A Few Hundred Posts (And The Small Bang)

You might also notice from yesterday’s post that a community needs a few hundred posts per month to sustain any level of viability.

A challenge with any client when we begin a community project is to ramp up quickly to 300+ posts per month.

If you’re falling below that level, you’re probably not going to make it.

This sounds like a bigger number than it is.

The secret to this isn’t to have a huge number of members, but to ensure that the members you do have actively participate. This might be 300 people sharing 1 post per month or 50 people sharing 6 posts per month (the former is preferable).

Within the first two weeks, you should know how often people participate and how many members you’re going to need to hit that target.

This means you need to aggressively follow through on the inception stage of the online community lifecycle. Reply to discussions, @mention other members to be involved, initiate new discussions, nudge people to participate, uncover and talk about problems members have.

You don’t need a big bang launch, but you do need a small bang to quickly reach a few hundred posts per month.

Data From 20 Online Communities (Beware The Spikes)

See the data below from 20 communities we’re tracking below (selected relatively at random). The Y-axis is the total number of posts.

What do you notice?

You should hopefully notice the irrelevancy of spikes.

A sudden surge of activity is not a portent of future success. In fact, it often appears between a sudden, sharp, decline (I suspect it’s a community manager taking a desperate action).

The problem is actions which drive spikes get a lot of attention. We’ve sat through more than one conference talk explaining how the speaker drove a spike in activity. You rarely see the long-term trends.

Real success almost always comes through getting the fundamentals right.

This means increasing the supply of new members, tweaking and refining the community concept for relevancy, improving the newcomer journey, and continually improving the utility or entertainment value of the community. If you get those things right, success will come.

Not sexy to speak about at events perhaps, but far more effective over the long-term.

Flying Free Under The Radar

Many (most?) communities began under the corporate radar with a limited budget and no authority. Yet they’re successful today.

Working solo under the radar is a useful practice. You have no budget, but no expectations. That’s a useful shield. It lets you test and refine different community concepts.

If you begin the community as a major project, with a big budget and a big announcement (the dreaded big launch), the pressure is on. You only have one chance to get this right. You either show rapid growth or you and the community are gone.

The problem is it’s tough to predict which concepts will explode to life.

You can do all the research possible, but you won’t truly know if you’ve got the right concept until you test it. Does the audience stick or do they visit once and bounce? If they’re bouncing, it’s going to be a hard slog to build a community (if it feels like a slog today, this is why).

Yet your odds of getting that perfect concept first time out are low. The odds of testing several concepts until you find the right concept are pretty high. And this is exactly what you can do with small groups (>250). You can test, test, and test until you find the right concept that sticks.

Which means the key to success might well be to fly under the radar.

Besides your senior staff are far more likely to support a community they can see thriving already.

What’s Happening Now And Tomorrow?

I was recently honoured to participate in a podcast with Sitevisible on the current climate of online communities and what happens next.

Click here to listen to the podcast.

The podcast covers:

1. Maximising the utility of the community rather than the use
2. Making sure it’s easy to find answers to the questions being asked
3. Helping to give people a sense of autonomy within a community
4. Understanding the difference between joining a community and participating in a community
5. What to measure and report in online communities.

I hope you find it useful.

It’s About Identity

If the topic isn’t part of a member’s identity, you can’t build a typical community.

No-one is in AT&T’s community by choice. Something broke and they want a quick resolution. You shouldn’t try building a sense of community, initiating off-topic discussions, and interviewing your newcomers*.

The name of this game is speed and quality. You need to solve a member’s problem before they’ve had to ask a question. That’s the gold standard you edge closer towards each day.

If the topic is part of a member’s identity, you’re playing a different game. Your members don’t want answers, they want a place to belong. They want to know their peers and see how they compare. They want to achieve a positive distinctiveness.

Most successful communities today are like AT&T. They are customer support based. Members want good answers to tough questions.

If you’re not sure, here’s a simple test. Ask members of your audience to describe themselves. If they mention your topic (e.g. “I’m a programmer”), you can build an identity-based community. If not, build a support community.

Both types of communities work. The secret is being clear about which you’re building.

* you can build a community of superusers among this group.

Building Communities Through Competition (The Case Of Kaggle)

Don’t believe a community is a forum with good questions and helpful responses.

This pervasive mindset limits the potential of your audience.

Kaggle has 500k members. It’s the most important data science community in the world. It’s a huge success. And it’s almost entirely oriented around competitions. Companies post data sets, prizes, and members compete to solve them.

This is entirely different from how most people approach communities.

It’s worth exploring what lies beyond the typical range of community approaches. The fastest growing communities aren’t based around forums, they’re based around competitions, group sharing, and collaboration.

Some people want to be challenged and compete. Some want to feel safe and secure. Some want to share funny photos. Communities don’t need to be text based questions and answers. Explore the wide range of opportunities out there.

If you want to stand out, find an edge you can push.

7 Rules For Measuring and Improving Online Communities

Did you use the wrong tactics or were the tactics badly executed?

Are you measuring the metrics that matter to you or to metrics you heard someone else was measuring?

Are you just looking to impress your boss or are you sincerely looking for ways to improve your community?

When we do use data in online communities, we use it badly. There are 7 simple rules that might help:

1) Don’t measure anything you don’t have a process to improve. If your metric rises or falls, what will you do differently? You have four options, decide which before you collect the data or your emotions will get in the way.


2) Don’t open an analytics package before you know what to measure. You can spend hours making interesting observations which don’t matter. Sometimes no change shows tactics aren’t working. Decide what you’re measuring before you open the analytics package.

3) Don’t measure someone else’s strategy. If you measure the same things as someone else, you’re measuring someone else’s strategy. You need unique metrics for your strategy.

The next four rules use the hierarchy of measurement.

4) Measure if your tactics were well executed. First, measure if your tactics had good reach (a high % of people were aware of them), depth (they affected a high % of the target audience), and length (they were effective for a long time). If not, you need to improve the execution of tactics. Engagement-level metrics are useful here.

5) Measure if your tactics achieved your strategy. Second, did the tactics influence how people feel about the behavior you want? If not, you need different tactics. Emotion drives behavior, tactics should influence emotions. Survey data and sentiment analysis are useful here.

6) Measure if your strategy achieved your objectives. Third, did the strategy cause more people to perform valuable behaviors (answering questions, sharing knowledge, etc..). If not, you need a different strategy. These are the direct antecedents of ROI.

7) Measure if your objectives achieved your goal. Fourth, did the objectives create a positive return on investment for your online community? If not, you need different objectives.

Hint: The last three rules require you to establish at least strong correlation with the metric above (or causation by not exposing a random sample of members to the tactic).

Measurement isn’t easy, but when do well it saves you an incredible amount of time. It lets you focus on the key things which drive results. Even better, build your own custom dashboard (or get help) and share it with your team. Now everyone can focus on the actions that matter.

Don’t Be Angry

My flight to Spain was delayed by 13 hours. The airline told us not to be angry.

Telling someone not to be angry is much like telling someone not to be tired. They couldn’t do it even if they wanted to.

A sure-fire way to ignite a difficult situation is to tell someone how to feel (or worse, explain why someone is being irrational).

Anger is an automatic response to inputs and how we interpret those inputs. The only way to reduce anger is to change the inputs or change how an individual interprets those inputs.

If you’re staring down the barrel of hundreds of angry members, it’s far better to listen (sincerely), explain why something occurred and highlight what will happen next.

But don’t ever tell people how to feel.

Most People Arrive Through The Back Door

Most of your traffic will come via search to specific community discussions (often very old discussions).

This means most newcomers won’t see the carefully crafted messages on your homepage.

They won’t see the large registration button or go through the expertly designed journey to increase conversion.

If you want to convert more of your visitors, you need to find a way to target messages where they visit. This means alongside existing discussions (or content), links from within discussions, or (sigh) pop-up boxes on the most popular discussions.

This also means your community homepage is better suited to regular visitors than newcomers. Prioritize content and activities for regulars rather than newcomers to the group.

Loving The Process

If you enjoy the outcome more than the process, you might have a problem.

It’s great to see an idea from the community included in the product, or feedback reaching the upper levels of management, or a huge community event filled with passionate fans.

But these moments are fleeting and tough to predict. If this is what gives you joy, you’re not going to get much joy. Or worse, you will see the daily inputs as something you have to get through to experience those fleeting moments of joy.

Like many lines of work, you really need to find a way to love the process here.

If you’re experiencing burnout, you probably don’t love the process. If you groan at a long list of discussions to participate in, you probably don’t love the process. If you’re finding yourself copying and pasting template welcomes or support messages, you probably don’t love the process.

You need to find meaning in each interaction. You need to find the joy in ensuring that every interaction makes both of your worlds’ better.

You decide how you will love the process. You might see dozens of daily challenges to find the right combination of words and tone which best convey empathy, compassion, and mutual understanding. You might see your job as getting to improve the lives of hundreds (or thousands) of people each day.

For sure, love and feel proud of the outcomes. But remember you probably won’t see the outcomes unless you truly find a way to love the process.

Collaboration and Competition (Group Badges)

Todd suggested group badges in a client meeting.

As the group achieves more success, it gets more badges. This is an impressive way to promote collaboration, allow everyone to specialize, and build a stronger group identity.

But collaboration has a downside too. People want to get along. This well-intentioned goal can lead to people withholding ideas that might be at odds with the group. Social loafing becomes widespread. If everyone shares in the outcomes regardless of the who created the inputs, why create inputs?

Compromise becomes a necessity for everyone to agree. These compromises can lead to inferior outcomes. Collaboration also entails coordination costs. You need meetings to check everyone is on the same page, address concerns, and plan work etc…Collaboration can easily become dominated by a small group.

The opposite, of course, is competition. Competition fires up tribal motivations. People try harder and get the results they deserve. People are free to tackle any problem in any way they see fit. New ideas rise and fall on merit instead of through compromise. Competition breeds greater diversity.

Yet competition is destructive and wasteful too. It harms relationships and encourages bad behavior. You can beat an opponent by you doing better or them doing worse. Time can be wasted repeating bad ideas. People focus on winning instead of delivering the best outcome.

Do you focus on group success or individual success? Every time you reward or acknowledge an individual or a group, you’re promoting competition or collaboration. This is largely decided by the outcome you want and who benefits.

Competition works best when the outcome trumps group unity. We want top companies to compete ferociously to deliver the best products at the lowest price, for example. Industries develop quickest through intense competition, not close collaboration.

Collaboration works best when group unity trumps the outcome (or when each person has specialized expertise to add). For example, it’s usually best for employees to collaborate rather than compete.

You get to make this decision in your community. Be aware of the trade-offs. When the outcomes extend beyond those making the inputs, you probably want competition. If it doesn’t, aim for collaboration.

New Relic And Intrinsic Motivation

Spend a minute looking at the New Relic Ambassador Program.


Notice the three intrinsically-orientated benefits of participating in the program?

  1. Sharing expertise.
  2. Gaining valuable skills.
  3. Collaborating with top experts.

These are all based upon intrinsic motivations. They focus on self-improvement, exploration, and the sheer joy of the activity.

My colleague Sarah Hawk has spent countless hours reviewing the top member programs of dozens of communities. Very few target intrinsic motivations.

Picking your top members and building an extrinsic reward program around them can easily do more harm than good. Speaking at events through the years, it’s clear that everyone understands the problem with extrinsic rewards. Yet when it comes to applying it, we hesitate. Offering clear rewards feels safer, more established, more predictable.

It’s what most people do right?

I’ll bet that you will see better results if you focus on messaging (and delivering) on promises like sharing expertise, gaining new skills, and collaborating with top experts.

p.s. I’m speaking about community advocacy at the Summit on Customer Engagement tomorrow in Palo Alto. Tickets available.