Tough Decisions Create Clean Homepages

If you ever see a clean and simple community homepage, you can bet they had to make some difficult decisions to get there.

A cluttered homepage is typically the result of a failure to get people aligned on who the community is for, what its purpose is, and what members are meant to do.

If you can’t prioritise (or agree on) what should be featured on the homepage, the obvious solution is everything, i.e. put everything on the homepage and hope members like some of it.

If you want a homepage like Claris, Atlassian, or Temenos, you’re probably going to have to engage colleagues and make some tricky decisions.

Community Member Onboarding Journey Template [free template]

Here’s a simple summer project. Update and improve your community member’s retention rate.

There are a few steps to this.

1) Go through the typical member journey yourself. Take a screenshot of every single page you see along the journey. This might begin with a search results page in Google.

2) Drop every step into Smaply. If you have multiple audiences/journeys, then drop each in here.

3) Get data on how many people advance from each stage. You should usually be able to know how many people click and advance from one action to the next. Better yet, set up the system in Google Sheets to automatically pull this data from Google Analytics.

4) Test and improve every single step. Now go through each stage again and optimize every step of the way. Think clearly about the communications and actions you’re asking members to take.

You can begin with our free template here if you like. This video from a session with Vanilla might also help:

The Default Settings On An Expensive Camera

A relative once bought a very expensive camera.

However, she found the number of new features confusing. So she simply used all the default settings. Her photos turned out the same as her old camera.

This happens a lot in communities too.

When you move from an inexpensive to a premium platform, you have a lot of new features and settings to fiddle with. Many (perhaps most?) organisations are nervous about making tweaks and simply use the default settings. Unsurprisingly, they don’t see the results they were expecting.

Some things to consider here:

First, don’t confuse a default setting with the best practice. The default settings aren’t the combined wisdom of the platform’s many years of experience (trust me, I checked). They’re no better than the default settings on a camera or the default ringtone on your phone. They’re simply settings that you’re expected to change to suit your needs.

Second, there isn’t much point upgrading to a new platform if you’re not going to invest time and money learning how to use it properly. You need to set aside time in your calendar to learn how to do this. This is time-intensive but it’s the entire point. When you move to a new platform the slight change in how members can talk to one another pales in comparison with the extra new features you’re paying for.

Third, take the courses offered by the vendor, have a staging site where you can fiddle with the settings, talk to others using the same platform. Take what’s likely to be a big weakness and turn it into your biggest strength.

Why You Need A Community Manager (and what happens if you don’t replace one)

Back in 2017, my colleague, Sarah Hawk, left her role managing the FeverBee community to take up an incredible new opportunity at Discourse.

I didn’t hire a replacement. For the past three years, the community has been left to manage itself. I’ve dipped in occasionally to respond to discussions, remove spam, make a few tweaks, but that’s about it.

This means the community has unintentionally served as a fascinating natural experiment for what happens when you don’t replace (or don’t hire) a full-time community manager.

If you’re looking to make a case about the importance of a full-time community manager, this data should help.


Increase In The Number of Visitors

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Let’s start with the number of visitors. Things didn’t really change much at first. In fact, the number of visitors continued to increase significantly for the following year. The reason for this is simple; the community was still attracting growing levels of search traffic.


Increase In Search Traffic

As you can see below, the number of visitors is entirely driven by organic search traffic.

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My best guess is the community was still considered ‘fresh’ by Google and the rising increase in discussions kept ranking highly in search engines.

It’s only been in the past year that traffic has really begun to decline – largely the result of formerly popular topics no longer ranking highly in search engines.

Key Takeaway: Even without a community manager you will keep attracting similar (or increased) levels of search traffic for a year or two.


Rapid Decline Pageviews

This is where we can see a more immediate impact of losing the community manager.

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The number of pageviews (which is a fairly good indicator of how engaging people are finding the community) almost immediately dived. We might have been attracting most people, but they were finding the community a lot less engaging.

My guess is the failure to populate the community with fresh, interesting discussions, ensure previous discussions received a response, and do the day to day welcoming work is reflected in an instant decline.


Rapid Decline Engagement Metrics

You can see the same immediate impact in broader engagement metrics too. The number of pages (discussions) members viewed per visit plummeted and the average session duration also fell immediately.

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While the number had fallen a little before the community manager left, this is probably the result of Sarah Hawk working just 2 days a week for FeverBee just prior to her departure.

Interestingly, unlike total page views, engagement metrics seem to ‘bottom out’ at around 2 to 2.5 pages per session and average session duration of about 1:30 to 2:00 minutes. This was primarily new visitors browsing around after most of the regulars had departed.

This might be an interesting benchmark for community professionals (i.e. anything above this line is attributable to the work of a community manager).

Key Takeaway: The moment a community manager leaves you can probably expect an immediate decline in engagement. This will level out at ‘rock bottom’ within about a year.


Community Activity

As expected, when a community manager leaves you see an immediate collapse in the level of participation in the community.

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Some of this is simply the absence of Hawk’s contributions. She was making 80+ posts per month. The majority is members participating less. When she wasn’t there to proactively drive the community, the level of participation quickly declined.

Key takeaway: If a community manager leaves, you need to find a replacement quickly or you lose all the value the community has created.


Daily Active Users / Monthly Active Users (stickiness)

Once Hawk had left, the community also became a lot less ‘sticky’.

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While the data itself is highly variable from month to month, the trend-line broadly shows a clear decline in stickiness until (again) a baseline is reached.

Members who did visit (i.e. regulars), were suddenly visiting a lot less frequently. 20% is often considered the standard to aim for here. And the FeverBee community was within touching distance of that before Hawk left.



Could these results be more conclusive?

Communities can’t run themselves. Large communities might fare slightly better than smaller communities like ours, but you still need someone at the helm.

Not replacing the community manager immediately reversed the direction of the community from one which was increasing in activity and engagement to one that went into a tailspin decline.

Note: You might notice several of these metrics were in decline just prior to the community manager’s departure. I’d attribute this to a) Sarah Hawk leaving half-way through the month of July and b) she only worked 2 days a week just prior to her departure.

If you want a community to thrive and reach a critical mass of activity, you need a full-time community manager to make that work. You can’t wait for a community to be successful and then hire one. And if your community manager leaves, you better find a replacement quickly.

‘White Hat’ Trolls

Most technology platforms hire white hat (ethical) hackers to undertake regular penetration testing (simulated cyber attacks) to identify and fix potential threats.

But your community doesn’t just face cyber attacks, it faces social attacks too!

As you grow you face the constant threat of bad actors joining your community to manipulate and cause harm.

Maybe we need ‘white hat trolls’ too?

Can a ‘white hat’ troll join your community, spam other members in private messages, share fake news, and lower the quality of conversation in the community without getting caught? Are your systems for preventing manipulation of bad actors as robust as you think they are?

It’s harder to run a white-hat test of your moderation systems, but the results might just be as valuable.

Why Growth in Engagement Slows (5 reasons)

There are several possible reasons.

1) The people most likely to join your community are already members (or decided not to join). Like a virus, people are either infected or ‘immune’ to it. Those left to reach are either new to the topic or in tricky places (language barriers, technology barriers, less interested in the topic). You see this in the community lifecycle.

2) You changed something about your website or promotion. You made a tweak that affected how many people visit your community. This is either a technical tweak on the community site that hurt your search traffic or a change in the service or company website which now sends less traffic to the community. Give this up to six months. If nothing has changed, you need to make another tweak.

3) The community experience has gotten worse. The community experience has worsened. You might not have updated your filter system as you grew, the quality of responses has declined, or the community is less welcoming. Too few newcomers are sticking around.

4) Most topics have already been covered. You’re the victim of your success. Most of the common questions have already been asked. Members can find the answer without having to ask the question.

5) Fewer people are interested in the topic. The overall popularity of the topic is in decline. Less people are searching for relevant search terms or your customer-base is shrinking. New competitors might have emerged where people can have a similar experience.

Growth in engagement will naturally slow over time. That’s to be expected and isn’t a problem.

The danger begins when slowing growth precipitates a perpetual decline. When you’re not attracting enough newcomers to replace the community’s natural churn, you need to take action.

Don’t Use Pure Voting Systems

Community voting systems often create front pages filled with professional-looking content.

This might include detailed, long-form, articles, professional-looking videos and images, or podcasts few can create.

This deters most members from participating.

If a member doesn’t feel they can create content at a similar level, they don’t participate.

That’s why you usually don’t want a pure voting system. It too often reflects the skill set and resources of a core few members which sideline the rest.

Instead, you want to have featured content, discussions, and other materials that you (and a few allies) select to appear on the front page too. Call it ‘editor’s picks’ if you like.

Feature the raw content with blemishes. Show the diversity of the community (of people and their creations). Make it obvious that this is a community that welcomes all contributions.

Cut Out Every Unnecessary Word

You’re probably communicating too much redundant information to your community.

You might be sending out too many messages or by filling those messages with unnecessary information.

This causes two problems.

First, you’re burying the key points in any message. Your members are less likely to do what you need them to do if you’re overwhelming them with too much information. And that point of overwhelm is a lot lower than you might imagine.

Second, it’s training your audience to ignore most of what you say. If you fill your communications with too much redundant information, members get used to ignoring most of it.

Many community’s use some variation of the following in their newcomer journey:

“Subject: Welcome to the community”

“Welcome to the community! We’re thrilled to have you with us and we’re looking forward to helping you in your [xyz] journey. The [xyz] community is a place to ask and answer questions, browse for information and make connections with people just like you.”

This entire paragraph is redundant and the subject line is written to be ignored.

No-one will remember it tomorrow and the word ‘community’ pretty much implies all of the above. If people can see questions and answers on the homepage, then you don’t need to announce that’s what they can do there.

Your members will only remember 2 to 3 points of any communication – and that will only happen if they stand out and are memorably written.

Far better to use something like:

“Subject: 3 Things Insiders Know About [Topic] (that you probably don’t)”

“Let’s get started

There are three things our members know which you probably don’t (yet).

These are:….





Whatever I write for 1), 2), and 3), I can pretty much guarantee the majority of people will read it.

I can put in unique rules, inside jokes, or some background information that will engage members far better than any dull welcome email.

So, do a review of the copy on your site and the information you’re sending out. Try to remove about a 3rd of your copy and a 3rd of the content within your copy. Then rewrite it to be far more engaging.

Developing A Great Community Strategy

“I’ve written a great community strategy, but can’t get the organisation to adopt it”

Then it’s not a great strategy, is it?

It doesn’t matter what’s in the strategy if your organisation doesn’t embrace it. You can’t write a strategy in isolation for an unsuspecting audience and expect them to swallow it whole when it’s published.

That’s simply not how it works.

A great community strategy isn’t written, it’s facilitated. You set up collaborative processes to educate and solicit the opinions of your stakeholders. You bring everyone on the journey with you. You get people into the same room (or Zoom call) to discuss competing priorities, the trade-offs and build a consensus about where and how to move forward.

This also means you won’t get everything you want. That’s how collaboration works. The theoretical best strategy for the community and the best strategy with the resources, permission, understanding, and attitudes within the organisation are often very different.

The final strategy document should never be at risk of rejection. It’s simply the outcome of the discussions and decisions you’ve guided your colleagues through so far.

This is why it might be best to hire an outside consultant. This is a time-intensive process and is a very different skillset from simply managing a community (it also helps to have someone independent from the existing web of relationships within your organisation and with experience working at many other organisations).

A great strategy should feel like a breakthrough. All the critical decisions have been made. There shouldn’t be any more hold-ups. Everyone should be aligned on the community’s value, everyone should know what they need to do to support the community, and everyone should be excited to make it happen.

Some resources:

Your Brand’s Online Community Strategy
The Online Community Strategy Guide
Online Community Strategy Course
The Online Community Lifecycle

Validating Problems

A simple tip that can save you a lot of pain; validate the problems you’re seeing.

Sometimes community leaders see problems that don’t exist.

Is one member creating too many new topics?

Are too many responses coming from the community manager?

Are there too many posts? (or too few?)

Are too many members posting in one place?

And sure, some of these many have a genuine impact.

Yet if you ask members in a survey (or simply send out an email inviting members to name the biggest problems they see in the community) my guess is none of the above would rank in the top 10.

You might be spending a lot of time trying to solve problems that only you’re seeing.

Worse yet, you might be spending too little time solving your members’ biggest problems.

p.s. When validating a problem don’t list a problem and ask members to say if it’s a problem, that’s cheating. Use an open text field and see if members name it without being prompted.

Increasing The Quality of Content (instead of the quantity of it)

Too many community strategies prioritise quantity of content over the trustworthiness of content.

This is a shame. It makes the community increasingly noisy without obviously increasing its value to participants.

For a mature community, your goal shouldn’t be to increase the quantity of engagement but to improve the quality of it. People need to have deep trust in the content that’s being created and shared within the community.

Fortunately, the contours of trust are fairly clear:

  • Perceived ability of the poster (qualifications, knowledge, experiences).
  • Perceived integrity of the poster (honesty, intentions to help others, fairness).
  • The consensus of the group (quantity of people who share the opinion compared with those who don’t).
  • Trust in the host (is this content hosted on a site known for being trustworthy).

Begin by hosting an annual trust survey.

Ask members about the following (using a 5-point Likert scale):

  1. Do you feel content posted by members in this community is trustworthy?
  2. Do you feel members who share content have qualifications, knowledge, and experiences?
  3. Do you feel members who share content have the best intentions?
  4. Do you feel enough members share their expertise/opinions in this community?
  5. Do you feel this website has a reputation for trustworthy content?

You can adapt these as you see fit.

Now you can use this to see which factors are the biggest antecedents of trust for your community. More importantly, you can use this to develop specific actions to increase the trustworthiness of content.

You can find sites that are considered very trustworthy and see the specific steps they’ve taken. Amazon has verified purchases, for example. StackOverflow relies heavily upon its rating system and tight moderation. Find sites that exceed in the areas you’re weak in and borrow their ideas.

“Let’s Test This In Our Community”

You have to call it a test before you begin.

Plenty of failed ideas are reclassified as tests when they don’t pan out.

And if it is a test, define success and failure first.

How many people need to do [x] for the test to be considered a success?

There should be no confusion about whether the test was a success or not.

And be clear about what you will do if the test succeeds or fails (again, before you begin).

The point of a test is to take a hunch and remove any subjective bias for the benefit of the community.

You should test your hunches in your community, just set some standards before you start.