History is littered with organizations (and entire industries) that failed to adapt until it was too late.
The community industry isn’t immune from this fate. Many of us are using community technology and offering experiences that really haven’t changed much over the past decade (or two).
But now major forces are emerging which will permanently change the experience we need to offer our members. If we don’t adapt fast enough, we risk consigning ourselves to irrelevance. It’s time to update our technology roadmap, and do it fast.
The Major Forces Shaping The Future of Community Technology
To figure out what should be on your community technology roadmap, we first need to know what the big trends are and why they’re relevant.
Everyone will have their own opinions, but I think these are the ones that really stand out to us.
Some of the above are critical trends already impacting our work on a day-to-day level, others are slow-boiling micro-trends that might affect us in the future (and we need to prepare for them now).
What Are The Short, Medium, And Long-Term Community Tech Implications?
Every trend above will impact your community technology needs in a different way.
It’s hard to predict the exact impact of each trend, but based upon our best guess, we would advise clients to consider the following updates to their community experience:
Short-term Implications (within the year)
This section includes the improvements which should be on your roadmap to complete within the year. These are generally inexpensive and don’t require a huge amount of time and resources to implement.
Build A Better Community Dataset
Community professionals have been grumbling about the analytics of community vendors for decades. The complaints tend to fall in two areas. Either the vendor doesn’t show the data the client wants to see or the client can’t pull the data from the vendor into another platform. The reality is vendors will never provide the analytical insights many clients want. It’s simply not what they’re set up to do.
But two things are changing now. The first is the rise of community intelligence tools like CommonRoom and Orbit. These have some useful features like creating cohorts based upon member behaviors, being able to instantly get a picture of how the community is doing, and easily export the data into a CSV.
Another major benefit is they help create better datasets which combine social media data with community data. We might argue whether social media ‘is community’, but in countless surveys and member interviews over the years, we often hear responses like:
“Yes, I participate in the community on Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, and sometimes the forums”
Members have already defined it for us. It makes sense to offer a united, connected, experience. A top member in the community shouldn’t be treated like a newcomer on social media channels (and vice-versa). Better yet, having this data lets you build a more comprehensive picture of who your audience are and what they want.
The first step then is to select and utilize one of the two community intelligence tools above. Now you can integrate the accounts. Orbit premium even has a partnership with Clearbit which will let you enrich your dataset from LinkedIn and other channels.
You should be able to have a detailed dataset which includes:
- Member name
- Job title
- Twitter followers
- Community vendor username
- Slack username
- First activity
- Last activity
- Date created
This will be the first step to creating a ‘dream’ community dataset we’ll discuss later. For now, you should have this data to hand.
Better Engage Newcomers
Community platforms generally don’t do a good job of helping you engage newcomers. You can either send out an automated message to the many (or series of messages) or use the first post notifier present in some platforms to welcome members when they make the first post.
The problem is neither is especially effective. That’s partly because of the nature of the issue. In support communities, most people don’t want to do anything other than get an answer. Bombarding them with poor interruptive messages won’t help. Instead split your audience into two groups.
1) People who joined more than a week ago and didn’t participate.
2) People who made their first post in the community.
This is easy to do in either of the two community intelligence tools.
For the newcomer non-participants, send them a message along the lines of:
I noticed you joined our community last week but haven’t been involved much yet.
Is there anything you’re looking to learn? People you want to connect with? Or anything else that would help? Just let me know.
We also have a group for newcomers who want to quickly get up to speed. It might be useful!”
Aside – we’ve noticed when people have a direct interaction with the community manager, they’re far more likely to engage in the community.
For the people who made their first post in the community, send them a message along the lines of:
Did you get the answer you wanted from [question]?
If you have a second, it would really be nice if you can let the person who offered a solution know if they solved your problem or not.
This also helps others who read your question know if the solution worked or not (and helps our product developers too know what to fix!)
You can also mark the question as an ‘accepted solution’ by using the tag at the top of the page.
P.s. If you’re just getting started, you’re also now welcome to join our group just for newcomers who want to quickly get up to speed.”
If you’re worried that this isn’t sustainable, engage your volunteers to help you.
Identify Current And Future Top Members
There’s a lot of academic literature which predicts who the top members of the future will be. As a general rule, it’s people who make multiple contributions on multiple posts quickly after signing up to the community.
You can set up a filter in CommonRoom for example for members who joined within the previous 28 days and are in the top 1% of active members (or you can set an exact number of topics/replies they need to give).
Each month you can reach out to members in this segment and see if they want to be more involved in the community and check their level of expertise. You don’t have to boost them straight up to an MVP level, but you can give them smaller tasks to see if they might be a good fit.
This can be a very gentle message to let them know they’ve been seen and recognised. For example:
I really loved your post about [topic] last week.
Did you find [clarification question]?
I think our members might really benefit from learning more from your experiences. Would you be interested in being more involved in the community?
I’m thinking it might be great to have you [run a group, write a regular blog, host a meetup, be responsible for a topic]?
Let me know if you’re interested. I’m happy to speak further”.
The goal is to build up a pool of potential MVPs you can bring into the program once they’ve shown they have the expertise and the right personality to engage in the community.
Reactivate Members Who Are Drifting Away
This is one of the best uses of community intelligence tools right now.
You can identify which members were previously highly engaged and drop them a personal note. Don’t try to automate this. Top members are too important. Instead, you can use a message like that below to find out a) why they departed and b) to gather their input on a topic
Haven’t seen you in the community in a while, I hope you’re doing ok?
If you have time, I’d love to get your expertise on a question/event/issue we have in the community.
@username is trying to [question]. Given your experience in [topic], I thought you might be able to help. No worries if you’re swamped, but any thoughts would be appreciated”
The key points from the message above is it’s personal, it’s undemanding, and tries to make the member feel like an expert for the experience they have within the community.
Both CommonRoom and Orbit will let you find members who were previously in the top 25% of active members and are now drifting away. You can even setup alerts to make this a weekly practice for the community team.
Eliminate Most Automated Emails
A quick aside on automated messages here.
Of all the new things you can do with community intelligence tools, automated emails are the most overrated. It’s certainly possible to design complex automation processes to appeal to every segment of your audience and reflect their past contributions.
In practice, automated emails rarely have any significant impact. At best, people ignore the emails. At worse, they begin to ignore the source of the emails altogether. Automated emails are not the silver bullet you might imagine.
You can safely remove nearly all of them and not see any negative impact.
Kill Your Customisations
Customisations are a lot like buying a boat.
The two best days are when you get them and when you ditch them.
The dates in between are largely filled with a lot of stress. They’re difficult to maintain and you never quite seem to get it to work the way you want it to. Even if they do, they’re rarely as widely used as you think they will be. Whenever possible, kill the customisations. They’re not worth the bother.
As no-code/low-code options increase, drag and drop options will replace coding and more complex technical developments. You may want to hold back on a big relaunch for a while. If you really need a specific feature (and believe me, you probably don’t), you can find a tool that does the feature really well and send people there. Don’t try and make two things fit together which really weren’t designed for one another.
If you have painful customisations, consider phasing them out in favor of dedicated technologies.
Intermediate-Term (within 1 to 3 years)
This section covers some of the improvements which will require additional time, resources, and some difficult decisions. This involves setting the community up for a more challenging internal and external environment – one where security, data, and integrations are increasingly important.
Search And Destroy (or Remove)
The user experience of hosted community platforms is going to fall further and further behind that of mainstream social media. Given the choice of where to participate, people will choose the big social media platforms. They’re simply slicker, less concerned with strict security rules, and easier to use.
This means hosted community platforms are increasingly like Wikipedia. They’re clunkier and not as aesthetically pleasing as most web pages – but it’s the king of search traffic. Optimizing for search is going to be critical.
This means improving technical search and ensuring the community itself offers the best possible experience for people searching for information. A major part of this is archiving content no one visits anymore.
I’d suggest beginning with content/discussions which:
1) Attracted less than 10 visits in the past month.
2) Have received less than 2 posts in the past year.
3) Have been published more than 2 years ago.
Aside – the wild thing is most people don’t even consider search when deciding what platform to use. Yet, our experience suggests the platform has a big impact upon the level of search traffic you can expect. Budget $10k to $20k for search optimization.
Secure ISO27001 and SOC 2 Compliance
Infosec teams are gaining veto-rights on new and existing community platforms. Ensuring your platform is compliant is becoming an increasingly important issue. As fines for infosec breaches grow, compliance is going to become an increasingly big issue. This makes selecting a platform with high security requirements evermore important.
ISO27001 and SOC 2 are similar but not the same. The former is a set of standards which define an information security management system (ISMS), the latter is evidence that security management systems have been implemented and are functioning well.
Most of the major platforms are working on them. Generally speaking, the bigger the platform, the more likely it is to have the compliance certificates you need.
Create and Optimize Your Workflow (for high-volume communities)
You really shouldn’t be managing a high-volume community by the front-end (i.e. using the same interface every other member uses). It’s simply darned inefficient to manually click, reply, and/or delete posts. It also leads to important posts slipping through the cracks (i.e. new activity pushes posts to the top of the page as you scroll down).
It’s also terrible for escalating questions and issues to colleagues. I know too many community professionals who manually email discussion links to colleagues (usually product folks) and wait for an answer. That’s far too much effort.
Beyond a relatively low level, it makes sense to focus on choosing a platform (or developing a system) which enables an easy back-end process for engaging members and responding to discussions. This means having posts shown in a stream which can be filtered by a variety of criteria and allow for easy tagging, assignment, escalation, and approval of various discussions and content.
You can get an extremely hefty performance bump simply by choosing a platform with the right workflow or developing one manually.
Integrate with the CRM
Everyone wants to ‘integrate’ their community with other platforms, but it’s not often clear what that makes in practice. So it’s a good idea to get really specific about what that ‘integration’ means. Typically it means something on one platform doing something on the other (and vice-versa).
You might want some combination of the following functionality:
- The community platform being able to create new contacts on the CRM.
- The community platform to automatically update the CRM when a member updates their profile data (i.e. photo, name, email, company, location etc…)
- To have a button that appears to admins alongside community posts that enables the post to be escalated as a support case in the CRM.
- To have a button that appears to admins alongside member icons to create a ‘lead’ in the CRM for others to follow up on.
- Add member activity feed data to records on the CRM.
- Use CRM data to suggest tags in the community platform when members ask a question based upon the products/services they use.
- Show community data on member records (date joined, date participated, last date participated, total number of posts, member rank etc…).
- Show CRM data (i.e. courses completed) on member profiles.
This isn’t a comprehensive list, but it gives you an idea of what you might be looking for.
Added Language Accessibility
It’s almost nonsensical not to add language translation options to your community.
Members in one country should automatically see posts published in another language automatically translated for them (with the option to disable this if they like). Sure the translation might not be 100% perfect, but it would make the community accessible to people from around the world.
Given the advanced translation capabilities recently, this is a great option. We recently added this to a Discourse community. When combined with members’ locale data, it automatically translates posts into the language based upon where the people are participating from. This massively increases the accessibility of the community to people from around the world.
This alone could significantly increase engagement within the community.
Advanced Data Analytics And Automated Reporting
As we discussed here, we’re not even close to getting the level of insights and engagement we should be from our community platforms. Analytics will never be a great feature of platforms (but being able to easily pull the data into another platform should be).
You need to invest a significant percentage of your time and budget into getting good community intelligence. This usually means things like:
- Automatically pulling community (and CRM) data into a data warehouse like Snowflake to clean and seamlessly use data across a variety of services.
- Publish monthly ROI reports which shows current community value and predicts future metrics based upon previous trends.
You should be able to constantly show the impact of community upon retention, churn, sales, deflection, and in a variety of other areas. You should also be able to model the impact of, say, spending $50k on social ads to drive more people to the community or increasing the number of MVPs by 20 etc…
Even better, have a validated model (like the one below) which highlights how the benefits of a community are achieved and what the moderating variables are.
You can use our community intelligence services to set this all up for you.
Long-Term Roadmap (3+ years)
This section covers where the long-term trends are heading and how best to harness them to deliver the best community experience for both members and the organization.
I’m far less certain about these areas than the former two – but that’s the nature of predicting long into the future.
AI-Assistance For Handling Problematic Content
For high-volume communities, you should have automated rules for handling problematic content. Some community platforms (e.g Discourse/Khoros etc…) have basic functions included which ban posts from members which are typed too quickly or published too soon after joining.
What we should be planning for is a system that learns how you handle flagged content and makes recommendations for you. The system should increasingly be able to make its own predictions about what content to remove and people to ban with an estimated degree of certainty. Now you might set upper and lower thresholds (say above 80% and below 20%) above which the suggested rule is automatically executed and below which it is not executed while you review those in the middle with a simple option to accept or reject the AI suggestion.
You can then skim through executed processes and correct any obvious errors.
Better Personalisation Based Upon Member Behaviors
The current personalisation options offered by major enterprise platforms are poor. Most people (from regions that share the same primary language) see the same view of the community as everyone else. This is because most major enterprise communities rely upon a forum format which really hasn’t changed much in 20+ years.
However, this also means members see a lot of content they have no interest in. However, social media platforms have shifted the trend towards more ‘feed-based’ formats which are personalized to the member-based upon a combination of:
a) What’s broadly popular on the platform today.
b) What’s popular amongst friends/connections of the visitor.
c) What’s likely to be popular based upon past member behaviors/interests/what we know about the member.
For example, if you know what products members own or have declared their interest in previously, only relevant categories, content, and discussions should appear for them on the homepage. They can still find other content if they want, but members should have a most customized experience.
Likewise, if you know the kinds of discussions newcomers visit when they join a community, they should be shown to future newcomers etc…This level of personalisation should be something to be planned for in the intermediate horizon.
Develop A Custom Community Experience
It’s pretty common for a group of community professionals to agree that community platforms are terrible and getting worse. This isn’t really true (although they have fallen far behind social platforms in user experience).
The problem is the needs of clients are diverging from one another. Large companies increasingly have diverging needs. One recent client would only consider vendors which met stringently high standards in the core web vitals. Another wanted the ability to run competitions with lucky draws from within the platform itself.
Satisfying emerging needs is nothing new. It’s what we expect vendors to do to stay relevant. The problem is the needs of enterprise seem to be diverging. The point of SaaS companies is they (ideally) make one version of their product which they can sell repeatedly at a high margin. They generally don’t want to work hard to customize a platform to solve one vendor’s unique problem. That’s not scalable nor sustainable.
Some organizations tackle this by taking a platform and spending a fortune on customisations. But they become a pain in themselves. There are three key approaches to resolving this.
The first is to build an entire community experience from scratch. Apple replaced this Jive experience with a (strikingly similar) custom build. DigitalOcean also developed their entire custom community experience.
Another growing trend, as shown by Notion, is simply encouraging people to create, join, and participate in groups that already exist.
There isn’t a single answer, but I’d be surprised if we don’t see more organizations taking a different approach to their community experience – one where the hosted platform (if there is one) is just one part of a broader experience.
Tokens and Metaverse (Web3)
Thus far most web3 activities have been more hype than substance.
As the web3 hits the trough of disillusionment, we’re hopefully going to see the hype fade and some practical applications emerge. What they are remains to be seen. I don’t imagine any community will move to the Metaverse for now. However, I wouldn’t be surprised to see greater use of digital currencies within some specific kinds of communities.
I can also imagine some communities utilizing tokens they can accumulate through positive contributions to a community which affords them voting rights on the direction and key decisions of the community. I can’t see them being widespread, but in certain technical communities they could be powerful.
Predicting how macro-trends will affect community technology is similar to making predictions about how outside forces will shape any industry. We can never be quite sure.
It’s clear that some trends are already in motion (data security on platform selection, losing members to habitual platforms, declining differentiation etc…), others are going to be felt in the more distant future (AI, automations, and tokens).
What’s important is you’re building a community experience prepared to navigate these trends internally and externally. We might be wrong about the timeline, but we’re unlikely to be wrong about the broad direction community technology is going.
The danger is offering a community experience that falls increasingly behind standards to the point where its continuing existence is in peril. If you build a roadmap and make changes now, you’re likely to avoid that fate.
The key steps I’d recommend at the moment are:
1) Check and validate which trends apply to your situation. Use our template as a start, but be sure to adapt and customize it to your situation.
2) Estimate short, medium, and long-term impact of trends. Begin with changes that you’ve already noticed and grow from there. Use our template from above if you like.
3) Build your community roadmap in three phases. Begin with the quick and inexpensive changes. Begin gaining support for the more challenging changes.
4) Work with a group of peers to support each other. Collaborate with your peers when building roadmaps. Benefit from the expertise of others.