9 Principles Behind Successful Online Community Strategies

This is part 2 of our 6-part series on community strategy (click here to read part one).

If you like the series, consider signing up for our Strategic Community Management course.

Enrolment is now open and the course begins on October 9th, 2017.

This is going to explain the key processes behind establishing community goals and winning internal support.

About half of our clients ask for our help to set the goals for their community. The following might help.

This is a big topic, so I’ve divided it into 9 key principles.

Principle 1: Engagement Should Never Be A Goal

Many of the community and professionals we’ve worked with and trained over the past decade used to make the same mistake. They believed if they could get the engagement metrics high enough, they would finally get the support and respect they needed. They spent their time trying to get more engagement and reporting on engaging metrics.

The brutal truth is the engagement metrics will never be high enough to get you the support you need.

Chasing more engagement is a fools’ game and condemns you to the engagement trap.

Not many people working in communities today have the right goals. Setting the rights goals should be a transformational process for your community and your career. By the end you should be working towards something you know you can achieve, that other people support and that you know is valuable.

Principle 2: Goals Come From Your Stakeholders

Far too many engagement professionals set the goals for their community and then toil endlessly to win support for them. I know one director of community who has spent five years of her career trying to get internal support for her community’s goals.

The key to career success is to reverse this.

Don’t set goals and try to win support for them from colleagues. Find out what your colleagues already support and use these as your goals. It’s a lot easier to swim with the current. If you don’t want to fight every day to get support, begin with goals people already support.

Principle 3: You Don’t Truly Have Support Until You Get More Resources

Ignore what other departments say, you only truly have support when you get more resources you didn’t already have.

Your organization could commit far more to the community than they do today. For example:

  • The sales team can drive new prospects and clients towards it.
  • The PR team can promote your community.
  • The HR team can embed it within newcomer orientation for all employees.
  • The content team can test content in the community.
  • Engineering or R&D can give community direct feedback into the product.
  • The CEO can participate in the community.
  • Marketing can give-away free products to top members.
  • The web team can feature it more prominently on the website.

Imagine each department as an engine cylinder you need to fire up to support your community. It’s your job to get each department supporting the community with more resources. This is going to require building powerful alliances where you come up with the goods (more on this later).

Principle 4: The Best Goals Come From Extreme Listening

Make a list of your stakeholders (colleagues, your boss, CEO, CFO, CMO, dir. Marketing, HR, IT, and anyone else who might be interested in the community). Interview each of them to understand their priorities. Ask them what they spend their time doing, what they hope to achieve, what they’re afraid of.

Pay careful attention to what they say and how they say it.

What do you they talk about excitedly and what do they sound bored by?

Attend the meetings of other departments too. Learn how they think and what information they prioritize. Almost everyone we interviewed who has won internal support regularly attends the meetings of other teams

Your goals will come from the above information. Remember goals are personal. Most goals will be those which:

  1. Save time.
  2. Save money
  3. Avoid making mistakes/looking bad.
  4. Achieve superior outcomes/better performance.
  5. Impress boss/colleagues.
  6. Feel more important and respected.
  7. Feel better about the work they do.
    (generally in this order)

You should be able to build a clear list of goals, for example:

Your Boss
  • Wants to show improved member satisfaction.
  • Wants to be seen as someone who ‘gets things done’ in an organization that’s typically slow.
  • Worried that other people will get in her way.
Legal rep.
  • Not have anyone ‘go rogue’.
  • No surprises.
  • Wants people to appreciate what the risks are.
Boss’ boss
  • Worried about PR disasters and negative inputs reaching the exec team.
  • Wants to see better media coverage of the company.
Dir. Marketing
  • Wants to be able to reach as many people as possible with a message.
  • Worried about declining reach on traditional channels.
  • Wants the company to look innovative.
  • Present new technology at events.
  • Find ways to save money.
Team members
  • Be seen as valuable by their boss.  
  • Get to work on projects they’re most passionate about.
  • Not have their time wasted.
  • Not have new priorities dumped upon them.
  • Have a say in new ideas the organization will develop.


Principle 5: Avoid The Big, Noble, Goals Trap

Everyone believes that delighting customers, breaking down knowledge silos, and cutting costs are a good idea.

Everyone will agree these are good goals and they want to support it. But few of this group will help you because the goals are too broad and too distant to help you now.

Base your community goals in the day-to-day reality of your audience. What are they working on today? What do they need help with? What are they struggling with?

Principle 6: Use The Stakeholder Matrix To Prioritise Goals

Now prioritise this group by their interest in the community and their influence over it. Adopt the goals of those at the top of the list. For example, above, the goals might be:

  • Answer every possible question our best customers have. (stakeholder: boss)
  • Identify and resolve possible PR problems before they become major problems. (Boss’ boss)
  • Increase reach of promotional messaging. (dir. marketing)

[see goal framing here]

Notice each of these is relevant to goals right now. This is a key part of getting support.

If you can’t tackle all 3 (and 3 is a lot), focus on just the goal for whomever has the highest influence.

This framework will also guide how you interact with each of your stakeholders. You shouldn’t send the same messages to legal as you would to your boss, for example.

Principle 7: Build Stories To Support The Goal

Now you have a goal, you need persuasive stories to establish it. Anytime anyone asks you about the community goal, you should state the persuasive goal and then use a story to illustrate it. This means using Evernote, screenshots, or any system you like as a story capture system.

Your stakeholder framework will show what kind of stories to look out for.

Using the above example, you would capture stories of the top members who were happy they got their elusive questions answered quickly, of potential PR crises avoided, and the number of people your community was able to reach.

Data helps, but it’s only the backdrop to the narrative.

Remember stories have a beginning, middle and an end. Make them fun and interesting. If you don’t have stories of your own, start looking at other comparative communities. Don’t stop until you have at least a dozen great stories. Match each story to your community goals.

Principle 8: You Are Not A Jedi

No combination of words will win you the support of sceptical colleagues. What you bring into the meeting is far more important than what you say in the meeting.

If you want the PR team to promote you, bring them five incredible case studies they can promote.

If you want the sales team to help you, bring them a list of 20 useful leads.

If you want the engineering team you help, bring them valuable feedback they can immediately use. etc…

Success is going to mean building alliances where you have to give support to get support.

Figure out what the community can give to different people and departments within the organization.

Principle 9: Keeping Support Isn’t Binary

Support isn’t binary. People leave and priorities shift.

You need to set aside a big chunk of your time (at least 30%) to building and maintaining internal support.

This means attending meetings, taking colleagues out for a coffee, and finding new ways to bring value to other groups.

Community Goals

Your community goals will guide everything you do in the community.

Your goals determine what platform you select, how you set the platform up, what you ask your members to do, how you motivate them to do it, and what you report internally.

Setting community goals and winning internal support are two parts of the same process.

You should, if you follow these 9 principles, find that you can finally stop trying to fight for support and take a deliberate approach to getting the results you want.

Strategic Community Management

If you found this or the last part of our series useful, please consider signing up for the Strategic Community Management course.

The course will transform how you approach your community, help you escape the engagement trap, and guide you to deliver exactly the kind of results your organization needs.

And the fee is only $675 ($1100 if taken with Psychology of Community).

I think that’s a fair bargain.

Where Should The Interactions Be?

Someone asked if the best place for interactions was on the forum?

Or should they be in comments on news posts?

Or via in-person meetups?

Or through social channels like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat?

The answer is quite simple. What kind of interactions best suit your strategy?

For example…

If your goal is customer support, you almost certainly want to be answering questions on social channels and possibly on a specific forum platform too. This allows you to answer as many questions as possible and document the best information for others to easily find.

If the goal is innovation, you probably want feedback on news posts and possibly a reddit-style platform that lets people propose and vote on the very best ideas.

If the goal is emotional support/building relationships, you probably want to encourage and tag answers in social and invite discussions in a private, highly-moderated, anonymous, space.

If the goal is retention, you probably want a platform that makes it easiest to share and read the best tips or advice about the product. If you don’t have that, you might lean towards comments on advice shared.

If the goal is community advocacy, it makes sense to use a dedicated advocacy platform – complete with leaderboards, tasks you can set, and simple methods of tracking rewards earned.

So many of the decisions we wrestle with every day are solved once we have a very clear strategy in place.

You’re going to be pressured to be everywhere and respond to everyone. Resist that pressure.

It sounds obvious, but you’ll get a lot of mileage out of using the right platform for interactions in the first place.

FeverBee Explains Series [1/6]: Community Strategy – Setting Community Objectives

In the next few weeks leading up to the launch of our Strategic Community Management and Psychology of Community courses (enrollment now open), we’re going to breakdown some of the key principles behind our most successful community strategies.

Our goal is to distill the key lessons from our work with hundreds of communities (Facebook, Google, SAP, Novartis, Oracle, The World Bank, Wikipedia, Greenpeace etc..) into key principles that might help you rethink your strategy and approach.

These aren’t going to be short articles. If you’re looking for quick tips, sure-fire ways, or listicles, you’re going to be disappointed.

The first principle of our six principles is how we overcome The Objectives Problem.


The Objectives Problem

Your objectives are what you need members to do to achieve your goal.

Your objectives should read quite simply as “get [target audience] to do [x]”.

Don’t confuse these with goals.

Your goal is the result of the community (e.g. keep our best customers for life), objectives are behaviors you need members to perform to achieve those goals (e.g. get our top experts to share their best tips).

The above is an example of what we would call a strategy statement.

In two sentences it describes a clear goal and a clear logical means of achieving the goal.


The Perennial Problem

If you’ve ever tried to set behavioral objectives, you will have come across the perennial problem.

Do you let members do what they want to do or do you try to get them to do what you need them to do?

If you let members do whatever they want, you will get a lot of engagement that doesn’t help you much.

A bunch of people talking isn’t very valuable (as many organizations are discovering today). Only specific kinds of discussions are useful.

However, if you force members to do what you want, you risk driving members away to places where they can do whatever they want.

Most people decide that some engagement is better than risking no engagement and build a community solely around what members want to do.

This is a mistake. It sucks you into the engagement trap, where generating as much activity as possible becomes your sole goal.

It’s hard to escape from the engagement trap, but you can avoid it easily enough.


Revisiting Your Strategy Statement

Imagine your community goal is to increase search traffic to your company’s web properties.

A common strategy statement might be:

Goal: Increase search traffic to our community.

Objective: Get members to create content which attracts search visitors.

You might then send out messages asking members to create content via email, automation rules, direct messages, or your web copy.

If you’ve tried this before you will know not many will take action.

Can you guess why?

Imagine this from your members’ side. To write a great article that helps you they would need:

  1. Relevant experience they feel they could write about.
  2. Plenty of time to create this content.
  3. To be open to criticism and to believe their content would make an impact.

What percentage of your audience meets that criteria? Probably not many. Perhaps 5%?

This is why we have rampant participation inequality.

In most communities, 95% of the target audience can’t perform the behaviors you want. But you can change that.


Divide Into Groups And Stretch Behaviors

You overcome this problem by dividing your community into sub-groups (usually by the level of activity) and setting stretch behaviors.

This means setting objectives which help you achieve your goals without asking for something they aren’t likely to do in the first place.

If you break your community down into segments (for example, top members, regulars, newcomers, and lurkers), you can study each and see what behaviors they are most likely to perform.

For example, some members can help promote content to increase search rankings, others can update and suggest improvements to content, others can highlight what they want to see etc…

All of this still helps you achieve your goal.

A revised strategy statement might be:

Goal: Increase search traffic to the company’s web properties.

Objective 1: Get the top 50 content creators to write better quality articles.

Objective 2: Get the middle 50% of participants by activity to update and suggest improvements to existing articles.

Objective 3: Get lurkers to vote and share their favourite articles.

Now we’re only asking people to do things that they’re likely to have the expertise, confidence, and time to be able to do based upon what they’ve done already.

Using these specific objectives we can develop our strategies.

For example, we might use exclusivity and set up a VIP class that only the top 50 content creators can attend.

We might embrace excitement and organize an ‘edit-a-thon’ for regular members to update as many articles as possible with new information (or at least point out where they might be out of date).

We might use curiosity and share a list of the most popular articles each week and ask lurkers to like or share their favourite.

This isn’t a comprehensive list, but you get the idea. Once you know what your objectives are you can take a focused approach to achieving them.

This is how you develop a community that drives clear results without driving your members away.


Gathering and Using Insights From Members

Let’s take another common example.

An organization develops a community to solicit feedback and drive innovation.

This current strategy statement might be:

Goal: Use community feedback to improve our service.

Objective: Get members to give us feedback on our services.

Eugh!! Can you see the problem again? How many members will have the expertise, confidence, and time to give detailed feedback? Not many.

So let’s divide our audience into three categories again and set behaviors each of them is likely to undertake, but still supports our goal.

A new strategy statement might be:

Goal: Use community feedback to improve our service.

Objective 1: Get our 200 top customers to send direct reports to engineers about what they would change.

Objective 2: Get the middle 30% of members to share their biggest frustration with the product.

Objective 3: Get lurkers to vote on changes they would prioritize.

Now again we have three separate objectives each catered to something the audience is more likely to be able to do.

You can now develop unique, emotive, strategies to get each of them to perform that behavior.

Giving top customers a direct line to engineer might be one option.

Creating an ‘emergency response’ zone for regular members to share their biggest frustration might be another option.

Letting lurkers rank their priorities in a survey or on the site might give them a sense of influence.

You get the idea. Once you have the objectives, you start to uncover the kind of strategies to match.


You Should Have A Clear, Specific, Strategy Statement

Far too many organizations we’ve worked with were pursuing engagement as a sole goal and hoping engagement would prove valuable.

We try to steer them away from that by focusing on a clear goal and specific, valuable, objectives targeted at key audiences.

One of the tasks we ask our course participants to do is to complete and get help with their own strategy statement. Try it yourself.

Goal: The goal of this community is [valuable result]

Objective 1: Get [target audience] to do [x]

Objective 2: Get [target audience] to do [x]

Objective 3: Get [target audience] to do [x]

If you can get the objectives right, you will find everything else you try to do becomes a lot easier.

Even better, you will find you can get more results from the existing members you already have.

To learn more about our two courses, click the links below:

Strategic Community Management

Psychology of Engagement

A Dangerous Sign

StackExchange makes an important point:

“if everyone using your technology knows everything about it, that means your community isn’t growing. A healthy technology environment includes a stream of newcomers that are learning the basics, as well as experts testing the platform’s limits.”

If you’re not getting as many questions, you’re either not getting enough newcomers or not getting experts testing the limits of the topic.

The experts want the cutting edge, new ideas, and advanced topics to explore.

The newcomers need a safe space to ask beginner-level questions.

Which groups are you excluding?

Changing Community Concepts Is Emotionally Difficult

A close friend has been wrestling with a community that’s been trundling on for two years.

There is some activity, but it’s barely growing. There isn’t much sense of community.

We recommended two years ago to focus on a tiny slither of the audience and cater to their unique needs. But he couldn’t force himself to do it. It would’ve meant:

1) Admit you may have been wrong about the topic (to both colleagues, your boss, and your members).

2) Make major changes into what the community is about and who it is for. That involves design costs and explaining to a large group of members they were focusing on a smaller group.

3) Be sure that the change would work, or he would be left with an even smaller group now.

These are common fears. There are ways you can ease them.

You can test different concepts as webinars, Facebook groups, or private channels first.

You can check what kind of content and discussions seem successful.

The temptation is always going to keep pushing ahead with what you have now and hope things change. But it never will.

The best predictor of tomorrow is what happened today. Unless you want every day to be like today, you need to make that change. You need to work on something that at least has a chance of a big success.

If not, what are you doing with your community…and your career?

It’s never easy, but it’s definitely best to make the brutally tough decision and then work like hell to make it a success.

Turning Community Questions Into Long-Form Answers

Go to your community, list your discussions in the last month by the number of views, and look at the top questions listed there.

Take the top 5 to 10 and send them to an internal expert to write a detailed answer or opinion piece on one of them.

Then promote the piece internally and externally. If you have some paid social budget, you can use this to promote the answer too.

There aren’t many wins as easy as taking some of the most popular questions in your community and inviting a product or topic expert to create a world class solution for your members.

FeverBee Relaunches Community Management Courses

We first launched our community management academy in 2011.

It has since become the most popular community management training program with 1100 graduates from technology, non-profits, collaboration, healthcare, and their own business projects alongside many others.

Today we’re opening registration for two community management courses.

These are:

1) Strategic Community Management. This course will help you identify and establish your community goals throughout your organization, identify the specific kinds of activity you need to achieve your goals, learn how to persuade members to perform the behaviors you need, and how to build a tactical action plan to achieve those goals.

This course has completely changed how most participants think about their community. By the end of the course you will have stopped driving as much engagement as possible and began driving real results that you know exactly how to measure.

If you’re feeling stuck or there is room for improvement in how you build and manage your community, I strongly recommend you sign up for this course.

2) Psychology of Community. This course will redefine how you engage and interact with your members. This all begins by truly understanding who your members are and what they want. You’re going to learn how to segment members by needs and how to communicate effectively with each group.

This course will also explain how to increase member satisfaction, convert newcomers to regulars, nurture super-users and build a powerful sense of community.

This is a terrific course if you want to do more for your members, understand how to deploy psychology effectively, and get the kind of activity you need.

Both courses will begin on October 7, 2017. The courses include both live webinars and recorded sessions. Every live webinar is recorded so you won’t miss a thing if you’re on vacation or get busy at work.

Courses cost $675 separately or $1100 combined.

Contact me at [email protected] with any questions or to ask about group rates.

If It Feels Difficult, You Have A Concept Problem

If few visitors return, if you’re always having to prod and push people behind the scenes to participate, and if activity doesn’t seem to be picking up…you have a concept problem.

You don’t solve concept problems by changing platform.

You solve concept problems by profoundly rethinking who the community is for and what the community is about. This usually means finding an edge and going to extremes with it.

Within your topic, what do a small group of people care about really passionately? What is the one thing that gets them emotionally hooked? Then begin to build the community around the edge.

Backpacking Light is a terrific edge. If you want travel communities, go elsewhere. If you want the lightest possible backpack, go there.

The temptation is always to create a community that appeals to the maximum possible number of people. Don’t do that. Find the small niche that you can dominate. Believe me, the big fans will tell others and you start to grow. It’s a lot easier to find success when you narrow your vision down to a core focus.

The $5 Giveaway On The To-Do List

A recent question asked: “What are the best giveaways to promote a customer community? (must be under $5)”

This is a crazy question to ask.

Giveaways neither drive people to a site or keep people participating. At best, they can work as a variable reward for really great contributions, but they’re far more likely to be a silly distraction for everyone.

Think about impact here.

Is what you’re planning going to have the biggest long-term impact on the community as it can?

Is it going to affect a lot of people for a long period of time?

Instead of $5 giveaways, start building a comprehensive knowledge base and make it easier to find community answers from the website, FAQ, or help center.

Instead of $5 giveaways, schedule calls with two-dozen members who are drifting away and find out what’s happening and what you can do to bring them back.

Instead of $5 giveaways become familiar with technical SEO and make sure you’re ranking highly in search. Remove the unpopular stuff and merge discussions into definitive resources.

If a $5 giveaway reaches the top of your to-do list, you need a much, much, better list.

2,600 Destination Experts

One of TripAdvisor’s great innovations is building up a network of 26,000 destination experts sourced entirely from the community.

Every single member of the 11-strong team is trained to spot the kind of people making unique, special, contributions and give them a specific role within the community.

Why don’t you have something similar? Who’s out there today writing friendly, smart, and consistently good posts? Can you reach out and see if they might like a proper expert role within the group?

There are thousands of niches within your field that people could be demonstrating expertise on and taking control over. They could be tasked with initiating and responding to discussions, creating content, and removing the bad stuff.

Don’t worry about fleshing out a fully-formed system right now, TripAdvisor still doesn’t have one. Just get into the habit of identifying and elevating people making a series of smart posts and participating well.

SaaS Communities And Newcomers

If you have a customer database, segment the long-term, loyal, customers from new customers when you invite people to join the community.

The newcomers (especially the people that signed up this month) are going to have a lot of beginner-level questions. In any email campaign or within the product/help center, link to relevant discussions where they can get help from others who have encountered the problem.

Ideally, you want your members to see the relevant question at the exact time they’re about to have that question.

There will usually be a few core areas where people get stuck or seek validation.

The loyal customers need a different approach. You can put a call out for mentors to help answer beginner questions, for experts to share their latest discoveries or for advanced topics to help them master the software.

The motivations of long-term, loyal, customers will be very different from beginners. They need to feel challenged, respected and learn advanced tips (that others don’t have).

(There will also often be a mid-group of customers who need to know they’re on the right track).

Don’t try to segment the group too finely, but have a few core segments you can cater to differently.

Working On A Book

I’m recruiting a few allies to help with my next book.

If you want to be involved, you can let me know here.

I’ll remove this post when we have enough.