The “Company Censored Me” Trap

Here’s a common narrative. A member complains about an issue in your community.

She complains about every discussion, posts personal details of staff members to complain too, keeps going until she’s removed.

Then she writes to relevant people or different publications claiming she’s being censored by the website for criticising the company.

Sometimes it’s a deliberate trap (like a terminated employee seeking a letter of reference) sometimes it’s just a natural journey of anger.

I’d estimate the majority of ‘website censored me’ stories are really ‘member was a nuisance to others’ stories.

Take screenshots of the bad behavior (before removing it). Remove all but one of the repetitive spam criticisms. Reply to this one message with clear instructions and steps in how to be heard. Provide a direct email contact to resolve the problem and a clear warning about spamming the community. If you ban her, keep the post available for others to see (hard to argue you’re censored when the post is still there).

Answering Those Questions

You have questions you would love the answer to.

How many members do we need to reach critical mass?

What activities do they need to perform to become regulars?

Do personal welcomes work as well as automated messages?

Which activities drive the behavior we need? etc…

The data to answer all of these questions is on your server right now. You just don’t know how to identify it, collect it, analyze it and present it.

But imagine if you did? How much more precise and tailored would your work become if you could answer these questions?

Statistics is like any topic, very difficult at first but makes sense once you stick with it.

If you’re looking to add an entirely new skill set this year, I suggest taking a statistics course. If you can’t do that, raise $1k to $2k and post questions on Upwork or Kaggle that a freelancer can answer for you.

This is clearly becoming an increasingly important part of our work. So why not get ahead of the curve.

Good Discussions At Bad Times

Don’t go off-topic too early.

Off-topic discussions can be useful to build strong levels of self-disclosure between members. This facilitates relationships which keep people participating and establishes a strong group identity.

But don’t do this too early.

A reader recently emailed to ask why his off-topic discussions within his Nextdoor group were falling flat. The discussions were standard, but the group was a few weeks old. The few previous discussions related to civic issues (local litter, town planning etc…).

Jumping from a discussion about an upcoming development to ‘what are you going to do this weekend?’ will always sound forced. Don’t do it.

Begin with topic-related questions first – ideally the most important topics. Give members time to become familiar with each other via discussing the topic. Wait for members to go off-topic first before you initiate and encourage similar discussions. Then gradually increase the number.

What’s Most Likely To Kill Your Online Community?

You know the saying, first they ignore you

There are relatively fixed stages of doom for most communities.

1) You don’t notice the new trend (a shift to new technology, member launching a rival community, decline in topic popularity, collapse in internal support).

2) You ignore or dismiss the trend (“it’s a fad”, “he doesn’t have the support”, “our topic is strong” or “Mr. Smith has our back”).

3) You fight against the trend. You persuade people your technology is better, you attack your rival, you try to promote the topic, or you try to gain internal support. But it’s usually too late.

We all know what comes next.

The best time to prepare for this is right now.

1) If there is a sudden shift to a new technology, it’s better to move sooner than later. Go with the trend. Move to that app, launch the community on Reddit/Facebook as well, and speak to members regularly about how they participate in topic discussions. It’s incredibly hard (for you) to walk away from a platform in which you’ve invested so much. It’s far harder to see all your members walk away from you.

2) Preempt members launching a rival community. Rival communities form from an unmet need or disillusionment (a common scenario is when a community removes a feature members like). Provide a system for anonymous feedback for members to highlight what they want from the community.

3) Use data to check for topic popularity. How many people are searching for relevant terms each month? How many unique, new, visitors are reaching your community? How many people are showing up to events and participating in research? How many list the job profession in their profile? If you notice a decline, broaden the focus of the community or launch new communities in related areas.

4) Notice the signs of falling internal support. If your boss seems less interested in communities, if your budget is cut (or not increased), if you aren’t getting much attention internally, this is a problem. You need regular meetings with your boss (always a good practice) and other stakeholders. Understand what value they need and communicate how they’re getting it.

None of this is easy, which is why so many communities fall victim to one of the above. If you move quickly, many kinds of community deaths are entirely preventable.

The Long Tail Of Outdated Responses

Old discussions become neglected discussions.

Neglected discussions are filled with outdated advice.

If most of your new visitors arrive via the long-tail of search, your community could inadvertently send most of your audience to outdated information.

There is a manual and automatic solution to this.

1) Periodically review and update discussions.
You can’t keep every discussion up to date. But you can go through the top 50 landing pages of your community via Google analytics and check the information/solutions remain accurate. Better yet, ask for volunteers who might like to help you go through the top 500.

2) Let members highlight outdated information.
StackExchange have an option for members to improve answers from old discussions. Other communities allow members to flag outdated information. A simpler manual solution is to ask members to periodically flag outdated information and enable a simple option alongside or within discussion posts to highlight bad material (pop-up warning boxes on discussions more than 1 year old also work).

3) Add useful contributions to a database.
Document and add information to a central database of information. Instead of relying on keeping old discussions up to date, simply tag and properly categorize new information and try to link discussions to that section instead. Over time search should naturally push people to this information.

4) Remove, review, and update old discussions.
Automatically remove old discussions or set up a system to review discussions after several months. Periodically flag discussions from a year ago for a further review. Decide to remove redundant information, update information, or revamp everything.

Done right you continually keep discussions fresh and content relevant to all members. You can give most members the answer before they even ask the question. That’s pretty powerful.

Changing Attitudes vs. Changing Behavior

Yes, you can change the behavior once.

If the reward is high enough, the nudge is big enough, and it’s a novel idea, you can get people to do almost anything once.

But one-off actions don’t lead to a sustained change in behavior. If someone joins your community to get a free eBook they’re not going to be a regular participant.

Yet we constantly try to change the behavior instead of changing the attitude towards that behavior. We increase the size of the reward instead of making the behavior itself something people want to do.

Changing attitudes is a process. It’s a process you can go through with your audience. Begin with interviewing 10 members about the behavior you want them to perform. How do they feel about it? (not what they think about it, but how they feel about it).

Isolate the exact words they use and repeat them back to them for better understanding. Now use those very words and ideas to reframe how they feel about the behavior.

Years ago I worked on a community for teachers. Participation was dire. Every member I interviewed said they were too busy to participate. Some hadn’t even had the time to read the invitation email. They classified it as yet another frustrating initiative by management that didn’t understand their exhaustion and frustration.

Notice the problem here? Anything ‘new’ we proposed was almost certainly going to be rejected because it’s yet another new initiative. More frustration = more burden. The key is to reduce the frustration.

So we relaunched the community as a place for teachers to swap quick time-saving hacks. We turned that frustration into a trigger. There must be a quicker way to do {x}, mustn’t there?

We began letting teachers estimate and track the time they had saved. It became a competition. Members wanted to feel smart. We scanned the web for teacher time-saving tips and invited the authors to give webinars. Activity exploded in weeks. We used frustration to open the door, but the sense of feeling smart (and potentially superior) to drive long-term activity.

The problem with so much advice about increasing participation is it doesn’t affect the underlying activity. It’s a quick hit in an increasingly frantic world. Many of you are struggling with participation today.

Go speak to your members. Really listen to how they feel about their community. Pick up on their mood and their emotions. Then reframe the behavior you want them to do that can match their current mood. You might be amazed at the result.

The Rule Of Exponential Exceptions

Take a stance on this one political issue. It matters to you and it matters to most of the community.

But what about the next issue? Or future issues that offend your values? How often can you take a stance on issues before your community becomes only about political issues?

What happens when members highlight political issues that offend their values? Do you ignore them or incorporate them too??

What happens when values conflict? Do you want to be assigning priority to specific values?

There is a rule of exponential exceptions about group situations. You can easily suck a community into a highly-charged political environment that drowns out all other discussions.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take a stance on issues, just be clear this is the only exception.

And if you do take a stand, involve everyone. Don’t use words, take action. Collaborate on a joint community statement and send to relevant news sites, raise money collectively, start a petition, coordinate calling influencers who can make an impact.

Done right, taking collective action is an incredible community building tool that brings everyone together. Done badly it can tear everyone apart.

Building Peer Groups

Two weeks ago, we hosted an exclusive community event with Lithium to bring 20 of the highest ranking community people together to discuss and share issues in a safe, private, environment. We all learned a lot from it.

The remarkable thing here is just how cost-efficient this is. People leave with a sense of not being alone, a collective validation of their efforts, and an assortment of new ideas and thought processes. Most of all, they get a group of people they can contact for help in the future.

I’ve lost track of the number of solutions private peer groups have helped us with over the years. This ranges from the prices of different platforms, opinions on prospective recruits, feedback on different implementation vendors, information on potential leads, heads up on possible problems, and solutions to some of our toughest challenges…along with all the emotional support.

It’s hard to talk about some things in public. This is especially true in places where community members, colleagues, or your friends might read your innermost fears.

I suspect there are opportunities in every sector and for each of our careers to build more of these. It doesn’t cost much and can save you huge amounts of time, money, and prevent mistakes.

p.s. blog post from Joe here.

Everyone Has A Different Journey

I like this from StackOverflow.

“Q&A tends to be somewhat competitive and adversarial. This means that users often get answers to their questions within minutes. But not everyone enjoys that sort of activity. So we are experimenting with another way to contribute to the art and science of programming. We call it Documentation. In its first year, users have created 21,954 examples organized in 6761 topics and representing 890 tags. Our vision of Documentation will only succeed when many developers pitch in with improving edits.”

It takes a lot of empathy to understand how the environment you shape influences the emotions of members. It takes even more to see how that the same behavior that drives a lot of activity prevents others from participating entirely.

If you don’t think you can give the first or best answer, why contribute at all?

Everyone has a different journey through your community. Your job isn’t to force everyone through (and try to optimize) a single journey but to identify and develop multiple ways people can participate which reflects their authentic behavior.

Competitive communities will always attract a small group of loyalists yet be off-putting to others. So how else can you persuade people to participate?

24/7 Moderator Coverage

The Google community was recently flooded with accusations of racism in search results.

Checking in on a Monday morning a few weeks ago, no-one seems to have been around over the weekend.

Once a perception forms, it’s hard to shift. Past a few hundred thousand members you need 24/7 moderator coverage to respond to issues like this.

The costs are relatively low and the risks are worryingly high.

What happens if on 5.01pm on Friday afternoon someone posts a suicide threat and no-one from the company reads it until 9.00am on Monday?

It’s a possible tragedy and a headline of “Company {x} did nothing for 4 days after member posts suicide threat”.

Now consider illegal/illicit activities, death threats, security bug reports and the whole gamut of worst-case scenarios. Hoping the community manager checks in on their days off isn’t a solution.

You don’t need someone there every second, but at least have someone checking in once or twice a day. Hire an intern for the weekend, use virtual assistants, hire paid moderators, or a professional moderation company. It doesn’t cost much and can avoid a catastrophe.

Changing How Lurkers View Their Role In Your Community

If you interview any segment of community members you’ll discover the very real emotive reasons why people don’t participate more.

Lurkers, for example, give three common reasons for not participating:

  1. They don’t have enough time.
  2. They don’t feel they have anything to contribute.
  3. They don’t feel they are smart enough to share their knowledge.

You can tackle each of these.

Let’s assume lurkers say they don’t feel they can contribute anything useful. That’s the long-term perception you have to change.

In your welcome copy, your notifications, your personal messages, the copy on your site, and in your own responses, you need to ensure they know you need their questions more than their answers.

Insert copy to the effect of ‘we’re short of good questions, what questions do you have this week?’ (notice the emphasis on the need for good questions).

Segment lurkers into a separate mailing list and run a short campaign highlighting the kind of questions you need from them, why it helps the community, and how it helps them. You need them to know you want them to improve their skills, knowledge, and set of resources quickly.

Show more appreciation to people who ask new questions. Thank them for the question, highlight the impact it might have, get back to them on the resolution to the question, and be friendly and personal.

Think of this as a short persuasion campaign. You have to change how they think about their contributions to community. You don’t need their answers, you need their questions to help everyone.

Now interview another segment of members and do the same.

Making Leadership Easier

The big risk in leading is looking behind you and seeing no-one following.

You would look pretty silly if you were the only person at the airport holding a protest sign.

Very few people lead (or show initiative) in any community for precisely this reason, they might look a bit silly.

The overwhelming majority join in once everyone else is already there. That’s when it’s safe.

We’ve all seen the dancing guy. Somebody has to be first or nothing happens.

This is why those that show leadership and take the initiative are so valuable. They are the people that are willing to put their ego on the line to make something happen.

These people are precious. You’re going to need several of these people to survive. Do whatever you can to support them.

Don’t knock their initiatives because they’re off-brand or not part of the roadmap. Support them. Give them ideas and promote what they’re doing.

Too many reject new ideas for the community by default. I suggest supporting and promoting it by default.

Or to put it simply, make it easier to be a leader in your community.