An Example of Great Community Design

DigitalOcean hosts one of my favourite communities.

Take a look at the homepage design below and see what you notice.

There’s a lot going on in this simplicity.

1) There’s an announcement of an upcoming event that is clear but doesn’t intrude upon the rest of the site.

2) The main navigation is really simple. Members can read useful information, ask questions, or ‘get involved’. The simplicity of the navigation here is great.

3) The top right shows the navigation to the rest of the corporate site. It’s there for people who need it but it doesn’t dominate the rest of the navigation.

4) The popular topics bar at the top enables the majority of members to quickly find the place where they should be. This solves any navigation issue for the majority of members.

5) The three-word header clearly shows who the community is for and its goal.

6) The subheader highlights precisely what members are expected to do and why. It appeals to the greater good.

7) The call to action (ask a question) is about as prominent as it could be.

You can see a clearer breakdown of this below:

The community isn’t perfect. There is no activity on the homepage, the banner is a little too large, and search isn’t in the prominent place where it should be.

But I’m betting if you can incorporate half of what DigitalOcean has done above, your community will be better for it.

Best Practices, Daily Digests, Member Interviews

For years, I’ve been advising organisations not to send a daily digest of new activity.

‘It overwhelms members and they stop reading all your emails!’

Last month I began working with a client who sent members a daily digest of new activity. I was hoping to pull a few quotes from member interviews to support the need to change it.

However, when I asked members about the daily digests and how they visited the community, they often gave the same response. They skimmed through the daily digest and clicked on the items they were interested in. Email digests were the primary route for most regular members to visit the community.

For sure, they wanted improvements to the daily digest, but almost unanimously they liked having a daily digest of new community activity.

There are a few lessons here.

1) Daily digests can be useful. For certain audiences, a digest is precisely what they need or have become accustomed to.

2) There are exceptions to every best practice. What’s best for most audiences might not be best for your audience. If in doubt, test it out. Don’t change things without checking with members first.

3) Don’t neglect member interviews. If you’re not interviewing a few members each month, you’re missing out on an incredible wealth of information.

Put your assumptions to the test in member interviews.

Question Visibility

If you see a question on Facebook or Twitter (and you know the answer) odds are you will reply with the answer.

You’re not looking for points, rewards, or some other incentive, you simply want to help (and maybe feel smart).

In fact, out of every factor we’ve ever looked at, seeing questions you know the answer to is by far the bigger determining factor in whether someone will participate in the community.

It’s easy to get hooked up developing gamification programs, superuser programs, trying to build a powerful sense of community, creating onboarding journeys etc. But the biggest bang for your buck is usually improving question visibility.

How do you get more questions in front of more people who might know the answer?

First improve the site design, notifications (and digests), and improve the notification systems. Then look at everything else.

Cashing In On Reputations

Someone recently asked what would be the best reward for members with a high reputation score?

Should they offer digital gift cards for $10 to $15?
Should they send out free SWAG and samples?
Should they let members exchange their points for unique perks?

These are terrible ideas.

The benefit of having a great reputation is having a great reputation!

Points, badges, and (to a lesser extent) leaderboards are simply indicators to make it easier to determine who has earned a reputation.

Sure, there might be some indirect financial benefits too. You might be approached for jobs, make valuable connections, or even get book deals. But the primary benefit of a great reputation is having that great reputation.

Your members don’t want cheap goodies for having a great reputation. They want to know their reputation matters. They want to be consulted, treated like a wise village elder, and be able to have input and impact on decisions.

In a completely rational world, members would like the $10 gift card. $10 is better than $0 after all…

But, in the real world (where people experience emotions), your members want things money can’t buy….like a great reputation.

“We’re Live” vs. “You’re Invited”

On launch date, many organisations send an email out to their audience with the following words:

“Our community is now live!”

This makes sense. If you’ve worked hard for months to get the community ready to launch, you’re excited to announce its launch to the world.

But the words “we’re now live” are indicative of the wrong approach. They focus upon your state of mind, not your members’.

Believe me, your audience isn’t clutching their phones trepidatiously awaiting the launch of your community. They’re going about their daily lives.

The problem with announcing the community “is now live” is the audience’s natural reaction is “so what?” (or, more likely, complete indifference).

The better way of thinking about this is to use the phrase:

“You’re invited…”

“You’re invited” instantly provokes curiosity.

Then craft the invite like an invite to a conference afterparty. But imagine your afterparty is being hosted at the same time as 20 others. What would you say, do, an offer to get someone to attend to yours?

Will it be the unique and powerful people they can connect with?
Will it be the most exclusive afterparty in town?
Will the afterparty break new ground or have amazing features others don’t?
Will you want them personally because of something they’ve said and done in the past?

Instead of writing a message announcing a community’s launch, write a message pretending you’re inviting busy people to a party.

Ideas vs. Assumptions

Anyone can look at any community and say ‘hey, why not do [x]?’

You might implement, members might engage in it, and the originator of the idea claims success and comes up with more ideas.

None of this really helps anyone though. At least not in the long-term. You haven’t learned or incorporated anything new.

You shouldn’t be coming up with ideas, you should be testing assumptions.

They’re not the same. An assumption is built upon research, data, and observations. You develop a test and define success and failure in metrics before you begin. If the assumption is proved correct, you incorporate it into how you engage the community.

An idea might be “let’s get members to share their equipment stack!”

An assumption would be: “We know from survey data that newcomers want to make the right purchase decisions and don’t trust influencer reviews. We assume they would find recommendations from our members more useful. We will test this in three ways:

1) We will invite newcomers to highlight their toughest challenges when they join the community. If 1/3rd of them list knowing what equipment to buy/setting up the right equipment in the top 3 answers, we will consider this a success and move on to 2)

2) Create a survey sent only to top members asking them to select the equipment they use. We will publish this list and measure how many newcomers click on it. If it ranks in the top 20% of pages clicked, it will be a success and we will move on to 3)

3) We will initiate a discussion asking members what equipment advice they would recommend for newcomers. If this ranks in the top 10% of discussions by views in this month, we will consider it a success and turn this into an annual ‘best of’ equipment list curated by top members (and create a category for these discussions).

Notice how based upon the results of the test, you can decide whether to continue performing the activity, expand it, or incorporate it into a major plank of the community.

Coming up with random ideas is a waste of time (so is listening to the ideas of others). Working on assumptions and adapting quickly…that’s much more useful.

Increasing Community Diversity

While pitching for a community project a couple of years ago, I was asked:

“We want to increase the diversity of the community – particularly with younger black audiences. How would you go about that?”

I looked at the room of five white, middle-aged, men and women and replied:

“Well, I think the first step is to increase the diversity of this room”.

While I didn’t get the project, I did get a lecture about how diverse the experience was of the people in the room and how considerate they were to the needs of the audiences they were trying to reach.

I’ve noticed in the years since, the community has completely failed to gain any traction among its target audiences.

Last year, I worked on another project which sought engagement from younger minority audiences. We hired representatives of each audience to work for the community, gave them real decision-making power (even making decisions we strongly disliked), and supported them with the resources to pursue their goals.

They decided what technologies to use, what activities should take place, what outreach messages should look like etc…They began by sending the outreach messages themselves to their friends.

And it worked! The community today has hundreds of participants from this exact target audience. All of whom appear highly engaged and motivated.

Being considerate and empathetic are terrific skills to have. But they’re not a substitute for having a reputation and lived experience amongst the audiences you want to attract. IF you want to increase diversity in your community, increasing the diversity of the community team is the best place to begin.

Outreach To Top Creators

I received this outreach message recently.

It was so poorly targeted I nearly skipped over it.

However, poor targeting aside, it’s not actually not a bad offer (or message).

If someone in your industry has been sharing useful templates and resources, reaching out to them with an invitation to share it within the community which would massively increase their reach is a win-win.

If you reach out to the top 25 people in your field and get a positive response from 10 of them, you’re suddenly building an incredible repository of great resources in your community. And probably attracting people willing to respond to comments and posts about their work.

If you want to know how to attract some of the bigger names in your industry, this isn’t a bad way to go about it.

Just make sure you’re targeting the right person(s).

Good Friction / Bad Friction in Community Signup Forms

As a general principle, the more information you seek from members the fewer will complete the registration form.

Some automatically assume this is a bad thing and reduce the information sought to just an email address and password.

The reality is the registration form is one of many tools you use to attract the members you want in your community and the kind of mindset they’re in when they arrive.

If you simply want anyone and everyone, you will get members who haven’t had to think what they want from (or what they can contribute to) the community. That will be reflected in your discussions.

But adding the right kind of friction helps shape the kind of community you’re creating

Take a look at this signup form below (for a very meta community for community managers).

There is a hodgepodge of good and bad ideas here.

The location, mobile number(!), job title, and favourite TV show can probably be removed.

Unless you’re limiting membership by any of these categories, they don’t change the mindset of members or act as a natural filter for members.

The ‘what are you seeking’, ‘what can you offer’, and ‘what is your proudest accomplishment’ are examples of good friction (although the former two need more options).

These questions make people think about what they want from the group, prime them to offer something to the group, and encourage people to share what they’re proud about. It creates the platform for a very unique sort of community.

Just because you can reduce friction and get more people to complete the registration form doesn’t mean more people will participate in a productive way. Carefully adding friction can help nurture a far better community.

Audience Targeting and Page Variations

A common problem is trying to design a community to appeal to multiple audiences at once.

If you have developers, customers, buyers, resellers, and more all in the same community, it’s a nightmare to try and develop an experience to satisfy each of them. Yet, it’s also a real pain to have them click a button on each visit to go to the content they want to find.

One solution to this offered by Salesforce (and some other platforms) is audience targeting.

Once members login to the community, you can use their profile data, activity data, any fields they’ve completed to create a unique experience for each audience.

This might be a different variation of the page, a display of different features, showing different discussions, creating different navigation menus etc…(here’s a good overview).

If you’re using one of the more inexpensive platforms, you might not have this option. If you’re using an enterprise community platform, you should start exploring what you can do.

Better Maps or Fewer Roads?

In one recent project, members were complaining about the navigation of the community.

They said it was impossible to find what they were looking for. They often felt lost. They struggled to follow and find the discussions they had participated in.

The community team had been trying everything to fix the problem. They had redesigned and simplified the homepage, created onboarding journeys, and had used every feature their platform offered to help members find what they wanted.

This had helped a little, but it was still the number one problem members complained about.

We took a different approach. Instead of trying to make it easier to find each feature in the community, we simply removed the majority of them.

Every feature which wasn’t used by at least 30% of active members was removed.

Any category which wasn’t attracting several hundred posts per month, was archived/merged with other categories.

Any page which wasn’t visited by at least 1k people per month was deleted (except for terms and conditions).

Any member that hadn’t visited within the past two years, was notified and then removed too.

Only two of the 20+ groups had any meaningful level of activity, so we created a discussion category for this and removed groups as a feature.

Any discussion which hadn’t been visited by 50+ people within the past year was archived.

We even removed the majority of options from member profiles too.

We reduced the navigation menu from 8 options (with drop-down sub-menus) to just 3 (without sub-menus).

Three things immediately happened.

First, navigation dropped from the number one cited problem in the community to the 4th.

Second, the level of participation increased by an average of 22% year on year.

Third, search traffic increased by 17% year on year.

The key to improve navigation (and the entire member experience) in most mature communities isn’t to improve the quality of maps, but to reduce the quantity of roads.

It’s harder to get lost when there are fewer places to go.

The Role of Status In Community Building

Status permeates deep within community building. Asking people who perceive themselves as high status to connect with those they see as low status (even if they don’t admit it) almost always fails. You can have limited success with time-limited engagements which present the individual as a high-status person, but otherwise you’re going to struggle.

A few years ago, I was sitting backstage at a conference waiting to give my talk. Fellow speakers in the room included Presidents, CEOs, and CMOs of known technology companies.

One speaker, having just preached the values of community onstage, asked our host how to sneak out the back without being seen.

Slapping a community label on an activity doesn’t disguise underlying social dynamics. People who perceive themselves as high status – even the most fervent believers in community – still aren’t keen to connect with community members they perceive as low status.

Part of this is understandable. Had the speaker tried to exit through the main foyer, the speaker would likely have had to engage with a large number of people who wanted something (answers to questions, pitch an idea, help with a specific feature of their product, validation by association etc…).

It’s feasible the speaker might have found someone who would have solved an urgent problem or become a lifelong friend. But the odds are low and the immediate pain too high. So the speaker slipped out the back.

I’m seeing many well-intentioned community initiatives fail because they ignore, rather than embrace, status.

Both the high status and low-status group still crave community.

But one group craves a community that offers privacy, intimacy, and an environment that reflects their status (luxury). They want a small number of strong ties with people like themselves. (hint: this probably won’t happen in a discussion forum). The other wants connections, purpose, and opportunities to grow. They want a large number of weaker connections.

Whether you like it or not, status permeates through all community work. A message (ghostwritten) from the CEO will have a far bigger impact on industry experts than the same message sent by a junior community manager. It’s impossible to even build a community in some sectors unless the founder is perceived as high status.

As you begin developing your community skills, you should become increasingly better at engaging people how they desire to be engaged, a desire based upon their perceived status.