What Should A Brand Community Ultimately Become?

At its most successful, what is your brand community going to become?

Think bigger than you do today. Think about the ultimate role it’s going to play in the lives of
your members. Think about the number of people it’s going to serve. Think about the different ways it’s going to help your organization.

Don’t be afraid to be incredibly ambitious. Ambition can mean different things

It can mean doubling down on what you have, it can mean expansion, it can mean entirely rethinking what community is to your organization.

A simple way of looking at this is in this adaptation of Ansoff’s matrix below:


(click for full image)

There are four possible strategies here based on what audience you want to target and how the community helps the company you work for.

We can list these by order of ambition. They are:

  1. ENGAGE: Increase engagement from existing members.
  2. EVOLVE: Get better results from existing members.
  3. EXPAND: Expand to target new and related audiences.
  4. TRANSFORM: Develop new communities for new value.

 

1) ENGAGE: Get members more engaged.

The most common strategy is to increase engagement, it’s also the least effective.

Unless you’ve just launched or made a hideous mistake, members are usually participating as much as they’re going to. You can make plenty of tweaks, but you’re always restricted by the law of diminishing returns.

Pursue this strategy when you’re not likely to get support for anything else. Interview two dozen members, find out what brings them to the community, and then cater overwhelmingly to that desire.

If, for example, members visit to resolve problems, the community must provide every person the best possible solution in the quickest amount of time. At the tactical level that means you need to build powerful programs to encourage top experts, teach members to ask better questions, feature the best answers, and tweak the platform relentlessly to get the best results.

GiffGaff, Spotify, Apple are all fantastic examples.

The key challenge is to narrow your focus to the few things members really care about and design every activity to make your community the best place to resolve the problem or achieve their goals.

 

2) EVOLVE: Get More Value From Members

A far better (and more ambitious) option is to expand the nature of the community so it helps other departments.

A customer support community can become a community which helps companies be more successful (customer success), collects insights (ideation), or encourages members to help promote them (advocacy).

A single community can reduce support costs, improve retention, help build better products and attract new customers.

Almost every brand community strategy should at least be trying to expand the ways it helps a business.

You still have the same group of members, only now you’re asking them to make different types of contributions.

This requires you to offer members the chance to earn rewards, gain unique access to you/your company, or build their reputations. The hard part is working internally to make this possible.

The upside is you usually expand the reach of the community to your entire customer base, not just those who have problems today. You give members a reason to visit every day to see who’s new, what’s new, what can they get? What can they learn etc?

Alteryx, Autodesk, Adobe, SAP, Square, and Salesforce all serve as great examples here.

The downside is two-fold, there is less of a trigger to visit the community in the first place and it’s a lot harder for people to do these tasks than simply answer a question, proactively share their expertise rather than ask a question.

 

3) EXPAND: Reach New Audiences

There are plenty of ways to expand to new audiences.

You can expand into new languages, locations, ages, or related audiences. A community for users of your accounting product can become a community for all types of accountants around the world.

Language and geographic regions are usually easiest areas to expand to. You already have the platform and processes in place. Expanding into areas with high numbers of non-English speakers makes sense.

Tackling different audiences is harder. You have to overcome the reason they haven’t joined already. The failure rate for communities targeted at younger audiences is extremely high.

Expanding to fill the broader sector is the most ambitious. Sephora’s BeautyTalk, Lomography, FitBit, and Nike Runner’s Club are all good examples. They’re less about the product and more about the purpose of the product.

Other companies build communities for broader audiences (e.g. Element14 (for design engineers), BabyCenter (for parents), Goodreads (Amazon), AmericanExpress OpenForum (for small businesses) etc…)

You do this to extend community members beyond your current base and bring in new customers. The downside is this usually requires a unique identity beyond just the ‘brandname’ community. There is a limit to how often you can promote yourself too.

 

4) TRANSFORM: Get new value from new audiences

The most ambitious strategy is to completely transform your company or your approach to the community. This usually comes in three forms.

1) The community becomes a platform/social network for others to build and maintain their own groups/profiles. (StackExchange, BensFriends, HealthUnlocked, DeviantArt, Care2 and others fall into this category).

2) The community becomes a business and acts as a service for members to achieve their goals. Good examples might be TripAdvisor, Kaggle, RealSelf, Rover etc…these communities usually tend to be acquired or spun off into separate businesses.

3) The community runs itself/runs areas of the company. It’s hard to find good brand examples of this. (Eve Online might be a notable mention). Members collaborate together to produce the collective value of the company and divide the spoils. Ideas are sourced by members, driven by members, and implemented by members. The company acts as a support service for the community to flourish (Airbnb has flirted with this along with several Blockchain-based companies).

Most Growth Requires A Big Change

Don’t limit yourself to just trying to deepen engagement with the members you already have. This limits the growth of your community. There are far bigger wins by looking to expand to new types of communities you’re building (customer success, advocacy) or the audiences you’re targeting.

You can achieve some short-term success by focusing on engagement, but the really big wins, the kind of wins which other people take notice of, is by expanding the community to be more useful to more people.

Support and Ambition

An old rule of thumb is the more support you have, the more ambitious you can afford to be. This is half-true. Often the very act of being able to articulate a big, noble, goal is what brings others around to supporting the community idea.

People are more likely to support a community which serves a far bigger audience and drives more results. Even without the support you need, you can still set a lofty goal and work hard to earn that support. It might take years, but at least you’re working towards something that matters.

Build a Multi-Year Roadmap

If you’re worried, again plot this into a roadmap over three years. This might look like:

  • Year 0 – 1: Deepen engagement and build support.
  • Year 1 to 3: Evolve to customer success, advocacy, and ideation.
  • Year 3 to 5: Expand to Latin America and South-East Asia.
  • Year 5+: Become a platform for others.

Now you have a vision you can articulate to both your colleagues and members. Something motivating and something which merits your requests for support and resources.

There is a chronic lack of ambition today about what a community can and should become.

It’s never just a place for members to engage with one another. It’s a place to harness the amazing potential of members to the maximum possible effect. You can’t achieve that with a narrow focus on what you’re doing today.

Be ambitious, more ambitious than you’ve dared to be in the past.

The Sense of Community You Nurture Will Outlive Your Platform

Last week, I listened to two people argue about which platform they should use to build their community.

Should they use Slack or Discord?

Today, most of their audience is on Slack. Tomorrow it might be Discord…at least for a while. Within 18 to 36 months, it will be something else.

Chasing after your audience from one platform to the next is an expensive, wasteful, approach to community building. A far better approach is to invest those same resources in building a strong sense of community.

If your audience feels a strong sense of community with one another, it doesn’t matter what platform they use. That sense of community follows them wherever they go.

But building this strong sense of community requires investments in intangible areas. You can make this tangible by running the sense of community survey first and designing specific actions (see the worksheet) to improve the sense of community.

This might include:

1) Provide funding to leaders. You might copy Wikimedia and provide resources for leaders to step forward and create their own groups or run their own events. You would help train them, give them unique access, fly them in to meet your team, and promote the groups they create. If you’ve built strong relationships with leaders, it doesn’t matter if one of them moves a chunk of your audience from one platform to another.

2) Bring the community to customers. You would bring the community into the natural journey customers go through when using a product. ‘Have a question? Want to get better? Here is our community who can help…’. You would entwine the community(ies) as closely as possible with the product. Updated links to relevant discussion topics embedded within its use would help.

3) Design rituals. After a member has made a certain number of contributions, they would be invited to give their feedback, share their toughest challenge, or how they got into the topic. Something which opens members up to the group. You may consider special features for members on their anniversary of using the product.

4) Develop a unique identity. You would give community members a unique name and a place which documents the history of the community. Who were the top members, how did they get started, what were the major milestones of the group? This would be shared and communicated to all new customers.

5) Have a newspaper. Each week you would publish the community newspaper, edited by members, featuring the best contributions from the community. This might include the best advice, funniest stories, or anything else which could be interesting to the group. This would cover communities across all platforms, including those that aren’t involved with you at all. Let everyone pitch their ideas and stories to the group. This newsletter helps build and establish the social hierarchy within the group.

6) Host and promote events. Three types of events can work well. The first are events you host just for your top members. Spotify’s Rock Star Jam is a good example. This builds close relationships between anyone building any kind of community for your brand. The second are member-hosted meetups. Provide some limited funding (perhaps $100 per meetup for food/drinks) and plenty of local promotion for any member who wants to host meetups with others. The third is big conferences. If you have a big audience, it may be worth bringing them together once a year. These build strong relationships between members.

7) Gather and identify useful feedback through any channel. Scan all social and community channels run by members for any useful feedback you can send on. Answer questions in these communities and let them know how their feedback has been used.

8) Setting clear goals and targets for members. You can set goals for the community to achieve. Better yet, get members to list their skills, knowledge, and experience. Then find ways for them to contribute these things to the community.

This is a handful of ideas rather than an exhaustive list. The point is investing in the channels above will give you a community which outlives the demise of any single platform.

If you’re doing your job well, you should see the sense of community felt among regular customers (remember to skip the newcomers) steadily improve over time. This is the tangible success of your work. People move platforms a lot more frequently than they feel a sense of community.

It’s never a good idea to try and contain members in one place, nor chase after them from one platform to the next. That’s expensive and wasteful. You can gain better results from building a strong sense of community among members regardless of which platform they use.

Hosting and managing a community platform can help you achieve your goals, but nowhere near as much as fostering a powerful sense of community.

Should You Chase Engagement Or Chase Value From A Community? (it’s complicated)

The engagement trap is very real, it’s very dangerous, and most of us are caught in it.

But engagement itself isn’t bad. The problem is when:

a) You align your efforts to drive the most engagement.

b) Engagement is all your colleagues understand about building community.

In a perfect world, you would ignore engagement metrics entirely and focus on the outcomes of this engagement (i.e. if engagement drives more loyalty, satisfaction, leads, search traffic etc…you would measure those things instead of engagement).

But often you can’t easily do this.

Sometimes you can’t get the data you need. Other times, no-one seems clear what the goal of the community should be. And, most often, someone senior just wants to have a big active community at the moment for a reason even they struggle to explain.

You can push back a little, but pushing too hard to be measured by outcomes can create more value than it solves.

This happens often in our consultancy work too. The solution is to build your boss/client’s wishes into a longer-term strategic roadmap for your community.

If everyone understands driving engagement is part of a stepping stone to driving clear results, you can avoid the engagement trap.

In practice, this usually means you create a 6 to a 24-month roadmap with goals to hit such as:

  • Months 0 to 6: Reach a critical mass of activity
  • Months 6 to 12: Drive up engagement.
  • Months 12 to 24: Align members behaviors to most valuable actions.

(use this guide to help you with the exact metrics).

Each of these will also need its own strategic plan.

Now you have engagement as part of a longer-term process to driving results. You know exactly how much engagement you need to move to the next phase. Better yet, everyone can get on board and track progress.

Chasing engagement or chasing value doesn’t have to be two mutually exclusive options.

A Powerful Community Experience For A Short Period Of Time

Don’t try to imitate major community programs without their resources.

Ideally, every community effort would have a full-time community manager with a six-figure budget to build and support their audience.

However, most people are juggling community around other tasks with limited financial support.

The temptation is to launch a platform, drive members to it, and start responding to questions. But without a decent amount of time and money, this probably isn’t the most effective approach. It sets high expectations, spreads resources thin, and requires a big, long-term, commitment.

An easier approach is to deliver a powerful community experience at regular intervals.

Instead of having an ongoing community you can’t fully support, focus on powerful community experiences you can deliver.

You can nurture a sense of community in many different ways:

  • You can host monthly webinars with product experts where customers can join to ask questions.
  • You can invite customers to join you at headquarters a couple of times a year.
  • You can host weekly live twitter chats.
  • You can solicit contributions of customers each month and publish the best advice and tips in a newsletter digest.
  • You can create a podcast and invite contributions from members. You can encourage and promote the meetups of your members.
  • Etc…

A hosted platform is just one of many approaches to foster a strong sense of community. It can deliver great results, but it’s both time and resource-intensive. If you have neither, take a different approach.

It’s always better to deliver a powerful community experience for a short amount of time than a mediocre experience for a long period of time. It’s easy to build upon a powerful community experience than a mediocre one.

How Many Members Do You Need To Build A Million Dollar Online Community?

Most of us believe we need thousands, maybe millions, of members to have a really valuable community.

Even those that don’t dream of making their community bigger and having more active members.

This is usually because we believe three things:

  1. More members makes the community better.
  2. Getting more members is a good use of time/resources.
  3. Getting more members improves the value of the community.

There is a grain of truth here. If you’re just getting your community started, you definitely want to grow quickly to reach critical mass.

But once you’ve reached critical mass, adding more members doesn’t help you build a million dollar community. What does help is getting the best out of the members you do have.

In this post, I’m going to outline how many active contributors you should aim for, what a typical breakdown of a community looks like and the numbers that go into creating a million-dollar community.

 

Most Brand Communities Have Far Fewer Members Than You Imagine

Two years ago, we began to suspect most branded communities had far fewer active contributors than we believed.

So we scraped a random sample of communities from Lithium below and analyzed the results (shown below).

It’s possible our scrape missed a lot of data (and there is plenty of activity behind closed doors). However, we broadly discovered most communities have between 51 to 389 active contributors at any one time.

But is Lithium reflective of most communities?

In the past year, we’ve worked with Community-Analytics and two academics to collect data from around 200 communities hosted on Discourse. The communities were broken down by size (no. messages) and the results are shown below.

Again, the number of active contributors varies wildly, but there is a clear trend within the 50 to 400 region.

Most branded communities really don’t have that many members.

Unless you’re an outlier (work for a brand with a massive audience, using a totally different platform, or have a really explosive idea), then you’re not going to get more than a few hundred active contributors during any given month.

This gives you some reasonable benchmarks to aim for:

  • Bad = <100 – bad (unless you’re just starting out)
  • OK = 100 to 200 active contributors
  • Good = 200 to 400 active contributors
  • Great = >400 active contributors

(of course, if you feel your community is an outlier, set outlier goals. Just be clear about why your community is an outlier).

But how valuable can a brand community be with just a few hundred active contributors? Extremely.

 

How Can A Community Be Indispensable With Only A Few Hundred Active Members?

This is a lot like asking how your customer call center or marketing team can be valuable with only a few dozen staff members.

It’s not the size of active members, it’s the multiplication of their contributions which matters.

For most benefits of a community, innovation, call deflection, customer success/support, you really don’t need that many active members. Instead, you need members to do valuable things which are seen by a far bigger audience.

But not all active members are equal. If we break-down participation habits and tenure of members within a community, we get the data we see below (from 139 Discourse communities):

I’d interpret this as community contributors tending to fall within three buckets:

  • Single Posters. The single-poster group (typically people who have a question they need to be resolved), comprise around 43% of membership. They ask a question and then leave when they have an answer.
  • The Irregulars. This is the 2 to 4% of contributors who stick around to either ask one or two more questions or answer a question. The community isn’t a habit and they tend to come and go sporadically.
  • The 90+ Day Group (Top Contributors). This is the 16% of members whom have stuck around for 3+ months and tend to contribute most of the responses/replies to a community.

Pay careful attention to that 16% figure there. It means most of the value in branded communities is driven by only a few dozen (active contribs * 0.16) regular members.

That’s it….just a few dozen.

This might be the community equivalent of 1000 true fans. These few dozen are the critical group.

It really doesn’t matter how many active members you have, it matters how many true believers you have.

It ultimately matters how many people you have on the far right side on the member motivation model below:

I’ve seen plenty of communities struggling to succeed with a few hundred active members. The reason is simple, they don’t have any truly committed members creating real value. They just have irregulars and single-posters.

This is so important to understand. Almost all the truly valuable contributions to a community are coming from just a tiny group of active members.

This is the group you need to nurture through the motivation model above.

However this comes with the big caveat. These contributions only matter if you have a lot of people willing to read them.

 

The Lurker Multiplier

Lurkers multiply the value of your top members.

A single member might write a single post answering someone’s question, but if 10,000 people read it, it might deflect 10,000 calls.

It’s far better to have 100 members creating content read by 10,000 lurkers, than 10,000 members creating content read by 100 lurkers.

There isn’t much hard data on the number of lurkers most communities have. The client data we have varies between 99.80% and 95% of all visitors to the community. I wouldn’t be surprised if it stretched way beyond that for the larger communities too.

This is also heavily influenced by community type (esp. customer support) and community age (older = more lurkers). The bigger and older you are, the greater the imbalance of lurkers.

Let’s imagine you have a reasonable 1% ratio (99% of lurkers for every active member).

The median brand community will have around 162 monthly active contributors and 16,200 visitors.

This might not sound like much, but let’s start breaking down how valuable a community like this might be:

Imagine those 16,200 lurkers find the answer to their problem and don’t need to call customer service. At $3 to $5 per call that’s a cost saving of $48k to $81k per month ($576,000 to $972,000 per year).

Imagine just 5% of this group become customers. For a typical SaaS company with a $100 per month subscription, this could again be $81k per month ($972k per year)

Imagine if this 5% of these visitors become customers as a result of the community, again, we’re looking at $972k per year.

Imagine if you advertise jobs in the community and save $10k in headhunting costs per recruit or save $15k on every focus group project you used to run.

These aren’t fanciful made up numbers. They’re very real and very possible metrics that explain why just a tiny group of top contributors creating content read by a standard group of lurkers can be so valuable. But we haven’t even gotten to the big win yet.

 

The Big Win

As you grow, you want to align the community to achieve multiple goals.

You might begin with customer support and then also include feedback, lead generation, recruitment etc…

Now a community can quickly go from driving up to a million dollars return into several million dollars. All of it generated by just a core group of a few dozen active members.

You wouldn’t really need to think about trying to get as many members as possible, if your members are providing as much value as possible.

This is the incredible value that a seemingly small community with just a few dozen active contributors can provide to an organization. This is what makes a community the most cost-efficient way to achieve goals. It’s what turns a small community into an indispensable asset.

Putting It All Together

Ok, let’s put this all together into some key benchmarks and core principles:

1) Hit the upper quartile range for brand communities. This would be 163+ active contributors per month, 26+ regular members, and 16,300+ visitors. By all means keep optimizing search results, building partnerships, inviting people to join, and encouraging members to share material until you hit that number. Use the motivation model above to keep members active. Don’t let anyone bully you into trying to be Reddit.

2) Nurture your top contributors. Build strong relationships with each of them, connect them into their own tribe, deploy a super-user program, and guide them to make the best type of contribution they can make. This group needs to be as respected, connected, and as valuable as they possibly can.

3) Multiply the value of top contributors. This is the overlooked part. Make sure the best content is really easy to find. Drive a lot of traffic to it. You should see your visitor numbers steadily growing. Then align your community to achieve multiple goals (call deflection, feedback, retention, recruitment etc…). This is where you can double and triple the value of every member.

When most people think of a successful community, they usually think of the mega-communities and the big social networking platforms like (Reddit, Facebook, LinkedIn etc…).

But if you were to plot branded communities on a bell curve, you would notice the mega-communities aren’t just rare, they’re outliers. They’re statistical anomalies which bear no resemblance to the work you will be doing.

Ignore the big fish and focus on getting the most out of the members you do have, not chasing the members you don’t have.

Good luck.

Building A World Class Community Management Team: A System for Benchmarking Online Community Skills And Abilities

Imagine you decided to move into sales and on your first day, someone handed you a list of the organization’s top customers and responsibility for the entire CRM system.

No training, no support, no roadmap.

This is pretty close to what happens in community management today. Most people are suddenly handed responsibility for building a community from an organization’s top customers on an advanced technology platform.

Often they have limited training, support, or a detailed roadmap.

At best, this leads to communities failing to reach their potential, getting bogged down in common problems, or unable to show their value.

At worst, it leads to empty ghost towns or pointless casinos (communities with lots of meaningless engagement).

The level of training given to community teams today is abysmal. It’s the root cause of most of the problems you and your team are facing.

It’s important to make continual progress of your community team a priority. Your team, your members, and your organizations deserve better the best. In this post, we’re going to highlight how to benchmark yourself and your current team.

We’re going to identify the skills they need and how you can set reasonable targets for each of them.

Benchmarking The Community Team

We sometimes receive emails asking if one of our courses is right for a participant.

This is a hard question to answer without knowing someone’s ability. Most people don’t know how good they are because they have no benchmarks to measure themselves against. They use the size of their community rather than their own abilities.

We benchmark community professionals along five attributes (adapted from our friends at the community roundtable). These are below:

1) Strategy. This is the ability to develop and execute a community strategy which deploys the organization’s limited resources to maximum impact.

2) Engagement. This is the ability to proactively engage, nurture top members, and build systems to improve the overall participation environment of the community.

3) Content. This is the ability to create original content and drive high-value contributions from other members.

4) Technical. This is the ability to select, implement, and optimize a community platform. This includes resolving technical problems and managing vendor relationships.

5) Business. This is the ability to build allies throughout the organization, measure value, run a community team, and gather more resources for the community.

We break each of these down by four distinct levels ranging from ok to world-class.

You should strive to gradually upgrade yourself and the community team to a world-class level in each of these areas.

This is subjective, but I recommend copying and adapting our benchmarking resource below.
Score each member of staff between 0 to 4 on each of the five attributes.


(right click and ‘save as’ to download)

We’re going to break down each of these levels below:

1) Strategy (or strategic thinking)

When benchmarking someone’s strategic abilities, you want to track their journey from thinking strategically to having a codified and invaluable strategy everyone understands and supports. This increasingly relies on research, metrics, and project management skills.

Strategy is about allocating resources to have maximum impact. It’s not about trying to do as many things as possible, but deciding what’s worth doing and allocating maximum resources to ensure success.

Or, to use an analogy, it’s not about dividing resources evenly to fight every battle, but about deciding which battles are worth fighting (see this big wins talk).

The first level is to ensure all staff members are thinking strategically about how they spend their time. Are they constantly using available data to reviewing which activities they undertake are driving results and pursuing those which are most effective?

As your staff progress, you want them to be proactively researching what members want and using that data to improve the community. They should know how their tactics serve a strategy which serves an objective which serves a goal.

At the more advanced level, you want them to become great at segmenting members, ensuring members are making their most valuable contributions, establishing benchmarks, and pursuing reasonable community goals. The strategy should be internalized here throughout the entire community team with modeling of different inputs to achieve goals.

2) Engagement

Engagement skills are the core abilities of the community team to create the perfect environment for every member to make their best possible contribution to the community.

This begins at the lower levels with being a terrific community member.

Do your community staff resolve and escalate problems well?
Can they remove the bad material quickly?
Do they build positive relationships with community members?

As they move up the chain, they should focus on building systems which build a powerful sense of community and nurture superusers among the group. They should get better at building and optimizing the journey which turns newcomers into regular, active, members.

At the highest levels, you and your team need to be able to improve the resolution rates, address legal/brand issues, and ensure all staff know how best to engage members in the community.

3) Content

Content is one of the areas where everyone considers themselves an expert (aren’t you a great writer?). Content is essentially the ability to develop and facilitate the creation of valuable long-form educational or entertaining content across blogs, webinars, videos etc…

At the simpler levels, all members of your team should be able to synthesize great content from existing work and member contributions. This should be nicely designed and implemented across multiple platforms.

As you improve, you should be able to optimize web copy and improve conversion rates, increase search traffic, and build an editorial calendar. This requires reasonable copywriting and SEO abilities.

At the higher levels, your team should be able to ensure an editorial calendar is adhered to (surprisingly hard), develop automation campaigns, edit contributions of other members and persuade top experts to create great content for your community.

Finally, a great community professional should be able to commission ‘big win’ content projects (e.g. our platform selection tool) which goes far beyond a simple blog post or video. It brings in a unique, viral, idea to attract great search traffic, and has a unique design/development.

4) Technical

Far too many people in this field profess to ‘not being technical’. This isn’t good enough when your entire work depends upon being adept at managing a technology platform and what happens within it.

At the basic level, this requires knowing how the features of the platform work and being able to diagnose any potential problems which arise. Your staff should be able to learn this by testing things, experimenting in the community, and asking around in the vendor’s relevant communities.

Beyond this, you need your team to be able to resolve most issues independently, run SQL queries to get the data you need and make improvements to the structure and design of the community without help. This kind of knowledge is best gained through peer support.

As you reach the more advanced level, you want to know more about the platform environment, using data to improve the speed and functionality of the platform, and using the best features from any third party platforms to build the best community possible.

Finally, you want to be able to take responsibility for the entire vendor process and address legal/privacy/security issues which can arise.

5) Business

Business skills are the link between the community and the organization. This is about you being able to make the community indispensable to the organization. This begins with knowing how the community is supposed to help the business and the resources available to develop that community.

As you get better, you should become more adept at acquiring more resources by building a strong internal narrative and persuasively winning over any skeptics and key stakeholders within the organization.

Finally, this evolves into being able to attract and retain world-class community talent, build career maps, and build a community-first culture among the organization. The very best people I know have a pipeline of people eager to work for them. This doesn’t happen by accident, it happens by doing what one friend calls ‘building pipe’, constantly showing up, making connections, and knowing what talent you’re looking out for.

Set A Target To Improve Every 3 To 6 Months

Now you have your benchmarks, you can begin to set reasonable targets of improvement for each member of your team.

A reasonable level of progress is an increase in 1 level (of 1 attribute ) every 2 to 3 months at the first two levels and usually 3 to 6 months at the upper levels.

This gives your team a clear focus and lets you build a roadmap of what you expect over 6 to 12 months. This, in turn, lets you identify what kind of support you need to provide the community team to help them reach each level.

Avenues for Progress

Courses aren’t the only method of improving your community team or improving your own abilities. There are multiple channels available here, each can work in different situations.

  • Professional courses. I’d recommend our Strategic Community Management and Psychology of Community courses for strategy/engagement development.
  • Books. Focus on specific topic areas, not pop. business books. This tends to be good for content skills and some marketing/growth abilities.
  • Conferences. This is good for content/SEO skills, some engagement skills, and some highly focused areas. It’s good for building relationships which can help in other areas too.
  • Blogs. These are fantastic for most areas, especially psychology, marketing, SEO, and analytics. Find the right expertise here.
  • Peer communities. Both industry sites like CMX, Community Roundtable, FeverBee Experts, but also communities in each unique field like technology, journalism, copywriting, marketing, SEO etc…Encourage your team to identify problems, ask questions, and get help. Small peer groups of people working in similar communities is also a good idea.
  • Mentoring and support. This covers both informal mentoring and professional options. This is best for business skills, strategy, and some technical expertise.
  • Experimenting. Especially in technical (use a sandbox!) and some areas of engagement. You can run small trials to see what does or doesn’t work.

Ongoing Process

This is a process that never ends. The goal is to set benchmarks, track progress, and push for ongoing, non-stop, improvement from every member of the community team. Set a skills roadmap for every person you work with and compel both of you to review it every 3 months.

Good luck!

Keeping Engagement High As Your Online Community Grows

Don’t believe the “our members are too busy to participate” myth.

Time is about priority and priority is about relevancy. If your community is helping your members solve their toughest problems right now, they will always find the time to visit.

The problem is most communities don’t get their signal to noise balance right. They aren’t helping enough members achieve the goals they have right now. They’re not making their community relevant enough to their members.

 

The Signal Is About Relevance

If you made a list of your priorities today, you wouldn’t name long-term ambitions nor a strong desire to ‘connect’, ‘share’, or ‘join the conversation’.

The biggest priorities for us are the things that have the most important outcome to us (impact) right now (immediacy).

We can see examples of these in the table below:

The key to overcoming the signal to noise problem is to ensure as many of your visitors as possible see community activities related to the top left box.

But this is more difficult than it might first seem and changes at each stage of the community lifecycle. This means you need to ensure you have the right mechanisms for your stage of the community lifecycle.

In this post, we’re going to explain what these mechanisms are and how to use them.

 

How To Keep The Signal Strong In Increasingly Noisier Communities

Separate signal from noise requires a filter. There are five broad types of filter which you can use across the four stages of the community lifecycle. These are chronological, editor’s picks, member-tagging, popularity, and artificial intelligence.

As you can see above, as you grow you should gradually invest more time and money to build bigger and better filters.

Key point: Don’t stick with the filter you have as your community grows. You also need to develop better ones. Members will usually push back at first, but you need to be sure you keep pushing for the filter you need.

 

Inception Stage – Chronological Updates

If you get a good, focused, community concept early on (and you’re clear about the type of community you’re trying to build), your signal to noise ratio should be strong.

Early-stage communities should be all about signal. Almost 100% of updates should be relevant to what brought most people to the community. If they’re not, your concept is too broad (p.s. this is why many communities don’t take off).

The main filter here is chronological. When everything is relevant, members just need to know what’s new compared with what they have seen already. This is a list of posts by date posted/updated.

Even the largest sites, like Facebook, began with a simple system of showing all updates chronologically.

Your main task here is to keep the filter clean by weeding out the few posts that are outside the community’s focus.

 

Inception / Establishment Stage – Editor’s Picks

As your community grows to around the 100+ active participants region and you near critical mass, it becomes impossible to keep up with every update posted. This is where you need to make sure members aren’t missing out on the best stuff.

This is where you use editor’s picks.

This means you use sticky threads, blog posts, newsletters, and community digests to highlight the content you think most people in the community should see.

You should be helping members see the most popular/useful items of content in your community regardless of when they were posted.

Even some of the largest platforms, e.g. Slideshare, still use editor’s picks to highlight the best contributions others should read.

There are two key challenges here.

  1. Ensuring the quality of any ‘selection’ remains high. Some people fall victim to doing daily or weekly picks regardless of quality. Wait until you have enough quality contributions or you dilute the power of a pick.
  2. Reading enough contributions and identifying the best content. This becomes increasingly time-consuming.

 

Establishment/Maturity – Popularity Filters

As you reach the maturity phase of the community lifecycle, you will have too much content to process everything yourself. You’re also not the best judge of what’s the best content in the community compared with thousands of members.

This is often the stage where it makes sense to move platforms.

At this level, you want to use popularity filters to ensure the best content can rise to the top. This usually uses one of three metrics.

  1. Most visited. This is the number of users who have visited within a recent period of time. This usually highlights the most useful or entertaining piece of content.
  2. Most commented upon. This is great for most engaging topics – often the most controversial.
  3. Highest rated. This uses the number of upvotes (sometimes weighted by the ranking of the user) to show the content members like the best. This is a really important score.

All three have their place. Highest rated and most visited is best for lurkers, most commented upon is best for regular members.

Ideally you show the member the most popular content within the past week, yet also show the most popular within the past hour (trending topic), week (popular topic), month (top content), and ‘all time’ (best content).

However, be aware that you will probably need to manually remove some topics or set stronger filters. Sometimes old content which most members have seen is indefinitely the highest rated or most popular material every week.

Your goal is to allow members to quickly find the best content without having to browse through hundreds of posts. This only works when you already have a lot of activity.

Most major platforms enable some form of these already without much difficulty.

Your main work here is testing and managing different filters to get the best results.

 

Maturity Stage – Developing Unique Segments

As you grow past establishment stage, you begin to attract a more diverse group of members whose needs begin to diverge. Some people make the mistake on doubling down what’s worked in the past and focus on what they know best.

This limits the potential popularity of the community.

What’s most popular will increasingly be irrelevant to minority groups within the topic. The better solution here is to start categorizing and tagging members into distinct groups. Then you serve them the content that is most relevant to them.

The first part of this is to figure out a good system of tagging people (tagging works better than categorization here, people might be interested in more than one topic). You have four options for this.

  1. Create new groups/categories and let people join them. This is the simplest option, but most members won’t join any groups and you might be left with vacant areas of the site.
  2. Manually tag people by topics they seem interested in. This works better in smaller communities, but is a great way to test potential tags and ideas.
  3. Create a profile question and add people to the relevant group as a result. This works well for new members, but not so well for existing members.
  4. Run a SQL query to see who has visited or participated in which topics and then assign them tags as a result. This works very well, but requires some technology support. You can do this once or on a monthly basis. Begin with a few key topics at a time. It’s also possible your top members will participate in almost every discussion.

It’s usually best to focus on each unique segment at a time and ensure there is enough demand for the segment to make it worthwhile. You also need to check you have the resources to cater to them.

Once you have your segments, you can start sending them newsletters, @mentioning them by group to important discussions, or notifying them of new, popular, content in the community. This can be done manually or, ideally, automated. You shouldn’t attempt this stage until you have more resources to make it work.

 

Maturity/Mitosis – AI/Machine Learning Recommendation Systems

At the most advanced level, you should begin to see AI and recommendation systems. These essentially assign a score to each past member activity and use a weighted score to predict other relevant discussions members might be interested in. This is known as an algorithm.

These algorithms run each content through a relevancy filter of their own based upon popularity, existing metrics, content of the post, before using your past activities to determine if it will show it to you.

They’re not perfect, but they do improve with every click. Some of the best, like Amazon, Facebook, and Quora, perform remarkably well when showing members content they need to see.

At the simpler level, any post you read will also highlight other relevant posts. This is included in many of the most popular community platforms today. At the more advanced level you need to design more complex systems to handle who wants to see which information (and from whom).

 

Summary

Don’t rush to move up to the next filter until you have the level of activity to make it worthwhile, but don’t be too late to move neither.

You need to carefully balance your limited resources with the opportunity to develop increasingly advanced filters as your community grows. If you get this right, you should never have the ‘too busy to participate’ problem again.

p.s. Final chance to sign up for your Strategic Community Management and Psychology of Community courses

Reviving A Struggling Online Community

I’d estimate around 90% of community problems we see are concept problems.

This means the very idea for a community you begin with wasn’t strong enough.

Alas, it might not be your fault, but it’s now your responsibility to deal with it.

The problem is a weak community idea can survive for a really long time on a handful of posts a day. It can be propped up by staff members creating dozens of posts per day to give the illusion of activity. It can be given spasms of promotion in the desperate hope that if it reaches just enough members everything will be ok.

But adding more members to a weak community idea won’t work, you need to completely relaunch or revamp the community.

In this post, I’m going to try and guide you through what our consultancy process looks like here using case studies and templates.

(Note: If you run a customer support community, you can skip this post entirely. Many of these principles will be different).

 

The Honest Appraisal

By far the hardest part here is being honest with yourself and the people running the community.

On the (rare) occasions we fail, we fail because we can’t get people to be honest with themselves and their company about the true state of the community.

A failing community is like a bad business. A bad business locks up capital which could be deployed elsewhere. A bad community locks up people who could be better engaged and active elsewhere. It’s also highly damaging for your career.

Your community concept is probably wrong if you match any of the following:

  • After a few months you’re still initiating and responding to most of the discussions.
  • Very few members stick around.
  • You have a dozen posts a day or less.
  • Very few people seem excited by the idea of the community.
  • Word of mouth isn’t spreading and bringing in more people.
  • The level of growth and activity isn’t increasing, yet you haven’t reached critical mass.

There are some exceptions here, but you’re probably not one of them.

Please don’t waste your career, your members’ potential, and your company’s resources propping up a bad community indefinitely. Be honest and do a proper revamp. Take the hard decisions you need to take.

Quick Case Study: Health Meets Wealth

One example might come from the Health meets Wealth community. This is a community based upon Lithium designed for people to talk about health and wealth. Yet with two staff members participating there still isn’t enough activity to justify the high investment.

This could be a promotion problem, but I’d bet it’s a concept problem. There are better communities to talk about health and wealth. No matter how hard you try to push a weak concept, it’s always going to be a struggle.

However, an exclusive community focused entirely on the health routines of wealthy people might succeed. It targets the right demographic and fits in with what wealthy people usually want (privacy and exclusivity).

There are plenty of examples here.

You can spend the next few years’ of your life feeling miserable trying to make a bad idea work or you can spend that time feeling excited about a community that will explode to life. Please choose the latter.

(aside, this is exactly where it makes a lot of sense to get consultancy support).

 

Be Brutal With Cutting Anything Holding You Back

Now you have to decide between a hard and soft change.

A hard change means closing your current community and starting a new one.

A soft change means working with your current platform and members to make things work.

In the past, I’ve advocated for the latter. Recently, I’ve found the former to be far better. You need a fresh start here. You will upset some members, but it’s far better to do a complete relaunch than try to gradually shift things. You tend to keep too many legacy attributes to do what you want. Don’t let the old stuff that caused you to fail repeat the same trick.

This is almost certainly going to mean changing or completely redesigning the community platform too. Be prepared for this. You can archive the old community so the content is still accessible, but don’t allow any further posts to the site.

Communicate this clearly in advance and explain the reasons why. Never blind side members, regardless of how few people are there.

Your colleagues will also try to push you to keep most of what you have and make minor tweaks rather than the profound change you need. This is the sunk costs fallacy. Stay strong and focused on making the big change you need.

Now you have to go through the concept phase of the community lifecycle to find and test the right community idea.

 

Conceptualization/Pre-Launch Phase

Last year, I was contacted by a car brand about revamping their community. They had already mapped out the community and hired creative companies/developers to build out the community. But they hadn’t built any relationships, undertaken any interviews, nor tested their new idea.

They wanted us to explain how to get people to join and participate in the community. Alas, that’s not how it works.

You need to identify what members need and ensure the community is perfectly designed to deliver on those needs. This is what the conceptualization phase does. The conceptualization process is to figure out the concept, build relationships, and having some sort of platform you can leverage to drive early activity.

You need to go through this process too.

If you think you’re going to develop a hit community idea without any feedback from the community, you’re delusional.

This means working at the micro one to one level. There are three core things to achieve at this stage:

  1. Build credibility among your early target audience.
  2. Nurture relationships with prospective members.
  3. Identify and validate what members really want.

 

Step 1) Building Credibility (CHIP process)

The first step is to build some credibility among your audience. This means you achieve positive awareness.

It’s very difficult to persuade people to join your community if they’ve never heard of you. Being from a big brand can help, but it’s not an all access pass to get everyone to love the community idea.

You probably ignore most of the blind outreach messages you receive right? People will ignore your messages too unless they recognise you. You need to be individually recognised here.

You need to use the CHIP process below:

Spend 2 to 6 months participating in other communities, attending events, asking questions, and interacting with people online. Be curious and friendly. Don’t try to get anyone to do anything for you at this stage.

Next, start a platform. This might be an Instagram account, a blog, podcast, whitepaper, or any medium that best suits your interests. You want people coming to you for information. This gives you the added advantage of starting to test and experiment with the idea. Share what you’re learning. Test ideas if you like.

Better yet, interview or feature people for this platform. Now you get the benefit of learning and connecting with smart people. The same people who won’t give you time of day for a coffee will give you hours for an interview. This is how Ryan Hoover built relationships for ProductHunt.

 

Step 2: Nurture Strong Relationships and Identify Key Themes

If you’ve succeeded in the above stage, you should have a few hundred subscribers/followers at this stage. These are now people who will recognise your name and be happy to speak with you.

Directly reach out to this group. Schedule coffees or calls with them. Travel to where they are if you need to. Try to have private, 1 to 1 discussions with at least 50 people (if you don’t enjoy this process, consider a different occupation).

Ben Munoz launched BensFriends by participating in other communities, responding to questions on Q&A sites, and meeting people. It’s very hard work but it is the single most reliable way to get great results.

 

Step 3: Identify and Validate The Community Idea

You should be able to sustain relationships with at least 50 people at this point and have a very good idea of what they have said. I prefer to use a spreadsheet and look for patterns in the data, but you can use whichever method works for you.

Make sure you ask people about their challenges, hopes and ambitions. Find out what they like or don’t like about the scene or their work. Find out where else they interact with each other (you don’t want to copy what already exists).

You should be able to identify a few topics that people really care about.

You’re looking for topics a handful of people really care about and don’t have a great place to talk about it today. One of these topics will become your concept.

Developing Your List of Community Concepts

Let’s use the TransAmerica example above and pretend we have interviewed 50 people in the wealth space. We might discover a few common themes:

  • Never having enough time to do anything.
  • Not being able to maintain a consistent fitness routine.
  • Not feeling part of the elite group or know how to join exclusive events.
  • Not spending enough time with friends.
  • Not spending enough time with family.
  • Uncertainty about the future.
  • Concerns about status.
  • Embarrassed by wealth.
  • Wants to spend less time doing routine tasks.
  • Who to trust when outsourcing projects/ideas.

At this point we can take this list and either;

a) do a survey asking people to rank which of these they might care about (easy to do on SurveyMonkey).
b) start testing some community concept ideas directly.

If you do the survey, use it as a rough guide and discard those at the bottom rather than pick those that the top. People find it difficult to articulate what’s most important to them.

Community Concept

A community concept is essentially the community topic (what the community is about), target audience (who the community is for), and type (action, circumstance, support etc…).

Any one of the themes can serve as a possible community and each can also yield multiple community ideas.

Let’s imagine we find health and fitness is a problem for wealthy people. You can quickly build 5+ concepts from that:

  • An exclusive community sharing the health and fitness regimes of the ultra wealthy. Members would each share their diet/food recipes, read content from celebrities and others, and be able to sign up for programs named after superstars.
  • A complete optimization community. For the wealthy to get personalized food support, training regimes, and automate/optimized every aspect of their health and fitness.
  • A peer group of wealthy people to set themselves goals with financial forfeits to charity if they don’t achieve them. Similar to Stikk, but for wealthy people.
  • A community for people with $10m in assets to share their advice on personal chefs, trainers, holidays, and the best gyms.
  • A bodybuilding club for the ultrawealthy. Members work out together or at the same time and record/share their results/photos with each other.

Not all of these ideas are good (some are terrible), but you should be able to find and validate at least one of your ideas for one of your themes.

You launch a community by focusing on just one of them!

There are more options here for a concept than you might imagine. Kaggle, for example, began as a community for data scientists who wanted to participate in competitions.

That’s a really narrow focus, but the audience loved it and word spread.

Run them past a few of the target audience to find which they like and which they really dislike. This should narrow your 30+ ideas (across all topics) to five to ten which you can test.

 

How to Test Your Community Concept

You want to test your idea as fast and as cheaply as possible. You can do this in multiple ways:

  • Create an item of content/whitepaper and see how popular it becomes. If you’re thinking of a community about the fitness regimes of wealthy people, write an article or two about it and send it to your audience.
  • Create a mailing list or Facebook group about the topic. Invite some of the members you spoke to before, start a few discussions, create some content, and see if the idea takes off. Keep it simple and quick.
  • Host an event for the topic. Host an event for the topic (or even a webinar) and see how many people attend. Have a speaker if you can and gauge the reaction. Better yet, have two events and see how many people attend twice and how enthusiastic they are.

You’re really looking for the instant win, the one idea that explodes with popularity.

What gets people to attend and generates the most positive feedback? If you’re not sure if your idea was an instant win, it wasn’t.

It’s far better to have 10 people who really love the idea than 1000 who are mildly interested by it.

Almost all of the struggling communities we see today skipped the conceptualization stage.

If you get the concept wrong, you will forever be paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in platform and staff costs on a community that will never succeed. Don’t let that happen to you. If you don’t have a hit, test more ideas down the list until you get one right.

By the end of this stage you should have achieved three things:

  1. Built a (content) platform from which you can invite people to join a community. This should have at least 100+ followers/subscribers.
  2. Nurtured 20+ strong relationships with people in the field who you know will love the idea.
  3. Tested and validated this is a great idea for the community. You know this because your community already exists via a FB group, event series, or a small mailing list.

If you don’t have all three, keep working at it until you do.

 

Inception Stage

Now you properly enter the inception phase of the community lifecycle below:

If you’ve got the concept right, this stage should be much easier than you imagined.

Your goal at this stage is to increase awareness, sustain rising activity, and develop the community platform.

 

1) Identify and develop early sources of growth

In the early days, you’re not going to get much organic search traffic or referrals, instead you need to identify and drive sustainable sources of growth.

You usually have three options here:

  1. Your existing website traffic. Most companies promote and try to drive traffic from their website or mailing lists to the community. This is the easiest and most common way to expand . However, it only succeeds if you have an existing audience. If you don’t, you have to follow one of the paths below:
  2. Existing groups. This means means subtly promoting the community on other sites and meetups. Anthony, Kaggle’s CEO, spent plenty of time in the early days promoting his online community in existing groups and speaking at as many meetups as he could across the country. Ben from BensFriends, as you might recall, participated in existing groups. This helped build a platform and attracted the earliest members to the community. Respond to every question, participate in existing communities, attract people in the 2s and 3s.
  3. Direct invites. This is you personally identifying people interested in the topic and reaching out to them. You have to use a status-based invite/approach to get someone to join and check out the community. This takes time but is often quite effective when it’s done well. This works best when you have strong relationships with a small number of people. The secret here is to get referrals from previous people you’ve contacted. This will save you a lot of time.

Later you can do the mass-promotional tactics. But, for now, you need to know you can sustainably bring in new traffic to the community to get things started.

It’s often smart to ask people to participate in discussion topics they mentioned in your interviews to get things going.

(note: some platforms, e.g. Facebook Groups, currently have an in-built source of new members via referrals to others on the platform.)

 

2) Platform

There are plenty of online community platforms to choose from. Begin with something relatively small and simple to use. Invest more in the community as the community grows (unless, as noted, you’re running a customer support platform).

Platforms vary enormously, but depending on your budget you’re probably looking at: Facebook Groups, Mobilize, MightyNetworks, Vanilla Forums, Discourse at the cheaper end and HigherLogic, Lithium, Telligent, Jive, and Salesforce at the premium level.

I’d recommend to begin at the former and later decide if you need to move to the latter.

You can develop something yourself too if the concept is really unique, but you will need a budget to hire a really top tier team. This worked for Producthunt and Kaggle. This is high-risk, high-reward territory. Go for it if you’re confident you can get the technology right.

The secret here is to focus entirely on the unique aspect of the community concept and ensures the community is perfectly suited for that.

Critically, make sure by the time you launch a new platform you have a large group of motivated people eager to use it.

 

3) Sustain and develop activity

Whichever activity your community is pursuing (discussions, tips, solutions, sharing photos, action plans etc…), you want to be able to see high-quality discussions taking place. High-quality discussions usually mean a few specific things:

  1. Very specific and relevant topics. You need discussions about topics which are relevant to the day to day lives of members. If you have done your interviews, you should be able to create these kinds of discussions.
  2. Clearly different types of discussions. You need to have discussions which expand beyond just a single niche topic. What is the next level up?
  3. Broad interest and participation. Discussions should be popular with members. People should be happy to participate in them and interact with one another.
  4. Good information being shared. You want to see new perspectives and facts being shared.

If you don’t have at least the above four, you probably need to rethink the community concept and the kinds of members you’re inviting. You either have the wrong concept or the wrong people participating in the topic.

You can test a lot of different things here. Limited-time webinars, AMAs, featured discussions, collaboration projects, predictions, leaderboards, open debates, and anything else that adds to the community concept. You will usually need a mix of things for this to work.

If things have gone well, by the end of this stage you should have something close to:

  • At least 50 active participants (people who make a contribution).
  • At least 30 discussions with 5+ responses.
  • More than 50% of the growth/activity being initiated by members.

 

Going Forward

All the metrics should be heading in the right direction by now.

Most importantly, the community should feel rejuvenated. You should sense members are more positive, happy, and excited about the community. You should also find yourself being more excited about working on the community.

Now you can start exploring some sense of community tactics, exploring more promotional efforts, and more interesting events to drive more growth, activity, and a stronger sense of community.

The secret to rejuvenating a community isn’t to try harder or big tech changes, it’s to force through the really tough decisions and let go of the thinking that dragged you into the state you’re in today. This frees you up to identify what members really want and build an entire community around them.

Good luck!

What Is An Online Community?

An online community is a group of people who have built relationships around a strong common interest and primarily use the internet to communicate with one another.

That definition used to be enough, I’m not sure it is anymore.

We wrote about this 3 years ago.

The shift since then has been less about relationships between members and more towards the strong common interest and online interaction alone.

Community today most commonly means everyone who shares the same interest regardless of their interest with one another. It includes your social media followings, 3rd party groups, your mailing list, and everyone you connect with online who shares the same interest. That interest might be your field or your product.

e.g. you and I might not know each other, but if we both use an iPhone we might be in the iPhone community.

This presents opportunities and risks. The opportunity is a more expansive, broader, and a more powerful role for the community manager. Perhaps one that includes figuring out the best way to engage people across multiple platforms and social tools.

The risk is it becomes difficult to define community compared with customer experience, customer success, customer support, customer relationship management, online marketing, and similar disciplines.

Push for a more expansive role engaging with customers across all platforms if you can, but be aware it might be in a different discipline.