Growth vs. Expansion

The typical approach to growing a community is to hope members drift in through search, referral traffic from the website, or sheer luck.

Sometimes it works too, but hoping to be lucky isn’t a good strategy.

Instead of waiting for miraculous growth, plan for deliberate expansion.

First, you target a small segment of your audience with unique desires. Target them deliberately and overwhelming satisfy those unique desires. This means deliberate outreach to this small segment of your audience (direct messages, content, promotion etc…). When the number of new members begins to plateau, expand to the next segment.

Trying to grow by targeting everyone at once and hoping people drift in isn’t smart. Start with a tiny audience, satisfy their unique needs, and then expand the concept a little by little.

It’s a lot easier to grow through deliberate expansion than dumb luck.

Designing Complex Communities for Multiple Audiences

Our larger projects typically involve building complex communities for multiple audiences; users of the product, resellers, consultants, partners etc…

One approach to these communities is to keep them separate. A better approach is to identify the value they each offer one another. Not every group supports every other group, but it’s usually possible to design a system which benefits everyone.

For example, a typical map of what each group wants might include:

  • Users want answers to questions.
  • Users want to learn how to use the product better.
  • Users want to avoid making costly mistakes.
  • Resellers want to attract more customers.
  • Consultants want to build a reputation and attract clients.
  • Partners want to sell more apps
  • Developers want answers to questions.
  • Developers want great documentation.
  • Developers want to know the roadmap.

Based upon this we might design a community where:

  • Only users can ask questions and share their current challenges in the community. Users who ask questions with the most views get special VIP status at events and possible discounts on the product.
  • Consultants can apply to be experts which allows them to submit long-form advice/content and provides special status when they answer questions from members in a community (i.e. their responses are more visible). These consultants appear in a ‘recommended consultants’ page and are invited to speak at conferences.
  • Resellers can answer customer questions related to products and appear on a leaderboard of top resellers. They are also the only members who can have links to their companies in the signature of their profiles.
  • Partners can respond to user questions and reviews of their product in the community. The speed of a response is a factor in where/how the apps appear within the community. Members who receive a good response are allowed to adjust their rating of the apps accordingly.
  • Developers who provide the most advice/add the most documentation are given early access to the roadmap and staff within the company they can ask for help.

The goal is to create a dynamic where everyone benefits the more they participate. The best dynamics ensure the most one group participates, the more value they provide to another group too.

Sometimes it makes sense to create a completely separate group for each audience. But it’s usually far better to structure a community with different profiles, permissions, requests, and tasks for each member which benefit the entire group.

Develop Five Ideas and Test Them

Too many organizations only come up with one, single, risky, all-encompassing idea for a community.

This typically means: ‘we’re going to build a community for customers to ask and answer each other’s questions’.

The problem is the odds of hitting a home-run on your first-ever swing of the bat isn’t great.

If the concept works and takes off, great! If it doesn’t, it’s game over. And far too often, it’s game over.

Our approach is usually different. We use our surveys and interviews to identify several possible audience clusters and related community concepts. Then we test them and see which performs best.

For example, instead of a single, generic, community for all customers to ask and answer each other’s questions, you can instead have:

  • Test 1: A community for beginners in your field to get started and receive help from select mentors.
  • Test 2: A private community just for top customers at Fortune500 businesses.
  • Test 3: A tightly moderated community where members can’t post without sharing the source of their opinion.
  • Test 4: A community that helps customers advance in their careers (i.e. discussions beyond the product/software).
  • Test 5: A community for people who want to use a data-driven, modern, approach into the topic.
  • etc…

Once you’ve used your research to come up with several possible concepts, test your concepts.

Host webinars, post tweets, write blog posts, start small groups on Facebook/WhatsApp/other channels, host a small meetup on the topic.

You will find some ideas have legs and some don’t. You will also learn how easy it is to reach the audience, embrace the questions/feedback you get, and end up developing a far more successful community.

Don’t risk everything on a single idea. Test five ideas and see which comes up top. Then invest heavily in your top-performing idea(s).

Fixing The Broken System

Two approaches to improving a community.

The first is to come up with new strategies, ideas, and tactics which will bring you closer to the results you want.

The problem is if you’re not getting the results you want with your current approaches, there’s no guarantee your next approach will fare much better. In short, there’s no point in us providing clients with a new strategy if the underlying problems which led to a failed strategy remain.

The second is to improve the people and processes responsible for the community. The more you improve the community skills of the community team, the more effectively they can deliver better results. That’s the value of acquiring new skills, they are something you can use indefinitely to deliver better results.

I’ve lost track of the number of organisations I’ve seen investing six and seven-figure sums on their technology and not spending a dime on training the people to an advanced level to run the project. Almost every community can deliver much better results by investing in the team behind it.

On September 4, we’re hosting the first-ever advanced community skills workshop. If you’ve mastered the basics of engagement already, this workshop will equip you with the techniques to identify and deliver the maximum value to and from your community.

We’re focusing specifically on the areas which have the greatest possible leverage, that are rarely covered elsewhere. This includes things like:

  • Identify the full value members need from a community.
  • Developing successful user journeys to keep members highly engaged.
  • Designing the community for specific motivations and use cases.
  • Establishing benchmarks to guide your roadmap.
  • Persuading members to make their best contributions.

I hope you will join us, it will change how you think about your community.

Click here to sign up (10% discount).

The workshop takes place from 1-6pm on Sept 4 at the Fox Theatre in Redwood City. You can combine the workshop with a regular CMXSummit ticket.

Massively Overprepared

It took me too long to learn I need to be massively overprepared to win people over to a community approach.

I’d recommend it to you too. Don’t enter a meeting with a vague idea of what you will say, spend an hour or three preparing for it. This might include:

  • Researched the attendees’ background(s) and identified any relevant/previous experience with community to build from.
  • A good list of relevant case studies and powerful stories you can drop in.
  • A clear, tight, pitch about the value of the community and the incredible opportunity it presents right now.
  • A clear idea of what success looks like framed in their terms.
  • Useful metaphors or analogies to make it easier to comprehend what you’re trying to do.
  • Conversation starters (if you need any to begin the meeting).
  • Identified the attendees most likely fears and how the community will address them.
  • A clear list of asks and what you will need from them.
  • Powerful answers to most likely or most common questions.

Treat this as a starting point, not an exhaustive list.

If you’re walking into a meeting with an idea of what you want to say and nothing more, you’re probably going to walk out disappointed.

Far too much of your success hinges upon your ability to gain support for what you want to do. Don’t leave it to chance, over-prepare for the big moments.

Strategy Is A Full-Time Job

A web developer friend once told me that most companies grossly underestimate the amount of copy needed for their new website.

At a large company, the website might host 30k to 50k words. That’s the typical length of a business book. Worse yet, this needs to be 30k to 50k approved words.

Companies similarly underestimate the time it takes to develop a community strategy.

You can easily spend 50 to 100 hours alone interviewing stakeholders, community members, gathering the data, and reviewing existing information. Then you need to develop a powerful community concept, test the concept, build the roadmap, identify the objectives, tactics, and build out an action plan.

Even then you need to again speak to stakeholders, ensure they are aligned with the strategy, and make sure it’s accepted and supported throughout the organization.

Altogether, it’s not unreasonable to assume the community strategy will take up 500 hours of your time (or 3 to 4 months of work – full time).

You can cut corners, save a little time here and there, but you’re still going to struggle to create a great strategy while looking after the community. This isn’t an ‘add on’ to your current job, it is your new job (at least until it’s done).

If you’re going to develop a community strategy (and you certainly should), you either need to find someone else to look after the current community in the meantime or find someone to do the strategy for you.

You can’t step up to pilot the plane while still serving drinks in the cabin.

Best Customers and Best Members

If you’re in the B2B sector, be aware your top customers pay for the privilege of talking to someone who uniquely understands their complex needs.

Trying to force people used to one level of service into another channel usually ends badly.

They might certainly benefit from asking the question in the community, but they’re equally likely to be happy with their current arrangement of talking to their dedicated rep.

You don’t need your biggest customers in a community for it to thrive, you need the majority of less valuable customers.

These are the customers with slightly less complex needs, often ask similar questions, and can consume too many resources trying to support. This is an audience who might not pay for premium support and can wait days for a response through typical channels.

A community is perfect for them. It cuts response times, provides a better range of responses, and tackles most problems without having to ask for an answer.

Of course, the more resources your community saves on these customers is more resources you can spend on your top customers.

Your community shouldn’t be for “everyone”. Be clear about your target audience and the unique value the community offers (and gains) from them.

Working With A Million Member Identities

“Actually, you’re wrong”.

…probably isn’t the beginning of a conversation which is going to end well.

Community management is not customer support.

You’re not just dealing with problematic issues, you’re dealing with thousands, perhaps millions, of unique (and often problematic) identities. Publicly contradicting the advice of someone who considers themselves an expert will provoke a defensive, negative, response.

This can lead to an ongoing tit-for-tat discussion where neither side wants to back down because everything is in public. Backing down means accepting damage to a member’s identity.

If you’re deep in engaging with dozens of members every day, remember your work is about helping members nurture a positive identity – ideally an identity they associate with being a positive contributor to your community.

All the tiny judgement calls you’re not even aware you’re making in each response have a defining impact.

For example, if you’re going to provide contradictory information to a member who considers themselves an expert, it might be best to deliver the information in private. Maybe they can update their own post with the updated information? Now they have more unique expertise they can share with the group.

Or you can affirm their expertise (and identity) and add additional context at the same time in your own responses. A few extra words of context here can take you far.

Too often, the times we believe members to be acting irrationally are simply members acting naturally to protect their identities.

Before replying to members take the extra few seconds to judge their identity today. If your response threatens that identity, reconsider it.

The very best community managers I know are naturals at this. The rest of us need the practice.

Groups Of 3

A quick tip for in-person events.

The best way to build relationships, get members to share information, and help everyone enjoy the event, is to ensure they can have the deepest possible conversations with the largest number of people.

It’s hard to do that in a group of 10 where only 1 person can speak at a time.

This format favours the most confident person (or the person least worried about interrupting everyone else).

It limits the explanations people can provide and almost guarantees most people tune out.

It shifts the mentality from sharing something personal in a small group to being judged before a crowd of peers.

A far better format is rotating groups of 3. The difference between a 20-minute discussion where each person speaks for an average of 120 seconds to 9 people and one where each person speaks for 400 seconds to a group of 2 others is huge.

Don’t divide people into large groups. Three is best, five is ok, 10 is five too many.


A few common ones…

  • The contrarian guy (typically is a guy, sorry). Takes contrary stances either for attention, because of genuine beliefs, or just to stir things up.
  • The grouchy old timer. Feels things are getting worse. Rarely backs down in an argument. Assumes their expertise means s/he is right because they were here 10+ years ago.
  • The passionate newcomer. Very excited (and excitable). Low expertise, but high rates of participation.
  • The one-poster. Will come only when they have a problem. Won’t help others. Probably won’t explain if the answer helped them.
  • The helper. Genuinely likes to help support the community. Typically wants to feel closer to the brand.
  • The single-issue poster. Will only post about a single topic. Often with an opinion of that topic several standard deviations from the norm.
  • The ‘know-it-all’. Less grouchy than old-timers, but always assumes they are right and states opinions as definitive facts rather than “I think…” or “I’ve seen…”. Can share expertise, but tend to bash other members to maintain their own status.
  • The super enthusiastic. Posts non-stop. Doesn’t add much value, but gets your post count up. Often antagonises others through sheer volume of posts.
  • The true expert. Rarely participates, mostly keen to engage only with others they consider experts.

It’s not an exhaustive list, feel free to add your own.

But I’d be surprised if the next member you engage with doesn’t closely match one of the archetypes above.

p.s. treating every member the same doesn’t work when members are so different from one another.

‘We Goals’ vs. ‘Me Goals’

Chasing a target is invigorating, especially if there’s a reward for it.

If you answer 10 posts you might get a badge, if you answer 100 you get to create blog posts and help moderate the community etc…

Individual targets like these encourage some very good behaviors (helping lots of people) and some very bad behaviors (cheating the system and publishing lots of low-quality posts).

A more interesting approach is to set group goals. You can set goals for either the entire community (i.e. if the community achieves [x], we will do [y] for the community] or for sub-groups within the community (i.e. form/join a team, create a great content piece, and your whole group is rewarded).

Which approach do you think best unites people, encourages the most contributions, and is the most fun for members?

The 10 Year Plan

A good rule of thumb is to spend the majority of your time working on the projects which have the biggest long-term impact upon your community.

In 5 to 10 years time, what will still be standing in your community?

This is harder to do than it often seems.

Right now you have to respond to aggravated members, create the latest report, ensure discussions are being responded to, remove the bad members, train a new staff member etc…

The first step is giving yourself some breathing room by cutting down on tasks which are useful but not game-changing. Think welcome emails, most webinars, and promoting members to participate.

The second step is to invest this spare time, even if it’s just a few hours a week, to designing social or technological systems which do as much of your work as possible. It’s far better, for example, to have members interviewing other members for webinars, having a welcome committee to welcome newcomers, and removing bad posts.

The third is to identify the really game-changing wins. Ask your members, in a perfect world, what would be the most ideal/useful thing for you? And start building those things.

It’s a safe bet that your technology will be different in a decade, but the culture you create, the network you build between members, and the resources you create (constantly updated) will still be around.