There’s something special about communities built by a brand, but not about the brand.
It’s one thing to build a community for your customers.
It’s another thing entirely to build a community for your industry (or topic).
While the former can be great for customer support, gathering ideas, and spreading best practices, the latter can position you as the host of an entire industry.
Whereas the customer communities are great for supporting and retaining customers, industry communities directly attract new customers, position a brand where it needs to be seen, and creates a host of new opportunities.
But doing this well requires you to make some extremely difficult decisions.
Why Create An Industry Community?
As anyone who’s hosted a party knows, being the host offers a lot of rewards. On an industry-scale, those rewards are multiplied.
You’re connected to everyone that matters. You have industry leaders competing for your attention. You are the gatekeeper and tastemaker of an industry. You get to exert subtle influence, learn from others, and have everyone in the industry reply to your emails.
But the most direct benefit is simple. You get to attract new customers.
When you create a community for an industry rather than about your brand – you’re attracting new audiences rather than serving existing customers.
Yet even attracting new customers reveals only a fraction of the community’s value.
Here’s a breakdown below:
Unlike a branded community, there is no maximum cap on the community’s potential value.
The only limit is the number of people interested in the industry – and if your community does its job really well, you can grow this number too!
How Do We Estimate The Value Of This?
This is a little like asking the ROI of a promotional campaign.
The result depends upon the quality of the implementation and a range of factors.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some interesting ways to estimate it.
Multiple By Value of Leads
You can also work with your sales team to find the typical value of a lead. This usually means dividing the revenue by leads generated to get a broad estimate.
You can also be more precise by working with sales teams to go through the sales funnel and match members up to similar behaviors.
You might also create separate values for inactive (subscribers), moderately active, highly active to create a total value.
Multiply By Costs Of Leads
Another way to estimate value is to look at the advertising equivalent cost. How much does it cost you to acquire a customer (or subscriber) through other channels?
If you know getting someone to subscribe to your mailing list (top of the funnel) usually costs you $100, you might estimate the present value of your 20k strong community at $2m.
Once you begin estimating value using these proxy metrics, you begin to see why it often makes sense for organizations to simply acquire communities. If a community in the SaaS field has 20k members and the average SaaS brand spends $344 to generate a lead, any acquisition value under $7m begins to look like a bargain.
Essentially acquiring a community acts as a short-cut to the lengthy and costly process of acquiring the audience through other channels.
Numbers Don’t Capture The Full Value
I’m struck by this quote from Max Altschuler, founder of the SalesHacker community (acquired by Outreach).
“We also use it [SalesHacker] as a value drive in deal cycles. We sell to Sales, so offering a CRO/VP Sales a spot on a podcast for a brand they know that gets 20,000 downloads is a great value driver no other sales vendor can provide and it opens up that relationship at the exec level now.”
There is huge value in being able to feature a prospective client in a community in front of tens of thousands of others. It won’t work for every community but it shows the raw numbers don’t even capture a slither of the full value of the community.
This also highlights something interesting – there is simply natural, innate, immeasurable value from being the provider of the biggest community in your space?
So, why isn’t every brand jumping to do this?
Because creating an industry community requires you to do something really painful – hide your brand name.
Don’t Name The Community After Yourself
With a few exceptions (HubSpot), in an industry community you can’t have your name prominently splashed anywhere.
The moment you call this ‘The [brand] community’ – two things happen:
1) People will ask questions about the brand. You will accidentally create a customer support community.
2) Customers of rival products will stay away. Why would they join? They use a competitor brand. This typically reduces your potential audience by 80%+.
It’s very, very, hard to defy these two outcomes if you name this community after organization. This usually causes some consternation amongst marketing and PR professionals who want to see their brand prominently displayed (and avoiding the effort of promoting two brands).
But this doesn’t mean your name can’t appear anywhere…
Won’t Members Get Upset If They Find Out It’s Owned By A Brand?
Sure they will…if you’ve kept it a secret.
If you’ve been visiting and supporting an independent bookstore for a few years and then suddenly discovered it was secretly owned by Amazon – you’re not going to be happy.
So don’t keep it a secret!
Be honest and upfront about your involvement and intentions from day one.
I’d suggest having your logo on the website such as (provided by [brand]) while giving the community its own unique name and identity.
This name should be something which reflects a commonly used unique symbol by the people you’re trying to reach.
I’d also suggest in your welcome message and about page that you’re clear about why you’re hosting the community. If you’re hoping to attract new customers then say so. But create rules about how and why this will happen. It might also help to create rules about how the brand engages with the community.
“While we hope to benefit from identifying potential customers or getting insights from members, we won’t send out promotional emails to community members. Discussions about competitor products will be encouraged – never removed.”
You can build trust and associate your brand name with the community by being honest and upfront from the very beginning.
What Do We Need To Get Started?
To keep it simple. There are three obvious things you need to get started.
1) A potentially large audience with a unique set of needs you can serve.
2) A dedicated platform to host your community.
3) A community manager to run the community.
As you can see above, if you don’t have someone in charge, you’re risking anarchy.
If you’re lacking a platform, you have a decentralized social media experience.
If you’re lacking an audience, you have a ghost town.
How Do We Get Started? What Should Be In The Community?
How you get started often depends on the size of your audience.
If you’re beginning with zero, it’s best to go through the CHIP process with blog posts, organizing events, engaging with existing groups, and building up your audience until you get up to 100 subscribers/followers.
Once you get near 100 active followers, then you might want to consider having a platform where members can engage directly with one another (hashtags can also work).
As you reach around 200+ members, you probably want to directly promote the community internally to any existing audiences, consider investing in paid promotion, and, eventually, working with influencers and other partners.
Once you have more than 2k members, usually word of mouth and search traffic drives most of your audience (you should optimize for both).
What Platform Should We Use?
The platform you use primarily depends on your budget and the audience you’re starting with.
When you have no people (and no budget), you usually need to use email.
When you have 10 to 250 you can usually use a WhatsApp group.
At 250 to 1000, you’re looking at Telegram, Email, Circle, and other lists.
Once you get to the upper end of that, it starts to become a chaotic mess. So you need to look at an enterprise (often forum-based) platform which allows for more structured discussions. There is always a slight tension between structure and ease of use.
It’s notable however that many of the most successful industry communities over the years have been built on custom platforms. This provides more flexibility and (often) proprietary technology which may increase a future acquisition price.
How Much Will It Cost?
Like most things, it depends.
Many of the big communities acquired by others over the years were launched on a shoestring budget – often by an amateur doing it in their spare time. Others were launched by big brands to much fanfare.
However, we can add a very broad cost estimate to some traditional approaches.
While it’s obvious there are some benefits of the amateur approach (testing things at small-scale first and adapting quickly), you’re less likely to be able to use that approach if you’re working on behalf of an organization.
Organizations have legal, moral, and reputational responsibilities which make them less likely to ‘throw something up and see how it goes’. You can’t launch something which doesn’t look or function well and hope you improve it later (the way a passionate amateur can).
Examples of Successful Industry Communities
You can find plenty of successful communities. Each has grown and evolved in different ways. Here are a few common ones.
- Kaggle. Kaggle launched with a single competition in 2010 for data scientists and gradually added blogs, events, content, and more. Acquired by Google.
- Element14. Launched by Premier Farnell in June 2009, Element14 is a community for engineers and electronic enthusiasts to chat with one another.
- Grow, Gain, Retain. Began as a mailing list created by Customer Imperative for customer success professionals before being acquired by HigherLogic.
- ProjectManagement.com. Began as a place for members to share resources and templates with one another. Over time expanded to enable peer discussions between members. Acquired by Project Management Institute.
- SalesHacker. Began as a blog before expanding to events, courses, and discussion forums and more. Acquired by Outreach.io in 2018.
- MindTheProduct. Primarily began as a series of events before expanding to content, courses, and, much later, dedicated community channels in Slack and elsewhere. Acquired by Pendo.
- RevOps Co-Op. Slack community created by FunneIQ. Began with some content and a Slack channel. Later expanded to resources, videos, interviews, and more.
- The Instructables. Community for members to share their DIY projects. Acquired by Autodesk in 2011.
- Honeybook – Rising Tide. Community for small business owners working in the creative economy. Created by HoneyBook, a provider of client management software for small businesses.
- MakerPad. A definition-stretching community for no-code professionals. Acquired by Zapier.
- IndieHackers. A thriving Reddit-esque style community for independent professionals to earn money directly. Acquired by Stripe in 2017.
- CFO Connect. Launched by Spendesk in 2018 is a community for CFOs. The community began by offering events and a few resources later expanded to include a Slack channel, one to one member matching, and more.
Each community took a different approach, but there’s some important commonalities here:
1) They all began relatively simply. They grew the permission asset of their audience over time. They usually focused on doing single things well before expanding beyond that. Over time they expanded to include content, resources, courses, podcasts, discussions, job boards, events, shops etc…
2) They focused on providing the most value to members. At each stage of the journey, the host of the community focused on providing the content, products, and services most in demand by members.
The Risk: What If A Competitor Does It First?
Perhaps the biggest reason to do it though isn’t the raw numbers but the fear of competition.
What if a competitor launches a community which becomes the definitive community in the industry before you do?
What if they own that mailing list and the right to contact any of them at any time?
What if they host events for that community where they can bring as many of their staff as they like and sell free sponsorships to themselves etc…
What if they can attract leads for free while you’re still paying hundreds of dollars for each lead?
What if they put together a collaborative steering group which creates defacto industry standards?
Is it worth the risk of not doing it?
Being the host of an industry creates plenty of useful benefits. When done well, industry communities can generate leads, convert prospects into customers, gather useful industry insights, and reduce customer acquisition costs.
The catch is you can’t make the community about yourself. If you position your organization’s name too prominently in the community, not only will customers begin to use it to ask product questions, you will also deter customers of competitor brands from joining. You need to give the community a unique name, possibly a unique URL, and let it naturally develop its own identity.
You don’t need to spend a fortune to get started. Many of the most successful industry communities were launched by amateurs in their spare time on a shoestring budget. The secret is to begin by doing the smallest possible things extremely well and expanding gradually. There are plenty of examples you can follow.
And if you’re having trouble using the above to convince others about the value of the community then consider this – what would happen if your competitors moved first to be the hub of the industry?
Here’s a relatively common story.
A community team is given a goal to achieve. This goal is usually something fairly simple like: “increase engagement by 50% by the end of this year!”.
However, a few months into the year, the engagement metrics haven’t budged.
In fact, the numbers are even beginning to drop slightly. No matter how hard the community team works to improve response rates, time to first response, and improve the platform, the overall engagement metrics simply don’t move.
At the end of the year, the engagement metrics are slightly below what they were the year before. The community team receives a negative performance review. Budgets are cut, team members leave, and the community suffers.
This raises the question, who failed here? It’s a more complicated answer than you might think.
(p.s. if you want the video version of how to set realistic community goals, click here.)
Setting The Right Goals For A Community
Perhaps the best way to begin is by looking at the goals themselves.
They were simply the wrong goals to begin with.
I wrote a whole book about this; engagement is a bad goal. It’s never the best metric to track, it’s simply the easiest. Worse yet, the number of posts, likes, shares, simply feels like a good metric for success.
To realize how wrong this is. I once came across a community manager who skyrocketed engagement overnight by removing the spam filter.
There’s plenty of information about finding the ROI of your community. I won’t rehash the entire topic here. The key thing is your goals should come from discussions with stakeholders and feasibility of behaviors.
1) Stakeholder interviews and analysis. You need to speak to as many stakeholders as possible, understand their unique needs and motivations (you can use this script), and undertake stakeholder mapping (see template) to determine whose needs to prioritize.
2) Needs, desires, and behaviors of members. You need to interview, survey, and study members to determine what they need, what they want, and what they desire. You can learn more about this kind of data here.
During this process we often host a workshop with the data to try to identify the right kind of goals for the community. We tend to set the members’ needs and let stakeholders establish their priorities.
You can see an example of this here:
Using our research and this simple framework, we should be able to identify and prioritize possible goals.
p.s. It’s worth noting this is an idealized approach. The reality is often a lot messier (it’s not unknown for a senior stakeholder to ignore all of this and simply set the goal).
Communities Need Really Specific Targets
In client calls, I often ask what the goal of the community is.
The person I’m speaking with can often give a clear and specific answer.
“The goal of the community is to improve product adoption”.
When I ask what metrics would show success, the answer usually becomes a lot more vague.
Often the answer is “plenty” or “lots”. Or, in the worst-case scenario “we’ll know it when we see it!”.
This leaves the community team in an unfair position. They might achieve a great result only for someone more senior to state “they expected more!”.
We need specific targets we can aim for here. For example:
We want to see 25% of active community members utilizing 2+ services.
Reach 3-month avg. 25% call deflection within two years while maintaining 4.2+ satisfaction score.
Generate leads with a value of $323,440 per quarter for 3 successive quarters.
Increase 3-month member satisfaction by 16% by the end of the year.
The challenge is where do these numbers come from?
Don’t Pluck Targets From Thin Air
Far too often numbers are plucked from thin air i.e. a 50% increase!
Why 50%? No-one knows! It’s just a nice round number that sounds good.
This often leads to a community team having goals which are impossible to achieve.
Is a 50% increase in call deflection a good target?
It might be if there was a 40% increase in the past year.
If activity rose by 40% in the past year, it might be. If it fell by 40% in the past year, it probably isn’t.
To begin finding the right target, we need to know our trends.
Use Trends To Set Good Community Targets
Targets should be based upon current trends with a range which indicates what great, good, ok, and bad look like.
Sometimes you can do a great job in reversing a downward trend but fail to hit your goals because whomever set the goal didn’t realize the community was in a downward trend.
Let’s use client data for a community which has a goal of answering as many questions as possible and in July 2021 answered 3971 questions.
The company wanted to increase this monthly average by 50% within a year.
But is this realistic?
Well, let’s look at the trendline below rather than pluck numbers from the sky.
The trendline suggests at current rates that 5150 answered questions is the current expected result (a 30% increase). 50% would be an extremely high result.
But if you look closer, you might notice something important.
Since April 2020, the number of answered questions has plateaued!
Expecting a big increase when the community has plateaued is a big mistake. Using data that stretches back to Jan 2018 doesn’t make sense to set community targets for July 2022.
Instead we can do something clever; we can forecast the number of answered posts just using the past year of data.
If you’re using google sheets, you can use ”=ARRAYFORMULA(FORECAST(39:A56,C27:C38,A27:A38))” to make predictions about the future.
Now the result (as you can see here) is different:
Notice now the prediction is of 4500 answered questions per month for July (or about a 13% increase over the year).
The Difference Between An Increase And An Improvement
You can improve a metric but still be performing worse than last year.
For example, if you had a 40% increase last year and this year you only get a 10% increase, the numbers will still go up but you’ll be doing worse.
An improvement isn’t about improving the absolute number, it’s about improving beyond the performance achieved the year before.
An easy way to do this is to set a performance improvement (I’d suggest somewhere between 10% and 30% – which should be matched by an increased budget) above and below the trend line.
This is what adding this will look like:
Now we can start setting some rudimentary targets with a 10% performance improvement based upon the previous year of data. This might look like:
- Anything above 5000 is good
- Anything between 4000 and 5000 answered questions per month by July 2022 is ‘ok’
- Anything below 4000 is bad
You can change the upper and lower limits from 10% to any percentage increase (or decrease) you like.
Now you can set targets based upon current trends from the past year of data and can see what a performance increase might look like.
Set Targets Where You Have The Most Influence
What If You Can’t Control The Outcome?
The biggest problem with using the ‘number of. answered questions’ as a goal (and pretty much any engagement target), is that it’s primarily driven by how many people have a question in the first place.
You can’t exercise much control over that.
If your company acquires more customers (or loses customers), that number will rise and fall through no fault or achievement of your own.
Worse yet, many activity-based metrics have a natural curve over time. As you begin answering most questions, people no longer need to ask as many and engagement drops. This is a good result masquerading as a bad outcome on your stats.
So we need to find out what impact you have.
Track These Three Metrics To Identify Your Impact
We want to know how the community compares against other channels.
If, for example, the number of support tickets (or customer support calls) falls by 10% and the number of questions in the community drops by 10%, that’s probably not the community’s fault.
In most cases, we usually want to get the following data:
- No. questions asked in other support channels vs. in the community.
- No. visits to the company website vs. the community website.
- No. new customers each month vs. new community registrations.
Then we look to how closely correlated these are with whichever metrics we’re tracking.
For example, look at the graph below.
We see historically there is a close relationship between an increase in web traffic and answered questions.
If the web traffic suddenly rises or falls, we would expect community participation to rise and fall regardless of how good a job the community team is doing.
The increase in web traffic above should mean a lot more people are now visiting the community. We therefore need to have a model which dynamically updates the forecasts based upon this relationship.
We now use the same FORECAST function to predict this and show what a 10% above or below the predicted line looks like.
You can see now how a big increase in web traffic naturally raises the number of answered questions we should anticipate within the community.
This also raises the expected answer rate. Anything above 6198 by July 2022 is now good and anything below 5071 is a poor result.
This is a very simple explanation of how to set targets. In practice, it can become far more complex. What matters however is now the community team has clear targets based upon actual data which is within their control!
How Do You Use Data To Achieve Your Targets
Goals Should Change Behavior
There isn’t much point in setting a new goal if you’re going to keep doing what you’ve always done.
The point in establishing community goals is to change your activities to align with that goal.
If your goal relates to growth, then you should be doing more activities which drive growth.
If your goal relates to call deflection, then you should be doing more activities which drive call deflection.
Goals ultimately change priorities. That means you do more of some activities and less of others.
But how do we know which activities drive the outcome?
We first need to calculate which activities have historically been strongly correlated with the outcome.
What To Prioritize To Achieve Your Goals
You need two things; a dataset and an informed opinion.
When you have these two things, you can run a multiple regression analysis to determine which variables influence the goal and by how much.
If you don’t know how to do this, find a data person who can help (or reach out to us – we do it for clients).
Let’s use a client example trying to increase member satisfaction.
We ran a multiple regression analysis on a dataset covering 15 variables and discovered the following:
Don’t worry, you don’t need to know what all of that means.
This essentially says there are three statistically significant (and independent) predictors of member satisfaction within the community. Combined they account for 86% of the variability in satisfaction each month.
We use these three predictors as the basis of our strategy.
- Objective 1: Increase the number of event attendees.
- Objective 2: Increase the no. MVPs who make at least 1 post per month.
- Objective 3: Reduce the average time to first response.
Now we repeat the process above to find the right targets for each of these objectives and show what a 10% or 20% performance increase or decrease would look like.
Build Your Community Dashboard
It’s obviously important not to keep targets to yourself but to be able to share them widely and let yourself and your entire team stay on track.
We want to know at a glance if the community is on track to achieve its goals or not. If not, we can make rapid changes in our strategy to ensure it is.
Building a dashboard once you have the data isn’t that difficult. You can use Tableau or PowerBI if you want more powerful functionality.
But we’ve kept it simple and built this one below on Google Sheets.
You might want to click to open up the full image.
We can now track progress over time (we’ve added some dummy data to illustrate). This shows where the community is doing well, where it’s not and, most importantly, it’s tracking the metrics which actually matter!
As you get more data, you can see issues early and address them. You can especially see when a number begins to fall behind its predicted target and try to identify what happened each month.
(p.s. It helps to get familiar with ‘conditional’ cell formatting in Google Sheets (or Excel) to create custom rules for what happens when numbers fall above or below a certain range).
Let’s Build Out Your Strategy
Once you have the right targets in place it becomes a lot easier to build out the overview of the community strategy.
Now you have all the key elements in place:
1) A clear goal
2) Two clear objectives to achieve the goal above.
3) Specific targets to track progress towards those objectives.
4) A set of strategies each aligned to achieving those results
5) A set of tactics (or initiatives) to execute the strategy.
6) Clearly identified ‘must win’ battles which identify the hard part of each strategy.
Believe me, it’s a lot better to be working on a strategy you know is aligned to achieving specific results you can feel comfortable about being held accountable to. It all begins with setting realistic community goals and the right targets.
Yes, targets should be SMART. But they need to be so much more than that.
Good goals should possess the following attributes:
1) They reflect the unique value of the community to the organization and audience.
2) You should have the majority influence over them.
3) They should be based upon current trends.
4) They should show what a % improvement looks like, not just the increase.
5) They should translate into specific actions you can execute on.
It’s okay to have multiple goals (I wouldn’t recommend more than three). What matters is you have some goals which are translated into specific targets to guide your work.
Try not to rush the process of setting good community goals. It’s worth investing a little more time (or getting outside help!) to get it right.
Too many people are trying to develop a good strategy without access to good data.
This typically results in common problems like:
- Unrealistic metrics being plucked from thin air and set as goals.
- Tactics and community roadmaps which don’t reflect the priorities of members (nor the organization).
- Too much time wasted on low-priority activities.
- No ability to clearly prove the success of the community.
- Selecting the wrong platform and configuring it poorly.
All these problems tend to have a single root cause:
The people making critical decisions about communities don’t have the data they need
The difference between developing a strategy without and without good data is about as stark as the difference between night and day.
Every single step of the process was simply a case of looking at the data and then taking the next logical action.
We don’t always know precisely which tactic will have the biggest impact, but we’re beginning with a clear set of issues we want to solve.
Strategy is easy when you have good data
This is why we’re pretty obsessed about getting good data. It gives us a clean, systematic, approach to developing the community.
In the example below, we’ve shown how we used data to drastically improve member satisfaction in the community. Again, it’s a step-by-step process which all begins with the same thing; great data.
Let FeverBee Get The Data For You
We’ve noticed some clients want to build strategies themselves – but they don’t have the data they need (nor the time and knowledge to collect it).
So we’re going to take the process we use to gather data for client strategies and offer it as a standalone option.
Instead of trying to do it all yourself, you can rely upon our team of data/UX/research specialists to equip you with the data you need.
FeverBee’s Community Intelligence Services
Our new community intelligence services include:
Measurement and health
Proving Value and ROI
We can setup dashboards and explain which metrics matter (and why!). Let us set it up properly once so you can use it indefinitely.
We can range multiple datasets to show the impact the community upon whichever metric matters to you (i.e. community behavior on sales, retention or NPS etc…).
Member Needs Analysis (& UX testing)
You can learn more about this here. We can tell you where you should focus your efforts and how you’re comparing today.
We can gather member research and undertake UX testing to identify the key pain points and needs of members.
This isn’t a comprehensive list. We’ve helped clients undertake everything from a full evaluation of their communities, audience, and environment to analysing the specific needs of a unique geographic audience.
It’s all about the data…
Our goal is to make community work far more data-driven than it is today because we’ve seen the results of being data-driven.
We want to equip you with the data you need to make the right decisions for your communities.
We know not everyone has the time or knowledge to do it themselves, so we’re eager to do it for you.
If you think we can help, drop us a line.
In the good old days of community building, it was pretty common for top industry experts to share their best knowledge in hosted brand communities.
They published blog posts, detailed guides, videos, and photos.
But that doesn’t happen as much anymore. There are too many other platforms where people can share knowledge and build their audience.
This has resulted in a lot of struggling ‘success’ communities and empty knowledge bases. The problem is times have changed and the strategies for too many communities haven’t.
If we want experts to engage and contribute to communities (and prevent the evaporative cooling effect), we need to change our strategies and rethink our notion of community.
Who Shares Expertise In Communities?
To be honest, ‘experts’ is about as useful a term as ‘millenials’ to describe a group of people. It’s too broad to identify any meaningful shared traits or approaches.
This often results in ‘experts’ being invited to share in the wrong manner, for the wrong benefits, or contribute the wrong kind of information to any community.
So let’s break ‘experts’ down to the three specific groups of people who you’re most likely to target.
Like us, you should build out different approaches for each of these in your strategies.
1) Partners / consultants / freelancers.
The simple truth is the people most likely to share expertise (beyond just answering questions) in professional communities are the people who can best convert attention into dollars. This means audiences who sell to your customers. In most cases, this means partners, consultants, and freelancers.
This audience is usually looking to build their reputation. Their motivation is high and they have plenty of knowledge to share. It’s no surprise that in most successful ‘success’ communities, it’s partners/consultants who are doing the most work.
These folks can share guides, ideas, and perspectives from working with multiple organizations within the same industry. Success communities should commit 60 to 70% of their time to nurturing these groups to engage (in a manner that isn’t irritatingly promotional).
2) Industry veterans.
Industry veterans are people who work at mid to senior levels of an organization and have several years of direct experience with the product/service/topic.
It’s harder to engage this group because their motivation to share expertise is lower. They don’t immediately benefit. And because they’re often restricted in what they’re allowed to say. Sometimes they simply don’t want to share their lessons with competitors.
In addition, they often have a narrow lane of expertise from a single organization and can’t easily identify which lessons can be generalized to other organizations. However, this audience can excel in one particular area which is popular with other members; case studies.
They can share exactly what they did, what worked, what didn’t work and help you build up a database of great use cases and examples.
3) Senior Execs / VIPs.
This audience consists of C-level folks at large companies and (some top VIPs / influencers) in the sector). We’re talking about the elite of the elite here. The very people who would never lower themselves to write a guest blog post because the benefit is too small to consider.
It’s critically important when you engage this group to remember they are often several layers removed from doing anything tactical/practical. I often see these folks at conferences presenting ideas to an audience that, frankly, knows a heck of a lot more than them.
However, this audience is incredibly useful at contributing broader strategic ideas, industry-related thoughts, recommended partners, and things like big trends in the industry.
It’s important to know when you begin this process which kind of expert you’re targeting and what they can best contribute to your community.
What Motivates Experts To Share Their Knowledge?
If you want experts to participate, you need to understand what experts want when they share knowledge.
Sure, some might do it because they feel like it (and want to help). But that’s relying upon luck – and luck isn’t a great strategy.
In my experience, you’re far more successful if you identify what each group wants and offer them opportunities to gain exactly this.
The benefits vary by the type of expert, but they’re usually a combination of reach, scarcity, trust, and frequency as you can see below:
Generally speaking, experts want to become better known amongst a large audience or to build deeper relationships amongst a small audience. This typically benefits people personally and professionally.
For example, if you’re a partner/consultant, you can use social media, publish blogs *ahem*, or create as many podcasts as you like to build trust amongst your audience. But at some point, if you want to grow you need to reach an audience you don’t already reach. This is where you might participate in webinars, guest posts, and giving conference talks that can be shared in a community.
Likewise, if you’re an industry veteran, you can build reach for your work by engaging in high-frequency activities or, if you’re lucky, participating in high-scarcity but widely seen activities like major conference talks, news appearances etc…
And if you’re a VIP, being invited to invite-only gatherings/events is your preferred channel.
You’re most likely to respond to requests which let you impress peers, improve your organization’s standing, or directly earn money (e.g. speaking fees). The most common example of this are high-prestige events facilitated by individuals or organizations with a powerful brand name.
You can see more specific examples of what each group of experts wants in the table below.
A critical part of your strategy is to make sure you’re offering audiences what they actually want. If you don’t get this right, nothing else really matters.
Where Do Experts Share Their Best Expertise Today?
If you’ve got some great expertise to share, would you share it as a poorly formatted forum thread that would appear alongside every other thread published that day (and quickly disappear off the page?).
Or will you publish it on your own blog or social media account where you can build an audience? Or as a guest article on a popular site where it will be seen by thousands of people?
This is the problem for most customer success communities, there are simply far more (and far better) channels for people to share expertise than in a traditional community experience.
If you want to build a community with experts sharing great advice, the first lesson is you have to incorporate the channels they want to use, not waste your time trying to persuade them to use the channels you want them to use.
This means recognising that some channels are naturally better for sharing particular kinds of expertise.
You can see the most common below.
However, each type of expert also prefers different channels to share different kinds of expertise.
Outside of the tech world, for example, most CEOs don’t waste their time writing long twitter threads to share their expertise. They prefer private peer groups instead. Likewise, industry veterans don’t tend to have their own blog, they share their knowledge when invited in webinars and other channels.
You can see a table of the different channels different groups use to share expertise today below.
This isn’t definitive. Partners and consultants, for example, almost certainly want to do keynote talks/attend invite-only groups (and often do both!). Likewise, senior execs and VIPs can occasionally be tempted to participate in webinars and podcasts if the size of the audience or the prestige of the audience is big enough.
However, it does highlight the primary channels each group either prefers to use or has the ability to use to share knowledge. And we should use these primary channels to build our strategy.
Now we know who the experts are, what they want, what they can offer, and the best channels to engage them, we can bring this into a simple overview below.
If you want to engage experts and build a truly vibrant success (or thought leadership) community, you need to be clear about the best value an expert can offer, understand what they want, and select the best channels to engage them within the community.
This gives us the contours of our strategies, but it doesn’t fully identify the right tactics to engage each of them.
Examples Of Successful Tactics To Engage Experts
It’s one thing to see all the elements pieced together in the table above, it’s another thing entirely to develop the right tactics and approaches to make this work.
If your current tactics aren’t successful, it’s usually either:
1) What you’re asking experts to do requires too much effort. This is common when you create a knowledge base/wiki and expect experts to spend hours of their time creating content for it. It’s probably just not going to happen. The effort is too high. So you need to help them with the heavy lifting (more on that shortly).
2) The perceived rewards are too low to justify the effort. This is common when you want experts to share a testimonial video or spend hours participating in events with tiny audiences. The reach or prestige simply isn’t high enough to make it worthwhile.
The ‘Is it Worth It?’ Line
You can think of an ‘is it worth it?’ line going through the effort vs. reward chart as shown below:
Some common tactics clearly fall on the right side of that line and some fall on the wrong side of that line.
But the real art of what we do here is to make a few simple adjustments to some common tactics and see how reducing the effort or increasing the reward can change everyone.
High-Reward Tactics To Engage Experts To Contribute Knowledge
As we’ve seen, increasing the reward is all about increasing the reach or prestige (scarcity) of the benefit.
Imagine you want your best customers to share a case study of how they use your product. You could try asking them to write an article or record a testimonial, but it’s not clear how it helps them. But what if you increase the prestige by:
- Building a showcase of your top 5 customers. Tell your best customers they’ve been selected. Can they share an article explaining what they did and how well it worked and you will promote it widely.
- Letting all customers nominate themselves for ‘customer of the year’ award. They have to share a case study with results (or even find industry awards they may want to nominate themselves for).
- Featuring experts. Invite a consultant to become a ‘featured expert’ in the community with a monthly column sharing examples and best practices.
- Hosting a monthly showcase. Invite the expert to share their example and take questions in a monthly ‘best of’ showcase.
- Inviting experts to an exclusive gathering. Each person will share their case study with a small group of peers and learn from one another.
- Paying the expert a fee for sharing their case study. You can pay a flat rate or, sometimes better, pay based upon the level of traffic it receives each month (this incentivises the expert to share it widely).
You get the idea. The same tactics can be turned from a failure into a success simply by improving the reward you offer.
It’s a contrary idea but limiting who can share expertise often increases the prestige of it and attracts more knowledge. If you have an article featured in ProjectManagement.com for example, that’s a big deal – but it has to be good!.
It’s also important to be mindful that as people grow their audience or prestige, their cost-benefit equation is likely to change for them.
In the early days of building FeverBee, it made sense to say yes to every opportunity possible. We needed to get our name out there. These days, we need to be more discerning and balance the reward against the effort.
It’s still worth investing dozens of hours in a keynote talk seen by hundreds of key people in the industry. It might be less worthwhile to spend hours on activities that have low reach (or reach the types of audience which we’re not trying to support).
Engaging Experts Through Low-Effort Tactics
The other approach is to make it easier for experts to participate in the community. If you want consultants and partners sharing advice for example, there are plenty of interesting ways you can make it easier for them to do that. For example:
- Asking to repurpose their existing content. Reach out to people who have created popular content in the past and ask if you can republish (or at least include parts of it) with a link back to them. Often experts have a huge back catalogue of great content which isn’t getting any attention (but hasn’t been seen by newcomers in the industry). The Community Leadership Institute is one example of this.
- Aggregating ‘tagged’ content by experts. You might ask experts to tag social media content or blog posts that you can include in your community. Platforms like BazaarVoice, Mavrck, Fohr, Aspire, Olapic, and many others can provide a range of different services for this. FentyBeauty is one example of this in action. Sephora, a past client, even includes this kind of user-generated content on product pages. You will need to filter and approve contributions like this.
- Invite experts to webinars/interviews and turn it into articles. This is where you record a session with an expert (to an audience) and then you take on the hard work of turning this into a great article. It’s more work, but it’s a win-win (they’re more likely to promote it too). Since this is demand-driven, you can also build up a list of key topics from your audience and build articles on each one.
- Creating an advice/opinion round-up. Less common these days, but you can find a topic your audience wants to know more about – ask a group of experts for their best advice on the topic, and publish the results.
This isn’t a comprehensive list by any means, but you get the idea. If you want more participation, you can reduce the effort required.
Creating A Plan To Engage Experts In Your Community
Once you understand all the elements that make a success community tick, you can begin building out the strategic plan.
You will notice that this is goal-driven with clear objectives, targets, channels, and benefits.
Once you have all this in place you can determine the best technology to use. This is the ultimate goal of the process; to create a plan which is aligned with current trends and members needs to deliver the most value to your community.
What Should A Great ‘Success’ Community Look Like?
As you might have noticed, a big requirement of this approach is often being more flexible about how knowledge is integrated within a community. Right now, the typical approach is perhaps best personified within knowledge bases like the one from Anaplan below:
This is probably one of the more successful knowledge bases. But even this only attracts a handful of contributions per year because the reward/benefit ratio isn’t high enough.
You will need to visit the site or open the full image to really understand what’s happening here. But it’s very clearly a community-driven content site (and maybe the best ‘success’ community out there today). The difference is the presentation and permeance of the content.
Long-term, I think a ‘success’ community needs to move beyond a single hosted platform and include a combination of:
- Links to featured experts in the industry (in exchange for their contributions).
- Aggregated content from across the web in newsletters and on the site (The Overflow does this well)
- Aggregated social media content which is getting a lot of attention.
- Regularly hosted events and activities with top experts (which are recorded and converted into knowledge articles).
- Case studies created by industry veterans in exchange for awards (and rewards).
- Invite-only peer group with senior execs.
- Recommended resources and courses by top experts.
Not all of this can be integrated into a standard knowledge-base section of a community. Instead a ‘success’ community will thrive when it resembles a content-driven site created by a community like UXMastery (below) rather than a traditional forum.
This includes a forum but the focus is on member-driven content and providing a definitive set of resources for anyone interested in the topic.
If you want to build a community that features member-driven content, you might have to completely rethink what your community should look like and how it serves the audience and creators.
Examples and Resources
- The Overflow Newsletter
- The Economist Events
p.s. If you want help to build your community strategy, let us know.
We seem to be doing a lot of community benchmarking at the moment.
Benchmarking is essentially comparing one community to similar communities or best practices.
When it’s done well, benchmarking shines a bright light on how you’re doing today, where you need to improve, and shows the path for your community strategy. It’s great ammunition too for showing the value of your work to others.
Without benchmarks, you don’t have much visibility about the big picture. It’s like running a race with a blindfold on. You have no idea if you’re running in the right direction let alone beating the competition.
Benchmarking helps establish reasonable goals, identify opportunities, and priorities.
Sadly most organizations don’t have anything close to the data they need to build out a decent community strategy.
Three Types of Community Benchmarking
We split benchmarking into three categories. These are:
1) Benchmarking against competitors. This is where we compare a community against an organization’s competitors.
2) Benchmarking against alternatives. This is where we compare the benefit a community offers an audience against anywhere else a member can get that benefit.
3) Benchmarking against ‘best in class’ standards. This is where we begin with the best standards in each category and benchmark a community against them.
For the majority of communities, I’d recommend doing the first two. However, if you’re managing a mature, established, community trying to figure out what to do next, then a ‘best in class’ analysis can be helpful (but we’re not going to cover it here).
What Is Competitor Benchmarking?
Competitor benchmarking is where we draw up a list of an organization’s competitors (or community’s competitors) and compare a community against them.
Competitor benchmarking is critical when you want your community to be seen as a competitive advantage. For example, if your community is better than their community, that’s another reason to use your brand vs. theirs.
This is especially important for companies where a supportive community is a critical added value to the product (e.g. a thriving developer community).
In our experience, we’ve also found ‘beating competitors’ to be the single most persuasive argument for attracting more resources for a community. If you don’t have competitor benchmarks, you can’t say where you are today or where you need to go next.
Use Competitor Benchmarks To Set Realistic Expectations
We also use competitor benchmarking to set realistic expectations.
For example, if it took a competitor 3 years to get 100k registered members, you’re not likely to match that within 1 year. A more realistic target might be:
- Year 1: Attract 10k registrations.
- Year 2: Attract 30k registrations.
- Year 3: Attract 50k registrations.
There are a lot of variables here (are they of similar size etc…?), but you get the idea. You can learn from how other communities developed and set realistic targets.
Competitor benchmarks show where you can improve
Finally, we use competitor benchmarks to identify where a client is and isn’t doing well. You should be able to look at the table and easily see the features where your community is beating the competition vs. where it’s struggling.
This lets you either double down on what makes you stand out or try to compensate for your weaknesses.
Criteria For Competitive Benchmarking
You can come up with any criteria you like. But be mindful that benchmarking a community takes a lot of time and it’s not always easy to compare one type of community to another.
We’ve done some deeper investigative work in the past trying to build up a more detailed community picture than is visible on the surface. This includes interviewing members of the community team, snooping on LinkedIn, browsing their job descriptions etc…to build a picture of their budget, team structure, ROI etc….but it’s time-consuming.
In most cases, we want to evaluate a community without needing to have any unique/special access to it. This means we typically look at things we can find in the public sphere.
This typically includes a combination of:
- Date founded. This helps you set realistic targets (find the oldest post or use archive.org).
- Platform(s). This is the community’s technology stack (use builtwith.com or look at the source code).
- Lifecycle stage. Where are they in the community lifecycle?
- Access. Is the community public or private? Do you need special permissions/approval to participate? This has a big impact on the quantity and quality of participation. Try registering and see what happens.
- No. Registered members. Look at listed registered members or member profile URL numbers to find the highest-end number.
- Search. Do they use the platform search tool or a federated/cognitive search tool? Use builtwith.com or look at the source code. Coveo and SearchUnify are common options.
- Level of activity. No. questions per day is a common metric. Either manually count posts for a day or count for a few hours and average over a day (note: some platforms let you use numbers in discussion post URLs so you can work this out).
- Quality of response. Are the responses good and informative or uninformative, unhelpful, responses? Use this benchmarking template.
- Time to first response, response rate, accepted solution rate. If you can’t scrape this data, you can take a random sample of 50 to 100 posts and calculate this for yourself.
- No. groups. Sub-groups are a good indicator of the maturity of a community (but only if they’re active). Manually count these where possible.
- Gamification. Does the community use gamification tools? Are they basic or advanced? I.e. Is the community using the default gamification settings or have they developed advanced, custom, missions/point systems for their audience?
- MVP/Superuser program. How many superusers does the community have? How well documented and detailed is the program?
- CMS. Does the community integrate with a blog/CMS? Is it widely used/kept up to date?
- Knowledge base. Does the community host/use a knowledge base? How widely used it is? Is knowledge kept up to date?
- Social Media. Usually pull metrics Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. This gives you a signal if the community is overperforming or underperforming against other platforms which target similar audiences.
- Events. Does the community host events? How many? What kind etc? How well attended do they seem to be?
This is a typical list, you can often add or remove those which are and aren’t relevant to you. However, it’s a good place to begin.
Example Of Competitor Benchmarks
Let’s use a typical example of competitor benchmarks here:
Now you have the data, it’s important to use it the right way.
Be mindful of the following:
1) Every community lives within its own unique set of circumstances. Some advantageous, others disadvantageous. It’s a lot easier to have 500k members if you have 100 million customers. It’s a lot harder if you have 1 million. It’s often interesting to use a ratio of comparing community engagement (and registrations) to social media followings to see if the ratio is similar to others.
2) Every community has different objectives. Salesforce clearly has a strong community effort – but that doesn’t mean every community should be like Salesforce. You might not want to integrate your community deeply with am LMS. The level of activity for example, often depends upon things you can’t control. So use your judgment and knowledge of your strategy.
The purpose of this process is to give you more insights you can use to build a better community strategy – not provide a set of definitive answers.
If you’re Tableau for example, you might wonder why forum activity is low when so many things are so strong. If you’re ServiceNow, you might start thinking about improving the MVP program and facilitating more events in the community.
If you’re Atlassian, you might start looking at what Tableau does in their superuser program and see what you can improve.
When done well, competitive benchmarking gives you a rich dataset you can use to develop a better community strategy
Data Scraping – Hard To Do, But Tremendously Insightful
Another thing we do for clients (where possible) is scrape data from communities to compare them by size, speed of response, response rate, and accepted solution rate.
This isn’t always possible (Salesforce communities are notoriously painful in this regard). But when it works, the data (as you can see below) is illuminating. It becomes clear, as you can see below, which are the top performers for their size and which need to be improved:
Once you can see data like this, you can find communities of a similar size, on a similar platform, or in a similar sector, and nudge yourself more towards them.
Looking at the above, you can see some obvious areas of improvement:
- UiPath and Dell: Improve the average time to first response.
- eBay, TomTom, and Square: Improve the accepted solution rate
- AWS & ARM: Improve the response rate etc…
Using your competitive benchmarks, you should be able to set yourself realistic targets and get inspiration for what to do next. Knowing industry averages is really useful here.
What Is Alternative Benchmarking?
Alternative benchmarking compares the potential benefits of a community with other places members can go to get those benefits. It’s critical in establishing the unique positioning of your community.
It essentially acknowledges your community isn’t the only game in town.
Sure, people can go to your community to ask questions and get help. But they can also go to Google, browse documentation/knowledge articles, call the customer support line and ask friends. If the goal of your community is to resolve problems, alternative benchmarking recognises that there are plenty of other places people can go to resolve problems.
The same is true with any benefit your community offers your audience. Whether it’s belonging, a chance to explore a topic with like-minded others, or influence – there are plenty of other places members can go to get those things. Why would they visit your community? What is the tremendous unique value your community offers?
For example, if you’re building a community for exports to proactively share advice and expertise (a ‘success’ community), why would your target audience when they can share advice on social media and build their own following? What can your community offer that they don’t?
This is where alternative benchmarking matters.
Criteria For Alternatives Benchmarking
There are plenty of ways to benchmark alternatives. We usually begin by identifying the value a community is trying to offer a community. This usually falls into four categories: support, exploration, influence, and belonging.
Which of these four (you can pick more than one) are the primary benefits of the community to an audience?
Next use the table below to go deeper and find out specifically which of these members care more about:
How To Discover What Matters Most
It’s easy to build a list like this above. But you want to know which of these your audience cares about the most.
Surveys tend to be the best way of gathering this data (but if that’s not possible, you can simply ask members). Here’s a client example below:
It’s worth noting that member research isn’t perfect. In my experience reducing effort to get a response is usually what members like the most. But that rarely ranks highly on surveys. Over time you get the hang of these nuances.
As we can see from the above, there are three broad groups of things members want here. Detailed responses, followed by access and speed. Personalisation and responses from experts don’t rank highly.
Example Of Competitor Benchmarks
You can find a (slightly) altered client version of these benchmarks below:
Looking at this it becomes clear the community has a problem in the eyes of members. It doesn’t do anything particularly well. However, by seeing how other platforms are doing we can identify two clear opportunities here. These are:
- The community could aim to improve the speed of response. It won’t compete with the WhatsApp group, but WhatsApp is a tiny group. This is probably the biggest opportunity today.
- The community could improve convenience. No other widely used channel does this extremely well. LinkedIn is hardly a threat and WhatsApp is too small to matter. By making the community more convenient (improving the login/registration process) etc…the community becomes the most convenient place to get support.
Using Benchmarking Data To Shape Strategy
The real magic however is combining the benchmarking data with the data about what members want to figure out exactly what you should be doing next.
You’re looking to answer four questions here.
1) Where should you double-down on what’s going well? (i.e. where is your community relatively strong vs. the competition and where is the level of audience interest high?)
2) Where should you level up? (i.e. Where is your community relatively weak vs. the competition and where is the level of audience interest high?)
3) What should you stop doing? (i.e. Where is your community relatively strong in areas with a low level of audience interest?)
4) What should you avoid doing? (i.e. Where is your community weak in areas where audience interest is weak?)
This might make more sense in a simple chart shown below:
Let’s use (a different client example) to see how this might look in practice.
p.s. It’s also good to have a ‘costly mistakes’ box when a colleague asks you to ‘just create a wiki’.
What Should You Work On Next?
Now we have this rich data, we can help clients create data-driven community strategies with short-term action plans.
This might look something like this.
Objective 1: Improve staff accessibility within the community.
- Activity 1: Create a weekly session for PMs and rotating senior executives to take questions from the community.
- Activity 2: Set a target for % of questions touched by staff. Set a target for staff to engage in an increasing number of questions within the community.
- Activity 3: Create a framework and provide training for staff to engage in any question.
Objective 2: Reduce the effort involved to engage with the community
- Activity 4: Pre-popular question text with common questions and show related search results. This helps answers to show up without members having to ask the question.
- Activity 5: Integrate the community with the product. This means enabling questions to appear alongside the product as members go about using it.
Objective 3: Bring speed of response up to the industry average.
(this is usually around 48 to 72 hours).
- Activity 6: Automatically escalate unanswered questions to a community MVP channel via Zapier after 24 hours. This ensures more members will get a response to the question.
- Activity 7: Automatically escalate unanswered questions to product experts after 48 hours.
Objective 4: Bring the accuracy of responses up to industry average.
- Activity 8: Evaluate accuracy and train. Pull a sample of posts provided by community MVPs each month and check for accuracy. Those with the lowest accuracy are invited to an exclusive training session. If they don’t attend, address the issue directly.
How Frequently Should You Do Benchmarking?
Once a year feels about the right time frame for me.
We have some clients we do benchmarking for on an annual basis.
The great thing about independent benchmarking is you get to see all the improvements you’ve made in the year beyond those which can only be captured in a graph showing engagement or the number of active members.
If you do your benchmarking this year, I’d set a calendar invitation to do it around the same time next year too.
Why It’s Important To Get Your Benchmarking Done
Benchmarking gives you a comprehensive picture of how your community is doing within its environment. It gives you an incredibly rich dataset filled with information you can use to build your strategy and action plans.
We’ve only really scratched the surface in the insights benchmarking can provide you.
Once you’ve got the full dataset, you can do awesome things like:
- Track progress against competitors over several years.
- Run user experience testing against competitor sites and make quick adaptations.
- Set realistic target ranges and achieve them by incorporating the features which have worked elsewhere.
- Spot new competitors and adapt quickly to prevent losing members.
- Invest your time in the areas which have the biggest impact.
- Check and compare ratios of engagement to social media followers to see if your community is performing at the right level.
You can use the framework above and do the benchmarking yourself, or you can get benchmarking done professionally (by firms like FeverBee). But whichever road you go, make sure you get your community benchmarks. You will find them tremendously useful when deciding what you should do next.
If you’ve ever wondered why your community isn’t growing, it’s probably because you’re leaving growth to chance.
It’s common to focus on doing fun, engaging, activities in a community and hope growth takes care of itself. This is a mistake.
The problem is if you don’t get more people to visit the community, no-one new is going to see all the engaging things you’re doing.
This is why the majority of things you do don’t have a big impact on community membership – they don’t get more visitors in the first place.
If you want to radically grow a community, you need to match your engagement efforts with a targeted promotional push.
This post is about the best techniques and channels to do just that.
The Best Channels To Grow Your Community Community
If you want to grow a community, you need to be deliberate about how you do. Simply ‘doing a good job’ doesn’t grow a community.
In our community strategies, we develop a clear plan of growth by identifying the main channels to use and then the specific actions we will take on each of them.
This isn’t a comprehensive list, but the main tools of community growth are usually:
- Search visitors. This is traffic from search engines (Google, Bing, Brave etc..).
- Customer support flow. This is when people are trying to find an answer to their question through support channels and get redirected to your community.
- Homepage placement. This is when the community appears somewhere prominently on the homepage for people browsing around.
- Product integration. This is when the community is a clickable link within the product (or members can simply participate in the community from the product i.e. in-app communities).
- Related articles. This is when the community shows up alongside related articles people are looking at on a company website.
- Newsletter promotion. This is when the organization promotes the community to an audience subscribed to a mailing list.
- Paid social ads. This is when the organization pays to promote the community through ads or promoted posts on social media.
- Social media. This is when you promote the community through the popular channels members use every day.
- Member referrals. This is when members invite others to join the community or share community content on social channels.
- Partnerships and influencers. This is when the community is partnered with another organization (or influencers) and traffic is sent in both directions.
- Direct invitations. This is when the community team sends individual outreach messages inviting people to join.
You can take very deliberate and specific actions to use each of these tools to grow a community.
Which Channel Of Growth Is Best For Your Community?
Not every tool is suitable for growing every type of community. It doesn’t make sense to individually invite people to a support community.
One additional member isn’t worth the effort. Nor does it make sense to promote small peer groups on the community homepage. A flood of traffic will do more harm than good.
You can see a breakdown of the right tool for each type of community here.
Some of this is subjective, but you get a general idea.
For support communities that are usually high-traffic volume, you need tools that can also deliver a high volume of traffic. For smaller communities, you’re working at the micro-level and need the right tools to match.
If you want to grow a community, the first step is to identify which are the right tools for your community.
The Smaller The Community, The More Influence You Have Over Growth
Generally speaking, the smaller the group the more direct influence you have over the level of growth.
If you’re building a support community, your influence is usually somewhat limited. This is because the number of visitors depends upon how many people have the kind of questions support communities are best placed to solve. There are some things you can do to optimize traffic flows, but you’re fundamentally playing within a given set of constraints.
However, if you’re building a small community of peers, your influence is much greater. You often individually invite people to join and you’re responsible for keeping them active.
The bigger the audience you’re dealing with, the more growth depends upon sources of traffic you have less direct influence over. Be mindful of this when you’re given engagement targets.
p.s. The level of influence over direct growth is also the level of influence you have over member retention.
How To Get More Visitors To Your Community
Once you know which tools are best suited to your community, you can start to figure out how to optimize each of them.
This isn’t going to be a comprehensive list, but will cover some of the steps which have given us the most mileage in the past.
1. Community Search Traffic
Search is a black box of conflicting advice, but some general principles seem to work well.
There are several ways to improve your search results. The most common are:
- Removing/archiving old content. Use tools like ScreamingFrog to pull a list of articles/discussions and combine this with criteria to highlight discussions that haven’t received any traffic in the past year. Then remove them from the search index (or the discussion entirely with redirects to category-level topics).
- Match categories/tags to terms that are searched for. Use tools like Ahrefs and customer research to identify what people are searching for and ensure categories/tags are named accordingly (i.e. so they appear in every URL/page for that topic). Also ensure the site configuration is set up to properly complete the title tags, meta descriptions, alt-images text, and h1/h2 tags etc…
- Target specific keywords with resources. Communities are fantastic tools for compiling the best expertise from members into a definitive resource for a particular topic. Once published, you can also help members to share and promote the resources (aside – a definitive guide to tools/settings often seem popular).
- Improve the navigation/content architecture. This helps limit orphan pages that aren’t linked to within the site but exist on the site. These should be removed or included within a rebuilt navigation structure. Too many community sites have awful navigation/content architecture.
- Hosting the community on the domain rather than a subdomain. If you can, host the community in a folder (or seemingly in a folder) rather than a subdomain, i.e. it’s better to have brand.com/brand/community than community.brandname.com. This is hard to do without hosting the community yourself.
- Improving the site load speed. Be aware some platforms are remarkably slow to load compared to others. In my experiments, Flarum seems to have the best load speeds (and Salesforce the slowest). If you can’t switch platforms, at least remove every non-essential script/video/image you don’t need on the site (remove annoying pop-ups if you can too).
- Rewrite posts and merge duplicate posts. Make a habit of rewriting post discussion titles for things people actually search for. Also be mindful to merge discussions with duplicate titles (or very similar titles) to create single-comprehensive discussions.
If you need more help with search, contact us and we can undertake an audit with follow-up recommendations.
2. Customer Onboarding And Support Flow
The onboarding flow is how and if a customer learns about the community. Our surveys often reveal many customers don’t know a community exists (aside, I’ve also been in senior exec meetings where participants made the same startling discovery). The support flow is how members go about resolving questions. A change in the positioning or prominence of the community in the support flow can have a big impact upon participation.
The best ways to optimize this include:
- Introduce newcomers into the community (and setting up a place for them). For success and support communities, making newcomers aware of the community in the early documentation and training, and having customer support/success reps telling audiences about the community is key.
- Place the community above the support center (Okta example). Make ‘ask the community’ the default option for people looking for support answers. Position it above the ‘contact us’ option.
- Federated search to retrieve community discussions. Ideally, you want a search tool (Coveo/SearchUnify) that can retrieve information from throughout the support center (both discussions and help articles). This can greatly increase the number of people arriving at the community.
- Reminding callers about community while on hold. I’ve only seen this done once, but a message advising people on hold they can ask questions in the community can add a (small) number of active members.
- Create and communicate the right positioning messages for community vs. support. Make it clear when and how people should use the community. This should appear on your community homepage and be consistent in every other message.
3. Homepage Placement
A lot more people are going to find your community if it’s featured on the main navigation tab than if it’s buried several levels deep. Sometimes this tweak alone can double the amount of traffic a community receives.
At the top level, you want the community in the main navigation tab. If not, you want it featured first in the support tab/help center. If not there, then you’re not going to get much referral traffic.
The SAP Community (below) is a best in class example here:
4. Product Integration
This is more relevant to some products than others. The more integrated the community is with the product itself, the more traffic you’re likely to get. There are some wins here:
- Prominent inclusion in the product. If you can include the community as a simple click from the product itself, this can help. Quickbooks (below) is a good example of this.
- Packaging. It’s relatively rare, but I’ve seen the community featured on packaging for products. “For support, visit community.brand.com”. It’s probably not a big win, but can help.
- In-app community. Some organizations have an in-app community which can be directly integrated with the product so customers/audiences can directly ask questions without having to leave the app. Other times I’ve seen software error messages link to the community where people can get support/ask questions.
5. Related Articles
A major way to drive traffic to a community is to ensure it shows up in more places ‘in the flow’ of where people visit today. A common missed opportunity is connecting the metadata from knowledge articles to community discussions and using it to show related community discussions alongside knowledge articles.
For example, for any knowledge article, you could show related community discussions in the sidebar that members might find useful.
Another option is to include an option to ask a question about any article at the bottom of the article itself. Apple does this well.
6. Newsletter Promotion
You can get bumps in traffic from properly promoting the community within a newsletter which goes out to a majority of customers (or your audience). The newsletter isn’t a suitable option for customer support communities, but it can be useful for success communities (promoting individual items of great community content) and using it to help get user groups and new peer groups quickly to a critical mass of activity.
7. Paid Social Ads
It’s not common for organizations to launch paid social media to promote a community, but it can be useful when an organization doesn’t have a newsletter audience to promote a new community initiative (and has limited time to build an audience).
It’s best used for a small number of success and exclusive peer group communities (the kind that charges a membership fee to make a budget worthwhile). I’ve seen the cost of acquiring a new member range between $4 to $120.
8. Social Media
If you have an existing audience, social media can help you amplify discussions to a broader audience. This works well in success, advocacy, and peer groups. If you don’t have a big audience, social media can be the best place to look for the first trickle of discussions.
- Promoting good discussions on social media channels. When you have discussions (or content) that are becoming popular in the community, you can boost traffic by also promoting them on social media too. MoneySavingExpert (below) is a good example.
- Finding new members on LinkedIn. Another tactic is to recruit new members directly from social media. LinkedIn and Twitter, for example, provide a great channel to promote the community to new audiences. You can search specifically for the people you want to join and invite them. This works especially well for smaller peer groups. This is where knowing tools like Canva can really help.
- Platform referrals. Sometimes the platform will automatically promote your group/community/content to others on the same platform. Facebook groups are a good example. There might be a way to optimize this with the right name/description, but I haven’t yet worked out how. Reddit is another one where the community facilitates mass cross-promotion of related groups from one to another.
9. Member Referrals
In theory, as a community grows more people talk about it and it grows. In practice, that doesn’t happen as much as you might think. Most people don’t go around recommending communities to each other. However, there are a couple of things you can do to help facilitate referrals.
- Engage members in creating a shared project. If you engage members in creating a shared project, they’re quite likely to share it with others. This works especially well with eBooks, events, and similar activities where members will promote the community to others (aside this post is 13 years old and still relevant).
- Lists or rankings of top members. I hate that this still works in 2022, but creating a list of top community members (or industry influencers) tends to attract a lot of promotion and people on the list sharing it with others. If members can even vote and rank the list, even better.
- Enable member sharing/referrals. Increasing the prominence of shared options (all the usual social channels) can provide a small boost. But most people don’t share community discussions unless something remarkable is happening. For peer groups and user groups, inviting members to invite others (or giving members a fixed number of invites they can use per month) can really help grow a community.
- Create content worth sharing. A final option is perhaps the most obvious, create things worth sharing. As mentioned before, definitive guides to specific topics can attract a lot of attention. Especially when members have played a part in creating it.
- Influencers. The common myth is you need influencers to launch a community. You don’t. But they can be great people to help promote a community once it’s launched. The most common are hosting events featuring influencers, letting influencers curate discussions/have their own ask me anything category for a short-time, hosting panels with influencers or simply paying influencers to answer questions. The more influencers know a community exists, the more likely they will mention it at some point to their audience. This isn’t a big win, but it can help.
- Existing organizations/communities. You should have a clear ecosystem map of related organizations/similar events in your space. You can offer a partnership where you promote them if they promote you. This works especially well for events which don’t have their own community. You can be the community for events. Likewise, you can reach out to large organizations and suggest your community be added as a resource for new/existing employees etc.
11. Direct invitations
Direct invitations are primarily used to get people to join small groups. At the larger side, it doesn’t make sense to send out invitations directly to members. An additional member doesn’t move the needle. Therefore direct invites work best for attracting advocates, launching small groups of peers, and creating a program of superusers (one client fantastically referred to the superuser invites as the ‘Hogwarts letters’).
There are plenty of useful scripts you can use here. However, fundamentally, the name of this game is about customizing the approach to make each recipient feel like they’re being invited to something special based upon their skills, knowledge, or personal attributes. In short, it’s about making the recipient feel as special as possible.
If you’re launching a new group, you can easily find and send messages to numerous people on LinkedIn, Twitter, and other channels who might want to join.
Create A 12-Week Growth Plan
I’ve found it works best to create a ‘12-week sprint’ when it comes to growth. 12 weeks is arbitrary, but the key is to figure out which options make sense to you and then put this into a specific plan for growth.
You can see an example below:
This growth plan is probably too ambitious for 12 weeks, but it shows the full range of activities available. If you’re going to deliberately grow a community, you need a specific plan to do it that everyone can rally around.
Don’t Leave Growth To Chance!
We teach our clients not to let growth happen by chance.
Sure, you might get a surge of new members who happen to stumble upon your community. But you’re going to be far more successful if you deliberately drive a group of new visitors to your community.
You can (and should) develop a deliberate plan of growth (i.e. a 12-week plan), target a couple of channels, and then work hard to optimize each of them.
You have more influence over some of these channels than others. The trick is to figure out which are the best channels for your community and how you can best optimize them. This isn’t a comprehensive list of resources, but it should help.
If you don’t know which model of community you’re building (and the conventions of that model), you’re probably going to struggle.
Community models can be as distinct from one another as Abrahamic religions. We might share a common faith in connecting people, but the best practices of each model vary greatly.
If you follow #CMGR on Twitter, it often feels like community builders live in different worlds sharing conflicting advice and ideas. The truth is most people are sharing advice that works for their model of community building.
Whether it works for you or not depends largely on if you’re following a similar model to them.
Community Building Models Which Work in 2022
The main brand (emphasis on the word brand here) community building models today fall within five buckets. Each bucket has unique conventions.
For example, if you’re building a support community, creating a sense of community isn’t such a big deal. Most people just want to get answers to their questions and be on their way. However, if you’re building peer groups or user groups, then creating that sense of belonging is far more important (this is the essence of this debate).
For sure, you absolutely can succeed by defying these models and blazing your own trail. But you’re making life much harder for yourself. This is because the success of each model depends upon embracing the conventions of that model.
What Are Community Building Conventions?
Like writing a movie, it’s best to pick a genre and stick to the conventions of that genre.
Sure, sometimes you can defy conventions and succeed, but there’s a reason we don’t see many romantic horror movies; audiences have preferences.
This is true for communities too. Conventions of community models reflect the preferences of their audiences. These preferences cover four key areas:
1) Value to members. This is the unique value you need to offer (and promote) to members. Without the right value, members won’t visit.
2) Critical success factors. This is what needs to be present within your community for members to get that value. Without these, members won’t stick around for long.
3) Key challenges. This is the hard part of making that model work. It’s what your strategy should be designed to overcome.
4) Platform. This is the technology members prefer to achieve that outcome (defy this at your own risk).
So, for example:
- If you’re building a support community, pick a forum platform which is easy to scan and search for information, nurture a group of superusers, and do everything you can to redirect people with questions from other channels to the community.
- If you want people to share how they use products, embrace blogs, videos, and social media where people already share expertise. Aggregate them into a single place. Prune the bad and feature the best.
- If you want advocates to say nice things about you to others, use a dedicated advocacy platform and provide rewards advocates actually want. Put strong training and quality controls in place.
- If you want to nurture peer groups (especially elite peer groups), you need to keep it exclusive, spend time welcoming each person, and invest heavily in great facilitation (rather than moderation!) on a simple group messaging tool.
- If you want user groups, then find the right leaders, use dedicated (virtual) event software, and create systems to scale it up rapidly.
The more conventions of the model you embrace, the more successful you’re likely to be.
When you defy the models, you’re going to struggle because you’re trying to change the preferences of your audience.
Member preferences are so critically important (and, sadly, so commonly ignored).
Let’s Be Honest About Member Preferences
Understanding the real preferences of members will save you a lot of time and money.
Often we do things that are clearly against the preferences of our audiences.
Here’s a couple of questions:
How many brand communities do you regularly participate in by choice (i.e. not because you need a problem fixed?)
When you engage with peers in the industry, how often do you do it in forums hosted by a major brand?
How often do you contribute articles to knowledge bases in a brand community?
If you answered ‘none/never’ to all of the above, why would you think your audience is any different?
If you’re trying to persuade your members to do something you’ve never done (or wouldn’t do), you’re probably not being honest about member preferences (which usually aren’t so dissimilar from your own).
Too often we try to build communities that are clearly running contrary to the preferences of members. This means we’re going to end up fighting against the odds.
Different Audiences Have Different Conventions Too!
To make matters a little more confusing, sometimes there are unique conventions for specific audiences too.
One recent prospect complained that since they moved their developer community from Discourse to their integrated Salesforce platform, participation had plummeted. Developers had simply begun using a member-hosted Slack channel instead.
Why did this happen?
Because Discourse is better for developers, it has features developers like and are more familiar with. It’s a widely accepted convention that developers use Discourse. When you battle natural preferences, you’re usually going to lose.
Likewise, I recently talked a game developer out of launching a forum for gamers to hang out and chat. That’s simply not where gamers go anymore. They prefer Discord, Reddit and other channels.
It doesn’t take much research to identify the conventions you’re working with.
You can battle against user preferences if you want, but it is going to be a battle.
If You Don’t Embrace The Right Conventions, You’re Probably Fighting The Odds
Sometimes you see the same mistakes so often you start to wonder why no-one seems to learn from them?
For example, around 95% of groups hosted within hosted brand communities are devoid of any activity.
This means your odds of making sub-groups work within your hosted community are around 5%.
Unless you’re playing the lottery, those are terrible odds.
But that doesn’t stop community after community trying to make it work. Some don’t know the odds, others simply think that their situation is different.
And you might well be different. You might just have the audience and unique circumstance to make it work for you, but you’re always going to be fighting the odds.
This is the crux of the problem:
Instead of embracing the natural preferences and behaviors of our audiences, we try to persuade them to change their preferences.
Once you start trying to change preferences of members, you’re stacking the odds against you.
Sadly, many people seem to have a completely false idea of the odds against some of their community plans.
Five Reasons We Don’t Fully Appreciate The Odds Of Success
This isn’t a comprehensive list, but in my experience there tend to be five common reasons we don’t fully understand the odds of success in a community activity (or don’t understand the preferences of members).
1) Success bias. Failures are naturally removed from the web. This only leaves successful examples. Yet for every success there might be dozens of failures. The reverse is also true. Often a single successful example inspires dozens of failures.
2) Imagining people who don’t really exist. We imagine there are time-rich people unlike ourselves who are happy to take the time to learn new tools, write long knowledge articles, and share their success stories with others. If you can’t find an abundance of real people with preferences to match your idea, you need to change your idea (rather than try to change the people!).
3) Preferences change. There was a time when people happily hung out in forums chatting to friends. For some older generations, this may still be true. But I’m betting few (if any) of us still do it today. Preferences have changed and we haven’t stayed current with the modern preferences of our audiences.
4) Software vendors promote their solutions for every situation. There is a big difference between a platform offering a feature and members wanting to use the feature (on that platform). In theory, groups, knowledge bases, and gamification can all be really useful, but most of the time members won’t use (or care about) any of these features. If you haven’t used any of these features on another brand’s community before, why do you think your members will?
5) The desire to ‘Do Something’. A new VP of marketing arrives, sees a collection of disparate platforms, and decides this is confusing, wasteful, and cluttered. She decides to do something and suggests a far better solution; bring everything together into one integrated experience. But this runs contrary to the preferences of members as we’ll explore in a moment.
Each of these really skews the real odds of success when you run against member preferences.
You can’t resist them entirely, but try to be mindful of their impact.
Can You Embrace Multiple Community Building Models At The Same Time?
Yes, but you have to embrace all the conventions (and challenges) of each model!
You can’t just combine them together and hope it works.
For example, many support communities (people asking/answering questions) also try to be a ‘success’ community (where people proactively share best practices).
Typically, this is a struggle. Preferences today suggest people don’t go to forums to learn. In most fields today, people share knowledge and learn directly from blogs, video sharing sites, and other social media tools.
You become a ‘success’ community by either finding members willing to submit this kind of content into your community (difficult) or aggregating and filtering the content already out there (a lot easier). Patagonia and Peleton are good examples of this.
Likewise, if you want to build private peer groups where people hang out and chat, that’s not likely to happen within a hosted community platform. You need to use platforms where people are most likely to hang out and chat. That’s usually group messaging apps (Slack, WhatsApp groups, even email works well at small scale). You need to keep each small, private, and exclusive (i.e. don’t invite everyone). You need to link these to the community (and vice versa).
This makes measurement difficult.
But, believe me, it’s far better to make life difficult for your metrics than your members.
Some Simple Questions To Guide The Model You Use
FeverBee invests a ridiculous amount of time researching and understanding the preferences of our clients’ audiences.
We do this because it’s a lot easier to embrace preferences than try to change them.
If we embrace the preferences, we stack the odds of success in our favour.
Sadly, so many strategies today are built upon wishful thinking rather than preferences identified by members. This usually reflects a failure to take a data-driven approach and not spending anywhere near enough time really understanding the audience today.
In fact, just by asking a handful of simple questions (shown below) you can uncover a great deal of member preferences.
This isn’t a comprehensive list but you get the idea.
Begin the process with a blank slate and a completely open mind and you’re far more likely to find the right model and platform for you.
The model of community you’re developing influences everything you do.
It highlights the value you should communicate to members, the key metrics you need to track, the major challenges you should overcome, and the platform you select.
If your community isn’t where you want it to be today, there’s a very strong chance you either have the wrong model (or you’re not embracing the conventions of that model).
I’d suggest a few key steps here:
1) Use the template questions above to identify value and platform preferences. You will likely find they fall the platform preferences match the model.
2) Get everyone aligned on the model. Everyone involved in building the community needs to understand the model you’re using and the conventions of that model. Defy the conventions at your peril.
3) Develop your strategy to achieve the critical success factors of the model. Align everything you do to get those critical success factors in place. Use the resources and strengths you have to overcome the challenges of each model.
Having created dozens of community designs and evaluated many more, I feel confident in saying that most community homepages today are terrible.
Or, to be more precise, they are targeted at people who don’t exist while trying to satisfy needs their audience doesn’t have.
Fortunately, by being pragmatic, learning the basics, and making a few small tweaks, you can drastically improve the community experience to be much, much, better.
Note: by homepage, I’m talking about the main introductory page of your community. Whatever you consider the single ‘home’ of your community, that’s what I’m talking about.
The Most Important Principle Of A Great Community Homepage
We can boil pretty much everything down to one principle;
Is the majority of content in the community relevant to the majority of visitors?
If it’s not, people don’t visit.
If I visit a community that shows 20 discussions and 15 of them are within a topic that’s relevant to me; that’s good. I’m highly likely to keep coming back because most of the content is relevant to me. If only 1 in 20 are relevant, I probably won’t. The effort is too high for the reward.
The same is true of other features shown on the homepage too. If the majority of them aren’t relevant to the majority of visitors, they shouldn’t be on there.
This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be on the community at all (although that’s often up for discussions), but they shouldn’t be on the homepage.
You can usually remove a lot of clutter from a homepage and improve the outcomes by following the relevancy principle.
But this raises the big question; relevant to whom?
Who Visits Community Homepages (and what they want to find)
How often do you casually visit a brand community homepage (that isn’t your own!)? Actually take a second to think about it.
If you’re like most people, your answer is probably fairly close to never.
We have to drop the idea that people are actively seeking to join brand communities. Believe me, the data is pretty clear that the majority of visitors to a community fall into one of three buckets. You can see these below:
We can dive deeper into each group below:
Audience 1 – Disappointed Seekers (60% to 80%)
For most brand communities, the majority of people arrive at the community by searching for a topic on Google when they have a problem. This group skips straight past the homepage to the specific article/discussion itself.
They only visit the homepage when they don’t get the answer they need. Now they want to do one of three things:
1) Search the community for relevant terms to find the answer they need.
2) Ask a question to find the answer they need (this means they have to register).
3) Look for the contact details for customer support.
There are some important things to know about this group:
1) They’re frustrated with the problem and disappointed they haven’t gotten an answer yet.
2) They want to expand the least possible mental effort to resolve their problem. Every barrier you put in their way of doing any of the above increases the likelihood they will go elsewhere.
3) They aren’t remotely interested in anything other than solving their problem. They don’t want to belong to a group of peers, connect with others, or share their advice. Anything which isn’t aligned with their problem is redundant (or worse, annoying).
Perhaps the most important thing to know about this group is this comprises 60% to 80% of visitors to most community homepages.
In short, this is the primary audience you’re designing for.
p.s. If your community is private, you can skip this group.
Audience 2 – Curious, Casual, Visitors (5% to 10%)
Curious, casual, visitors comprise of everyone who clicked a link from somewhere else to visit your community. The most common examples are:
1) Clicked a link on your homepage.
2) Clicked a link from the product itself.
3) Clicked a link shared on social media or promoted in the newsletter.
In most cases, they are newcomers to the topic/product itself. They’re not looking to solve an immediate problem, but they are very open to being surprised.
This is a really interesting group.
These folks browsed to the community from your main site or clicked on a referral and are just curious to see what’s out there. They’re not looking to solve a problem, but they are usually receptive to the following:
1) Beginner-level help. The best beginner content is usually some combination of examples, breakdowns, how to get started, and equipment/configuration recommendations.
2) Surprise value. This is anything immediate and likely to be useful. It includes upcoming events, topical discussions, new articles.
3) Finding people who can help. They may not have a specific question, but they’re open to finding people who can help them on their journey in the future (or simply people like themselves).
When this group visits your homepage they are typically:
1) Curious. They’re open to being impressed and will pay more attention to the messaging and content of the page itself.
2) Time-limited. While you have a window to impress them, it’s relatively short. They will make 5 to 6 clicks in your community max. If they don’t find something in that time, they’re not going to come back again anytime soon.
They will register (and possibly even join groups/follow topics) if there is something valuable enough to get them to do so. Aligning your value proposition to their needs is critical.
Audience 3 – Regular Visitors (1% to 5%)
These are the people who know your community well, visit frequently, and like to share what they know. They’ve often been visiting your community for months – even years.
Their goals in visiting the community are usually looking to do the following:
1) Find questions they can answer (or share their knowledge and help others).
2) Learn something new. They often browse past answers to see if they can learn from the responses of others.
3) Talk directly to the brand. They want to engage directly with people who work for the organization.
In some communities (especially developer communities), this will look quite different.
The key thing to know about this group is they’re visiting because they believe the community will satisfy their desires, not their immediate needs. These include:
1) Feel important/useful. They want to feel like they matter and they are making unique, useful, contributions to the community.
2) Feel influential. They want to feel like they can influence the brand. If they don’t, they are far less likely to stay engaged.
3) Feel connected. Some even want to feel connected to each other. This is often a tiny group of a dozen people or so who engage in a private group.
The key factor on the homepage is to minimize the effort required for them to gain these benefits. For example, if they can’t easily find questions they can answer, they’re probably not going to participate much.
What Should Be On The Homepage?
We can match these profiles to very specific things which should be on a community homepage:
- Search box.
- CTA to ask a question.
- Registration form.
- Contact us option.
Curious, Casual, Visitors
- Registration form.
- Most popular articles/discussions.
- Ability to browse back to the company homepage.
- Unanswered questions
- Recent questions
- Ability to reach a private group
The Key Features of A Community Homepage
I won’t dive too deep into taxonomy here. But we can turn these into some very specific feature requirements for a typical community homepage.
1) Tier one domain-level navigation bar. This lets people quickly navigate back to the homepage and other areas of the corporate site.
2) Tier two community-level navigation bar. This lets people quickly and easily navigate through and around the community.
3) Banner with a clear value proposition. This should convey the unique value of your community.
4) Search bar. This occupies a prominent position where people can search for and find everything they want. Ideally, it should be a cognitive search that retrieves information from both community content and other support articles.
5) Registration/login section. This should show for visitors who aren’t logged in only. Once logged in, this shouldn’t appear.
6) A clear CTA to ask a question. This should appear on the homepage (not buried within specific topic pages).
7) Liveliness statistics. If you’re a larger community, show the liveliness statistics. Some brands like total membership count, questions, answers etc. I prefer response rate, time to first response etc…This lets the casual visitor know the potential value of this community.
8) Upcoming activity. This is the ‘surprise value’ for casual visitors. It’s often promoted in the newsletter and other channels.
9) Popular topics. A list of popular topics within the community which people can easily find and browse through.
10) Latest activity. This shows the latest activity within the community where a regular visitor can browse and quickly respond.
11) Footer. Providing an easy means to navigate around the community.
What Might A Homepage Look Like?
You can see most of the principles in place here, but it’s worth going into a little more depth as you can see below:
If you’re using a sidebar, you can come up with a very different design. But using a Discourse template you can see all the elements in place here.
1) Top link-navigation bar.
2) Community-level navigation bar.
3) Clear positioning and value statement with strong contrast against the background.
4) Search box.
5) Registration form on the homepage.
6) A warm, inviting, background (most communities have really cold, sterile, corporate, backgrounds).
7) A list of popular topics members can quickly find.
8) Surprise value in the ‘news flash’ of an upcoming event.
9) Showing the latest discussions.
10) A clear CTA to start a new discussion (this could probably be stronger but we include them below as well).
11) Options to browse the latest/most popular topics.
12) Showing the latest discussions by category on the homepage.
This satisfies almost all the needs of the audiences we’ve mentioned above.
How Do We Make It Function Well On Mobile?
It’s staggering how often organisations try to condense the same information from a desktop screen into a million small boxes on mobile.
Most community mobile experiences are borderline usable as a result. No-one wants to spend hours endlessly scrolling down to find the content they want
On mobile you have to prioritise. This isn’t easy, but it’s not exactly difficult either. In the same example below, we’ve compressed this into a few calls to action while making it easy to browse the community.
You can see the key things in place for a mobile site to work here.
1) Hamburger menu replaces countless navigation options.
2) Text is removed to make it easier to find the content members want.
3) Announcement takes up the full width of the page.
4) Search box takes full width of the page.
5) Two main calls to action are clearly highlighted.
6) The boxes of content are listed one after the other.
7) Beginner content is moved down (most mobile visitors are not beginners).
What Should A Homepage NOT Look Like?
This is a useful example of a community with a sidebar.
To put it bluntly, this homepage is a complete mess. Let’s tackle three specific things here.
1) The messaging.
If you browse the discussions, it’s patently obvious the majority of visitors want answers to their problems. Yet the messaging seems to cover every possible need except this.
“Share your experience!”
“Be part of our community!”
“Share your views, experience, enter competitions, check our tutorials, share your photos, or just chat with other members”
The messaging is promoting the things members least want to do when trying to solve their problems.
2) The photos.
There is no reason why photos should appear on this homepage at all. It’s clear they get almost no engagement. Members neither want to share them nor view them. Many of the photos haven’t been updated for the better part of a decade.
It might make the homepage appear more dynamic, but it is clearly unnecessary clutter.
3) The navigation.
The navigation of the site is pretty much a disaster. The navigation bar is hard to spot immediately. It’s light blue text on a light gray background. Worse yet, the ‘about’ tab creates an entire new row of every space which pushes everything else down the page.
So what if we redesign this community with a focus on all the principles here.
Do you notice the difference?
You can see a breakdown of all the changes below:
There are a few things going on here, but let’s highlight some of the most important from the perspective of the three audiences.
1) Better navigation bar. The navigation bar is where members expect it and out of the way of other areas of the site.
2) Clearer registration/login CTA. This isn’t taking up the entire row, it’s placed where members are likely to look for it alongside the other critical CTA.
3) Clearer messaging. The messaging here is a lot clearer. This is a community to get fast answers to your questions in an official Sony environment.
4) Search box is clearer. We moved this to where it belongs so disappointed seekers are more likely to find it.
5) Add community navigation sidebar. This is for the return visitors to quickly find the parts of the community they need.
6) Moved discussions/features topics up. This provides a better experience for disappointed seekers and regular visitors. It enables the community team to feature discussions where members are more likely to see it.
It’s worth noting, this is just a design I created in 30 minutes to showcase the key principles here. Overall, it’s a FAR better community experience catering to each of the three audiences we’ve featured above.
Get The Basic Design Principles Right
It’s painful when an otherwise good community design is let down by ignoring basic principles of design. Here are a few to be mindful of.
1) Watch out for distracting background images. Both Mural and Qlik have otherwise fabulous communities. But we can probably agree the background images in the navigation bars below are extremely distracting for both:
Both of these images add far too much noise without offering any value. It makes it impossible to find what you want. White space is your friend here.
2) Align the elements. The Sony example above is a typical example of what happens when elements are randomly placed on the page with a mixture of right and center alignment (and some options randomly dropped into their own rows). Nothing should be randomly placed on the page. Everything should be aligned to specific columns.
3) Contrast. Make sure the text contrasts well with the background image. It should never be difficult to read the text. The more important the text, the more it should contrast with the background.
4) Avoid the massive banner. Remember members don’t want to spend forever scrolling to find the content they want. Avoid having a massive banner. It’s never, ever, necessary. A simple example here is the Dropbox Community below.
The banner consumes around 80% of the space on the homepage forcing members to expend a lot more effort to find what they want.
5) Position the calls to action clearly. A while back we revamped the banner for an Eventbrite community and increased conversion by 400%. The simple trick was to put the call to action in the most visible places.
By making it crystal clear about what we wanted members to do, more people took action.
For Mega-Communities, Use A LaunchPad
People interested in getting answers to their Microsoft Windows problems aren’t the same people who are going to be interested in getting help with their Xbox game. The audiences are so different it would be silly to try and set up a single homepage for them.
It would be a waste of everyone’s time here to try and create a universal brand homepage. Instead, create a launchpad and multiple sub-communities.
There is a relatively simple rule of thumb here:
If regular visitors are unlikely to be able to answer questions outside of a unique category, you need unique communities.
If the audience is relatively the same, then you can design a homepage. If you’re engaging completely different audiences with few overlapping interests, create a launchpad.
How To Evaluate Your Homepage Today (a simple checklist)
Here’s a simple checklist to think about when evaluating your homepage.
1) Does the community homepage satisfy the needs of the three core audiences?
2) Are the calls to action clearly visible to each of the three core audiences?
3) Is there a clear call to action which highlights the unique, indispensable, value of the community to these audiences?
4) Is the community messaging all aligned to promote the same core value?
5) Is there a strong contrast between the messages and the background?
6) Is the search bar clearly positioned and impossible to miss?
7) Is the navigation bar positioned in the place members are expecting to see it?
8) Is it clear where people can go to find out more about the community (and/or getting started with products etc..)
9) Are the most popular areas/topics of the community features in places where members are likely to see them?
10) Does the mobile experience condense information and present a few, simple, large buttons to click?
This isn’t a comprehensive list, but if we follow just these principles most homepages would deliver a far better experience.
Some Resources To Build Better Homepages
- FeverBee consultancy (even the biggest brands need experience on their designs).
- Steve Krug – Don’t Make Me Think (The classic book on user experience).
- Robin Williams – The Non-Designers Design Book (you don’t need to be a design expert, but learn the basic principles).
- Figma (probably the best tool for prototyping pages today).
- Omnigraffle (build your taxonomies in this).
- Designing Community Experiences (our in-depth masterclass on building world-class community experiences).
- Community Taxonomies (understanding the different types of taxonomies and which you should use).
With the rise of help centers, chatbots/virtual agents, automated diagnostic tools, and support staff, there’s growing confusion about where a community fits into the picture.
I’ve stopped being surprised by organisations that spend thousands, even millions, of dollars each year on a support community and then ask us to tell them why.
This raises some critical questions:
1) Who exactly does the community serve and how?
2) Why would a customer visit a community instead of simply using a growing number of other tools – often tools which are easy and quick to use?
3) What is the unique role of a support community in 2022?
The Golden Rule About Customer Support
Putting aside the (many) outliers, we can abide by a simple rule about how people (notably customers) will resolve any problem:
Like water, people will follow the path of the least resistance to achieve a goal.
Or, to put it more succinctly:
Your customers will follow the path of least mental effort to resolve their problem.
The goal of a support community is to reduce the level of mental effort to achieve their goal.
There are several very specific areas where a community does this better than any other channel.
But first, we need to understand how people resolve problems these days.
How People Resolve Problems In 2022
This diagram below is illustrative rather than comprehensive, but it gives a standard overview of how people resolve a product problem today.
First, people fiddle around with a potential problem for a few minutes (typically some variation of turning it off and on again).
Next, they go to a search engine and type out a phrase or two that best describes their problem. The search engine will hopefully either surface documentation or a community discussion that contains the solution.
If the search engine doesn’t provide an answer, the average person visits the company website and looks for a ‘contact us’ button to file a ticket.
Community Resolves The ‘Inbetween’ Questions
Community fills the gap between the problems which are common and can be easily solved by typing an answer into Google and those which require the responder to have insider expertise or the customer’s personal data to resolve.
You can see this in the example below
If the community didn’t exist, a lot of customers would have to expend a lot more mental effort (and potentially wait a lot longer) to have their problem resolved by support staff.
Or to put it in more financially viable terms:
A community reduces support costs, increases satisfaction (or NPS), and retains customers who would otherwise give up and seek an easier product to use.
And it does this by reducing the effort required to resolve the intermediate problems.
Why Doesn’t Everyone Simply Visit The Community?
It’s best to use a real-world example here.
Recently the left earbud of my Sony WX-1000MX3 earphones stopped working.
I didn’t visit the Sony website to find the answer because the website is huge and it feels like a lot of effort to navigate through to find the specific piece of information I needed. I didn’t visit the community because first I would have to find it and then I would have to navigate through it.
Most importantly, I couldn’t remember the name of the model of earphones I was using at the time. This is what we call an indescribable problem. Communities are also good places to go when you don’t know how to describe a problem.
It’s far less effort to type “left earbud of Sony earphones not working” and see what pops up.
Not only did Google retrieve the precise article I was looking for from the Sony support site, but it also retrieved walk-through videos others have shared as you can see below.
Why Don’t Community Results Show Up On Search?
They often do! Most traffic to most customer communities comes via search.
But most of the time this traffic is from queries that are too specific (or narrow) for a broad help center article to resolve.
This is again where the community fills the gap between the help center and support. If you know exactly what to search for, you might land on a result.
Likewise, if you don’t know what to search for, you might eventually ask in the community (as opposed to contacting a support agent and asking what your problem is).
The Single Biggest Driver Of Engagement In A Support Community
The single biggest driver of engagement in a customer community is the number of questions your audience has which lie in the mental effort gap between the help center and a support agent.
You can have a huge customer base with lots of questions, but if not enough of those questions fit within the gap above, the level of engagement in a community will be small (as the diagram below depicts).
This is helps explain why brands with similar numbers of customers can have very different levels of engagement.
Some simply have more ‘inbetween’ questions than others – questions which are too niche for support but don’t require personal data or insider expertise to resolve.
The (Occasional) Exceptions To The Rule
However, there are some exceptions here.
You might be targeting a specific audience (e.g. gamers) who would rather eat off their own arm than phone a support agent. They’re more likely to switch products than make the extra effort of resolving their problems.
There are other audiences/fields, like software developers, where the problem is part of the process of collaborating and learning together. It makes sense to visit a community first and collaborate on a new solution to the problem.
There’s also plenty of organisations that only provide support during working hours (the very hours ironically where people can’t spend 20 minutes on the phone trying to resolve their problem). In these situations, a community can provide 24/7 coverage as an added benefit.
But these are the exceptions, not the norm.
Implications Of The Customer Support Experience in 2022
This has implications which change how we think about and value a community. Going forward this is going to have several key implications for all of us.
1) Calculate the theoretical potential of the community. The estimates of engagement are typically wildly inaccurate. The best estimate of potential engagement is to take an (ideally large) sample of customer support queries and tag what percentage could theoretically have been answered by other customers. Then you can estimate the cost of resolving a support ticket and come up with a defensive estimate of the community’s potential value. You can measure this % later on to estimate the community’s potential impact.
2) The unique role of the community should be clear internally and externally. A lot of pain and confusion arises when colleagues and customers don’t really understand what a community is for. If you can clearly communicate to both groups the unique purpose and value of the community, everyone will benefit. You can use this to optimize your customer journey for example. In all of your customer onboarding materials (and on the site) it could be clear which questions go to which channel.
3) Your community should be laser focused on reducing the effort a visitor expends to find the result they want. I’m looking at you private support communities! This means reducing the complexity of information and the sense of ‘overwhelm’ a member might experience. Keeping the community tidy, well organized (properly tagged, good taxonomy, archiving old material), and ensuring information is up to date goes a long way here.
4) Cater to niche and indescribable problems. Don’t try to dominate generic search terms (i.e. ‘[x] isn’t working’). Far better to focus on getting answers to the niche questions (i.e. where someone knows the problem they’re getting answers to) and situations when someone doesn’t know what terminology to use to get an answer (the former is far more important than the latter).
Win The ‘Inbetween’ Questions
While some might dream that the community might one day replace the majority of support functions. This probably isn’t going to happen. Other tools are often the better option because they require less mental effort. There’s a danger in trying to be ‘just another support channel’.
Where community really shines is in solving the ‘inbetween’ questions. If you get a lot of ‘inbetween’ questions, then you should build a community to resolve them.
The value of answering a lot of ‘inbetween’ questions can be extremely high. If you don’t get a lot of these kinds of questions, then you might seriously consider if a traditional support community is the right option for you.
Here are two statements that seem oxymoronic but actually complement each other:
1) No matter what you do, the majority of your members won’t become more engaged than they are today.
2) It’s possible to double (even triple) the retention rates of your community members.
These are both true because of the huge gap between ‘a majority’ (51%+) and the retention rates most people see in their communities are getting today (5% to 20%).
Last week, I hosted a webinar where we shared the step-by-step process we used to triple a client’s retention rates.
What We Learned From Our Research
The client sold a fairly popular technology product (but wasn’t a SaaS vendor). The company operated in the $750m to $850m revenue per year range and had a community that had been around for a couple of years before we were invited to help.
We spent 5 weeks evaluating the current community and interviewed 26 members of the community, 17 members of staff, and collected 279 survey responses.
- The company had no capacity for major technical changes.
- Members only visited when they had a problem.
- Newcomers didn’t find “any reason” to keep coming back.
- Newcomers weren’t aware of many of the benefits the community offered.
- Superusers felt increasingly ignored.
- Members disliked receiving countless notifications.
As you can see below, member retention rates were poor and had been relatively static for months.
Step One – Reducing The Noise
We began with small optimisations. We know members hated receiving countless automated messages (especially those from the gamification system), so we stopped almost all of them.
Removing automation rules didn’t significantly increase or decrease participation.
Lesson: Automation rules don’t seem to increase participation much at all (probably because most people ignore them)
Step Two – Improving the First Impression
Next we changed the default setting to show the ‘latest posts’ rather than ‘top posts’.
i) Changed default settings to show latest posts
I’ve consistently found when members make a post, they want to see it appear at the top of the page (i.e. not be crowded out by popular posts). We also found in our research most members had already seen the top posts in the community. They wanted fresh questions to answer.
ii) Remove survey pop-up
We removed an irritating survey pop-up asking members to share what they think of the community. Newcomers were being hit with three pop-ups upon visiting, so removing one helped.
Aside, if you want a good non-intrusive example of a pop-up, the UiPath community (a client) is a great example below:
iii) Created a list of suggested questions
Because many newcomers reported not knowing what questions to ask, we created a list of suggested questions, shared examples of good questions, and helped them become as familiar as possible with what a good question looks like.
iv) Send direct messages from the community manager’s name
We replaced the generic messages from [email protected] (which were often ignored or found their way into spam filters) with emails from the community manager’s name.
We wanted members to know the community managers’ name and begin a direct discussion with them. A few months ago, we worked with Shuning at Veracode on this message which is both personal and shares the benefits of community.
v) Repositioned the community (and changed its messaging)
Much of the previous messaging focused on people joining a group of peers like themselves.
Our research showed members wanted quick responses to long-tail questions first (but might join peer groups later).
We changed the messaging from getting personal questions to getting personalised responses to difficult/niche questions. This was reflected in the banner, CTA, etc…
At this point we began to see some noticeable improvement. It’s hard to say which changes had the biggest impact, but the metrics were definitely heading in the right direction.
Step Three: Personalising The Community Experience
i) Created a ‘members to follow’ list
A frequent problem on the Salesforce platform is people were encountering blank feeds as they hadn’t followed any members or topics.
We tackled this in two stages. First, we created a list of members to follow. These were verified experts endorsed by us. The second step was to create a more custom onboarding journey.
ii) Created Personalised Responses To Every Poster
Alongside the onboarding tool, we built out a system to get personalised responses to everyone that contributed a post in the community.
This required the use of a Zapier integration to Slack identifying superusers, moderators, and the community team to members who had made a post more than 30 days ago and not participated since.
We created the standardised framework below to ensure each of them received a response to their discussion.
iii) Newcomer meetings and newcomer groups
We knew newcomers wanted to engage with product managers as they were getting started. So we tried to do this in the community.
This turned out to be too much work for too little reward. So we replicated this with a newcomer group supported by superusers who could answer most of the common questions in the community.
iv) Used Asset-Based Community Development Approach
We tried to find everyone a unique role in the community. We know when members feel they can make unique, useful, contributions to the community, they tend to stick around and participate.
This involved a lot of training and we created a few standardised messages to help as you can see below.
This is the point where we began to see huge impact from our work.
We saw major increases in each of the metrics we were tracking.
This wasn’t a spike either, it was a sustained increase.
Step Four: Support Superusers
i) Created Standard Templates
We began working with superusers in this phase to get them engaged in creating standard templates and responses for responding to most members’ queries.
We used a similar flow-chart to the one above to give every superuser an easy process they can follow to respond to almost any post.
This involved sharing a lot of examples of good and bad. The more examples you can share (and highlight what’s good or bad about them), the better the outcome will be.
ii) Curated the best resources
A common problem facing newcomers was quickly getting up to speed so they don’t have to ask the same repetitive questions over and over again.
If you’ve been in the community a while, you’ve already seen the best resources and participated in the best discussions. But newcomers didn’t have that.
So we created a list of curated resources ‘which every newcomer should read’.
Aside, the Digital Ocean community does this extremely well.
Step Five: Banner Relaunch and Follow-up Messages
i) Redesigned the banner
The previous community banner lacked a clear call to action and didn’t explain what made the community unique. We revamped this to focus on three actions visitors could take right now within links.
This focused specifically on ‘solve problems’, ‘top tips’, and ‘find a group’.
One of my favourite examples of banners was the former CodeAcademy community banner below:
ii) Follow-ups to check progress
Using a Zapier/Slack integration to top members again, we created a list of members for superusers to reach out to after they had been members for 3 months.
Around 65% (it wavered a lot) of FTPs (first-time posters) received a follow-up message after 3 months. If they were still highly engaged, they were invited to join a group of veterans.
iii) Automatically assigned members to roles
Finally, we tested something new (similar to the ABCD approach).
We sent emails to members assigning them to a role within the community (usually something like ‘topic reporter’ or ‘topic facilitator’) based upon their past contributions.
They had a choice about whether or not to accept the role. Acceptance rates varied from 10% to 20% (which is high when emails had an open rate of 20% to 30%.
What Worked And What Didn’t?
In an ideal world, we would make one single intervention at a time and measure the impact of each.
In the consultancy world, we don’t have the time for that. Instead we make a number of changes at once and assess which worked.
However, as you can see below, you can draw your own conclusions about what had the biggest impact.
I suspect the biggest wins were:
- Improving the banner design.
- Sending personalised messages.
- Using the ABCD approach to newcomers can make a unique impact.
- Suggested questions
Improving Retention Rates Isn’t Easy
The best thing you can do is deep research of your target audience (like, really go through the community site with them), embrace best practices in the community design, identify and prioritise the highest impact activities and build from there.
These resources might help:
- Some basic member engagement scripts.
- Personalised response framework.
- Template introduction message.
- 7Summits Onboarding Tool (Salesforce only).
- Download the presentation slides.
- Watch the webinar.
If you want more help increasing retention, I strongly recommend my book, Build Your Community which has lots of advice and examples.
You can also reach out to FeverBee about consultancy support.
In one of my first consultancy projects (over a decade ago!), I interviewed two dozen members. The majority mentioned the community platform was ‘too cluttered’ and difficult to navigate.
My suggestion was to declutter it by “removing stuff”.
You can probably spot the problem. It’s a lot easier to make simple recommendations like this than to really get into the causes and solutions to clutter.
To declutter a community platform you usually need some combination of:
1. Undertake internal interviews to uncover why the site is cluttered in the first place (there’s usually competing internal interests).
2. Gather data on which areas are being clicked and why.
3. Interview members and use tools like hotjar to see how members progress through the community.
4. Use the above to prioritise every aspect/feature of the community.
5. Develop a criteria for which things can be removed and gain support for this criteria.
6. Identify the benefits of decluttering (i.e. what metrics will increase in exchange for the internal/external backlash you will get for removing areas of the community).
If you’re planning to improve your community by removing ‘clutter’, be warned clutter masks a level of complexity you need to dive into to reduce it.
P.s. Quick aside, 90% of the time, a ‘clutter’ problem is really symbolic of a ‘strategy’ problem. Sometimes stakeholders aren’t aligned on the value of the community so try to cater to multiple goals. Other times it’s not clear who the community is for and what each of those segments need.
Over the past decade, the steps we’ve used to increase retention of members have changed significantly. We’re using an entirely different toolbox with our clients now than we did ten (or even five) years ago.
On Jan 12, I’ll be hosting a free live seminar to share a case study in how we used new techniques to triple a client’s retention rates. Some of these steps might validate what you’re already doing. Others, I suspect, will give you new ideas and insights you can use.
- Who: Richard Millington (Founder, FeverBee)
- What: Tripling Member Retention Rates Webinar
- When: January 12, 2022 @ 5pm (UK), Noon (Eastern), 9am (Pacific)
- Where: https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_f6TWAN2xQNmR8IiNcpeAtg
What Will You Learn
During this webinar, I’m going to take you step by step through the actions we undertook to achieve the results below.
You’re going to learn that the majority of things we tried didn’t work. This probably includes many of the actions you’re taking today.
You’re also going to learn what does work. You will learn what we did and in what order to achieve the results above.
You can sign up here: