Solving Major Problems In Online Communities

June 5, 2016 Comments Off on Solving Major Problems In Online Communities

Olivier has an interesting question about community board structure.

How do you simplify 300 boards spread across 100 products in 9 languages developed over 15 years?

One solution is to distinguish the good boards from the bad ones. Define what makes a healthy board. Archive the unhealthy boards. Identify your members’ core needs today. Restructure the community categories around those needs. Build categories around clear use cases instead of legacy products that age and die.

The missing problem here is the problem. What problem is this trying to solve?

If you’re going to embark upon a massive restructure of a platform, disrupt every member’s learned behavior, and spend a huge amount of time and money, you better be darn sure you have a clear problem you’re trying to tackle.

And you can’t have a clear problem without a hypothesis. Thus a better approach is to begin with that testable hypothesis.

1) Begin with a testable hypothesis

Let’s begin with a list of possible problems here.

a) Members can’t find what they’re looking for and leave.

b) So much thin content is hurting search traffic.

c) The engagement rates of members is lower as discussions are spread across so many places.

d) So many discussions overwhelms newcomers and hurts the newcomer to regular conversion ratio.

Each one of these is a falsifiable hypothesis. You can prove it false. This is where you should begin with any major community activity.

2) Look for evidence that supports and refutes the problem

You can then begin looking for evidence that both supports and refutes the hypothesis.

  • Members can’t find what they’re looking forUse Google Analytics, exit surveys, and member interviews to tell you if this is true. Look carefully at the bounce rate and the % of members who say they couldn’t find what they were looking for. If the % is >10%, you might have a clear problem to solve.
  • Thin content is hurting search trafficTools like SEMRush, Moz, and Google analytics can give you a good idea if your search rankings are dropping for key terms as activity becomes increasingly disparate and duplicated.
  • Low social density is hurting engagementYou can run a small trial with one product to see if concentrating discussions significantly increases engagement from active members. Benchmark the increase against other forums over the same period and you might have an answer.
  • Bad newcomer to conversion ratioYou can study the newcomer to regular conversion journey and identify where people are dropping out. Do they visit but not register? Do they register but not participate? Do they participate and not stick around? Cross-reference this with how long they spend on the page (i.e. did they get their answer) and you have a pretty good idea of what’s causing people to vanish.

Remember here that unless we also look for evidence which refutes the hypothesis, we’ll inevitably prove it true. You’re bound to find the 1 person in 100 that supports your viewpoint if you ignore the other 100. Make your assumption on the balance of evidence.

3) What is the best way to solve the problem?

This is the part we really screw up. Because we’ve begun with the platform question, we only see platform solutions. But if one of the above problems does exist, we need to identify the best solution to that problem.

This tip could save thousands of organisations millions of dollars on expensive platform migrations and redesigns.

Changing the entire board structure might be the best way to tackle the above challenge. But I doubt it. I think there are better ways to tackle the above problems than disrupting everyone with a new structure.

Consider, for example,

  • Help members find what they’re looking forUse search data, surveys, and interviews with members to identify the 20% of topics which generate 80% of the discussions/requests. You can then feature these discussions more prominently within each category, create eBooks around these topics, or send them to newcomers in the community. Which do you feel will have the biggest long-term impact upon your community?
  • Increasing search trafficYou could simply remove articles/discussions which don’t attract any search traffic at all. Or you might instead try to plan discussions, activities, and content around the key things people search for. You might simplify or combine existing discussions into single definitive discussions for each topic.
  • Increasing engagement rateNotice the problem with this goal? It’s not specific. Do we mean increase the number of active members? Increasing the level of activity per active member? Let’s get more specific, how about we decide to get existing members participating more. We might go for some big wins, like having major VIP interviews, handing over more control to members, or host a major event to drive more activity.
  • Improve newcomer to regular conversion ratesRevamping the boards might help, but I suspect that getting the right automation journey, personal welcomes, and build giving members an early sense of competence, autonomy, or relatedness will have a much bigger impact.

I could easily be wide of the mark here and changing the board structure might be the solution. But given how quick, cheap, and non-disruptive it is to implement most of the above solutions, I’d certainly test them out before embarking on a huge, expensive, project which is likely to upset a lot of members.

Before you do something this big, this expensive, and something that disrupts the community for every single member you want to be dead clear about the goal and exhaust the other methods to achieve that goal here first.

There are countless organisations whom have invested vast sums of time and money into major revamps and not seen any impact. I’m tired of hearing about them. Usually they don’t know what goal they were trying to hit in the first place.

Believe me, it’s much easier to hit the target once you know where it is.

Plan 3 Month’s Of Community Activities In 10 Minutes

Too many people are guessing what discussion, item of content, or activity to work on next.

You don’t need to guess in 2016.

Let Google guide you. Google knows more than you about your audience. You can do 10 minutes of research and put together a big list of discussions to initiate, content to create, and activities to host.

Step 1: Enter the Basic Topic Search Terms Into Google

Let’s imagine you want to build a community about surfing.

That’s quite a broad topic with a lot of competitors. So you might slice a niche for yourself…perhaps surfboards…and decide to build a community around this concept.

You need to figure out what audience to target (beginners, experts?) with what format of content (guides, blogs, pdfs, videos, images?), and what type of content (discussions, news, resources etc..).

Our first step would be to put surfboards into Google and look carefully at what comes up:


Note: Answerthepublic is also a useful site for relevant questions.

What do you notice here? Knowing where to buy a surfboard takes a lot of the top places, but the other categories (images and news) are really interesting.

This gives you some immediate discussion ideas for the community.

Discussion ideas based upon first search

  • Where did you buy your surfboard from? And would you buy from there again?
  • The ultimate surfboard photo thread – share your board!
  • Your favourite surfboard design (share photos!)
  • Do you think ‘competitor’s board’ helped ‘competitor’ ?

This feeds into other activities too. You might invite a top design expert for an interview, interview someone close to the competitor to ask about their board etc..But these questions are still far too vague for our liking.

While this is better than what 90% of community professionals do, you can still do much better by diving slightly deeper.

We want our discussions and content to be as specific as possible. So let’s look at the related searches.

Step 2: Using Related Searches To Get Specific Discussion Questions, Content, And Ideas for Activities

If we scroll to the bottom of the page, we see this:


This is really useful information!

While some of this audience wants to know where to buy them, a large number clearly want cheap surfboards, others want to know how to get the right size surfboards for them.

We can also see ‘beginners’ ranks highly here.

If we click on ‘beginners surfboard’ we soon see the exact terms and questions people ask to help us refine our discussions:


Step 3: Compile Unique Segments and Engagement Activities For Each

We can probably see 3 distinct types of beginners here.

  1. Beginners who only want the cheapest surfboards.
  2. Beginners who want to know the best surfboards for beginners.
  3. Beginners who want the best surfboards possible (cash-rich beginners!)

If you like, you could dig further into each of these.

For now, however, we can begin to create a few categories and drop the discussions, content, and activities into relevant places.

For example:

(click here for full image)

Audience Discussions Content Activities
Beginners who want cheap surfboards What is the least you would spend on a surfboard?
Where did you buy your surfboard from? Would you recommend it?
Selling your surfboard? – post it here.
How to negotiate a great surfboard deal
Survey results – how much members would spend on their first surfboards today
Surfboard price list – get the latest prices that members paid for their boards
#surfboardgraduation day. Sell your old surfboard to a newcomer today.
Interview with a surfboard scout – how Joe Smith got an [xyz] surfboard for $350!
Beginners who have money (but not knowledge) to buy the best surfboards If you could have any surfboard you want, what would it be?
Can beginners custom-design a surfboard?
What size surfboard should I get if….
Just bought your first board? Share the picture here..
The top 5 surfboards as voted by you.
And the surfboard brand of the year is…
5 Members describe their dream surfboard if price wasn’t a factor
ASK the experts: What surfboard would you buy for … ?
AMA with a surfboard manufacturer – get tips and tricks to get the best surfboard
Beginners who want to know how to be good beginners What advice would you give to a newbie buying his first surfboard?
What size surfboard should I get if….*
What board are you thinking of buying? Get advice from experts.
Should all newcomers begin by using foam surfboards?
What was your first surfboard and why?
What our top 10 members wish they knew when they bought their first board.
What’s changed about surfboards in the past 3 years?
15 warning signs of bad surfboards.
Surfboarding for beginners induction. Join our monthly live discussion to help newcomers get the best boards for them!

*there’s some natural overlap in these.

This is all activity to target to increase engagement among a specific segment with a unique need you can satisfy.

But beginners was just one of the key stakeholders interested in surfboards, now consider which other segment of surfers might have a unique interests in surfboards?

Step 4: Research The Second Biggest Segment

If we go back to the first results, we noticed that images ranked second.

Clearly images are important to a big segment of the audience…but who is this audience and what do they want?

If we click on images, we notice that design is the number one result….

Surfboards.003 (1)

We can probably assume that designing surfboards and customising surfboards is a big segment (we probably all knew this already, but the process matters).

We can also safely assume two things here.

  1. There is a group of surfers who love to customise their own boards.
  2. This group loves sharing images of customised boards.

We can infer that their motivations are impressing each other (why else share the images?)

Let’s do a proper search for terms like surfboard design and customising surfboards to see what comes up…



We can assume that the average level of knowledge of this group is quite low (note: the danger of this process is always appealing to the newcomers/beginners who are most likely to search for knowledge).

Now we have a good list of potential engagement topics:

  • Basic knowledge & discussion of the basics.
  • Theory of surfboard designs.
  • Sharing your design.
  • Findings and seeing the designs of others.
  • Video guides on designing surfboards
  • Get to know the big names in surfboard design.
  • Learn the software involved in design.

We can start to make some further educated guesses about the different groups here:

1. Design beginners. They need to know the basics. What software to use, how to design, what products to use, what’s in style etc.

2. Design experts who want to impress others. They want to take images of their boards, share images, and build their reputation.

3. Performance enthusiasts. They care less about aesthetics and more about how the design affects the performance. They want to get every edge for the top performance.

You can drill deeper into any of these if you like to get more specific questions and discussion topics.

For example, if we dig deeper into surfboard design theory we find:


Now we have 8 potential topics we can initiate discussions (within design theory alone) and create content around which we know are going to be useful to a large number of this audience.

We’ve also discovered a potential competitor term to our own community efforts (shaping forums)..

Likewise, if we dig deeper into surfboard anatomy (for the performance enthusiasts) we find:


I haven’t surfed, but Dave Parmenter might be a good person to interview.

Discussions about fish foot boards might be interesting, discussions on insight surfboards and rails would also be quite popular.

Once again, we can start making educated guesses about what each of our 3 new audiences might want here:

(click here for full image)

Audience Discussions Content Activities
Beginners designing their first surfboards What is the least you would spend on a surfboard?
What colours fade and which colours last for life?
Where can you buy a blank board to design?
How did you pick a design for your board?
The ultimate list of resources to design your first surfboard.
The basics of design theory. Avoid embarrassing mistakes in your surfboard design.
Five enduringly cool surfboard designs
Hands on workshop – our expert will guide you through designing your first surfboard
Correct your mistakes. Join our team in a live panel discussion to help you correct those design errors.
Design experts who want to impress others Who’s your favourite surfboard design expert?
Favourite surfboard design of all time…go!
What design would you love to create but can’t?
Struggling with a design? Post it here and get feedback.
Should you be culturally sensitive in your design?
Which designs for which location?
Most embarrassing design mistake…anyone?
The best designs from our Instagram this month.
Nominate your favourite design from these favourites.
What’s trendy in design today?
The story behind ‘xyz’ design (background, templates, and resources to use)
Design of the month competition.
Interview with the design of the month winner (how he selected, designed, and created this month’s top design)
AMA with the world’s top surfboard designer
Performance enthusiasts Is your board salvageable? Post pictures to get feedback.
How to solve the ‘xyz’ problem?
What is the most innovative design change you’ve seen this week?
Lift vs. drag – which do you prefer?
Speed benefits from fish foot surfboards?
Repairs a surfboard
How [person] created the [innovative performance] surfboard.
15 warning signs of bad surfboards.
LIVE DEBATE: [xyz] surfboard vs. [xyz] surfboard…which gives you the cutting edge?

You can design a much better table than this I’m sure.  

Now we have 2 core segments (beginners and designers) each comprising of three distinct groups of people we can target with dozens of messages, content, and activities

…and we’ve only been researching potential engagement activities for 10 minutes!

Step 5: Project Planning

From here you can begin eliminating groups you don’t want to target, focusing on the activities you feel will get the best return and start delegating who is going to do which of these (and when).  

This could easily be 3 months of community activity all mapped out.

What we’ve done today is to give you a really simple process to begin developing your engagement activity in a community.

You can use this to drive activity in an existing community (cater to new segments) or launching a new community (or sub-group).

In practice you probably want to supplement your research with interviews, surveys, studies of existing communities in the sector and similar communities. This helps you overcome the focus on beginner problem. Test relevant search terms, explore, see what comes up and use that within your community.

You should be amazed at just how quickly you can put together 3 month’s of activity on any topic you like.

Also see:

p.s. Workshop in New York next week, sign up here if you want to use psychology to build better communities.


What’s Missing In Moderation?

May 23, 2016 Comments Off on What’s Missing In Moderation?

If you want a less inclusive debate, let the diehards dominate it.

Soon everyone with a moderate view is a ‘sympathiser/traitor/idiot’ and ‘doesn’t get it’.

Those with opposing views are bullied out of the discussion altogether.

The diehards win because others simply don’t care enough to keep going (hence why they’re not diehards).

Get a group of people with a moderate view together and the most popular members will be those who can express the most extreme form of that view.

Moderators are trained to remove posts and people which violate rules which can be written. They’re rarely trained to spot and tackle diehards who break unwritten rules.

They don’t remove members who violate codes of conduct which can’t be easily transcribed. They’re so rarely trained to stick up and encourage a minority view to have a more inclusive debate.

If you catch members making huge assertions (‘x’ is dead/ ‘x’ is the future) without referencing evidence, you have a diehard problem.

If you spot any variation of the phrase ‘s/he doesn’t get it’, you have a diehard problem.

If you see a discussion which began with opposing viewpoints and is now dwindling into a tiny minority of people discussing the small differences between extreme versions of that viewpoint, you’ve got a diehard problem.

If moderation is about moderation it needs to not just remove the rule breakers but prevent the extreme view drowning out the less engaged or interested moderate view through sheer force of self-assertion.