You typically have two short and two long windows in the community development process.
It’s handy to know whether you’re in a short or long window to plan your next steps.
The Pilot Phase
The pilot phase, where you attract your first members and reach a critical mass of activity, needs to be achieved within 1 to 3 months (the sooner the better).
If you don’t manage to attract around 300 monthly posts, 100 active participants, with 10 new registrations per day, quickly, you lose momentum and activity dissipates to nothing. This is the approximate level when the community is capable of delivering value to members (knowledge, influence, and relationships) they can’t easily get elsewhere.
There are ways to shortcut the process (hosting large events is one), but it’s typically the result of countless conversations with hundreds, even thousands, of people in a short amount of time.
The Growth Phase
Post-pilot you enter a long window.
This is typically the phase between critical mass and the community having widespread internal support. It can last from months to years.
This is the time to grow the community steadily. Be clear and careful about the culture you’re creating. Define what behavior you will and won’t accept. Figure out where most members are coming from and nurture top members etc…
This phase runs from critical mass until the time you can’t handle the workload by yourself anymore and need further support.
The Community-Kill Zone
This is the immediate post-funding phase.
The kill zone is the time between when the community is so young, cheap, and full of potential, it’s not worth killing and when it’s proven itself indispensable. It’s typically when the community grows from a cost of less than $500 per day to more than $1k per day.
This is a short-window (typically less than 18 months). It’s the time when you need to work hard and fast internally to gain support and demonstrate value. Pure engagement metrics matter less than internal support here.
The Indispensable Phase
This is the long-window.
It’s when you work at an organization with widespread support and you need to maintain (and grow) that support, deliver increasing value to the community, and optimize your processes.
This window lasts indefinitely (but be careful about regressing backwards).
If you’re in a short window, you need to focus on the few core areas that matter and move fast.
If you’re in a long window, you need to make steady improvements across multiple areas.
If you’re like most community professionals, the answer is probably not many.
You’re learning on the job without a fixed plan of what skills you need to acquire (or when you need to acquire them).
No-one trained you to manage communities and you’re doing the best you can with the resources you’ve got.
You’re also too busy to find the time to master new community skills.
To help you out, we’re launching our community coaching programs.
These programs include our community accelerator, peer groups, live mentoring, and online courses.
The Community Accelerator Program
The Community Accelerator is your on-demand guide to mastering the community skills you need to rapidly develop your community.
It works in three steps:
1. Benchmark your abilities. When you join, you complete a short assessment to benchmark your current skills against defined standards. You get a scorecard and review where your focus should be.
2. Build your roadmap. Once you know your abilities, we help you set your goals. We recommend one big ‘level’ increase in skills per month. Each goal is assigned to a specific map. This creates your roadmap for your progress.
3. Get training to achieve your goals. Once you’ve set your roadmap, you receive private, specific, recommendations to acquire the skills you need to progress. You also receive private coaching from us and support from others who have been there and done it.
At the end of each month you receive a report showing your progress (you can share this with your boss if you like).
You also receive our estimate of your salary level (regionally adjusted).
Mentoring and FeverBee Peer Groups
If you’re remarkably self-guided, you can sign up solely for our on-demand community accelerator.
However, as our pilot program illustrated, most people need more than an on-demand tool.
They need someone to join them on the journey and ensure they take the steps to make progress.
Therefore, in addition to The Community Accelerator, you can also sign up for ongoing mentoring and private peer groups.
These peer groups are not the place for conversations about the difficult nature of community work, philosophising about the future of community, or sitting through webinars with guest visitors each week.
We’re not going to do any of that.
Our FeverBee Peer Groups are focused entirely on helping you set your career path, master new skills, and overcome the immediate challenges you’re facing right now.
Our FeverBee Peer Groups are for people who believe we need to treat community work with the same seriousness as software engineers treat theirs.
Our FeverBee Peer Groups are for people who aren’t too proud to admit they can be an even better community professional than they are today.
Are These Coaching Programs for Newcomers Or Veterans?
Our coaching programs aren’t an online course which serve the same content up to everyone regardless of their experience and situation.
Each program is customised to your current skillset and experience.
If you’re a newcomer, you might be guided on improving your engagement skills, creating content, and designing better systems for growing activity in the community.
If you’re a veteran, you might be guided on improving your business skills, measurement, growing business teams and scaling your systems.
Every person gets their own unique, personalised, customised, roadmap.
What Does This Cost?
The first cohort gets a discount rate:
- Community Accelerator (fully on-demand – $25 per month)
- Community Accelerator plus Mentoring and Peer Groups – $45 per month (I’d recommend this option)
- Community Accelerator plus Mentoring, Peer Groups, and On-Demand Courses – $750 per month
You’re welcome to join and leave at one month’s notice.
If you’re ready to up your game, we’re ready for you.
You can learn more sign up here.
Registration closes on Oct 1, 2019.
You can increase the response rate easily enough, just spend more time answering questions.
The problem is answering questions in a community instead of via customer support is nowhere near as valuable as encouraging members to answer each other’s questions.
This is better known as the organic response rate. It’s the % of questions answered by fellow members.
The only way to boost this metric (without sneakily removing posts) is by making members smarter and more motivated to help each other.
This is why a superuser program is typically the best approach to increasing the organic response rate. You’re supporting and training the very members who are eager to listen and have already indicated a willingness to help.
The more posts you receive, the more superusers you need. If the organic response rate is declining, you typically need more superusers or to do a better job supporting and motivating the superusers you do have.
This makes the organic response rate a far better measure of your work than most other metrics.
A lot of our work diagnosing communities is finding the ultimate cause of problems.
You can’t really improve a community until you know the ultimate cause behind a problem.
To find the ultimate cause, you need to dive deeper into your data.
Let’s imagine a typical problem, your posts are declining.
To diagnose this you have to go through a series of specific, binary, questions.
Question 1: Why Are Posts Declining?
For example, imagine the number of posts in your community has dropped by 25% in the past 3 months.
There are two possible causes behind this you can investigate.
- Members are posting less when they visit (measure # posts/# visits has dropped).
- Fewer members are visiting the community (# visits has declined).
By looking at the number of visiting members and posts per visit, you can soon identify the answer.
Let’s assume it’s the second answer. This means it doesn’t really matter what you do within the community as fewer people will see it anyway. This guides you into your next question.
Question 2: Why are fewer members visiting the community?
For example, let’s assume fewer members are visiting. This too leads you into two unique options.
- Members are visiting less frequently (visits/active members).
- The community isn’t attracting as many newcomers as it used to (visits from newcomers).
By looking at first-time visitors to the community and visits per month you will soon get to the answer.
Let’s assume it’s the latter (few newcomers). This means you’ve still got the same level of visits from regular members, but fewer newcomers are arriving to replace the churn.
Any activity you take to resolve this problem should be focused on newcomers.
Question 3: Why is the Community attracting fewer newcomers?
Again, you can see this as a binary option based upon whether fewer newcomers are reaching the site in the first place or whether fewer are completing the registration process.
This would tell you whether it’s an acquisition problem or a registration problem.
- Fewer members are arriving via search (search traffic).
- Fewer members are completing the registration process (registrations per visit).
If we assume the answer is the former, we now know too fix the problem we need to focus on search traffic.
Question 4: Why is search traffic declining?
Search traffic is fiddly but you’re working within two obvious reasons why search traffic has dropped. Either you’re not ranking as highly or fewer people are clicking on the terms you do rank highly for.
- Community ranks lower in search terms.
- Fewer people are clicking the relevant search terms.
Notice at this stage you can’t start to think of really specific resolutions to these problems. If we assume it’s the latter again.
We now know the answer lies in something which has changed about the people rather than about our website or Google algorithms.
We need to figure out what.
Question 5: Why are fewer people clicking on our search results?
Now we can get to the final question. Has the terminology our audience used changed (relatively rare) or has the popularity and interest in the sector/topic begun to decline?
The community is optimised for the wrong search terms.
The popularity/interest of the sector is in overall decline.
We might research metrics that show interest in the sector to identify if this is the solution and accept or eliminate based upon the results.
If we again, finally, assume it’s the latter we can make a really specific problem diagnosis.
Our 25% decline in post quantity over the past 3 months has been the result of a declining interest in the topic which in turn caused a decline of search traffic to our website, fewer registrations, and fewer newcomers to replace the natural churn of members.
Once we have a clear diagnosis, it’s obvious that the typical approaches we might’ve tried (more on-site engagement activities) would only have resulted in a short-term boost at best. The real solution, as you can see in the decision tree below, must be to expand the community to cover a broader array of topics which are of interest to the same audience.
If you want to see the full decision tree, click here:
We can interview and research our members to identify additional needs and expand the community to accommodate those needs.
Trust me, never try to improve a metric without being crystal clear about what has caused it to go up or down.
Too many community roadmaps have goals which look like….
You have a goal (i.e. resolve xx% of customer support questions via the community) and progressively try to increase that number.
But this also becomes progressively more difficult (and expensive)!.
Once you resolved the easiest questions, solicit the simplest ideas, or attract the members most likely to be attracted, the costs (time and money) begin to rise rapidly.
For example, a typical customer support community can answer 60% – 70% of support questions relatively easily. These are the most common questions, the ones many other customers have the answer to, and the ones which staff have been trained to answer.
But the remaining 30% become progressively more tricky.
These are the harder questions which require more information and advanced technical expertise, they are the questions in multiple languages, and questions which might require a bigger team to provide more rapid answers before they reach typical customer support channels.
It might look like this:
Which is why you will usually gain the most value from a community not from pursuing a single goal to the extreme level, but instead getting it to a higher level and then moving on to another goal.
Once you’ve reached a 75% response/resolution rate, that might be a good time to build systems to solicit and implement great ideas, reduce newcomer churn through community mentoring programs, or start collecting testimonials and reviews from members.
The biggest bang for your buck isn’t to single-mindedly pursue a single goal, but to expand continually to new goals.
…so do the discussions, activities, challenges, and anything else you create.
If you want to be a community which members visit every day, you need to expand the nature of activities from problems to desires and identity.
Below is an example:
While you might begin helping a member pick the right drill bit (yes, it’s a metaphor), over time you want to satisfy the need that drove them to tackle that problem.
Finally, you might want to connect them to others who share the same identity.
Two risks here. The first is moving too fast to build a sense of community before members have internalised their shared problems/desires. The second is moving entirely to identity needs and ignoring the problems members still need to solve.
You’re probably doing far too many tactics.
With clients we often ask the community manager to keep a list of what they’re working on for a week. Typically the community manager is working on 15 to 20 tactics each week.
It’s impossible to be successful if you’re dividing your time into smaller chunks while hoping for bigger results. Spending 2 hours a week on a tactic is the equivalent of trying to learn a language by speaking it for an hour or two a week. It gets you nowhere.
This happens when you don’t have a clear strategy. Without a strategy you wind up trying to do ‘all the tactics’.
Our goal is to focus the community team on 3 to 7 tactics they can completely commit to. But this first requires a strategic plan to be in place (see below).
Once the strategic plan is clear, finding the right tactics becomes considerably easier. One reason to invest the time to do the strategy now is precisely because of the time it will save you later. Better yet, it will make you far more successful.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.