How Is It Defined?

What is your community?

  • Is it just your forum?
  • Is it your forum + social media?
  • Is it your forum + social media + in-person events?
  • Is it your forum + social media + in-person events + your help center? etc..
  • Is it all your customers?

How you and your organization define community changes the work you do.

Just keeping a forum busy is very different from building a powerful sense of community among all your customers.

It also changes the value of your work to your colleagues.

If you want to expand your worth, you might first need to expand the definition of community you and your colleagues share.

Going Narrower

If a community isn’t reaching critical mass, you might be tempted to expand its scope, drive more people into it, and hope it takes off.

Alas, it never works.

If you can’t engage the members you have, you’re unlikely to engage the members you don’t have.

A better approach is to go narrower. Reduce the scope of the community. Focus on a more niche target audience or topic. Better understand the unique needs of a smaller, more connected, group of members better. Figure out exactly what they need, desire, and what identity they share.

Then start building out a community from there.

If it’s not working, it doesn’t make sense to go broader. Try going narrower instead.

Earn Their Attention First

The most common projects we turn down are those from people who want to create an online community but don’t yet have an existing audience.

It’s very hard to build a community if you haven’t yet earned the attention of an existing audience.

You don’t need a huge audience, but you do need a group of a few hundred people who will happily listen to what you have to say.

If you don’t have an existing audience, the alternatives are to buy an audience’s attention with social ads (expect to spend around $10 per each active member) or create a community concept so risky and so daring people will naturally spread the word.

Generally speaking, it’s best to earn the audience’s attention first. Follow the CHIP process. Create content, host events, interview people, and participate in existing groups.

You will always find it’s easier to start a new community if you’ve participated and supported related communities in the past.

The Best Workshops

The best workshops are transformative.

They leave people feeling smarter and more confident than before.

They equip participants with new information.

They challenge participants to use this information to solve engaging problems.

They leave participants with a peer group they can call upon for support afterwards.

You can have workshops for your top members, newcomers, or attendees of your conference. When done well they are powerful, and woefully underused, tools.

p.s. 5 tickets remaining for my 80-person workshop at CMX Summit this week.

No-One Is Counting

When you next meet with your buddies this week, will anyone be tracking the number of conversations you have?

Will someone be keeping an eye on which conversations people like the most and try to have more of those conversations?

Will anyone report how many people showed up and will you work together to try and increase that number?

You hopefully answered ‘no’ to all three.

We know in the real world that the quantity and popularity of people and conversations bears little relation to the success and value of the group.

So if you wouldn’t track it between your close friends, why would you track it between total strangers?

What really matters is whether members enjoy one another’s company, whether they help and support each other, whether they can explore exciting new ventures together and whether they feel they can belong.

Not as easy to measure, but with surveys, interviews, and sentiment analysis they’re not impossible to measure either.

p.s. The online world is the real world.

‘With’ Them or ‘For’ Them?

Building a community for your audience is very different from building a community with your audience.

Building a community for your audience means researching what they want, developing a strong concept, creating the platform, and inviting them to join and participate. This is the standard approach.

Building a community with your audience means something very different. It means you embed the audience deeply within the decision-making process – even (and especially) when it makes you uncomfortable.

It means you give your audience veto rights on major decisions (what platform to use, how it should be designed, what the rules of the community should be?)

It means your audience do most of the legwork and you play a supporting/coordinating role. They take on roles within the community, invite people to join, and stimulate the early discussions.

It means you probably move slower and have less control over the process. But the benefits are tremendous. It removes the risk of launching a flop, ensures you can scale quickly and provides members with a true sense of ownership.

Both approaches can work but don’t get confused between the two. Members quickly see through listening exercises disguised as collaborative community building approaches. If your members can’t make decisions you dislike, you’re not building a community with them.

If you truly want members to take real ownership, you need to give them real control (and that includes the freedom to make mistakes).

You Can’t Solve Problems You Don’t Understand

“My members have become really negative and confrontational recently, how do we stop it?”

That’s the wrong question. The right question is why have members become negative recently?

Until you diagnose the problem, you won’t be able to develop the solution.

Have members become negative recently because of a platform change or the way the community has been managed?

Has negativity been growing steadily for a while but only recently become visible?

Is negativity stemming from lots of different members or a handful of members?

If it’s the former, are they always negative or only in specific topics? If it’s the latter is this a group which agrees with each other or do they only target specific members?

This isn’t an exhaustive list of questions, but every answer will lead you to a completely different solution.

In my experience, getting the right diagnosis is a lot more difficult than getting the right answer.

Always Go Through the RFP Process

If you’re selecting a platform you’re going to spend a $50k+ on, always go through the RFP (request for proposal) process.

There are many reasons for this.

  1. It forces you to research your target audience. Creating an RFP without first researching your audience is clearly a waste of everyone’s time. Putting together a good RFP forces you to research your audience in-depth and develop a clear set of needs and use cases for the community. You will learn more than you suspect during this process.
  2. You have to specify what you need in detail. An RFP forces you to specify in detail exactly how your community will function, what you need, and typically requires you to develop your strategy in advance.
  3. It forces you to think through which features are most relevant and important to you. Not all features are important. Therefore it’s good to weight on a scale of 1 to 5 (or typically 1 to 3 for us) which features are most important. This is why you need to develop a strategy before developing the RFP. Without knowing your strategy you will struggle to know what features are most critical to your members.
  4. It helps you build strong relationships with stakeholders. In a larger organization, creating an RFP forces you to build a consensus about current capabilities, technology needs, and whether you can implement the technology yourself or need someone else. Bringing more stakeholders into the process early and building a consensus around budget, needs, and capabilities is wise. You might later find the stakeholders you consulted early are more likely to support you later on.
  5. You can identify potential tripwires early. You don’t want to be deep into the integration process and discover a problem which prevents you from using the platform. Having an RFP you can run past key stakeholders helps you identify and overcome potential problems before they become critical problems. Trust me, this will save you a lot of time and money later.
  6. You get more competitive bids. Trusting a vendor will give you a competitive quote without a competitive bidding process is like trusting a market seller to give you a good price when they’re the only stall you can buy from. You can’t make a choice without options. You never know how well your vendor compares with others until you have their competitive options. Once you have different quotes you can decide if investing an extra $20k per year is worthwhile to go with the leading platform. More information never hurts. You can’t make an informed decision without informed choices.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but the point should be clear; going through an RFP process is what professionals in this space do.

p.s. Hint: Ensure you get clarity on what features come directly out of the box and which require further custom development. It’s one thing for a vendor to say they can do [x], it’s another to be clear when it requires custom development work.

Learn The Principles Behind A Great Community Experience

You shouldn’t buy an expensive camera if you’re not planning to learn how to compose great photos.

If you don’t know how to frame a photo, fill a frame, nor use diagonals and leading lines, an expensive camera won’t help you much. It’s like buying a better laptop to write a better novel. There could be some useful extra features, but you need to learn the principles first.

This is true for online communities too.

You shouldn’t invest thousands, even millions, of dollars in community technology if you don’t know how to properly create the results you need.

Your platform vendor can tell you how the features function (about as well as a camera manufacturer can tell you how the camera works), but that’s not going to help you compose the perfect result.


Are You Using Default Settings?

Your community website should be entirely unique to you and your members.

If you’re using your platform’s default settings, haven’t clearly prioritised specific features and topics, and you’re not nudging members towards the behaviors you need, I’ll bet you’re not even close to getting the results you should be getting.

For most of us, there is terrific potential to improve our communities. During my CMX Workshop (“Richard’s workshop“), I’m going to guide you to make rapid, incremental, changes to achieve the best possible results from your community technology.

This workshop is platform agnostic. Using a free Facebook group or an enterprise community platform matters as much as using a cheap or expensive camera when learning to compose photos. It helps, but the core principles matter far more.

By the end of the workshop, you will be able to build a roadmap of improvements to get far higher levels of participation and better results from your community platform.

Even better, you will have a group of peers to help guide your efforts and be a sounding board for your ideas.

I hope you will join us.

p.s. You can watch this webinar on community design with CMX to give yourself a head-start.

p.p.s. My conversation with David Spinks about community skills is now live.

p.p.p.s. I’ll be speaking at Swarm in Sydney, Australia, this week. Feel free to join us.

Changing What It Means To Ask Questions In An Online Community

People ask questions in a community when the reward (the answers) exceeds the cost (effort, uncertainty, shame, etc…).

If you want more questions, you need to reduce the perceived effort and increase the perceived reward.

After a decade in community consulting, I’ve almost universally found the most effective approach is to change what it means to ask a question.

Right now, many of your members feel asking questions is an admission of weakness, ignorance, or some sort of failure to not already know the answer.

The big win is persuading members that asking questions is what the smartest people do, it’s the secret sauce that turns amateurs into professionals.

If members feel asking questions is the only way to get access to the knowledge that can’t be taught, a habit of smart people, and the key to rapid improvement, they will ask a lot more of them.

This means you need to rebuild a member’s sense of identity where smart people aren’t the ones who never admit not knowing the answer, but instead, are the ones brave and wise enough to ask questions.

Sitting With Members

Starting at data can be useful, but a far more useful practice is to ask members if you can watch them visit the community and ask questions as they do.

  • At what time do they typically visit the community?
  • What triggers the visit? Do they remember to visit or is it a newsletter/email?
  • Do they visit the homepage or a bookmarked page?
  • When they visit the homepage, what catches their eye first? What are they likely to click on?
  • What do they do after the 1st click?
  • How long do they stick around for? What catches their eye about the posts they click on?
  • Why do they respond/visit some posts and not others?
  • Why do they not visit some areas/features of the community?

You might see the extent to what you think draws people to visit and engage in a community differs from how they typically do.

Past insights with clients have led us to change our outbound newsletters, change how we tag discussions and which discussions we use, create morning ‘one-click’ digests.

Always do this before any platform/user experience overhaul. Changes which seem insignificant to you can be huge to a regular visitor.

p.s. If you can’t do this in person, why not ask if members wouldn’t mind sharing their screen and guiding you through it?

Posts vs. Contributions

A post is different from a contribution.

In fact, I’d argue most posts are not really contributions at all.

A contribution, to use a precise definition, is a gift made towards the creation of a greater, collective, good. Posts which are self-serving and help nobody else aren’t really contributions.

Someone sharing a thoughtful, nuanced, opinion about politics which reframes an old issue in a new light is probably a contribution.

Someone posting how much they hate Trump is not.

Someone sharing their experience dealing with a difficult medical condition, things to be aware of, useful links, resources, and an offer to help guide others through it is making a tremendous contribution.

Someone posting how they’re feeling today is (probably) not.

Someone reaching out to members who have been missing for a while, checking they’re ok, and guiding them back into the community might be making a contribution. Someone who takes the extra time to add the right background, context, categorisation, and tags to their question for future people who have that problem is making a contribution.

….someone asking how to fix their iPhone is not.

One of the biggest problems right now is we’re far better at counting and rewarding posts than we are at contributions. The people who make contributions need you to be better at recognising contributions than posts. They need you to drop them a private note of gratitude, highlight their efforts, and share their stories of the best contribution.

Not many people are going to make a second contribution if their first was quickly buried off-screen below hundreds of posts.