At its most successful, what is your brand community going to become?
Think bigger than you do today. Think about the ultimate role it’s going to play in the lives of
your members. Think about the number of people it’s going to serve. Think about the different ways it’s going to help your organization.
Don’t be afraid to be incredibly ambitious. Ambition can mean different things
It can mean doubling down on what you have, it can mean expansion, it can mean entirely rethinking what community is to your organization.
A simple way of looking at this is in this adaptation of Ansoff’s matrix below:
There are four possible strategies here based on what audience you want to target and how the community helps the company you work for.
We can list these by order of ambition. They are:
- ENGAGE: Increase engagement from existing members.
- EVOLVE: Get better results from existing members.
- EXPAND: Expand to target new and related audiences.
- TRANSFORM: Develop new communities for new value.
1) ENGAGE: Get members more engaged.
The most common strategy is to increase engagement, it’s also the least effective.
Unless you’ve just launched or made a hideous mistake, members are usually participating as much as they’re going to. You can make plenty of tweaks, but you’re always restricted by the law of diminishing returns.
Pursue this strategy when you’re not likely to get support for anything else. Interview two dozen members, find out what brings them to the community, and then cater overwhelmingly to that desire.
If, for example, members visit to resolve problems, the community must provide every person the best possible solution in the quickest amount of time. At the tactical level that means you need to build powerful programs to encourage top experts, teach members to ask better questions, feature the best answers, and tweak the platform relentlessly to get the best results.
The key challenge is to narrow your focus to the few things members really care about and design every activity to make your community the best place to resolve the problem or achieve their goals.
2) EVOLVE: Get More Value From Members
A far better (and more ambitious) option is to expand the nature of the community so it helps other departments.
A customer support community can become a community which helps companies be more successful (customer success), collects insights (ideation), or encourages members to help promote them (advocacy).
A single community can reduce support costs, improve retention, help build better products and attract new customers.
Almost every brand community strategy should at least be trying to expand the ways it helps a business.
You still have the same group of members, only now you’re asking them to make different types of contributions.
This requires you to offer members the chance to earn rewards, gain unique access to you/your company, or build their reputations. The hard part is working internally to make this possible.
The upside is you usually expand the reach of the community to your entire customer base, not just those who have problems today. You give members a reason to visit every day to see who’s new, what’s new, what can they get? What can they learn etc?
The downside is two-fold, there is less of a trigger to visit the community in the first place and it’s a lot harder for people to do these tasks than simply answer a question, proactively share their expertise rather than ask a question.
3) EXPAND: Reach New Audiences
There are plenty of ways to expand to new audiences.
You can expand into new languages, locations, ages, or related audiences. A community for users of your accounting product can become a community for all types of accountants around the world.
Language and geographic regions are usually easiest areas to expand to. You already have the platform and processes in place. Expanding into areas with high numbers of non-English speakers makes sense.
Tackling different audiences is harder. You have to overcome the reason they haven’t joined already. The failure rate for communities targeted at younger audiences is extremely high.
Expanding to fill the broader sector is the most ambitious. Sephora’s BeautyTalk, Lomography, FitBit, and Nike Runner’s Club are all good examples. They’re less about the product and more about the purpose of the product.
You do this to extend community members beyond your current base and bring in new customers. The downside is this usually requires a unique identity beyond just the ‘brandname’ community. There is a limit to how often you can promote yourself too.
4) TRANSFORM: Get new value from new audiences
The most ambitious strategy is to completely transform your company or your approach to the community. This usually comes in three forms.
1) The community becomes a platform/social network for others to build and maintain their own groups/profiles. (StackExchange, BensFriends, HealthUnlocked, DeviantArt, Care2 and others fall into this category).
2) The community becomes a business and acts as a service for members to achieve their goals. Good examples might be TripAdvisor, Kaggle, RealSelf, Rover etc…these communities usually tend to be acquired or spun off into separate businesses.
3) The community runs itself/runs areas of the company. It’s hard to find good brand examples of this. (Eve Online might be a notable mention). Members collaborate together to produce the collective value of the company and divide the spoils. Ideas are sourced by members, driven by members, and implemented by members. The company acts as a support service for the community to flourish (Airbnb has flirted with this along with several Blockchain-based companies).
Most Growth Requires A Big Change
Don’t limit yourself to just trying to deepen engagement with the members you already have. This limits the growth of your community. There are far bigger wins by looking to expand to new types of communities you’re building (customer success, advocacy) or the audiences you’re targeting.
You can achieve some short-term success by focusing on engagement, but the really big wins, the kind of wins which other people take notice of, is by expanding the community to be more useful to more people.
Support and Ambition
An old rule of thumb is the more support you have, the more ambitious you can afford to be. This is half-true. Often the very act of being able to articulate a big, noble, goal is what brings others around to supporting the community idea.
People are more likely to support a community which serves a far bigger audience and drives more results. Even without the support you need, you can still set a lofty goal and work hard to earn that support. It might take years, but at least you’re working towards something that matters.
Build a Multi-Year Roadmap
If you’re worried, again plot this into a roadmap over three years. This might look like:
- Year 0 – 1: Deepen engagement and build support.
- Year 1 to 3: Evolve to customer success, advocacy, and ideation.
- Year 3 to 5: Expand to Latin America and South-East Asia.
- Year 5+: Become a platform for others.
Now you have a vision you can articulate to both your colleagues and members. Something motivating and something which merits your requests for support and resources.
There is a chronic lack of ambition today about what a community can and should become.
It’s never just a place for members to engage with one another. It’s a place to harness the amazing potential of members to the maximum possible effect. You can’t achieve that with a narrow focus on what you’re doing today.
Be ambitious, more ambitious than you’ve dared to be in the past.
Last week, I listened to two people argue about which platform they should use to build their community.
Should they use Slack or Discord?
Today, most of their audience is on Slack. Tomorrow it might be Discord…at least for a while. Within 18 to 36 months, it will be something else.
Chasing after your audience from one platform to the next is an expensive, wasteful, approach to community building. A far better approach is to invest those same resources in building a strong sense of community.
If your audience feels a strong sense of community with one another, it doesn’t matter what platform they use. That sense of community follows them wherever they go.
But building this strong sense of community requires investments in intangible areas. You can make this tangible by running the sense of community survey first and designing specific actions (see the worksheet) to improve the sense of community.
This might include:
1) Provide funding to leaders. You might copy Wikimedia and provide resources for leaders to step forward and create their own groups or run their own events. You would help train them, give them unique access, fly them in to meet your team, and promote the groups they create. If you’ve built strong relationships with leaders, it doesn’t matter if one of them moves a chunk of your audience from one platform to another.
2) Bring the community to customers. You would bring the community into the natural journey customers go through when using a product. ‘Have a question? Want to get better? Here is our community who can help…’. You would entwine the community(ies) as closely as possible with the product. Updated links to relevant discussion topics embedded within its use would help.
3) Design rituals. After a member has made a certain number of contributions, they would be invited to give their feedback, share their toughest challenge, or how they got into the topic. Something which opens members up to the group. You may consider special features for members on their anniversary of using the product.
4) Develop a unique identity. You would give community members a unique name and a place which documents the history of the community. Who were the top members, how did they get started, what were the major milestones of the group? This would be shared and communicated to all new customers.
5) Have a newspaper. Each week you would publish the community newspaper, edited by members, featuring the best contributions from the community. This might include the best advice, funniest stories, or anything else which could be interesting to the group. This would cover communities across all platforms, including those that aren’t involved with you at all. Let everyone pitch their ideas and stories to the group. This newsletter helps build and establish the social hierarchy within the group.
6) Host and promote events. Three types of events can work well. The first are events you host just for your top members. Spotify’s Rock Star Jam is a good example. This builds close relationships between anyone building any kind of community for your brand. The second are member-hosted meetups. Provide some limited funding (perhaps $100 per meetup for food/drinks) and plenty of local promotion for any member who wants to host meetups with others. The third is big conferences. If you have a big audience, it may be worth bringing them together once a year. These build strong relationships between members.
7) Gather and identify useful feedback through any channel. Scan all social and community channels run by members for any useful feedback you can send on. Answer questions in these communities and let them know how their feedback has been used.
8) Setting clear goals and targets for members. You can set goals for the community to achieve. Better yet, get members to list their skills, knowledge, and experience. Then find ways for them to contribute these things to the community.
This is a handful of ideas rather than an exhaustive list. The point is investing in the channels above will give you a community which outlives the demise of any single platform.
If you’re doing your job well, you should see the sense of community felt among regular customers (remember to skip the newcomers) steadily improve over time. This is the tangible success of your work. People move platforms a lot more frequently than they feel a sense of community.
It’s never a good idea to try and contain members in one place, nor chase after them from one platform to the next. That’s expensive and wasteful. You can gain better results from building a strong sense of community among members regardless of which platform they use.
Hosting and managing a community platform can help you achieve your goals, but nowhere near as much as fostering a powerful sense of community.
The engagement trap is very real, it’s very dangerous, and most of us are caught in it.
But engagement itself isn’t bad. The problem is when:
a) You align your efforts to drive the most engagement.
b) Engagement is all your colleagues understand about building community.
In a perfect world, you would ignore engagement metrics entirely and focus on the outcomes of this engagement (i.e. if engagement drives more loyalty, satisfaction, leads, search traffic etc…you would measure those things instead of engagement).
But often you can’t easily do this.
Sometimes you can’t get the data you need. Other times, no-one seems clear what the goal of the community should be. And, most often, someone senior just wants to have a big active community at the moment for a reason even they struggle to explain.
You can push back a little, but pushing too hard to be measured by outcomes can create more value than it solves.
This happens often in our consultancy work too. The solution is to build your boss/client’s wishes into a longer-term strategic roadmap for your community.
If everyone understands driving engagement is part of a stepping stone to driving clear results, you can avoid the engagement trap.
In practice, this usually means you create a 6 to a 24-month roadmap with goals to hit such as:
- Months 0 to 6: Reach a critical mass of activity
- Months 6 to 12: Drive up engagement.
- Months 12 to 24: Align members behaviors to most valuable actions.
Each of these will also need its own strategic plan.
Now you have engagement as part of a longer-term process to driving results. You know exactly how much engagement you need to move to the next phase. Better yet, everyone can get on board and track progress.
Chasing engagement or chasing value doesn’t have to be two mutually exclusive options.
Don’t try to imitate major community programs without their resources.
Ideally, every community effort would have a full-time community manager with a six-figure budget to build and support their audience.
However, most people are juggling community around other tasks with limited financial support.
The temptation is to launch a platform, drive members to it, and start responding to questions. But without a decent amount of time and money, this probably isn’t the most effective approach. It sets high expectations, spreads resources thin, and requires a big, long-term, commitment.
An easier approach is to deliver a powerful community experience at regular intervals.
Instead of having an ongoing community you can’t fully support, focus on powerful community experiences you can deliver.
You can nurture a sense of community in many different ways:
- You can host monthly webinars with product experts where customers can join to ask questions.
- You can invite customers to join you at headquarters a couple of times a year.
- You can host weekly live twitter chats.
- You can solicit contributions of customers each month and publish the best advice and tips in a newsletter digest.
- You can create a podcast and invite contributions from members. You can encourage and promote the meetups of your members.
A hosted platform is just one of many approaches to foster a strong sense of community. It can deliver great results, but it’s both time and resource-intensive. If you have neither, take a different approach.
It’s always better to deliver a powerful community experience for a short amount of time than a mediocre experience for a long period of time. It’s easy to build upon a powerful community experience than a mediocre one.
It’s hard to work in an industry without a clear roadmap for what you should be doing.
It’s quite likely you’re unsure how to benchmark how well you’re doing today or figure out what you should be working on next.
Even many of the community managers behind the web’s largest and most successful communities aren’t sure what they should be working on next. For example:
Should you move to a new platform?
Should you build subgroups for connecting members?
Should you find ways to integrate the community with the product?
In this post, we’re going to try an answer most of these problems by sharing an updated community template with reference points to guide your actions.
This post will hopefully help you figure out where you are now, what you need to do next, and avoid most of the common mistakes.
Benchmarks For Your Online Community
It’s common to find community managers toiling away developing a premium platform or a complex MVP program without having enough members to use it or plenty of questions to answer.
This ends up being a distraction. You should only be working on the activities which take you to the next stage of the community lifecycle.
It’s really easy to plot a path forward when you know where you are now.
This means benchmarking your community against others and general principles of growth and development. To accomplish this, you can use the updated community lifecycle below:
In each category of the lifecycle (on the left), you can identify approximately where you are now and what to work on next.
It’s not an exact science (and you’re probably going to be further along the lifecycle in some areas than others) but it’s a broad guide to help you develop your next steps.
For example, a client of ours is at the stage below:
Now this gives us a broad idea of what to work on next. You generally don’t want to be too far ahead or behind your current average in any single category.
We want to focus on the highest priority areas first to move everything into the maturity stage. Then we might work on advancing further. This would mean (by approximate order of priority):
- Add a simple gamification and reward system for great contributions.
- Develop an MVP program for top community members.
- Create content to satisfy likely search queries for the topic.
- Better categorize the best community content to be easy to browse.
- Aligning the community website copy to solve existing problems/seize new opportunities.
- Build a system for members to vote/rate the best content.
- Ensuring the community is better featured on the main company site.
- Driving specific promotional activities.
- Securing additional funding for the community team.
- Develop specific metrics to measure health and success.
- Building a data-driven framework for making engagement decisions.
- Improve the community newcomer spaces.
You wouldn’t try to tackle all of these at once, there could be 6 to 12 months of work here. But you would want to build a roadmap to tackle the first 3 to 6 tasks over the next few months.
You need to balance everything out and make consistent, steady, progress.
Avoiding The Biggest Mistakes When Developing A Community
1) Understanding the influence of the curve.
The curve is the absolute number of new members who join the community.
Under normal conditions, you start slow, gradually speed up, hit a peak, and then reach a maintenance level where you have a consistent number of new members which reflects the topic itself.
Be very aware here the total size of the audience and broader interest in the topic will have a bigger impact upon the community’s growth and development than any activity you undertake.
This is usually beyond your control. Your rate of new members will look more like a hockey stick if the popularity of the topic is exploding. Likewise, if you’re a private community, the rate of new members will probably flatline much earlier without a peak.
2) Critical Metrics
The number of active members, newcomers, and traffic above is a simple mean from studies of a few hundred communities. The standard deviation is extremely high however, so treat these as a rough guide rather than fixed rules.
If you’re looking to benchmark and track success, this is a simple way of doing it. Some organizations with million of customers should easily surpass this.
As you grow, you should have a rising number of active contributors, single posters, and visitors. Visitors tends to be 100x of the active members. If you run a private/closed community, these metrics will be completely different.
Avoid setting metrics over which you have no control. Notice how slowly growth happens in the early stages of the community and plan for it.
With a few exceptions for customer support communities, you should begin with a simple platform that is already a habit for your target audience and try to drive activity there. This will usually mean a mailing list, slack, or (more likely today) Facebook groups.
As you grow, you might move to a hosted, licensed, community platform. This is largely to take advantage of lurkers who will want to find the useful information from your community and a handful of other unique features.
Some of the largest organizations also tend to develop their own bespoke platform to satisfy unique needs, but this comes after several years of work. Try to avoid using a premium platform or bespoke platform until you have a huge base of members eager to use it.
4) Strategy/Business Integration
You begin with a simple pilot program to validate the research you undertook in the concept stage. If that works, then you develop a complete strategic plan and start building more support for the community. Over time you should align the community to multiple benefits within the organization.
Eventually you become more specific about the ROI metrics, proving clear value, and becoming a community-first organization. This means seeking community support for initiatives and ideas before announcing them elsewhere.
For example, imagine you want to get a strategy approved by multiple stakeholders. You need to spend more time building relationships, understanding their needs, and adapting the strategy to ensure they feel they’ve had some control over the process.
Remember that building support will take a lot of time. Don’t try to force the community upon people. Instead figure out what your colleagues need and align the community to help. This is the simple secret to getting the support you want.
5) Growth Channels
The common mistake is to do a mass promotion of the community to the entire mailing list before validating the concept.
You don’t want the majority of your potential audience to see the community until it’s a fantastic hub of activity. This means initially you work from direct invites and biggest fans then expand gradually.
If you don’t have an existing audience, you can usually aim to attract members via paid social ads at around $1 per visit and up to $10 to $15 per conversion into a registered member.
Once the community has taken off, you want to ensure better placement for referral traffic, develop content and activities for search traffic, and try to drive word of mouth from existing members. Just don’t promote the community too widely, too soon.
6) Why New Members Join And Initially Participate
This changes over time. With the exception of customer support communities, people usually join to be part of something unique, different, and exclusive. They have a strong connection to the founder(s) and comprise the most hardcore fans or customers.
Over time this shifts as the community jumps from the most topic enthusiasts to those who have problems they want solved or want to be better within the field. This group requires more instant gratification to their problems.
The most common mistake here is to use copy in your touchpoints which doesn’t match what members need. For example, promoting the size or success of a community to members still seeking something unique, special, and exclusive. The second biggest mistake is never changing or adapting the copy as the community develops.
Eventually, most of the newcomers to the community will inevitably be newcomers to the field as well. This means you need to adjust the copy and content people see when they first visit your community to match.
The process for turning newcomers into active participants also shifts over time.
You might begin by @mentioning every member to the community as a personal welcome. But this doesn’t scale well (and it’s too effective). You gradually develop automated systems for converting members with welcome emails, an automation series, and volunteers.
You might also figure out a system to give newcomers unique roles and responsibilities within the community.
Avoid trying to develop advanced systems too early. In the early stages you can manually welcome every member. But beyond a certain scale this feels impersonal (e.g. mass welcomes) or simply doesn’t work. Make sure you slowly adapt your systems to do this automatically.
8) Visitors (lurkers)
Most people don’t do anywhere near enough to support the lurkers to their community. Most of the time, lurkers are restricted to browsing the latest posts or using the search box to find the information they want.
You need to build systems to highlight the best content for your members. This begins with editor’s picks and eventually goes one level further to create content that members can search for. You need to make sure this content is properly tagged and categorized so other members can quickly find it.
At the more mature level, you need to have accepted solutions, a knowledge-base, and a system for regularly updated old content to keep it fresh. Rating systems are also useful here.
9) Top Contributors
Don’t start jumping into your perfectly designed MVP system until you have a highly active, mature, community. Start by getting to know your top members and building good relationships with them.
Over time, you want to have them interact with each other and solicit their ideas and feedback on community content and activities.
Once you have a good group of top members, you might want to build an incentive program with gamification and unique privileges.
This is probably the most variable part of the process. But, generally, you can expect the inception stage to take up to 3 months.
If it takes longer, you probably need to rethink the concept. The establishment stage will usually last 3 to 9 months (in total) – this largely depends on developing diversified sources of growth.
The maturity stages and beyond may take a few years.
Steady, Monthly, Improvement
There is rarely a silver bullet that will change anything. The successful communities on the web today were the result of steady, monthly improvement, with community managers tackling the next thing on the list.
When you begin working tomorrow, or move to a new job, benchmark where the community is now using this resource and design your plan of action to steadily improve the community. It isn’t easy work, but it’s exactly what you’ve been hired to do.
Most of us believe we need thousands, maybe millions, of members to have a really valuable community.
Even those that don’t dream of making their community bigger and having more active members.
This is usually because we believe three things:
- More members makes the community better.
- Getting more members is a good use of time/resources.
- Getting more members improves the value of the community.
There is a grain of truth here. If you’re just getting your community started, you definitely want to grow quickly to reach critical mass.
But once you’ve reached critical mass, adding more members doesn’t help you build a million dollar community. What does help is getting the best out of the members you do have.
In this post, I’m going to outline how many active contributors you should aim for, what a typical breakdown of a community looks like and the numbers that go into creating a million-dollar community.
Most Brand Communities Have Far Fewer Members Than You Imagine
Two years ago, we began to suspect most branded communities had far fewer active contributors than we believed.
So we scraped a random sample of communities from Lithium below and analyzed the results (shown below).
It’s possible our scrape missed a lot of data (and there is plenty of activity behind closed doors). However, we broadly discovered most communities have between 51 to 389 active contributors at any one time.
But is Lithium reflective of most communities?
In the past year, we’ve worked with Community-Analytics and two academics to collect data from around 200 communities hosted on Discourse. The communities were broken down by size (no. messages) and the results are shown below.
Again, the number of active contributors varies wildly, but there is a clear trend within the 50 to 400 region.
Most branded communities really don’t have that many members.
Unless you’re an outlier (work for a brand with a massive audience, using a totally different platform, or have a really explosive idea), then you’re not going to get more than a few hundred active contributors during any given month.
This gives you some reasonable benchmarks to aim for:
- Bad = <100 – bad (unless you’re just starting out)
- OK = 100 to 200 active contributors
- Good = 200 to 400 active contributors
- Great = >400 active contributors
(of course, if you feel your community is an outlier, set outlier goals. Just be clear about why your community is an outlier).
But how valuable can a brand community be with just a few hundred active contributors? Extremely.
How Can A Community Be Indispensable With Only A Few Hundred Active Members?
This is a lot like asking how your customer call center or marketing team can be valuable with only a few dozen staff members.
It’s not the size of active members, it’s the multiplication of their contributions which matters.
For most benefits of a community, innovation, call deflection, customer success/support, you really don’t need that many active members. Instead, you need members to do valuable things which are seen by a far bigger audience.
But not all active members are equal. If we break-down participation habits and tenure of members within a community, we get the data we see below (from 139 Discourse communities):
I’d interpret this as community contributors tending to fall within three buckets:
- Single Posters. The single-poster group (typically people who have a question they need to be resolved), comprise around 43% of membership. They ask a question and then leave when they have an answer.
- The Irregulars. This is the 2 to 4% of contributors who stick around to either ask one or two more questions or answer a question. The community isn’t a habit and they tend to come and go sporadically.
- The 90+ Day Group (Top Contributors). This is the 16% of members whom have stuck around for 3+ months and tend to contribute most of the responses/replies to a community.
Pay careful attention to that 16% figure there. It means most of the value in branded communities is driven by only a few dozen (active contribs * 0.16) regular members.
That’s it….just a few dozen.
This might be the community equivalent of 1000 true fans. These few dozen are the critical group.
It really doesn’t matter how many active members you have, it matters how many true believers you have.
It ultimately matters how many people you have on the far right side on the member motivation model below:
I’ve seen plenty of communities struggling to succeed with a few hundred active members. The reason is simple, they don’t have any truly committed members creating real value. They just have irregulars and single-posters.
This is so important to understand. Almost all the truly valuable contributions to a community are coming from just a tiny group of active members.
This is the group you need to nurture through the motivation model above.
However this comes with the big caveat. These contributions only matter if you have a lot of people willing to read them.
The Lurker Multiplier
Lurkers multiply the value of your top members.
A single member might write a single post answering someone’s question, but if 10,000 people read it, it might deflect 10,000 calls.
It’s far better to have 100 members creating content read by 10,000 lurkers, than 10,000 members creating content read by 100 lurkers.
There isn’t much hard data on the number of lurkers most communities have. The client data we have varies between 99.80% and 95% of all visitors to the community. I wouldn’t be surprised if it stretched way beyond that for the larger communities too.
This is also heavily influenced by community type (esp. customer support) and community age (older = more lurkers). The bigger and older you are, the greater the imbalance of lurkers.
Let’s imagine you have a reasonable 1% ratio (99% of lurkers for every active member).
The median brand community will have around 162 monthly active contributors and 16,200 visitors.
This might not sound like much, but let’s start breaking down how valuable a community like this might be:
Imagine those 16,200 lurkers find the answer to their problem and don’t need to call customer service. At $3 to $5 per call that’s a cost saving of $48k to $81k per month ($576,000 to $972,000 per year).
Imagine just 5% of this group become customers. For a typical SaaS company with a $100 per month subscription, this could again be $81k per month ($972k per year)
Imagine if this 5% of these visitors become customers as a result of the community, again, we’re looking at $972k per year.
Imagine if you advertise jobs in the community and save $10k in headhunting costs per recruit or save $15k on every focus group project you used to run.
These aren’t fanciful made up numbers. They’re very real and very possible metrics that explain why just a tiny group of top contributors creating content read by a standard group of lurkers can be so valuable. But we haven’t even gotten to the big win yet.
The Big Win
As you grow, you want to align the community to achieve multiple goals.
You might begin with customer support and then also include feedback, lead generation, recruitment etc…
Now a community can quickly go from driving up to a million dollars return into several million dollars. All of it generated by just a core group of a few dozen active members.
You wouldn’t really need to think about trying to get as many members as possible, if your members are providing as much value as possible.
This is the incredible value that a seemingly small community with just a few dozen active contributors can provide to an organization. This is what makes a community the most cost-efficient way to achieve goals. It’s what turns a small community into an indispensable asset.
Putting It All Together
Ok, let’s put this all together into some key benchmarks and core principles:
1) Hit the upper quartile range for brand communities. This would be 163+ active contributors per month, 26+ regular members, and 16,300+ visitors. By all means keep optimizing search results, building partnerships, inviting people to join, and encouraging members to share material until you hit that number. Use the motivation model above to keep members active. Don’t let anyone bully you into trying to be Reddit.
2) Nurture your top contributors. Build strong relationships with each of them, connect them into their own tribe, deploy a super-user program, and guide them to make the best type of contribution they can make. This group needs to be as respected, connected, and as valuable as they possibly can.
3) Multiply the value of top contributors. This is the overlooked part. Make sure the best content is really easy to find. Drive a lot of traffic to it. You should see your visitor numbers steadily growing. Then align your community to achieve multiple goals (call deflection, feedback, retention, recruitment etc…). This is where you can double and triple the value of every member.
When most people think of a successful community, they usually think of the mega-communities and the big social networking platforms like (Reddit, Facebook, LinkedIn etc…).
But if you were to plot branded communities on a bell curve, you would notice the mega-communities aren’t just rare, they’re outliers. They’re statistical anomalies which bear no resemblance to the work you will be doing.
Ignore the big fish and focus on getting the most out of the members you do have, not chasing the members you don’t have.
Building A World Class Community Management Team: A System for Benchmarking Online Community Skills And Abilities
Imagine you decided to move into sales and on your first day, someone handed you a list of the organization’s top customers and responsibility for the entire CRM system.
No training, no support, no roadmap.
This is pretty close to what happens in community management today. Most people are suddenly handed responsibility for building a community from an organization’s top customers on an advanced technology platform.
Often they have limited training, support, or a detailed roadmap.
At worst, it leads to empty ghost towns or pointless casinos (communities with lots of meaningless engagement).
The level of training given to community teams today is abysmal. It’s the root cause of most of the problems you and your team are facing.
It’s important to make continual progress of your community team a priority. Your team, your members, and your organizations deserve better the best. In this post, we’re going to highlight how to benchmark yourself and your current team.
We’re going to identify the skills they need and how you can set reasonable targets for each of them.
Benchmarking The Community Team
We sometimes receive emails asking if one of our courses is right for a participant.
This is a hard question to answer without knowing someone’s ability. Most people don’t know how good they are because they have no benchmarks to measure themselves against. They use the size of their community rather than their own abilities.
We benchmark community professionals along five attributes (adapted from our friends at the community roundtable). These are below:
1) Strategy. This is the ability to develop and execute a community strategy which deploys the organization’s limited resources to maximum impact.
2) Engagement. This is the ability to proactively engage, nurture top members, and build systems to improve the overall participation environment of the community.
3) Content. This is the ability to create original content and drive high-value contributions from other members.
4) Technical. This is the ability to select, implement, and optimize a community platform. This includes resolving technical problems and managing vendor relationships.
5) Business. This is the ability to build allies throughout the organization, measure value, run a community team, and gather more resources for the community.
We break each of these down by four distinct levels ranging from ok to world-class.
You should strive to gradually upgrade yourself and the community team to a world-class level in each of these areas.
This is subjective, but I recommend copying and adapting our benchmarking resource below.
Score each member of staff between 0 to 4 on each of the five attributes.
We’re going to break down each of these levels below:
1) Strategy (or strategic thinking)
When benchmarking someone’s strategic abilities, you want to track their journey from thinking strategically to having a codified and invaluable strategy everyone understands and supports. This increasingly relies on research, metrics, and project management skills.
Strategy is about allocating resources to have maximum impact. It’s not about trying to do as many things as possible, but deciding what’s worth doing and allocating maximum resources to ensure success.
Or, to use an analogy, it’s not about dividing resources evenly to fight every battle, but about deciding which battles are worth fighting (see this big wins talk).
The first level is to ensure all staff members are thinking strategically about how they spend their time. Are they constantly using available data to reviewing which activities they undertake are driving results and pursuing those which are most effective?
As your staff progress, you want them to be proactively researching what members want and using that data to improve the community. They should know how their tactics serve a strategy which serves an objective which serves a goal.
At the more advanced level, you want them to become great at segmenting members, ensuring members are making their most valuable contributions, establishing benchmarks, and pursuing reasonable community goals. The strategy should be internalized here throughout the entire community team with modeling of different inputs to achieve goals.
Engagement skills are the core abilities of the community team to create the perfect environment for every member to make their best possible contribution to the community.
This begins at the lower levels with being a terrific community member.
Do your community staff resolve and escalate problems well?
Can they remove the bad material quickly?
Do they build positive relationships with community members?
As they move up the chain, they should focus on building systems which build a powerful sense of community and nurture superusers among the group. They should get better at building and optimizing the journey which turns newcomers into regular, active, members.
At the highest levels, you and your team need to be able to improve the resolution rates, address legal/brand issues, and ensure all staff know how best to engage members in the community.
Content is one of the areas where everyone considers themselves an expert (aren’t you a great writer?). Content is essentially the ability to develop and facilitate the creation of valuable long-form educational or entertaining content across blogs, webinars, videos etc…
At the simpler levels, all members of your team should be able to synthesize great content from existing work and member contributions. This should be nicely designed and implemented across multiple platforms.
As you improve, you should be able to optimize web copy and improve conversion rates, increase search traffic, and build an editorial calendar. This requires reasonable copywriting and SEO abilities.
At the higher levels, your team should be able to ensure an editorial calendar is adhered to (surprisingly hard), develop automation campaigns, edit contributions of other members and persuade top experts to create great content for your community.
Finally, a great community professional should be able to commission ‘big win’ content projects (e.g. our platform selection tool) which goes far beyond a simple blog post or video. It brings in a unique, viral, idea to attract great search traffic, and has a unique design/development.
Far too many people in this field profess to ‘not being technical’. This isn’t good enough when your entire work depends upon being adept at managing a technology platform and what happens within it.
At the basic level, this requires knowing how the features of the platform work and being able to diagnose any potential problems which arise. Your staff should be able to learn this by testing things, experimenting in the community, and asking around in the vendor’s relevant communities.
Beyond this, you need your team to be able to resolve most issues independently, run SQL queries to get the data you need and make improvements to the structure and design of the community without help. This kind of knowledge is best gained through peer support.
As you reach the more advanced level, you want to know more about the platform environment, using data to improve the speed and functionality of the platform, and using the best features from any third party platforms to build the best community possible.
Finally, you want to be able to take responsibility for the entire vendor process and address legal/privacy/security issues which can arise.
Business skills are the link between the community and the organization. This is about you being able to make the community indispensable to the organization. This begins with knowing how the community is supposed to help the business and the resources available to develop that community.
As you get better, you should become more adept at acquiring more resources by building a strong internal narrative and persuasively winning over any skeptics and key stakeholders within the organization.
Finally, this evolves into being able to attract and retain world-class community talent, build career maps, and build a community-first culture among the organization. The very best people I know have a pipeline of people eager to work for them. This doesn’t happen by accident, it happens by doing what one friend calls ‘building pipe’, constantly showing up, making connections, and knowing what talent you’re looking out for.
Set A Target To Improve Every 3 To 6 Months
Now you have your benchmarks, you can begin to set reasonable targets of improvement for each member of your team.
A reasonable level of progress is an increase in 1 level (of 1 attribute ) every 2 to 3 months at the first two levels and usually 3 to 6 months at the upper levels.
This gives your team a clear focus and lets you build a roadmap of what you expect over 6 to 12 months. This, in turn, lets you identify what kind of support you need to provide the community team to help them reach each level.
Avenues for Progress
Courses aren’t the only method of improving your community team or improving your own abilities. There are multiple channels available here, each can work in different situations.
- Professional courses. I’d recommend our Strategic Community Management and Psychology of Community courses for strategy/engagement development.
- Books. Focus on specific topic areas, not pop. business books. This tends to be good for content skills and some marketing/growth abilities.
- Conferences. This is good for content/SEO skills, some engagement skills, and some highly focused areas. It’s good for building relationships which can help in other areas too.
- Blogs. These are fantastic for most areas, especially psychology, marketing, SEO, and analytics. Find the right expertise here.
- Peer communities. Both industry sites like CMX, Community Roundtable, FeverBee Experts, but also communities in each unique field like technology, journalism, copywriting, marketing, SEO etc…Encourage your team to identify problems, ask questions, and get help. Small peer groups of people working in similar communities is also a good idea.
- Mentoring and support. This covers both informal mentoring and professional options. This is best for business skills, strategy, and some technical expertise.
- Experimenting. Especially in technical (use a sandbox!) and some areas of engagement. You can run small trials to see what does or doesn’t work.
This is a process that never ends. The goal is to set benchmarks, track progress, and push for ongoing, non-stop, improvement from every member of the community team. Set a skills roadmap for every person you work with and compel both of you to review it every 3 months.
I’d estimate around 90% of community problems we see are concept problems.
This means the very idea for a community you begin with wasn’t strong enough.
Alas, it might not be your fault, but it’s now your responsibility to deal with it.
The problem is a weak community idea can survive for a really long time on a handful of posts a day. It can be propped up by staff members creating dozens of posts per day to give the illusion of activity. It can be given spasms of promotion in the desperate hope that if it reaches just enough members everything will be ok.
But adding more members to a weak community idea won’t work, you need to completely relaunch or revamp the community.
In this post, I’m going to try and guide you through what our consultancy process looks like here using case studies and templates.
(Note: If you run a customer support community, you can skip this post entirely. Many of these principles will be different).
The Honest Appraisal
By far the hardest part here is being honest with yourself and the people running the community.
On the (rare) occasions we fail, we fail because we can’t get people to be honest with themselves and their company about the true state of the community.
A failing community is like a bad business. A bad business locks up capital which could be deployed elsewhere. A bad community locks up people who could be better engaged and active elsewhere. It’s also highly damaging for your career.
Your community concept is probably wrong if you match any of the following:
- After a few months you’re still initiating and responding to most of the discussions.
- Very few members stick around.
- You have a dozen posts a day or less.
- Very few people seem excited by the idea of the community.
- Word of mouth isn’t spreading and bringing in more people.
- The level of growth and activity isn’t increasing, yet you haven’t reached critical mass.
There are some exceptions here, but you’re probably not one of them.
Please don’t waste your career, your members’ potential, and your company’s resources propping up a bad community indefinitely. Be honest and do a proper revamp. Take the hard decisions you need to take.
|Quick Case Study: Health Meets Wealth
One example might come from the Health meets Wealth community. This is a community based upon Lithium designed for people to talk about health and wealth. Yet with two staff members participating there still isn’t enough activity to justify the high investment.
This could be a promotion problem, but I’d bet it’s a concept problem. There are better communities to talk about health and wealth. No matter how hard you try to push a weak concept, it’s always going to be a struggle.
However, an exclusive community focused entirely on the health routines of wealthy people might succeed. It targets the right demographic and fits in with what wealthy people usually want (privacy and exclusivity).
There are plenty of examples here.
You can spend the next few years’ of your life feeling miserable trying to make a bad idea work or you can spend that time feeling excited about a community that will explode to life. Please choose the latter.
(aside, this is exactly where it makes a lot of sense to get consultancy support).
Be Brutal With Cutting Anything Holding You Back
Now you have to decide between a hard and soft change.
A hard change means closing your current community and starting a new one.
A soft change means working with your current platform and members to make things work.
In the past, I’ve advocated for the latter. Recently, I’ve found the former to be far better. You need a fresh start here. You will upset some members, but it’s far better to do a complete relaunch than try to gradually shift things. You tend to keep too many legacy attributes to do what you want. Don’t let the old stuff that caused you to fail repeat the same trick.
This is almost certainly going to mean changing or completely redesigning the community platform too. Be prepared for this. You can archive the old community so the content is still accessible, but don’t allow any further posts to the site.
Communicate this clearly in advance and explain the reasons why. Never blind side members, regardless of how few people are there.
Your colleagues will also try to push you to keep most of what you have and make minor tweaks rather than the profound change you need. This is the sunk costs fallacy. Stay strong and focused on making the big change you need.
Now you have to go through the concept phase of the community lifecycle to find and test the right community idea.
Last year, I was contacted by a car brand about revamping their community. They had already mapped out the community and hired creative companies/developers to build out the community. But they hadn’t built any relationships, undertaken any interviews, nor tested their new idea.
They wanted us to explain how to get people to join and participate in the community. Alas, that’s not how it works.
You need to identify what members need and ensure the community is perfectly designed to deliver on those needs. This is what the conceptualization phase does. The conceptualization process is to figure out the concept, build relationships, and having some sort of platform you can leverage to drive early activity.
You need to go through this process too.
If you think you’re going to develop a hit community idea without any feedback from the community, you’re delusional.
This means working at the micro one to one level. There are three core things to achieve at this stage:
- Build credibility among your early target audience.
- Nurture relationships with prospective members.
- Identify and validate what members really want.
Step 1) Building Credibility (CHIP process)
The first step is to build some credibility among your audience. This means you achieve positive awareness.
It’s very difficult to persuade people to join your community if they’ve never heard of you. Being from a big brand can help, but it’s not an all access pass to get everyone to love the community idea.
You probably ignore most of the blind outreach messages you receive right? People will ignore your messages too unless they recognise you. You need to be individually recognised here.
You need to use the CHIP process below:
Spend 2 to 6 months participating in other communities, attending events, asking questions, and interacting with people online. Be curious and friendly. Don’t try to get anyone to do anything for you at this stage.
Next, start a platform. This might be an Instagram account, a blog, podcast, whitepaper, or any medium that best suits your interests. You want people coming to you for information. This gives you the added advantage of starting to test and experiment with the idea. Share what you’re learning. Test ideas if you like.
Better yet, interview or feature people for this platform. Now you get the benefit of learning and connecting with smart people. The same people who won’t give you time of day for a coffee will give you hours for an interview. This is how Ryan Hoover built relationships for ProductHunt.
Step 2: Nurture Strong Relationships and Identify Key Themes
If you’ve succeeded in the above stage, you should have a few hundred subscribers/followers at this stage. These are now people who will recognise your name and be happy to speak with you.
Directly reach out to this group. Schedule coffees or calls with them. Travel to where they are if you need to. Try to have private, 1 to 1 discussions with at least 50 people (if you don’t enjoy this process, consider a different occupation).
Ben Munoz launched BensFriends by participating in other communities, responding to questions on Q&A sites, and meeting people. It’s very hard work but it is the single most reliable way to get great results.
Step 3: Identify and Validate The Community Idea
You should be able to sustain relationships with at least 50 people at this point and have a very good idea of what they have said. I prefer to use a spreadsheet and look for patterns in the data, but you can use whichever method works for you.
Make sure you ask people about their challenges, hopes and ambitions. Find out what they like or don’t like about the scene or their work. Find out where else they interact with each other (you don’t want to copy what already exists).
You should be able to identify a few topics that people really care about.
You’re looking for topics a handful of people really care about and don’t have a great place to talk about it today. One of these topics will become your concept.
Developing Your List of Community Concepts
Let’s use the TransAmerica example above and pretend we have interviewed 50 people in the wealth space. We might discover a few common themes:
- Never having enough time to do anything.
- Not being able to maintain a consistent fitness routine.
- Not feeling part of the elite group or know how to join exclusive events.
- Not spending enough time with friends.
- Not spending enough time with family.
- Uncertainty about the future.
- Concerns about status.
- Embarrassed by wealth.
- Wants to spend less time doing routine tasks.
- Who to trust when outsourcing projects/ideas.
At this point we can take this list and either;
a) do a survey asking people to rank which of these they might care about (easy to do on SurveyMonkey).
b) start testing some community concept ideas directly.
If you do the survey, use it as a rough guide and discard those at the bottom rather than pick those that the top. People find it difficult to articulate what’s most important to them.
A community concept is essentially the community topic (what the community is about), target audience (who the community is for), and type (action, circumstance, support etc…).
Any one of the themes can serve as a possible community and each can also yield multiple community ideas.
Let’s imagine we find health and fitness is a problem for wealthy people. You can quickly build 5+ concepts from that:
- An exclusive community sharing the health and fitness regimes of the ultra wealthy. Members would each share their diet/food recipes, read content from celebrities and others, and be able to sign up for programs named after superstars.
- A complete optimization community. For the wealthy to get personalized food support, training regimes, and automate/optimized every aspect of their health and fitness.
- A peer group of wealthy people to set themselves goals with financial forfeits to charity if they don’t achieve them. Similar to Stikk, but for wealthy people.
- A community for people with $10m in assets to share their advice on personal chefs, trainers, holidays, and the best gyms.
- A bodybuilding club for the ultrawealthy. Members work out together or at the same time and record/share their results/photos with each other.
Not all of these ideas are good (some are terrible), but you should be able to find and validate at least one of your ideas for one of your themes.
You launch a community by focusing on just one of them!
There are more options here for a concept than you might imagine. Kaggle, for example, began as a community for data scientists who wanted to participate in competitions.
That’s a really narrow focus, but the audience loved it and word spread.
Run them past a few of the target audience to find which they like and which they really dislike. This should narrow your 30+ ideas (across all topics) to five to ten which you can test.
How to Test Your Community Concept
You want to test your idea as fast and as cheaply as possible. You can do this in multiple ways:
- Create an item of content/whitepaper and see how popular it becomes. If you’re thinking of a community about the fitness regimes of wealthy people, write an article or two about it and send it to your audience.
- Create a mailing list or Facebook group about the topic. Invite some of the members you spoke to before, start a few discussions, create some content, and see if the idea takes off. Keep it simple and quick.
- Host an event for the topic. Host an event for the topic (or even a webinar) and see how many people attend. Have a speaker if you can and gauge the reaction. Better yet, have two events and see how many people attend twice and how enthusiastic they are.
You’re really looking for the instant win, the one idea that explodes with popularity.
What gets people to attend and generates the most positive feedback? If you’re not sure if your idea was an instant win, it wasn’t.
It’s far better to have 10 people who really love the idea than 1000 who are mildly interested by it.
Almost all of the struggling communities we see today skipped the conceptualization stage.
If you get the concept wrong, you will forever be paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in platform and staff costs on a community that will never succeed. Don’t let that happen to you. If you don’t have a hit, test more ideas down the list until you get one right.
By the end of this stage you should have achieved three things:
- Built a (content) platform from which you can invite people to join a community. This should have at least 100+ followers/subscribers.
- Nurtured 20+ strong relationships with people in the field who you know will love the idea.
- Tested and validated this is a great idea for the community. You know this because your community already exists via a FB group, event series, or a small mailing list.
If you don’t have all three, keep working at it until you do.
Now you properly enter the inception phase of the community lifecycle below:
If you’ve got the concept right, this stage should be much easier than you imagined.
Your goal at this stage is to increase awareness, sustain rising activity, and develop the community platform.
1) Identify and develop early sources of growth
In the early days, you’re not going to get much organic search traffic or referrals, instead you need to identify and drive sustainable sources of growth.
You usually have three options here:
- Your existing website traffic. Most companies promote and try to drive traffic from their website or mailing lists to the community. This is the easiest and most common way to expand . However, it only succeeds if you have an existing audience. If you don’t, you have to follow one of the paths below:
- Existing groups. This means means subtly promoting the community on other sites and meetups. Anthony, Kaggle’s CEO, spent plenty of time in the early days promoting his online community in existing groups and speaking at as many meetups as he could across the country. Ben from BensFriends, as you might recall, participated in existing groups. This helped build a platform and attracted the earliest members to the community. Respond to every question, participate in existing communities, attract people in the 2s and 3s.
- Direct invites. This is you personally identifying people interested in the topic and reaching out to them. You have to use a status-based invite/approach to get someone to join and check out the community. This takes time but is often quite effective when it’s done well. This works best when you have strong relationships with a small number of people. The secret here is to get referrals from previous people you’ve contacted. This will save you a lot of time.
Later you can do the mass-promotional tactics. But, for now, you need to know you can sustainably bring in new traffic to the community to get things started.
It’s often smart to ask people to participate in discussion topics they mentioned in your interviews to get things going.
(note: some platforms, e.g. Facebook Groups, currently have an in-built source of new members via referrals to others on the platform.)
There are plenty of online community platforms to choose from. Begin with something relatively small and simple to use. Invest more in the community as the community grows (unless, as noted, you’re running a customer support platform).
Platforms vary enormously, but depending on your budget you’re probably looking at: Facebook Groups, Mobilize, MightyNetworks, Vanilla Forums, Discourse at the cheaper end and HigherLogic, Lithium, Telligent, Jive, and Salesforce at the premium level.
I’d recommend to begin at the former and later decide if you need to move to the latter.
You can develop something yourself too if the concept is really unique, but you will need a budget to hire a really top tier team. This worked for Producthunt and Kaggle. This is high-risk, high-reward territory. Go for it if you’re confident you can get the technology right.
The secret here is to focus entirely on the unique aspect of the community concept and ensures the community is perfectly suited for that.
Critically, make sure by the time you launch a new platform you have a large group of motivated people eager to use it.
3) Sustain and develop activity
Whichever activity your community is pursuing (discussions, tips, solutions, sharing photos, action plans etc…), you want to be able to see high-quality discussions taking place. High-quality discussions usually mean a few specific things:
- Very specific and relevant topics. You need discussions about topics which are relevant to the day to day lives of members. If you have done your interviews, you should be able to create these kinds of discussions.
- Clearly different types of discussions. You need to have discussions which expand beyond just a single niche topic. What is the next level up?
- Broad interest and participation. Discussions should be popular with members. People should be happy to participate in them and interact with one another.
- Good information being shared. You want to see new perspectives and facts being shared.
If you don’t have at least the above four, you probably need to rethink the community concept and the kinds of members you’re inviting. You either have the wrong concept or the wrong people participating in the topic.
You can test a lot of different things here. Limited-time webinars, AMAs, featured discussions, collaboration projects, predictions, leaderboards, open debates, and anything else that adds to the community concept. You will usually need a mix of things for this to work.
If things have gone well, by the end of this stage you should have something close to:
- At least 50 active participants (people who make a contribution).
- At least 30 discussions with 5+ responses.
- More than 50% of the growth/activity being initiated by members.
All the metrics should be heading in the right direction by now.
Most importantly, the community should feel rejuvenated. You should sense members are more positive, happy, and excited about the community. You should also find yourself being more excited about working on the community.
Now you can start exploring some sense of community tactics, exploring more promotional efforts, and more interesting events to drive more growth, activity, and a stronger sense of community.
The secret to rejuvenating a community isn’t to try harder or big tech changes, it’s to force through the really tough decisions and let go of the thinking that dragged you into the state you’re in today. This frees you up to identify what members really want and build an entire community around them.
An online community is a group of people who have built relationships around a strong common interest and primarily use the internet to communicate with one another.
That definition used to be enough, I’m not sure it is anymore.
We wrote about this 3 years ago.
The shift since then has been less about relationships between members and more towards the strong common interest and online interaction alone.
Community today most commonly means everyone who shares the same interest regardless of their interest with one another. It includes your social media followings, 3rd party groups, your mailing list, and everyone you connect with online who shares the same interest. That interest might be your field or your product.
e.g. you and I might not know each other, but if we both use an iPhone we might be in the iPhone community.
This presents opportunities and risks. The opportunity is a more expansive, broader, and a more powerful role for the community manager. Perhaps one that includes figuring out the best way to engage people across multiple platforms and social tools.
The risk is it becomes difficult to define community compared with customer experience, customer success, customer support, customer relationship management, online marketing, and similar disciplines.
Push for a more expansive role engaging with customers across all platforms if you can, but be aware it might be in a different discipline.