Last week, I listened to two people argue about which platform they should use to build their community.
Should they use Slack or Discord?
Today, most of their audience is on Slack. Tomorrow it might be Discord…at least for a while. Within 18 to 36 months, it will be something else.
Chasing after your audience from one platform to the next is an expensive, wasteful, approach to community building. A far better approach is to invest those same resources in building a strong sense of community.
If your audience feels a strong sense of community with one another, it doesn’t matter what platform they use. That sense of community follows them wherever they go.
But building this strong sense of community requires investments in intangible areas. You can make this tangible by running the sense of community survey first and designing specific actions (see the worksheet) to improve the sense of community.
This might include:
1) Provide funding to leaders. You might copy Wikimedia and provide resources for leaders to step forward and create their own groups or run their own events. You would help train them, give them unique access, fly them in to meet your team, and promote the groups they create. If you’ve built strong relationships with leaders, it doesn’t matter if one of them moves a chunk of your audience from one platform to another.
2) Bring the community to customers. You would bring the community into the natural journey customers go through when using a product. ‘Have a question? Want to get better? Here is our community who can help…’. You would entwine the community(ies) as closely as possible with the product. Updated links to relevant discussion topics embedded within its use would help.
3) Design rituals. After a member has made a certain number of contributions, they would be invited to give their feedback, share their toughest challenge, or how they got into the topic. Something which opens members up to the group. You may consider special features for members on their anniversary of using the product.
4) Develop a unique identity. You would give community members a unique name and a place which documents the history of the community. Who were the top members, how did they get started, what were the major milestones of the group? This would be shared and communicated to all new customers.
5) Have a newspaper. Each week you would publish the community newspaper, edited by members, featuring the best contributions from the community. This might include the best advice, funniest stories, or anything else which could be interesting to the group. This would cover communities across all platforms, including those that aren’t involved with you at all. Let everyone pitch their ideas and stories to the group. This newsletter helps build and establish the social hierarchy within the group.
6) Host and promote events. Three types of events can work well. The first are events you host just for your top members. Spotify’s Rock Star Jam is a good example. This builds close relationships between anyone building any kind of community for your brand. The second are member-hosted meetups. Provide some limited funding (perhaps $100 per meetup for food/drinks) and plenty of local promotion for any member who wants to host meetups with others. The third is big conferences. If you have a big audience, it may be worth bringing them together once a year. These build strong relationships between members.
7) Gather and identify useful feedback through any channel. Scan all social and community channels run by members for any useful feedback you can send on. Answer questions in these communities and let them know how their feedback has been used.
8) Setting clear goals and targets for members. You can set goals for the community to achieve. Better yet, get members to list their skills, knowledge, and experience. Then find ways for them to contribute these things to the community.
This is a handful of ideas rather than an exhaustive list. The point is investing in the channels above will give you a community which outlives the demise of any single platform.
If you’re doing your job well, you should see the sense of community felt among regular customers (remember to skip the newcomers) steadily improve over time. This is the tangible success of your work. People move platforms a lot more frequently than they feel a sense of community.
It’s never a good idea to try and contain members in one place, nor chase after them from one platform to the next. That’s expensive and wasteful. You can gain better results from building a strong sense of community among members regardless of which platform they use.
Hosting and managing a community platform can help you achieve your goals, but nowhere near as much as fostering a powerful sense of community.
The engagement trap is very real, it’s very dangerous, and most of us are caught in it.
But engagement itself isn’t bad. The problem is when:
a) You align your efforts to drive the most engagement.
b) Engagement is all your colleagues understand about building community.
In a perfect world, you would ignore engagement metrics entirely and focus on the outcomes of this engagement (i.e. if engagement drives more loyalty, satisfaction, leads, search traffic etc…you would measure those things instead of engagement).
But often you can’t easily do this.
Sometimes you can’t get the data you need. Other times, no-one seems clear what the goal of the community should be. And, most often, someone senior just wants to have a big active community at the moment for a reason even they struggle to explain.
You can push back a little, but pushing too hard to be measured by outcomes can create more value than it solves.
This happens often in our consultancy work too. The solution is to build your boss/client’s wishes into a longer-term strategic roadmap for your community.
If everyone understands driving engagement is part of a stepping stone to driving clear results, you can avoid the engagement trap.
In practice, this usually means you create a 6 to a 24-month roadmap with goals to hit such as:
- Months 0 to 6: Reach a critical mass of activity
- Months 6 to 12: Drive up engagement.
- Months 12 to 24: Align members behaviors to most valuable actions.
Each of these will also need its own strategic plan.
Now you have engagement as part of a longer-term process to driving results. You know exactly how much engagement you need to move to the next phase. Better yet, everyone can get on board and track progress.
Chasing engagement or chasing value doesn’t have to be two mutually exclusive options.
Don’t try to imitate major community programs without their resources.
Ideally, every community effort would have a full-time community manager with a six-figure budget to build and support their audience.
However, most people are juggling community around other tasks with limited financial support.
The temptation is to launch a platform, drive members to it, and start responding to questions. But without a decent amount of time and money, this probably isn’t the most effective approach. It sets high expectations, spreads resources thin, and requires a big, long-term, commitment.
An easier approach is to deliver a powerful community experience at regular intervals.
Instead of having an ongoing community you can’t fully support, focus on powerful community experiences you can deliver.
You can nurture a sense of community in many different ways:
- You can host monthly webinars with product experts where customers can join to ask questions.
- You can invite customers to join you at headquarters a couple of times a year.
- You can host weekly live twitter chats.
- You can solicit contributions of customers each month and publish the best advice and tips in a newsletter digest.
- You can create a podcast and invite contributions from members. You can encourage and promote the meetups of your members.
A hosted platform is just one of many approaches to foster a strong sense of community. It can deliver great results, but it’s both time and resource-intensive. If you have neither, take a different approach.
It’s always better to deliver a powerful community experience for a short amount of time than a mediocre experience for a long period of time. It’s easy to build upon a powerful community experience than a mediocre one.
It’s hard to work in an industry without a clear roadmap for what you should be doing.
It’s quite likely you’re unsure how to benchmark how well you’re doing today or figure out what you should be working on next.
Even many of the community managers behind the web’s largest and most successful communities aren’t sure what they should be working on next. For example:
Should you move to a new platform?
Should you build subgroups for connecting members?
Should you find ways to integrate the community with the product?
In this post, we’re going to try an answer most of these problems by sharing an updated community template with reference points to guide your actions.
This post will hopefully help you figure out where you are now, what you need to do next, and avoid most of the common mistakes.
Benchmarks For Your Online Community
It’s common to find community managers toiling away developing a premium platform or a complex MVP program without having enough members to use it or plenty of questions to answer.
This ends up being a distraction. You should only be working on the activities which take you to the next stage of the community lifecycle.
It’s really easy to plot a path forward when you know where you are now.
This means benchmarking your community against others and general principles of growth and development. To accomplish this, you can use the updated community lifecycle below:
In each category of the lifecycle (on the left), you can identify approximately where you are now and what to work on next.
It’s not an exact science (and you’re probably going to be further along the lifecycle in some areas than others) but it’s a broad guide to help you develop your next steps.
For example, a client of ours is at the stage below:
Now this gives us a broad idea of what to work on next. You generally don’t want to be too far ahead or behind your current average in any single category.
We want to focus on the highest priority areas first to move everything into the maturity stage. Then we might work on advancing further. This would mean (by approximate order of priority):
- Add a simple gamification and reward system for great contributions.
- Develop an MVP program for top community members.
- Create content to satisfy likely search queries for the topic.
- Better categorize the best community content to be easy to browse.
- Aligning the community website copy to solve existing problems/seize new opportunities.
- Build a system for members to vote/rate the best content.
- Ensuring the community is better featured on the main company site.
- Driving specific promotional activities.
- Securing additional funding for the community team.
- Develop specific metrics to measure health and success.
- Building a data-driven framework for making engagement decisions.
- Improve the community newcomer spaces.
You wouldn’t try to tackle all of these at once, there could be 6 to 12 months of work here. But you would want to build a roadmap to tackle the first 3 to 6 tasks over the next few months.
You need to balance everything out and make consistent, steady, progress.
Avoiding The Biggest Mistakes When Developing A Community
1) Understanding the influence of the curve.
The curve is the absolute number of new members who join the community.
Under normal conditions, you start slow, gradually speed up, hit a peak, and then reach a maintenance level where you have a consistent number of new members which reflects the topic itself.
Be very aware here the total size of the audience and broader interest in the topic will have a bigger impact upon the community’s growth and development than any activity you undertake.
This is usually beyond your control. Your rate of new members will look more like a hockey stick if the popularity of the topic is exploding. Likewise, if you’re a private community, the rate of new members will probably flatline much earlier without a peak.
2) Critical Metrics
The number of active members, newcomers, and traffic above is a simple mean from studies of a few hundred communities. The standard deviation is extremely high however, so treat these as a rough guide rather than fixed rules.
If you’re looking to benchmark and track success, this is a simple way of doing it. Some organizations with million of customers should easily surpass this.
As you grow, you should have a rising number of active contributors, single posters, and visitors. Visitors tends to be 100x of the active members. If you run a private/closed community, these metrics will be completely different.
Avoid setting metrics over which you have no control. Notice how slowly growth happens in the early stages of the community and plan for it.
With a few exceptions for customer support communities, you should begin with a simple platform that is already a habit for your target audience and try to drive activity there. This will usually mean a mailing list, slack, or (more likely today) Facebook groups.
As you grow, you might move to a hosted, licensed, community platform. This is largely to take advantage of lurkers who will want to find the useful information from your community and a handful of other unique features.
Some of the largest organizations also tend to develop their own bespoke platform to satisfy unique needs, but this comes after several years of work. Try to avoid using a premium platform or bespoke platform until you have a huge base of members eager to use it.
4) Strategy/Business Integration
You begin with a simple pilot program to validate the research you undertook in the concept stage. If that works, then you develop a complete strategic plan and start building more support for the community. Over time you should align the community to multiple benefits within the organization.
Eventually you become more specific about the ROI metrics, proving clear value, and becoming a community-first organization. This means seeking community support for initiatives and ideas before announcing them elsewhere.
For example, imagine you want to get a strategy approved by multiple stakeholders. You need to spend more time building relationships, understanding their needs, and adapting the strategy to ensure they feel they’ve had some control over the process.
Remember that building support will take a lot of time. Don’t try to force the community upon people. Instead figure out what your colleagues need and align the community to help. This is the simple secret to getting the support you want.
5) Growth Channels
The common mistake is to do a mass promotion of the community to the entire mailing list before validating the concept.
You don’t want the majority of your potential audience to see the community until it’s a fantastic hub of activity. This means initially you work from direct invites and biggest fans then expand gradually.
If you don’t have an existing audience, you can usually aim to attract members via paid social ads at around $1 per visit and up to $10 to $15 per conversion into a registered member.
Once the community has taken off, you want to ensure better placement for referral traffic, develop content and activities for search traffic, and try to drive word of mouth from existing members. Just don’t promote the community too widely, too soon.
6) Why New Members Join And Initially Participate
This changes over time. With the exception of customer support communities, people usually join to be part of something unique, different, and exclusive. They have a strong connection to the founder(s) and comprise the most hardcore fans or customers.
Over time this shifts as the community jumps from the most topic enthusiasts to those who have problems they want solved or want to be better within the field. This group requires more instant gratification to their problems.
The most common mistake here is to use copy in your touchpoints which doesn’t match what members need. For example, promoting the size or success of a community to members still seeking something unique, special, and exclusive. The second biggest mistake is never changing or adapting the copy as the community develops.
Eventually, most of the newcomers to the community will inevitably be newcomers to the field as well. This means you need to adjust the copy and content people see when they first visit your community to match.
The process for turning newcomers into active participants also shifts over time.
You might begin by @mentioning every member to the community as a personal welcome. But this doesn’t scale well (and it’s too effective). You gradually develop automated systems for converting members with welcome emails, an automation series, and volunteers.
You might also figure out a system to give newcomers unique roles and responsibilities within the community.
Avoid trying to develop advanced systems too early. In the early stages you can manually welcome every member. But beyond a certain scale this feels impersonal (e.g. mass welcomes) or simply doesn’t work. Make sure you slowly adapt your systems to do this automatically.
8) Visitors (lurkers)
Most people don’t do anywhere near enough to support the lurkers to their community. Most of the time, lurkers are restricted to browsing the latest posts or using the search box to find the information they want.
You need to build systems to highlight the best content for your members. This begins with editor’s picks and eventually goes one level further to create content that members can search for. You need to make sure this content is properly tagged and categorized so other members can quickly find it.
At the more mature level, you need to have accepted solutions, a knowledge-base, and a system for regularly updated old content to keep it fresh. Rating systems are also useful here.
9) Top Contributors
Don’t start jumping into your perfectly designed MVP system until you have a highly active, mature, community. Start by getting to know your top members and building good relationships with them.
Over time, you want to have them interact with each other and solicit their ideas and feedback on community content and activities.
Once you have a good group of top members, you might want to build an incentive program with gamification and unique privileges.
This is probably the most variable part of the process. But, generally, you can expect the inception stage to take up to 3 months.
If it takes longer, you probably need to rethink the concept. The establishment stage will usually last 3 to 9 months (in total) – this largely depends on developing diversified sources of growth.
The maturity stages and beyond may take a few years.
Steady, Monthly, Improvement
There is rarely a silver bullet that will change anything. The successful communities on the web today were the result of steady, monthly improvement, with community managers tackling the next thing on the list.
When you begin working tomorrow, or move to a new job, benchmark where the community is now using this resource and design your plan of action to steadily improve the community. It isn’t easy work, but it’s exactly what you’ve been hired to do.
Most of us believe we need thousands, maybe millions, of members to have a really valuable community.
Even those that don’t dream of making their community bigger and having more active members.
This is usually because we believe three things:
- More members makes the community better.
- Getting more members is a good use of time/resources.
- Getting more members improves the value of the community.
There is a grain of truth here. If you’re just getting your community started, you definitely want to grow quickly to reach critical mass.
But once you’ve reached critical mass, adding more members doesn’t help you build a million dollar community. What does help is getting the best out of the members you do have.
In this post, I’m going to outline how many active contributors you should aim for, what a typical breakdown of a community looks like and the numbers that go into creating a million-dollar community.
Most Brand Communities Have Far Fewer Members Than You Imagine
Two years ago, we began to suspect most branded communities had far fewer active contributors than we believed.
So we scraped a random sample of communities from Lithium below and analyzed the results (shown below).
It’s possible our scrape missed a lot of data (and there is plenty of activity behind closed doors). However, we broadly discovered most communities have between 51 to 389 active contributors at any one time.
But is Lithium reflective of most communities?
In the past year, we’ve worked with Community-Analytics and two academics to collect data from around 200 communities hosted on Discourse. The communities were broken down by size (no. messages) and the results are shown below.
Again, the number of active contributors varies wildly, but there is a clear trend within the 50 to 400 region.
Most branded communities really don’t have that many members.
Unless you’re an outlier (work for a brand with a massive audience, using a totally different platform, or have a really explosive idea), then you’re not going to get more than a few hundred active contributors during any given month.
This gives you some reasonable benchmarks to aim for:
- Bad = <100 – bad (unless you’re just starting out)
- OK = 100 to 200 active contributors
- Good = 200 to 400 active contributors
- Great = >400 active contributors
(of course, if you feel your community is an outlier, set outlier goals. Just be clear about why your community is an outlier).
But how valuable can a brand community be with just a few hundred active contributors? Extremely.
How Can A Community Be Indispensable With Only A Few Hundred Active Members?
This is a lot like asking how your customer call center or marketing team can be valuable with only a few dozen staff members.
It’s not the size of active members, it’s the multiplication of their contributions which matters.
For most benefits of a community, innovation, call deflection, customer success/support, you really don’t need that many active members. Instead, you need members to do valuable things which are seen by a far bigger audience.
But not all active members are equal. If we break-down participation habits and tenure of members within a community, we get the data we see below (from 139 Discourse communities):
I’d interpret this as community contributors tending to fall within three buckets:
- Single Posters. The single-poster group (typically people who have a question they need to be resolved), comprise around 43% of membership. They ask a question and then leave when they have an answer.
- The Irregulars. This is the 2 to 4% of contributors who stick around to either ask one or two more questions or answer a question. The community isn’t a habit and they tend to come and go sporadically.
- The 90+ Day Group (Top Contributors). This is the 16% of members whom have stuck around for 3+ months and tend to contribute most of the responses/replies to a community.
Pay careful attention to that 16% figure there. It means most of the value in branded communities is driven by only a few dozen (active contribs * 0.16) regular members.
That’s it….just a few dozen.
This might be the community equivalent of 1000 true fans. These few dozen are the critical group.
It really doesn’t matter how many active members you have, it matters how many true believers you have.
It ultimately matters how many people you have on the far right side on the member motivation model below:
I’ve seen plenty of communities struggling to succeed with a few hundred active members. The reason is simple, they don’t have any truly committed members creating real value. They just have irregulars and single-posters.
This is so important to understand. Almost all the truly valuable contributions to a community are coming from just a tiny group of active members.
This is the group you need to nurture through the motivation model above.
However this comes with the big caveat. These contributions only matter if you have a lot of people willing to read them.
The Lurker Multiplier
Lurkers multiply the value of your top members.
A single member might write a single post answering someone’s question, but if 10,000 people read it, it might deflect 10,000 calls.
It’s far better to have 100 members creating content read by 10,000 lurkers, than 10,000 members creating content read by 100 lurkers.
There isn’t much hard data on the number of lurkers most communities have. The client data we have varies between 99.80% and 95% of all visitors to the community. I wouldn’t be surprised if it stretched way beyond that for the larger communities too.
This is also heavily influenced by community type (esp. customer support) and community age (older = more lurkers). The bigger and older you are, the greater the imbalance of lurkers.
Let’s imagine you have a reasonable 1% ratio (99% of lurkers for every active member).
The median brand community will have around 162 monthly active contributors and 16,200 visitors.
This might not sound like much, but let’s start breaking down how valuable a community like this might be:
Imagine those 16,200 lurkers find the answer to their problem and don’t need to call customer service. At $3 to $5 per call that’s a cost saving of $48k to $81k per month ($576,000 to $972,000 per year).
Imagine just 5% of this group become customers. For a typical SaaS company with a $100 per month subscription, this could again be $81k per month ($972k per year)
Imagine if this 5% of these visitors become customers as a result of the community, again, we’re looking at $972k per year.
Imagine if you advertise jobs in the community and save $10k in headhunting costs per recruit or save $15k on every focus group project you used to run.
These aren’t fanciful made up numbers. They’re very real and very possible metrics that explain why just a tiny group of top contributors creating content read by a standard group of lurkers can be so valuable. But we haven’t even gotten to the big win yet.
The Big Win
As you grow, you want to align the community to achieve multiple goals.
You might begin with customer support and then also include feedback, lead generation, recruitment etc…
Now a community can quickly go from driving up to a million dollars return into several million dollars. All of it generated by just a core group of a few dozen active members.
You wouldn’t really need to think about trying to get as many members as possible, if your members are providing as much value as possible.
This is the incredible value that a seemingly small community with just a few dozen active contributors can provide to an organization. This is what makes a community the most cost-efficient way to achieve goals. It’s what turns a small community into an indispensable asset.
Putting It All Together
Ok, let’s put this all together into some key benchmarks and core principles:
1) Hit the upper quartile range for brand communities. This would be 163+ active contributors per month, 26+ regular members, and 16,300+ visitors. By all means keep optimizing search results, building partnerships, inviting people to join, and encouraging members to share material until you hit that number. Use the motivation model above to keep members active. Don’t let anyone bully you into trying to be Reddit.
2) Nurture your top contributors. Build strong relationships with each of them, connect them into their own tribe, deploy a super-user program, and guide them to make the best type of contribution they can make. This group needs to be as respected, connected, and as valuable as they possibly can.
3) Multiply the value of top contributors. This is the overlooked part. Make sure the best content is really easy to find. Drive a lot of traffic to it. You should see your visitor numbers steadily growing. Then align your community to achieve multiple goals (call deflection, feedback, retention, recruitment etc…). This is where you can double and triple the value of every member.
When most people think of a successful community, they usually think of the mega-communities and the big social networking platforms like (Reddit, Facebook, LinkedIn etc…).
But if you were to plot branded communities on a bell curve, you would notice the mega-communities aren’t just rare, they’re outliers. They’re statistical anomalies which bear no resemblance to the work you will be doing.
Ignore the big fish and focus on getting the most out of the members you do have, not chasing the members you don’t have.
Building A World Class Community Management Team: A System for Benchmarking Online Community Skills And Abilities
Imagine you decided to move into sales and on your first day, someone handed you a list of the organization’s top customers and responsibility for the entire CRM system.
No training, no support, no roadmap.
This is pretty close to what happens in community management today. Most people are suddenly handed responsibility for building a community from an organization’s top customers on an advanced technology platform.
Often they have limited training, support, or a detailed roadmap.
At worst, it leads to empty ghost towns or pointless casinos (communities with lots of meaningless engagement).
The level of training given to community teams today is abysmal. It’s the root cause of most of the problems you and your team are facing.
It’s important to make continual progress of your community team a priority. Your team, your members, and your organizations deserve better the best. In this post, we’re going to highlight how to benchmark yourself and your current team.
We’re going to identify the skills they need and how you can set reasonable targets for each of them.
Benchmarking The Community Team
We sometimes receive emails asking if one of our courses is right for a participant.
This is a hard question to answer without knowing someone’s ability. Most people don’t know how good they are because they have no benchmarks to measure themselves against. They use the size of their community rather than their own abilities.
We benchmark community professionals along five attributes (adapted from our friends at the community roundtable). These are below:
1) Strategy. This is the ability to develop and execute a community strategy which deploys the organization’s limited resources to maximum impact.
2) Engagement. This is the ability to proactively engage, nurture top members, and build systems to improve the overall participation environment of the community.
3) Content. This is the ability to create original content and drive high-value contributions from other members.
4) Technical. This is the ability to select, implement, and optimize a community platform. This includes resolving technical problems and managing vendor relationships.
5) Business. This is the ability to build allies throughout the organization, measure value, run a community team, and gather more resources for the community.
We break each of these down by four distinct levels ranging from ok to world-class.
You should strive to gradually upgrade yourself and the community team to a world-class level in each of these areas.
This is subjective, but I recommend copying and adapting our benchmarking resource below.
Score each member of staff between 0 to 4 on each of the five attributes.
We’re going to break down each of these levels below:
1) Strategy (or strategic thinking)
When benchmarking someone’s strategic abilities, you want to track their journey from thinking strategically to having a codified and invaluable strategy everyone understands and supports. This increasingly relies on research, metrics, and project management skills.
Strategy is about allocating resources to have maximum impact. It’s not about trying to do as many things as possible, but deciding what’s worth doing and allocating maximum resources to ensure success.
Or, to use an analogy, it’s not about dividing resources evenly to fight every battle, but about deciding which battles are worth fighting (see this big wins talk).
The first level is to ensure all staff members are thinking strategically about how they spend their time. Are they constantly using available data to reviewing which activities they undertake are driving results and pursuing those which are most effective?
As your staff progress, you want them to be proactively researching what members want and using that data to improve the community. They should know how their tactics serve a strategy which serves an objective which serves a goal.
At the more advanced level, you want them to become great at segmenting members, ensuring members are making their most valuable contributions, establishing benchmarks, and pursuing reasonable community goals. The strategy should be internalized here throughout the entire community team with modeling of different inputs to achieve goals.
Engagement skills are the core abilities of the community team to create the perfect environment for every member to make their best possible contribution to the community.
This begins at the lower levels with being a terrific community member.
Do your community staff resolve and escalate problems well?
Can they remove the bad material quickly?
Do they build positive relationships with community members?
As they move up the chain, they should focus on building systems which build a powerful sense of community and nurture superusers among the group. They should get better at building and optimizing the journey which turns newcomers into regular, active, members.
At the highest levels, you and your team need to be able to improve the resolution rates, address legal/brand issues, and ensure all staff know how best to engage members in the community.
Content is one of the areas where everyone considers themselves an expert (aren’t you a great writer?). Content is essentially the ability to develop and facilitate the creation of valuable long-form educational or entertaining content across blogs, webinars, videos etc…
At the simpler levels, all members of your team should be able to synthesize great content from existing work and member contributions. This should be nicely designed and implemented across multiple platforms.
As you improve, you should be able to optimize web copy and improve conversion rates, increase search traffic, and build an editorial calendar. This requires reasonable copywriting and SEO abilities.
At the higher levels, your team should be able to ensure an editorial calendar is adhered to (surprisingly hard), develop automation campaigns, edit contributions of other members and persuade top experts to create great content for your community.
Finally, a great community professional should be able to commission ‘big win’ content projects (e.g. our platform selection tool) which goes far beyond a simple blog post or video. It brings in a unique, viral, idea to attract great search traffic, and has a unique design/development.
Far too many people in this field profess to ‘not being technical’. This isn’t good enough when your entire work depends upon being adept at managing a technology platform and what happens within it.
At the basic level, this requires knowing how the features of the platform work and being able to diagnose any potential problems which arise. Your staff should be able to learn this by testing things, experimenting in the community, and asking around in the vendor’s relevant communities.
Beyond this, you need your team to be able to resolve most issues independently, run SQL queries to get the data you need and make improvements to the structure and design of the community without help. This kind of knowledge is best gained through peer support.
As you reach the more advanced level, you want to know more about the platform environment, using data to improve the speed and functionality of the platform, and using the best features from any third party platforms to build the best community possible.
Finally, you want to be able to take responsibility for the entire vendor process and address legal/privacy/security issues which can arise.
Business skills are the link between the community and the organization. This is about you being able to make the community indispensable to the organization. This begins with knowing how the community is supposed to help the business and the resources available to develop that community.
As you get better, you should become more adept at acquiring more resources by building a strong internal narrative and persuasively winning over any skeptics and key stakeholders within the organization.
Finally, this evolves into being able to attract and retain world-class community talent, build career maps, and build a community-first culture among the organization. The very best people I know have a pipeline of people eager to work for them. This doesn’t happen by accident, it happens by doing what one friend calls ‘building pipe’, constantly showing up, making connections, and knowing what talent you’re looking out for.
Set A Target To Improve Every 3 To 6 Months
Now you have your benchmarks, you can begin to set reasonable targets of improvement for each member of your team.
A reasonable level of progress is an increase in 1 level (of 1 attribute ) every 2 to 3 months at the first two levels and usually 3 to 6 months at the upper levels.
This gives your team a clear focus and lets you build a roadmap of what you expect over 6 to 12 months. This, in turn, lets you identify what kind of support you need to provide the community team to help them reach each level.
Avenues for Progress
Courses aren’t the only method of improving your community team or improving your own abilities. There are multiple channels available here, each can work in different situations.
- Professional courses. I’d recommend our Strategic Community Management and Psychology of Community courses for strategy/engagement development.
- Books. Focus on specific topic areas, not pop. business books. This tends to be good for content skills and some marketing/growth abilities.
- Conferences. This is good for content/SEO skills, some engagement skills, and some highly focused areas. It’s good for building relationships which can help in other areas too.
- Blogs. These are fantastic for most areas, especially psychology, marketing, SEO, and analytics. Find the right expertise here.
- Peer communities. Both industry sites like CMX, Community Roundtable, FeverBee Experts, but also communities in each unique field like technology, journalism, copywriting, marketing, SEO etc…Encourage your team to identify problems, ask questions, and get help. Small peer groups of people working in similar communities is also a good idea.
- Mentoring and support. This covers both informal mentoring and professional options. This is best for business skills, strategy, and some technical expertise.
- Experimenting. Especially in technical (use a sandbox!) and some areas of engagement. You can run small trials to see what does or doesn’t work.
This is a process that never ends. The goal is to set benchmarks, track progress, and push for ongoing, non-stop, improvement from every member of the community team. Set a skills roadmap for every person you work with and compel both of you to review it every 3 months.
What do you notice about the following four communities?
….they all have terrible banners.
Most community banners today are doing more harm than good. They’re static monstrosities filling far too much real-estate with bland messaging trying to appeal to every member segment.
A banner is not a game-changer for any community, but it is a useful tool to drive the kind of behavior you need, help with the signal to noise problem, and set the tone for a community.
But banners come at a big cost, they push activity off the page. They make it harder for members to see who or what is new in the community. The bigger the banner, the greater the cost. Your banner comes at the direct expense of activity.
The Big Problems With Most Banners
The problem with banners comes in 5 areas. These are:
1) The design. Many community banners have curiously bad design. This often includes an ugly palette of colors, text that doesn’t contrast well with the background, or bland photoshopped images.
2) The size. Most are far too big and take up far too much space. You generally don’t want to push activity below the fold.
3) The contents. No-one really cares much about being ‘welcomed’ to the community. Online communities have been around a while, most people know they can ‘connect’, ‘share’, and ‘learn’ from each other in one. What makes your community unique/different/surprising?
4) Static. The same message is often shown in the community regardless of whether members have already read it 10,000 times. It’s rarely updated with new information and members can’t get rid of it even if they wanted to.
5) Same banners appear to everybody. Far too often, the same banner is shown to every visitor regardless if they’re arriving for the very first time or visiting for the 10,000th time.
There are some exceptions to these challenges. A customer support community, for example, should have a question box right at the top for all visitors to easily ask questions. However, even this should be regularly adjusted and augmented.
Most organizations easily have the budget to do a better job with the design of their community banners and avoid most of the common mistakes. These tend to fall within 3 categories.
1) Not using brand colours. Sometimes you want the community to have a unique brand, but generally you want to keep the colors relatively on brand. Try to avoid using a full palette of primary colors here.
2) Stock images of people. Stock images of people don’t tend to work well in brand banners. Use either a generic image (like Fico) or avoid using images entirely. You don’t need an image for a banner to work well.
3) Contrast. Make sure the text contrasts well with the background. If it doesn’t, either change the color of the text/background or add a layer behind with a degree of opacity behind it. You can use any text if you had a layer behind it. We do this on FeverBee experts too.
Getting The Size Right
This should be easy. A banner should be as short as possible. It should take up 30% of the page at best, 50% at the very worst.
Any more than that, and you might want to consider removing copy. As we can see in the examples below, you can often move a few features around to reduce the size of the copy.
The Spotify Community
The banner takes up a huge amount of space which could be easily tweaked for a better experience.
(notice how by pushing the metrics to a side box they have freed up a lot of space for the activity)
You might need more height than Alteryx, but you should be able to reduce the copy or contents of a banner until it fits to less than 50% of the page.
The Message And The Call To Action
This is by far the critical part of it. It’s inseparable from the message itself. What you don’t want is a bland “welcome to the community” banner which offers nothing.
The right messaging and call to action may include:
- Headline personifying what makes the community special (this is usually critical)
- Clear next steps to take.
- A search box (vital for customer support communities).
- Trending topics
- Most popular topics/questions
- Registration/login information.
- Videos/multimedia messaging.
- Community Statistics (although these can usually be avoided)
The messaging and calls to action you use should depend largely upon who the audience is trying to reach and what you want them to do.
This will depend upon the type of community you’re trying to build as well. Trending topics works well for fields where there are new, major, issues. Registration/login works well for visitors. Videos/multimedia messaging works well when there are major announcements that you can frequently update. Search boxes work well for customer support communities etc…
Static/Never Changing Banners
With few exceptions, a banner which is static and rarely changes is never a good sign. There are two good solutions to this.
1) Regularly update the banner with new, useful, information. This means with new content/activity that members need to see. This works well when you make frequent new announcements and there are new things to see.
2) Let members hide the banner. One common problem is members can’t get rid of the banner even if they wanted to. This doesn’t make much sense. If members have read/seen the message, you may want to let them hide it.
Both are reasonable options. You can also update the banner based upon a member’s previous contributions to the community.
Once you’ve read it, you can click ‘got it’ and the banner is hidden. You can expand it later if you need to.
You can use a banner to make regular, big, announcements. But try not to make them quit this big.
Showing the same banner to everybody
It make no sense to show the same banner to your first-time visitors, your newly registered members and your top community members.
The most common solution to this is to create two separate banners for members who are logged in from those who aren’t. The former focuses on activity, the latter focuses on signing up.
An even better solution is to use conditional logic to guide members to the next action they should take based upon their previous contribution to the community.
We’ve been exploring this below in our community.
If you’re running a community, you probably should have a banner. The banner though has to drive real value.
It has to be well designed, not take up too much space, have a clear call(s) to action, allow members to hide it, and be updated frequently.
Don’t let the banner be an afterthought, it takes up the community’s most valuable real-estate.
Autodesk has one of the oldest and most successful brand communities in the world.
If Apple and Airbnb showed how the largest brands run their communities (and StackOverflow showed what’s possible with a fully customized platform), Autodesk represents what’s possible with the tools most organizations have available today.
The community began as user groups on bulletin boards in the mid-90s. For a time Autodesk, sent their website visitors to separate user groups. In the early 00s, Autodesk reclaimed the communities on their own site and have steadily grown membership and activities ever since.
Structure of Autodesk’s Communities
Pay careful attention to how Autodesk has structured its community efforts.
Instead of trying to have a single community perform multiple functions, Autodesk has multiple communities performing (largely) single functions.
The communities are divided into the following categories (with some overlaps):
- Product communities. These are largely communities for peers to share ideas and help each other get better at the topic.
- Support communities. These are communities for people to solve their product-related frustrations.
- Ideation communities. These are for customer feedback, testing new products, and suggesting ideas.
- Peer group communities. Autodesk has communities for its University program, a developer network, and the MVP/experts program.
- Social media platforms. This includes a large collection of blogs and social media accounts.
- Multiple languages. Autodesk has distinct communities which cover Chinese, French, Turkish, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian.
The structure of a community program changes everything. Autodesk structures communities by their unique purpose, audience segments, and functions. The benefit of this is each community can use software and have a design fully suited to achieving its goals. This ensures Autodesk gets the maximum value from its community.
The downside is Autodesk might end up having multiple communities competing for the same group of members. This can be overwhelming to members and strangle activity for some groups.
- Key Lesson 1 : Mature communities shouldn’t focus on a single stream of value, they should support multiple areas of the business.
- Key Lesson 2 : As you grow, you want to fragment the community by unique purpose of the community (not by the unique groups you’re working with).
The multiple community structure allows Autodesk to create multiple homepages. Each homepage can be designed for its specific communities. In practice, these homepages fall within three categories.
1) Product Support Homepage
Most Autodesk communities are support communities. These are all mostly in the same format as shown below:
Key Lessons From The Homepage(s)
- The homepage is designed to encourage members to browse to a specific forum before asking a question. The search box and ‘new post’ option are moved to the side and not given the priority they usually are in support communities. This is generally against best practice. Most people in a support community don’t want to browse a forum, they want to either search for an answer or ask a question.
- Showing popular solutions and common issues is terrific for dealing with questions which are asked most frequently and questions which are new/trending right now (as happens often after a new product update). Many members won’t know the precise words to use in their question, but seeing the obvious answers helps. It might be good to extend this a little further.
- Getting started, tutorials, and troubleshooting are all displayed in about the right place. These help members solve common problems and use the community better.
- At the bottom is the Autodesk Expert Elite members. This is a simple and effective way to highlight best members. Some communities put this group at the top, this is a mistake, being featured on a website has as minimal impact upon participation.
- The right-hand side shows the basic product download and installation tips. This is a handy feature. It helps more members solve their problem before asking a question.
2) The Ideas/Inspiration Homepage
The product-communities (in practice, education communities) are designed to showcase the best work of members using its products. These are often visual and encourage members to upload their work.
- The product communities are designed differently to allow members to showcase what they have been doing and share proactive advice. These are generally set up to allow members to share what they have created rather than asking questions about how to create things. The goal in most non-support communities is to help the best material rise to the top.
- The gallery at the top is ideal if the product/service itself is visual. It’s also kept minimal so visitors can see other activity as well.
- Showing the most popular forums makes sense in these communities. You want members to browse and be inspired. They’re not looking for anything specific. They want to be there. You could equally show the latest or most popular discussions here.
- The latest blog posts widget is also useful here, but it has to be kept up to date with fresh content. Autodesk achieves this well.
- The latest events probably belongs as a side widget and not on the homepage itself, people can see it but only a small percentage of the audience will ever be able to attend.
- The other useful feature would be a reddit-style list of the most popular discussions or articles shared within the community. This happens on the Instructables site. This helps the best content rise to the top and makes it much easier for members to browse articles.
3) International Communities
It’s never easy figuring out the best way to structure international communities. Do you use conditional logic based upon someone’s IP address to guide them to a specific location? Let members highlight what language they speak and then adjust it? Or give people a list to choose from.
Autodesk (below) takes the simplest route and shows all the international communities in a single list. This is usually a good idea and removes a lot of fiddly technical issues.
REGISTRATION AND ONBOARDING
Autodesk has a reputation for having an award-winning registration and onboarding system. In 2013 the entire platform was revamped. This led to a revised onboarding system.
1) The Registration Process
The on-site registration process is clean and easy enough. You begin with a simple profile completion form with some conditional logic and a password prompt.
Once completed, you’re invited to fill in some member registration data.
- This is a considerable amount of information. However, it’s not required. You can skip the entire stage. You’re asked to use your real name, but it’s not required. The interface is clean, photo upload works well, and it’s clear what will be shown in your public profile.
- Once this is complete, you’re dropped into your profile page. This section is a little disappointing. There isn’t really much guidance from this point for what to do next. Dropping members into a new member area would be better.
- Verifying the email is kept clean and simple, with a direct URL to use if the button fails.
- Once complete, you’re again taken to a separate page and dropped into the profile page. This misses the same opportunity to drop people into something specific.
- You also receive a message (with a username chosen for you((?)) which highlights your new profile rank. This feels a little confusing and unnecessary at this stage for a new member. Far better to use this to get members to do something specific.
2) The Welcome Email
The Autodesk Welcome email (download the PDF) is the beginning of a 3-part series to engage people within the community. The first email invites members to:
- Introduce yourself.
- Check out the community etiquette
- Search for existing solutions
- Create and participate in discussions.
The translations into multiple languages is a neat touch.
The email is clean. It might be worth pushing the community etiquette lower and moving up creating and participating in existing discussions to engage people immediately within a discussion.
Ensuring it’s easy to ask questions and participate in the community is the critical feature of a community platform. Autodesk’s community ticks most of the right boxes here.
Asking a question
- Autodesk passes the test of ensuring responses to previous questions appear when you begin searching for an answer. It’s also notable accepted solutions appear higher than questions without a solution (Apple!).
- Asking a question is well executed here. The product and board are automatically selected. There is a very quick line of advice to ensure people ask a good question (this could benefit to a link/drop-down). The introduction of a screencast is a terrific touch. Encouraging members to add screenshots and videos is a really great idea. The only possible improvement is automatically suggesting some relevant tags (similar to Apple’s community).
List of Discussions
The forums are very much at the world-class level of best practice. All posts are displayed by the latest update with pinned posts on the most entertaining or most important ideas. This is a great use of pinned topics. You can also browse the accepted solutions and unanswered questions.
The hover text is also a nice touch and saves people clicking through to discussions which aren’t relevant to them.
Replying To A Discussion
A discussion itself is a little clustered with potential options with two reply buttons, 4 sharing icons, profile details, report flags, topic-dropdown options, in-discussion drop-down options, kudos, adding tags, and asking if the discussion was helpful.
You don’t need both a kudos and helpful discussion, it would be easier to use a ‘me too’, a response, or a helpful options and remove everything else (the other options will never be used anyhow). This drifts away from best practice here.
The profile pages are generally used as status symbols within the community. This generally works well. It would be worthwhile moving rank/kudos/solutions/posts into the grey space above.
The Autodesk Gamification system leaves a lot to be desired. It’s opaque, largely meaningless, and misses out on plenty of opportunities to drive high levels of engagement and activity. This is the only public post I could find which explains the system.
This explanation invites more questions than it answers. There are 13 unique levels, but there are no obvious benefits or unique badges for achieving each level. It’s not even clear how to reach each new level. This is a huge missed opportunity for a community as successful as Autodesk. Autodesk also doesn’t appear to be using any unique badge system. The Apple community has a far superior system.
The Autodesk community has an ideation area where members can suggest ideas which might be implemented in the product.
Autodesk communities host ideation areas for many of its products. Members can suggest ideas and watch progress on those ideas over time. The green and red bars work well to highlight the current status of the idea. However, many of the ideas have been under review for years. It wouldn’t be unfair to assume ‘under review’ is where ideas go to die so the member doesn’t need to experience a rejection of the idea. It would be easier to be clear and honest about what’s happening.
The kudos and comments is an interesting feature, but could be greatly improved within the community if more people were using it. At the moment, the limited use in many of these areas is a real problem. It might be worthwhile only opening these areas in the communities where there is clearly a big demand for them.
Overall, Autodesk has a well developed community ecosystem with millions of responses to hundreds of thousands of questions. The platform is largely designed in line with best practices with some clear areas of improvement in gamification, asking questions, and ensuring key areas are kept up to date.
Don’t believe the “our members are too busy to participate” myth.
Time is about priority and priority is about relevancy. If your community is helping your members solve their toughest problems right now, they will always find the time to visit.
The problem is most communities don’t get their signal to noise balance right. They aren’t helping enough members achieve the goals they have right now. They’re not making their community relevant enough to their members.
The Signal Is About Relevance
If you made a list of your priorities today, you wouldn’t name long-term ambitions nor a strong desire to ‘connect’, ‘share’, or ‘join the conversation’.
The biggest priorities for us are the things that have the most important outcome to us (impact) right now (immediacy).
We can see examples of these in the table below:
The key to overcoming the signal to noise problem is to ensure as many of your visitors as possible see community activities related to the top left box.
But this is more difficult than it might first seem and changes at each stage of the community lifecycle. This means you need to ensure you have the right mechanisms for your stage of the community lifecycle.
In this post, we’re going to explain what these mechanisms are and how to use them.
How To Keep The Signal Strong In Increasingly Noisier Communities
Separate signal from noise requires a filter. There are five broad types of filter which you can use across the four stages of the community lifecycle. These are chronological, editor’s picks, member-tagging, popularity, and artificial intelligence.
As you can see above, as you grow you should gradually invest more time and money to build bigger and better filters.
Key point: Don’t stick with the filter you have as your community grows. You also need to develop better ones. Members will usually push back at first, but you need to be sure you keep pushing for the filter you need.
Inception Stage – Chronological Updates
Early-stage communities should be all about signal. Almost 100% of updates should be relevant to what brought most people to the community. If they’re not, your concept is too broad (p.s. this is why many communities don’t take off).
The main filter here is chronological. When everything is relevant, members just need to know what’s new compared with what they have seen already. This is a list of posts by date posted/updated.
Even the largest sites, like Facebook, began with a simple system of showing all updates chronologically.
Your main task here is to keep the filter clean by weeding out the few posts that are outside the community’s focus.
Inception / Establishment Stage – Editor’s Picks
As your community grows to around the 100+ active participants region and you near critical mass, it becomes impossible to keep up with every update posted. This is where you need to make sure members aren’t missing out on the best stuff.
This is where you use editor’s picks.
This means you use sticky threads, blog posts, newsletters, and community digests to highlight the content you think most people in the community should see.
You should be helping members see the most popular/useful items of content in your community regardless of when they were posted.
Even some of the largest platforms, e.g. Slideshare, still use editor’s picks to highlight the best contributions others should read.
There are two key challenges here.
- Ensuring the quality of any ‘selection’ remains high. Some people fall victim to doing daily or weekly picks regardless of quality. Wait until you have enough quality contributions or you dilute the power of a pick.
- Reading enough contributions and identifying the best content. This becomes increasingly time-consuming.
Establishment/Maturity – Popularity Filters
As you reach the maturity phase of the community lifecycle, you will have too much content to process everything yourself. You’re also not the best judge of what’s the best content in the community compared with thousands of members.
This is often the stage where it makes sense to move platforms.
At this level, you want to use popularity filters to ensure the best content can rise to the top. This usually uses one of three metrics.
- Most visited. This is the number of users who have visited within a recent period of time. This usually highlights the most useful or entertaining piece of content.
- Most commented upon. This is great for most engaging topics – often the most controversial.
- Highest rated. This uses the number of upvotes (sometimes weighted by the ranking of the user) to show the content members like the best. This is a really important score.
All three have their place. Highest rated and most visited is best for lurkers, most commented upon is best for regular members.
Ideally you show the member the most popular content within the past week, yet also show the most popular within the past hour (trending topic), week (popular topic), month (top content), and ‘all time’ (best content).
However, be aware that you will probably need to manually remove some topics or set stronger filters. Sometimes old content which most members have seen is indefinitely the highest rated or most popular material every week.
Your goal is to allow members to quickly find the best content without having to browse through hundreds of posts. This only works when you already have a lot of activity.
Most major platforms enable some form of these already without much difficulty.
Your main work here is testing and managing different filters to get the best results.
Maturity Stage – Developing Unique Segments
As you grow past establishment stage, you begin to attract a more diverse group of members whose needs begin to diverge. Some people make the mistake on doubling down what’s worked in the past and focus on what they know best.
This limits the potential popularity of the community.
What’s most popular will increasingly be irrelevant to minority groups within the topic. The better solution here is to start categorizing and tagging members into distinct groups. Then you serve them the content that is most relevant to them.
The first part of this is to figure out a good system of tagging people (tagging works better than categorization here, people might be interested in more than one topic). You have four options for this.
- Create new groups/categories and let people join them. This is the simplest option, but most members won’t join any groups and you might be left with vacant areas of the site.
- Manually tag people by topics they seem interested in. This works better in smaller communities, but is a great way to test potential tags and ideas.
- Create a profile question and add people to the relevant group as a result. This works well for new members, but not so well for existing members.
- Run a SQL query to see who has visited or participated in which topics and then assign them tags as a result. This works very well, but requires some technology support. You can do this once or on a monthly basis. Begin with a few key topics at a time. It’s also possible your top members will participate in almost every discussion.
It’s usually best to focus on each unique segment at a time and ensure there is enough demand for the segment to make it worthwhile. You also need to check you have the resources to cater to them.
Once you have your segments, you can start sending them newsletters, @mentioning them by group to important discussions, or notifying them of new, popular, content in the community. This can be done manually or, ideally, automated. You shouldn’t attempt this stage until you have more resources to make it work.
Maturity/Mitosis – AI/Machine Learning Recommendation Systems
At the most advanced level, you should begin to see AI and recommendation systems. These essentially assign a score to each past member activity and use a weighted score to predict other relevant discussions members might be interested in. This is known as an algorithm.
These algorithms run each content through a relevancy filter of their own based upon popularity, existing metrics, content of the post, before using your past activities to determine if it will show it to you.
They’re not perfect, but they do improve with every click. Some of the best, like Amazon, Facebook, and Quora, perform remarkably well when showing members content they need to see.
At the simpler level, any post you read will also highlight other relevant posts. This is included in many of the most popular community platforms today. At the more advanced level you need to design more complex systems to handle who wants to see which information (and from whom).
Don’t rush to move up to the next filter until you have the level of activity to make it worthwhile, but don’t be too late to move neither.
You need to carefully balance your limited resources with the opportunity to develop increasingly advanced filters as your community grows. If you get this right, you should never have the ‘too busy to participate’ problem again.
If you don’t have a clear and simple strategic plan you’re either relying on guesswork or using whichever tactics drive the most engagement.
Doing this work at the professional level is all about executing a strategic plan. It’s where you know your goals, you know your objectives, you know your strategy, and then you execute the tactics best designed to achieve that strategy.
In this post, I want to outline six broad strategic plans which have been successful for clients we’ve worked with in the past (or, in one case, a course student). Consider these ‘off the shelf’ strategies you can use for your community work.
Don’t use them wholesale, but adapt them to suit your needs.
Template 1: Advocacy Communities
Advocacy communities are designed to get customers to plead the case of the brand to non-customers.
Picture these efforts on a continuum. At one extreme you have cult fans who support you because they love you. Supreme and HarleyDavidson probably fall into this group. At the other extreme, you have reward/incentive-driven communities. Most of Influitive’s clients fall into this group.
Between the two, you have word-of-mouth marketing efforts. This is when when people who know you/like you share something you’ve created because it’s remarkable, involves them, or helps the audience look good.
The most common behaviors here, in order of value, are typically:
- Direct selling/referrals to others. If a customer personally invites someone else to become a customer for the brand or make referrals to a sales team to someone who would be a good fit for the product, that’s a big win.
- Writing customer reviews. This includes writing positive reviews on sites like Amazon, Goodreads, TrustRadius, and any other comparison site.
- Creating brand-related content. This is when a customer creates positive articles, videos, or podcasts about the product. Gamers do this on Twitch and YouTube all the time.
- Sharing content on news/content on social. This is where members share discounts, announcements of new releases, or any other brand-content to others.
Strategic Plan Template – Video Game Advocacy
The challenge here is to design community objectives (member behaviors) which achieve two goals. First, they must directly help the community achieve its goal and second, they must match what different member segments are likely to do.
Our strategic plan may look like the below:
All of this should be based upon research. By the end you should have a small list of 5 to 7 tactics which you will commit significant resources to executing. If you get this right, each member segment will be making their best possible contributions to the community.
Template 2: Engagement-Driven, Advertising-Supported, Communities
There is only one kind of community where maximizing engagement is a reasonable target and these are communities driven by advertising.
Most of the big social networks (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest) fall into this category. As do sites like Reddit, StackOverflow, and Nextdoor (plenty of smaller, hobbyist, sites fall into this category too).
The key things you need members to do here typically include:
- Getting members to organize members in their own groups. A key principle of exponential engagement growth is fostering sub-groups to increase advertising inventory and member time on platform. This means identifying and nurturing people to run parts of the community.
- Ensuring members join and participate in these groups. You can’t have successful groups unless you can get members to join and participate in these groups.
- Keep members actively engaged. You need to persuade people to visit and participate frequently to keep the community going.
Strategic Plan Template – An Engagement Platform
The challenge for an engagement-driven community is growing at high-speed. This example included the following:
For each group you want to amplify a unique motivation. This motivation will be very different for top contributors compared with, say, newcomers or lurkers/visitors. As the platform grows larger, you will need far more specific segmentation of the audience.
Template 3: Lead Identification/Generation Communities
Lead generation (and identification) is one of the most underutilized uses for a community. Members provides useful information which could identify them as potential leads for the sales team.
Bringing a list of 50+ leads to your next meeting is a good way to build internal support. However, be careful not to invade the privacy of your members or spam them with unwanted offers. Any outreach from a brand representative needs to be done with careful consideration towards the mindset of the member.
Members can identify themselves as leads in multiple ways. These usually include:
- Downloading content/attending webinars. Members who submit their details to download product/service related content/attend webinars can be considered as strong community leads.
- Sharing problems the product can solve. If members share a problem which the company can solve, someone can reach out to them and ask if they would like help.
- Creating content which attracts more search traffic. If members create content which attracts high search traffic, this could generate leads through natural awareness.
- Pre-purchase behaviors. Using a lead-scoring system, you might identify potential leads through the discussions and posts members click on.
- Completing surveys. Occasionally, members might reveal themselves as fitting a lead profile through completion of a survey.
Strategic Plan Template – A Large Consultancy Company
Developing a strategic plan for a consultancy company tends to be easier than any other goals. Note, below, the type of platform you use to build this kind of community might be different from a support or advocacy community. Sometimes, you might not need much member to member engagement at all.
Template 4: Innovation and Insights Communities
- Generating product ideas. This covers all solicited ideas in ideation-driven platforms.
- Voting on product ideas. This is self-explanatory, members vote on the ideas they like best.
- Providing feedback on the product/service. This includes every complaint, bug, or frustration members express which can be useful feedback.
- Participating in surveys/interviews. This is useful solicited qualitative and quantitative feedback.
- Expressing sentiment. If you track what members say they like or dislike you can gather a lot of useful insights.
- Engaging in trackable behavior. This includes tracking specific behavior and outcomes e.g. what content or discussions people like best.
Ideation/soliciting ideas tends to gain the more attention but is also the least successful. Better feedback usually comes in response to things members can see, touch, and do.
Strategic Plan Template – SaaS company
Many SaaS companies are gradually shifting their community from customer support to insights and innovation. This means rethinking what members are going to do within the community. A recent strategic template included:
From this, you should be able to use our insights report template and capture the main insights for the engineering team.
Template 5: Support Objectives
Support communities are the easiest type of community to create.
You launch a platform for people with a lot of questions and divert traffic from your website to this platform. It’s also the easiest community type to connect to direct cost savings. Most organizations with 100k+ customers should consider building a support community.
- Asking questions in the community (instead of support channels). This is obviously a critical behavior for a support community to succeed.
- Answering questions in the community (with empathy!). This is equally as important. Questions without solutions are worse than no questions at all.
- Searching for an answer in the community. The majority of members should be able to find the answer without asking a question.
- Voting and rating answers in the community. You need help from members to vote and rate answers within the community. This helps the best solutions rise to the top.
Strategic Plan Template – A Large Consultancy Company
Strategic plans for support communities are usually fairly transferable from one type of community to the next. The key difference is you usually don’t have regulars. You usually have top contributors, a small group of irregulars, then a large group of lurkers and visitors.
There are other ways to achieve these objectives (especially with top contributor programs), but the objectives usually remain relatively the same. Most internal collaboration communities would also fall under this category.
Template 6: Knowledge-Sharing Communities
Knowledge management (KM) communities (and Communities of Practice) are unique in they often span many of the different archetypes above.
However, the typical KM community emphasizes documenting and keeping knowledge up to date. This saves people time and helps them do better work.
The key behaviors here usually include:
- Documenting a best practice/lesson learned/templates. This includes actions taken, what worked, where to find useful information, revenue spent, how it was measured etc..This also covers templates for future projects.
- Keeping and updating previous content. Once content has been shared, it needs to be kept relevant and updated in a systematic way.
- Tagging and properly storing information. People need to be able to find the information. This means it need to be stored in the right place, with searchable names, and properly tagged.
This is a simplistic overview that becomes more complex as the volume of information increases (e.g. what if you have 5 different versions of templates floating around or 50,000 employees across 8 languages?)
Strategic Plan Template – A Management Consultancy
KM communities will have the most flexibility among the strategies you can deploy. Sometimes appeals to honor and pride work well and sometimes appeals to collective rewards work, and sometimes fear of punishment works best.
This isn’t a definitive list of community types. There are plenty of communities based around collective action, crowdsourced fundraising, and plenty other archetypes.
This should, however, cover the most common community goals and the kinds of strategic plans you might develop to support them.
There are multiple different ways to achieve the same community goals through different objectives, strategies, and tactics. The principle is to ensure everything matches up in the most direct and logical way possible. The templates above might help.
p.s. We’ve opened registration for our Strategic Community Management course.
A community’s ‘type’ is similar to a movie’s ‘genre’. It should provide you with a set of rules which should focus your community building efforts.
Community work varies greatly by the type of community you’re developing. Building a Q&A community for support is very different from building a community where your members proactively share their best ideas.
In this post, I want to highlight the three common types of community, how to build each type, and the constraints of each type.
If you completely understand what type of community you’re building, you can align everything you do to match.
Three Broad Types Of Brand Communities
Many people fall into the mistake of trying to build a general community about the topic. This usually happens when the company avoids making tough choices and tries to cover every possible use case for the community. Don’t do this.
General communities have weak concepts and tend to struggle to sustain much activity.
The most successful branded communities today usually fall within three core community types.
- Q&A (or support) communities.
- Idea-sharing (or education) communities.
- Peer groups (or exclusive) communities.
Each has positive and negative attributes. We’ll go through each in turn:
Type 1: Q&A / Support Communities
Most of the successful brand communities are based around questions and answers (Q&A). The most common of these are customer support communities. Customers bring their problems and get solutions from top staff/other members.
The key aim of a support community is to remove the frustration that brought the member to the community in the first place. It’s not enough just to provide an answer, you need to provide an answer with the speed, clarity, and sentiment that helps members feel less frustrated.
If interacting with the community makes people feel unhappy, you haven’t really solved the problem.
Benefits of A Q&A/Support Community
There are three main benefits of a Q&A / Support community:
1) Direct contribution to value. Whereas other types of communities are often several layers removed from value, support communities are fantastic for demonstrating a reduction in support costs, reducing satisfaction of disgruntled customers, and identifying/resolving potential problems early. They are also often used to solicit feedback.
2) Easier to launch. If you have a lot of customers with a lot of questions, you can usually make a support community work quite easily. Most traffic to a community initially comes via the website and email links. As you build up a base of answers, SEO traffic will usually become the prime source of traffic.
3) Member familiarity. Related to both of the above, members are familiar with the idea of asking a question and getting responses from others online. It’s a behavior similar to what we already do and doesn’t require much explanation.
All of the above explains why most successful brand communities are based around customer support and why support communities tend to have the most success.
Downsides Of A Q&A/Support Community
However, there are some inbuilt major problems with managing a Q&A/Support community. These usually include:
- You need a large base of members to succeed. Companies with less than 100k customers usually shouldn’t try to launch a support community. They struggle to attract the critical mass necessary to attract the superuser group and can’t deflect enough tickets to justify the investment.
- Negative tone of voice. Because most people only visit when they’re frustrated, the tone of voice skews more negative than other types of communities. This frustration can often turn on other members or community staff who can find themselves victims of very personal online attacks.
- Most members only visit once. Most people only visit when they have a problem. It’s hard to build any real sense of community among people who don’t want to be in the community at all.
- Static participation levels. The level of activity and participation is often driven by factors beyond your control (e.g. new product launches, changes to search algorithms, placement on the website). This can make it difficult to move the needle in many areas.
- Costly to run. It’s possible to do support on cheaper forum-based platforms like Vanilla/Discourse, but the standard for a large company is typically a premium platform with the security, functionality, and analytics they provide. You want to be able to add common answers to a knowledge base, create levels for superuser programs etc…
None of these are fatal and most aren’t avoidable, but they’re likely to be an ongoing problem with the job.
How To Improve A Support Community
If you’re managing or optimizing a support community, you will probably spend your time working across four dimensions. These are speed, accuracy, sentiment, and integration. Specifically, this means:
1) Decreasing the time to get a solution. You want the majority of people to find the solution without having to ask a question. This means recruiting and nurturing a top contributor program to provide quicker responses. This may take up the bulk of your time. You also need to ensure questions are well categorized, tagged, and have an accepted solution where possible. You need trending or topical questions to appear high up the page.
2) Increase the accuracy and clarity of the response. You want the quality of responses to be extremely strong. This means ensuring responses are easy to read and understand. Using video walkthroughs, screenshots, and bullet points usually helps (and training your team to do the same). You also want to frequently update the top 20% of answers responsible for 80% of traffic (especially after major product updates).
3) Improve the sentiment of the responses. You need to carefully consider how you personally engage and respond to discussions within the community. You need to deeply understand the psychology of your audience (p.s. I’d strongly recommend anyone working on a support community take this program). Your answers need to be personalized, friendly, empathetic, as well as accurate.
4) Using the questions and solutions throughout the organization. You should also be spending a lot of time escalating issues internally, ensuring questions are incorporated into product decisions, and helping your company take notice of the key trends within the community.
If you’re working on a support community, most of your time should be spent in the above areas. You can’t expect your members to be happy, but you should expect to be driving really incredible results for your company.
Type 2: Idea/Education Communities
Many of the most popular communities today are based around the idea of members proactively sharing resources, tips, and links. These are not solicited.
This can range from full-fledged articles (Medium), sharing resources (ProjectManagement.com) to simple link sharing (Reddit).
These kinds of communities come with some incredible benefits and equally challenging downsides.
Benefits of An Idea/Education Community
There are three main benefits of an idea/education community.
1) Growing the business. These are the best kinds of communities to improve customer satisfaction/retention (by helping people use the products better), attract new business (via search traffic), and drive innovation. The very best of these communities become the hub of their field.
2) Positive tone of voice. These communities usually have a positive tone of voice. It’s communities filled with people sharing what they’re doing and learning from one another. People don’t visit when they have a problem, they visit to get better at what they do.
3) In-built participation habits. These communities have in-built variable-reward mechanisms. Every time you visit, there might be a great new idea you can use. This is a lurker’s paradise and are environments ripe for forming habits.
If I were to add a third, it would be these communities typically explore the cutting edge of any field or topic. This is an exciting/motivating type of community to build.
Downsides Of An Idea/Education Community
Very few brands try to build an idea/education community. There are many reasons for this, but the biggest include:
- Very difficult to get started. By far the biggest problem is getting started. You need one group to attract the other. The success rate of these communities is far lower as a result. You might have better luck turning an existing, general, community into this type of community. But you need a large group of smart people willing to share great links first.
- About the topic, not the brand. With a few exceptions, these communities are better at serving broad topic areas (e.g. inbound.org) than specific brands (e.g. HubSpot). If you try to build the community about you, you’re going to find it harder to attract a high-quality audience. People want to talk about the broader topic than just a brand. However, there are plenty of exceptions here.
- Can be overwhelmed with spam. Once you encourage everyone to share their content, they often do. This quickly descends into poor-quality, promotional, content which drives everyone else away. It’s hard to fight this and maintain high-quality content. This leads into the next problem.
- Customized platform requirements. While there are a handful of idea/education-based communities on forums, the vast majority are not. Forums are better designed to support communities than education communities. Education communities tend to use a custom-built platform designed to solicit these specific recommendations. These range from templates/resource sites, news/link aggregation, pinterest-style boards, etc…
While the benefits of building an idea/education community might be higher, the costs and risks are usually much higher too.
Optimizing An Idea/Education Community
Based upon the above, it should be relatively clear how best to optimize a support community. This will include:
1) Recruiting and helping members to share interesting things. This is obviously critical. You need to find ways to identify smart/motivated people and get them to share great stuff. In the beginning this will usually be you and your team finding the best ideas. As you grow, you should be able to gradually bring more people into the fold.
2) Developing and improving your filter for high-quality content. You need great filters to separate the good from the bad. This usually means a combination of editor’s picks, tagging, upvoting, trending items, and (less often) algorithms. You need to work on ensuring members see the best stuff as quickly as possible. Technical competence is important when building this type of community.
3) Promoting the community. These communities benefit most from traditional publicity tactics. This means getting publicity on relevant blogs, influencer outreach efforts, and doing interesting things that attract a lot of attention.
4) Turning interest into results. You also need to turn the community interest in value for the business. This might be through lead generation, ‘sponsored’ posts, etc…
As you grow, you may also need to focus on how you build sub-groups within this community for related topics or subtopics.
Type 3: Peer Groups/Exclusive Communities
The easiest type of community to create is an exclusive community. The people who join are those who meet a high criteria based upon demographics, habits, or psychographics. In these peer groups, members usually share a strong, shared, identity with other members. The connections tend to run deeper than other types of communities.
Benefits of Peer Groups / Exclusive Groups
The key benefits of peer groups/exclusive communities are:
1) ‘Lock-in’ key audiences. Building an exclusive peer group among some of the top people in your field can be a great way to ‘lock in’ a key audience. This works well for companies in the B2B space, those looking to charge for membership, and those building platforms for peer groups to thrive.
2) Easier to launch. If you don’t have a large, existing, audience, the easiest way to start a community is to keep it exclusive and targeted only at some of the top people in the field. This is motivating for those people in the field to join and participate. Many communities begin exclusively before expanding to a broader audience once they have established their reputation.
3) Members connect with each other on a deep, personal, level. These groups whether via working-out-loud or simply providing each other with emotional support can be life-changing for participants. An exclusive community effort tries to bring together a group of people with a very strong shared identity and create a sense of belonging among them. These communities tend to have a lot of off-topic discussions and real-world meetings.
The Downsides Of An Exclusive Community
There are also some common disadvantages to creating and managing an exclusive community.
- Internal disputes. Exclusive communities tend to be hypersensitive to petty disputes between members. Given the small size and close relationships of the groups, these disputes can rip audiences apart.
- Building credibility with top people in your field. You need to have relationships with high-calibre people to get the community started. If you don’t, you need to invest the time to build and maintain these relationships before you can build the community.
- Limited growth. The very nature of having a high-barrier to entry ensures the community size is always limited to a degree. Any expansion is a threat to the close ties of the group itself. This means you have to gain the maximum benefit from the members you have.
- A high barrier to entry. You don’t need to make it impossible, but there should be a very clear calibre of people who are allowed to join the community. These reasons should be very public.
Optimizing A Peer Groups/Exclusive Community
These kinds of communities tend to have the most flexibility in your daily work. A small peer group diverges significantly from a larger, exclusive, community. The focus of your work however will usually be along the lines of:
- Programming content. You need to host events or create content that supports the community. Simply being exclusive isn’t enough unless you offer a clear benefit beyond this exclusivity. This should offer members something which they cannot get access to elsewhere.
- Attracting and keeping the right members. You will need to invest more time to interact personally with each member and ensure they are happy and engaged within your community. This is often very difficult to do. It might mean breaking the bigger group into subgroups so members can engage and interact with each other.
- Building a sense of community. You work hard here to build a strong sense of community among the group. This includes plenty of rituals, emotive discussions, and roles for each member of the community.
If you’re not sure what type of community you’re building, you’re probably not building a very strong community.
If you are sure, make sure you focus your time and effort in the areas which are going to have the biggest, possible, impact for your type of community.
Almost every organization we’ve worked with can really improve their community by better understanding what type of community they’re building in the first place.
I’d estimate around 90% of community problems we see are concept problems.
This means the very idea for a community you begin with wasn’t strong enough.
Alas, it might not be your fault, but it’s now your responsibility to deal with it.
The problem is a weak community idea can survive for a really long time on a handful of posts a day. It can be propped up by staff members creating dozens of posts per day to give the illusion of activity. It can be given spasms of promotion in the desperate hope that if it reaches just enough members everything will be ok.
But adding more members to a weak community idea won’t work, you need to completely relaunch or revamp the community.
In this post, I’m going to try and guide you through what our consultancy process looks like here using case studies and templates.
(Note: If you run a customer support community, you can skip this post entirely. Many of these principles will be different).
The Honest Appraisal
By far the hardest part here is being honest with yourself and the people running the community.
On the (rare) occasions we fail, we fail because we can’t get people to be honest with themselves and their company about the true state of the community.
A failing community is like a bad business. A bad business locks up capital which could be deployed elsewhere. A bad community locks up people who could be better engaged and active elsewhere. It’s also highly damaging for your career.
Your community concept is probably wrong if you match any of the following:
- After a few months you’re still initiating and responding to most of the discussions.
- Very few members stick around.
- You have a dozen posts a day or less.
- Very few people seem excited by the idea of the community.
- Word of mouth isn’t spreading and bringing in more people.
- The level of growth and activity isn’t increasing, yet you haven’t reached critical mass.
There are some exceptions here, but you’re probably not one of them.
Please don’t waste your career, your members’ potential, and your company’s resources propping up a bad community indefinitely. Be honest and do a proper revamp. Take the hard decisions you need to take.
|Quick Case Study: Health Meets Wealth
One example might come from the Health meets Wealth community. This is a community based upon Lithium designed for people to talk about health and wealth. Yet with two staff members participating there still isn’t enough activity to justify the high investment.
This could be a promotion problem, but I’d bet it’s a concept problem. There are better communities to talk about health and wealth. No matter how hard you try to push a weak concept, it’s always going to be a struggle.
However, an exclusive community focused entirely on the health routines of wealthy people might succeed. It targets the right demographic and fits in with what wealthy people usually want (privacy and exclusivity).
There are plenty of examples here.
You can spend the next few years’ of your life feeling miserable trying to make a bad idea work or you can spend that time feeling excited about a community that will explode to life. Please choose the latter.
(aside, this is exactly where it makes a lot of sense to get consultancy support).
Be Brutal With Cutting Anything Holding You Back
Now you have to decide between a hard and soft change.
A hard change means closing your current community and starting a new one.
A soft change means working with your current platform and members to make things work.
In the past, I’ve advocated for the latter. Recently, I’ve found the former to be far better. You need a fresh start here. You will upset some members, but it’s far better to do a complete relaunch than try to gradually shift things. You tend to keep too many legacy attributes to do what you want. Don’t let the old stuff that caused you to fail repeat the same trick.
This is almost certainly going to mean changing or completely redesigning the community platform too. Be prepared for this. You can archive the old community so the content is still accessible, but don’t allow any further posts to the site.
Communicate this clearly in advance and explain the reasons why. Never blind side members, regardless of how few people are there.
Your colleagues will also try to push you to keep most of what you have and make minor tweaks rather than the profound change you need. This is the sunk costs fallacy. Stay strong and focused on making the big change you need.
Now you have to go through the concept phase of the community lifecycle to find and test the right community idea.
Last year, I was contacted by a car brand about revamping their community. They had already mapped out the community and hired creative companies/developers to build out the community. But they hadn’t built any relationships, undertaken any interviews, nor tested their new idea.
They wanted us to explain how to get people to join and participate in the community. Alas, that’s not how it works.
You need to identify what members need and ensure the community is perfectly designed to deliver on those needs. This is what the conceptualization phase does. The conceptualization process is to figure out the concept, build relationships, and having some sort of platform you can leverage to drive early activity.
You need to go through this process too.
If you think you’re going to develop a hit community idea without any feedback from the community, you’re delusional.
This means working at the micro one to one level. There are three core things to achieve at this stage:
- Build credibility among your early target audience.
- Nurture relationships with prospective members.
- Identify and validate what members really want.
Step 1) Building Credibility (CHIP process)
The first step is to build some credibility among your audience. This means you achieve positive awareness.
It’s very difficult to persuade people to join your community if they’ve never heard of you. Being from a big brand can help, but it’s not an all access pass to get everyone to love the community idea.
You probably ignore most of the blind outreach messages you receive right? People will ignore your messages too unless they recognise you. You need to be individually recognised here.
You need to use the CHIP process below:
Spend 2 to 6 months participating in other communities, attending events, asking questions, and interacting with people online. Be curious and friendly. Don’t try to get anyone to do anything for you at this stage.
Next, start a platform. This might be an Instagram account, a blog, podcast, whitepaper, or any medium that best suits your interests. You want people coming to you for information. This gives you the added advantage of starting to test and experiment with the idea. Share what you’re learning. Test ideas if you like.
Better yet, interview or feature people for this platform. Now you get the benefit of learning and connecting with smart people. The same people who won’t give you time of day for a coffee will give you hours for an interview. This is how Ryan Hoover built relationships for ProductHunt.
Step 2: Nurture Strong Relationships and Identify Key Themes
If you’ve succeeded in the above stage, you should have a few hundred subscribers/followers at this stage. These are now people who will recognise your name and be happy to speak with you.
Directly reach out to this group. Schedule coffees or calls with them. Travel to where they are if you need to. Try to have private, 1 to 1 discussions with at least 50 people (if you don’t enjoy this process, consider a different occupation).
Ben Munoz launched BensFriends by participating in other communities, responding to questions on Q&A sites, and meeting people. It’s very hard work but it is the single most reliable way to get great results.
Step 3: Identify and Validate The Community Idea
You should be able to sustain relationships with at least 50 people at this point and have a very good idea of what they have said. I prefer to use a spreadsheet and look for patterns in the data, but you can use whichever method works for you.
Make sure you ask people about their challenges, hopes and ambitions. Find out what they like or don’t like about the scene or their work. Find out where else they interact with each other (you don’t want to copy what already exists).
You should be able to identify a few topics that people really care about.
You’re looking for topics a handful of people really care about and don’t have a great place to talk about it today. One of these topics will become your concept.
Developing Your List of Community Concepts
Let’s use the TransAmerica example above and pretend we have interviewed 50 people in the wealth space. We might discover a few common themes:
- Never having enough time to do anything.
- Not being able to maintain a consistent fitness routine.
- Not feeling part of the elite group or know how to join exclusive events.
- Not spending enough time with friends.
- Not spending enough time with family.
- Uncertainty about the future.
- Concerns about status.
- Embarrassed by wealth.
- Wants to spend less time doing routine tasks.
- Who to trust when outsourcing projects/ideas.
At this point we can take this list and either;
a) do a survey asking people to rank which of these they might care about (easy to do on SurveyMonkey).
b) start testing some community concept ideas directly.
If you do the survey, use it as a rough guide and discard those at the bottom rather than pick those that the top. People find it difficult to articulate what’s most important to them.
A community concept is essentially the community topic (what the community is about), target audience (who the community is for), and type (action, circumstance, support etc…).
Any one of the themes can serve as a possible community and each can also yield multiple community ideas.
Let’s imagine we find health and fitness is a problem for wealthy people. You can quickly build 5+ concepts from that:
- An exclusive community sharing the health and fitness regimes of the ultra wealthy. Members would each share their diet/food recipes, read content from celebrities and others, and be able to sign up for programs named after superstars.
- A complete optimization community. For the wealthy to get personalized food support, training regimes, and automate/optimized every aspect of their health and fitness.
- A peer group of wealthy people to set themselves goals with financial forfeits to charity if they don’t achieve them. Similar to Stikk, but for wealthy people.
- A community for people with $10m in assets to share their advice on personal chefs, trainers, holidays, and the best gyms.
- A bodybuilding club for the ultrawealthy. Members work out together or at the same time and record/share their results/photos with each other.
Not all of these ideas are good (some are terrible), but you should be able to find and validate at least one of your ideas for one of your themes.
You launch a community by focusing on just one of them!
There are more options here for a concept than you might imagine. Kaggle, for example, began as a community for data scientists who wanted to participate in competitions.
That’s a really narrow focus, but the audience loved it and word spread.
Run them past a few of the target audience to find which they like and which they really dislike. This should narrow your 30+ ideas (across all topics) to five to ten which you can test.
How to Test Your Community Concept
You want to test your idea as fast and as cheaply as possible. You can do this in multiple ways:
- Create an item of content/whitepaper and see how popular it becomes. If you’re thinking of a community about the fitness regimes of wealthy people, write an article or two about it and send it to your audience.
- Create a mailing list or Facebook group about the topic. Invite some of the members you spoke to before, start a few discussions, create some content, and see if the idea takes off. Keep it simple and quick.
- Host an event for the topic. Host an event for the topic (or even a webinar) and see how many people attend. Have a speaker if you can and gauge the reaction. Better yet, have two events and see how many people attend twice and how enthusiastic they are.
You’re really looking for the instant win, the one idea that explodes with popularity.
What gets people to attend and generates the most positive feedback? If you’re not sure if your idea was an instant win, it wasn’t.
It’s far better to have 10 people who really love the idea than 1000 who are mildly interested by it.
Almost all of the struggling communities we see today skipped the conceptualization stage.
If you get the concept wrong, you will forever be paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in platform and staff costs on a community that will never succeed. Don’t let that happen to you. If you don’t have a hit, test more ideas down the list until you get one right.
By the end of this stage you should have achieved three things:
- Built a (content) platform from which you can invite people to join a community. This should have at least 100+ followers/subscribers.
- Nurtured 20+ strong relationships with people in the field who you know will love the idea.
- Tested and validated this is a great idea for the community. You know this because your community already exists via a FB group, event series, or a small mailing list.
If you don’t have all three, keep working at it until you do.
Now you properly enter the inception phase of the community lifecycle below:
If you’ve got the concept right, this stage should be much easier than you imagined.
Your goal at this stage is to increase awareness, sustain rising activity, and develop the community platform.
1) Identify and develop early sources of growth
In the early days, you’re not going to get much organic search traffic or referrals, instead you need to identify and drive sustainable sources of growth.
You usually have three options here:
- Your existing website traffic. Most companies promote and try to drive traffic from their website or mailing lists to the community. This is the easiest and most common way to expand . However, it only succeeds if you have an existing audience. If you don’t, you have to follow one of the paths below:
- Existing groups. This means means subtly promoting the community on other sites and meetups. Anthony, Kaggle’s CEO, spent plenty of time in the early days promoting his online community in existing groups and speaking at as many meetups as he could across the country. Ben from BensFriends, as you might recall, participated in existing groups. This helped build a platform and attracted the earliest members to the community. Respond to every question, participate in existing communities, attract people in the 2s and 3s.
- Direct invites. This is you personally identifying people interested in the topic and reaching out to them. You have to use a status-based invite/approach to get someone to join and check out the community. This takes time but is often quite effective when it’s done well. This works best when you have strong relationships with a small number of people. The secret here is to get referrals from previous people you’ve contacted. This will save you a lot of time.
Later you can do the mass-promotional tactics. But, for now, you need to know you can sustainably bring in new traffic to the community to get things started.
It’s often smart to ask people to participate in discussion topics they mentioned in your interviews to get things going.
(note: some platforms, e.g. Facebook Groups, currently have an in-built source of new members via referrals to others on the platform.)
There are plenty of online community platforms to choose from. Begin with something relatively small and simple to use. Invest more in the community as the community grows (unless, as noted, you’re running a customer support platform).
Platforms vary enormously, but depending on your budget you’re probably looking at: Facebook Groups, Mobilize, MightyNetworks, Vanilla Forums, Discourse at the cheaper end and HigherLogic, Lithium, Telligent, Jive, and Salesforce at the premium level.
I’d recommend to begin at the former and later decide if you need to move to the latter.
You can develop something yourself too if the concept is really unique, but you will need a budget to hire a really top tier team. This worked for Producthunt and Kaggle. This is high-risk, high-reward territory. Go for it if you’re confident you can get the technology right.
The secret here is to focus entirely on the unique aspect of the community concept and ensures the community is perfectly suited for that.
Critically, make sure by the time you launch a new platform you have a large group of motivated people eager to use it.
3) Sustain and develop activity
Whichever activity your community is pursuing (discussions, tips, solutions, sharing photos, action plans etc…), you want to be able to see high-quality discussions taking place. High-quality discussions usually mean a few specific things:
- Very specific and relevant topics. You need discussions about topics which are relevant to the day to day lives of members. If you have done your interviews, you should be able to create these kinds of discussions.
- Clearly different types of discussions. You need to have discussions which expand beyond just a single niche topic. What is the next level up?
- Broad interest and participation. Discussions should be popular with members. People should be happy to participate in them and interact with one another.
- Good information being shared. You want to see new perspectives and facts being shared.
If you don’t have at least the above four, you probably need to rethink the community concept and the kinds of members you’re inviting. You either have the wrong concept or the wrong people participating in the topic.
You can test a lot of different things here. Limited-time webinars, AMAs, featured discussions, collaboration projects, predictions, leaderboards, open debates, and anything else that adds to the community concept. You will usually need a mix of things for this to work.
If things have gone well, by the end of this stage you should have something close to:
- At least 50 active participants (people who make a contribution).
- At least 30 discussions with 5+ responses.
- More than 50% of the growth/activity being initiated by members.
All the metrics should be heading in the right direction by now.
Most importantly, the community should feel rejuvenated. You should sense members are more positive, happy, and excited about the community. You should also find yourself being more excited about working on the community.
Now you can start exploring some sense of community tactics, exploring more promotional efforts, and more interesting events to drive more growth, activity, and a stronger sense of community.
The secret to rejuvenating a community isn’t to try harder or big tech changes, it’s to force through the really tough decisions and let go of the thinking that dragged you into the state you’re in today. This frees you up to identify what members really want and build an entire community around them.