Anything popular eventually comes up against an equal force of its own resistance. In systems thinking, this is known as a balancing loop.
When a good restaurant opens in town, it gets rave reviews and everyone wants to go. This means it either becomes too expensive or too difficult to get a booking. The restaurant might become a chain, but then maintaining standards becomes a challenge, and chain restaurants lose their luster and fewer people want to go.
When a tourist destination gets rave reviews it’s ruined by a flood of tourists.
A while back, it became clear that pithy, absolutist, statements on Twitter attracted the most attention. Everyone rushed to embrace the same tactic. This creates fatigue and undermines the credibility of everyone embracing the same approach (remember listicles? ‘You won’t believe number 7!’).
The popularity of podcasts and newsletters is another example. The more people who create one, the fewer people each will attract. This in turn creates fatigue with the medium and an eventual backlash against their perceived value.
Communities are no different. As your community grows in popularity it encounters similar balancing loops. It becomes a target for bad actors. It becomes harder to feel like you belong. The community attracts poorer quality (or repetitive) questions (which in turn tend to drive the experts into private spaces).
It’s important to consider the strategic implications of balancing loops. Anything that is exploding in popularity will eventually clash against its own balancing loops. Whether you should incorporate or embrace it depends on whether it supports your strategy. Most of the time, the answer is to be patient and stick to the plan.
If you look deep enough at why a community isn’t working, you often find an incentives problem.
A person (or persons) at a senior level isn’t incentivised to make a community click.
In one community, the most frequently cited problem is technological. The experience is so bad and clunky, members give up on using it. This problem rolls up to the person responsible for the Salesforce platform. This person is incentivised by budget, speed to resolving critical problems, and the ability to scale the platform.
This doesn’t mesh well with goals like active members, member feedback on the experience, utilization of the unique features of the platform etc…
So the community team is always fighting for scraps of time to make minor improvements. It pretty much kills the entire project.
Getting to know the IT team can help. But, ultimately, you’re going to have to go a level higher to change the system. This probably means making a financial case (i.e. ‘the community is costing us [$$$$] per day and not achieving its goals’), a logical case (i.e ‘we shouldn’t be driving our best customers to have their worst experience’) and an emotive case (i.e. ‘our competitors are all doing much better than us’).
It’s a choice really. You can accept whatever scraps of support and attention you get from IT (and other teams) to make the community work. Or you can look at the incentives (or objectives) of each group and try to change them to make the community work.
An incident recently reminded me of the Ron Johnson/JCPenny story.
In 2011, JCPenney hired Apple’s retail chief Ron Johnson as CEO.
Ron Johnson decided JCPenny should be more like Apple. Senior staff are replaced, advertising and PR agencies are changed, sales and promotions are cut etc…
A year later, JCPenny’s sales plummeted by 32% (“the worst in retail history”) and Ron was fired.
It’s common when you’re going from a very successful community to another community to make your new community like the old. This frequently means changing the platform, bringing in new rules, adopting similar processes in managing the community etc..
And it’s equally common for this approach to fail miserably – often disastrously (the worst case I can recall led to members abandoning the expensive brand-hosted community and creating their own, far more popular, community elsewhere).
Two considerations here:
1) Did your previous community succeed because of what you did or in spite of what you did? Building a community in a mature, fertile, environment (i.e. where you have lots of support, a large flow of incoming members, a high-risk tolerance) is very different from building a community in a more challenging environment (i.e. a smaller, private, community).
2) What benchmarks can you improve? What is the community doing well at the moment? What should be changed? Where are the incremental areas of growth?
Don’t make big changes until you really understand the full ecosystem.
A while back, this screenshot appeared on my Facebook feed.
MoneySavingExpert (a former client) is promoting a forum post (note: promoting forum posts via social media is a good idea).
It’s interesting that there are 77 comments on the Facebook post compared with just 53 on the forum post it’s promoting.
So why not simply post discussions on Facebook and do away with the forum?
The answer is in the quality of comments. Most respondents on Facebook probably didn’t read the forum post (or they would reply in the forum instead of returning to Facebook?). This shows in the quality of discussions. They’re generally more emotive and antagonistic.
The posts in the forum however are more considered and helpful.
Compare the above with the posts below.
The extra friction that a forum demands (registering/logging in, clicking the title that interests you, and reading the post) creates a far greater exchange of quality information.
If engagement is all you want, Facebook might be a great tool for that.
But if you want an exchange of quality information, forums, and hosted community platforms are usually much, much, better.
In surveys, we often questions like:
“On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest, how satisfied or unsatisfied are you with your community experience?”
“On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest, how relevant or irrelevant do you find the information shared within the community?”
This is a useful measure as it gives a simple score for the community you can improve over time.
When we worked on this project, this was the benchmark we were using.
You can use the following weighted averages to interpret the results:
- Above 4.5 – Excellent
- 4.2 to 4.5 – Very Good
- 3.75 to 4.2 – Ok
- 3.3 to 3.75 – Poor
- Below 3.3 – Extremely poor
I’d recommend undertaking the survey every 6 to 12 months and tracking changes over time.
(p.s. This is also a good way to measure the impact of a major platform change).
There are probably three tiers to this:
1) Tier One: Anyone can ask questions. In this scenario, anyone can join a community and ask a question. The upside is this is good for engagement. The downside is you might get a lot of spam and poor-quality questions. It requires extra work to filter the good from the bad.
2) Tier Two: Only Customers/Registered Members Can Ask Questions. In this scenario, only those using an email domain that is recognised as a customer can ask questions. The upside is this prevents most spam and improves the quality of questions. The downside is it might lead to a lot of poor quality questions and the person asking the question might not have knowledge or permission to fix the issue they’re addressing (this is especially common in B2B SaaS communities where the software users, admins, and buyers are different people).
3) Tier Three: Only Key Contacts Can Ask Questions. In this scenario, only the key contact (typically the technical contact) can ask questions in the community. This drastically improves the question quality and community satisfaction (the poster can utilise the answers themselves). Superusers also tend to like higher-quality questions. But it comes at a heavy cost to engagement, it’s; harder to reach a critical mass of activity, and often requires time to validate each person who joins the community to ensure they’re assigned the right permissions.
In most cases, tier two is the best answer with a private group for key contacts to get unique support from top members.
Ideally, members reply to each other’s questions.
You and your support team would be left with questions that are especially complex, unique, or involve the exchange of personal data to solve.
Sometimes that doesn’t happen. Most frequently, it’s because too few people have the expertise to answer the questions. Okta, one of our clients, is an example. Most responses come from staff today.
So if it’s still staff answering most questions, why not just ditch the community and continue with other support channels?
The answer is simple; search. Other people might find the answers being posted.
One good answer from a staff member might help just the original poster or it might help thousands of others looking for an answer to the same question. This in turn helps visitors get the answers they need faster, reduces support costs, and attracts more people to the site.
If a gamification system is poorly designed, the same force which motivates members initially will demotivate them eventually.
In the beginning, it’s usually quite simple to quickly rise up the levels/collect new badges.
For example, let’s imagine each answer is worth 3 points, with a typical point system like that shown below you can see how people can rapidly advance:
- Level 1: 5 points (2 answers)
- Level 2: 10 points (4 answers)
- Level 3: 20 points (7 answers)
- Level 4: 40 points (14 answers) etc…
Answering 14 questions will probably only take a couple of weeks.
The danger here is people rapidly reach the maximum level (Salesforce, for example, allows a maximum of 50 levels). Therefore, most gamification systems make it increasingly difficult to advance to each new tier. At the higher end, this often means a system like:
- Level 44: 20,000 points (6,667 answers)
- Level 45: 25,000 points (8,331 answers)
- Level 46: 31,000 points (10,333 answers)
Each new level becomes increasingly less achievable (see the exponential curve). Advancing once took weeks and months. Now it might take years.
Sometimes, there simply aren’t enough questions in a community to make achieving a new level viable. I’ve seen communities with 20 to 30 questions per week have levels that are thousands of questions apart.
Worse yet, levels have less meaning. Do you really care if you’re level 47 or 48? Would advancing from level 94 to 95 have a big impact?
Due to our laziness and determination to ensure not enough members reach the top level, we design systems that eventually demotivate some of our previously most active members.
There are two better options here:
1) Power-ups. These enable members to accumulate points faster as they advance up levels. For example, being an MVP, attending events, or completing training courses might allow people to earn hundreds of points per month/attendance.
2) Points for beginners, badges for veterans. Use levels with far smaller increases until members reach the highest possible level and then use badges to reward members past the top-level (i.e. level 50). You can often create an infinite number of badges and missions that can be tailored towards the needs and desires of top members. This is far more scalable and sustainable. It’s also clear levels are to get newcomers up to speed quickly, badges are for top members.
Choose at least one (with care).
The answer probably isn’t what you think.
90% of the activities we find most people working on to increase engagement won’t have a lasting impact.
I’ve spent the past decade achieving extremely strong results for clients by focusing on sustainable processes to improve engagement.
This means zeroing in on the handful of things which really matter (i.e. the handful of critical ‘leverage points’) and then apply the best possible processes to optimise these zones.
On Sept 28th, I will be participating in a webinar hosted by Tribe to share the best approaches we’ve used over the years to keep members highly engaged in a community
Date: Sept 28, 2021
Time: 12.00pm EDT (5pm BST)
Registration link: https://tribe.so/webinars/community-engagement (sign up to get the recording too).
A quick warning here. If you’re looking for simple tweaks or ‘quick wins’ you’re probably going to be bitterly disappointed. But if you want to look at engagement as part of a bigger system and learn how you can influence that system, this might be the right webinar for you.
I spent a year working with Sephora to develop a new community strategy.
A major plank of this strategy was integrating authentic community content into the product pages. This includes reviews, photos etc…
All that content you see at the bottom (questions and answers, images, and reviews) is community-generated content. It’s managed by the community team.
Community-generated content isn’t like content created by a marketing team or top influencers. It’s not professionally created and refined. It’s raw, authentic, and breeds trust. It showcases real people doing real things and sharing their real opinions. This in turn has a huge impact upon product purchase conversions.
For sure, it’s not easy to do and you often have to corral lots of different technologies to work with one another. But if you can make it work, you’ll find creating genuine, authentic, content which shows up in the buyer journey is an astonishingly powerful benefit of nurturing a brand community.
Note too, that once you have a goal like this, your metrics begin to shift. It’s no longer the level of engagement or participation that matters, it’s the quantity and quality of authentic content which has been created.
The common belief is you can grow a community by improving the community experience.
For example, you might add new features, improve the experience, make members feel better connected etc.
Improving the community experience does help (it can reduce churn), but it doesn’t drive more people to visit the community in the first place. Long-term growth and sustainability in a community requires you to find eternal sources of new members.
That eternal part matters. A big promotional push can be great for getting a community going, but it’s not an eternal source of new members, i.e. there are only so many times you can send a mass email to your audience to persuade them to join.
To make a community thrive, you have relatively few sources of eternal community growth. These are (by order of importance):
1) Search traffic. For most communities, search is by far the biggest source of growth. However, it comes with risks. Sudden changes to the Google algorithm or Google keeping more traffic for itself is going to make this harder. If you’re a private community, you’ve lost 80%+ of potential visitors before you begin.
2) Customer/topic journey. This is when the community is naturally integrated with the customer or topic journey. As part of being a customer or becoming engaged with your organisation (or the topic) people are naturally introduced to the community. How and where the community is featured on the homepage/product/support really matters here.
3) Platform recommendations/referrals. This is when a major technology platform naturally recommends or drives traffic to your community from others (most common in Facebook Groups, LinkedIn, StackOverflow, Reddit etc…).
4) Links and partnerships. Getting links and referrals from major websites/publications can be a huge win. Community.co built an entire business doing this. If you reach out to others in your sector and persuade them to drive people to your community, that can be a sustainable source of new members.
5) Staff/member advocacy. By far the most underutilized asset is advocacy from existing staff and community members. If members and staff share posts on their social media profiles, you can attract a large number of members quite easily.
The best way to grow a community is to build the relationships, processes, and incentives to make each of the channels which are relevant to you work as best as they can.
Sure, other things can help, but these are the big wins.
Two organisations I’m working with are dealing with the same intriguing challenge; customers have already launched successful communities for their brand!
On one hand, this is a great sign. It shows the audience cares and wants to engage with one another. They’re helping each other already and the organisation doesn’t have to do anything. It’s a free bonus.
On the other hand, it presents several problems. The information shared in member-hosted communities is often poor and outdated, it attracts troublemakers (self-promoters), and there’s no way for the organisation to build a process to support those who don’t get help (i.e. in a hosted community, unanswered questions can be automatically redirected to support teams after [x] hours).
This also raises another dilemma. Both clients need to launch communities on platforms that integrate with existing systems, have adequate security measures, and provide access to data. By nature, that means it will be less convenient for members to use than the platforms hosting existing communities (Facebook Groups, WhatsApp, Slack, Subreddits etc…). Why would members use your community when a more convenient option exists?
You have two broad options here.
The first option is to engage with existing hosts of member-created communities and try to develop a relationship that will enable you to respond, correct false information, and gather what information you can. This can work well, but it’s rarely a long-term solution by itself. You’re at the mercy of people whose primary objective may not align with yours.
The second option is to build your own community, but offer a value proposition so strong it overcomes the convenience problem. This usually means a combination of:
1) Access to staff. Members can engage in member-created communities or get trusted advice from staff and validated members in the brand-hosted community. This requires staff to be heavily engaged in the community.
2) Personalisation. Design the community to be integrated into accounts with members receiving the news, information, and updates that are relevant to them. Free social media tools can’t share the latest product updates, top five known issues, progress on reported issues, and a list of relevant discussions – but your community can. Likewise, members can’t vote on ideas or see unanswered questions immediately escalated in other tools.
3) Unique features. Zero in on the specific features members want and show these in the community. This might include searchable documentation and knowledge base articles, leaderboards and badges, or the ability to contribute to the community in a unique way.
Whatever you do, don’t select a similar platform and try to compete against existing, established, communities. That’s a loss for you, your new competitors, and your members.