Why Most Solutions To Community Problems Fail

A large part of community consultancy is spending more time than most diagnosing community problems.

Far too many people rush into solutions without clearly defining the problem. Here are two (fairly common) examples.

Example 1 – The Bad Community Website

One client right now has a community platform that’s hindering people from participating. An obvious solution would be to suggest fixes to improve the website. But this doesn’t solve the problem. The problem is how did they wind up with a subpar community website in the first place?

Did they not know what they were doing? Did they pick the wrong partners to work with? Or did they not have the budget to do it well.

Once we probed deeper we discovered the person responsible for developing and managing the platform had never done the work before. They were influenced by what marketers wanted (who also had never managed a community before).

They didn’t know the principles of a great community website, didn’t have a great list of examples to work from, and didn’t have a peer group of support.

The solution is to build relationships and educate this group. We can provide them with the right resources, connect them with others, and share the best examples. We might make suggestions to the website as well, but we’re solving the causes of the bad community at the same time.

Example 2 – Declining Engagement

Another client last year had declining levels of engagement.

The obvious solution is to suggest ideas to increase activity. This might produce a few spikes of activity, but it doesn’t solve the question of why engagement was declining in the first place. To answer this, we need to answer a few key questions:

Are fewer members participating or are existing members making fewer contributions?

If, for example, it’s the former then why are fewer members participating? Are fewer people visiting the community in the first place? Are fewer converting into regular members etc?

And if fewer people are visiting in the first place is that a decline of interest in the topic, less money spent on promotion, or declining search traffic?

If it’s the latter (regular members are participating less), then why is that the case? Is their new competition from other communities, a shift to mobile we’re not catering to, or problems with the community itself. We might interview a few members who have stopped participating to find out the answer.

Having trained, consulted, and spoken with hundreds of community professionals – I’d argue most are rushing into solutions which fail because they didn’t clearly define the problem. You always spend more time diagnosing the problem than coming up with a solution.

If you’ve properly diagnosed the problem, the solution will present itself.

% Of Visits From Mobile

This is data from one client:

Here is data from another:

And here’s another:

Two important things here. The first is the range. 15% to 80% of traffic comes from mobile. This depends far less on global trends than upon the nature of your community. If it’s a community people visit to get answers while doing work, expect it to be low. If it’s a community people visit to see what’s new, what others are doing etc…expect it to be much higher.

The second point is it’s stalling in many of our clients right now. It might fluctuate, but we’re seeing (at least in markets with high mobile penetration), the percentage of visits by mobile has likely peaked.

This means you should allocate your resources (time, energy, money) by where people visit today instead of extrapolating from past trends. i.e. if 85% of your visits land at a desktop version of your site – spend 85% of your resources there (and vice-versa).

Aside: we generally see desktop traffic to be much more valuable. People tend to browse on mobile but make their best contributions when sitting at a laptop.

The Unsubscribe Problem

I worked with one client this year where members were given the option to opt out of all automated email contacts from the community.

This works fine until people forget their passwords and ‘request password’ feature was covered by the above opt-out.

That’s an extreme solution to the ‘opt-out’ problem.

At the other extreme is to give members detailed choices in exactly what they wish to subscribe and unsubscribe from:

The problem with this approach is it’s fiddly and messy. Members have to opt out of multiple things to stop getting messages.

I think we can group options into three categories based upon a member’s level of interest in the community. I’d break this into three categories.

  • Automated. This is automated onboarding campaigns, unique user journeys, and weekly digests, announcements, gamification updates/notifications.
  • Reactions. This is notifications of reactions to contributions (responses to posts, news feed notifications etc…), @mention notifications etc…
  • Private messages. Private messages from other members, chat requests, messages from the community manager, etc…

Most of the time, we automatically opt members in when they join and offer members a clear opt-out from each category above.

Read This

Trust me, you will learn more about communities this week reading this article than any other.


It’s an academic article, but far more readable than most.

Don’t worry about the complicated methodology, just take 20 to 30 minutes to read the background, read the analysis, read the results.

I don’t think anything has so closely reflected our experiences in building communities for clients over the years.

Read it.

The Easy Way vs. The Hard Way (or how to build a huge community in days)

Start a Facebook group.
Pay a top expert to host an exclusive event.
Promote it via social ads (or pay other influencers to promote it).
Incentivize attendees to share it on their own social channels.
Invite your friends, get employees to invite people, and have your marketing team mass email your audience to invite them to join.

With a relatively small budget, you can easily gather of thousands of people together in a single group in weeks…perhaps just days.

But what do you have to show for it? A group of people who joined for the wrong reasons on a platform you don’t control.

You’ve sewn the seeds of all your community’s future problems in week one. You will forever be trying to match the heightened expectations, persuade members to be active, and drive more engagement.

You will always be constricted by a platform you don’t control, a platform you’re not paying for, and whose terms of service you probably haven’t read. Anything can change at any time.

As a rule of thumb, every easy hack to drive more engagement comes complete with a future problem it creates. This is the problem with taking the easy path to drive more engagement.

The harder path is to earn the trust of your members through the CHIP process long before you launch a community.

The harder path is to do the research to truly uncover what your audience really need (even the things they can’t articulate) and overdeliver on those needs.

The harder path is to stake out a bold new territory (a unique concept) for the community that is indispensable.

The harder path is to create a community platform designed and managed to achieve your goals, not to sell advertising.

All of this is much harder to do, it takes much longer, but like the albatross taking flight, once it’s in the air it can soar.

Don’t rush it, don’t take the easy path, do the hard work and get it right.

Sense of Community Requires A Shared Identity, Everything Else Requires A Practical Need

I worry we’ve gone too far towards trying to build a sense of community instead of satisfying the practical need.

This was a big point from The Indispensable Community. A lot of organizations are trying to build a strong sense of community when they shouldn’t be.

Fostering a strong sense of community works when the topic is a strong part of your members’ identity.

You probably don’t feel a strong sense of community with people who use the same knife sharpener, paracetamol, or brand of notepad as you do.

But you might feel a sense of community with people who share the same occupations, circumstances or have the same passions.

If you’re struggling to get people to open up, share what they’re up to in their lives, and participate in off-topic discussions, it’s not because your tactics are wrong, it’s more likely the topic isn’t a major part of someone’s identity.

You can either refine the topic to ensure it personifies your target audience’s identity or, better, focus on a more personal (and more practical) need.

That is usually information (typically getting answers to questions), but it can also mean getting benefits from answering questions (feeling a sense of influence and access) or building a reputation that leads to other work opportunities.

If your sense of community tactics aren’t working, focus on more immediate, practical, benefits.

The Naysayer Rule

A rare few of your members will create something above and beyond what most people create.

It’s usually something which took a lot of time, a lot of resources, and a lot of skill.

When this happens, I think we need a ‘no naysayer’ rule.

That means no-one gets to say they could’ve done it better, question the contributor’s motives, or attack the contribution. Constructive criticism is welcomed, but it has to be phrased in a constructive, sincere and empathetic way.

Anyone who breaks this rule wins a ‘naysayer’ badge for a week.

Deep Linking The Community With The Company Website

Most company websites aren’t nearly as integrated with their community as they should be.

Too many have just a subdomain under a navigation tab where the community activity lives.

If you’re looking for a project which directly harnesses the full value of the community, better integration with the website is a good place to start.

There are more ways to integrate the community with your website, but the best will usually make it easier to find the community, easier to navigate the community, easier to ask a question in the community, find relevant information, and identify experts who can help visitors right now.

Good luck.

The Rules Of Fresh Content

I visited a client’s community recently.

The homepage was filled with static content. Much of this content hadn’t been updated in weeks. Too much of it was targeted at newcomers.

For most communities, newcomers arrive via the back door. They search for something and find it in an article or discussion within your community. But they don’t find it on your homepage.

There’s a reason local news websites don’t have a big ‘welcome’ section above the headline for all the newcomers. The homepage is (usually) your returning visitors. This is a very different audience. They need to see something new and exciting every day or they stop visiting every day. So give them something every day. Or, if you can’t manage that, give them something every week.

Write about what’s happening in the community, write about something coming up, get the opinions of 10 top members on a big issue and publish them, announce a new event, review a recent event, set a quiz or challenge, celebrate member achievements and publish their news.

Almost every community has enough content to publish something new every day.

Names Matter

Lou reminded me recently that many people have a hard time connecting their idea of community with the objectives of their work.

It’s a lot easier sometimes to get support for a community by calling it something else.

Call it scaled customer support (or self-serve support).
Call it a customer experience.
Call it product feedback.
Call it member-driven innovation
Call it user-generated content.
Call it a chill out zone if you like.

If the idea of ‘community’ isn’t resonating strongly, use one that does.

(p.s. The same goes for community managers too).

10 Years

I missed the real anniversary, but here’s a quick summary of FeverBee’s first decade.

And tens of thousands of you, thank you for your passion over this past decade.

I hope you are as excited about the next decade as I am.

All The Easy Community Ideas Are Taken

I’m afraid you’re out of luck. All the easy community ideas were taken a decade ago.

You’re not going to launch a new, definitive, community for mums, authors, doctors, investors, or any other topic.


Unless you’re truly willing to genuinely build the first community of its kind.

Unless you’re willing to do something unique, different, and daring.
Unless you’re willing to target the dissatisfied people on the fringes of existing communities.
Unless you’re willing to do what existing communities are too afraid to do.
Unless you’re willing to do something most people think will never work.
Unless you’re willing to work without a map and make it up as you go along.
Unless you’re willing to make a big bet that you can rally enough fringe people together to launch something unique.

Then you might stand a chance.