It’s great to read books about building communities, but there’s also a danger in only reading books about building communities.
If the goal of your community is to improve customer support, you should be reading the best books and following the best blogs about customer support.
If the goal of your community is to increase customer success, retention, loyalty, and innovation you should be reading the best books, blogs, and articles about those topics too.
The more you become an expert in the area(s) where your community delivers results, the better you can fine-tune your community to achieve these results. Better yet, you can speak the right language and understand the bigger picture.
The great thing about this is for $100 or so you can become up to speed in almost any topic.
I’m following two private communities of practice on the same platform launched at approximately the same time.
Neither had a big audience to begin with.
One community manager has been initiating a new discussion once or twice a week and then emailing 15 to 20 members to reply to it. He also reaches out to people talking about the topic on social media and invites each person to join with a personal, private, email.
Every new member receives a personal private email that aims to begin a discussion. It’s absolutely draining work – but over the past month, the number of posts has risen from 5 to 10 organic posts per week up to 60 to 70 organic posts per week now (and it’s really beginning to accelerate). The community has around 150 registered members.
In the other, the community team initiates a new fun discussion each day, publishes fresh weekly content, and looks for more opportunities to get members to join. This community has 400+ registered members but attracts only 3 to 4 organic posts per week (from 2 to 3 active members). This number has declined since the launch.
The lessons here should be clear. Registration means nothing without discussions. And the way to get discussions isn’t to pack a community with members, it’s to create discussions that can solicit useful information for others and then work hard to get people to reply to them.
If you buy a new car and then a week later your neighbour buys a better model of the same car, your satisfaction level with your car plummets.
If you get a pay rise and then a week later your coworker gets a bigger pay rise, your happiness has been turned to anger (perhaps fury).
After the Grenfell fire tragedy in London, I remember listening to a radio show where callers in the nearby area said they were disgusted by the idea survivors might be given new homes in their building. Apparently, callers had “worked really hard” for their home and it wasn’t fair.
Much of the anger and satisfaction we encounter in managing communities is based upon members comparing themselves positively or negatively to other members. The absolute value (points, rewards, punishment) is of lesser importance than how members relate it to the points, rewards, and punishments experienced by other members.
We once ran an interesting (if rather uncontrolled test). We gave top members in one community a big reward in private and top members in another community a much smaller reward in public. It wasn’t even close, the latter group engaged far better (and appeared far happier) with their small reward announced in public.
The biggest source of growth isn’t going to come from within the community, but from outside the community.
It’s easy to forget this. You can spend vast amounts of time trying to optimise rewards and tweak the technology. But, ultimately, the biggest source of possible members are those interested in the topic but don’t participate in your community today.
- How do you reach them?
- What do you tell them?
- How will you persuade them to ask a question?
These are the critical questions.
A while back I purchased a Hubitat hub. It was tricky to figure out how to set it up, so I went to Google and landed on a community post.
Up until that moment, I hadn’t noticed Hubitat had a community (despite it being a homepage navigation tab!).
When I got stuck again, my first instinct was to search Google for an answer.
Why didn’t I ask in the community?
These are the critical challenges right now to growing a community.
Do members know you exist?
Do they see the value of your community?
Do they believe the community will deliver on that value?
How are they getting that value if not the community?
Why is there not a link, message, or QR code in the Hubitat box inviting me to join the community, ask questions, and get help?
Why did I not receive an email inviting me to join the community and a specific mentoring group for newcomers?
Why was I not sent a list of regular questions/issues people have along with links to top influencers in the community (and the ecosystem) I should follow?
If you want to grow rapidly, you have to work more outside of your community than within it.
Every few months we scrape a sample of brand communities to analyse if the level of participation has increased or declined.
This data is a pretty good benchmark for both the level of participation you should expect in your community and what the trend line of a mature community should look like.
Here’s the current data.
No. Active Users Per Community
The number of active users in most communities has declined over the past few months and appears to be returning to the pre-pandemic baseline.
If you’re seeing a drop of between 30 to 40% in the number of active users since January, this is probably less a result of something taking place in your community and more a result of bigger trends beyond your control.
However, as we can see below, there is considerable fluctuation between different communities.
Gaming is clearly a seasonal activity that peaks in holidays. However, sectors like Fitbit and HP appear to be following post-pandemic trends. Other communities (i.e Upwork) fluctuate considerably without an obvious cause.
Broadly speaking, if you’re a mature community with 1k+ active posters per month and seeing a drop of less than 30% since December, you’re probably doing fine.
No. Posts Per Community
The number of posts is strangely disconnected from the number of active users as we can see below.
The data feels a little skewed here, but overall the number of posts in communities has increased since January (11% on average, but 50% by median).
This probably reflects a broader trend of fewer members participating more frequently in many communities. However, as shown below, this clearly varies by community.
Overall, it’s hard to parse clear insights from a dataset that has been so disrupted by the pandemic. It’s clear community participation isn’t exploding. But nor is it clear that it’s in decline neither.
My hunch is we’re returning to pre-pandemic levels of participation where growth and activity are highly dependent upon external factors (no. customers / no. questions they have). I would expect relatively static to slight increases in participation over the coming year.
My podcast interview with David Spinks of CMX was published last week where we discuss the critical challenge of motivating members to engage in communities today (along with a bunch of other topics).
One of the key discussion points is how we adjust our approach to motivating members in the new era of community building.
Many of the old reward-focused tactics no longer work. The competition is too ferocious. Instead, we need to engender the right feelings in the right way to thrive.
We also take a deep dive on many other topics (I hope you find it useful).
You may also get value from some other events
If you’re curious about advanced approaches to nurturing and engaging superusers, I recommend watching this video with TokyWoky.
And if you’re looking for global community trends, you might find my keynote on Thursday worth attending.
In a recent project, we had trouble agreeing on whether to launch a community on a forum or as a Facebook group.
The demographics and research sat right on the borderline of benefits between the two.
Instead of guessing, we took the more obvious approach. We did both for the first two months and treated it as a test.
We invited the same members to join both platforms, started the same discussions, and waited to see what would happen.
The Facebook group quickly came to life and the forum spluttered and struggled.
The community won’t stay on Facebook forever. But to generate the initial momentum and then decide where to go long-term (if we need to move) is worthwhile.
Two interesting points here.
The first was the level of resistance we came up against running this test. A couple of people felt telling members they could join two groups to discuss a topic would cause overwhelming confusion. As best as we can tell it didn’t. People simply picked the platform that suited them.
Second, sometimes you have to accept that what members want and what you want can be very different things. Sometimes you need to change your vision to suit your members.
It’s not easy to explain what a community consultancy does.
Why hire external support instead of just trying to do it yourself?
What’s the benefit of outside expertise?
To answer those questions, I’ve published a case study on CMX which showcases how FeverBee designed a series of specific data-driven improvements to take a community from its lowest to highest satisfaction ratings ever.
This is a chance to see some of the advanced-level techniques you can use to improve your community.
You can see the results here:
When you hire a consultant, you’re not hiring the person – you’re hiring a systematic, rigorous, process. A process which you don’t have the time or knowledge to undertake yourself.
It’s very hard to see your own blind spots. It’s far easier to stay busy doing the tasks that ‘seem’ like the right thing to do – but then fail to make any rapid progress.
Don’t Reject External Help
I’ve spoken with far too many organisations that reject external help.
The responses are usually similar:
“We’ll figure this strategy thing out eventually”
“We’re going to try it ourselves first”
“We can’t afford it”
It’s frustrating to watch them waste the next few years struggling to make the kind of rapid change you see here (and making easily avoidable missteps).
In short, as you can read in the case study, consultants help you make rapid progress towards your community goals in the shortest amount of time.
To read the full case study, click here.
Newbie community professionals often fall into the politeness trap.
Instead of writing messages which are engaging, fun, and warm, they write messages which are polite.
Examples of polite language:
“Thank you for your contribution”
“I enjoyed reading that, thank you for sharing”
“I would welcome your contributions”
“We appreciate your attendance yesterday”
The problem is that being polite doesn’t achieve any of your message’s goals.
It doesn’t make members feel more appreciated, better understood, or excited to make their next contribution. It certainly doesn’t make members feel better connected to one another.
In fact, if someone makes a lot of effort and receives a simple polite response – it can discourage further contributions.
People don’t remember politeness, they remember kindness. Writing a kind message begins with the premise of ‘how do I make this member feel as amazing about their contributions as possible?’ Then you write that.
“Your contribution yesterday was fab. I really liked what you said about [xyz], I don’t think anyone has quite phrased it in that way before. Judging by this post, I think your past experience in [xyz] is going to be really useful here.”
“I definitely want to know what you think. You’ve got such incredible expertise here and I know others would benefit as well”
“Yes, you folks were absolutely amazing yesterday, thank you. I thought that was one of the best sessions we’ve had yet. It’s definitely raised the bar going forward. I especially loved ….[xyz]”
If you want a deeper dive into some of the fundamentals of this work, be sure to buy my new book; Build Your Community.
In Build Your Community, I’ve included dozens of templates we use at various stages of the community process.
One of the most important is the template for launching a new community.
Over the past decade, FeverBee has helped launch hundreds of thriving communities.
While the process differs greatly from one project to the next, we’ve been able to put in place major milestones to target along the way and a rough time scale.
You can see this in full below:
It’s really useful to see everything planned in one place.
Create Your Own Timeline
Even better, if you have Adobe Illustrator you’re welcome to grab the source file and customise it to your own needs.
And if you’ve found this useful, I really hope you will consider buying a copy of my new book, Build Your Community. The book is packed with templates, guides, examples, and case studies to learn from.
As you learned long ago, water follows the path of least resistance.
Sure, momentum and external forces might temporarily drive water uphill or along a more circuitous route, but the principle remains true.
This is true of your community members as well. Members follow the path of most convenience (or least resistance) to achieving their goals.
Similar to momentum, they might go along with the crowd and follow trends at times, but over the long-term, they pursue the path of least resistance (time and energy) to achieving their goals.
This increasingly matters for managers of hosted communities because members are far less likely to visit an external site outside of the flow of their existing habits today. The resistance is just too strong.
Worse still, well-intentioned security requirements (e.g. two-week cookie limits on remembering passwords, two-factor authentication, forced changing of passwords every month) are greatly adding to this resistance.
One of the major forces shaping the new era of community building is the ‘convenience first’ principle. In the majority of cases, convenience greatly trumps any emotional connection to the brand or a community. If your community is the most convenient place for members to satisfy their desires, that’s where they will go.
This has three big implications.
First, you need to be measuring the effort score of members (often via a pop-up poll or survey). This question can be as simple as:
“On a scale of ‘very easy’ to ‘very difficult, how easy was it to achieve your goals in the community today?”
Second, you need to ruthlessly prioritise activities that improve your effort score. This means removing as many features/groups/content/discussions which are no longer providing value.
Finally, be honest about the times where you can’t match the convenience of other channels and integrate or link to those channels instead. It’s better people visit your site to find where to go than avoid your site altogether.
One of my favourite consultancy memories is sitting with a client’s community team in the organisation’s huge internal theatre watching hundreds of recordings of members using the community.
We even made popcorn!
It’s one thing to look at community data to try and fathom what members are doing in your community. It’s another to install Hotjar and watch hundreds of recordings of members using the site.
After spending a few hours watching the recordings, we had identified three specific use cases of the community and identified learnings we would never have identified from looking at the aggregate data.
We noticed members clicked on a lot of external links shared in the community. They were using the community to identify trusted sources of information and related products. We needed to build this into the site itself and within the member journey flow.
We noticed members were copying specific lines of code and seemed to be copying and pasting diagrams/videos into another tool. Again, something we could incorporate into the product support itself and build specific areas of the community for it.
We noticed pretty much no one used the homepage to navigate the community. But they did use related discussions a lot.
If you’re not using Hotjar (or a competitor yet), I strongly recommend you do.