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.
You’ve launched your online community. You’ve got hundreds, maybe thousands, of active members.
But there is a problem; you’re not sure what you want them to do.
You’re not alone, this happens to the majority of companies we’ve worked with. Many have invested a lot of time and resources to get members to participate without ever answering the fundamental question; ‘what do we need our members to do?’
This usually leads to asking the wrong members to do the wrong things. Fortunately, it’s a very fixable problem.
In this post, I want to take you through a process we go through with clients. This highlights the most valuable things a member can do, the challenges you will need to overcome, and a framework you can use to move forward.
Only A Small Percentage Of Community Contributions Matter
Only a few contributions to your community are valuable. These are the contributions which drive the results you want. They also tend to bring in other members, set the tone for the community, and carve out a unique identity.
You can have a lot of people talking about a lot of things in a place you control (and pay for), but this doesn’t mean it’s valuable. This is like owning a popular bar where people bring their own drinks. Your members get the social benefits while you pay for the overheads.
Your mission is to get every member making their best possible contribution to the community. These are valuable contributions which help you achieve your goal.
What Should Your Active Members Do?
Let’s focus on active members here (we will cover lurkers another time).
Begin by working backward from the result you want. Use this table below if it helps.
This isn’t a definitive list. You should notice however that only a very narrow number of contributions are valuable from active members.
If you want to avoid building another opinion-sharing community, you need to be clear what you want your contributors (usually up to 10% of your membership) to do first.
Select the contributions that most closely match up your goal. Be very clear and specific in the contributions you want members to make.
e.g. ‘members writing detailed blog posts’ as opposed to ‘members sharing good advice’
By the end of this stage you should have identified the contributions you need to achieve your goal.
Great Examples Of Valuable Contributions
The best communities are defined by the great contributions members make.
If you need some examples, here are a few:
- The Spotify Rock Star program has a few hundred people who contribute thousands of great quality solutions every year. These great contributions (quick, personalized, solutions) bring in hundreds of thousands of members and reduce support costs for 6.4m+ members.
- ProjectManagement.com has the smartest people in Project Management sharing detailed articles and resources. These templates and resources saves thousands of people spending days, even weeks, of their lives creating their own resources to do their work. They also serve as a premium feature of the community.
- The Adobe forums has thousands of members sharing their best tips to use the products better. These tips aren’t just targeted at the elite experts, they’re targeted at the far bigger audience of newcomers. This reduces churn, increases loyalty, and improves search traffic.
- Goodreads has members publishing dozens of independent, quality, reviews every minute. This provides Amazon with a treasure trove of information and increases sales.
Each of the communities above are crystal clear in what they wanted members to do. They orientate their activities around these goals. They didn’t hope they would happen by chance if they got enough activity, they proactively drove those behaviors first.
Why Your Members Aren’t Making Great Contributions
Most people, perhaps you too, are making the same mistake. You’re asking members to make contributions they don’t have the skill, time, and motivation to create.
Once you’ve identified the contributions you want, it’s tempting to start blasting messages out to members asking them to make those contributions.
The problem is different kinds of contributions require different attributes from members. A newcomer to the field can hardly be expected to share expert advice.
…But that’s exactly what happens in many communities(!)
These attributes typically fall within three categories;
1) Skills/experience. Great contributions like those above require a significant experience or an acquired skill. If a member doesn’t feel they have a unique skill or experience to share with the community, they won’t participate.
2) Motivation. Motivating refers to deviance from normal behavior. This means getting members to proactively do something they wouldn’t usually do (and don’t see peers doing).
3) Time. This refers to taking an hour or more to contribute the contribution. If you’re writing a review, this doesn’t matter, but if you’re about to share a detailed resource or host an AMA, the member needs the time to create that post.
You can influence each of these a little. You can train members, reduce the time it makes to make a great contribution (e.g. pre-set resources/templates), and deploy motivational messages. This is good practice too. But you’re still going to be working within these relatively fixed restraints. You can’t get members to do things they aren’t able (or willing) to do.
So, what’s the solution?
Going Beyond An Opinion-Sharing Community
You need to match the kind of contributions you want to the members who have the skill/experience, motivation, and time to do those things.
This means identifying members who have the ability to make these contributions and spending more time on them. You can use different systems for each of these.
1) Skill/Expertise. Tag members who demonstrate expertise in a particular niche. You and your volunteers can use admin notes on profiles, create customer badges, or keep a separate list on excel/google sheets (the latter is easiest). Whenever a member makes a great contribution on a topic, tag the contribution to member’s profile/contribution.
2) Motivation. This is harder to fathom. One simple method is to look either at members who create the most posts, those who create deviant posts (e.g. publishing something different or unique), or use your own subjective observations. Listing members by the number of posts they have made is easiest. Set a mark, usually 5+ contributions in the past month.
3) Time. Create a list of members who have either spent the most time on the site or read the most posts within the previous 60 days. You can do this by either listing members by time spent or the site/posts read. You can list members from native features or, if you’re pulling data from the server logs, you can run a simple query below.
This provides a list of members who have read more than 50+ posts within the past 60 days (you can change these variables to suit you).
You can build increasingly complex and automated systems to add people to the right list. The key principle is you should now be able to divide your regular members into active groups based upon the table below:
(yes, this list is quite subjective)
Now you place many of your active members into the categories above (feel free to add your own) and pursue those on lists which lead to the contributions you need to achieve your goals.
- If someone appears on all three lists, you want to invite them to share a detailed resource/template based upon their expertise. Highlight the kind of resources you need, emphasize the status of those resources, identify similar resources elsewhere for them.
- If someone appears on experience and motivation, you want to see if they can share their best tips or solutions on a semi-regular basis. Highlight the tips required, the impact they have, and make a big deal out of great tips shared.
- If someone appears on time and motivation, guide them to volunteer or leadership roles within the community (hosting interviews, welcoming members, moderating areas of the site etc…).
- If someone appears just on motivation, ask them to highlight or vote on the kind of content or material they would love to see in the community. Then feed this back to members creating tips/resources.
- If someone appears just on one list (e.g. experience), you might want them to share reviews or help connect members where possible. etc…
The more resources you have, the more lists you can pursue.
You can begin with just a single list if you like (perhaps resources/templates), find people who fall into that category, and see if you can start adding some tremendous templates and resources to your community. This is terrific for lead generation.
Your goal by the end of this is to make sure every member is making their best possible contribution to the community.
The equation is simple. If you want more support for the community, you have to show the community is driving more value.
The common mistake is to equate value to activity and trying to attract more members to drive more activity.
Having undertaken in-depth interviews with almost 70 people for my book, I feel fairly confident to say that there is a far more effective option. You don’t need more members, you need better systems to capture and use the value you have already created.
The Insights Matrix
Online communities are rivers of powerful insights. We usually let these insights wash away because we don’t have good systems to capture and use them.
This, in turn, means our communities aren’t generating anywhere near the value they should be. Which, in turn, means were’ not getting the support we need to build the incredible communities we want to create.
If we can better capture and use these insights, we can solve these problems.
We can divide these insights down into the four distinct categories we see below.
|Members||Aware||Ideas and opinions
This includes ideation, co-creation, surveys, polls interviews, asking for ideas and feedback.
e.g. asking customers what they think about a product.
This includes problem posts, voting on problems (or ‘me too’) posts.
e.g. finding out what customers are really angry about.
|Unaware||Sentiment And Qualitative Data
This includes tracking mentions and popularity of topics. It involves identifying the words and language members use.
e.g. waiting to see what your best customers say about a product.
This includes click-through rates, conversion rates, attribution, landing page data.
e.g. tracking what people are most interested in about the product.
These insights are categorized by whether:
a) they are solicited by the organization.
b) our audience knows they’re generating insights.
Solicitation matters because asking someone what they think gives you a very different type of insight from a furious member complaining about a problem.
Audience awareness matters because members have a tendency to lie or struggle to explain what they really want. Fortunately, their clicks don’t lie.
You’re probably capturing at least one type of insight today, but you can immediately bring more value to the table if you start capturing multiple types of insights.
1) Ideas and Opinions
Any time you ask members for feedback, you’re going to get their ideas and opinions.
Ideas are useful both in themselves and also to validate or challenge existing thinking, identify great talent, and get a range of options to choose from. If no-one else can come up with a better solution to a problem than you have today, you can probably move on to the next thing.
In practice, this falls into two buckets. Insights generated through a dedicated platform and those sought after through more traditional platforms.
The dedicated platforms include:
- Ideation platforms. In an ideation platform, members are invited to submit ideas and vote on the ones they like best. This usually involves a platform like BrightIdea, Spigit, Charodix etc…
- Competition platforms. In a competition platform, members are set a challenge and invited to work together to come up with the best solution. Good examples here include Kaggle, Topcoder, 99designs.
- Co-creation platforms. In a co-creation platform, members collaborate with each other to develop a bigger project. Many open-source platforms can fall under this banner. Other common examples might include Forth and platforms like Jovoto and others. Though, in practice, outside of open-source its rare for members to refine and update each other’s ideas.
You can find a bigger list of platforms here. Pricing ranges from a few hundred dollars per year to low-six figure sums for larger efforts which require high levels of customization.
These platforms are essentially efforts that align the goal of the community to a single type of insight. It’s more effective for that purpose but limiting if you want any other kind of insights.
This leads us to the second category of ideas, those sought after on a more ad-hoc basis without a dedicated platform. This includes:
- Surveying community members. You can ask members a range of questions about their opinions on products, their problems, or what they would prioritize. SurveyMonkey is probably the simplest tool.
- Running a community poll. You can run a poll and get immediate feedback from members on a single question. Most platforms have this as a native feature today. Getting feedback from most members on a single question. Otherwise SurveyMonkey and Doodle are quite simple options.
- Interviewing community members. In-depth interviews give you deep, qualitative, data on members. This can help you build profiles, better understand the problems, and appreciate how people conceive the problem. I personally use Skype with SkypeRecorder for these. I also transcribe each interview in real-time with a few pre-set questions to begin.
- Initiating discussion questions. The easiest way to get feedback is to use the community what it is there for, asking questions and getting responses. This gives you a quick and simple understanding of what your participants (not to be generalized to your community) want.
Capturing and using these ideas and opinions:
There are a lot of different ways you can make this work for you without building a dedicated platform. The easiest might include:
- Set a competition to solve a problem your marketing/engineering teams are struggling with. Have a small prize for the best response (or top 3 responses). Be sure to check the law on competitions.
- Ask members to review upcoming content before it’s published (I’m doing this with my book). Find out what they like about it, don’t like about it. Does it make sense? Is it relevant? Does it read well? What were their main takeaways?
- Ask engineers what features they would like feedback on and run a poll or survey on those issues. Solicit questions from your colleagues on a regular basis to run past the community. Find out how many ideas they want, what format they want them in, and when they want them.
- Get snapshot responses to any question raised in meetings that would benefit from quick feedback.
- Ask members what they would most like to change about your product/service and feeding that information back to your colleagues.
- Highlight the roadmap and ask members to prioritize what order they want these items fixed in a survey.
You can develop plenty of your own ideas here too.
Be sure to find out exactly what feedback about your product, PR, and marketing teams would most love to see and set questions, polls, or surveys in the community to gather that feedback.
Complaints are often more powerful than ideas because they reveal what members really care about.
If someone takes the time and energy to write a complaint, you can be sure the problem is important to them. Solicited ideas might reveal preferences, but complaints highlight what will influence purchase decisions.
Complaints can also act as an early warning system to any upcoming problems and avoid PR disasters. They also give you a great opportunity to correct bad strategy mistakes and turn unhappy members into satisfied participants, if not eager advocates.
However, the number of complaints received via customer support tickets or calls usually dwarfs those received by the community. But the community typically contains an organization’s most dedicated fans/supporters.
A community shows what your best customers are upset about. If you lose your best customers, you have a major problem.
Many communities are launched as a customer support channel, this means they host only complaints. Others try to focus on the positive aspects of the product, but often become overwhelmed by the negative tone of discussions.
Capturing and using these insights:
- Setup a place in the community for member complaints and share this link with the people that need to see them. This also separates the positive community discussions from the negative.
- Tag or screenshot each complaint (or the biggest complaints) and compile these into a simple briefing for engineers or product managers at the end of the week.
- Find out from colleagues what complaints they want to be immediately escalated internally and train your staff/volunteers on what to do with these complaints.
- Report which areas/features get the most complaints.
- Respond quickly (where legally possible) to every complaint that’s received within the community and demonstrate a positive approach to trying to solve the problem.
You want to develop your own system for tagging, screenshotting, or having a place for members to post complaints. Evernote is the simplest, but far from the only solution. Most platforms will either let you ‘tag’ a discussion or add a note to these discussions. This lets you pull these complaints in a query.
3) Sentiment and Qualitative Data
Every day your audience is giving you great insights in both their sentiment and the choice of words they use. Each of these has different benefits.
Qualitative data (or sentiment) is great for analyzing how much people care about a complaint they have posted. It can help prioritise which complaints to focus on. For example, a large number of members might be mildly irritated by a feature most used, but a smaller group might be furious about a less used feature. You might want to prioritise the latter or risk losing that smaller group of customers.
Alternatively, you might notice members no longer speak about a product or the company as positively as they once did. This portends a major problem you should raise at the next company meeting.
Finally, how a member describes a problem is very useful. You can find out exactly how members talk about issues and describe problems.
This can be passed on to copywriters, marketers, your PR team, and anyone involved in writing anything members read. When you start using the exact words members use, you get a better response (as well as SEO benefits).
Capturing and using sentiment:
- Run your community logs (or URL) through a sentiment analysis tool to either track positive/negative sentiment broadly or towards a particular product. There are plenty of social media focused tools that do this, but a few others like blockspring and Haven will either let you build your own or do this for you (note: I’ve never used Haven). You can also track mentions of specific words that might be associated with positive or negative sentiment.
- Capture the titles and words members use to describe their problems and feed this data back to the people that write the FAQ, help center, and marketing copy. This helps them ensure they’re using the language members best understand.
- Track which topics are most popular within the community and share this information with people who provide this data. See which discussions have the highest level of positivity associated with them.
Word of warning, sentiment tools are addictive. Make sure you know what you’re looking for before you use one.
Behavioral insights are usually the most powerful (and the most overlooked).
It’s one thing to track what members say, it’s another matter entirely to track what members do.
Behavioral insights are relatively easy to setup and use. You can use Google Analytics and other simple tools to easily see what pages most people arrive on and make inferences about what got them there. If most people are arriving at a discussion about ‘cheap conference venues in London?’, you might want to create content about the topic.
You can also see which categories (or topics) are rising and falling in popularity. Your colleagues can then devote more time to creating content or product features within these categories and devote more time to creating content or product features within those categories.
Click data reveals trends and shows what’s rising and falling in popularity. It can tell you exactly what members are doing and help you personalize activities for your members. It also helps you to optimize for key topics.
Capturing and using behavioral data
These systems can become considerably complex, but at their easiest you can usually do the following:
- Ensure each discussion is not just placed within a category, but properly tagged. Track and report the popularity of each tag (by visits and comments) to identify possible trends and feed these trends back to colleagues.
- Track the top 50 landing pages to the community each month. This reveals what members (and, most often, newcomers to the topic) are searching for. Your marketing team can create more content around these trends to capture newcomers.
- Use Google Analytics to check where members are visiting from (geographic region as well as demographic data). This might reveal the need to translate your product content or sell the product to new regions. It might at least identify possible favourable markets.
- Track where members arrive from. High-volume websites might indicate opportunities for referral/partnership programs.
- Track visits from specific devices or on multiple browsers. This may show a need to cater the product or material to those browsers or devices.
This is far from a definitive list. Start with something simple and expand gradually to add greater depths of insights.
Your colleagues might not act on a single data point, but if the information proves credible it becomes a powerful and invaluable asset to have.
Pros and Cons Of Each System
Each of the options above have various pros and cons.
|Ideas and opinions||
|Sentiment and language||
Download Our Reporting Sheet
Once you begin collecting your insights, you will also want to share them more broadly than just the immediate person in need. This is why you should prepare an insights report to share around at each meeting and email to a broader group at the end of each month.
This covers the summary, the key takeaways in each of the four areas above, next steps, and insights implement.
Make sure everyone is aware of previous insights which have been implemented as a result of the community.
You can download our worksheet here:
Getting great insights from your members to your colleagues is the most effective way to increase the value of the community. But you need to work at both ends. You need to find out what insights your colleagues most need and develop systems to capture those insights.
Your success (and the success of the community) depends not on how much activity you generate or how many members you persuade to join, but by how useful your colleagues find the community.
If you collect a lot of great insights they can use, you will quickly win them over and build the kind of community you want to create.
You can even watch the slideshare below (click here if it doesn’t appear), or read the breakdown below.
StackOverflow was launched in 2008 as a Q&A site for programmers. It has since grown to 50 million monthly visitors and is the crown jewel of the expansive StackExchange network.
StackOverflow enforces extremely strict moderation policies designed to get great answers to great questions. It does not allow casual chatter on the main community platform. This is unique amongst most organizations.
Unlike other branded communities, StackOverflow earns direct revenue from the community via recruitment (talent), advertising (ads), and helping companies create their own private instance of StackOverflow within their organization.
The community consists of several core areas:
1) Questions. The community is entirely orientated around ‘questions’ which also appear on the landing page of the community.
2) Developer Jobs. Programmers can search and find jobs published by paying advertisers on the community.
3) Tags. These are keywords or labels that members can browse through to find relevant information.
4) Users. Members can browse through the list of users and search by keywords.
5) Developer Stories. This is where members can create their ‘online resumes’.
6) Business Solutions. For businesses who want to hire, advertise, or use StackOverflow in their work.
- The community has a different homepage for visitors compared with logged in members. This is really smart to do. Visitors have different needs than logged in, returning, members. The focus is more upon registration.
- The community is entirely focused on the latest activity. Members are expected to scroll through and find questions to answer. This is a fixed list rather than infinite scroll.
- The search box is slightly hidden, but not too hard to find at the top.
- There is a good selection of tabs. But it’s not clear what the difference between interesting and featured is. Can probably remove a few of these.
- Clear gamification features and notifications on previous posts in the top right.
- The ‘Ask Question’ button is a little hard to see.
- This is a good use of showing the popularity of questions by votes, answers, and views. People know how popular a question is without having to click the link.
- Most of the questions here seem very unpopular. This is due to the sheer ferocity of questions StackOverflow receives. Might be worthwhile showing questions which are popular but not answered yet.
- The display of tags beneath the question is excellent.
- Look out for the blog integration in the top right to show the latest news about the community here. This doesn’t intrude on the main activity, but lets people know the broader community news
- The add/edit favorite tags on the right hand side is useful.
- This advertising works. It’s not too intrusive or hurtful to the user experience.
- The ‘latest activity’ metrics show a clearly active site. This is good to show before clicking the question.
- The mobile version of the visitor homepage removes the registration form and tags. It focuses purely on showing the latest questions.
- The ‘ask question’ option has also curiously vanished.
- The slimmed down nature of the site makes it ideal for visitors looking to scroll through questions – possibly without participating.
USER EXPERIENCE AND PARTICIPATION
- StackOverflow is hosted on a custom-built site. While most main platforms have auto-complete search, StackOverflow does not. The search bar expands, but does not display the relevant questions and discussions in drop down mode.
- Search works well. It shows not just relevant questions, but also the specific and highest voted answers to those questions.
- The speed of search is also faster than any other community visited.
- Next to the search results are also ‘advanced search tips’. This is an incredibly useful and interesting addition to programmers. It helps people find the answer to their question even faster.
- StackOverflow tackles the ‘repeat question’ problem by forcing you to thoroughly research the answer first. This is the screen you see when you select ‘ask question’.
- The tips are good and include relevant links. Although many members probably skim right past this.
- I love this ‘tick box’ along with the ‘open mind’ text to confirm that this has been read.
- The ‘adapted from Google’ section in the top right is something other communities can easily use.
- Related links to ask a good question are also a nice touch. It might be a good idea to guide newcomers to read this before asking a question, otherwise I suspect most people will ignore this.
- StackOverflow continues its maniacal focus on good questions by providing prompts at each stage of asking a question. Here there is a prompt in default, the title itself to be specific along with advice on the right hand side to provide details, share research, and ask unrelated questions about the community in the meta area.
- StackOverflow also provides a relevant link to the help center. This ensures people begin questions with the right mindset and a good, specific, title.
- When you click on the box to enter your question, formatting help appears on the right-hand side. These small prompts are incredibly useful. Each of the main tabs (links, images etc…) also drops down to reveal further advice as part of advanced help.
- As you begin typing the question, it appears in preview mode below so you can see exactly how the question will appear. Similar questions will also appear on the right-hand side.
- This appears complicated as you begin typing the question. However, if StackOverflow detects something which is incorrect, you receive a bright red notification. You cannot post the question until you’ve resolved this problem. This is another very neat touch.
- You can also see the advanced help above the question, the preview below, and the similar questions on the right hand side.
- The community shows suggested tags from those mentioned in the question or using AI from previous questions.
- If you begin to type your own tag, a drop-down box of relevant tags appears below along with a description. This makes tagging really easy (and enforced).
RESPONDING TO QUESTIONS
- Questions are clearly displayed with regard to the audience’s expectations. Here the coding is properly formatted and shown within the questions with simple tags.
- Members can do one of a few things. They can either vote, favourite, comment, or answer the question. However, newcomers are not allowed to vote on questions until they have a 15-point reputation score.
- Commenting on a question is a novel feature of StackOverflow. It’s designed to improve the quality of the question and provide feedback to the original poster as well as providing more information for people to create good answers.
- This would be distracting in most online communities, but works well when good quality answers is the overriding part of the community concept.
- As we can begin to expect now, answering questions contains further prompts about what to do to provide a really good answer.
- The link to further tips on writing great answers is also a great practice to observe and easy to replicate.
- One of the truly unique aspects of StackOverflow’s community is the ability of members to edit the questions and answers of other members. Everyone has the ability to do this, although the process is peer-reviewed.
- Edits are used to fix grammatical errors, clarify meaning, correct minor mistakes, and add related resources. Aside from Wikipedia, I haven’t seen any other community successfully implement this feature.
- Unlike most organisations where empathy in responses is a critical part of the response, StackOverflow is designed for an audience that only wants good, quick, answers to questions.
- Almost all questions receive a quick response. The responses are usually detailed and specific to help the person. In this case, it’s code that the programmer might like to use to resolve the problem they are facing.
REGISTRATION AND ONBOARDING
- StackOverflow doesn’t have a separate registration page, visitors are encouraged to register with the fields shown within the header at the top of the page. This also allows Google and Facebook sign on.
- Allowing people to register without having a separate registration page is a really clever feature.
- StackOverflow has the easiest email confirmation page you will ever see. They have reduced the amount of copy to just 9 words. You can consider doing something similar with your email confirmations.
- This is really simple copy at the top to get people started. Not sure on the logo mind.
- I like the phrasing of ‘what should we call you?’
- Profile photo is easy to drag and drop into place.
- Picking a few topics of interest should be a standard feature of all players. It enables members to receive updates on topics which are relevant to them. It encourages a good use of tagging.
- Not sure why this section is relevant, possibly the only area here I’d remove.
- Most importantly here you don’t have to write detailed ‘about me’ paragraphs. You can select the key things that matter.
- Great way to merge in advertising opportunities.
- Notice the ‘all fields are optional’ – I’d move this to the top of the page.
- This welcome email is triggered by participation in the community. The quick summary, learning how to write great answers, and custom views are pretty effective ways to help newcomers get started.
- I suspect there might be an opportunity for improvement here based upon tags people have selected and what the latest activity of the community is.
- Once you join the community you receive a notification with a link to the tutorials page.
- This tutorial page is detailed and explains each of the steps required to become a great participant of the community. The visual element is especially useful.
DEVELOPER JOBS AND STORIES
- The jobs section revolves around developer stories which members are prompted to complete in the community if they want to be open to new job offers. The forms are relatively simple to complete and all fields are required.
- The developer stories are presented really well, with tags at the top (not shown), and then a detailed timeline of previous jobs and experiences below.
- Most communities could adapt this idea to immediately upgrade their member profiles.
- This is a relatively standard and simple list of job adverts. With a search function and location at the top and list of ads displayed below.
- Showing the salary, tags, and ‘be one of the first applicants’ is incredibly smart.
- Letting applicants create job alerts is also extremely clever.
- Showing the previous searches and job preferences is a nice touch. Easy to edit from the front page.
- This section is a relatively simple and clean way of showing the job adverts. This might be the least innovative page of the community.
- A major innovation of the community is to enable members to apply for the job directly within the platform. This includes using their current reputation score to apply for the positions.
- The member profiles is one of the most advanced areas of the community.
- Showing users where they rank comparatively is a smart way to drive more participation and reward the top members.
- Number of badges and reputation points are clearly displayed.
- Other communities where the member participates in. Not relevant for most communities (or here, really)
- The ‘impact score’ in the top right is genius. A great way of showing a member’s total contribution.
- The breakdown on the right hand side of a member’s vital statistics is also useful. Not sure what ‘4 hats’ are though.
- In the bottom right is a further good breakdown of where their expertise lies. You can clearly see where this member’s real expertise is.
- Mid-way down the profile is a list of a member’s top posts. This is a great way of letting the member ‘show off their best work’ without looking like an ass.
- Each member’s badges gained are displayed at the bottom, listed by date and the reason they earned the badge. This is a simple way of displaying the badges. There might be better ways of doing this.
GAMIFICATION AND REWARD SYSTEMS
- StackOverflow also has one of the most advanced gamification systems on the web. This begins at earning privileges for taking simple actions ‘such as creating a post’ all the way up to getting access to analytics with 25,000 points.
- The ticks next to the scores is an especially nice touch.
- This the ‘Tom Sawyer’ effect in action. The more privileges you earn, the more likely you are to take on doing work for the community for free. Full privileges board encourages members to take on more work for free.
- A good menu in the top right explains what’s required to progress to the next level.
- Showing the next privilege and what’s needed to get there is also a smart idea.
- There are multiple types of privileges members can earn, as broken down here.
- There are a near-infinite number of badges members can earn in the StackOverflow community. These range from question, answer, participation, moderation, documentation, and ‘other’ badges.
- The diversity of badges means everyone can and almost certainly will begin collecting badges from the very early days of the community.
- All of the systems are fully documented and explained in detailed guides. This limits confusion and potential anger from members when they don’t get the rewards or privileges they expected. It’s usually a smart move to fully document your reward systems.
- Interestingly, StackOverflow also operates chat rooms which members with a reputation score of at least 20 are allowed to participate in. This type of interaction allows for more general discussion which would be an ill-fit for the quality-information focus of the community.
- This is a good balance between ephemeral and serious discussions which many organisations struggle with. However, they are hard to find on the community.
CONCLUSION – THE MOST ADVANCED ONLINE COMMUNITY ON THE WEB
StackOverflow, with the possible exception of Facebook, has the most advanced and sophisticated community platform on the planet. There are hundreds of tiny details which are all designed to support its core concept of getting great answers to great questions.
To support this mission, StackOverflow deliberately limits engagement in favour of quality contributions. This has the desired impact of attracting the highest quality programmers to share their best advice on the community, but it’s a tough path for others to follow.
However, platform vendors and organisations can learn plenty from StackOverflow’s homepage setup, gamification systems, onboarding systems, and job pages.
There is also plenty to learn here about creating tutorials and nudges throughout the platform to ensure that members make great contributions to the community.
Many organisations would benefit from focusing less on driving as much activity as possible and instead focusing on driving the right kind of activity within their community. This is the real frontier of our work today.
You can visit for yourself at: www.stackoverflow.com.
At some point, almost everyone looks at their community and wishes they could increase engagement. This usually leads to clever ideas that members might find interesting, but soon the novelty wears off and engagement returns to the same level.
The problem is a failure to properly diagnose why engagement decreased. Much like medicine and engineering, it’s far harder to diagnose the problem than to identify the solution. If you properly diagnose the problem, the solutions usually present themselves.
Diagnosing Your Community Engagement Problem
The diagnosis begins from a motivation perspective. You can use our membership motivation model below. This identifies why people don’t visit the community, why people initially participate in a community, and what leads to healthy long-term participation in a community. You should be able to use this to diagnose the problems you need to overcome:
If Your Audience Doesn’t Visit Your Community
The most common problem is people simply aren’t visiting the community. This usually breaks down into four buckets (by descending order of priority):
1) Lack of awareness. No-one can visit your community if they either aren’t aware or have forgotten it exists. You can diagnose this by asking or surveying a random sample of your total audience. Ask them to name any communities they have heard about and see what percentage mentions your community. If it’s less than 5%, you have a big awareness problem.
2) Low value perception. This is when the audience is aware the community exists, but they are not especially motivated to visit. This means your community concept isn’t right.
Ask your audience what challenges they are tackling today and check if this matches the discussions and activities taking place in the community today. You might also want to check Google Trends and other tools to see what terms and topics people are searching for today. Is your community aligned to match?
3) Trust. Here your target audience understands what the value of the community is supposed to be but doesn’t trust you to deliver it. This happens most often when people have visited the community once but didn’t see enough value to visit or participate again. You can diagnose this by asking members if they did visit the community to highlight what advice/value they got from the community.
4) Competitor groups. You’re probably not the only community in town. Members might participate in other groups as well. Their ties to those groups might be hard to break and other groups might be better at delivering on this value than you are. This usually requires focusing on a unique, growing, niche you can dominate (if you’re smaller), or fear of missing out (if you’re the bigger community). This can also be diagnosed by asking your audience what other communities members participate in today.
These are all fundamental problems. You need to have a constant source of new visitors, a relevant community concept, to deliver value, and compete effectively against other groups.
Why People Join And Initially Participate In An Online Community
Once you’ve tackled the fundamentals, you also need to ensure it’s easy for members to make their first contributions to the community. People make their first contributions to an online community for five key reasons. These are to ask a question (or solve a problem), improve their expertise, increase their status, be part of a group, or explore a topic with a group of likeminded friends.
You can reverse engineer this to diagnose why people don’t participate in a community they visit (e.g. why do people only lurk?).
This boils down to:
1) They don’t feel they can ask a question. They either don’t have a question to ask or don’t feel comfortable asking it. The latter usually because of fear about their personal reputation or fear of getting a negative (or no) response.
2) They don’t have expertise to share. People don’t respond to questions or write blog posts because they don’t have the expertise to share or comfort to share their expertise. This happens in many fields where there are a lot of newcomers and the experts are hard to persuade to participate.
3) They don’t feel participating will increase their status. This occurs when the cost/benefit of participating isn’t worthwhile from a status perspective. This means they don’t feel their contributions will get alot of good responses and help increase their status.
4) They don’t feel they will be left behind. In many communities there is no danger of being excluded from a group by not participating. There is no urgency to participate now or fear of missing out.
5) They are not passionate about the topic. Another reason is they aren’t interested enough in the topic to explore it with others. This comes up again when we talk about healthy, long-term, participation.
You can interview or survey people who visit to see what’s preventing them. Alternatively, you can test different ideas from those listed above until you come up with an effective solution. Tip: it’s usually best to work from the top down.
Why Most People Don’t Become Regular, Active, Members
Usually the level of participation declines rapidly after the first contribution to a community. You can see this in our data below:
There are three big reasons for this.
1) They aren’t curious about the topic. They might participate when they have to (for work or to resolve a frustration), but they aren’t motivated to learn more about the topic beyond this level.
2) They don’t enjoy participating in the community. They don’t feel a part of something special when they do participate in the community. They don’t feel they have much control or ownership. They don’t feel it’s a part of their peer group where people like and respect them.
3) They don’t enjoy helping others. They don’t get much joy from helping others. This occurs most often when they don’t receive gratitude for contributions or don’t feel much of a connection to other members. It also arises when they are answering the same questions repeatedly within the community.
All of these tie back to the three root causes that you can work on. These are:
1) Limited sense of competence. If members don’t feel their abilities are growing, have opportunities to demonstrate their abilities, nor have any control over the site, their motivation is sharply reduced.
2) Limited sense of autonomy. If members don’t feel they can participate the way they like, in a way that aligns with their values, and give input into the direction of the community, they are less likely to enjoy participating there.
3) Limited sense of relatedness. In short, they don’t feel liked and respected by other members. There is no larger sense of community forming around the topic that gives people their social identity.
The key here is to gradually increase this sense of competence, autonomy, and relatedness by designing specific journeys you take members through. There are no shortage of tactics here.
Ultimately, to sustain long-term, regular, participation the community ultimately has to offer more than just solutions to problems. It has to offer members the chance to feel really smart, to feel they can finally behave as best aligns with their values, and the opportunity to build strong relationships.
Always Diagnose The Problem First
Before you move on to testing any tactics, properly diagnose the problem. Once you diagnose the problem the solutions usually present themselves.