How To Improve Your Community Engagement Skills

In Build Your Community, I spend a lot of time talking about how we can improve our core engagement skills.

In this post, I want to share what these skills look like at a very practical level.

Being a community manager is a little like being a racing car driver. It helps to have an amazing team and technology around you, but eventually, everything hangs upon you and your skillset.

In a community, the success of projects often costing thousands, even millions, of dollars depends upon your abilities to effectively engage their members.


Engagement Skills Are Undervalued (even by community professionals)

If you’re a computer programmer, you would expect your skills to be tested when applying for a job.

In the community space that doesn’t happen. Most jobs simply try to make sure the community manager has been involved in a successful community at some point. The actual core skills of engaging members are never tested (or even inspected).

That’s likely because most companies aren’t even sure what community skills are. Many job descriptions might ask for someone to be a ‘good communicator’, but it’s never specified what ‘good’ means here.

Typically, it implies an applicant can write content in a coherent way and without making too many spelling and grammar mistakes. But these aren’t good community skills, they’re just basic writing skills.

Even community professionals struggle to identify the ‘skill’ bit of their work. Sure we host events, create content, initiate discussions etc…but what is the skill we have developed and refined which we can do better than people who don’t work in the field?

If we can’t identify the unique ‘skill’ in community building, we can’t identify ways to improve it. Instead, we accumulate knowledge. This is like learning to become a public speaker by reading books on public speaking. There’s some useful stuff in there, but eventually, you need to practice and improve your abilities.


What Is The Skill In Community Building?

Let’s be clear about the specific ‘skill’ in community skills.

The skill in community engagement is to consistently persuade members to make great contributions to the community.

This skill will be reflected in everything you do. It works at both the group level and at the individual level. It works internally and externally. It works for the engagement skills we do every day and those we do rarely. It works in every engagement we have with an audience through whatever channel we use.

You can see a breakdown of some of the most common below:

Now we know what the ‘skill’ in community building is and the types of engagements we have, we can review almost any community and see how good most engagement skills are today.


How Good Are Your Engagement Skills? (a simple test)

In our training courses, we often invite people to assess how good they are at engaging members on a scale of 1 to 5. Most people give themselves a 4.

Then we begin reviewing their past five contributions to the community using a scale we’ve developed and seeing how they do.

Many responses are short and abrupt. A large number lack empathy and feel rushed. A few are incredibly patronising.

When we sample the past few responses, we typically find the scores are closer to 2 to 3.

Over the past decade (and having reviewed thousands of community contributions), it’s clear most community professionals are nowhere near as good at engagement as they think they are.

Ironically, while most people would agree that public speaking or copywriting are skills that people can improve through practicing key techniques, engagement skills are still seen as something ‘anyone can do well’.

And that’s somewhat true, but only with a good level of knowledge and some practice.


Upgrading Our Community Skillset

Let’s go through a few examples.

Notice the direct tone and harsh language in the responses on the right compared with our suggested responses on the left.

Here’s another example:

The responses on the right aren’t terrible but they’re nowhere near the level they could be. They don’t invite further debate, they don’t show a meaningful level of empathy. They don’t make the participant feel better about themselves.

Even if you’re not likely to turn that member into a superuser, they can still be improved by applying some very basic principles of engagement.

Now let’s compare this with a great example below from Colleen Young at the Mayo Clinic.

At face value it’s easy to see this post and think ‘so what?’

It doesn’t seem especially complex. However, there’s a range of things happening here when we explore it in detail below.

Notice almost all the elements are present in this:

1) Personalization to the member. Colleen has referenced the specific details of the questions and @mentioned the member by name.
2) Friendly. The language is optimistic and informal – she’s also added a personal welcome.
3) Knowledge. She’s invited in contributions from others (which also makes them feel like experts). She’s also provided a link to useful information.
4) Resolution. She’s asked for an update from the member and wants to make sure she helped.

The response is almost flawless. And Colleen has done this over 7,000 times for the Mayo Clinic. This is the difference a skilled community manager can make.


Community Support Isn’t Customer Support

A quick aside here. Community isn’t customer support (even when it’s owned by customer support). You might have the same goal (answering as many customer questions as possible) but the methodology differs in an important way.

In a community channel you want members to help answer questions. That’s how it scales. This means giving someone an answer isn’t good enough. You have to make them feel they can make unique, useful, contributions to the community too. The better the community makes them feel, the more likely they are to return and visit again.

Compare two examples from the same company below:

The answers on the left are customer support responses. The person receiving these responses might get an answer but they will probably never come back and participate in the community.

The person receiving responses from Phoebe on the right is very likely to engage in the community again. Looking at her short response, all of the core components are in there (friendliness, personalization, knowledge etc…).


The Impact Of Great Community Skills

If we look at the graph below, we can see clearly how important community skills really are. Since hiring Colleen Young, the entire community at Mayo Clinic Connect has gone from a ghost town to a thriving hub of activity.

Don’t Just Acquire More Knowledge, Improve Your Skills

We can all agree that all the books about comedy or public speaking in the world won’t turn you into a world-class comedian or public speaker.

At some point you need to get out there, test what you’ve learnt, and improve your ability to do it. The same is true with engagement skills too.

If you were a comedian, you know if a joke is landed by how many laughs you’re getting. You can tell if you’re an engaging public speaker by how many people are looking at you versus their phones.

And in communities we can tell how engaging we are by how many members reply and keep participating in the community. Yet most of the time we ignore this feedback and simply move on to the next discussion (and then the next and the next).

A few people turn up to our courses frustrated by the lack of members engaging in their communities (or their inability to get members to stick around). The majority have never actually looked at whether members who they replied to are continuing to engage in the community or not.

Most community professionals receive great amazing feedback every day and ignore it.

If you bring up a list of your responses from a month ago, you can literally see if the person replied or engaged in the community again. Then you can look at your message to them, see what you might want to adjust, and try for future members.

Not every word or idea works for every audience, but over time you can refine your approach and the way you connect with members. But you have to take the effort to do it.


Every Interaction Matters

While we have focused on replying to posts here, this applies to every interaction you have with members. The same principles apply when you’re replying to direct messages, emails about forgotten passwords or helping members wanting to change usernames. It also applies when you’re reaching out to top members and inviting them to make great contributions to your community.

Every interaction is a unique opportunity to help deeper engage the members within your community by making them feel they can make unique, useful, contributions.

The other skill here is being able to do this consistently. It’s easy to use a template example like those above and respond to a few members better in your next few posts. It’s far more difficult to do it in every interaction. Especially when you’re having a bad day. But the more you practice doing it, the easier it becomes.

Once it becomes a habit, it won’t matter what kind of day you’re having.


Get the book

If you want to learn more about upgrading your community skills, buy my new book.

Some Resources

Upgrading your community skills (1 hour lessons)

Benchmark Templates

Interpreting Rising Activity Per Member

One metric we often track is level of activity per active member (no. posts / no. members making those posts each month)

In short, how engaged are the members who are participating?

But this metric needs context to be useful.

For example, if the level of activity per active member is rising, is this a good or a bad thing?

Well, it depends. It could mean one of three stories:

1) Story 1: Members are finding the community more engaging than before. That’s usually a good thing.

2) Story 2: Fewer members are contributing to the community and you’re left with just the more dedicated members.

3) Story 3: Some combination of the above (i.e. fewer members who are participating more).

The challenge is to identify which story is true by looking at whether the overall number of contributors has risen or fallen during the same timeframe.

If your current members are less engaged than before, find out why. Are they visiting less frequently? Do they not know the answers to questions? Are they finding the posts less interesting? What kind of topics are relevant and important to them today.

If fewer members are contributing, find out why. Are fewer newcomers reaching the community? Are they staying around for less time? What has changed in the behavior?

Activity per active member is a great metric to track (even better when you can separate it by percentage). But you have to interpret the data properly.

Keeping The Community Strategy Relevant With A Quarterly Review

Four times a year, I meet (or Zoom) with a couple of clients to review the strategy we developed against the outcomes and make any necessary changes.

The purpose of this process is to always keep the strategy relevant and fit for purpose.

This quarterly review begins with the tactics:

  • Were the tactics well executed?
  • Did they achieve their desired impact?
  • What did we learn from these tactics?
  • What can we improve in the future?
  • Which tactics should we continue and discontinue?

Then we look at the audience:

  • Are the personas still fit for purpose? What do we need to update?
  • Are there any new trends we should acknowledge?
  • Did we learn anything new about the audience?
  • Is the community still properly positioned given the changes in the bigger sector?
  • Are there any new competitors we should review?
  • Are we still targeting the right audience?

Then we review the objectives (KPIs):

  • Are the objectives we have realistic?
  • Do we need to revise our targets based upon the information we’ve received so far?
  • Are the objectives we set realistic/relevant to achieve the current goal?

Then we review the goals:

  • Is the community generating the desired return on investment?
  • Do we need to expand/narrow the goals of the community?
  • Do we need to update our stakeholder map? Are there other stakeholders we need to win over?
  • Is our internal communication approach working? Do we need to refine our internal narrative/communications?
  • What resource/budget requests should we make (if any?)

Finally we review the team:

  • Did team members achieve their goals?
  • Do we have the right team to achieve our near-term goals?
  • Are there any new skills/knowledge we need to acquire?
  • Do we need to update the roadmaps of any individual team members?
  • Are there any process issues we need to consider?
  • Is everyone clear about what’s expected of them over the next 3 months?

This isn’t a comprehensive list, but you get the idea.

If you want to stay strategic in your approach to building communities, it helps to review your actions against the strategy and keep the strategy updated. It’s a huge waste of time to invest a huge amount of time, energy, and resources into updating the strategy and then constantly reflect upon it.

If you don’t have time for it, get outside help (it’s what we do). Otherwise, schedule this 2 to 4 times throughout the year. You will be amazed how useful the process is.

The Strategic Way To Recruiting (and Training) Community Managers

Here is the typical approach.

You finally have the resources (or the need) to recruit someone. You browse the web to find a few job descriptions, use these as the basis to create your own, and post the final job descriptions on job boards, community sites, and any other channel you can find.

You narrow your list of 30 to 50 applicants down to 3 to 5 and interview each until you find someone who:

a) Seems to be easy to work with.
b) Seems to have relevant experience.
c) Is within your compensation range.

This isn’t a terrible approach. It often works well. But it’s often divorced from the strategy. This means you’re probably not specific enough in the skills you need at each level.

For example, let’s imagine a (simplified) strategy like this:

We have three clear phases, three broad goals, a set of key tactics and then we’ve identified the very specific skills which will be needed at each phase of the process.

Aside, many strategies are undermined by a failure to recruit people with the right skills for the tasks they’re expected to do.

Let’s imagine you’re launching a community.

Using the example above, we know we need four specific skills here:

1) Technology development and implementation.

2) Motivating top members to answer questions.

3) Building relationships and processes with the support team.

4) Being able to answer (or get answers) to the majority of questions.

We might decide to find someone who can do all of this or (more frequently) split technology into a separate role given it’s unique specialism.

When it comes to writing the job advert, we can be very specific:

“Within [x] months, we expect the applicant to have:

    • Recruited 15 people who can answer questions in the community.
    • Undertaken our staff training courses and be able to answer simple questions within the community.
    • Built relationships with support teams to persuade them to answer questions in the community”

(This isn’t the full advert obviously, but it’s clear targets by a clear timeline).

Now in the job interviews you can ask more specific questions checking they have the expertise you need. For example:

“Which superuser programs have you set up and run before? What were the results? What succeeded and failed? How would you develop this program from scratch?”

“How were you able to acquire traffic from customer support channels in the past? What worked/didn’t work? What would be your approach this time around?

“How much do you know about our products at the moment? What is your current level of expertise within the topic? How would you persuade support staff to engage and participate in the community? How many support staff have you persuaded to do this in the past?”


Better yet you can often visit the past communities of potential applicants and see if they have done exactly the things you need them to do for you.


The Skills You Need Evolves Over Time

It’s worth remembering here the community skills you need will change as the community matures. This means at each phase of the strategic plan you either need to:

a) Recruit new staff members.
b) Train your current staff members in new skills.

The great thing about having a strategic plan in place is you can collaborate with your team, identify the skills they need, and sign them up to relevant training courses, books, mentorships, and more to prepare them for each new phase.

Better yet, if you know the skills you need in the future, you can begin connecting with people who might be a good fit today and building a pipeline of potential talent you can recruit in the future.

Side note: If you’re recruiting in a tech hotspot (Seattle/Bay Area), be aware most community managers only stick around for 1 to 3 years. This seems to be part of the bargain. You can plan for this and identify what the community manager will achieve within that time frame they’re with you.


You’re Acquiring Skills To Take Your Community To The Next Level

The recruitment process needs to reflect your community strategy.

You’re not simply trying to find warm bodies to plug a resource hole, you’re paying to acquire the skills your community needs to achieve the current and next phase in your community strategy.



p.s. This approach is also relevant when you’re attending community events. You can identify precisely what skills you want and attend the most valuable sessions and use the rest of the time to meet up with others who have recently been through the challenges you’re about to face.

The Art Of Subtlety and Importance of Real Empathy in Community Building

One topic I spend time on in my new book is the importance of developing advanced community skills at the micro-level.

Here’s an example. Many people can easily grasp simple community-building principles like:

  • People want to feel valued and important.
  • People want to know they can make unique contributions.
  • People want to feel like they’re making progress.
  • People want to feel rewarded for their contributions.

But far fewer can understand the importance of authenticity and subtlety in delivering on these principles.

I’ve met far too many community professionals who send messages to members or reply to members with text like:

“As one of our most valued and community members, I’d love to invite you to …”

“I’m reaching out to you as one of the most important members of our community…”

“I’ve noticed your superpower is in [x], can you do more of [x] in the community?”

“If you do [x], you will become recognised as a top member of the community”

“Congrats on making 5 contributions, here’s your ‘rapid progress’ badge”

They later seem confused when these messages fail to achieve the desired impact.

This is the difference between skill and knowledge. Knowledge is knowing the principles, skill is the ability to apply them.

The skill which needs to be nurtured (quickly) here is empathy. This empathy which is exemplified by subtly delivering and hinting at the benefits members want instead of blasting them in someone’s face.

For example, if you wanted your colleague to feel important, would you suddenly turn to her and say “Hey, you’re really important”?

Hopefully not! It would be inauthentic (and weird).

If you’re smart, you might turn to her and say:

“hey, that [x] you recommended really helped.

No-one else here even seemed to know about it.

Would you mind if I reached out to you if I have any other challenges with [x]? Not many people seem to have the experience you do”

You can see the difference. One is genuine, authentic, and will have the intended impact. It appreciates the context, environment, and relationship between you. The other is blasting a weird message in someone’s face.

If your messages aren’t having their desired impact, you might need to work more on your empathy. Or buying my new book might help.

Organizing A Member Workshop To Help Develop The Community Strategy

It’s always tempting to dive into potential solutions for a struggling community without first trying to investigate the cause.

In one recent client project, we brought some prospective members together into a shared online space to both diagnose what’s going wrong for the community today and identify what the community could become if we collaborate together.

Using a zoom webinar with Mural, we asked members some key questions:

What’s stopping you from participating in the community?
What do you want from the community?
What can you contribute to the community?
What might be a good trigger to visit the community?

You can see the responses here:

This isn’t a definitive list of questions or topics (it’s also good to ask about the toughest challenges, what’s stopping people achieving their goals at the moment, who they want to connect with etc…).

However, It yields some good and immediate insights you can use when developing the strategy. Better than that, the mere act of bringing people together to identify what is and isn’t working about a community creates a shared mission.

This might not work well for customer support communities, but if you’re trying to build a community of practice I would definitely recommend it.

Stop Creating “What Do You Think?” Discussions

Imagine someone you’ve never met walks up to you, shows you a copy of a magazine article, and says:

“I’ve recently read this article about [widget]. What do you think about [widget]? Do you think [widget] will be the future of our industry?”

If you’re cornered, you might give a quick reply and then try to move on. The approach just feels a little weird.

The obvious catch with an online community is people aren’t cornered. If the approach is off and there’s no real benefit of replying, people don’t reply.

A lot of newcomer community managers, in their haste to initiate activity, will try to create discussions like this. They will share a relevant article (or raise a topical issue) and ask “what do you think?”

These are the worst types of discussions for almost every community.

People reply to discussions for an emotional payoff. They want to feel useful and know they’ve helped someone. Giving opinions on random topics doesn’t create that feeling. This is why initiating a bunch of discussions to ‘get activity going’ usually fails.

It’s also why in the very early days you need to be very careful how you structure the question.

For example, if you ask the question as:

Subject: Would you set aside a budget for [widget] in 2022?

“Next week I need to submit my budget for the coming year. I’m trying to work out whether it’s worthwhile setting some money aside for [widget] as this article seems to recommend.

Does anyone have any experiences or insights into whether [widget] is likely to be important without our industry? Any examples or case studies would be really useful”

Now we have a question which lets members both give an opinion and feel they’re helping. It’s clear why the person is asking the question and the value they will get from the answers.

The challenge in the early stages isn’t to start discussions to ‘get activity going’. It’s to find people who need help and persuade them to ask questions in the community (or, last resort, ask them on behalf of the person).

One Simple Email Tweak Which Revived 16% of Inactive Members (and why this matters)

In my new book, Build Your Community, I write a lot about the advanced engagement skills we need in the new era of community building.

Here’s a story that didn’t make the cut, but illustrates why understanding psychology at a more advanced level is so important for this new era.

I had a client which was sending automated emails to members when they had been inactive for over a year. The emails, written by another consultant, read:

Subject: We’ve missed you in [community]!

Hello, this is [name], the community manager of [community]

It’s now been a year since your last visit and we’ve missed you.

Why not come back and see what you’ve been missing?

You can login to your profile, ask questions, get help, and share your expertise.

All you need to do is click here.

If you have any questions, email me”

Before you continue, take a second and think about this email. Is it good or bad? Would it entice you to visit a community again or not?

The open rate of this email averaged around 11% and the reactivation rate varied between 0.6% and 0.9%.

Which meant less than 1 in 100 people who received this email clicked on it. It was a classic example of a good idea which was poorly executed.

I came up with a very different message. This message read:

Subject: [topic] questions

Hi [name],

I’m hoping you can help.

Is there anyone else you believe should be a member of [community] that isn’t today?

I’m looking for a couple of recommendations of people doing interesting work which other members would find useful. Anyone with interesting perspectives to share would be great.

Is there anyone you can recommend?

A huge thanks,

Community manager

When I proposed this email, it was greeted with disgust (especially by the marketing team). The complaints included:

“The subject line is too vague!”

“Why would they give advice for a community they haven’t visited in a year?”

“It’s too blunt – almost rude!”

“It doesn’t include an obvious link to the site!”

But thanks to an internal champion [you know who you are], I was allowed to run a test for 3 weeks. During this 3 week window, the email was sent to 225 newly ‘long-term inactive’ members.

You can see the comparison below:

Clearly the latter message worked a lot better, but that’s not the point here.

The point is why it worked better. Because if you understand why the second message was so much more effective you can craft your own.

I spend a lot of time in Build Your Community explaining the principles of psychology you can use to increase engagement.

Here’s a quick breakdown of why the second email was so much more effective (and this isn’t the only time we’ve created far more persuasive emails like this).

1) A vague subject line provokes curiosity. Look at your subject lines you get from real people. They’re not laden with benefits. The fierce competition for attention means we’ve developed a natural filter against typical marketing spiel.

2) The utility principle. Reminding people they haven’t visited a community in a while is a really terrible idea. It simply reminds them they weren’t getting any value. But asking people with a simple, specific, request to help makes them feel useful (there are limits to this).

3) The commitment principle. When we’ve helped someone (or a project) we become more committed to its success. When people have recommended a friend especially, they become a lot more committed.

4) The link was linked to a purpose. We linked the url to the member directory so people could check if the people they planned to invite were already there. This re-engaged the audience and we found most people were naturally browning to find what’s new.

There’s nothing particularly staggering or technologically advanced in the revised email we sent out.

All it needed was a deeper understanding of what really motivates members and how to apply those principles effectively.

These are the skills we need today and these are the skills I’m sharing in my new book; I really hope you will consider buying it.

Learn Your Community Benchmarks (what does good look like?)

A great reason to buy my new book is to get access to community industry benchmarks.

One major difference between experienced community professionals and relative newcomers is their knowledge of benchmarks (or ratios).

If you know your benchmarks, you can tell if you’re above or below average. You know what’s realistic. You can set reasonable targets and achieve them.

Most importantly, you can avoid being held accountable to entirely unrealistic targets.

For example, if you have 1m customers, do you know how many people you should expect in your community?

If you have 100,000 registered members, how many should be active in your community this month?

If you have 50,000 questions each month, how many superusers should you have?

How long can you expect an average member to remain active in your community for?

Over the past decade, I’ve worked with over 300 organisations and analyzed many more. We’ve literally scraped data to identify what a good time to first response looks like, a good response rate looks like, how many accepted solutions you should expect.

If you needed another reason to buy my new book, getting access to the benchmarks makes it worthwhile.

Buy ‘Build Your Community’ This Week And Get Access To The Community Skills Accelerator

Buy ‘Build Your Community’ This Week And Get Access To The Community Skills Accelerator

Why should you buy my new book, Build Your Community, this week?

Well, if mastering community skills isn’t urgent enough for you, I’m going to add an additional bonus.

The first 100 people who purchase the book will also get access to our community skills accelerator.

This was a tool that lets you benchmark your current skill level today and then develop a roadmap to improve your skills.

Many of our clients over the years have used this to develop roadmaps for their entire community teams and check they have the right skills for their community strategy.

All you need to do is send proof of purchase (a screenshot of a receipt is fine) to [email protected].

p.s. It works better if your entire community team goes through this process.

My New Book Launches Today (it’s about these community skills)

My new book, Build Your Community, launches today. I hope you will consider buying it.

It’s an urgent book about developing incredible community skills.

We all know there’s a big difference between having an average or great designer, manager, salesperson on your team.

…well there’s also a big difference between having average and great community managers on your team too.

Put bluntly, great community professionals are game-changers.

Great community professionals are more persuasive, have natural credibility with their audiences, and can design systems that engage thousands, even millions, of people.

Sure, technology helps. But eventually, everything depends upon the abilities of you and your team to make this work.

I’ve been working with (and training) community professionals for over a decade now. Believe me, there is huge potential for most of us to get better at the work we do.


A Book For People In The Trenches

My new book, Build Your Community, will help you develop and improve your abilities to build more engaging communities.

This is a book for those of us in the trenches living and breathing this work every day.

It’s a book for those of us who know that community skills are indispensable to the success of communities.

It’s a book for those who believe we can improve how we design and nurture our communities.

If you’ve found this blog useful over the years, you will find the book even more so.


If you dig deeper behind most acts of aggression you usually find fear.

Fear of not being enough.
Fear of not being considered part of the group.
Fear of not feeling important.
Fear of being overlooked.
Fear of being overtaken by a competitor.
Fear of losing standing.
Fear of experiencing physical/emotional pain.

One way to resolve acts of aggression within a community is to remove the symptom (the act or the person).

The problem is this increases the antagonist’s level of aggression towards you. Do this often enough and eventually one of them will have the skills and motivation to be as disruptive as possible.

Another approach is to consider if you can resolve the underlying fear. It’s not always an option, but when it is, try it.