Don’t Poison The Well

If you knew there was a little poison in a well, would it matter how big the well was?

I worry that in our excitement to come up with data to measure and prove the value of communities, there’s a lot of poison slipping into the well.

Sometimes it’s clearly bogus stats, other times it’s rather suspect measures of ROI. Often it’s simply a biased interpretation of existing data.

It might feel like you’re doing a good thing to spread positive data about the industry, but if that data is suspect or poorly interpreted it simply poisons the well for good data.

No-one believes video views or ad impression data anymore. Advertising and social platforms have poisoned that well forever. Let’s not go down that path.

So how do we balance the need to build up a body of evidence of our community success without poisoning the well?

A few suggestions…

First, maintain a healthy skepticism about claims of a community’s success from the people running the community. If the community did achieve a remarkable ROI, you should also see an expansion of the community team, further investment in the platform etc…If that’s not happening (and they’re not providing the underlying data or methodology), treat these claims as propaganda.

Second, go looking in Google Scholar. There are thousands of peer-reviewed papers on almost every conceivable topic of communities. Go looking for evidence of what is and isn’t working. You might be surprised how rich this information is. Better yet, hire someone to do a literature review for you on your topic. I’ve done this for both of my books in the past.

Third, commit to genuine inquiry of the value of your community. Hire an outside consultant if you want the right methodology and an unbiased approach. This isn’t cheap, but you’ll get rock-solid data.

This isn’t as fun as participating in the hype cycle, but it’s a lot more value in the long run.

People Don’t Stick Around Without An Emotional Commitment

People stick around in an online community for one of two reasons.

The first is simple, they have more questions to ask.

If their first contribution gets a good and quick response, they will visit the community again if they have a second question (and a third, fourth etc..).

You can influence this by developing a system that pings your top members (or staff) when a newcomer asks their first question and ensure it gets a rapid response. Reach out to them later and check if their issues have been resolved etc..

But your influence extends only as far as members have more questions to ask. It doesn’t matter how well you answered the last question if members don’t have another. There is a law of diminishing returns here too. Once you’re answering the majority of questions within a couple of hours, more speed doesn’t have much of an impact.

Which brings us to the second reason, an emotional commitment.

There are many types of emotional commitment, but they typically fall into one of three categories.

1) An opportunity to be seen and respected by peers.

2) An attachment to other members or to the company.

3) A passion for the topic and a belief in the vision for the community.

Your job is to spark emotional commitments towards the community.

This means a lot of one to one interactions with members and making each feel like they have a special impact and influence upon you or the organisation you work for.

It means providing a plethora of opportunities for members to lead and feel appreciated. There are hundreds of unique roles members can assume within the community.

And it means selling the vision of what the community will be a few months and a few years from now (in fact, get members involved in the process of developing).

For sure, only a small percentage of members will be interested in any of the above, but even a small percentage in retention rates has a big impact on overall participation. Your challenge is to identify members who could form an emotional connection and guide them down the journey without irritating others who just want answers to problems.

Clearer Instructions and Simple Templates

If you want better contributions from members, give them clearer instructions and templates to work with.

It sounds obvious, but it so rarely happens.

An acquaintance recently bemoaned the quality of content they were getting wasn’t good enough to be featured on their site.

But looking at the community, there were no instructions or indications about quality. Members whose content was rejected weren’t even given suggestions or a second chance to improve it.

If you want members to create great videos, images, stories, case studies, and more, show them how.

Create a template with clear boxes of what’s expected in each area (this works really well if you want members to provide case studies). Give plenty of great examples members can see, edit, and tinker with. Provide them with simple training they can take. And, most importantly, give them constructive criticism so if it isn’t good enough they can improve it.

Listening Is Hard

Not long ago, I undertook a survey for a client.

We went through the results separately and came to completely different conclusions.

Data is neutral but your interpretation of it is highly influenced by your own biases which are almost impossible to escape.

For example, if your survey results show members don’t feel a strong sense of community with another you can conclude:

a) you need to take steps to increase that or

b) this isn’t the type of community where members want that sense of connection.

I’ve seen this more often than I can remember. Surveys or interviews might reveal that members don’t like a specific feature and then we battle about whether that feature needs to be improved or removed.

Even metrics are open to interpretation. Look at this graph below:

Is the number of visitors going up, down, or staying the same? The answer depends entirely upon when you start the trend line and that is where your biases creep in.

If you think data is going to win you the argument or definitively determine what you should be doing, you’re probably going to be disappointed.

So, what should you do?

First, accept that no matter what you do you can’t escape your own biases.

Second, let other people look at the same data you see and draw their own conclusions (before you share your interpretation). This will reveal your blind spots and alternative ideas. (p.s. an outside consultant can really help here).

Third, use your data to develop hypotheses you can test in your community. Not sure if members want to feel a sense of community or not? You can ask them and test activities that might help members bond and see how they go. Not sure about a feature, ask members if they want it removed. Set the parameters for success or failure of each test and stick to them.

p.s. Read this great post by Bob Hoffman.

Working For A Community vs. Working With A Community

Are you working for a community or with a community?

The former is usually when projects go wrong.

The community leader comes up with ideas and then launches them to a community that didn’t ask for it or wasn’t involved in the process of developing it.

This happens time and time again. Companies develop features or ideas which are just a bad fit for their community.

Developing a project with a community is different. You come with a blank slate, research their needs and desires, develop and test ideas to find the one that works best. Then you scale the idea to the entire community.

If you can get past some jargon, this is one of the best reads on the community development process today.

You might also be able to get a free PDF here.

Three Approaches To Increasing Engagement In A Community

If you want to increase engagement, you have three channels open to you.

1) Optimization
This is by far the most common (and least effective) approach.

In this approach, you improve what you’re already doing. You might improve and upgrade the design of your community, develop a better journey for newcomers, initiate more exciting and engaging discussions. You might work with top members to deliver, better, quicker, responses to community questions.

This is still definitely worth doing, but there’s a law of diminishing returns at play here. You can spend a huge amount of time and resources to see paltry returns. Once you have gotten your community to a high standard, there are better channels to increase engagement.

2) Promotion
This is where you try to get more people to join the community (it’s worth optimizing before growing). You need to ensure the community is featured prominently on your main site, integrate it deeply within your products/services (it should only ever be a click away), and craft newsletters or emails to your audience driving them to the community.

You can also try paid social ads, influencers, and advertising in other channels to drive more people to the community. Undertaking an SEO audit and optimizing for each is also a wise idea in many (if not most) types of communities.

Again there is a law of diminishing returns here. Once you’ve reached most of the people likely to join, you’re either reaching the same people again or reaching people less likely to join.

3) Expansion
The third approach is the most strategic and most successful. If you want more engagement expand the focus of your community so there are more things they can engage in. In most communities, people only visit when they have a question. It doesn’t matter how nicely you ask them to participate, they won’t if they don’t have more questions to ask.

This is why you need to expand the topics your members can ask about. For example, a community focused on a software product for project managers might also create channels where project managers can ask and talk about broad project-management related topics. You might target specific audiences (newcomers, veterans, people working in specific fields) and create unique groups and areas for them.

Your goal here is to expand the value of the community to satisfy more people in your audience. Sure, they might not always be talking about the intricacies of your products and services, but they’re constantly talking in a place you control and being influenced by your biggest supporters.

This approach is research-heavy. You use a survey to develop your target audiences, identify each of their needs, and gradually expand the concept of the community to cater to each of them.

The catch is you can’t expand too fast. If you don’t have enough activity to sustain a critical mass at the topics you’re covering today, then expanding won’t help. But if you’re managing a larger and more mature community, expansion is usually the way to go.

These steps are generally sequential too. First, you improve what your community is doing today. Second, you get more people to visit the community. Third, you expand the focus of your community to satisfy more needs of more audiences.

Integrating Social Media and Community

How do you drive people to the community when they’re so used to participating on social media?

This is the headache for many community leaders today.

One solution is to completely rethink what your community is. I love some of the examples from retail brands.

Take a look at Fenty Beauty’s community page below:

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There is no traditional community with questions and answers. Instead, they use social media (notably Instagram) as their hub. Any member of their community can @mention the brand and moderators decide if the look should appear on the homepage (technology by Olapic).

This gives every visitor thousands of looks they can browse in a single location. If you’re interested in beauty, it’s Instagram on steroids – thousands of curated looks all in one place.

The best part is if you click on any of the looks, you can also see which products were used to create them and immediately buy it.

(click here if image doesn’t show)

Members create content on their social channels, the brand curates and aggregates this content. Visitors can browse and purchase items directly through this content.

If you’re struggling to compete with social, you probably need a rethink of your community strategy. Don’t waste your time trying to change fixed member habits but see how you benefit from those habits while giving members more of what they want; respect, information, and connections to one another.

This isn’t the only example. National Geographic (bottom of the page), OleHenrikson, Dr. Martens, American Eagle, and many others are already doing this.

Retail might be leading the way, but there’s no reason you can’t curate a list of verified experts in almost any topic on your community site today. You can link to their Twitter accounts so visitors can ask them for help (on social), or pull in their content and share it within the community (curated).

It’s always easier to swim with the tide than against it.

Hacking Together A Community Platform For A Few Hundred Dollars

Every day you wait to get your community platform ready is a day you could have spent developing your community.

I’ve had clients insist on waiting 6 to 9 months to develop the perfect enterprise platforms. That’s a lot of wasted days.

A better approach is to get started right now.

Launch a Slack channel, use Zoom to host events, create a shared events calendar on Google, use Mailchimp for emails, and post blog updates on Medium.

Use Tettra for sharing resources and Donut for helping build connections between members (both of which integrate well with Slack).

For the cost of a few hundred bucks, you can hack together a pretty effective community solution that offers 70% of what the top platforms use (and will be easier to use than many).

You might be surprised just how well platforms at the inexpensive end of the market are beginning to integrate with one another.

Now while your tech team are working on the enterprise platform, you can spend your time doing the hard work of developing the community, forging connections, and finding out what kind of activities your members want.

By the time you have your enterprise platform ready, you’ll have a highly active community ready to use it.

Attend A 30+ Speaker Community Conference For Free Next Week

Next week you can attend a 3-day community conference with 30+ speakers for free!

The event has one of the best line-ups I’ve ever seen and is covering the biggest topics in community work today.

My closing keynote on Thursday will share 15 Ways You Can Improve Your Community Right Now.

I won’t be sharing any big theories or opinions on the future of communities, just practical takeaways you can implement the very next day.

If you just want immediate, practical, actions you can take to improve your community the very next day, you should attend.

Systems To Encourage More Content From Members

The reason you’re not getting enough high-quality resources being shared in your community is probably because you’re not encouraging them.

In most communities, any member can share any resource they want at any time they want. This means there’s never any urgency to create anything.

Why not explore some other ideas?

1) Newcomers Only. Target a specific group (perhaps newcomers or veterans), and give them unique abilities to create and share resources in a given time period. Perhaps a newcomer’s guide to a topic. Or perhaps an advanced guide.

2) Groups. Either let members form groups (or assign them to teams) and set a common challenge. Whomever best solves the problem (as voted by the rest of the community) wins. This not only helps members create unique approaches it helps form connections through shared collaboration.

3) Sprints. Set a time period (1 week?) to create or gather together the best resources on a topic. At the end of the week, the best contributors get a prize. The entire community benefits from the new collection of resources on the topic.

4) Share to get. My favourite, begin with a big collection of resources. If members want access to it, they have to share their own resource. Each person who contributes to the honeypot increases the value to existing and new members.

The best ideas come from tweaking who can create/post the resource, when they can do it, and on what topics they can do it.

There’s no reason you can’t expand this to create collections of photos, videos, audio, or any form of written content that you like.

Just don’t be boring.

Protecting Yourself From Your Community

I’m often worried that organisations with a community team aren’t taking the necessary steps to protect their community staff from problems that can arise in the community (especially larger communities).

If you have a team, I’d suggest policies on the following:

1) Not using your full name or photo. In many communities, the community team either uses their first name or a pseudonym to prevent personal abuse. This isn’t always possible (or acceptable in some professional communities). However, it is a common solution to many problems.

2) Don’t befriend members on social media (whom you haven’t met in person). Do not accept requests from members to become friends on Facebook and Twitter unless you genuinely have spent time with them in person and know them well. If they do attempt to contact you outside of the community, write them a message to let them know it’s best to befriend each other on your community platform instead.

3) Turn the privacy setting up to full-on your social media profiles. This is easier for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram than it is for LinkedIn. You may wish to reconsider whether you want to list your current place of employment on LinkedIn. Be aware that if you use the same username or images on one account for any other – people can track you down easily. If you don’t want members knowing your eBay buying history – use a completely different username.

4) Never reveal location information. Don’t broadcast when you and/or your partner are away from home or any place you’re likely to be in the future.

5) Use anonymous domain registrars. If you have personal websites linked to your name, it’s important to use an anonymous domain registrar to hide your address.

6) Use two-factor authentication on all email and social media accounts. Ensure you use two-factor authentication on all your accounts. This makes it far more difficult for people to hack your accounts. For even better security, use an authentication tool rather than SMS message as your choice of authentication.

7) Create a process to report discomfort. Every community manager should be able to report discomfort with a member (don’t wait for explicit harassment) internally and receive support.

If you’re managing a community, it’s unlikely you’re ever going to experience a major problem. However, like fire-safety, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be prepared for problems and take reasonable steps to prevent problems from arising.

Expert Advice and Copying Other Communities

I’ve had several SEO professionals tell me these blog posts should be a minimum of 2000 words and I should reduce the frequency to every 1 to 2 weeks.

That’s what other (very successful) blogs are doing and that’s what will gain the most search traffic.

But more traffic isn’t my goal and this week’s survey results confirm what I’ve always suspected, the audience for these blog posts want short, simple, tips.

As with most things, there’s a danger in copying others and blindly following expert advice (even from this blog).

The only reason to copy another community is when you haven’t researched what your audience wants. Once you know your audience desires, you can design a completely different and unique type of community just for them.

p.s. If you haven’t taken the survey this week, please do so today. It really helps.

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