Can You Solve This Simple Engagement Challenge?

Many years ago, I was brought in to save a dying community of teachers.

I was the third consultant brought into the project.

The previous two had undertaken research, made recommendations which failed to reverse the downward trend, and had vanished.

My research quickly revealed precisely what the former two consultants had learned; teachers were too busy to participate in a community!

They were overwhelmed with grading papers, adapting to new edicts from above, responding to student questions, dealing with tricky parents, etc…

The community was never a priority for them!

Their lack of time came up in every single interview and almost every survey response.

Before you scroll down, take a second and think what you would recommend if they were your client.

Seriously, stop and take a second to think what you would recommend.

Would you try to make the platform easier and quicker to use?

Would you try to make the community more fun and engaging?

Would you try to build a small, private, base of community members for mentoring and ensure every interaction was high-value?

If you answered yes to the above, you are recommending precisely what the former two consultants recommended.

None of these recommendations worked!


The Solution

The solution is staring right at you but you’re probably not seeing it.

It’s easy to listen to members but not truly see what they’re saying.

I made a simple recommendation, if teachers are clearly too busy to participate, make the community a place for teachers to share their time-saving tips.

This is what we call ‘tweaking the concept’.

Nailing the concept is one of the most powerful ways you can drive more activity and participation.

Activity in the teachers’ community exploded and eventually surpassed its peak within six months. We brought in productivity experts, let teachers track how much time they had saved, and highlighted our time-saving idea of the week.

Once we nailed the concept, it became easier to come up with powerful engagement ideas.


Do You Know What Your Members Really Desire?

One of the first things I do in any client project is interview and survey members.

I’m not randomly putting questions together at the last minute, every question guides me closer to finding out what every segment, not just needs, but deeply desires.

Only once that research is done can I create a community concept that deeply connects with what members desire.

If you get the concept right, everything becomes much easier.

The best part of this, is it costs far less than changing technology and the impact is indefinite.

As part of our Psychology of Community course, I’m going to teach you how to undertake this research and build your community concept.

If you have an existing successful community, this can maximize the level of participation.

If you’re about to launch a community, this will ensure your community thrives.

And if you’re struggling, you should refine your concept before tweaking anything else.

This is a set of skills you can use on any community you ever work on.

I hope you will join me, the course begins next week!

You can sign up for Psychology of Community for $750 or sign up for Strategic Community Management too at a combined rate of $1100 USD.

See you on the inside.

Top Members – More Questions Or More Answers?

You don’t want to flood the community with superusers to answer a trickle of questions.

If all your questions are getting quick responses, you need more questions.

That means promoting the community. You can usually achieve this via ensuring better placement on the website, better integration with your products/services, improving search rankings, social ads, or direct promotion to existing audiences.

If you’re not getting enough good, quick, answers to questions you need more MVPs/motivated top members. But don’t recruit too many and have an army of members with nothing to do.

Brand new communities need 2 to 3, established communities typically need 10 to 15, and mature communities up to 50 to 70. With some exceptions for ‘mega communities’, you need far fewer top members than you think.

The problem is rarely quantity, it’s always the quality of relationships you can build with them. And more people in your MVP program can harm the quality of relationships you build with them.

Show Them Examples

A quick word of advice if you’re trying to explain the value and concept of community.

Show them, don’t tell them.

Show them another, similar community. Highlight how it works. Highlight the value they get from it. Highlight what will be different about yours.

It seems obvious – but then you might be surprised. It’s hard to grasp a community until people have seen it.

Better yet, show communities at all stages of the lifecycle. What it will look like when it launches, what it looks like at maturity, and beyond.

Here’s a list of examples ready-made just for you:

You Can’t Launch The Community On A Friday

…nor Saturday and Sunday. That’s the weekend!

…nor too close to Christmas (December onwards).

…nor in the summer (June onwards), nor too close to Easter.

…nor in January when everyone is just getting back to work.

…nor on Martin Luther King Day, St Patrick’s Day, or any national holiday.

…nor during an annual conference when all the staff are away.

…nor the month before the annual conference when everyone is too busy.

…not when you’re about to make a major product announcement.

…nor today, during a major news event.

…nor during the middle of the election cycle.


The launch day isn’t important, launch it at 11pm on New Years’ Eve if you like.

It really won’t matter. The sooner you launch the better.

It’s your plan for what happens in the weeks and months after launch day that matters.

A Relentless Focus On The Long-Term

You need a long-term focus – but it’s hard.

Yes, you can answer the question – but it’s far more valuable in the long-term if you can persuade another member or another staff member to dive into the community and answer it. That builds habits and stops you from getting sucked into a customer support role.

(By the way, this is the most obvious difference between doing community and customer support work).

Yes, you can create content or run a webinar – but what if you could persuade your members to do it?

Yes, you can launch a fancy community with every feature members might need – but it’s far better to only embrace the features they do need.

Yes, you can promise your bosses amazingly quick results from the community – but it’s far better to educate them about the community lifecycle and why the long-term matters.

Yes, you can measure the engagement metrics your platform gives you – but it’s far better to build your own measurement tools to track valuable changes in behavior.

Two important things are critical here. The first is that most of the long-term value you can create comes from you managing to build relationships with members.

Every minute you invest in building a personal relationship with a member (or senior exec) pays off many times over.

The second is you need to constantly resist the pressure for the short-term solution. There are hundreds of them – but they simply push the problem from today until tomorrow.

Listen To Their Stories

I’ve sat through more than one discussion where a community manager bludgeoned a member by asking them to highlight their superpower.

It’s an awkward question and often leads to humble, awkward, answers.

The best superpowers are identified and nurtured.

In your interviews with members (especially those you wish to become top members), you don’t trample your way over answers to get to a superpower. You ask questions about their background and listen to their stories.

Everyone has a story about how they became interested in the topic, how they began working in this sector etc…Once you’ve listened completely to their story, then you can begin to identify superpowers within the community.

“So it sounds like you’re quite good at ….”
“I noticed you’ve done well at …”

It’s often a lot easier (and more effective) for you to identify what you see as their strengths than asking members to list theirs.

What Does Great Engagement Look Like?

On Feb 24, we’re launching our Psychology of Community course to teach you advanced engagement skills.

Even the best community strategies fail if they’re not matched by advanced engagement skills.

This is harder than it looks.

I’ve seen some normal, charming, friendly people in real life turn into inauthentic corporate drones the moment they start engaging their customers on the web.

The good news is pretty much all of us can write a world-class quality response to any post. The challenge is knowing what world-class looks like and doing it consistently.

In this post, I want to share what world-class engagement skills look like.


Purpose Of Engagement

The goal of engagement (i.e. the one to one direct interactions you have with members) is simple.

You’re trying to positively influence the recipient.

You want the recipient to feel as appreciated, respected, understood, smart, and as influential as they possibly can.

This not only keeps them coming back to the community, but it keeps them as customers too.


The ‘Last 5 Posts’ Test

You might think your engagement skills are great, but can you pass the ‘last 5 posts test’?

It’s simple.

Look at your last five interactions with members (no exceptions or cherry picking).

In your last five posts, did you do everything in your power to make members feel as great as possible?

Or did you give a short, factual, response and move on to the next five posts?

Yes, you’re busy. You don’t have time. But the difference between a short, factual, post and a world-class response is typically 30 seconds to 60 seconds.


What Does A Terrific Response Look Like?

A good response has as many of the following as possible.

  • It’s friendly. Warm, helpful, possibly playful tone of voice.
  • It’s personal. Response @mentions the recipient, references previous interactions, and specific aspects of their question. Did you ask specific clarifying questions to follow up?
  • It’s informative. It provides useful information in an easily digestible way (think screenshots, bullet points, and videos, rather than copying and pasting text).
  • It makes members feel important. Members feel appreciated for raising the issue, better connected to other members, and feel like they have an impact.
  • It resolves the issue. It resolves the underlying frustration, increases the joy, or achieves the goal of not just providing information – but tackling the bigger challenge.

A Breakdown Of A Friendly, Smart, Personal Response

In this course video, I show how to take bad and ‘ok’ responses and turn them into terrific responses.

Make This Your Standard

The goal isn’t just to do this once, but to do this consistently for thousands of posts (as Colleen has done).

Actually, the goal is to make this your standard for how you, your colleagues, and your top members participate.

I’d suggest going through responses with your team once a quarter to look for improvements and provide more training when needed.


Sign Up For Your Psychology of Community Course

We’re going to cover this as part of our Psychology of Community Course.

I think you and your team should consider signing up. We’re going to cover a range of advanced skills including:

  • Building and validating member’s personas. This helps you design member journeys, understand how to cater your message to each audience, and determine exactly what you need each member to do.
  • Advanced engagement skills. We’re going to help you instill a world-class culture in how you, your team, and your members engage with each other in your community. This will dramatically improve the tone and personality you create.
  • Creating a powerful sense of community. We’re going to help you build and create a powerful sense of community to increase retention, attract new members, and ensure everyone feels like they belong to your community.
  • Motivating top community members. We’re going to help you get inside your members’ heads and help them make their best possible contributions to your community. If you want more superusers to get more involved, this is crucial.
  • Designing a gamification scheme that actually works. Gamification is overrated – unless you do it right. We’re going to take you beyond fantasy internet points and millions of badges to help you set up the perfect gamification system for your audience.

I believe everyone engaging members today should have advanced skills in engagement.

The course begins on February 24, enrollment is open now.

You can sign up here for $750 or sign up for this and Strategic Community Management for $1100 USD.

What Do You Offer Top Members?

Can you give them direct access to senior staff?

Can you empower them to control their niche of the community as they want? (this includes moderation abilities).

Can you promote their efforts through your PR channels and newsletter?

If you’re not going to go the extra mile to encourage top members, they’re not going to have much motivation to go the extra mile for you.

In almost every project we’ve worked on, we’ve run headlong into a nightmare of internal politics, legal concerns, and outright rejections for the above.

But the difficulty of providing top members with these benefits is exactly what makes them so scarce and valuable. If you can’t offer top members these things, you’re going to struggle to attract and retain them.

Some internal battles are worth fighting – this is one of them.

Using Data To Determine The Best Managed Online Community

Beginning in 2019, we began scraping millions of data points from dozens of top communities to find the best-managed community.

The idea was to use it for our clients to explain how they’re doing in comparison with competitors/similar communities. And also to urge them to adopt the strategies which would take them in the right direction.

We decided to benchmark communities in three areas:

  1. Size of the community.
  2. % of posts that receive a response.
  3. Avg. speed to first response.

This is far harder than it looks. But after a long process of scraping and cleaning data – along with my amateur coding skills – I want to share a small sample with you.

In short, the closer to the bottom left an organization is, the better they’re performing.

Of course, size matters too. It’s not hard to answer every question in minutes if you only get 2 or 3 per day. So you can see the relative size.

On this basis, I would say FitBit, Upwork, Vodafone, and Alteryx are all top performers.

And this is just a small snippet of a far larger dataset.


Why Community Benchmarks Matter

It doesn’t really help to have data if you don’t know if the metrics you’re seeing are good or bad.

Our benchmarks help you overcome these problems and see what good actually looks like and what you can realistically aspire towards.

One thing we’ll do extensively as part of our Community Strategy course is help you benchmark your community in a multitude of different ways to help you determine how you’re doing today and what you should be focusing on.

We’re going to provide you with data points on growth rates, levels of participation, conversion rates, community design principles and even help you benchmark the skills of you and your team.

Having been through this process many times, it’s genuinely one of the most useful things you can do. I hope we can help you do it.

Whether you’re just getting started or have a mature community today, you need a community strategy.

[Course begins on Feb 24]

Community Strategy – Developing The Member Journey



On Feb 24, we’re relaunching our community strategy course.

During this course, I want to take your community skills to an advanced level – a level that’s hard to learn on the job.

A good example of this is developing the member journey. Most online communities have either no journey or a bad one. This leads to communities with terrible retention rates.

The webinar below (originally for Vanilla) is an example of the kind of skills and knowledge you can quickly acquire and apply immediately to your community.

(click here to watch the video)

The video will take you step-by-step through the process we’ve used in the past to help clients develop their journey for members.

These are precisely the kinds of skills that will take your community to the next level.

If you find the video useful, be sure to sign up for our Strategic Community Management course.

This course will share the strategies, systems, approaches, tactics, and templates we’ve used to help scale the communities of 270+ organizations.

You will learn how to:

  • Develop your community strategy from scratch.
  • Systematically increase the level of participation in your community.
  • Identify realistic targets for your community and benchmark your community properly against competitors.
  • Measure the right things – not just the things which are easy to measure.
  • Build a technology roadmap, budget your community, and overcome risks.
  • Build member personas and onboarding journeys.
  • Etc…

The course begins on Feb 24. Places are limited to 30 people on a strictly first-come basis.

p.s. You can sign up for this and our Psychology of Community course at a big discount here.

Don’t ‘Keep An Eye’ on the Community

Imagine you had a button you have to push every few hours or something really bad might happen (Lost fans rejoice!).

You can still go home in the evenings, take weekends off, and go on vacation etc…however, every few hours you’re expected to push the button.

How much would you enjoy your time away? How much can you really relax, think deeply about your work, or enjoy your time with others if you need to prevent a calamity every few hours?

Checking a community every few hours for potential problems isn’t much different to pushing that button. It doesn’t help your community, it hurts your community by not giving you enough space from it.

In the decade I’ve been doing this work, I can’t think of a single truly urgent crisis that couldn’t wait 12 to 48 hours to resolve. Larger communities have paid moderation teams to handle most problems and smaller communities don’t tend to attract problems that turn into crises.

Try to think of an urgent crisis now that absolutely couldn’t wait until Monday. Now try to imagine a time when you checking the community in your downtime has prevented such a crisis.

Do you see the point?

The odds of a major crisis this weekend are tiny.

The odds of you burning out and not being able to provide the community the support it needs are a lot higher.

Or, if you need a simpler measure, if you’re not being paid to check the community in your time off – don’t do it.

How Much Time Do They Have To Participate?

A client was recently tasked with trying to figure out how much time prospective members would have in their upcoming community.

This is a fool’s errand. It’s like asking how much time people have to learn a new skill during work hours.

The answer will always be ‘not much’.

No-one has an empty slot in their calendar to watch paint dry.

But neither are most of us running non-stop from back to back meetings all day, every day.

Like most things, it’s a question of priorities and persuasion. You have to answer the main questions.

  1. Is the community aligned to an immediate, major, priority in your member’s lives?
  2. Is the community the best method for members to achieve that priority or satiate that goal?
  3. Do people know you, trust you, and believe you can deliver on the community’s promise (this is the persuasion bit).

It’s never a question of time. It’s always a question of priority and persuasion.