A reminder from the field of social influence.
You can punish or reward people until they comply with what you want them to do. They still want to perform the behaviors (or not perform the behaviors) as before, but they will go along for now.
You can highlight and showcase possible examples members might identify with. As long as members keep liking and respecting this/these person(s), they will identify with that behavior and do it/not do it themselves.
Or you can make the behavior itself so enjoyable and internally rewarding, that members internalise their rationale for doing it. This happens most when members build a sense of connection with other members or find the behavior itself a positive experience.
Too many of the discussions about changing member behavior focus on the compliance level. It’s the easiest to influence and control. But it only offers a short-term impact.
Far better to focus on identification with top members and making core behaviors something members are proud to undertake.
We often do a bad job at identifying and communicating the core value of a community members want.
Here’s an example from a recent client. You can see the initial post on the left and our change on the right.
Notice the difference? It avoids the cliches and clearly articulates what members are about in a way they will remember.
The more benefits you squeeze into the community value statement the fewer benefits people remember. Find the thing people really care about and run with it.
For example, look at the Airbnb community below:
I suspect a ‘global community of hosts like you’ isn’t something hosts are proactively looking for. I also suspect the community attracts only a fraction of the engagement it could if it improved its value and positioning.
Imagine the community articulated a clearer benefit and purpose statement like we see below:
Do you notice the difference? Now there is a clear and obvious purpose for the community. This even guides people in the kinds of questions to ask, tips to share, and content to create.
Changing a few words at the top of the page alone won’t completely drive more engagement, but those words are a value statement. If you aligned everything to them the level of engagement would increase enormously.
For most of us, we can do a far better job at communicating the core value of our community.
There is a point in the launch of many new communities (especially communities of practice/non-support communities), where the first few curious members join and you need to engage them deeper within the community.
You need to prompt a second post, engage them deeper within the conversation, and deliver some sort of value.
Two common problems emerge in this stage.
1) The community manager isn’t proactive enough. In the very early stages you usually can and should respond to every post within the community. You should also be reaching out to other members to reply too. This not only helps the community look a little busier, but encourages people to return.
2) The responses and posts aren’t authentic. Members can sniff out inauthentic attempts to simply drive activity. Look at any brand promoting a hashtag today and you get the idea. Sometimes this means the responses are too repetitive. Other times they just sound ‘off’.
In a recent client project, we worked closely with the community manager to bring the community to a critical mass of activity. This meant going through each response together at first to ensure we got the response right. I want to share some of the basic scripts here as they might be useful to others:
Response 1 – Asking a Follow-Up Questions (and being honest)
Thanks for joining us, I’m glad we can have you as one of our first members here. Are there any particular issues you’re having within [topic] at the moment that you would like to ask the community?
We’re just getting started and have a few experts here looking for some challenges to solve!
This is personalised and solicits a contribution and is honest about the community just getting started. It encourages people to take a very specific next action.
Response 2 – Helping the member identify unique contributions they can make
Great to have you here. The industry working group sounds really interesting. I would definitely be interested in inviting them here too if you think it might be a good fit.
Feel free to create posts and drop your papers into the research category we have here. We can create a custom tag for them if you like? I know other members will find them useful.
This was responding specifically to a member who mentioned they were part of an industry working group to begin with. This is both a promotional opportunity for us but also makes the member feel they can make unique, useful, contributions based upon their past experience.
Response 3 – Engaging someone with pre-existing expertise
Given your background in [xyz], I suspect you’re exactly the kind of person we want to have in this community, thanks for becoming one of our first members.
Do you feel there is [question about something they mentioned]
If you have a second, can you respond to one or two of the outstanding questions we have at the moment to get things started? I know other members would benefit from your experience.
This was a response to a member who we noted had a ‘high status’ within the field and needed to feel recognised and appreciated for their past contributions.
The DM Messages
Hi [name] just to reiterate my welcome to you to join the community. I was genuinely glad to see someone from [company] had joined us. We actually used one of your [resources] to [activity].
I’m reaching out to see if you can help two of our members who have questions about [topic].
One is about [topic], the other is about [topic].
Do you happen to have any input you can share? We’re a bit stumped at the moment.
This was a typical direct message to a member who we felt needed an extra prompt. Again we make sure it’s personal to them and highlighted how they had already helped the community (commitment effect).
Then we were honest and authentic about what we wanted from then and asked nicely.
In my experience, so many community efforts fail at this stage due to lack of authenticity.
The key lessons here are to be authentic, honest, personalised, and recognise that people want to feel valued. If you can make every member at this stage feel they can make unique, useful, contributions to the community they probably will.
Back in March, I shared some data on Twitter where we definitively proved the ROI of an online community by removing it from search channels.
1 – I want to share some data from a client we worked with last year where we did something that I think was a little clever to definitively prove the incredible value of their community.
But first, some background….#CMGR
— Richard Millington (@RichMillington) March 1, 2021
To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever done anything like this before and it was the persuasive data we’ve ever collected.
It’s one thing to develop a formula in theory, it’s another thing entirely to deliberately cause traffic to plunge and see what happens.
Now I’m happy to say we’ve published the data in longer form in this article on Harvard Business Review.
If you want to learn exactly how we undertook the experiment and the full range of results we discovered (they are amazing), read the article at HBR.
There was a major fire in my building recently (I’m fine).
The tenants, angry with the property company which manages the building, quickly switched from the company’s official hosted community to a private WhatsApp group. We needed to discuss fire safety issues, legal problems, and next steps.
Likewise, I recently decided not to work with a debt management company that wanted to build a community for people to share debt-saving tips. A little primitive research suggested almost nobody wants to participate in a debt-advice community hosted by the very company they owe money to.
Sometimes you simply can’t build a hosted community because of the nature of who you are and the relationship you have with the people you want in the community. If you have power over them and/or they are angry with you, they want to have their own place.
No one wants to join a dieting community hosted by McDonalds. Trade unionists aren’t going to participate in a community hosted by industry. And we’ve seen many examples in major tech companies recently where employees created private groups to discuss major concerns.
I’ve met many, many, organisations over the past decade who ignored this and still tried to host their own community. They always wound up disappointed.
But just because you can’t host a community doesn’t mean you can’t proactively support and engage with a community. You can help encourage the community (or communities) which do exist, provide support where needed, and most importantly, take the time to listen and address their concerns.
It’s not as glamorous as hosting a community perhaps, but it’s far more useful for your audience.
I’m not sure ‘like’, ‘upvote’, or ‘kudos’ buttons on answers are especially helpful.
Compare two questions:
Question 1 – ‘My iPhone isn’t charging, can anyone help?’
Question 2 – ‘How do I Import FLAC audio files on Adobe Premier Rush on my iPhone?’
Let’s imagine question 1 gets 2,000 visits and 10% click ‘like’ on the answer, whereas question 2 gets only 100 visits but 90% click ‘like’ on the answer.
The answer to question 2 is clearly infinitely superior to the answer to question 1. But the response to question 1 will still get more likes simply by the volume of traffic.
Counting ‘likes’ doesn’t reflect the success of the community or a question, it often better reflects the volume of traffic which visits the community or questions.
You need a denominator. What % of people found a response helpful? You could calculate this by measuring the number of likes by the number of people who visit the answer. But the majority of people don’t bother to click ‘like’ at all and higher-volume questions tend to attract less-targeted traffic.
A better way is simply a ‘yes/no button’ (i.e. did this answer help? yes/no). You can find this on many knowledge base articles today. This gives you a great benchmark to work with and improve over time. It also lets you identify popular questions with poor answers you can improve.
Early on in my consulting career, I advised a client to use a taxonomy and categorisation system for the community which was distinct from their other content articles and internal structures.
In the short term, this was better for the community. But seven years later, this made it difficult to do really simple things.
For example, if you want related discussions to show up alongside relevant content articles, how will your system know what’s relevant? How will it know what keywords to match? Because I had advised a different taxonomy, there was no metadata to connect the two.
If you want to automatically route relevant articles, know what products members are talking about, or do anything which involves connecting two systems, you have to think through precisely how that will work and plan in advance for it.
Generally speaking, it’s unlikely a company is going to change its entire taxonomy and data structure to suit your community. So if you want the community to integrate with other systems, you need to adapt the community as best as you can to your current systems.
A common idea is to launch a community, get a few members, and wait for members to spread the word.
That can happen, but it’s rare. It’s rarer still in private communities which aren’t open to the public.
Be honest, how many communities have you recommended to your peers in the last month? (or even in the last year?). It’s probably not many (if any!).
This is why Rand’s post on amplification content is worth a read. Many of the motivations/reasons for amplifying a content Rand lists are the same I’d list for promoting a community. To adapt Rand’s reasons slightly, these include:
- Novelty. It’s a completely brand new and surprising idea for a community (a typical forum for people to ask and answer questions doesn’t cut it).
- Belief reinforcement (i.e. it validated your belief). The community concept or content posted within the community strongly supports a closely held belief and connects people who strongly support that belief.
- Relationship with the founder. Members know the founder and want to help the founder.
- Controversy. Disputes between members that resonate on a broader scale (or even a good debate).
- Familiarity. It hosts many of the well-known names in the industry.
- Rankings. The community offers a codified ranking of the best successes within the sector or top people within the community.
- Ego. Members have their egos invested in the success of the community. Either the community is about them, they’re the founding members etc…
This isn’t a comprehensive list, but it’s a good place to start.
While you might attract organic growth via search over time, if you want members to talk about it you need to give them a reason too besides the community simply being ‘really good’.
In a current client project, we’ve been launching a new, private, community in a niche field.
Given the nature of the topic, we needed to invite and approve everyone who joined.
We quickly noticed a problem. Regardless of how quickly we approved new accounts (most were approved within an hour), many approved members weren’t returning back to visit the community. That short delay was having a big negative impact.
We tried @mentioning members and nudging them from within the community, but it wasn’t having much of a difference.
So we tried Discourse’s improved invite system instead. Essentially, anyone who joins via a specially created link is pre-approved to join the community. We began using this link in every invite instead of the generic community link.
It’s early days, but so far the results have been close to a 100% success rate. Removing the wait to be approved has a big impact upon someone’s likelihood of visiting and participating in the community.
If you’re building a private community and your platform lets you create a pre-approved list (or pre-approved emails/domains etc..), I’d suggest you use it.
Every couple of months we scrape and analyse data of various communities to see how they’re doing.
The method isn’t perfect. Scraping doesn’t capture private discussions and some organisations tend to remove posts over time which influence the results. But it does give you a vivid picture of how a sample of top brand communities are fairing.
Posts Per Month Per Community
Looking at the number of posts per month per community, it’s clear COVID did cause a spike of around 50% in most communities. However, as time progresses, the number seems to be returning to the baseline. (p.s. If you’re running a brand community, 4k – 5k posts per month seems to be a good target).
Breaking this down by community, we can see wild fluctuations depending upon the community sector.
We can see wild fluctuations in the data based upon the community. However, other than a slight uplift, there aren’t any major trends. Although the increase in EA Games is worth noting.
No. Active Members Per Month
Next we look at how many members are engaging in the community. This is the number of unique usernames who made 1 post in the community within the past month.
Overall, there seems to be a slight upload trend before the pandemic hit. The pandemic caused a spike as a flood of new members began asking questions in the community instead of other channels. This spike has largely been sustained with a slight downtick in February (28 days).
Note the median of around 1500 active users per month as a reasonable target for most enterprise brand communities to aim for.
We can break down this by each community in the sample too.
This chart shows the importance of focusing on the median rather than the mean. Some communities had a huge COVID surge (HP had more people setting up home printers/laptops), EA Games presumably had more people playing games at home.
Overall we’re seeing the pandemic has driven more people to use communities and a small percentage of those seems to be sticking.
This hasn’t massively increased the volume of posts members are making when they do visit (i.e. the communities themselves aren’t becoming more engaging), but the pandemic has accelerated the relatively small trend towards members participating in communities.
I love this from Apple.
This is exactly the way things should work.
- First, you browse articles for an answer (you read the manual).
- Second, you ask the community for help (even better, you can click an option to see all the existing questions about the topic).
- Third, you contact support if nothing else solves your problem (support agents are tackling the tougher questions).
What’s so remarkable (and so frustrating) is how few brands do this today. Why is there not an option to ask the community for help on every single article on the site? It’s such a huge win at such little cost.
You can find the video here (edited out some technical issues at the beginning).
You can watch the video and make up your own mind on the value of our arguments.
It’s worth noting the popularity of the format. I’ve hosted hundreds of webinars over the decade and never had as many registrations as this one (this also speaks to the popularity of David). Nor has any previous panel or webinar had the quantity and quality of engagement of this session.
I think there’s a few things going on here:
1) Testing a new format. We certainly didn’t invent this debate format, but they don’t seem to be widely used. Yet every community has contentious issues with competing sides. I suspect there’s a deep level of fatigue with typical podcast interviews. Interviewees aren’t typically forced to vigorously defend their claims.
A debate (where the audience selects a winner) flips that on its head. You know you’re going to be pushed hard so you need to justify your arguments better. This increases the quality of the discussion (as long as you can keep it civil). There is no reason you can’t select two known figures in your community to debate competing issues (it might even resolve the topic from spilling over into other areas).
2) Tribal nature. Debates with a winner tap into a tribal nature. People get to pick a side and debate the claims of one another. The quality of engagement in the chat was extremely high (and frequently funny) throughout. It never felt like just me and David debating, it felt like everyone else debating too.
3) Real-time feedback. The value of having the chat window allowed every attendee to be a real-time fact-checker. This also makes the audience part of the debate and surfaces higher-quality information than we would get without the chat. This provides the entire community with a great role to play in the debate.
I’m still debating (aha!) whether to do more of these. But I definitely think more communities should explore it. The cost is minimal, the preparation isn’t especially high, and you might find you have an engaging format your members love.