A Single Bad Community Manager Can Destroy Millions of Dollars in Value

You probably wouldn’t let an intern have responsibility for your biggest clients.

Community MVPs can easily be worth more than your biggest clients.

So why would you let junior staff be responsible for them?

A single antagonistic comment, a perceived lack of respect, an inconsiderate request, taking too long to reply to questions or simply failing to maintain a strong relationship can wipe out millions of dollars in community value.

I’m continually staggered by how many community professionals are hired on the basis of a short job interview and then given responsibility for one of the company’s most lucrative assets.

Three simple tips here.

  1. Don’t hire junior people to do what’s clearly a senior person’s job.
  2. Review any recruit’s contributions to a past community carefully. Do they engage with empathy, understanding, and tackle different challenges well?
  3. Include MVPs on the hiring loop. Get feedback on who they would like to see as their point person in the community process.

Changing community staff members can be as delicate (and expensive) a process as changing community platforms.

If you’re moving on from (or moving into) a community role, get opinions from your top members in the process.

A Better Way To Do Ideas and Innovation In An Online Community

After speaking to a dozen or so product managers over the past two years, it’s fairly clear community ideation isn’t close to achieving its potential.

At worst, ideation areas of a community become a dumping ground for the same complaints any customer support rep could easily name. Sometimes they’re the last resort when a customer complains about a problem an organization can’t fix (“hey, why not suggest it as an idea and maybe an engineer will see it?”).

Ideas suffer from three common problems.

1) The ideas are bad. Members often suggest ideas which are unfeasible (inconsiderate of constraints), unique to their situation (i.e. no broader business benefit), or simply outside of the company’s strategy. Often ideas just haven’t been fully thought through or fully formed.

2) It’s hard to respond to ideas. If you get a lot of ideas, it’s not always feasible to respond to every idea. Which ideas do you respond to? The best? The most recent? Those with the most support? Those from top members/best customers? Idea areas often become a ghost town of formerly popular ideas.

3) The ideas aren’t executed. Ideas are just one signal product managers have to determine what to work on next. Ideas come from customer support staff, focus groups, long-term corporate strategy, the CEO, and plenty of other channels. No product manager is going to focus solely on executing customer ideas (and their job might be boring if they did).

To do ideation better we need to help members create better ideas, effectively respond to ideas, and develop a system to execute ideas.


Getting Members To Submit Better Ideas

Idea submission is usually pretty terrible, here’s an example:

When ideas are cheap to submit, you can expect to get a lot of cheap ideas.

We need to add friction at this stage. Force members to do some more legwork to submit an idea (otherwise it’s just a customer service complaint). It’s better to imagine themselves pitching the idea rather than submitting the idea (think Dragon’s Den, but without the silliness).

Revamp your idea form to include separate options for:

1) The problem they’re trying to solve. What is the specific problem they need to resolve? Provide an example and include some helpful tips to members to define the problem.

2) The business outcome of solving the problem. What will be the business impact if they solve the problem? Provide examples and in-form nudges.

3) Clearly describe the solution. How it works, any relevant examples, and why this solution has been chosen.

4) List other use cases for the solution. Does it only apply to the member or could it be useful to others? Can it solve other problems too?

5) Highlight the popularity of the idea. Is there any research, comments, posts, or information which suggests this idea could apply to others.

6) Promote your idea. Once members have submitted an idea they should need to promote and lobby others to support the idea. This provides a reasonable standard to judge the popularity of the idea.

You will get far fewer ideas, but the ideas you do get will contain far more useful signals for product managers.

You might find the solution isn’t as valuable as members clearly defining the problem and business impact of solving the problem.


Responding Effectively to Ideas

If you’re not prepared to respond to every idea, don’t have an ideas section.

Of course, if you’re getting 50 ideas a day, it’s going to be hard to respond to every one. So you need help from your colleagues or other community members. This help should fall into three areas.

1) Improving the quality of the idea. This can be provided by other members (or the community team). This is when the idea isn’t complete, has been suggested before, it needs further work before it can move into the ‘need validation/acknowledged’ phase.

2) Progressing the idea to ‘acknowledge/validated’. Once it has achieved this level, the community manager or other staff can put this into the ‘in consideration’ stage. During this process, the member should be encouraged to get others to support the idea, provide any further information, and help others.

3) In consideration. If the idea seems popular, then it should be routed to the relevant product manager for a monthly/quarterly review of ideas. At this stage, they can be added to the roadmap, rejected, or analyzed for elements which are useful to other areas of the business. It is best to have a fixed date for this.

4) Added to the roadmap, partially used, rejected. Don’t let ideas linger forever without ever receiving a response. Every idea should either be approved/tweaked and added to the roadmap, sent back down for further information, partially used, or rejected as impractical/not significant enough to make a big business difference.


Develop a Better System For Gathering Ideas

To achieve the above, you probably also need a better system for routing ideas to the right person, understanding and explaining what ideas are needed (and when).

1) Sharing the roadmap. To submit good ideas members need to know what’s on the current product roadmap. Within reason, this should be made public to members in the pitch process. Let members suggest ideas for specific time-zones of the roadmap.

2) Set time-limited feedback or challenges. Unsolicited ideas can be useful, but so can using the ideas section to solicit specific feedback on specific topics at specific times. Likewise, they can set specific challenges with prizes for members who submit the best ideas to tackle a challenge.

3) Previews of upcoming features. Any time an engineer or product manager has a question, they should be able to call for feedback as an idea within the community.

Community idea areas have incredible potential, but in their current form, they rarely deliver a fraction of what they promise. You can change that.

Leading The Leaders Of Community Groups

Trying to nurture dozens, even hundreds, of successful groups is clearly different from managing one. Many organizations make the same mistake. They create a platform which enables members (or others) to create their own groups.

They soon find their community is filled with dead and inactive groups which harm the community experience for everyone.

A few rules have helped us in the past.

1) Begin one major success story. Over-invest your resources in making one community a clear success. If you can’t make one community thrive, don’t try to nurture a dozen others. Until you can get one community right, you have no business trying to build any others. One big success both shows you how to do it, stops you passing on mistakes to others, and it proves to others it can (and should) be done.

2) Expand slowly and with fixed criteria. Jumping from one success to 100 won’t go well. Expand slowly based upon clear criteria. Let members propose groups they want and put themselves forward to lead them. Each group must have a named founder, who can prove they can attract the first 10 to 50 members and keep them engaged. This demonstrates the need for the group and proves it delivers value to members (see the StackExchange model).

3) Promote the successful groups. As groups reach the criteria above, you can help by promoting them to the rest of the community/mailing list/other channels. This ensures you’re not promoting struggling groups to community members.

4) Remove groups which don’t achieve much. Remove any groups which don’t quickly hit these criteria or linger without achieving much in the way of growth or activity. This ensures you’re focusing resources (including audience attention) on successful groups.

5) Set benchmarks. You can’t control how every leader engages their members, but you can set effective standards and check them quarterly (sample of recent posts from leaders in the community). If these aren’t adhered to, issue a warning and then consider replacing the leader of the group. This is the only form of control you should exercise over the community (and even these standards are usually very flexible).

6) Invest in training. If you’re encouraging others to build communities, especially those with limited experience, providing training is critical. Training has to be condensed into the simplest nuggets. Our training in the past falls under three categories. 1) Creating internal courses, 2) In-person workshops, and 3) Online courses. In my experience, the first two work better than the latter. Training has to be customized to an audience with limited time and attention.

7) Gradually increase resources as groups grow. As a community grows, it should naturally gain more resources (investment, time, manpower, and skills). The best performing groups should be better promoted, receive more support etc…

Good luck.

Audience Attention

You have far less attention than you imagine.

Most members aren’t going to open your communications, read the copy on the website, and can’t tell you if you even have a terms and conditions section.

Every extra word reduces the chance the member will read the message. Worse yet, every extra point reduces the chances a member will remember any points.

Go through your announcements, web copy, emails, welcome videos, notifications, podcasts and anything else and cut the length by at least a 1/3rd.

You might be surprised just how much this helps get your point across.

The shorter the message, the more members remember.

If you want to earn more attention, you have to use the attention you have wisely.

Pick A Side

More and more, we’re seeing communities need to pick a side.

You can have a ferociously moderated community which attracts smart, generous, people and produces high-quality content. You invest heavily in moderation, support the smart folks, and apply tight controls in who can do what.

You can have a lightly moderated community which supports intense debates, attracts people who enjoy expressing contrary opinions, and facilitates a powerful sense of community between members.

If you’re like most people, you’re muddling somewhere in the middle between the two. You’ve set a few ground rules and hope people don’t violate them. You respond to issues as they arise without any guiding strategy for what you want the community to be.

The basic rules of “don’t be a jerk” don’t suffice anymore, so decide now what kind of community you want to build.

The Community Managers Who Go The Extra Mile

The hardest community managers to replace are the ones who care the most.

These are people who don’t just answer questions but go the extra mile to make sure the members feel respected, cared for, and appreciated for bringing issues to the community’s attention.

These are the people who realise they are a vessel for every member to feel like they have influence, support, and are important to the brand. Sure, your organization might not be able to adapt to the whim of every customer with a problem, but you certainly can.

These are the people who don’t just respond to the question but acknowledge the frustration, find a solution instead of just an answer and try to end the interaction on a positive note. Better yet, they follow up to check the answer work.

These are the people who realise you’re not just spending time crafting an answer to a single member but to the dozens, hundreds, possibly even thousands of people who will read the answer.

The best way to find these people isn’t by asking them if they care in a job interview, but by seeing how they participated in their last community.

If you’re not sure if you’re one of these people, you can test yourself. Take your last 5 community posts and see how you would fit into the community standards below.

Next month repeat the process and see if you improved. Caring might be free but the community managers who really care are rare and worth the premium you should pay for them. Anyone who goes the extra mile often enough is going to cover a lot of distance.

What Are Your Members Proud Of?

You can ask this question about their lives or about the community.

It works on two levels.

1) It reveals what members are proud to have/have achieved which they can share with others. This creates a more positive atmosphere in the community.

2) It also reveals which aspects of the community members are proud of. You can spend more time promoting these aspects (or relevant metrics) to members.

What are your members proud of?

The Value of The Top 0.00001% of Members

Most of our communities are tragically undervaluing members like Steven.

The top 0.000001% (that 1 special member in 100,000) posts thousands of times a year (sometimes a thousand times a month).

That’s a lot of answers to a lot of questions. If each answer is seen by just 20 people who need it, that’s 20 people who don’t need to call support or file a ticket. If each call costs $5, each then each answer becomes worth $100. Now we measure the value of Steven’s thousands of contributions per year in six to seven figures.

Of course, most Steven’s don’t just answer questions, they create blog posts, share advice, remove spam, advocate etc…

If the lifetime value of a customer is what they buy over the course of their lifetime, the lifetime value of a member is the total value of all their contributions. Someone like Steven is easily worth millions of dollars.

You shouldn’t just be flying people like Steven in to meet your company, you should be flying them first class, putting them up in a penthouse, helping them plan the most amazing week of their lives. Investing $20k…even $50k…on members who are creating millions of dollars in value is an absolute bargain.

You shouldn’t have them connecting with junior community managers, they should be connecting with the senior managers and other senior leaders.

Sure, you can offer badges, access, and insider looks on future products to motivate people like Steven. Each of them plays a handy role. But it wouldn’t even compare to photos of Steven sitting in a First Class airline cabin with the CEO on the way to the next annual conference.

What could be more motivating to the next Steven than seeing photos of the very top members sitting in first-class sharing a drink with the CEO?

Don’t do the minimum required to keep Steven happy…blow his expectations completely out of the water.

It’s a bargain.

Making Accurate Online Community Membership Projections

Over the past year, I’ve seen numerous organizations and community managers rely on platform vendors to help them make membership projections. This is like walking into a shop and asking the owner how many things you should buy. The answer is going to be a lot more than you need.

Unsurprisingly, these organizations soon find themselves locked into a 3+ year contract based on these membership projections and paying ranges of 2x to 5x more than they need.

One community launched in the middle of last year was supposed to have 67k members by now. Instead, it has 18k. This means they’re overpaying by around 400%*.

This isn’t a trivial figure, it’s hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.


The Numbers You Need To Make An Accurate Membership Projection

We’ve found we can make more accurate membership projections from a few hard numbers and a lot more conservative benchmark conversion percentages.

Hard Numbers

Your initial speed of growth and likely audience size is reliant upon the size of your existing audience.

1) Existing web traffic to your company website. How many people visit your community now determines how many you can redirect to the community.

2) Existing earned audience size. This is your mailing list, social media audiences, and any other way you have of contacting your members.

3) Paid advertising promotion. This is rare but happens when the company doesn’t have a big audience list or permission to access it.

Later this also includes search traffic – how many people arrive at your community directly via search.


Conversion Percentages

Not every person counted above will register, there will be a huge overlap, and we have to think about annual churn from the community. We, therefore, caveat the above metrics with the conversion percentages we see below:

  • % of search visitors who register to join the community.
  • % who visit the community from the company site (redirected traffic).
  • Average % click-rate on messages to existing audience.
  • Average % recruitment from existing audiences.
  • % who make a first contribution.
  • % churn rate from those who make a first contribution.

When we combine this, we can put together a relatively simple model to project how many members a community is likely to have:

These are standard benchmarks from our observations, yours will vary by the type of community you’re running (open/closed, internal/external, support/discussions/ideas), the sector you’re in (tech, non-profit, gaming etc…) and other factors. You can adjust them…but always rely on some data rather than your own ambitious intuition.

Note here how growth changes over time.

The speed of your initial growth is largely determined by how many people you can reach to begin with. Over time, this is usually replaced by search traffic.

There is more complexity here (total size of market, speed of company growth, how good the community management team is etc)…but the message should be clear.

Don’t rely on the company you’re buying from to tell you how much to buy, make your own membership projections.

* Assuming visitor projections were equally skewed.

Neglect Grows As You Grow

Graffiti, broken windows and trash isn’t just a problem because it looks bad, it’s a problem because of what it represents; neglect.

Who wants to buy a home, start a company, or participate in a neglected community?

For most of us, spam isn’t the problem it once was. Our neglect instead shows up in a lack of fresh content, a page of unanswered questions, and an antiquated, poorly designed platform.

If a member visits a homepage and sees a list of unanswered questions, why would they post their own?

If a member sees the last blog post/news update was posted more than a month ago, will they come back often to see what’s new?

If other platforms are clearly better designed and easier to use, why would they use the old, neglected one?

You might get away with each of these for a while, but the harsh reality is your growing community might start to seem neglected.

Responding to every question within 24 hours is great when you’re getting 10 questions a day. Every visitor can see recent questions that received a response. But when you get 100 per day, the 10 that appear on the homepage might not have an answer.

This happens in technology too. There might be nothing wrong with the technology you use today, it stills works fine, but people want to use the best and easiest tools out there.

I suspect the moment the community begins to seem neglected is the moment when you think you’re doing a ‘good enough’ job instead of aiming for better, getting more resources, and always striving to create a better community.

Amazing First Impressions

Don’t ask newcomers to update their profiles, read guidelines, or tick some boxes to follow.

Can you think of anything more boring for newcomers to do?

You have a tiny window to convince members this is where they should spend their time. This is your one chance to make an amazing first impression. So give it everything you’ve got.

You want newcomers to think of the community as high-value, exciting, engaging.

You need to show the newcomers the best of your community. There will be plenty of time for updating profiles later.

You want newcomers to participate in the most exciting discussions today, follow the most interesting members, share challenges and problems to solve, talk about their goals/aspirations for the future etc…

Just because most communities are doing something doesn’t make it the ‘right’ thing to do. This is one of those times.

Too Much Expertise

If you ask a question and you don’t receive a quick response, you’re going to be annoyed, frustrated, and probably call customer support.

If you ask a question and receive 50 responses, that’s going to be pretty frustrating too.

Do you really want to test 50 solutions to find the one that works for you? Too much advice can be as frustrating as too little.

Usually, those 50 responses coalesce around a few similar ideas to test – but you still need to sift through a lot of responses to work that out (and then test the top ideas).

Somewhere between 0 and 50 lies the optimum number of responses. That number is 1. You only want 1 response…the right response (note: this obviously varies in discussion communities)

The more responses you have to sift through to find the solution, the more exasperated you’re going to feel.

Once a community has a high answer rate to questions (usually > 90%), your time is far better spent increasing the quality of answers in your community than the quantity of answers. This might result in fewer responses (less engagement!), but happier members.

Far too many people keep tackling the ‘too few answers’ problem (updating gamification systems, MVP programs, more recognition etc…) when they should be tackling the ‘too many’ problem. This is a very different type of work. Often more based in technology, relationships, and moderation.