Testing The Community Concept

Unless you’re building a customer support community, you want a unique, powerful, concept.

For example, a community for authors isn’t a unique concept. A community exclusively for authors of bestselling books is more interesting. As is a community for qualified authors to connect with verified book agents. Or a community for authors of detective novels etc…

Member research can help you come up with good ideas for concepts, but until you test them out you never know if it will really catch on and excite your audience.

There are good and bad ways to test out a concept.

The bad ways take a lot of time, money, and incur a lot of public exposure. Launching a new community on a premium platform and promoting it to your entire mailing list is the worst way to test your concept. Once you’re publicly locked into the idea, it’s very hard to change it (yet it’s also the most common for most brands).

Better ways tend to include:

  • Launching a blog on the topic first and promoting it to your mailing list to gauge the reaction.
  • Publishing a manifesto or whitepaper on the topic and promoting it within related groups
  • Hosting a webinar (or series of webinars) on the topic (if the number of attendees rises, you’re in luck).
  • Hosting a meetup about the topic.
  • Starting a private Facebook group and asking people to put themselves forward to join.

You can quickly see if:

a) There is a small group of people really passionate about the topic. If the people in the group really love the group, you’re in luck.

b) If the topic is interesting enough to sustain discussions beyond that initial interest. If you’re getting 5+ new discussions a day, that’s a good sign.

Don’t launch a community until you’ve tested and confirmed your exciting concept. It’s a lot easier to change your community before you’ve launched it.

What Are Your Must-Win Battles?

I’ve begun using this term a lot in the past six months (thanks Patrick).

Within every community strategic plan we create, we try to separate the critically important things which have to go well from things which can be ok.

The must-win battles are the hard part of our work.

Some examples might be:

  • Creating a world-class website that members love and facilitates the right kind of engagement within the budget and resources we have available.
  • Getting resources and support from key stakeholders to harness the full value of the community.
  • Getting top experts to share their best knowledge in the community in a way that others can benefit from.
  • Getting our audience into the habit of visiting the community and feeling comfortable asking questions…

Each of these leads into a series of smaller tasks (finding the right vendor, negotiating price, working with an implementing partner, ensuring the design is workable etc…).

Once you know what your must-win battles are (the things that truly decide if your strategy succeeds or fails) you should act like a general and allocate the bulk of your resources to winning them decisively.

Unsurprisingly, the key to winning your must-win battles is always preparation.

1) Become an expert on winning each battle. You’re not the first person to have done this. Find others who have been there before by asking in relevant communities. Meet with them, pepper them with questions, and identify every possible landmine (especially do this with vendors). Build a list of as many good examples as possible. Learn every trick in the book. Get consultancy help if you need.

2) Deeply understand your members. Interview dozens of members, undertake good surveys, really get into the heads of your members and understand what makes them tick. Don’t be afraid to be bold and different if you know members will love it.

3) Get good at building relationships. If building close relationships with stakeholders or members isn’t your strength, take the time to learn how to do it extremely well. Find a mentor, take training or lessons to improve your social skills and charisma.

By far the most common reason must-win battles are lost is when no-one prepared to win them well. If you want to win them, equip yourself with the skills, knowledge, and resources you need to win them decisively.

Getting Members to Create Something Truly Valuable

Giving customers a place to chat with one another doesn’t directly boost customer loyalty.

This study closely mirrors our experience. Just chatting isn’t enough. What really matters is getting members to create things which are tremendously useful to the group.

This means giving members the tools, motivation, and opportunities to create something unique.

You need to provide members with the tools (or means) to create something unique. You might pay for them to access educational resources to create their own videos, give them insider information about the brand roadmap and needs, or have your own designers and staff support them in whatever they want to do.

You need to provide the motivation for them to create something special. This means unique access, tremendous recognition, or a feeling of having a big impact within their field. Remember the member motivation framework here. Align short-term (points/badges) and long-term benefits (rankings and reputations) towards creating something of value.

You need to provide the opportunities for them to create something special. Announce where you need help and let members submit and implement their ideas. Host challenges and activities. Let members host their own online workshops and training courses. Build a definitive database for people getting started, or about equipment, in its field etc…

In our quest to get people to chat we so often overlook that chatting is just one of many things people in a community can do to help one another. It’s far from the most valuable.

Better yet, when people do create something of genuine value they tend to share it far and wide. This takes them from loyal customers into proactive advocates.

How will you get your members to create something truly valuable that lasts?

What Is The Craziest Thing You Could Do?

A strategic question we sometimes ask clients is; “what is the craziest most amazingly game-changing thing you could do for your members if time, money, and resources were no object?”

Surprisingly few people have an answer.

They don’t know what would really make members much more successful, much happier, or much more closely connected.

I suggest you ask them and find out what a true game-changer looks like. Don’t look for something that’s incrementally better than what you’re already doing. Look for a genuine game-changer. Something no-one else has managed to find the time, inclination, or resources to do yet.

It might be building a definitive database for its topic, creating a tool to get an instant response on any question from a qualified expert, hosting a mega-event, or a hundred other things.

Once you know what it might look like, you can begin playing around the edges of the idea to see what kind of response you get. And if the response is good, go for it. Most game-changers require far fewer resources than we might imagine.

Ask your members today what a real game-changer would look like for them.

Free Speech in Online Communities

Mumsnet had (has?) a transphobia problem.

A small minority of members made consistently offensive comments.

After toeing the free speech line resulted in a severe backlash, Mumsnet published a revised moderation policy with a view to removing hurtful and offensive posts.

How can you encourage conflicting viewpoints while protecting minorities who may be targeted through those viewpoints?

The worst approach is to wait for a problem to arise to take action.

If you only react when people declare offense you’re going to end up with a policy slanted towards whichever groups complain the loudest.

Worse yet, offensive to who? How many people have to declare they are offended for you to take action? 1? 100? 1000? What happens when people are offended by fairly innocuous opinions which weren’t intended to be offensive?

A similarly bad approach is waiting for bad publicity to take action. That shows members you don’t care about the issue, you only care about how you look.

There tend to be four broad approaches:

1) The Free Speech Approach
This is typically where all posts tolerated by law are also tolerated within the community. Reddit, Twitter, and (to a degree) Mumsnet abided by this approach. The problem with the free speech approach is it attracts people booted off every other site. Be the last bastion of free speech only if you’re willing to endure non-stop criticism and bad publicity.

2) The ‘One Click Away’ Approach
One of our clients recently took this approach with political discussions. They moved all political discussions to a private category with a public password and only lightly moderate posts. It’s an awful place to be, but no-one has to visit it. This lets all other discussions continue more positively. The downside is you could be providing a shelter to extremists within your community.

3) The ‘Values’ Approach
You declare your values and use your judgment to enforce them. The specifics of how rules are enforced is kept vague, but moderators are empowered and trusted to protect minorities and remove speech they consider hurtful. The downside of this approach is it leads to considerable inconsistency, outrage from members who feel they have been treated unfairly, and doesn’t answer the key questions of what’s offensive, to who, and when?

4) The ‘Strict Rules’ Approach
The final approach is to clearly define what’s offensive and then enforce those rules ruthlessly. Facebook is largely following this approach for moderators. In this approach, you define specifically what’s offensive and what isn’t. You give examples, you try to be consistent, and you adapt the rules as you go. The downside is this doesn’t allow for nuance and the more you try to consistently enforce any rule, the more glaring the inconsistencies. You also need to be prepared to accept some criticism when people disagree with your rules.

There isn’t a universal solution and some solutions only work with communities up to a specific size.

As you grow, you’re almost certainly going to need firmer values and solutions you can work with. But decide your policies and approaches early. Don’t leave problems to fester under an illusion of free speech.

“But My Company Is Boring”

At SuperForum last week, Jackie Huba explained how Lady Gaga built her Little Monsters community by focusing on the most passionate 1% of her audience.

Several community managers at associations later told me they liked the talk but it didn’t apply to them.

They couldn’t nurture passionate fans the way Lady Gaga can. Their association is “boring”, they couldn’t create and amplify new values, they couldn’t create the same kind of passionate following.

I worry they’ve missed the point.

You might not be able to influence the values of your business and your audience’s passion for your products, but you can influence the values of the community and your audience’s passion for it.

The people who advocate, answer thousands of questions, and publish fresh content every month, aren’t usually doing it because of how they feel about the product, they’re doing it because of how the community makes them feel about themselves.

This is why even some of the dullest products can still nurture a legion of super active members willing to go to war for the community. Because the community gives them a unique opportunity to feel important, useful, and part of a group they enjoy being associated with.

This is why every opportunity to give people chances to prove their expertise, every thank you note, and every opportunity or role you create for people to feel respected really matters.

It all pays off in the long-game. Perhaps you can’t make people more passionate about the product, but you can make them feel exactly the emotions you need about the community.

Experience or Passion?

Emily asks whether community experience or passion for the topic is more important when hiring community professionals.

Ideally, you want both. But when that’s not feasible, it depends upon the role.

The more the person has to engage directly with members, the more it helps to have a passion for the topic. At a junior level, you want people who can confidently answer questions which arise, initiate interesting discussions, connect naturally with people (and perhaps even be a known person in the field already).

At a more senior level, you want previous community experience. You want people up to level 3 and 4 on these benchmarks. You want people who have done tricky platform migrations, managed a community team, secured internal support, improved moderation systems, created dashboards, modeled variables etc…

Make sure you’re applying and recruiting for the right level.

Not Indispensable

The Starbucks’ Leaf Rakers Society isn’t an indispensable community.

It doesn’t significantly improve the lives of its members.

It doesn’t deliver clear, irreplaceable, value throughout the business.

It doesn’t bring to bear a brand’s unique assets to create an unparalleled community experience.

This time next year, it will be long gone and forgotten.

Sure, it’s only a half-serious community. But remember Starbucks has a unique opportunity to build an amazing community for baristas, remote workers, coffee lovers, and many other related groups. Each of which would benefit from being closely connected to one another.

Instead, they dove straight into the engagement trap trying to create something fun and viral.

Don’t copy Starbucks here. You have audiences that need to be connected, audiences where you can offer unique value and create something that really drives your business forward. Go build that, skip the quick likes.

p.s. The only worthwhile lesson here is if a Facebook group is good enough for Starbucks to get started, it’s probably fine for you too.

Going Narrow

Related to yesterday’s post, be ruthless about removing things from the community.

The temptation is always to add more, cater to every whim, and let old items linger in the community indefinitely in case someone needs them.

It’s the same reason why you probably have drawers in your house stuffed with electric cables.

Right now you probably have:

  • Thousands of old discussions which generate no visits.
  • Hundreds of static pages which get little traffic.
  • Features which are costly to maintain yet don’t produce any meaningful change.
  • Menu items which get in the way of more important menu items.
  • Long-term inactive members who will never come back.
  • Discussion categories that don’t merit being their own discussion category.
  • Topics which are slightly outside your community’s core purpose yet are frequently mentioned.

I’d suggest getting ruthless about removing these areas. It clogs up the site, hurts search traffic, creates a confusing experience, and distracts you from doing what you’re meant to be doing.

Unless you’re one of the few ‘mega communities’ out there today, you don’t want to be expanding wider, you want to narrow your focus and go deeper. You want to do a tiny number of things better than anyone else.

We’ve frequently seen surprisingly high engagement boosts when we remove features from the community.

If people won’t miss it, you can remove it.

p.s. Dave Hersch has similar thoughts about community vendors.

Focus On The Few Areas Members Really Care About

A recent course participant had diligently undertaken a survey of 250+ community members and had personally interviewed a further dozen community members.

From this research, he had created a detailed list of 19 things roughly prioritized by the number of members who wanted the item (e.g. document sharing, chat rooms, activity streams, VIP interviews, etc..).

He then turned this list into a five-year roadmap with a projected cost of each item of money, technology, or staffing time.

If he went through with this unrealistic roadmap, he would end up with an incredibly bloated community which tried to be everything to every member.

The purpose of doing the research isn’t to build an exhaustive list of everything members want and then try to do all those things. The purpose is to find out what are the top 2 to 3 things members really care about and excel in just those areas.

Understanding Longevity Of A Community Tactic

Whenever you try something new, especially something big that everybody in the community sees, you often get a spike in activity.

This happens when you add a new banner, host a new interview series, begin a ‘working out loud’ series, start regular off-topic discussions etc…

When this happens you often get a spike of activity followed by a decline. We’ve seen spikes can be bad. Much of the spike can be explained by curiosity, initial excitement, and a fear of not joining in with the group.

What really matters is what’s happening several weeks later. Don’t compare current data with the initial surge of interest, wait until the surge of interest has died down.

Above we wouldn’t compare late-June 2017 data with the beginning of March. We would compare it to April (post-surge) and see a generally positive, sustainable, trend.

Analyzing post-surge data reveals whether people are getting real value from participating in that tactic. Much of the time, perhaps most of the time, the answer is no. That’s useful to know. You can end tactics which aren’t working or have entered the decline phase and invest that time on new ideas.

Like TV shows, most tactics have a shelf-life. Find the ones which are sustainably growing in popularity and invest more time in them. Stop the ones which are in a decline (or have only a few participants).

The Second Impression

We spend a lot of time on the first impression.

We make sure the homepage shows the best content, most relevant discussions, and most exciting events. This gets more people to register.

But it’s pretty easy to get people to register (especially when registration is free).

People will happily take a few seconds (and only a few seconds!) to enter a few details to satisfy a mild curiosity, take advantage of a small opportunity, or stay informed with what’s going on (how many newsletters do you receive each week?)

It’s the second impression that matters. If you’ve revealed everything on their first visit, the second impression is worse than the first.

The second impression should surpass the first impression (and the third should surpass the second).

Most of the time, as you’re designing your onboarding journey, you want to provoke two states of mind here; surprise and awe.

  1. Surprise – “I didn’t know I needed that!”
  2. Awe – “that’s an incredible way to do [x]”

For sure, make a good first impression. But don’t set the bar too high for your second impression. Remember it’s a journey, in each step of the newcomer journey, surprise and awe newcomers. Surpass their expectations on each visit.

(p.s. also remember 80% of your visitors won’t see your community homepage).