but failed to provide enough information to get a good response. The goal is to keep the mood light, solicit more information, make the member feel seen, and bring in others who might be able to help.
Nooo, don’t break out the hammer just yet! I’m 100% sure we can get this fixed.
The first step is to get a little more information from you first. Can you share what operating system you’re using and what you’ve tried so far? Feel free to share any screenshots too!
Also what is the ideal outcome you want? I think that would help our members give good responses here too.
I know @Vix-ed had this problem before so might also be able to help.”
Example Of Launching A New Initiative
This post is used to launch a new initiative within the community. The goal is to get members excited, ensure the post gets responses, deliver the information quickly, and ensure members quickly grasp the concept. Notice the use of @mentions to bring in others to respond to get things started.
“Hello community, I have some awesome news!
It’s a new month and we’ve been working with some of our top members (@AK22, @SusanS, and @KDOVE) to launch a new challenge.
In this one, we want you to share your favourite masks. You can post as frequently (or infrequently) as you like. If you have unique designs, custom masks, or have simply seen something you love, this is the place to share it!
Ready, set, go!”
Example Of Clamping Down On Bad Behavior
This post is another real-life situation in which bad behavior began to infect the community and had to be addressed (without antagonising members). The goal here was to be kind, but clear. Understanding, but firm.
Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen a rise in posts with messages like “remove this if this is against the rules” – typically followed by something against the rules(!).
We’ve taken a lenient approach so far – typically just removing the post and sending a polite note to the creator that the post was indeed against the rules. Alas, this leniency is resulting in a growing influx of self-promotional posts.
So, here’s a warning (we send with kindness), please check the updated rules before you post. None of us want to whip out the banhammer, but we also want to make sure the community isn’t filled with self-promotion.”
Example Of Attracting Collaborators
This post was to attract some early members to participate in our upcoming resources. We wanted to make this feel like a rare opportunity for members to get more involved in supporting the community. Notice here we’re not providing a detailed outline of what we want to do. Instead, we’re provoking interest and then making members make the first commitment.
In the coming year we’re going to create 4 universal resources.
These are detailed guides tackling specific areas of our topic and challenges people want to overcome.
We’re looking for a couple of you to step up and help us create these guides. We want your help to source the best ideas, solicit your expertise and knowledge, and develop the project.
If you’re interested, simply reply here. Myself and our @communityMVP team are eager to hear from you.”
Example Of Responding To A Highly Emotive Situation
This was the most challenging post. In this community, members shared some of their most harrowing personal situations and looked for emotional support. The temptation here is to try to inform/educate this group. Unless the member asks for help, they simply want you to be there for them. This post is simply to acknowledge and be there for the member.
Thanks for this honest and detailed post. The entire community team and I were touched by it and we can’t begin to imagine the pain you’re in and what you’re going through.
Believe me when I say, you’re not alone.
I’m with you. Our entire community team is with you. And our entire community is with you too.
Anytime you need someone to speak to, looking for support, or just want to invest. You only have to reach out. If other members want to lend their support, share their experiences, please do reply in the comments. “
Feel free to adapt or use these however suits you. Hopefully, they provide some help as you develop your skills and train your community teams.
Among the biggest wins from this consultancy project was archiving old and outdated discussions within the community.
There are far better guides than I can write on this topic, but it’s handy to know how it applies to a community.
As communities mature, so do discussions. The same advice which may have been relevant and useful five years ago might not be relevant today. This means members are increasingly landing at pages with bad advice. Worse yet, a search for information might not take you to the latest and most useful advice.
In our interviews, we noticed members frequently mentioned landing at old posts with outdated information alongside the other problems you see here.
The Problem With Removing Old Discussions
We could simply remove old posts, but that presents a host of new problems. For example:
- Members might lose their post counts.
- The community might lose traffic from incoming links to those pages.
- It might create a lot of broken links on the site from discussions/content which link to other discussions/content.
Listing Discussions To Remove
We combined data from ScreamingFrog with our own analysis to list discussions which had:
1) Attracted less than 10 visits in the past month.
2) Had received less than 2 posts in the past year.
3) Had been published more than 2 years ago.
We also combined this with any discussion which had received a response within the past 2 years which included the phrase ‘outdated’, ‘out of date’, and ‘old’ (we probably could have had a better system for this). This was a small list of a few hundred discussions which we manually checked and tagged for updating (or archiving if there was a newer discussion on the topic).
This created a list of around 17k discussions.
Archiving vs. Removing Discussions
Instead of deleting content, which would have likely caused a lot of disruption, we deindexed the discussion from public search engines and the community’s own search engine.
All of the discussions are still there, but they are extremely difficult for anyone to find. This means members don’t lose their post counts and it doesn’t create broken links. But it also prevents members from landing on discussions with outdated advice.
It didn’t completely resolve the problem, but in the last survey we undertook, landing on discussion with outdated information didn’t rank in the top 10 problems anymore.
The exact numbers to remove are somewhat arbitrary, but if you’re looking to clean up your community and need a criteria to start with, I’d begin with the above and adjust it to your situation.
(p.s. Read the full case study here).
It’s generally recognised that the hotel manager is responsible for looking after guests once they step through the front door. They’re not responsible for increasing the number of guests in the first place. Managing and promotion are two very different tasks.
A job description sent my way this week listed targets for a community manager to quadruple the number of community visitors in a year.
For sure, you can have some influence over the number of visitors. But, overwhelmingly, the biggest sources of growth are likely to come from channels over which you may have little direct influence (no. customers with questions, no. visitors to your brand website, promotion of the community by the brand to its audience etc…).
Job descriptions like these seem to be setting the community manager up to fail. In my experience, it often happens when someone wants to saddle a new hire with an extreme target from a senior level.
The reality is if you want 4x the visitors, you’re going to need 4x the promotion you’re getting today. If that’s not on the table, walk away from the table.