Internal And External Validation

Internal validation is validation by other members of the community.

When members publish a book, achieve a promotion, get married, or achieve any major goal, it’s powerful to see that success validated by other members of the community.

Having a place where members can share their successes is a powerful way to help build a powerful sense of community among members.

External validation is validation of the community by 3rd parties.

When members are featured on the news, or the community is featured in some external source, it’s powerful to share this within the community. It validated everything the community is doing.

15 years ago in my earliest gaming communities, I featured every mention of online gaming or ‘eSports’ within my community. Not only did it generate activity, it always made us feel we were on to something unique and special.

Don’t underestimate the power of external validation.

Don’t Send Outreach Emails Like This

I received this email a while back.

It’s not great, to put it mildly.

First, sending a mass email to your current audience to attract a new audience is clearly dumb. The audience you’re trying to reach won’t see it and the audience which receives it will find it irrelevant.

Second, I doubt ‘young Londoners’ refer to themselves as ‘young Londoners’. Instead they are a collection of dozens, even hundreds, of smaller sub-groups within the city, each with unique identities and unique needs.

You attract them by spending time with each audience and learning exactly what they need and how they communicate with each other (ideally, you would want members of the target group to write the email which gets sent only to other members).

Third, privacy policies, reporting functions, and preview features are far less exciting than whatever the audience can do on YouTube, Facebook, and whatever is on TV right now. You’re not competing with how the community used to be, you’re competing against whatever is the most exciting and interesting things the audience can do this minute.

If you want any audiences, and perhaps especially young audiences, to share ideas about the future of London, I’d suggest making it deeply personal to them. What do they want their futures to look like? What does the city need to provide for them to make that happen? That’s how you get better ideas and feedback.

Only send emails to the specific target audience with the most exciting updates which help them achieve their goals. Anything else is a waste.

Get the Context In The Question, Not The Answer

The majority of questions require more context than provided to answer well (indeed, true experts will always ask for more context before trying to provide an answer).

Let’s take a typical question, “Which drill bit should I use?”

You can’t really answer this question without much context.

What sized hole do you need? What are you trying to build? What is your budget, risk tolerance, and current level of skill with drilling holes?

The more context a member provides, the better answers they will receive.

Problems begin when well-intentioned members try to provide answers without much context.

Since few repondees hedge the answers (i.e. “if you’re trying to do [x], use this, but if you’re trying to do [y], use this…”), the majority of these answers will be only applicable in specific contexts.

This means you need to focus on getting the context in the question rather than hoping for it in the answers.

You can learn from StackOverflow’s system below:

Summarize the problem?
What are you trying to achieve?
What have you tried already?
What tools and technology do you use?

These are all really useful nudges to ensure members are providing the context they need to get the answers they want.

You might not be able to use the same approach as they do, but you can provide the right nudges at the moment members are writing the question or, failing that, when they join the community.

You’re probably not going to get much context in the answers, so work hard to get the context in the question.

It Doesn’t Have To Be Neat, It Just Has To Work

A recent client wanted dozens of people to run small groups of 50 to 75 people in different territories around the world.

They had identified 50 possible leaders and invited each of them to form a Slack group.

It’s a neat solution, the main channel kept all the leaders connected and members could then find the right sub-channel for them.

Alas, the neatest solution is rarely the best solution. A handful of people gave it a shot but they soon lost interest.

It’s very hard to attract and retain active leaders if you’re trying to exert control over what technology they use, how they manage the community, and how they can engage the audience. Neatness and autonomy don’t play well together.

More importantly, the people you want to run groups (especially local groups) know far better than you what’s likely to work, what technology their audience will respond to, and how to run the groups. You can equip them with knowledge, but you can’t exert control.

We took a different approach. First, we encouraged leaders to use whichever tools they felt would work best. Next, we began asking how we can support them instead of asking them to support us. A handful said they didn’t need any support, a few asked for promotion, and a couple wanted some advice to keep members engaged.

It’s still early days, but there are now 20+ active groups (instead of just 3 before) and the relationship with each leader is far less strained. It’s not a neat solution, but each leader has far more autonomy and receives exactly the support they need.

P.S. Speaking at Khoros Engage in Austin this week. Tickets available here.

How Is It Defined?

What is your community?

  • Is it just your forum?
  • Is it your forum + social media?
  • Is it your forum + social media + in-person events?
  • Is it your forum + social media + in-person events + your help center? etc..
  • Is it all your customers?

How you and your organization define community changes the work you do.

Just keeping a forum busy is very different from building a powerful sense of community among all your customers.

It also changes the value of your work to your colleagues.

If you want to expand your worth, you might first need to expand the definition of community you and your colleagues share.

Going Narrower

If a community isn’t reaching critical mass, you might be tempted to expand its scope, drive more people into it, and hope it takes off.

Alas, it never works.

If you can’t engage the members you have, you’re unlikely to engage the members you don’t have.

A better approach is to go narrower. Reduce the scope of the community. Focus on a more niche target audience or topic. Better understand the unique needs of a smaller, more connected, group of members better. Figure out exactly what they need, desire, and what identity they share.

Then start building out a community from there.

If it’s not working, it doesn’t make sense to go broader. Try going narrower instead.

Earn Their Attention First

The most common projects we turn down are those from people who want to create an online community but don’t yet have an existing audience.

It’s very hard to build a community if you haven’t yet earned the attention of an existing audience.

You don’t need a huge audience, but you do need a group of a few hundred people who will happily listen to what you have to say.

If you don’t have an existing audience, the alternatives are to buy an audience’s attention with social ads (expect to spend around $10 per each active member) or create a community concept so risky and so daring people will naturally spread the word.

Generally speaking, it’s best to earn the audience’s attention first. Follow the CHIP process. Create content, host events, interview people, and participate in existing groups.

You will always find it’s easier to start a new community if you’ve participated and supported related communities in the past.

The Best Workshops

The best workshops are transformative.

They leave people feeling smarter and more confident than before.

They equip participants with new information.

They challenge participants to use this information to solve engaging problems.

They leave participants with a peer group they can call upon for support afterwards.

You can have workshops for your top members, newcomers, or attendees of your conference. When done well they are powerful, and woefully underused, tools.

p.s. 5 tickets remaining for my 80-person workshop at CMX Summit this week.

No-One Is Counting

When you next meet with your buddies this week, will anyone be tracking the number of conversations you have?

Will someone be keeping an eye on which conversations people like the most and try to have more of those conversations?

Will anyone report how many people showed up and will you work together to try and increase that number?

You hopefully answered ‘no’ to all three.

We know in the real world that the quantity and popularity of people and conversations bears little relation to the success and value of the group.

So if you wouldn’t track it between your close friends, why would you track it between total strangers?

What really matters is whether members enjoy one another’s company, whether they help and support each other, whether they can explore exciting new ventures together and whether they feel they can belong.

Not as easy to measure, but with surveys, interviews, and sentiment analysis they’re not impossible to measure either.

p.s. The online world is the real world.

‘With’ Them or ‘For’ Them?

Building a community for your audience is very different from building a community with your audience.

Building a community for your audience means researching what they want, developing a strong concept, creating the platform, and inviting them to join and participate. This is the standard approach.

Building a community with your audience means something very different. It means you embed the audience deeply within the decision-making process – even (and especially) when it makes you uncomfortable.

It means you give your audience veto rights on major decisions (what platform to use, how it should be designed, what the rules of the community should be?)

It means your audience do most of the legwork and you play a supporting/coordinating role. They take on roles within the community, invite people to join, and stimulate the early discussions.

It means you probably move slower and have less control over the process. But the benefits are tremendous. It removes the risk of launching a flop, ensures you can scale quickly and provides members with a true sense of ownership.

Both approaches can work but don’t get confused between the two. Members quickly see through listening exercises disguised as collaborative community building approaches. If your members can’t make decisions you dislike, you’re not building a community with them.

If you truly want members to take real ownership, you need to give them real control (and that includes the freedom to make mistakes).

You Can’t Solve Problems You Don’t Understand

“My members have become really negative and confrontational recently, how do we stop it?”

That’s the wrong question. The right question is why have members become negative recently?

Until you diagnose the problem, you won’t be able to develop the solution.

Have members become negative recently because of a platform change or the way the community has been managed?

Has negativity been growing steadily for a while but only recently become visible?

Is negativity stemming from lots of different members or a handful of members?

If it’s the former, are they always negative or only in specific topics? If it’s the latter is this a group which agrees with each other or do they only target specific members?

This isn’t an exhaustive list of questions, but every answer will lead you to a completely different solution.

In my experience, getting the right diagnosis is a lot more difficult than getting the right answer.

Always Go Through the RFP Process

If you’re selecting a platform you’re going to spend a $50k+ on, always go through the RFP (request for proposal) process.

There are many reasons for this.

  1. It forces you to research your target audience. Creating an RFP without first researching your audience is clearly a waste of everyone’s time. Putting together a good RFP forces you to research your audience in-depth and develop a clear set of needs and use cases for the community. You will learn more than you suspect during this process.
  2. You have to specify what you need in detail. An RFP forces you to specify in detail exactly how your community will function, what you need, and typically requires you to develop your strategy in advance.
  3. It forces you to think through which features are most relevant and important to you. Not all features are important. Therefore it’s good to weight on a scale of 1 to 5 (or typically 1 to 3 for us) which features are most important. This is why you need to develop a strategy before developing the RFP. Without knowing your strategy you will struggle to know what features are most critical to your members.
  4. It helps you build strong relationships with stakeholders. In a larger organization, creating an RFP forces you to build a consensus about current capabilities, technology needs, and whether you can implement the technology yourself or need someone else. Bringing more stakeholders into the process early and building a consensus around budget, needs, and capabilities is wise. You might later find the stakeholders you consulted early are more likely to support you later on.
  5. You can identify potential tripwires early. You don’t want to be deep into the integration process and discover a problem which prevents you from using the platform. Having an RFP you can run past key stakeholders helps you identify and overcome potential problems before they become critical problems. Trust me, this will save you a lot of time and money later.
  6. You get more competitive bids. Trusting a vendor will give you a competitive quote without a competitive bidding process is like trusting a market seller to give you a good price when they’re the only stall you can buy from. You can’t make a choice without options. You never know how well your vendor compares with others until you have their competitive options. Once you have different quotes you can decide if investing an extra $20k per year is worthwhile to go with the leading platform. More information never hurts. You can’t make an informed decision without informed choices.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but the point should be clear; going through an RFP process is what professionals in this space do.

p.s. Hint: Ensure you get clarity on what features come directly out of the box and which require further custom development. It’s one thing for a vendor to say they can do [x], it’s another to be clear when it requires custom development work.

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