There’s Better Places To Distribute News

Many organisations post product news on the community homepage.

These announcements often take up prime real estate on the community’s homepage.

This isn’t usually a good idea. The overwhelming majority of members don’t visit to read news and those that do probably aren’t the right people you want to engage in the community. When you begin posting news in the community, the community can quickly become a dumping ground of announcements.

I’d suggest you either create a group for people specifically interested in news and post it there or simply don’t post it at all. Instead include a link where people can get news and keep the majority of the site there for what people want to do most – exchange useful information with each other.

Memorable Stories

Speaking at an event recently, I was struck by two different approaches undertaken by speakers.

About half the speakers went on stage and shared really valuable information. If you were taking notes, these notes would be very useful for you later.

The other half served shared compelling, memorable, stories.

Writing this on the train journey home, I can recall every one of the stories. But I’ll need to refer to my notes to recall the information from other speakers.

When communicating with any audience (especially a community), take a second to decide if you need the information to be memorable (and persuasive) or if it’s simply information members can refer back to later.

And if you want your message to be remembered and acted upon, you probably need to tell a compelling story.

p.s. This fab book might help.

Costs in Context

Three years ago, a client was recruiting a community manager. We sourced three candidates with great track records. Preliminary discussions with each suggested a figure of $135k would be enough to attract interest in the role.

Unfortunately, this turned out to be $25k higher than the client was willing to spend. It took several months to get the increase approved. This is several months the client continued to pay for a platform they couldn’t use and incur an opportunity cost of not developing the community quicker (the former alone exceeded $25k).

Community managers with a great track record of consistently developing communities at top brands don’t come cheap. You will be lucky to find anyone below $135k a year.

Yet in context, this figure is a bargain. The goal for our client’s community was to generate $7m in annual cost savings within 2 years. Spending an extra $25k to get someone proven (as opposed to someone with potential) is a no-brainer. It’s barely a fraction of what was being spent on the platform.

I suspect we need to massively adjust our salary expectations for community talent in the coming years.

Should You Delete Discussions?

Whenever you remove any content a member has posted, they will assume the worst possible intent.

Last year, a client recently faced a product problem. This led to dozens of members starting new, repetitive, and negative discussions in the community. To prevent the community becoming overwhelmed, they decided to remove all but one post.

Naturally, this led to outrage amongst members claiming the brand was trying to cover up the problem.

This led to an internal debate about whether the community team should be removing ‘discussions’.

The problem is ‘removing discussions’ isn’t a helpful way to frame a problem. Better to identify the specific problem you’re trying to resolve.

For example, instead of removing discussions you might want to think about:

  • Quality of new discussions. How much research and effort do you expect a member to make when posting a question? Below what threshold should it be removed?
  • Quantity of discussions. How many posts should a member be able to initiate within 24 hours?
  • Age and recency of discussions. Should you remove old discussions? How will you know if discussions are outdated and should be pruned? When and where will you do this?
  • Dealing with critical problems. What do you do when a product problem has emerged which members are creating endless new discussions about (filled with complaints?)
  • What counts as spam/self-promotion? Where do you draw the line between what is the promotion of something of value and what’s self-promotional?

This is far from a comprehensive list, but you get the idea. Instead of deciding whether or not to delete discussions, you should be deciding which rules you are creating/enforcing/refining? Arbitrarily removing a discussion without a rule to explain why is never a good idea.

Designing Your Homepage For The Right Visitor(s)

The majority of community homepages I’ve seen are designed for the wrong audience.

People visiting your community homepage aren’t looking for an answer to a question. In the data of almost every public community I’ve worked with, the majority of people arrive at a specific discussion. They typed their question into Google and landed on a discussion (note – not the homepage!)

The majority of people visiting your homepage fall into one of two categories.

a) People who have clicked a link (probably your homepage). These folks are often newcomers to the topic/product/company and found the community in the ‘getting started’ experience.

b) People who are returning to the community. These folks have participated before and are visiting to see what’s new. They’re not going to spend a lot of time browsing, they simply need to know if there’s anything interesting happening.

In an ideal world, you can use the information gathered about them (i.e. did they join within the past month or not) to show entirely different community experiences.

When that’s not possible, you need to abide by a couple of rules here.

1) Keep newcomer content visible, but minimal. Once someone has seen the newcomer areas, they don’t need to visit again. Avoid the big ‘welcome’ banners/messages for the same reason. People ignore what they’ve already seen.

2) Create the definitive newcomer location (and link to it prominently from the homepage). Create a destination and set of resources to help newcomers get up to speed. Combine this with your knowledge base, member journeys, best practice examples, top newcomer tips, and safe places where newcomers can ask their beginner-level questions. Your community should offer the definitive place for the newcomer experience.

3) Showcase the latest activity prominently above the fold. This should go without saying these days. The easier you make the community to scan to see what’s new, the more engagement you will get. It’s impossible to sustain a highly responsive community if it’s hard to see everything that’s new at a glance.

4) Highlight the ‘MVP/champions’ program. If people are already visiting frequently to see what’s new, they’re the most likely group to be interested in taking things up a notch. In the majority of communities the majority of members don’t even know a top member program exists. Make it visible (or make members aware they’re eligible to apply) after [x] contributes in the community.

5) Highlight high-signal, low-noise, content at the advanced level. Things like release notes, latest additions to the knowledge base, new announcements, a digest of the top tips/upcoming events is extremely useful for this audience.

This is far from a comprehensive list, but you get the idea. The people coming to your homepage are complete newcomers (who need some guidance) and returning visitors who need to see what’s fresh (and useful) to keep returning.

Send Support Staff To Answer Questions (not vice-versa)

Take a look at the screenshot of the Logitech community below:

If you’re going to ask people asking for help in a community to contact the support team, what’s the point in having a community? (p.s. This is just two of countless similar responses posted in the community).

Surely it would make far more sense to send support staff to unanswered questions than unanswered questions to support staff?

If you do the former, support staff provide an answer that prevents more questions. This is better for everyone (and stops repeat questions). If you tell posters of unanswered questions to file that same question to support, you’re not only wasting their time but guaranteeing more people ask that question in the future.

For sure, if questions require private information or appear to be an emergency, guide them to support (or automatically escalate it to support). But for the rest, get support to answer in the community.

The More Specific The Question, The Greater The Value

It’s tempting to post broad questions which are easy for most members to answer.

In theory, this should increase participation. In reality, it tends to depress participation.

General questions aren’t exciting for genuine experts to answer. They’re too general to produce any useful information. They’re also close cousins of the dreaded ‘what do you think?’ discussions.

Dumbing down the questions simply dumbs down the value of the community. It erodes any unique value your community can offer the audience.

People don’t come to a community to have general conversations, they (typically) come to get insights that will help them be better at what they do. Communities are a place for the nerdiest (or most passionate) people about a topic to have the kinds of discussions they can’t have anywhere else.

We also need a quick clarification here. Don’t confuse specific with advanced. You don’t need to have advanced discussions to deliver great value. Compare the two questions for newcomers below:

General Question 1: “How did you get started in [topic]?”

Specific Question 2: “Which software did you use to get started [xyz], what were the costs, pros and cons?”

Answering the former question doesn’t let members feel smart and doesn’t give the reader any useful insights. The latter question, however, clearly offers much better value to both.

Generally speaking, the more specific the question, the greater the value in the answers (and the greater the value of the community).

Session Data Is Worthless For Measuring Community

A session is the duration of a visit to your website/community. If you leave and come back later, that counts as a new session.

I’ve noticed a couple of organisations recently trying to measure communities by tracking session data. i.e. do people make a purchase or cancel their service after visiting the community?

This is a terrible way to measure value.

In a recent example, a customer asked the community how to cancel a service. The community did its job and provided an answer. The response was so good that it soon became one of the most visited posts in the community (thanks Google!). But on the stats this shows the community is now causing people to cancel!

That’s the problem with session data. Session data attributes the outcome to the last action in the chain of events before that outcome. This is a lot like attributing sales at a restaurant to the menu.

Not many people make a snap decision to cancel/buy a service because of a single experience on a single visit.

To really estimate value you need to build a dataset with a broader set of variables. This is likely to (at least) include:

  • Member ID
  • Community participant? (yes/no)
  • Date of community registration
  • Date of first post
  • Date of last post
  • No. visits/logins to community
  • No. posts
  • No. topics
  • Date of subscription (customer)
  • Date of cancellation (customer)

Once you have this your data team can run an analysis (or you can get help) and start building a meaningful picture and range of the community’s impact.

This won’t give you causational data, but it’s a start.

Better To Be Community-Driven Or Community-Powered?

Better To Be Community-Driven Or Community-Powered?

It’s more important to be powered than driven by a community.

In community driven, members drive the behaviors of the organisation. By some definitions, customers identify as members and the goal of the organisation is to strengthen and support the community.

You can probably spot the two obvious problems.

First, how many companies do you feel you are a member of right now? 2? 5? Taking a spot poll amongst some friends this morning, the answer is 0. Did you wake up with a strong urge this morning to increase that number? Probably not.

Second, if you let members drive the wheel, we’re reminded of Henry Ford’s (probably apocryphal) quote about getting faster horses instead of Model T cars. Or, to use a modern example, you get Boaty McBoatface. Your audiences simply don’t share the same goals, expertise, or understanding of the constraints as you do.

For example, let’s say you announce you’re going to depreciate a product feature because it’s built upon outdated technology/processes. If the feature is popular, the entire community might rise up against you doing it. Do you back down because you’re community-driven? Generally speaking, communities always want you to spend more, create better products, while they pay less.

I’m far more excited about organisations which are community-powered. This is a pragmatic approach. It recognises customers generally don’t identify as members. Instead they participate to satisfy their immediate needs (usually for information and to highlight things they want to change). A handful will also feel the urge to help others. You can use the activities and insights which take place within these communities to support all parts of your organisation (sales, marketing, customer support, success, product/engineering) – but you always retain control of the wheel.

In community-driven, the goal of the company is to build a better community.

In community-powered, the goal of the community is to build a better company

Perhaps it is semantics, but I suspect the latter will prove far more successful than the former.

The Problem With “Don’t be a Jerk” Guidelines…

…is no-one thinks they’re being a jerk.

They think they are:

  • Being funny and irreverent.
  • Responding fairly to provocation.
  • Doing what they’ve seen other members do.
  • Behaving as they behave elsewhere.
  • Etc…

It’s tempting to reduce a complicated set of expectations to a simple ‘don’t be a jerk’ command. But it fails for the same reason telling kids to ‘just behave’ fails. People try to just be themselves and the results naturally follow.

This is why you need to be more specific, have clear examples, and set very clear expectations of what is and isn’t acceptable. This means you need to get into the messy field of defining clearly what’s ‘funny’ and what’s ‘jerk behavior’.

Good luck!

A Unique Solution To Overcoming Fear of Participation

One of our clients is building private communities in a very technical and highly regulated field.

Our research noted two contradictory themes.

The first was members wanted to know who else was a member of the community. This suggests building out a good member directory where people can browse profiles and contact one another if needed.

The second was members often held back from participating because of strict regulations within the industry and the potential ramifications of being seen to speak officially on behalf of the company.

At first, these two issues seem impossible to reconcile. We couldn’t allow members to use pseudonyms and still make it possible for members to see who else is in the community.

But diving a little deeper into the data, we realised even though members want to know who else was a member, they didn’t need to know specifically who was replying to their posts. The desire to know who else was there was simply to know they’re in a group of trusted peers (i.e. we’re letting in the right kind of people).

Discourse, the platform we’re using, has a little-known feature called ‘anonymous mode’. This mode enables any registered member to reply anonymously. This means they can share advice and ask questions without their reputation being on the line.

The problem with this mode, as you can see here, is Discourse buries this option 3-clicks deep (after you ask them to enable it) where no member would find it.

So we hired someone to develop a simple button positioned next to the very place where people would usually post a new topic.

This makes it almost impossible to miss as you can see here.

I really like the balance of this. The community is private. Everyone has been approved to join. So the anonymous mode is unlikely to be abused to spam or troll members. Yet, at the same time, it opens the door for everyone to participate without putting their reputation on the line.

This is one of the data-driven solutions which combines the best of user research and technology to create something unique. I’m not sure any other community offers this right now. It’s a feature I’d love to see offered by other platform vendors.

p.s. If you’re on Discourse, you can now pull the component from here for free.

Is It A Territorial Dispute?

An acquaintance asked me to look at a business case he was building for his community recently.

His goal was to win over two colleagues who had been against the community since its launch two years before.

The business case was compelling, the facts were on his side, and it was fairly clear the community was delivering great results (especially given the relatively low spending outlay).

But it didn’t take much digging to realise this wasn’t going to win them over. The problem wasn’t that the two colleagues didn’t believe the community helped the organisation. The problem was they saw the community as a threat to their own status and standing within the organisation.

Put simply, the community trod quite significantly on their turf but they didn’t have authority over it. A strong business case doesn’t resolve a territorial dispute.

Territorial disputes require persuading, not convincing (see the difference here). Persuasion is about emotions, convincing is about facts.

You can resolve a territorial dispute in two ways.

First; brute force. Go to the person above them and force them to comply. This isn’t ideal for obvious reasons.

Second, set up meetings with the detractors and simply try to listen. Understand and appreciate their concerns. Don’t try to convince them of anything. Try to gather their input in what they want to see in the community and let them come up with ideas for how it might help them. Connect them with peers at their level who have communities.

It might not solve the problem entirely, but it will certainly help to know what the real issue is.