If You Want An Answer, Ask A Question

To follow on from yesterday’s post, we also looked to see whether asking a question gets more responses in a post title than posting a statement.

Comparing post titles which included a ‘?’ with those that didn’t, the data was pretty clear:

Posts which include a ‘?’ (i.e. ask a question in the subject line) get around 52% more responses.

Types Of Questions And Types Of Expertise

Here are two graphs from some data we scraped last month.

The first graph shows the average number of replies based upon the words used in the subject line.

Posts that have ‘what’ in the subject line get 3x more replies (on average) than any other type of ‘question word’.

This might lead some to conclude you should post more questions with the word ‘what’ and encourage members to do the same.

But take a look at the second graph.

This shows the word ‘how’ shows up almost 6x more frequently than ‘what’.

Two simple theories here.

The first is fairly obvious. Far more people want to know how to do something as opposed to learning what to do.

The second is more interesting. It’s clearly a lot easier to reply to ‘what…?’ questions than ‘how…?’ questions.

When you respond to a what…? question you’re usually giving an opinion. Opinions are fun to give and don’t require much effort or expertise.

But replying to a how…? question is harder. It requires genuine expertise to walk people through the steps of doing a task. It takes more time and effort. Fewer people possess both.

This is a classic example of where the tactics which drive the most engagement don’t drive the most value.

Sure you can post more what..? questions and probably get more responses. But you deliver more value to members by asking, responding to, (and nurturing experts to respond to) the how…? questions.

Downsizing Community Teams

It’s painful to lose members of your community team.

But don’t compound the pain by trying to do the same things with fewer people.

You will burn yourself out and deliver a worse experience.

If the community team is cut, you need to cut some of the activities you’re doing too.

That might be content, running the MVP program, hosting events and activities, or something (please don’t cut moderation). Engage members in the process of deciding what to cut if you like.

Remember, it’s always better to do fewer things extremely well than many things badly.

Responding to Criticism From Members

The best way to respond is with compassion and gratitude to the member who raised the criticism.

Thank them for their viewpoint and for caring. Provide the rationale for things you can’t change, provide updates on the things you can, and do everything in your power to build a bridge of understanding between you both.

You can ask for more information, solicit their input on what they would like to happen, and how. Maybe they even want to be involved in making that change happen?

This turns critics into friends and, maybe, friends into dedicated supporters.

Good community leaders are great at putting their gut emotional reaction aside and building these bridges of understanding. They know how valuable this criticism is.

The worst way to respond is to attack the person who raised the criticism, question their credibility, and attack their motives (worse still is do this in front of other members).

This not only risks creating a division within the community but turns members into enemies and shows to others that criticism isn’t tolerated here.

Criticism is incredibly valuable. Without criticism, you can’t have an authentic community. No-one wants to feel they can’t speak freely within a community.

One negative voice opens the door for others to express similar views and prevents a spiral of silence from forming. Criticism helps you stay close to what your members really want and not what you hope (or think) they want.

Personally attacking a member for voicing criticism is never the right approach.

Don’t reject criticism, seek it out, and welcome it. Validate it when it arrives and show members you want their views even especially when they are critical of you.

Why Time To First Response Matters (the 18 hour rule)

We recently looked at a large dataset of several dozen communities to determine if the time to first response influenced the odds of someone participating again.

This is what we found:

After just 18 hours, the likelihood of a member ever participating again drops precipitously.

If you’re looking at a community system today, I’d suggest:

1) Develop a system to flag when a newcomer has made their first post.

2) If the newcomer didn’t get a response within the first few hours, flag the post to the community team or participants of the MVP program.

3) If there still isn’t a response after 18 hours, respond yourself as a priority.

I’d love to see community platforms that could prioritise questions to reply to by attributes like this. But until we have this, it’s worth doing yourself.

Experts, Expertise, and 20% of Questions

Nick writes about the role of experts in communities of practice (although the post is appropriate for any kind of community).

He also shares this table:

In most situations, expert predictions perform worse than both AI and the wisdom of the crowd. Nick terms this ‘the expert squeeze’.

In many support communities, deep subject matter expertise isn’t worth much more than someone who solved the problem yesterday. Once someone has given you the answer, you can share the answer with the next person.

In fact, the majority of questions asked are so far below their level that a real expert would be bored to tears answering them. It’s like asking a scientist to answer questions on Twitter.

Hence, many superusers aren’t top experts, but simply people who like helping out and have solved the 20% of problems which account for 80% of the problems people face.

For some projects – especially big, internal, collaboration projects real experts are important, as Nick notes, for guiding the debate and identifying what’s needed to move the discussion forward. But in many other communities, someone who solved the problem yesterday is as good as anyone else.

The Problem And Opportunity In Paid Membership Sites

Paid membership sites often follow a similar arc.

First, you realise that converting just 5% of your 10k audience into paying members (say, $25 per month) will generate $150k+ per year.

That doesn’t seem too hard!

So you start creating premium content to get people to subscribe. This works at first. People sign up. However, it never reaches 5% and the rate of growth slows after the first few months. When people’s credit cards expire, so does their membership.

One way to fight churn is to create even more content. But soon you’re spending all your time overwhelming people with content they never have time to read.

When content is the reason for people to join, you’re not selling a membership site, you’re selling an online magazine subscription.

The best paid membership sites create an environment that connects people in a way that adds indispensable value to people’s lives. They know the payment is a barrier that enables exciting interactions to happen. The most common are:

  • Privacy and emotional support. A place where people can speak more honestly and openly than anywhere else.
  • Status. A place where people can engage just with the top people in their field and have a high signal to noise ratio.
  • Collaboration. A place that brings people together to collaborate on specific issues and publish their results.

Once you realise you’re not selling content but emotional support, status, and a chance to collaborate on things that matter, you can spend less time crafting unread articles and more time weaving together the relationships that matter.

Running A Simple ‘Helpful Content’ Analysis

This abstract reminded me of a recent project.

Over the summer, we worked with a community team that spent just over 40% of their time creating content for members.

They were creating videos, webinars, playbooks, announcements, writing personal blog posts, etc…

But they hadn’t ever checked which content was most helpful to members. They simply kept pumping out more of it.

We suspected this was overkill but needed the data to prove it.

So we ran three simple analyses.

The first was a simple regression analysis. We clustered the content into groups by the medium (videos, webinars etc..) and looked to see which type of content received the most helpful votes.

Next, we did the same analysis but clustered the content by topic.

Finally, we interviewed a handful of community members and asked them to recall which content they had found most useful within the past few years.

The first analysis showed playbooks were by far the most popular type of content. Announcements scored dead-last (despite the team having to spend the most amount of time jumping through numerous internal hurdles to post these).

The second showed newcomer level content received slightly more helpful votes than any other type.

The interviews, however, yielded the most fascinating insight; community members couldn’t keep up. They would bookmark material which seemed really useful but never get around to reading it. This made them feel bad.

In short, the effort the community team was putting into creating lots of fresh content was making members feel bad.

We ran a follow-up analysis and discovered the number of helpful votes had declined in recent years in an almost inverse proportion to the quantity of content created.

We then used this data to drastically cut down on the quantity of content created, stop publishing announcements, and double-down on the playbooks and newcomer-level material.

This kind of analysis isn’t especially difficult to do and can help you save time while giving members a better experience.

More Satisfaction, More Relevance, More Utility?

One problem with chasing engagement metrics is they simply can’t rise forever.

At some point it levels off. And then what?

Worse yet, engagement comes at a cost of satisfaction.

Are any of us more satisfied using any of the major social media tools these days?

Combine any engagement target with a satisfaction or relevancy goal. Use surveys or pop-up polls if you like. There’s no point in having a more engaged community if it’s a less happy and satisfied community.

What’s A Superuser Worth?

We recently put together a proposal for launching a superuser program.

The recipient seemed hesitant about spending [x] amount on a program to foster a relatively tiny group of members.

How much is a superuser really worth?

This is an interesting question. You could go down the financial route.

You could estimate how much time a superuser spends helping others in a community and compare that with the cost of a paid employee (though be aware displacing paid work has legal implications).

You could total up how many questions they answer and the value of those answers.

But the real value of superusers is far more simple; the community simply won’t succeed without them.

You can invest all the time and money into the platform and staff you like, but if you don’t manage to nurture a tiny group of people who are really passionate about the community, it dies.

Communities without dedicated superusers have low response rates, no real sense of culture, and usually become life-support communities. The community manager must provide every zap of activity for anything to happen.

So, how much are superusers worth? Well, the entire success of the community depends upon nurturing a small group of them.

Can You Stomach The Downsides?

There are plenty of ways to make a new community unique.

  • You can make it exclusive and invite only.
  • You can target a particular vertical or horizontal.
  • You can focus on a particular niche within the topic.
  • You can make it a movement.
  • You can moderate it better for a better signal to noise ratio.
  • You can focus on a particular type of activity within the community.

etc…

At this stage almost every idea seems exciting.

If only it were this easy. Every single approach that makes a community unique also has downsides that are going to upset potential community members too.

  • If you’re making your community exclusive, who won’t you allow to join?
  • If you’re targeting a particular vertical, horizontal, or niche, will you remove discussions, content, and activities outside of this area (even if members really want to talk about it?)
  • If you’re creating a movement, are you prepared to annoy people who are very happy with the status quo?
  • If you’re moderating for a better signal to noise ratio, are you prepared to remove a lot of content from members?
  • If you’re focusing on a particular type of activity (i.e. members sharing video lessons), are you sure members will do this en-masse?

When faced with the downsides, the temptation is to dumb down the idea to make it as palatable to everyone as possible.

But that results in JAC (just another community).

The reason why everyone isn’t creating unique communities that explode to life is they can’t stomach the trade-offs to make a truly unique community.

Don’t use the downsides as an argument not to pursue an idea, use them to clarify the idea. Get into the weeds and be as bold as you dare.

Also, remember, you can’t create a unique community while pleasing everyone.

“If I Had More Resources…”

…you would have fewer excuses.

Blaming a lack of engagement on a lack of resources is great, no-one can ever prove you wrong. But that doesn’t mean you’re right.

There are thousands of thriving communities founded by passionate amateurs today who had far fewer resources than you.

The problem is rarely a lack of resources, but often a lack of ingenuity and permission.

Ingenuity matters a lot. If you don’t have the right community concept, can’t find clever ways to keep members engaged, or foster a desire in members to invite others, you’re going to struggle. None of these things are resource-intensive.

Often the problem isn’t a lack of resources but a lack of permission. Permission to do things that need to be done has a far bigger impact on participation than money. If you don’t have permission to promote your community to your customer base, integrate it with the product/service experience, or use the right platform, that can be a killer. And permission is about credibility.

Demonstrate what you can do with what you have. Then ask for more. Asking people to put more resources into a struggling project is never a winner. If you can’t drive a good level of engagement with limited resources, you’re not going to do much better with more resources.

You need to drive plenty of engagement before getting more resources. Companies want to back winners, not losers.

Remember also the kill zone is real. The bigger your community budget, the bigger target it becomes during hard times.