Even If Only Staff Are Responding, It’s Still Worthwhile To Build A Community

Ideally, members reply to each other’s questions.

You and your support team would be left with questions that are especially complex, unique, or involve the exchange of personal data to solve.

Sometimes that doesn’t happen. Most frequently, it’s because too few people have the expertise to answer the questions. Okta, one of our clients, is an example. Most responses come from staff today.

So if it’s still staff answering most questions, why not just ditch the community and continue with other support channels?

The answer is simple; search. Other people might find the answers being posted.

One good answer from a staff member might help just the original poster or it might help thousands of others looking for an answer to the same question. This in turn helps visitors get the answers they need faster, reduces support costs, and attracts more people to the site.

Most Gamification Systems Eventually Start Working Against Motivations

If a gamification system is poorly designed, the same force which motivates members initially will demotivate them eventually.

In the beginning, it’s usually quite simple to quickly rise up the levels/collect new badges.

For example, let’s imagine each answer is worth 3 points, with a typical point system like that shown below you can see how people can rapidly advance:

  • Level 1: 5 points (2 answers)
  • Level 2: 10 points (4 answers)
  • Level 3: 20 points (7 answers)
  • Level 4: 40 points (14 answers) etc…

Answering 14 questions will probably only take a couple of weeks.

The danger here is people rapidly reach the maximum level (Salesforce, for example, allows a maximum of 50 levels). Therefore, most gamification systems make it increasingly difficult to advance to each new tier. At the higher end, this often means a system like:

  • Level 44: 20,000 points (6,667 answers)
  • Level 45: 25,000 points (8,331 answers)
  • Level 46: 31,000 points (10,333 answers)

Each new level becomes increasingly less achievable (see the exponential curve). Advancing once took weeks and months. Now it might take years.

Sometimes, there simply aren’t enough questions in a community to make achieving a new level viable. I’ve seen communities with 20 to 30 questions per week have levels that are thousands of questions apart.

Worse yet, levels have less meaning. Do you really care if you’re level 47 or 48? Would advancing from level 94 to 95 have a big impact?

Due to our laziness and determination to ensure not enough members reach the top level, we design systems that eventually demotivate some of our previously most active members.

There are two better options here:

1) Power-ups. These enable members to accumulate points faster as they advance up levels. For example, being an MVP, attending events, or completing training courses might allow people to earn hundreds of points per month/attendance.

2) Points for beginners, badges for veterans. Use levels with far smaller increases until members reach the highest possible level and then use badges to reward members past the top-level (i.e. level 50). You can often create an infinite number of badges and missions that can be tailored towards the needs and desires of top members. This is far more scalable and sustainable. It’s also clear levels are to get newcomers up to speed quickly, badges are for top members.

Choose at least one (with care).

Solving Engagement Problems (free webinar)

How can you keep your members highly engaged in your community?

The answer probably isn’t what you think.

90% of the activities we find most people working on to increase engagement won’t have a lasting impact.

I’ve spent the past decade achieving extremely strong results for clients by focusing on sustainable processes to improve engagement.

This means zeroing in on the handful of things which really matter (i.e. the handful of critical ‘leverage points’) and then apply the best possible processes to optimise these zones.

On Sept 28th, I will be participating in a webinar hosted by Tribe to share the best approaches we’ve used over the years to keep members highly engaged in a community

Date: Sept 28, 2021
Time: 12.00pm EDT (5pm BST)
Registration link: https://tribe.so/webinars/community-engagement (sign up to get the recording too).

A quick warning here. If you’re looking for simple tweaks or ‘quick wins’ you’re probably going to be bitterly disappointed. But if you want to look at engagement as part of a bigger system and learn how you can influence that system, this might be the right webinar for you.

Community Content Creates Trusted Product Pages

I spent a year working with Sephora to develop a new community strategy.

A major plank of this strategy was integrating authentic community content into the product pages. This includes reviews, photos etc…

If you visit a typical Sephora product page, you now find a page with a lot of community-created content integrated into it.

All that content you see at the bottom (questions and answers, images, and reviews) is community-generated content. It’s managed by the community team.

Community-generated content isn’t like content created by a marketing team or top influencers. It’s not professionally created and refined. It’s raw, authentic, and breeds trust. It showcases real people doing real things and sharing their real opinions. This in turn has a huge impact upon product purchase conversions.

For sure, it’s not easy to do and you often have to corral lots of different technologies to work with one another. But if you can make it work, you’ll find creating genuine, authentic, content which shows up in the buyer journey is an astonishingly powerful benefit of nurturing a brand community.

Note too, that once you have a goal like this, your metrics begin to shift. It’s no longer the level of engagement or participation that matters, it’s the quantity and quality of authentic content which has been created.

Find Multiple Eternal Sources Of Community Growth

The common belief is you can grow a community by improving the community experience.

For example, you might add new features, improve the experience, make members feel better connected etc.

Improving the community experience does help (it can reduce churn), but it doesn’t drive more people to visit the community in the first place. Long-term growth and sustainability in a community requires you to find eternal sources of new members.

That eternal part matters. A big promotional push can be great for getting a community going, but it’s not an eternal source of new members, i.e. there are only so many times you can send a mass email to your audience to persuade them to join.

To make a community thrive, you have relatively few sources of eternal community growth. These are (by order of importance):

1) Search traffic. For most communities, search is by far the biggest source of growth. However, it comes with risks. Sudden changes to the Google algorithm or Google keeping more traffic for itself is going to make this harder. If you’re a private community, you’ve lost 80%+ of potential visitors before you begin.

2) Customer/topic journey. This is when the community is naturally integrated with the customer or topic journey. As part of being a customer or becoming engaged with your organisation (or the topic) people are naturally introduced to the community. How and where the community is featured on the homepage/product/support really matters here.

3) Platform recommendations/referrals. This is when a major technology platform naturally recommends or drives traffic to your community from others (most common in Facebook Groups, LinkedIn, StackOverflow, Reddit etc…).

4) Links and partnerships. Getting links and referrals from major websites/publications can be a huge win. Community.co built an entire business doing this. If you reach out to others in your sector and persuade them to drive people to your community, that can be a sustainable source of new members.

5) Staff/member advocacy. By far the most underutilized asset is advocacy from existing staff and community members. If members and staff share posts on their social media profiles, you can attract a large number of members quite easily.

The best way to grow a community is to build the relationships, processes, and incentives to make each of the channels which are relevant to you work as best as they can.

Sure, other things can help, but these are the big wins.

When Your Audience Creates Their Own Community Without You

Two organisations I’m working with are dealing with the same intriguing challenge; customers have already launched successful communities for their brand!

On one hand, this is a great sign. It shows the audience cares and wants to engage with one another. They’re helping each other already and the organisation doesn’t have to do anything. It’s a free bonus.

On the other hand, it presents several problems. The information shared in member-hosted communities is often poor and outdated, it attracts troublemakers (self-promoters), and there’s no way for the organisation to build a process to support those who don’t get help (i.e. in a hosted community, unanswered questions can be automatically redirected to support teams after [x] hours).

This also raises another dilemma. Both clients need to launch communities on platforms that integrate with existing systems, have adequate security measures, and provide access to data. By nature, that means it will be less convenient for members to use than the platforms hosting existing communities (Facebook Groups, WhatsApp, Slack, Subreddits etc…). Why would members use your community when a more convenient option exists?

You have two broad options here.

The first option is to engage with existing hosts of member-created communities and try to develop a relationship that will enable you to respond, correct false information, and gather what information you can. This can work well, but it’s rarely a long-term solution by itself. You’re at the mercy of people whose primary objective may not align with yours.

The second option is to build your own community, but offer a value proposition so strong it overcomes the convenience problem. This usually means a combination of:

1) Access to staff. Members can engage in member-created communities or get trusted advice from staff and validated members in the brand-hosted community. This requires staff to be heavily engaged in the community.

2) Personalisation. Design the community to be integrated into accounts with members receiving the news, information, and updates that are relevant to them. Free social media tools can’t share the latest product updates, top five known issues, progress on reported issues, and a list of relevant discussions – but your community can. Likewise, members can’t vote on ideas or see unanswered questions immediately escalated in other tools.

3) Unique features. Zero in on the specific features members want and show these in the community. This might include searchable documentation and knowledge base articles, leaderboards and badges, or the ability to contribute to the community in a unique way.

Whatever you do, don’t select a similar platform and try to compete against existing, established, communities. That’s a loss for you, your new competitors, and your members.

Slow Declines Are Far More Worrying Than Sudden Drops

Analysing the data from two new clients recently.

Let’s begin with this graph here.

When you see a sudden drop like this (or major drop compared with data from the year before), the cause is almost always a major external event. If you want to grow a community, you first need to determine what the major event was.

The most common examples (by order of frequency) include:

  • Changes to the registrations process (often a new SSO system)
  • Changes to the company homepage design.
  • Changes to the community design.
  • Changes to the Google algorithm.
  • A ‘black swan’ event (given the date of the drop, this might be our first hunch to explore).

Typically here, you can ask around and find what other changes occurred in each of the above until you find the source. You can play detective here and ask around each of the above to determine what’s happening.

A sudden drop is bad, but not disastrous. It can usually be reversed if you can identify the cause. The interests of members haven’t fundamentally shifted.

Now consider this graph:

When you see a more gradual drop like this, the cause is social in nature. A slow decline is far more likely to be fatal than a sudden drop. The needs and motivations of members are fundamentally changing and you need to change too.

The most common explanations here include:

  • You have fewer potential people to engage (fewer people interested in the topic / fewer new customers).
  • Members have fewer questions to ask.
  • Rising competition from other channels.
  • Declining community experience drives people away.

Before you can reverse the trend, you need to gather a few metrics to identify what the problem is. This usually includes comparing the trend against :

  • The number of visitors to the company website.
  • No. new customers the organisation has attracted.
  • Search traffic to the community.
  • No. of support tickets being filed from support teams.

If any of these are also declining, you have usually found your cause.

For example, if there has been a comparable decline in support tickets filed, you know the drop isn’t community-centric. It’s part of a broad shift of either attracting fewer customers or customers having fewer questions to ask.

Before trying to change any metric, you need to understand what’s driving it. Solve that and everything becomes a lot easier.

‘thank you for coming’ vs. ‘next steps’

Last week, I hosted a founding member workshop with a client community.

We guided a few dozen participants to answer some questions about what they wanted from the community, forged connections between members, and helped members make the key decisions about the community.

Once the work is complete, the client was keen to send out a ‘thank you’ note. Instead, we suggested sending out a ‘next steps’ note.

The difference here is important. Thank you notes feel like the right thing to do in these situations. The problem is people tend to give them little time or attention. The moment they see ‘thank you’ in the subject line, they know what to expect. A thank you note is the final message. It ends the discussion. It feels good to send (and sometimes good to receive). But it doesn’t really achieve much.

But listing out the next steps a member can take drives more activity. It shows the recipient you want to keep them involved. It shows the recipient you think they have more to give.

It sounds counter-intuitive perhaps, but I’ve found in communities the best way to thank members is to give them more things they can do to be more involved.

How Small Design Decisions Have A Big Impact Upon Participation

We do a lot of work with Salesforce communities. It’s clear that the smallest design tweaks often have a big impact on participation.

If you spend much time browsing Salesforce communities for example, you might soon notice something odd. In many communities, a member will post the entire question in the subject line like this.

Now compare this to what a good question should look like:

Notice the difference? The subject line is clear, the context is included within the body of the email, the screenshot provides everything someone needs to provide an answer. It’s also cleaner and easier to read.

So, what’s happening in these situations? It’s more simple and important than you might think.

In the former community, when members click the ‘ask question’ button they are shown this screen:

Naturally, they click the category at the top and then assume they only have 255 characters to ask a question.

In the latter example, when members ask a question they’re invited to use this screen:

You can probably spot the critical difference here. By showing the ‘details’ option without having to click the word, members are naturally more likely to assume the context belongs here and the question actually means ‘subject line’.

It’s staggering how big of an impact this simple tweak can have. It can change the entire community experience from one with questions filled with long subject lines and not enough context to respond, to one filled with good-quality questions which top members enjoy replying to.

Note: Of course it would be a lot easier if Salesforce simply turned ‘question’ into ‘subject line’ and ‘details’ into ‘question’.

Remove The Options Few People Click

In about half the projects we work on, members complain about the navigation of the site.

The story here is often the same. Instead of following data and asking members what they wanted (and identifying the terminology they used), the organisation made assumptions and created their own navigation menus.

This is the primary cause of the navigation problems today.

A recent example proves the point. Looking at data from HotJar, Google Analytics, and speaking with members, less than 1 in 100 visitors clicked on 2 of the 7 navigation tabs in a client’s community.

So we removed them. There hasn’t been a single complaint about their removal yet.

This is your regular reminder that the best way to improve the navigation of most communities is to reduce the number of roads people can take.

Here’s a more extreme example.

Why Partner Communities Usually Struggle To Sustain Activity

Try building a community for competitors operating within a relatively small sector.

You’re probably not going to get far. Few people want to share their expertise and advice with competitors (at the extreme, there are even laws preventing close cooperation between competitors).

This is why most partner communities aren’t really communities at all. Few partners proactively share information with one another or participate in discussions. The majority, by far, are information portals filled with announcements, tools, resources and, sometimes, events, where people can learn more from the brand.

Sometimes partners might ask a question about a problem, but they expect an answer from the brand.

The primary source of member-to-member information distribution in these communities are events – often in the form of featured member interviews or webinars.

One solution to this is to try to change the culture and build a more cooperative dynamic between partners in the same ecosystem. To be blunt, that’s a very hard sell. The other is to work with it and accept that discussions probably aren’t going to thrive. But that doesn’t mean you can gather great examples, resources, and host amazing events for partners.

Template Examples Of How To Engage Your Community Members

Over the years, we’ve developed a large number of template responses for community teams to adapt to their situations. The idea is to get people to consider how they can participate in a community with empathy.

I’ll share a few that have worked well here (all names/details have been tweaked):

Example of A Direct Welcome Message From A Community Manager

This post is used in smaller communities where the community manager welcomes each new person. The purpose is to build instant rapport, provide useful information, build connections between existing members, and solicit a follow-up.

“Hi @Raphael,

Welcome to the community. It’s great to have someone with a remote-first background here. Have you recently moved to California as well?

Your question is probably going to be of interest to a lot of our newcomers. I’d highlight two resources we have at the moment available here and here. Both give you a great overview of places to get started.

I’d also suspect some of our veterans like @nikita77, @benj, and @crystalCK can jump in and help here too.

Let me know if this helps at all!”


Example Of Responding To A Product Problem Post

This post is used where the original poster is asking for help to resolve a product problem but failed to provide enough information to get a good response. The goal is to keep the mood light, solicit more information, make the member feel seen, and bring in others who might be able to help.

“Hey @Clare6

Nooo, don’t break out the hammer just yet! I’m 100% sure we can get this fixed.

The first step is to get a little more information from you first. Can you share what operating system you’re using and what you’ve tried so far? Feel free to share any screenshots too!

Also what is the ideal outcome you want? I think that would help our members give good responses here too.

I know @Vix-ed had this problem before so might also be able to help.”


Example Of Launching A New Initiative

This post is used to launch a new initiative within the community. The goal is to get members excited, ensure the post gets responses, deliver the information quickly, and ensure members quickly grasp the concept. Notice the use of @mentions to bring in others to respond to get things started.

“Hello community, I have some awesome news!

It’s a new month and we’ve been working with some of our top members (@AK22, @SusanS, and @KDOVE) to launch a new challenge.

In this one, we want you to share your favourite masks. You can post as frequently (or infrequently) as you like. If you have unique designs, custom masks, or have simply seen something you love, this is the place to share it!

Ready, set, go!”


Example Of Clamping Down On Bad Behavior

This post is another real-life situation in which bad behavior began to infect the community and had to be addressed (without antagonising members). The goal here was to be kind, but clear. Understanding, but firm.

“Hi @community,

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen a rise in posts with messages like “remove this if this is against the rules” – typically followed by something against the rules(!).

We’ve taken a lenient approach so far – typically just removing the post and sending a polite note to the creator that the post was indeed against the rules. Alas, this leniency is resulting in a growing influx of self-promotional posts.

So, here’s a warning (we send with kindness), please check the updated rules before you post. None of us want to whip out the banhammer, but we also want to make sure the community isn’t filled with self-promotion.”


Example Of Attracting Collaborators

This post was to attract some early members to participate in our upcoming resources. We wanted to make this feel like a rare opportunity for members to get more involved in supporting the community. Notice here we’re not providing a detailed outline of what we want to do. Instead, we’re provoking interest and then making members make the first commitment.

“Hello everyone!

In the coming year we’re going to create 4 universal resources.

These are detailed guides tackling specific areas of our topic and challenges people want to overcome.

We’re looking for a couple of you to step up and help us create these guides. We want your help to source the best ideas, solicit your expertise and knowledge, and develop the project.

If you’re interested, simply reply here. Myself and our @communityMVP team are eager to hear from you.”


Example Of Responding To A Highly Emotive Situation

This was the most challenging post. In this community, members shared some of their most harrowing personal situations and looked for emotional support. The temptation here is to try to inform/educate this group. Unless the member asks for help, they simply want you to be there for them. This post is simply to acknowledge and be there for the member.

“Hi @adamS,

Thanks for this honest and detailed post. The entire community team and I were touched by it and we can’t begin to imagine the pain you’re in and what you’re going through.

Believe me when I say, you’re not alone.

I’m with you. Our entire community team is with you. And our entire community is with you too.

Anytime you need someone to speak to, looking for support, or just want to invest. You only have to reach out. If other members want to lend their support, share their experiences, please do reply in the comments. “

Feel free to adapt or use these however suits you. Hopefully, they provide some help as you develop your skills and train your community teams.

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