Undermining A Strategy With Poor People Skills

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

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

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

The community manager quickly chimed in to say:

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

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

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

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

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

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


From the member’s perspective, it’s a simple equation.

They have a problem and your organisation should fix it.

Better yet, they can see other members complaining about the same problem!

It’s a no-brainer!

In their minds, if you’re not going to fix the issue, you’re either incompetent or greedy (i.e. you’re taking their money without offering a quality service).

The reality is progress is complex and there are plenty of valid reasons why you can’t fix a problem yet. For example:

  • The roadmap is established on highest priority issues and there’s no spare resource to solve it.
  • You might be working on it, but it’s going to take time.
  • You plan to depreciate that feature anyway.
  • You can’t fix that one issue without fixing a number of other issues.
  • Only a tiny number of people are voicing concern about it.
  • Etc…

Worse yet, as much as your organisation might work internally to supply and validate the feedback and ensure people are aware of the concern, you might not be allowed to explain why the issue can’t be fixed.

You might not know how long it’s going to take, there might be laws that prevent you from discussing it, your organisation has concerns about competitors knowing what’s coming next etc…

This is a frustrating situation to be in. But two things might be helpful here.

First, be open from the very beginning that there are some things you might not be able to share. Have it in a document (perhaps with examples) and refer to it when a topic like this comes up.

Second, don’t just ignore the member. Always hear them out, be empathetic, and make sure they know you’ve read and considered their post.

Third, don’t promise anything you’re not 100% sure you can deliver on.

Why Top Experts Shun Brand Communities

It’s hard to engage genuine experts in a public community.

Which is a shame, because this is the audience which could offer the most value to other members.

The problem is usually simple; the community doesn’t offer enough value to top experts. Points, badges, and gamification appeals to a very narrow segment of any audience.

In my experience, top experts typically want a few very specific things:

1) To improve their expertise by gaining exclusive access to the organisation.
2) Access to other experts in a private, exclusive, environment.
3) Increase the size of their following and control over that following.

This is why at the highest levels, experts prefer either private WhatsApp groups, zoom meetings, or to post content on platforms they control.

If you want to engage top experts, you need to offer the above. Provide support to verified experts with direct access to members of your team (not just the community manager). Create and host private working sessions (in person is ideal). And link to the preferred channels (twitter, blogs, medium etc…) of top experts in your community providing they keep participating in the community.

A Framework For Hosting A Successful Workshop To Gain Alignment On Community Goals

It’s far, far, better to guide executives to decide the goals of the community for themselves rather than tell them.

This is an exercise we sometimes run with clients which has proven extremely effective.

You begin on Mural (or any tool you like) with a simple chart that looks like this.

Step One – Identify Possible Community Goals

The first step is to list all the possible community goals by importance on the vertical axis. Don’t allow any goals to have equal weight (that allows people to fudge difficult decisions). This means you often need senior people in the room to make final decisions.

Some goals might be close in relative value to one another, but there should be a clear hierarchy in place. This is a recent example:

You can keep this fairly broad to begin with just to surface every possible goal.


Step Two – Convert Goals Into Specific Behaviors

Every possible goal of the community should now be listed by order of importance. The next step is to convert these goals into specific member behaviors.

This is what makes it real.

In our workshops, participants typically begin with goals such as:

  • Improve the customer experience.
  • Reduce customer effort score.
  • Improve NPS
  • Reduce support costs.
  • Generate leads!
  • Change perception of our brand!

But what does that mean in terms of actual member behaviors in the community? What will members actually be doing? Try to get as specific as possible at this stage to tease out the precise behaviors you need (guide the process if you like, but it’s good to let your audience come to their own conclusions).

Everyone should now have a pretty good idea about how the community might achieve each goal. The next step is to discuss feasibility.


Step Three – Rank By Feasibility

Now you need to adjust these goals by how feasible they are. Feasibility is usually a combination of three things:

1) Are the behaviors something members want to do/require a lot of effort?

2) Do members perform those behaviors today (or show a strong desire to perform those behaviors)?

3) Is there strong competition for members to perform those behaviors?

For each of the behaviors you can ask these questions to come to some agreement. Your own expertise probably plays a bigger role here than anywhere else.

By the end you might have a chart that looks like this:

If you’ve got the right people in the room, you should now be able to determine the goals of your community. In the example above, you might begin with support, then increasing utilisation, and then gathering feedback.

This might also help you avoid the common pitfalls (especially creating a community around a behavior members don’t currently perform (or offers no value to the organisation).

The Zoom Community (design and member needs)

Zoom launched a community recently.

It’s a good implementation of a new community and worth spending some time exploring:

The value of the community is clear; solve your zoom problems.

Zoom isn’t trying to fight against the tide by encouraging members to perform behaviors they’re not doing. They’re simply redirecting existing behaviors (trying to solve problems) into a more efficient place.

(It might be better to communicate this on the header though).

The design of the community follows most best practices too.

The Banner

The banner is kept to a minimal height (although the image is familiar) and the search box is positioned in the most prominent location.


The community uses a two-level navigation system with the top level navigation letting members quickly browse through products, industries, and resources and the second-tier navigation menu using small icons to find the areas that the majority of members are looking for.

In addition, the getting started area is easy to find and the latest activity is above the fold on the homepage.

Dev Forum

Zoom also know developers need their own communities (typically on Stackoverflow, Reddit, Slack or Discourse) and have created a separate zone for developers.

While it doesn’t appear efficient to be hosting two different platforms, it typically results in a better experience for both audiences.

Topic, Industry, Dev, Resources

The taxonomy of the site is one of its strongest assets. The site avoids the usual taxonomy problems by guiding members by topic rather than intent. Members can quickly browse by topic, industry, resources, or get help using the community.

There are some downsides too. There are some small bugs on the site, gamification feels poorly implemented, and just listing topic titles would probably be better than including content on the homepage.

Overall, however, the community has a strong purpose which is well implemented and likely to thrive in the long-term.

Don’t Create A Community Mobile App

Too often the logic goes something like:

A lot of people use mobile apps….we should create a mobile app!

A better term for this is ‘the bandwagon effect’.

It’s not strategic, it’s not smart, and it results in organisations sinking a lot of time, energy, and resources into apps few people use.

It’s true, a lot of people do use mobile apps…but not a lot of mobile apps are used (at least compared with the total number of apps). The odds of having a hit mobile app isn’t too different from the odds of having a hit YouTube video. You can find plenty of examples, but it probably won’t happen to you.

The problem is community mobile apps add friction without offering much more value. It might be slightly easier to view content or participate, but it’s hard to get people into the habit of using a new app.

If you have the resources to build a mobile app, you have the resources to improve the features the majority of your members are using every day. That’s a much better use of your time.

Default Text vs. Placeholder Text

I’ve received this message several times from the same platform.

There are some messages every single one of our members will receive (perhaps many times). This list often includes things like:

  • Welcome emails.
  • Invitation emails.
  • Forgotten password requests.
  • Befriending messages (like the one above).
  • Awarding gamification badges.
  • Website copy.

The irony is these messages which are seen by the greatest number of members are usually those we spend the least amount of time on.

Far too often, we use the default text provided by the vendor. We assume vendors might somehow have developed the perfect messages for these situations and we don’t dare adjust them.

Trust me, I know these folks and they haven’t.

Case in point, I recently spoke with a former engineer from a major platform vendor about why some of these messages seemed so odd. His reply was:

“They haven’t changed that yet? I set that as a placeholder years ago. My English wasn’t that great back then”.

The message wasn’t only optimised based upon the millions of emails this organisation has sent out, it was simply placeholder text set by an overwhelmed engineer which no-one had bothered to change.

Every default text members receive should be customised to your audience. It should reflect your community’s positioning strategy.

Maybe ‘private’ and ‘secure’ are the two statements that define this community (and perhaps they’re not – this isn’t an attack on Guild).

It’s best to systematically go through every single default text message like this and check it reflects your community’s unique positioning. It’s one of the most powerful opportunities you have to change a few words and reframe the value of your community to your members.

Speed, Privacy, Exclusivity, And Convenience

In The Premonition, author Michael Lewis describes how a mixed group of experts would participate in weekly (and sometimes daily) email exchanges/zoom calls to discuss the spread of Coronavirus and the response to it.

Over time, the group became the best source of up-to-date knowledge and expertise in pandemic planning and response.

Consider the four factors that made this work:

1. Speed. The group was created quickly to respond to an urgent need.
2. ​​Privacy. Even members didn’t know who else was there.
3. Exclusivity. There was no promotion of the group. Existing members simply invited others they felt should join.
4. Convenience. The creators used Zoom and email (tools that were most convenient for members to use).

These four factors make it easy for experts in any field to jump in and participate at scheduled times each week.

It’s sad these kinds of groups, the ones which deliver the most value, are precisely those most organisations would struggle to create.

Most organisations can’t move fast enough, select convenient tools, or keep it exclusive (often because they’re measured by engagement).

Perhaps one solution is to do this within a community. You might not be able to do the above for the community as a whole, but once you have a community up and running there’s nothing stopping you from providing all of the above to members within the community.

A Surge of Activity in Kansas

I once had a client who noticed an oddity in their data. They were witnessing a surge in activity from people in Kansas.

This caused confusion and excitement. Was the topic going viral in Kansas? Was there a trend about to explode across the USA? They created sub-groups in the community for the influx of Kansans, the PR and marketing folks began running more ads in Kansas, and they sent a few people on the ground to investigate why their popularity was exploding in Kansas.

What nobody seemed to notice is no-one was actually joining the Kansas groups. The number of orders from Kansas wasn’t increasing. Our survey results didn’t seem to show a surge in Kansans flooding the community.

So I looked a little deeper at the tool used to collect the data and noticed the surge resembled a cliff-edge rather than a bell-curve. One day few people were visiting from Kansas and the next it was by far the most popular source of visitors. This timed exactly with an update to the data tool itself. The release notes for the update noted an ‘improved geolocating’ system.

So I called the vendor and solved the mystery in ten minutes. When the tool couldn’t determine the address of visitors, it simply assigned them to the middle point of the country. Which happened to be Lebanon, Kansas.

It’s easy to get excited about an anomaly in the data – especially one that shows a sudden change in behavior. Before you do though, I suggest looking to check if the methodology for collecting the data has changed.

Ten True Enemies

I’m not sure it’s possible to gain 1,000 true fans without ten true enemies.

Ten true enemies can make you feel like a failure. Any time you announce a new project, feature, or try to celebrate a success; they will voice their critical thoughts and bring you down.

Ten true enemies can consume almost all your time. They will create multiple accounts to post abuse towards you and other members. They may attempt to hack your website or run campaigns against you. They can suck you into endless debates about rules and interpretations of guidelines.

Ten true enemies will also get personal. They might follow you personally on social media platforms just to bring you down. They will do everything possible to make you feel flawed and inferior.

Ten true enemies lead the vanguard against your community. Any time there is trouble, they are there to stir it up, identify past faults, and try to turn opinion against you. They will always refer to personal experiences or present perceived instances of bias as proof that you are ‘bad’.

The number ten is arbitrary of course. It might be one or 100. But, regardless of the precise number, you can easily spend your time (or your life) trying to avoid the criticism of a tiny minority of people who are predisposed to be critical. Some might begrudge your success (as it reflects poorly upon their own), others might be responding to a perceived slight, others are simply people in personal pain who need to bring you down to feel better about themselves.

But as loud as your ten true enemies might become, it’s important to remember the plural of anecdote isn’t data. A volume of opinions doesn’t denote facts. A vocal minority doesn’t represent a silent majority. You shouldn’t assume this group is any more representative of your community than you would assume ten people protesting outside a supermarket represent the views of your nation.

Vocal minorities need the shadow of uncertainty to have power. The spiral of silence is their friend. If the majority aren’t sure what the group opinion is on a topic, it’s easier for your members to keep silent than risk voicing the wrong opinion. If you take away that uncertainty, you take away their power.

Ten people outraged about a new feature or the state of the community are going to look pretty dumb when you can show the majority are big fans. I’ve had clients who were certain their members hated the community only for hundreds, even thousands, of anonymous survey respondents to reveal the majority think the community is very useful. Collecting and sharing survey/poll results works in your favour.

You can spend your days (perhaps your life) trying to please your 10 true enemies. I’d suggest you don’t.

Four Broad Approaches (which are you pursuing?)

What you should focus on at any given time depends heavily upon whether you need more members, new behaviors, or both.

This leads to the four distinct approaches you can see here.

If you’re happy with the number of members you have and what members are doing, then your goal is to optimise.

This means improving the member experience with a series of incremental improvements in the technology and processes of managing the community.

If you’re happy with the number of members you have, but not what they’re doing, then your goal is to persuade members to do something different.

This is a persuasion-led strategy involving communications, working with influencers, and adding strategic nudges to the platform.

If you’re happy with what members are doing but need more members, you need a promotion (or growth) strategy.

This means integrating the community into existing target-audience journeys, optimising for search, building partnerships with individuals who have large audiences, and engaging in outreach to existing members.

If you have neither the members or behaviors you want, then you need to relaunch (or launch). This is often where you need a new platform, team, and strategy.

It seems common at times to focus on optimisation or relaunch to achieve any result. Far better to decide that you need and align the rest of your actions to match.

The Key To Successful Community Redesign Projects (bring the decisions forward)

We’ve probably done a few dozen community redesign projects at this point (and witnessed hundreds more).

You can see our work with Sephora here.

The success of a redesign is far less about the actual design of the site than its structure.

If you get the sitemap and wireframe right, everything else fits into place quite quickly.

When things go wrong, it’s usually because:

a) The sitemap/wireframe isn’t based upon good audience research (i.e. you’re not prioritising key features by member need). This happens most often when people try to copy another site.

b) The sitemaps/wireframes aren’t approved by the right people internally. You never want the web designs to be complete only for a senior exec to ask to move a key feature from one area to another.

This is why it’s important to bring the big decisions forward by creating a sitemap and wireframe as quickly as possible. Make sure each is signed off by everyone internally before moving ahead with the actual design.


The Sitemap

The sitemap should be organised by member need with priority given to the areas members are most likely to visit. Use terminology in the menu options which reflect the language members would use too.

For example, ‘questions’ is often a better term than ‘forum’. Categories should appear by popularity (not alphabetically).

You can see a simple example from the coming FeverBee Experts redesign below.

The Wireframe

Once you have agreed on the structure, you can begin wireframing the different pages involved.

You typically need to wireframe a homepage, unique category pages, and a standard page or two for displaying any other information. In larger communities you might need to design many more.

You can see a typical homepage example below.

At this stage you need to check what you have planned is something your community vendor enables you to actually do.

Again, every page should be targeted to the audience that’s likely to visit that page and their intent at the time. Some pages will have very different audiences. Prioritise the key features.

In the above example, if we assume the majority of people to visit the community are searching for answers to problems, putting the search at the top makes a lot of sense. But this might not be ideal for every community.

Once again, get the wireframes approved before you move on to the design phase. It sounds obvious, but then you would be surprised.