Strategy Is A Full-Time Job

A web developer friend once told me that most companies grossly underestimate the amount of copy needed for their new website.

At a large company, the website might host 30k to 50k words. That’s the typical length of a business book. Worse yet, this needs to be 30k to 50k approved words.

Companies similarly underestimate the time it takes to develop a community strategy.

You can easily spend 50 to 100 hours alone interviewing stakeholders, community members, gathering the data, and reviewing existing information. Then you need to develop a powerful community concept, test the concept, build the roadmap, identify the objectives, tactics, and build out an action plan.

Even then you need to again speak to stakeholders, ensure they are aligned with the strategy, and make sure it’s accepted and supported throughout the organization.

Altogether, it’s not unreasonable to assume the community strategy will take up 500 hours of your time (or 3 to 4 months of work – full time).

You can cut corners, save a little time here and there, but you’re still going to struggle to create a great strategy while looking after the community. This isn’t an ‘add on’ to your current job, it is your new job (at least until it’s done).

If you’re going to develop a community strategy (and you certainly should), you either need to find someone else to look after the current community in the meantime or find someone to do the strategy for you.

You can’t step up to pilot the plane while still serving drinks in the cabin.

Best Customers and Best Members

If you’re in the B2B sector, be aware your top customers pay for the privilege of talking to someone who uniquely understands their complex needs.

Trying to force people used to one level of service into another channel usually ends badly.

They might certainly benefit from asking the question in the community, but they’re equally likely to be happy with their current arrangement of talking to their dedicated rep.

You don’t need your biggest customers in a community for it to thrive, you need the majority of less valuable customers.

These are the customers with slightly less complex needs, often ask similar questions, and can consume too many resources trying to support. This is an audience who might not pay for premium support and can wait days for a response through typical channels.

A community is perfect for them. It cuts response times, provides a better range of responses, and tackles most problems without having to ask for an answer.

Of course, the more resources your community saves on these customers is more resources you can spend on your top customers.

Your community shouldn’t be for “everyone”. Be clear about your target audience and the unique value the community offers (and gains) from them.

Working With A Million Member Identities

“Actually, you’re wrong”.

…probably isn’t the beginning of a conversation which is going to end well.

Community management is not customer support.

You’re not just dealing with problematic issues, you’re dealing with thousands, perhaps millions, of unique (and often problematic) identities. Publicly contradicting the advice of someone who considers themselves an expert will provoke a defensive, negative, response.

This can lead to an ongoing tit-for-tat discussion where neither side wants to back down because everything is in public. Backing down means accepting damage to a member’s identity.

If you’re deep in engaging with dozens of members every day, remember your work is about helping members nurture a positive identity – ideally an identity they associate with being a positive contributor to your community.

All the tiny judgement calls you’re not even aware you’re making in each response have a defining impact.

For example, if you’re going to provide contradictory information to a member who considers themselves an expert, it might be best to deliver the information in private. Maybe they can update their own post with the updated information? Now they have more unique expertise they can share with the group.

Or you can affirm their expertise (and identity) and add additional context at the same time in your own responses. A few extra words of context here can take you far.

Too often, the times we believe members to be acting irrationally are simply members acting naturally to protect their identities.

Before replying to members take the extra few seconds to judge their identity today. If your response threatens that identity, reconsider it.

The very best community managers I know are naturals at this. The rest of us need the practice.

Groups Of 3

A quick tip for in-person events.

The best way to build relationships, get members to share information, and help everyone enjoy the event, is to ensure they can have the deepest possible conversations with the largest number of people.

It’s hard to do that in a group of 10 where only 1 person can speak at a time.

This format favours the most confident person (or the person least worried about interrupting everyone else).

It limits the explanations people can provide and almost guarantees most people tune out.

It shifts the mentality from sharing something personal in a small group to being judged before a crowd of peers.

A far better format is rotating groups of 3. The difference between a 20-minute discussion where each person speaks for an average of 120 seconds to 9 people and one where each person speaks for 400 seconds to a group of 2 others is huge.

Don’t divide people into large groups. Three is best, five is ok, 10 is five too many.


A few common ones…

  • The contrarian guy (typically is a guy, sorry). Takes contrary stances either for attention, because of genuine beliefs, or just to stir things up.
  • The grouchy old timer. Feels things are getting worse. Rarely backs down in an argument. Assumes their expertise means s/he is right because they were here 10+ years ago.
  • The passionate newcomer. Very excited (and excitable). Low expertise, but high rates of participation.
  • The one-poster. Will come only when they have a problem. Won’t help others. Probably won’t explain if the answer helped them.
  • The helper. Genuinely likes to help support the community. Typically wants to feel closer to the brand.
  • The single-issue poster. Will only post about a single topic. Often with an opinion of that topic several standard deviations from the norm.
  • The ‘know-it-all’. Less grouchy than old-timers, but always assumes they are right and states opinions as definitive facts rather than “I think…” or “I’ve seen…”. Can share expertise, but tend to bash other members to maintain their own status.
  • The super enthusiastic. Posts non-stop. Doesn’t add much value, but gets your post count up. Often antagonises others through sheer volume of posts.
  • The true expert. Rarely participates, mostly keen to engage only with others they consider experts.

It’s not an exhaustive list, feel free to add your own.

But I’d be surprised if the next member you engage with doesn’t closely match one of the archetypes above.

p.s. treating every member the same doesn’t work when members are so different from one another.

‘We Goals’ vs. ‘Me Goals’

Chasing a target is invigorating, especially if there’s a reward for it.

If you answer 10 posts you might get a badge, if you answer 100 you get to create blog posts and help moderate the community etc…

Individual targets like these encourage some very good behaviors (helping lots of people) and some very bad behaviors (cheating the system and publishing lots of low-quality posts).

A more interesting approach is to set group goals. You can set goals for either the entire community (i.e. if the community achieves [x], we will do [y] for the community] or for sub-groups within the community (i.e. form/join a team, create a great content piece, and your whole group is rewarded).

Which approach do you think best unites people, encourages the most contributions, and is the most fun for members?

The 10 Year Plan

A good rule of thumb is to spend the majority of your time working on the projects which have the biggest long-term impact upon your community.

In 5 to 10 years time, what will still be standing in your community?

This is harder to do than it often seems.

Right now you have to respond to aggravated members, create the latest report, ensure discussions are being responded to, remove the bad members, train a new staff member etc…

The first step is giving yourself some breathing room by cutting down on tasks which are useful but not game-changing. Think welcome emails, most webinars, and promoting members to participate.

The second step is to invest this spare time, even if it’s just a few hours a week, to designing social or technological systems which do as much of your work as possible. It’s far better, for example, to have members interviewing other members for webinars, having a welcome committee to welcome newcomers, and removing bad posts.

The third is to identify the really game-changing wins. Ask your members, in a perfect world, what would be the most ideal/useful thing for you? And start building those things.

It’s a safe bet that your technology will be different in a decade, but the culture you create, the network you build between members, and the resources you create (constantly updated) will still be around.

Community In Name Only

I’ve been working from a WeWork office for a year or so.

It’s a “community” in the sense I share office space with other warm bodies.

The views are nice, the snacks are ok, and there are occasional guest speakers.

But there’s little sense of community.

None of the ‘community managers’ (WeWork’s term for support staff) has done the hard work to build a community from members. They arrive, respond to questions as best they can and go home.

There are no introductions to other members when you arrive, no rituals for newcomers or veterans (birthdays, membership anniversaries etc…), no joint problem solving and few collective projects to collaborate on.

WeWork is what we call a CINO – Community in Name Only.

No-one is doing the hard work to forge the audience into a community, to build a sense of culture, and to create that shared purpose.

Slapping a community label onto a project might raise it’s perceived value, but turning it into a genuine community collaboration will raise its real value.

Yes, You Can Do That

“We can’t do that, our platform won’t allow it”

Only the second half of that sentence is true.

The great thing about technology is you can do almost anything you can imagine.

With enough resources, skill, willingness, and ingenuity, anything is possible.

The real reason you “can’t do” something is you haven’t figured out how to gather the resources, acquire the skills, or make the trade-offs to do it.

Treat these as small problems you need to solve.

Need more resources? Either make a clear case for the benefit or find ways to save resources in your current efforts.

Don’t have the skills? Speak to peers, figure out exactly what the problem requires, and hire/learn the skills required.

In practice, the problem isn’t usually skills and resources, it’s about trade-offs.

For example, is it best to keep members within a single, integrated, community experience which doesn’t offer the full feature(s) you need or also create accounts on platforms that do (Slack, Meetup, etc…). That’s a prioritisation problem, not a resource/skill problem.

If it’s really important, you can always figure out a way to do it.

The hard part really isn’t figuring out the way to do it, but to figure out what’s really important in the first place.

Banning Issues vs. Opinions

Banning abuse against a minority group is clearly the right thing to do.

Banning people who some deem to express hatred of minorities is more problematic.

Many public figures have been accused (some more credibly than others) to oppress and spread hatred of minority groups.

Unless you want to make an endless series of dubious judgement calls, it’s often best to ban the issue (i.e. political discussions) rather than opinions within the issue.

No-One Remembers Popular Activity A Year Later

In early 2018, we began working with a client who was keen to build their community by leveraging their VIP relationships.

A major VIP, they felt, would build “buzz” around the community and be the spark the community needed to ‘kick to life’. We were sceptical. We analyzed the discussions in the community and determined members had countless product questions. So instead we roped in the top members and created a detailed product guide filled with the best advice from the best members.

We launched it just before the big VIP event (and it received almost no promotion).

The VIP event was a success by most measures. It generated a huge amount of traffic. But compare the data for the community just 1.6 years later. Which content do you feel is best for the community?

The VIP event certainly hits the spike far in excess of the product resource, but its popularity dies just as fast. The product resource, however, still reliably brings in (and presumably helps members) 1.6 years later. 

(In early 2019 we worked with members to initiate a 2019 update).

Perhaps a clearer understanding comes in looking at the cumulative traffic.

However, there’s no reason to stop at a single resource. You can create 10…or 50 (one every few months) and reliability increase traffic to the community while delivering more value to members.

You rarely want a spike, you want to create activity/content/discussions which reliably increase a clear metric in the community.

Given the choice between creating something that might be immediately popular or something which has long-term utility, go with utility. You might not see the benefits immediately, but the value will steadily build up over time.

A Thousand Tiny Broken Promises

“We’ll probably get round to working on that later”

“I’ll get back to you on this shortly”

“We might be able to do that”

“We have this planned for a few months’ time”

You might not take any of the above literally, but your members do. When you don’t come through, don’t provide the update, or don’t make the change, you lose your credibility.

A promise based upon a probability is still a promise that you have a reasonable understanding of the probability (or possibility) the event/action will happen.

Don’t make a promise you’re unlikely to keep to avoid disappointing members. It’s usually better to just say “no, sorry, this can’t/won’t happen yet because…”.

Members might not like the response, but at least they have clarity.

Don’t fudge your answers, be clear and specific.

Besides, it’s far better to say “no” now and delight members later than say “possibly” now and disappoint members later.

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