Understanding Longevity Of A Community Tactic

Whenever you try something new, especially something big that everybody in the community sees, you often get a spike in activity.

This happens when you add a new banner, host a new interview series, begin a ‘working out loud’ series, start regular off-topic discussions etc…

When this happens you often get a spike of activity followed by a decline. We’ve seen spikes can be bad. Much of the spike can be explained by curiosity, initial excitement, and a fear of not joining in with the group.

What really matters is what’s happening several weeks later. Don’t compare current data with the initial surge of interest, wait until the surge of interest has died down.

Above we wouldn’t compare late-June 2017 data with the beginning of March. We would compare it to April (post-surge) and see a generally positive, sustainable, trend.

Analyzing post-surge data reveals whether people are getting real value from participating in that tactic. Much of the time, perhaps most of the time, the answer is no. That’s useful to know. You can end tactics which aren’t working or have entered the decline phase and invest that time on new ideas.

Like TV shows, most tactics have a shelf-life. Find the ones which are sustainably growing in popularity and invest more time in them. Stop the ones which are in a decline (or have only a few participants).

The Second Impression

We spend a lot of time on the first impression.

We make sure the homepage shows the best content, most relevant discussions, and most exciting events. This gets more people to register.

But it’s pretty easy to get people to register (especially when registration is free).

People will happily take a few seconds (and only a few seconds!) to enter a few details to satisfy a mild curiosity, take advantage of a small opportunity, or stay informed with what’s going on (how many newsletters do you receive each week?)

It’s the second impression that matters. If you’ve revealed everything on their first visit, the second impression is worse than the first.

The second impression should surpass the first impression (and the third should surpass the second).

Most of the time, as you’re designing your onboarding journey, you want to provoke two states of mind here; surprise and awe.

  1. Surprise – “I didn’t know I needed that!”
  2. Awe – “that’s an incredible way to do [x]”

For sure, make a good first impression. But don’t set the bar too high for your second impression. Remember it’s a journey, in each step of the newcomer journey, surprise and awe newcomers. Surpass their expectations on each visit.

(p.s. also remember 80% of your visitors won’t see your community homepage).

Building An Indispensable Community

I recently joined Vanilla for a webinar explaining how to build an indispensable community for your members and your business.

You can catch up on this video (recorded from the webinar with Vanilla).

You can also buy my second book, The Indispensable Community, from Amazon.

p.s. Please also leave a review if you’ve read the book. I’d love to see more reviews.

Community Navigation

The SAP Community is ‘tabbed’.

Which means the entire community is hosted on the same website but hidden behind a tab. If you click on the tab, the community appears. But the rest of the navigation options remain the same.

This means the community has to maintain the look and the feel of the rest of the site, but 9 out of 10 navigation options take people away from the community. To navigate around, members must hover over the tab and select where they want to go.

The upside of this is it likely helps with search engine rankings. The downside is it makes it really difficult for members to discover everything the community offers. That navigation bar really does matter.

The Alteryx community is a bit different. The community is behind a tab, but once you’re there the navigation reflects the best places to go within the community. The navigation bar appears on the left-hand side on every page. Members can easily browse around and find what they want.

The branding is the same, the community is on the same URL, but the navigation is a lot better. Members can click the Alteryx logo at the top to return to the website.

The Dropbox community and Airbnb community are similar but with one noticeable difference; they’re hosted on their own unique URLs. This enables both (in theory) to create slightly more distinct experiences, but at a cost of search traffic they would be likely to receive if on a subdomain of the main URL. In practice, however, they usually have to adhere to brand guidelines. Thus they get much of the same downsides but without the additional upside.

Unique URLs are often symptomatic of a community with limited internal support. The Dropbox community, for example, is the very last option from the navigation bar at the bottom of the homepage.

The Airbnb host community is almost impossible to find from the community homepage (I’m genuinely not sure how people stumble across it).

As a rule, you generally want the community to be as a subdomain prominently linked to from the main homepage. This subdomain should allow you to create a navigation structure that shows off the best of the community with an easy link back to the main homepage.

Accepted Solutions & Featured Answers

Accepted solutions (answers which are marked as solving the question) are the perfect way for visitors to quickly find what they’re looking for.

A member posts a question, gets a bunch of responses and marks the one which solved their problem (or an admin marks the best answer).

The problem, like customer reviews, is few people take the time to say if the answer solved their problem. This means most visitors don’t know which (if any) of the responses solved the problem. Most communities are lucky if 1 in 5 questions are marked as an accepted solution (rejected solutions would also be interesting).

You can pester the person who posted the question with pop-ups, emails, and direct messages to mark an answer as an ‘accepted solution’. This might increase the numbers a little. But there is only so much pestering you can do before you’re seen as a pest.

One solution is to enable all members, not just the original poster, highlight if an answer worked for them. This helps a little. But beware the natural curve here.

If you’re measuring (or measured by) the percentage of questions with an accepted solution, after a while, most of the common questions already have an accepted solution. Members don’t need to ask these question anymore. Newer questions are less likely to have a feasible solution.

Another alternative is the ‘best answer’ or ‘featured answer’. These are a little different.

You might not know if the answer solved the problem, but members, volunteers, and admins can highlight which answer they think is best from the ones given. This helps visitors quickly try the best answers before moving on.

I’d measure and work to improve three things:

1) % of questions with an answer (even explaining there is no known solution helps the member move on).

2) % of questions with a ‘featured/best answer’ (set fairly rigid criteria for what qualifies as a ‘featured answer’. This might be it offers something new, something of unique value etc…it might not be the solution, but it’s an answer that offers help.

3) Time to get a featured/best answer. The quicker the answer, the better.

Ideally, every answer would have an accepted solution. Realistically, there are innate difficulties to make that happen. A better approach is to look at a metric you can influence and improve.

Changing The Fundamentals

If you want top members to share more expertise than they do today, you’re probably not going to get far by asking them more frequently to do it (whether by email, direct message, or any form of gamification system).

If you really want members to do more, be more, or change how they behave, you need to fundamentally tip their mental scales in your direction.

Every contribution requires a degree of effort. Theoretically (although not quite literally) we mentally determine if the effort (time, mental energy etc…) is worth the reward (influence, attention, work opportunities etc…) before performing a behavior.

If the scale tips towards reward, we make the contribution.

More of our strategy work these days involves changing the fundamentals rather than changing the communication. This usually means asking questions like:

  • What kind of influence can we offer members to ensure making better contributions is a no-brainer?
  • What is the absolute maximum level of control members can have if they make really great contributions?
  • How can we make [specific contributions] the obvious (best) way to achieve the fame, attention, and job opportunities they need?

This leads to conclusions like flying the top 10 contributors to our headquarters each year, giving best contributors access to our product engineers to get support to make even better contributions, creating a recommended experts list published on our site for people looking for contractors to hire etc…

This, in turn, leads to new processes that need to be introduced, internal support that needs to be gained, and methods for testing the idea in a quick and low-risk/low-cost way.

A member is unlikely to contribute more just because you message them more frequently (likewise, reminding people they haven’t visited in the community in a while is a waste of everyone’s time).

Change the fundamentals, not the superficial communication.

I Need Some Help

I admit it, I need some help.

Over the years we’ve taken on some big projects.

..and plenty more.

Many of these projects need to be kept fresh with the latest examples, information, and more.

If anyone out there is interested in working with me on these and some fun, creative, content projects, drop me a line.

Share some information about your expertise, your hourly rate, and your availability. Examples of your work would be useful too.

Applications are open until we find someone we like.

Trapped By Projections

Earlier this year, we spoke with a large brand in the early stages of launching a new customer community.

They projected they would recruit 140k members in their first year and 800k within 3 years.

It seemed logical to them. They had almost 20m website visitors each year and a mailing list of 1.5m. If they persuaded a small percentage of each group to join, they could hit their target.

The approval for the project was based upon these projections – projections supported by the platform vendor.

We tried to warn against these projections, supplied data, and provided countless examples. In the end, they decided we were being too pessimistic and the platform vendors knew best (they went ahead without us).

In the few months since the launch, they’ve attracted less than 10k registered members and have only a dwindling handful of active participants.

It’s not looking good.

If you need a high number to get approval for a project, someone will certainly figure out a formula to come up with one. This doesn’t make the formula valid (nor going ahead any smarter).

And any projections based upon the quantity of members or overall level of activity is classic engagement trap thinking. You’re going to be chasing numbers instead of weaving a small, powerful, community first.

Don’t become the next victim.

(Also be aware platform vendors have a natural bias to overestimate projections. If they estimate 100m visits a year and you only get 30m..you still pay for the 100m for the duration of the contract. The huge churn at most vendors in the past two years has accelerated this trend. Remember you can always go up to higher tiers, but it’s almost impossible to move down).

Reviews and Using NPS

By October 2015, Quick Base’s advocacy community was clearly a failure.

Surveys showed Quick Base’s customers had remarkably NPS (net promoter scores), but those customers weren’t doing any promoting (a common problem).

If you’ve bought a software product recently (especially a premium one), there is a strong chance the reviews on comparison sites like G2Crowd, TrustRadius, or IT Central Station played a huge role.

The purpose of the Quick Base community was to get members to share good reviews on these sites. But, so far, they had less than 20 reviews…and even those reviews weren’t great. They often miscategorized Quick Base and failed to highlight what makes the company different.

So they took a different approach, they began inviting members with high NPS scores into a private group. They learned more about their members, built a stronger sense of community, and provided the right kind of information to create reviews.

Today Quick Base is the leader in its category with over 150 reviews. This is an incredible influence on someone’s decision to buy.

Three important aspects of this story:

1) You don’t need a big community to have a huge impact. Just a few hundred highly committed members will have a far bigger impact than a community for all your customers. Too often we try to build a community for all our customers instead of just our best customers.

2) NPS scores are a great way to find your most committed customers. NPS is a terrible gage of measuring the value of a community, but a fantastic tool to find your most likely top members. Invite the top into a unique group and ask them for more.

3) Ask members directly for behaviors you want. Sometimes you do need to provide incentives, but often members simply want to help. If they’re happy customers, they’re going to be keen to help because they want to help.

Final thought, if you are specific enough in the impact you’re seeing, just a tiny number of the right behaviors have incredible leverage.

p.s. How many reviews would it take for you to be the top product in your sector?

Community & Staff Training

As your community team grows, it makes sense to increase their skillset through training/courses etc.

But is the community team the only team interacting with the community? (or should it be?)

Shouldn’t far more staff members at least know how to:

  • Post and get responses in the community (using the right tone of voice and personality).
  • Test their content ideas in the community.
  • Solicit feedback on products.
  • Respond to product-related questions.
  • Collect and analyze community data for their needs.
  • Spot potentially big problems and escalate them to people who can resolve the issue?
  • etc…

Now, what about people that create content? Shouldn’t they also know how to:

  • Communify their content. Make it palatable for a broader audience.
  • Host Q&As, AMAs, and share short snippets about their work in the community?
  • Respond to questions about their content.

A growing part of FeverBee’s work this year is training larger groups of non-community staff to participate in the community and harness its value.

If you only train the community team to participate in the community, don’t be surprised when only they do participate in the community.

How Fitbit Built An Indispensable Online Community

Sharing today one of my favorite snippets from The Indispensable Community.

You can learn how Allison Leahy and her incredible team at Fitbit made their community indispensable.

More than any other chapter, this explains the neverending, ongoing, process to maximize the value of a community.


On a cloudy San Francisco day in 2013, Allison Leahy, a novice with just a single year of community building experience, walked into 160 Spear Street to begin her first day of work. The offices felt busy, but rundown. Empty boxes littered the floors and were stacked high against the walls. Leahy’s team consisted of just her and two colleagues. Within five years, they would build one of the most successful brand communities in the world.

Fitbit was six years old by the time Leahy arrived. The company was founded in 2007 by James Park and Eric Friedman, two computer scientists who realized the same accelerators used in the Nintendo Wii could be placed into smaller devices to track people’s exercise. They scraped together $400k from friends and family and built a prototype tracker. They premiered at TechCrunch50, an industry startup competition, and came second. More importantly, they secured 2,000 pre-orders.

A year later, the pair released The Fitness Tracker, which could track footsteps, sleep and many other movements (or lack of them). Sales were slow at first. Fitbit sold just 5,000 by the end of the year. But it was enough to secure a big investment from a venture capitalist and a partnership with BestBuy. Sales rose rapidly from 58,000 in 2010 to 1.3m in 2012. The following year, Fitbit released their breakout product, the Fitbit Flex. Sales were heading into the stratosphere and the holiday season was only just beginning. This was a big problem.

A tsunami of new customers would soon flood Fitbit’s tiny support team with questions. There was neither enough time nor money to train a new support team. But Fitbit already had over a million customers who had solved most problems.

Leahy’s job was to build a community to connect the people with questions to the people with answers.

Leahy didn’t have much time. She had to scale the community to handle the influx of members and get a lot more people answering questions. A new website was already in the works, but it needed to be tested and the community needed to support it. In early December 2013, Leahy invited 20 community members who had already answered a lot of questions (superusers), to join a customer council. Leahy hoped this group would not only test the new website but also help answer a lot of questions over the Christmas rush.

Leahy and her team knew their customers were buying a Fitbit tracker to get (or stay) healthy. They would have questions about more than just the product: they would have questions about getting fit, eating well and having healthier lifestyles. The new community website wouldn’t just be about Fitbit’s products, but the role the product played in the lives of members. It would be a place for members to swap their best exercise, weight loss and healthy eating advice.

The new Fitbit website was launched just two weeks before Christmas. It had a tiny group of core users to answer questions, provided support in five languages and was designed to answer any product or fitness questions customers had. Now it was time to see if the community could handle an incredible influx of members.

The customer tsunami crashed upon the website hard over Christmas. On Christmas Day, 6,220 new members signed up with 1,254 posts (questions and answers). On Boxing Day, another 10,000 members joined and created another 2,000 posts, but the system held firm. Customers were asking and answering almost every single question. Even the healthy lifestyle area of the community was a hit. The tiny group of superusers Leahy recruited had helped her weather the storm.

By February, over 100,000 members had joined the community, yet the system was working. Members were stepping up and answering each other’s questions. Better yet, the superuser group had also answered the huge backlog of questions. Having shown the concept worked, Leahy was now eager to open the community up to the world.

So far, only registered customers could ask questions and see the discussions. This made the community exclusive, but more difficult to find. Anyone who searched on Google would never find the thousands of answers in the community. If Leahy could open up the community, its value would rise massively.

It took a year, but in July 2015, Leahy got the support she needed to let anyone browse the discussions in the community. The level of traffic rose by an incredible 500% in just six months. The significance of this is huge. If a customer asks a question of the community and gets an answer, they don’t need to call customer support. But if that answer solves the problem for 500% more visitors, that’s even more people who don’t need to call customer support.

The community was now tackling all the questions it could see, but what about those it couldn’t see? Customers didn’t just ask questions on the Fitbit website, they also asked them on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms. If the community really wanted to show its worth, Leahy and her team needed to find a way to answer questions no matter where they were posted.

At that time, if members directed a question to @FitbitSupport, they would usually get a response. But if they casually mentioned Fitbit, their chances of getting an answer were slim. So, in the summer of 2014, Leahy and her community team setup listening software to flag any mentions of the brand and respond to those they could help. They didn’t just respond on Facebook and Twitter, they responded anywhere they could have an impact, including the forums of other brands. When QVC sold 62k Fitbit trackers, the support team answered questions in the QVC community too.

Most brand managers would be thrilled with a thriving community which answered tens of thousands of product-related questions every month. Leahy, however, wasn’t satisfied; not yet. She had a bigger vision for the community: the community could be far more useful to Fitbit than just answering questions–it could help colleagues in other departments too. But to make this happen, she needed to build alliances throughout the organization.

In the Fitbit community, value comes from some unexpected places. For example, if the community management team knew what topics most people were talking about, they could tell the marketing team, who could create content they knew would be a hit. Even the most benign discussions now had great potential. One popular subject, debating whether a tuna or chicken sandwich was healthier, became an entire content series of ‘quick lunch’ ideas. Fitbit had nutritionists on staff who could quickly respond to topics like these. Soon, all the best performing content was sourced from the community.

More alliances soon followed. The PR team began to use the community as an early warning system of problems and Leahy’s team began responding to negative reviews on major shopping sites. Each alliance made Leahy’s community more valuable to her colleagues. But, by far the most important alliance was with the engineering team. Engineering teams can now see how many times community members discuss a product issue and prioritize what to fix next. They get more insight into the customer experience and can find testers and gather feedback before and after every product launch. The community is now helping develop the very products they will soon be using. Today, Leahy feels the product feedback is even more valuable to Fitbit than the thousands of questions the community answers every week.

In the five years since first walking into work, Leahy and her colleagues have transformed a small, scrappy, community project into a core pillar of the business. At each stage, they pushed the envelope of what was possible. They didn’t wait for customers to come to them with questions, they went out to customers. They didn’t hope people answered questions, they built a community council of top members to answer hundreds of questions each month. They didn’t turn away members who just wanted to get fit, they created a place for them to have discussions about health and fitness.

Not everything has been a success. Leahy is quick to point out it helps to be working for a brand with a breakthrough product. And certainly, no community can be a panacea for every problem a brand faces. The Fitbit community hasn’t prevented a sales decline in recent years. But the overarching theme at Fitbit has been to continually drive the community to deliver the most value it possibly can to its customers and its members.

The community team today, which has grown to over 80 staff members around the world, now supports over 500,000 community members and several times more across social media. It delivers value to Fitbit’s customers across the entire buying journey and even shapes the very products Fitbit releases. The community is a powerful testament to what a community manager with a big vision, great passion and indomitable determination can achieve. Leahy has done something far too few people building a brand community today even try to do: she’s made her community indispensable.

You can buy The Indispensable Community on Amazon.com.

Bridging vs. Bonding

A bridge provides a connection across a chasm.

You and your team can be the bridge between your organization and the community.

You can shuttle (and filter) information from one group to the next. You can pass and filter information from one group to the next.

Most community professionals are the bridge between their brand and the organization.

Bonding is different.

Bonding removes the chasm by interlinking the two. The deeper the links, the stronger the bond.

You’re bonding when you persuade employees to test their marketing ideas in the community, source case studies from members, and get developers to host AMA chats directly with community members.

You’re bonding when you persuade members to provide direct feedback to engineers, have voting rights on key brand decisions, and invite members in to meet the staff and CEO.

The problem with being the bridge, is your colleagues don’t get direct experience of the community. They don’t see the enthusiasm, the remarkable contributions, and the same opportunities you do.

The problem with building bonds is it takes time, persuasion, and subtle nudging to gradually get more colleagues to see the community as an objective which directly supports their work.

At the moment, we have far too many bridges and far too few bonds.