Slow Declines Are Far More Worrying Than Sudden Drops

Analysing the data from two new clients recently.

Let’s begin with this graph here.

When you see a sudden drop like this (or major drop compared with data from the year before), the cause is almost always a major external event. If you want to grow a community, you first need to determine what the major event was.

The most common examples (by order of frequency) include:

  • Changes to the registrations process (often a new SSO system)
  • Changes to the company homepage design.
  • Changes to the community design.
  • Changes to the Google algorithm.
  • A ‘black swan’ event (given the date of the drop, this might be our first hunch to explore).

Typically here, you can ask around and find what other changes occurred in each of the above until you find the source. You can play detective here and ask around each of the above to determine what’s happening.

A sudden drop is bad, but not disastrous. It can usually be reversed if you can identify the cause. The interests of members haven’t fundamentally shifted.

Now consider this graph:

When you see a more gradual drop like this, the cause is social in nature. A slow decline is far more likely to be fatal than a sudden drop. The needs and motivations of members are fundamentally changing and you need to change too.

The most common explanations here include:

  • You have fewer potential people to engage (fewer people interested in the topic / fewer new customers).
  • Members have fewer questions to ask.
  • Rising competition from other channels.
  • Declining community experience drives people away.

Before you can reverse the trend, you need to gather a few metrics to identify what the problem is. This usually includes comparing the trend against :

  • The number of visitors to the company website.
  • No. new customers the organisation has attracted.
  • Search traffic to the community.
  • No. of support tickets being filed from support teams.

If any of these are also declining, you have usually found your cause.

For example, if there has been a comparable decline in support tickets filed, you know the drop isn’t community-centric. It’s part of a broad shift of either attracting fewer customers or customers having fewer questions to ask.

Before trying to change any metric, you need to understand what’s driving it. Solve that and everything becomes a lot easier.

‘thank you for coming’ vs. ‘next steps’

Last week, I hosted a founding member workshop with a client community.

We guided a few dozen participants to answer some questions about what they wanted from the community, forged connections between members, and helped members make the key decisions about the community.

Once the work is complete, the client was keen to send out a ‘thank you’ note. Instead, we suggested sending out a ‘next steps’ note.

The difference here is important. Thank you notes feel like the right thing to do in these situations. The problem is people tend to give them little time or attention. The moment they see ‘thank you’ in the subject line, they know what to expect. A thank you note is the final message. It ends the discussion. It feels good to send (and sometimes good to receive). But it doesn’t really achieve much.

But listing out the next steps a member can take drives more activity. It shows the recipient you want to keep them involved. It shows the recipient you think they have more to give.

It sounds counter-intuitive perhaps, but I’ve found in communities the best way to thank members is to give them more things they can do to be more involved.

How Small Design Decisions Have A Big Impact Upon Participation

We do a lot of work with Salesforce communities. It’s clear that the smallest design tweaks often have a big impact on participation.

If you spend much time browsing Salesforce communities for example, you might soon notice something odd. In many communities, a member will post the entire question in the subject line like this.

Now compare this to what a good question should look like:

Notice the difference? The subject line is clear, the context is included within the body of the email, the screenshot provides everything someone needs to provide an answer. It’s also cleaner and easier to read.

So, what’s happening in these situations? It’s more simple and important than you might think.

In the former community, when members click the ‘ask question’ button they are shown this screen:

Naturally, they click the category at the top and then assume they only have 255 characters to ask a question.

In the latter example, when members ask a question they’re invited to use this screen:

You can probably spot the critical difference here. By showing the ‘details’ option without having to click the word, members are naturally more likely to assume the context belongs here and the question actually means ‘subject line’.

It’s staggering how big of an impact this simple tweak can have. It can change the entire community experience from one with questions filled with long subject lines and not enough context to respond, to one filled with good-quality questions which top members enjoy replying to.

Note: Of course it would be a lot easier if Salesforce simply turned ‘question’ into ‘subject line’ and ‘details’ into ‘question’.

Remove The Options Few People Click

In about half the projects we work on, members complain about the navigation of the site.

The story here is often the same. Instead of following data and asking members what they wanted (and identifying the terminology they used), the organisation made assumptions and created their own navigation menus.

This is the primary cause of the navigation problems today.

A recent example proves the point. Looking at data from HotJar, Google Analytics, and speaking with members, less than 1 in 100 visitors clicked on 2 of the 7 navigation tabs in a client’s community.

So we removed them. There hasn’t been a single complaint about their removal yet.

This is your regular reminder that the best way to improve the navigation of most communities is to reduce the number of roads people can take.

Here’s a more extreme example.

Why Partner Communities Usually Struggle To Sustain Activity

Try building a community for competitors operating within a relatively small sector.

You’re probably not going to get far. Few people want to share their expertise and advice with competitors (at the extreme, there are even laws preventing close cooperation between competitors).

This is why most partner communities aren’t really communities at all. Few partners proactively share information with one another or participate in discussions. The majority, by far, are information portals filled with announcements, tools, resources and, sometimes, events, where people can learn more from the brand.

Sometimes partners might ask a question about a problem, but they expect an answer from the brand.

The primary source of member-to-member information distribution in these communities are events – often in the form of featured member interviews or webinars.

One solution to this is to try to change the culture and build a more cooperative dynamic between partners in the same ecosystem. To be blunt, that’s a very hard sell. The other is to work with it and accept that discussions probably aren’t going to thrive. But that doesn’t mean you can gather great examples, resources, and host amazing events for partners.

Template Examples Of How To Engage Your Community Members

Over the years, we’ve developed a large number of template responses for community teams to adapt to their situations. The idea is to get people to consider how they can participate in a community with empathy.

I’ll share a few that have worked well here (all names/details have been tweaked):

Example of A Direct Welcome Message From A Community Manager

This post is used in smaller communities where the community manager welcomes each new person. The purpose is to build instant rapport, provide useful information, build connections between existing members, and solicit a follow-up.

“Hi @Raphael,

Welcome to the community. It’s great to have someone with a remote-first background here. Have you recently moved to California as well?

Your question is probably going to be of interest to a lot of our newcomers. I’d highlight two resources we have at the moment available here and here. Both give you a great overview of places to get started.

I’d also suspect some of our veterans like @nikita77, @benj, and @crystalCK can jump in and help here too.

Let me know if this helps at all!”


Example Of Responding To A Product Problem Post

This post is used where the original poster is asking for help to resolve a product problem but failed to provide enough information to get a good response. The goal is to keep the mood light, solicit more information, make the member feel seen, and bring in others who might be able to help.

“Hey @Clare6

Nooo, don’t break out the hammer just yet! I’m 100% sure we can get this fixed.

The first step is to get a little more information from you first. Can you share what operating system you’re using and what you’ve tried so far? Feel free to share any screenshots too!

Also what is the ideal outcome you want? I think that would help our members give good responses here too.

I know @Vix-ed had this problem before so might also be able to help.”


Example Of Launching A New Initiative

This post is used to launch a new initiative within the community. The goal is to get members excited, ensure the post gets responses, deliver the information quickly, and ensure members quickly grasp the concept. Notice the use of @mentions to bring in others to respond to get things started.

“Hello community, I have some awesome news!

It’s a new month and we’ve been working with some of our top members (@AK22, @SusanS, and @KDOVE) to launch a new challenge.

In this one, we want you to share your favourite masks. You can post as frequently (or infrequently) as you like. If you have unique designs, custom masks, or have simply seen something you love, this is the place to share it!

Ready, set, go!”


Example Of Clamping Down On Bad Behavior

This post is another real-life situation in which bad behavior began to infect the community and had to be addressed (without antagonising members). The goal here was to be kind, but clear. Understanding, but firm.

“Hi @community,

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen a rise in posts with messages like “remove this if this is against the rules” – typically followed by something against the rules(!).

We’ve taken a lenient approach so far – typically just removing the post and sending a polite note to the creator that the post was indeed against the rules. Alas, this leniency is resulting in a growing influx of self-promotional posts.

So, here’s a warning (we send with kindness), please check the updated rules before you post. None of us want to whip out the banhammer, but we also want to make sure the community isn’t filled with self-promotion.”


Example Of Attracting Collaborators

This post was to attract some early members to participate in our upcoming resources. We wanted to make this feel like a rare opportunity for members to get more involved in supporting the community. Notice here we’re not providing a detailed outline of what we want to do. Instead, we’re provoking interest and then making members make the first commitment.

“Hello everyone!

In the coming year we’re going to create 4 universal resources.

These are detailed guides tackling specific areas of our topic and challenges people want to overcome.

We’re looking for a couple of you to step up and help us create these guides. We want your help to source the best ideas, solicit your expertise and knowledge, and develop the project.

If you’re interested, simply reply here. Myself and our @communityMVP team are eager to hear from you.”


Example Of Responding To A Highly Emotive Situation

This was the most challenging post. In this community, members shared some of their most harrowing personal situations and looked for emotional support. The temptation here is to try to inform/educate this group. Unless the member asks for help, they simply want you to be there for them. This post is simply to acknowledge and be there for the member.

“Hi @adamS,

Thanks for this honest and detailed post. The entire community team and I were touched by it and we can’t begin to imagine the pain you’re in and what you’re going through.

Believe me when I say, you’re not alone.

I’m with you. Our entire community team is with you. And our entire community is with you too.

Anytime you need someone to speak to, looking for support, or just want to invest. You only have to reach out. If other members want to lend their support, share their experiences, please do reply in the comments. “

Feel free to adapt or use these however suits you. Hopefully, they provide some help as you develop your skills and train your community teams.

Archiving Outdated Discussions And Content In A Community

Among the biggest wins from this consultancy project was archiving old and outdated discussions within the community.

There are far better guides than I can write on this topic, but it’s handy to know how it applies to a community.

As communities mature, so do discussions. The same advice which may have been relevant and useful five years ago might not be relevant today. This means members are increasingly landing at pages with bad advice. Worse yet, a search for information might not take you to the latest and most useful advice.

In our interviews, we noticed members frequently mentioned landing at old posts with outdated information alongside the other problems you see here.

The Problem With Removing Old Discussions

We could simply remove old posts, but that presents a host of new problems. For example:

  • Members might lose their post counts.
  • The community might lose traffic from incoming links to those pages.
  • It might create a lot of broken links on the site from discussions/content which link to other discussions/content.

Listing Discussions To Remove

We combined data from ScreamingFrog with our own analysis to list discussions which had:

1) Attracted less than 10 visits in the past month.
2) Had received less than 2 posts in the past year.
3) Had been published more than 2 years ago.

We also combined this with any discussion which had received a response within the past 2 years which included the phrase ‘outdated’, ‘out of date’, and ‘old’ (we probably could have had a better system for this). This was a small list of a few hundred discussions which we manually checked and tagged for updating (or archiving if there was a newer discussion on the topic).

This created a list of around 17k discussions.

Archiving vs. Removing Discussions

Instead of deleting content, which would have likely caused a lot of disruption, we deindexed the discussion from public search engines and the community’s own search engine.

All of the discussions are still there, but they are extremely difficult for anyone to find. This means members don’t lose their post counts and it doesn’t create broken links. But it also prevents members from landing on discussions with outdated advice.

It didn’t completely resolve the problem, but in the last survey we undertook, landing on discussion with outdated information didn’t rank in the top 10 problems anymore.

The exact numbers to remove are somewhat arbitrary, but if you’re looking to clean up your community and need a criteria to start with, I’d begin with the above and adjust it to your situation.

(p.s. Read the full case study here).

Your Job Isn’t To Make It Rain

It’s generally recognised that the hotel manager is responsible for looking after guests once they step through the front door. They’re not responsible for increasing the number of guests in the first place. Managing and promotion are two very different tasks.

A job description sent my way this week listed targets for a community manager to quadruple the number of community visitors in a year.

For sure, you can have some influence over the number of visitors. But, overwhelmingly, the biggest sources of growth are likely to come from channels over which you may have little direct influence (no. customers with questions, no. visitors to your brand website, promotion of the community by the brand to its audience etc…).

Job descriptions like these seem to be setting the community manager up to fail. In my experience, it often happens when someone wants to saddle a new hire with an extreme target from a senior level.

The reality is if you want 4x the visitors, you’re going to need 4x the promotion you’re getting today. If that’s not on the table, walk away from the table.

Don’t Blunder Into A Community Persuasion Strategy

It’s ok to pursue a persuasion approach as long as you’re aware and prepared to do the work of persuading.

The problem begins if a) you’re not aware you’re pursuing a persuasion strategy and b) you’re not prepared to do the work of persuading.

As you can see in the matrix here, if you’re trying to get existing members to perform a new behavior, you’re pursuing a persuasion strategy (or if you’re launching any new community which isn’t based around an immediate need).


Launching a new feature and hoping members will use it? That’s a persuasion strategy.

Starting a group for people to discuss a topic they’re not talking much about today? That’s a persuasion strategy.

(Incidentally, almost all superuser programs are persuasion strategies).

There are nuances to persuasion, but the basic approach is pretty clear.

You need to deliver persuasive messages from credible people to a receptive audience.

Each needs a quick background.

1) Persuasive message. This typically takes the form of an emotive story that fits with the audience’s existing worldview and changes their attitudes. This should match your positioning and strategy. Common archetypes include: “people like you do things like this…”, “you are the best/future/important”, “there’s a small window to [make change happen]”, “help contribute to the greater good”.

2) Credible people. You’re not likely to trust a message delivered by a stranger (or someone sending low-status signals). They’re not one of your tribe. You will listen to people you know, trust, or are perceived as high credibility.

3) Receptive audience. Even the best-written email won’t do well if members are seeing it in the spam or ‘promotions’ folder. Context matters. Your members are more likely to be receptive to a message if they’ve opted into it or the context explicitly commands attention (like a meeting).

When we’ve done this work with clients, we begin by identifying possible stories.

Let’s imagine you want to improve retention by having veterans share their best tips for newcomers. Most people would send an email inviting members to share their best tips. But if we’re using the key principles of persuasion you might come up and test a few different emotive stories.

“Are you as passionate about helping others as we are? Can you share your top 3 tips?”

“Newcomers are struggling and only people with your expertise can help…”

“We’re inviting just our top 5 members to share their best tip for newcomers by this Friday, you’ve made the list. What is your best piece of advice?”

“Help make this the friendliest and most welcoming community for newcomers in the world..”

Notice each hits at a slightly different emotional appeal and tells a different story (but all lead to the same outcome).

Next we look at who the messages should come from. The best options are either:

a) Who does the audience know best within the community team?

b) Who does the audience look up to and recognise in the organisation?

Finally, we think about the best medium to deliver the message. You could send out a mass email. But that’s the quickest and least effective medium.

Other options might include:

  • Signing up to a private webinar to hear directly from the organisation.
  • Scheduling individual calls and meetings.
  • Sending personalised emails to each recipient.
  • Posting an announcement in the forum.
  • Recording a special video message and sharing it.
  • Etc…

It takes skill and experience, but each time you take a persuasion approach you get better at doing it. The key lesson is if you’re trying to get members to undertake a behavior they’re not doing today, you need to persuade them to do it. Persuasion is about emotive stories which change attitudes. The messages need to be sent from a credible person in a context to which the audience will be receptive to.

The ‘Person Workaround’ Usually Fails

A workaround is a temporary fix.

You might tape over a (small) windscreen crack until you can get the car serviced. But you probably don’t want to begin a road trip without figuring out who’s going to drive the car.

This seems to be happening too often in communities. Due to ‘headcount issues’, ‘recruitment delays’ or some other uncertainty, community projects are going full-steam ahead without any clarity on who’s going to run the project.

Trust me, ‘Mike from customer support’ isn’t going to cut it. It’s not his job, he’s not accountable for its success, and it will always be something he tries to get around to at the end of the day. You could outsource the community, at least for a while, but that problem is they’re juggling multiple communities.

I have no problem with temporary technology workarounds when needed. But when it comes to people, you need to push the stop button and figure out who’s going to be running the show before you launch.

Authenticity vs. Polish

One of my first gigs was working at the UN Refugee Agency in Geneva.

My boss, without anyone’s permission, managed to get cheap flip cameras out to some refugees with the goal of filming their lives. We hoped to use the footage in some of our community channels.

The results weren’t great at first. Imagine those old, shaky, video camera family videos and you get the idea. But after a couple of days, the refugees did something interesting. They flipped the camera around and began filming themselves. They spoke directly to the camera and told their stories.

Sometimes it was a bit shaky, sometimes several takes were oddly stitched together, and none of the footage had anything resembling professional lighting or audio setup.

However…it was incredibly raw, powerful, and authentic. Naturally, the video team hated it (“there wasn’t even a panning establishing shot”).

A few months ago, working with the Sephora team the topic of authenticity came up again. Do we need a top community member programme when there’s already a top influencer outreach programme? My take is of course! One group can give you professionally produced content they can share with their vast audiences. The other can give you emotive, authentic, content which persuades people just like them.

There’s definitely value in producing professional-level content to share with the community. At a certain point, poor production values just begin to look bad. There’s a reason top influencers gradually up their production game over time.

Yet, there’s tremendous value in raw, authentic, content too.

Undermining A Strategy With Poor People Skills

A great strategy needs to be matched by good people skills.

I remember one project where we spent months working with an organisation to develop the community strategy. A few days before the presentation, the community leader fell ill and his direct report, the community manager, stepped in to do the presentation.

18 of us were in the room. The CEO opened the meeting with a short, enthusiastic, speech about the importance of community and how the organisation needed to be more engaged in all of the organisation’s community channels; forums, social media, YouTube and more…

The community manager quickly chimed in to say:

“Social media isn’t really community, it’s building an audience not connecting members to one another”

For sure, it’s an argument shared by many of us. But contradicting a highly supportive CEO in front of almost the entire executive team before beginning the presentation is an extreme act of self-sabotage.

It went downhill from there. Throughout the presentation, the community manager was stubborn and inflexible. She saw every question as a potential attack instead of an opportunity to better align and incorporate the needs of others. When the exec team began to discuss key points of the presentation between themselves, she jumped in with a ‘definitive’ answer to shut the discussion down instead of facilitating the discussion and ensuring key people were heard.

She didn’t speed up through the less important parts or slow down at the key parts. Her tone of voice wasn’t excited and enthusiastic but projected an air of ‘this is the thing you must do’. She didn’t give the audience a sense of autonomy. The strategy was presented as ‘this is the strategy, take it or leave it’.

In hindsight, this was our fault (mine and the community leader). We should have pushed back the meeting to allow more time for her to practice and prepare.

A great strategy doesn’t succeed if you appear nervous or argumentative when presenting (or executing) it. People have to like and respect you before they can like and respect your strategy. Improvement here begins with awareness. You need to solicit honest feedback from peers to find areas of improvement. It might not sound like the community work you signed up for, but it really is.