I’m often surprised by people who run large, mature, communities and haven’t segmented their membership in any meaningful way.
They still treat their communities as one massive lump of people.
They ask all their members to do the same thing at the same time regardless of how long someone has been a member or how active they have been.
In The Indispensable Community, I noted the reason most people don’t participate in your community is they’re simply not able to.
A solution to this is to properly segment your members and develop a series of emails, unique weekly messages, and on-site calls to action (CTAs) they will receive.
The most common one is the onboarding journey for newcomers. But this is just one of several you should develop.
Over time you should be able to segment every member by their current level of participation and adapt your messages to each accordingly.
A simple system is shown below:
You can set up default rules (by direct access to server logs or using the current platform) to show each group different messages based upon their current level of participation.
Based upon this, you can assign them to a specific group which receives a different experience.
This would cover the automated email series they receive, the calls to action they might see on the website, and what kind of weekly email they are sent. You can see an example of this below:
These calls to action should be based upon your segmented survey results and interviews with each group.
They must also naturally lead into the goal of your community.
The further you develop the community, the more complex these rules might become. For example, as you’re getting started:
Over time, you want to continue to push the boundary here. Develop more specific rules for unique groups of members. Guide them to make their best possible contribution to the community.
You should constantly use your data (open rates, click-through rates, cohort retention rates) to gradually refine each message/call to action to gain the greatest number of valuable behaviors within the community.
It’s easy to create a content calendar, you can fill it with items like:
- Member of the month
- Member Interview Tuesday.
- What Are You Working On?
- Expert Advice About [x]
- Throwback Thursday
- Promotion Friday
It’s harder to make the content exciting enough to sustain interest.
The problem with anything regular is unless it’s regularly (and surprisingly) interesting members learn to ignore it.
Working out loud discussions typically begin strong but the popularity soon fades as members realize the number of useful connections from them doesn’t justify the effort.
Interviews with members typically falter because many members don’t have anything remarkable to say. Once you’re in week 20, you’ve been through most of your top members. Worse yet, the audience often has to wade through an hour-long interview, or a 2000+ word transcript to find a few interesting nuggets.
A few tips that might help here:
1) Tweak the format to make it scannable. Reduce an hour-long interview to a members’ top 5 tips, what I learned this month, top links, top resources, or an edited digest etc…
2) Only publish content that passes the interest test. It’s harsh, but if you interview a member for an hour, and they don’t say anything remarkable, respect your community and don’t publish it. Your duty is to the entire community, not one member. Better yet, wait for members to say something remarkable in the community and interview them. Have a few people you can run content past to see if they like it.
3) Drop the content calendar. If you’re just churning out content to fill an arbitrary slot in the calendar of your own making, it’s probably an idea to drop the calendar. There simply isn’t enough meaningful activity to fill out. Wait and help create the conditions for amazing things to happen and then write about it.
Publishing content “because it’s Thursday” is the worst reason to publish content.
We can all agree promising $1000 to the top contributor each month is short-sighted.
You will get a lot more activity, but it won’t be good activity. Within a month you will be left with a spam-filled shell of a community.
That’s the short game.
Any time you’re using tactics to get the activity up, you’re playing the short-game. Sure, you need some activity, but it’s far less than we imagine. Beyond a fairly low level, it’s the quality of activity that matters.
The long game improves the fundamental quality of the community.
When you play the long-game, you’re making the community better (not just bigger). You’re making the community a more desirable place to be (which in turn attracts more people to participate).
When you’re gradually building strong relationships with top experts, improving the signal to noise ratio, enforcing higher standards of contributions, you’re playing the long-game. The community is becoming a better resource. This pays off over the long-term.
When you’re building a more powerful sense of community, providing better ways for people to connect and build more genuine relationships, you’re playing the long-game.
When you’re enabling everyone to explore the cutting edge of the field, report back their findings, and learn from each other, you’re playing the long-game.
The problem with playing the long-game is there aren’t any easy metrics to tell if it’s working. You sacrifice short-term activity for long-term success.
Most of the communities which are growing rapidly today had a year or more of obscurity while the community professional gradually built the relationships, attracted the right members, and established the right quality norms of contributions.
If you’re playing the long-game, you can’t be held accountable to short-term metrics. You need to set the strategy, determine what your community is capable of being, and give yourself enough runway to take off.
I know a car company that once tried to launch an online community. The problem was their audience already had their own communities. So they tried to sue their rival communities off the web.
Suing your own fans, your best fans even, is clearly dumb. A far better approach is to support the ecosystem around you.
Have a place in your community (or on your website) where you list the top fan communities, let people with a big social media following apply to be listed as a verified top influencer in your community, sponsor relevant events, give members who host their own event a small budget to cover basic expenses.
Show up and participate (ethically) in other communities too. Host prizes for members who share links to their best advice and let anyone from any community vote on it. Invite the top members to meet your team and get insider access.
You don’t need to own and host the community to get most of the benefits from the community. You can still deflect support tickets, increase customer satisfaction, spread information, and get great insights.
And even if you can’t, doesn’t it just make sense to support the ecosystem growing up around you instead of fighting it? Once you have a page listing the top communities to join, members to follow, and best resources shared, you become the beginning of someone’s social journey. That’s a useful place to be.
Last year we reviewed some research on a developer community.
A somewhat crude paraphrasing would go something like this:
Q. “What would you like in the community?”
A. “Great documentation!”
Q. “What about better discussions, expert interviews, live chatting with product engineers?”
A. “No, we just want great documentation”
Q. “Do you think we should have a Slack channel?”
A. “We don’t care, we just want great documentation”
Q. “Would you be interested in publishing a blog post sharing your expertise?”
A. “No, I.want.to.see.great.documentation please”
Q. “If you had to choose between a blog post, expert interview, or a live chat…which would be your favourite?”
A. “Good documentation”
It’s obvious the community manager isn’t listening. S/he is looking for anything that validates the kind of community they already plan to build. No-one is going to win here.
A far better set of questions would go:
“Documentation? Great what kind of documentation do you most need?”
“What format do you like documentation in?”
“Would you like to edit it? Would you be interested in other developers adding their notes/comments on it?”
“How would you like to be notified of updates by documentation?”
“If we allow others to add their notes/make updates, should this be hand-selected or should we have a review process?”
Now you can start shaping exactly the kind of community members want.
It might not even have a discussion area. It might be a wiki, a series of updated guides people can clip notes to or something else entirely.
It’s far harder to listen that we might imagine. Don’t go through a research interview with a set of questions hoping to get an answer that supports what you already want.
Genuinely do the research with an open mind and go where it takes you.
A staggering number of online communities have terrible onboarding journeys. They usually waste time teaching people how to use the platform, sharing bland welcome messages, or asking members to do inane things (“update your profile photo!”).
Your audience is smart. If they’ve signed up to your community assume they know who you are, how a community works, and have a reasonable idea of what they want. Don’t waste extremely precious attention.
The purpose of an onboarding series is to change and enhance how people feel about the community.
You can do this by:
a) Telling them something they didn’t know or expect (and find remarkably interesting or useful).
b) Nudging them to take an immediate action – which makes them feel smarter or better connected.
c) Create unique opportunities they can join in.
A great onboarding series steadily helps members feel more competent, more connected, or more autonomous.
- Email 1 – Just Getting Started? Sign Up For A Mentoring Group (+1 Days)
- Email 2 – The Top 5 Resources for Beginners, Curated by Our Top Experts (+7 Day)
- Email 3 – Share What’s Holding You Back (what can we solve?) (+14 Days)
- Email 4 – 5 Members You Should Connect With (+21 Days)
Likewise, you can focus on a specific pathway (usually competence).
- Email 1 – It’s Time To Set Your Goal (and our members will help you get there)
- Email 2 – How Our Top Members Learned To [Key Skill]
- Email 3 – The Top Questions You Probably Have About [Key Skill]
- Email 4 – It’s Time For Your Newcomer Blog Post (share your progress!)
- Email 5 – Getting Stuck? Our Top Members Share Their Tips
Each email can contain relevant links to discussions and content shared in your community.
You might focus on an autonomy journey.
- Email 1 – What Can You Contribute To Our Community?
- Email 2 – What’s The One Thing You Knew When You Started In This Field?
- Email 3 – Who Would You Like Us To Interview?
- Email 4 – Can You Share Your Best Tips About [X]
- Email 5 – Want To Lead Your Own Group?
- Email 6 – What Can We Do Better? Help Us To Help You!
You steadily make people feel more in control and able to feel a sense of ownership over the community.
If you haven’t looked at your community’s onboarding journey recently, I recommend you sign up for it and go through the entire process. Then decide what kind of journey you need for newcomers in your field and create the series.
This is StackOverflow in 2008:
This is StackOverflow today (10 years later):
The homepage has had a few tweaks over the years but otherwise hasn’t changed much.
They constantly tweaked and improved their way to success. No major platform changes.
Whatever platform you’re using, it’s easy to identify things your current platform doesn’t offer and convince yourself it’s essential. Try to resist this.
I’d estimate only around 50% of people who migrate platforms truly believed it improved the community. Far too often, they trade one set of issues for another. They break things which were working, members get lost and frustrated, search traffic declines, integrations fail, and other features don’t work quite as well.
Migrating to a new platform should usually be the last resort to solve a problem, not the first option. It takes months, costs a fortune, and has a mixed record of success. You’re playing Russian roulette with a year of work and up to $500k+ in costs.
This happens often when a new head of community joins and compares their new community to their last one. Resist this temptation. The benefits rarely match the costs.
p.s. After 10 years, StackOverflow remains the best functioning community on the web.
Last week, I presented at the CMX Summit on how to build an indispensable community.
Speaking with many of you afterwards, the biggest takeaway was our approach to measuring an online community. We don’t focus on ROI, we focus on something different entirely.
Today I published my first Medium post which I hope you will check out.
It’s a longer reads than most blog posts here. It breaks down what’s wrong with our current approaches (true believerism, call deflection, ROI calculations) and identifies a new path forward.
Everyone gets excited talking about who the community is for.
Everyone gets nervous when talking about who the community isn’t for.
Which segments of your customer base, your audience, your employees aren’t a good fit for the community?
Literally, list them down. Be aggressive about it. The more segments you put on the list the better you can delight those off it.
In theory, everyone sees the logic in being specific in who we target and delight in a community.
In practice, ignoring member segments unleashes a bewildering array of internal and external issues. People prefer to avoid the discussion, try to cater to everyone, and create an average community which delights no-one.
Have these discussions early, openly, and honestly. Have a rationale (begin with your most valuable or most enthusiastic audiences) and then create a timeframe or list of requirements to add that segment too (i.e. must have someone to manage this audience).
Now the conversation isn’t about which segments you will or won’t target…but when and why you might target each segment. That might help you…at least a little.
Yesterday we overlooked something important.
The real decision for members isn’t whether your audience uses a community or an information site, it’s whether they use your community or another social destination to achieve the same goals.
Have you noticed your members posting the same question on your community, on social media, on other communities, and elsewhere? They don’t care where they get answers as long as they get good, quick, answers. This is becoming a more difficult challenge by the day.
Your members can probably find answers faster by searching Google.
Your members can post questions in social media and get good responses from people they know and trust. They can post questions in similar communities and can get help from a totally independent group of experts.
Your members can build their reputations by creating their own blogs, posting on LinkedIn, Medium, and other aggregation sites.
Your members can find a stronger sense of community by creating their own groups on Slack, Telegram, WhatsApp, Facebook, and only inviting people they like.
Each of these can (and probably will) peel away your best and most enthusiastic members until you’re not left with much.
Worse yet, each platform has benefits you will never be able to match.
You can’t be as much of a habit as Facebook, you will never offer as much information as Google, and you can’t match the sense of community felt by a few people hanging out in a private group with their friends.
Far too many brand communities don’t find a way out of this problem and slowly watch their community enter a terminal decline. Worse, they often try to mimic competitors along the way.
Don’t compete on another platform’s turf. You’re going to lose. Instead, if you want to build a sustainable community, bring to bear the full armament of your resources to build a community no-one can match.
You might not be able to compete on speed, depth, and quality of questions, answers and expertise shared. But what you can do?
In the Indispensable Community, we write how the best brand communities do precisely this. They use their natural unfair advantages.
Your best assets are:
- Scale – You can reach more people. You can ensure the best content in your community reaches more people than ever. You can include it in product material, support discussions, and link to it throughout the community. You can ensure any post in your community reaches more people than any other site.
- Access – You can give members unique access and exclusive information they can only get from being a great contributor to the group. You can award them with early trials, introductions to key staff members, superior product support, and anything else.
- Influence – You can take their feedback and use it to develop better products. You can make them feel like partners working to create something fantastic. You can set challenges, competitions, and give them interesting problems to solve.
- Prominence – Your PR team can turn top members into quotable superstars. You can put them on stage at your conference. You can give them recognition, badges, and prominence. You can help them gain work.
- Verified – You can be the judge, to determine what’s verified and what isn’t. You can anoint the people who really know their stuff and distinguish them from those that don’t. You can be the ultimate arbiter of what’s good and what’s bad. You can approve the people who are doing the things that most help the community.
The key is to take the psychological benefits from a community and use your unique advantages to turbo-change them.
Because if you’re not going to bring something to the party, something only you can bring…and only you can offer…why bother having a party at all?
If you want to build an indispensable community, you have to offer something no-one else will ever be able to match.
In The Indispensable Community, I explain the only communities which thrive in the long term are those which are truly indispensable to their brands and their members.
It’s incredibly hard to build a community that offers members something they find absolutely necessary and would struggle to get elsewhere (and you need both). Yet it’s the only way your community can thrive today.
If you’re wondering why your community doesn’t seem ‘sticky’ (why so few people stick around), this is it.
What’s Absolutely Necessary To Our Members?
The reason you have a community and not just a help (or information) portal is a community offers unique benefits that your members can’t get from just browsing and reading.
A community offers four unique psychological benefits; a sense of belonging, greater influence, a chance to explore things we find interesting, and mutual support.
If you’re building a community today, you have to push hard towards at least one of these benefits.
Each avenue takes you down a completely different path, and each has its pros and cons.
1) Sense of belonging.
You focus on creating a powerful sense of community.
You build a warm, welcoming, friendly, environment. You introduce rituals and traditions. You create a shared, written, history. You make it private and exclusive. You bring people together for shared events and activities as much as possible.
CampJeep is an incredible example of this.
Warning – this only works if people feel your brand is already a strong part of their identity. This usually means it’s something we spend a lot of time doing, invest resources in, or represents our identity in some way.
VERY few brands fall under this category (yet most think they do).
2) Greater influence.
You build a smaller, more dedicated, group of people around you who want to have an impact (either helping you or each other).
You set targets and drive people towards them. You celebrate wins, commiserate the losses, and provide the support people need at each stage.
Critically you’re targeting a tiny slice of your audience who are most committed to you (look for highest NPS/satisfaction scores) and working with them to have maximum influence.
3) Exploring exciting things.
You provide a unique environment for members to share and test ideas. You might host competitions, set challenges, and highlight the newest and most exciting things.
This works well for Kaggle, Github, Lomography, ProductHunt, and many others. Each has created an entirely unique platform where people can test things, report back something new, and adapt/improve their efforts.
Warning – this only works in fields which are genuinely new and exciting. Technology figures highly here, but it’s not the only option.
4) Mutual support.
You help people with questions get answers as quickly as possible.
You ensure members feel empathetically listened to, appreciated, and respected. Many of these are about discussions you can’t search for. This means you offer information via members that isn’t easy to search for. Google can tell you warning signs of cancer, but it can’t easily prepare you (and support you) for the emotional journey you’re about to go through.
Become Absolutely Necessary To Your Members
If you want your community to be absolutely necessary over the long-term to members you have to zero in on something that offers incredible psychological value.
Something that goes beyond just providing members with information and lets them feel emotions they crave, emotions they can’t easily find anywhere else.
Pick at least one of the above and push it to the edge. If you’re doing belonging, really push that sense of belonging. If it’s exploration, then design your entire community around that principle etc…
The last thing we need is just another brand community creating yet another forum and praying members want to hang out and chat. That’s not indispensable.
Identify which of the four above you’re targeting and go all the way to the edge with it. Create something unique, different, and remarkable. Create something indispensable.
If you want to buy my book, click here.
p.s. Speaking at CMX Summit in Portland tomorrow. If you’re around, please say hi!
Last week StarlingBank announced they were closing their brand community.
“We had hoped the forum would be a place where customers could openly discuss with each other questions they may have about our app. In reality, however, we’ve found that a small but vocal minority of forum members have had unrealistic expectations of what it is for. In addition, the conversations that take place there often expose potentially sensitive customer information.”
A lot of communities have closed down in the past few years because of similar complaints.
- “A lot of our members now talk on social media”
- “Too much spam”
- “Vocal minority causing problems”
- “Legal liability”
These aren’t the real reasons of course. They’re simply the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Every one of these problems has been overcome by others in the past. Facebook doesn’t shut down when moderating becomes a pain, they hire 3000 more moderators.
The real reason is the organization isn’t willing to invest the resources to overcome these problems. They might have plenty of engagement, but it’s not delivering results that matter.
Do you think the community would shut down if it had delivered 500+ great sales leads, nurtured 250 raving advocates, converted 2000 newcomers into premium customers, been the primary source for great PR stories, was the main tool to collect service feedback etc…etc…?
The community is closing down because it’s not delivering the results that make investing extra resources a no-brainer.
Indispensable communities, those which are absolutely necessary, don’t get shut down.