The Impact of COVID-19 On 18 Brand Communities

Over the past few weeks, we’ve scraped the data from over a dozen brand communities to measure the impact of COVID-19 on community participation.

The data has been fascinating.

On average, there has been a significant increase in participation (posts per day) across most communities.

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Community participation rose from an average of 277 posts per day in February to 450 posts per day in April (an increase of 62%).

However, when we break this down by community, we can see huge variations.

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The biggest increases were not in the communities we expected (retail/entertainment). Instead, they were as follows (as a %):

  • Tableau – 1150%
  • Dell – 327%
  • Titleist – 193%

The biggest declines were more predictable:

  • TomTom: -30%
  • Fitbit: -1%

This is interesting but doesn’t exactly help you determine if your community is performing or underperforming by sector. So next we aggregated the data into five unique sectors and looked at the impact upon communities.

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In absolute terms, the biggest increases have been in tech, entertainment, and retail. Each of which had the highest level of participation to begin with.

However, in percentage terms the biggest increase has been seen in comms which has seen a 141% increase compared with 68% and 66% for entertainment and retail.

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These are still fairly broad metrics, but they should provide some idea of the increase you are likely to be seeing.

Why Are Posts Going Up?

There are two reasons why participation in a community might be increasing. Either your current members are participating more or you’re attracting more members.

We explored both questions.

Are Members Participating More?

The simple answer is yes (unless your community is in retail).

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The number of posts active members are making has increased in every sector except retail. Members of tech communities saw a significant increase (possibly conversion of calls and tickets into asking the community).

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It’s interesting here to note just how much participation varies by community type.

Entertainment and comms-based communities have relatively low levels of participation per active member. Non-profits have typically far higher (aligned to the right axis) levels of participation per active member.

With the exception of retail, all communities saw an increase in the average number of posts an active member is publishing.

Are More Members Participating?

Next, we examined whether the total number of active members had risen. Here the data was equally revealing.

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Every sector has seen an increase in the number of daily active participants between February and April. The average community in comms had the biggest increase of 152% with entertainment and retail close behind.

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Why Has Participation Risen?

The answer varies significantly by the community sector as we can see below.

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In comms, retail, and entertainment, we’re seeing a flood of new members joining these communities. This likely represents a shift in behavior from asking questions in one channel (i.e. customer support) to asking questions in the community instead.

The key challenge in this sector is retention of newcomers by providing a superior experience to previous channels.

In tech, the increase is largely down to existing members participating almost twice as much. There are plenty of possible explanations for this, I’d speculate it’s a sense of connection from people working from home.

In non-profit, the increase is a 50% split between the two (but the sample size is tiny).

You can compare your increase/decrease based upon the breakdown above. Note that the metrics are likely to return to normal over the long-term. You have a relatively short window to demonstrate the community is the best means for your new members to achieve their goals.

Can you help?

If you have a spare five minutes, can you help answer a few quick questions?

Every few years, I try to get a check of how FeverBee is doing.

Are we creating the kind of content that you need?

Are we missing the boat on issues you feel we should be covering?

Are there resources that would really help you which we aren’t creating?

If you have five minutes to help answer a few questions, I’d really appreciate it.

Thank you for any help you can give.

Your answers are more helpful to us than you probably imagine.

Taking Credit When Things Go Well

Some communities right now are seeing a surge in participation.

You might be tempted to take credit for that.

You’re working hard after all, isn’t this just your hard work paying off?

However, if you take credit for a surge, you’re also going to take the blame for things when they go back to normal (or below normal).

The reality is you can influence participation, but probably not by as much as you imagine. Many surges or declines are caused by factors beyond your control (releasing new products, time of the year, the success of your organisation’s marketing efforts etc..).

It’s far better to not be measured by the quantity of participation, but the outcome of that participation.

The Interview Process In Launching A New Online Community

A lot of organisations do prospective member interviews prior to launching a new community, but most either do them badly or fail to analyse them to get the insights they need.

Audience research for clients takes up a huge chunk of my time on any project.

On one project right now, a team of us are interviewing around 30 prospective founding members. We work from a shared set of interview questions, but each interview allows the interviewer to probe deeper into any specific answers.

Each interview is then transcribed. I browse through every transcript looking for insights and the right survey questions (the survey helps us validate any hypothesis with a broader group). This has probably taken 10+ hours in the past two weeks.

In these interviews I’m looking for five things:

1) How did they become interested in the topic? What were their early experiences like? These stories provide us with ideas of where to insert the community into the newcomer experience to generate a constant source of new members. It’s also good for search terms to optimise for.

2) Assets members can contribute. What have been their successes and failures so far? What have they learned? The answers to these questions help us identify how best each founding member can contribute to the community. We don’t leave anything to chance – when we launch we know exactly what we want each founding member to contribute (and our outreach reflects that).

3) Passion. Is this just a job or are they truly passionate about it? What specifically within the topic are they passionate about? When we launch, we want to create discussions and activities based around these passions. The most passionate members are also the most likely leaders of the community when you launch.

4) Challenges members have yet to overcome. Nothing draws people to a community quite like having a common challenge they can overcome today. The biggest win is to connect people with the right assets to help members overcome an immediate challenge. I try to identify some quick wins here and then some longer-term goals for the community.

5) Common recurring themes. These might relate to technology, past experiences, or topics that keep coming up. Most interview processes tend to show 3 to 5 common themes which we can build into the community.

These interviews aren’t just a tick-box exercise to ensure members feel listened to. They guide everything we do to create and launch the community.

Everything we do when we launch the community is based upon insights derived from these interviews. Once you have this level of insights about your audience, it usually becomes really easy to create a community concept you know will take off.

Almost inevitably, when a community flops it’s because the organisation either didn’t do interviews or didn’t align their actions to insights generated from those interviews.

Creating A Simple Gamification Framework For An Online Community

You shouldn’t be developing or tweaking a gamification system without a clear framework like the one below.

A good gamification system begins with the target audience(s), identifies the desired behavior change, and uses validated personas to construct the right dynamics and rewards.

Here’s a simple example:

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Every layer logically connects to the one above it.

In the example above, we’re using competitive and achievement dynamics which we will create six primary game mechanics. The rewards clearly relate to each of the dynamics we’re trying to create too.

Before you begin developing or tweaking a gamification system, you should have a framework in place for each audience, and each behavior change you want to make.

What If Your Members Share Bad Advice?

Your members might share really bad advice.

One study of a community of surgeons discovered:

“While 58(43.3%) of threads contained unsafe advice, the majority (33, 56.9%) were corrected. [..] Of the 855 responses, 107 (12.5%) were considered unsafe/dangerous.”

The sample size is small, but the % of unsafe and dangerous responses is clearly a concern.

Naturally, it’s not a huge deal if bad advice ruins a member’s favourite shirt, but it is if it harms their health, wealth, or relationships.

Ideally, the natural process of a community should filter out bad advice. Bad advice is corrected by good advice. The advice shared by members with the best track record is given greater prominence than a newcomer. The recipient of advice can also share what did or didn’t work.

But this is a process that both takes time and doesn’t always happen. The feedback loop doesn’t always work. Top members aren’t always the wisest members. And it doesn’t help you if the bad advice you received today might be filtered out over time.

Some steps to consider here:

1) Measure what kind of advice is incorrect and dangerous. For sectors where bad advice can be life-changing, follow the same methodology as the study to determine what percentage of advice is bad. Put together an expert of 3 to 5 trusted experts (often in customer support/success) to go through a few hundred randomly pulled answers and classify each. This is your baseline.

2) what topics merit careful attention. Identify which topics (if any) could cause critical harm and ensure smart members / internal experts review these for any red flags. Small errors are fine, but nothing which can cause serious harm should remain.

3) Focus on improving the process. Send an automated reminder to members who ask questions to highlight if it worked or not (or do this manually with your top members). Use badging to verify top experts in different fields (as opposed to just the most active members).

You can’t prevent misinformation, but you can take reasonable steps to reduce it.

Test Your Ideas First

Plenty of organisations right now are demonstrating COVID-19 sections which fail to gain much traction.

This is a classic example of top-down planning. You’re creating a place for discussions that aren’t happening.

If members weren’t talking about the topic before you launched the section, they’re not likely to spend much time talking about a topic after you launch an area for it.

However, if you do still want to try it, test a few discussions first and see if they gain momentum.

If the discussions work, try a few webinars or a blog post and see how popular that proves to be.

If that works (and momentum is growing) then launch a dedicated area for the topic.

You can save yourself a lot of time by testing your ideas first.

Adopting The Mantra Of “Try The Community First”

It doesn’t really matter where you respond to a customer question if it’s only seen by the customer.

That’s the problem with one to one support. Answering questions via a ticket system, email, phone, or social media doesn’t reduce the number of questions you get. Each question will typically only be seen by the person who asked the question.

But a hosted community is a game-changer. A single good response to a question might be seen by hundreds, even thousands, of visitors.

In times like these, where the number of questions is rising and the ability to provide one to one support is declining, you need to drive your customers to the community first.

Your support teams should aim to tackle the toughest questions only. The community should tackle the rest.

Look at the journey customers take to seek help and insert your community into that journey.

For example:

  • When your customers are on hold, they should receive a message inviting them to try the community first.
  • As customers are filing a support ticket, they should try asking in the community first.
  • As customers visit the contact section of your website, they’re informed to try the community first.

Fitbit (below) has the right idea.

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(alas, this would work better as a pop-up and a clickable link).

You have an incredible opportunity right now to definitively prove the value of a community against any other channel.

Your organisation (and your customers) need your community now more than ever.

Connect with your support team and start looking at embedding your community into the support journey your members take.

Checking Your Community’s Page Speed

Here’s a simple task.

Visit Google’s Pagespeed Insights and drop your URL in.

You’re probably scoring below 50 on desktop and below 20 on mobile.

This directly affects your search ranking and level of participation. The longer a page takes to load, the more likely someone will bounce before it does.

Given how much of our traffic comes via search, it’s remarkable how little we do to improve our rankings at times.

Now you know the issue, you can find a developer (or your web team) to fix them.

Social and Self-Expression

In almost every community I work with today, members shift between a central community site and various social media tools.

They might meet on a site you host, but their interactions will spill out all over the place.

Generally, members use social media for quick messages and self-expression.

If people have a quick question or want to update members on what they’re doing. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram seem to be their preferred tools.

If they want to convey their identity, they increasingly turn to social media instead of their member profiles.

If they have a more complicated question or need more detailed information, they turn to the community.

This has three implications.

1) You’re going to need to be engaging with your audience on social media too. Answering quick questions from members is as important as complicated questions. It helps to promote a simple hashtag for members to use (#companyname works fine).

2) You need to design your community site accordingly. Speed of response might be less important in the future than the quality and quantity of responses. It has to be a repository of the best information that pulls in the best content from social media too. Search is going to be a critical piece of the puzzle too.

3) Give members assets to display on social. If members primarily use social media for self-expression, giving them assets which they can display on social (avatars, great photo opportunities) is going to be more important than gamification badges. Even status as an official ‘verified member’ can be powerful.

If you’ve been avoiding social media so far, it might be time to dive in.

Tracking And Responding To Search Traffic

If your community is public, track the number of people arriving by search over the past year. (Google Analytics > Acquisition > All Traffic > Channels > Organic Search).

If this number rises (regardless of what else is happening) you’re probably going to be fine. You have a growing number of people arriving in discussions in your community. That’s a good sign.

If however, the metric is beginning to decline. You have a problem. Fewer people are reaching the community. Your source of newcomers will dry up fast.

This means either your community is ranking lower in search results than it used to (check Google Search Console) or fewer people are searching for relevant terms. If it’s the former, you need to invest in technical SEO.

If it’s the latter, you need to either change the terms you’re optimising for or change the entire concept of the community.

The image above is from a client whose community might just be beginning a downward trend. The longer the decline continues, the harder it is to reverse.

Make sure you respond as quickly as you can.

Don’t Launch Groups Too Soon

Start a group too early and you will find yourself trying to build two communities instead of one.

Early-stage communities are fragile.

You need to build up enough participation to reach a critical mass of activity. Launching a new group risks splitting activity into two areas – both of which you now need to grow and support.

It’s common to try and turn a popular topic into a group. This means conversations that would previously have appeared on the landing page now appear in a group. However, the hiding discussion behind an extra click makes the community look a lot less active.

There are three reasons to launch a group in your community.

1) When there is an overwhelming demand for one. Members might want privacy, exclusivity, or a place to have high-signal conversations with a specific group of people. If you’re not sure if this demand exists, it doesn’t.

2) When a topic is overwhelming the community. Sometimes a single topic (or group of members) is/are overwhelming the community landing page. Launching a group makes sense here.

3) When you have a specific goal. This is a risky top-down approach. Far too many communities have dozens, even hundreds, of empty groups that they created for members who were never asking for them. The good examples here are newcomer groups and MVP/Insider groups. I’d be cautious about creating groups outside of this.

As a general rule, you shouldn’t think about launching groups until you have a few hundred active participants in your community. And even then there should be an overwhelming demand for that group.

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