I know someone who has spent the past decade jumping from big brand community to big brand community.
She joins, stays for 12 to 18 months, and then quits complaining she didn’t get the support she needed to succeed.
I suspect having so many big brand communities on her resume is actually a help rather than a hindrance. Yet I doubt she can point back to any contribution she’s made over the past decade and say ‘yup, I built that’.
Here’s the deal, no one building communities today has everything they need.
No one has all the resources, staff, respect they need (or want). No one has the obvious career path from community to where they want to be.
At some point, you need to stop hopping to a new lilypad each year at the first sign of difficulty and start building something that lasts.
You need to win people over. Earn respect and credibility. Increase understanding and awareness of community. And, most importantly, deliver results that get you to where you want to be.
Not as easy as quitting in disgust, but what will you be most proud of in five years’ time?
You can find plenty of communities that invite members to do something non-standard like:
- Share your story.
- Share your experiences.
- Create a case study.
- Post a best practice.
- Add your photos to the gallery.
Most of the time, these requests fail and members keep posting short discussion posts as before.
The problem isn’t that members don’t want to do it, but because any new behavior creates a number of questions which the request doesn’t answer.
For example, members will have questions like:
- Where do I even begin?
- How long should my story be?
- What does a good story look like?
- Should it be written in the first, second, or third person?
- What are some examples I can learn from?
If you want a new behavior. You need to design the experience to be more encouraging. This would usually include:
- Highlight a specific kind of story/topic you want to feature each month and give a time limit for members to submit them.
- Be clear about the length, style, tone, and content of the story.
- Share examples (you or your confederates have created) which members can follow.
- Let members submit drafts for feedback/ideas.
Once these things are up and running they tend to take on a life of their own. Members can see what’s been published in the past and copy each one. The problem is getting these things up and running in the first place.
Bounty programs offering members rewards can combine extremely well with public communities. You have a lot of people enthusiastic about you (and your topic). You can set a challenge and offer them a reward.
With a former client, we offered $10 to any member who identified an error in the community after a migration had caused some issues. The speed and scale of response was fantastic.
You can easily expand upon this to your main site too. You can set a bounty and challenge members to identify any errors on product pages, in the customer experience, or even tiny things like SEO optimisation (most communities include a few tech-heads).
A few tips for making this work.
1) You need a central system for members to ‘file’ the issues they see. Otherwise, several members might report the same issue. Whoever files the issue first gets the credit. It helps if members can see which issues have been identified already.
2) You need to review and approach each of these quickly and easily. Ensuring consistency of approving issues is the real challenge.
3) You need to cap the limit any member can earn in a month. This should never become a substitute for employment for any participant in the program.
4) You need to be clear about what counts as an ‘individual’ bug. For example, if a website isn’t set up correctly, the same problem might show up on thousands of pages. That’s one issue, not thousands of issues.
5) Trial this in one area first. Target one small area of your community or invite only a select group of people to participate. Make sure there’s no problem in paying members, you have a system that works, and overcome any early challenges before expanding to the entire community.
This happens most often when you’re launching (or reviving) a community for a topic in which the community manager isn’t an expert.
Some things help:
- Attend half a dozen meetups (or online webinars) for the topic and see what questions people are asking (and which answers people give)
- Run a survey and find out what problems your audience faces.
- Read the trade press and see which discussions are coming up most often.
- Ask your customer support team what questions they’re getting every day.
- Look at the trends happening in related sectors and ask if it might too happen in yours.
- Send emails out to a dozen known figures in the field, explain what you’re trying to do, and ask what questions they come across most often.
- Follow the topic on social media and see which questions people are asking.
If you can’t build a list of 50 questions quite quickly, repeat all the steps above until you can.
There are many reasons why launching a community in a field in which you’re not an expert can be difficult, a lack of questions to ask shouldn’t be one of them.
In theory, member directories are fantastic.
Members can search and network with members who match a specific criteria – like being in their location or possessing unique skills and experiences. Members can find precisely the people who can help them.
In practice, member directories rarely function well. Even when they do, they’re rarely used. How often have you genuinely tried to find people matching a particular skill set or location? And when they are used, they’re mostly used by spammers and recruiters (which in turn lead to those with expertise hiding their expertise from directories).
As strange as it might sound in this day and age, asking around still yields better outcomes than a directory. Fortunately, within a community, reputations naturally develop and spread. It turns out asking around is exactly something a community supports well.
Don’t base your technology decisions on whether a platform does or doesn’t offer a member directory. If you build your community right, you’ll have a natural directory anyhow.
Take a second to think about what the purpose of members profiles in your community (really) is before making further decisions about what should appear on it.
The best profiles tend to support one of three needs:
- They let members find their recent activity. Members use profiles to find a list of the recent discussions they’ve participated in and keep track of responses. It’s easy for members to visit their profiles and check in on past discussions and content they’ve shared.
- They let members show off their achievements. Members use profiles to highlight the equipment they’ve used, tools they use, events they’ve attended, awards they’ve earned, status they’ve gained etc… StackOverflow is a good example of this.
- They let members create and show an identity. Members can customise profiles to suit their needs. This is often better for younger or more creative audiences. Members can create unique avatars, change the colors, update the design etc…
If members don’t have a pressing need for any of the above, you probably don’t need to spend too much time on them.
If you ask members if they want something, the answer will usually be ‘yes’.
Why would they say no? There’s no downside.
This is why the best questions also present a downside or, at least, a contrast.
For example, if you ask members if they want a private community, they will usually say yes. Privacy sounds good and there’s no downside.
But if you ask questions like:
- Would you like your posts to be read by 5 people you know and trust or 500 people who might be helped by your responses?
- Do you want this to be a small close-knit group of peers for intimate discussions or a larger group to build connections and gain diverse perspectives?
…you get more valuable results.
Likewise, if you ask members if you should add a new feature or category, they will usually say yes. Again, there’s no downside. But if you ask questions like:
- Approximately how many questions within [proposed category] have you had in the past month?
- How frequently have you needed to use [proposed feature] in the last month?
- Which topic do you feel isn’t properly addressed by our current categories today?
….again, you get more useful results.
Presenting an option without a downside isn’t research, it’s confirmation bias. Asking members to choose between competing priorities will yield far better outcomes.
In short, mixing stronger benefits with weaker benefits dilutes the overall argument.
For example, compare the following two statements:
This community is an exclusive place where you can learn and share best practices with the top experts in the industry.
This community is an exclusive place where you can learn and share best practices with the best experts in the industry. All members also get a free SWAG box and a $10 Amazon gift card.
This is an extreme example, but you get the idea. Even though the latter statement offers more, the former statement is more persuasive.
This applies to any message you send to persuade any members to do anything. When you mix weaker benefits with stronger benefits, it dilutes the stronger benefits.
Consider this when you promote your community, try to recruit superusers, host events, or send any communication to members. Figure out what members really need and lead with it.
While undertaking around a dozen interviews for an upcoming client community, the community manager and I noticed two conflicting desires.
The first was to have a community where they could engage only with people at an advanced, but not too advanced, level within the community.
Prospective members wanted to engage with peers who were in the trenches ‘doing the work’ but had also achieved a senior role within their organisations. This meant we would have to know and approve members to join the community.
The second was a fear of ‘saying the wrong thing’ or saying something which could be interpreted negatively by regulatory bodies or by their peers. Members clearly wanted to discuss and share information, but they didn’t want their names attached to anything.
The final community concept we designed was private (i.e. we would invite and approve members individually to be sure we got the audience we wanted) but pseudonymous (i.e. we would ask members not to use their real names).
The upside is they can share more openly and freely without having to be concerned for how they’re perceived. The major downside of this is members don’t gain a reputational benefit from their contributions.
So far it seems to be working extraordinarily well.
As time goes on, I suspect we will see more private, pseudonymous, groups for peers to discuss highly technical matters with one another. The pseudonymous nature might even become a big appeal of many communities.
Last week, Microsoft hosted one of the best community presentations I’ve seen.
The presentation covers the growth of the Microsoft Answers community, shares how the community suffered a budget cut but increased satisfaction, and covers some of the most innovative approaches to ensuring high response rates and tackling translation challenges I’ve seen in a while.
Everyone managing a support community should watch this (hint: skip the first 7 minutes)
And yes it’s hosted on LinkedIn because, well, it’s Microsoft.
Everyone is data-driven until they see data they don’t like.
Then they seek (and inevitably find) flaws in the data.
Sure, they’re “just being thorough”. But they weren’t anywhere near as thorough when they like the data.
Two examples spring to mind.
Example One: What Members Really Want
The first is what members want. I’ve undertaken over a hundred client surveys over the past decade. The results usually show a variation of the following.
Asking useful questions and getting useful answers are at the top, feeling a sense of belonging and making friends ranks at the bottom.
Put simply, the overwhelming majority of people visiting a brand community today aren’t interested in making friends or feeling a sense of belonging with others.
That might sound unsettling given the nature of community work, but it’s where the data naturally leads (p.s. Emotional support/belonging is just one value a community provides).
Example Two: What activities have an impact
The second area where people ignore data is measuring which activities they’re engaging in have an impact.
For example, if you stop doing a lot of the tasks you’re doing today, do members notice (not just the noisy few, but the majority).
If we look at this slide from an upcoming case study, we can see that when we removed the tasks which were taking up 60% of the community manager’s time, it had almost no impact upon the number of visitors or the satisfaction of members.
This freed up time to focus on the areas which our surveys and data results indicated would have a big impact. These areas were in major resources, the superuser program, better navigation, and more access to engineers.
Being Data-Driven Means Accepting Data You Really Dislike
If you dismiss data you dislike (or don’t collect data you might dislike), you’re neither data-driven nor acting in the best interests in the community.
There is a goldmine of valuable insights in your data which can direct you to what to work on and what members care most about.
The key is taking the steps to gather the data and accepting the data you find (especially when it contradicts your beliefs).
Brand communities often fall into two categories; first resort or last resort.
1) First resort. They’re the first place members go to ask questions and get help. When members have an issue they are taught (or learn) to visit the community first. If the community can’t help, then they call support/file a ticket etc….In this scenario, support handles the difficult cases which might involve private data or are so rare no-one else has a solution.
2) Last resort. They’re the place of last resort for members to go and get help. If customer support didn’t resolve the issue and they can’t find the answer through any other channel, the community is the final destination where customers can try to seek help from others. This often crops up if a customer is ‘out of warranty’.
Both options are fine, but it’s good to be clear about which role your community is fulfilling.
If your community is the place of first resort, then your goal is to reduce the effort and speed to first response. Your community is usually tackling easier questions asked multiple times in different ways. You need superusers who are enthusiastic who you can train and nudge in just the right way. A great search experience is also important and you need the community to appear in places where people might usually contact support.
If your community is the place of last resort, you often need the involvement of customer support agents and to offer stronger rewards for the handful of experts who might have the ability to answer the more difficult questions. You have to focus on the satisfaction and resolution rate more than the speed and effort of asking questions. You can also expect members to be a lot grouchier.
Which type of community is yours?