A staggering number of online communities have terrible onboarding journeys. They usually waste time teaching people how to use the platform, sharing bland welcome messages, or asking members to do inane things (“update your profile photo!”).
Your audience is smart. If they’ve signed up to your community assume they know who you are, how a community works, and have a reasonable idea of what they want. Don’t waste extremely precious attention.
The purpose of an onboarding series is to change and enhance how people feel about the community.
You can do this by:
a) Telling them something they didn’t know or expect (and find remarkably interesting or useful).
b) Nudging them to take an immediate action – which makes them feel smarter or better connected.
c) Create unique opportunities they can join in.
A great onboarding series steadily helps members feel more competent, more connected, or more autonomous.
- Email 1 – Just Getting Started? Sign Up For A Mentoring Group (+1 Days)
- Email 2 – The Top 5 Resources for Beginners, Curated by Our Top Experts (+7 Day)
- Email 3 – Share What’s Holding You Back (what can we solve?) (+14 Days)
- Email 4 – 5 Members You Should Connect With (+21 Days)
Likewise, you can focus on a specific pathway (usually competence).
- Email 1 – It’s Time To Set Your Goal (and our members will help you get there)
- Email 2 – How Our Top Members Learned To [Key Skill]
- Email 3 – The Top Questions You Probably Have About [Key Skill]
- Email 4 – It’s Time For Your Newcomer Blog Post (share your progress!)
- Email 5 – Getting Stuck? Our Top Members Share Their Tips
Each email can contain relevant links to discussions and content shared in your community.
You might focus on an autonomy journey.
- Email 1 – What Can You Contribute To Our Community?
- Email 2 – What’s The One Thing You Knew When You Started In This Field?
- Email 3 – Who Would You Like Us To Interview?
- Email 4 – Can You Share Your Best Tips About [X]
- Email 5 – Want To Lead Your Own Group?
- Email 6 – What Can We Do Better? Help Us To Help You!
You steadily make people feel more in control and able to feel a sense of ownership over the community.
If you haven’t looked at your community’s onboarding journey recently, I recommend you sign up for it and go through the entire process. Then decide what kind of journey you need for newcomers in your field and create the series.
This is StackOverflow in 2008:
This is StackOverflow today (10 years later):
The homepage has had a few tweaks over the years but otherwise hasn’t changed much.
They constantly tweaked and improved their way to success. No major platform changes.
Whatever platform you’re using, it’s easy to identify things your current platform doesn’t offer and convince yourself it’s essential. Try to resist this.
I’d estimate only around 50% of people who migrate platforms truly believed it improved the community. Far too often, they trade one set of issues for another. They break things which were working, members get lost and frustrated, search traffic declines, integrations fail, and other features don’t work quite as well.
Migrating to a new platform should usually be the last resort to solve a problem, not the first option. It takes months, costs a fortune, and has a mixed record of success. You’re playing Russian roulette with a year of work and up to $500k+ in costs.
This happens often when a new head of community joins and compares their new community to their last one. Resist this temptation. The benefits rarely match the costs.
p.s. After 10 years, StackOverflow remains the best functioning community on the web.
Last week, I presented at the CMX Summit on how to build an indispensable community.
Speaking with many of you afterwards, the biggest takeaway was our approach to measuring an online community. We don’t focus on ROI, we focus on something different entirely.
Today I published my first Medium post which I hope you will check out.
It’s a longer reads than most blog posts here. It breaks down what’s wrong with our current approaches (true believerism, call deflection, ROI calculations) and identifies a new path forward.
Everyone gets excited talking about who the community is for.
Everyone gets nervous when talking about who the community isn’t for.
Which segments of your customer base, your audience, your employees aren’t a good fit for the community?
Literally, list them down. Be aggressive about it. The more segments you put on the list the better you can delight those off it.
In theory, everyone sees the logic in being specific in who we target and delight in a community.
In practice, ignoring member segments unleashes a bewildering array of internal and external issues. People prefer to avoid the discussion, try to cater to everyone, and create an average community which delights no-one.
Have these discussions early, openly, and honestly. Have a rationale (begin with your most valuable or most enthusiastic audiences) and then create a timeframe or list of requirements to add that segment too (i.e. must have someone to manage this audience).
Now the conversation isn’t about which segments you will or won’t target…but when and why you might target each segment. That might help you…at least a little.
Yesterday we overlooked something important.
The real decision for members isn’t whether your audience uses a community or an information site, it’s whether they use your community or another social destination to achieve the same goals.
Have you noticed your members posting the same question on your community, on social media, on other communities, and elsewhere? They don’t care where they get answers as long as they get good, quick, answers. This is becoming a more difficult challenge by the day.
Your members can probably find answers faster by searching Google.
Your members can post questions in social media and get good responses from people they know and trust. They can post questions in similar communities and can get help from a totally independent group of experts.
Your members can build their reputations by creating their own blogs, posting on LinkedIn, Medium, and other aggregation sites.
Your members can find a stronger sense of community by creating their own groups on Slack, Telegram, WhatsApp, Facebook, and only inviting people they like.
Each of these can (and probably will) peel away your best and most enthusiastic members until you’re not left with much.
Worse yet, each platform has benefits you will never be able to match.
You can’t be as much of a habit as Facebook, you will never offer as much information as Google, and you can’t match the sense of community felt by a few people hanging out in a private group with their friends.
Far too many brand communities don’t find a way out of this problem and slowly watch their community enter a terminal decline. Worse, they often try to mimic competitors along the way.
Don’t compete on another platform’s turf. You’re going to lose. Instead, if you want to build a sustainable community, bring to bear the full armament of your resources to build a community no-one can match.
You might not be able to compete on speed, depth, and quality of questions, answers and expertise shared. But what you can do?
In the Indispensable Community, we write how the best brand communities do precisely this. They use their natural unfair advantages.
Your best assets are:
- Scale – You can reach more people. You can ensure the best content in your community reaches more people than ever. You can include it in product material, support discussions, and link to it throughout the community. You can ensure any post in your community reaches more people than any other site.
- Access – You can give members unique access and exclusive information they can only get from being a great contributor to the group. You can award them with early trials, introductions to key staff members, superior product support, and anything else.
- Influence – You can take their feedback and use it to develop better products. You can make them feel like partners working to create something fantastic. You can set challenges, competitions, and give them interesting problems to solve.
- Prominence – Your PR team can turn top members into quotable superstars. You can put them on stage at your conference. You can give them recognition, badges, and prominence. You can help them gain work.
- Verified – You can be the judge, to determine what’s verified and what isn’t. You can anoint the people who really know their stuff and distinguish them from those that don’t. You can be the ultimate arbiter of what’s good and what’s bad. You can approve the people who are doing the things that most help the community.
The key is to take the psychological benefits from a community and use your unique advantages to turbo-change them.
Because if you’re not going to bring something to the party, something only you can bring…and only you can offer…why bother having a party at all?
If you want to build an indispensable community, you have to offer something no-one else will ever be able to match.
In The Indispensable Community, I explain the only communities which thrive in the long term are those which are truly indispensable to their brands and their members.
It’s incredibly hard to build a community that offers members something they find absolutely necessary and would struggle to get elsewhere (and you need both). Yet it’s the only way your community can thrive today.
If you’re wondering why your community doesn’t seem ‘sticky’ (why so few people stick around), this is it.
What’s Absolutely Necessary To Our Members?
The reason you have a community and not just a help (or information) portal is a community offers unique benefits that your members can’t get from just browsing and reading.
A community offers four unique psychological benefits; a sense of belonging, greater influence, a chance to explore things we find interesting, and mutual support.
If you’re building a community today, you have to push hard towards at least one of these benefits.
Each avenue takes you down a completely different path, and each has its pros and cons.
1) Sense of belonging.
You focus on creating a powerful sense of community.
You build a warm, welcoming, friendly, environment. You introduce rituals and traditions. You create a shared, written, history. You make it private and exclusive. You bring people together for shared events and activities as much as possible.
CampJeep is an incredible example of this.
Warning – this only works if people feel your brand is already a strong part of their identity. This usually means it’s something we spend a lot of time doing, invest resources in, or represents our identity in some way.
VERY few brands fall under this category (yet most think they do).
2) Greater influence.
You build a smaller, more dedicated, group of people around you who want to have an impact (either helping you or each other).
You set targets and drive people towards them. You celebrate wins, commiserate the losses, and provide the support people need at each stage.
Critically you’re targeting a tiny slice of your audience who are most committed to you (look for highest NPS/satisfaction scores) and working with them to have maximum influence.
3) Exploring exciting things.
You provide a unique environment for members to share and test ideas. You might host competitions, set challenges, and highlight the newest and most exciting things.
This works well for Kaggle, Github, Lomography, ProductHunt, and many others. Each has created an entirely unique platform where people can test things, report back something new, and adapt/improve their efforts.
Warning – this only works in fields which are genuinely new and exciting. Technology figures highly here, but it’s not the only option.
4) Mutual support.
You help people with questions get answers as quickly as possible.
You ensure members feel empathetically listened to, appreciated, and respected. Many of these are about discussions you can’t search for. This means you offer information via members that isn’t easy to search for. Google can tell you warning signs of cancer, but it can’t easily prepare you (and support you) for the emotional journey you’re about to go through.
Become Absolutely Necessary To Your Members
If you want your community to be absolutely necessary over the long-term to members you have to zero in on something that offers incredible psychological value.
Something that goes beyond just providing members with information and lets them feel emotions they crave, emotions they can’t easily find anywhere else.
Pick at least one of the above and push it to the edge. If you’re doing belonging, really push that sense of belonging. If it’s exploration, then design your entire community around that principle etc…
The last thing we need is just another brand community creating yet another forum and praying members want to hang out and chat. That’s not indispensable.
Identify which of the four above you’re targeting and go all the way to the edge with it. Create something unique, different, and remarkable. Create something indispensable.
If you want to buy my book, click here.
p.s. Speaking at CMX Summit in Portland tomorrow. If you’re around, please say hi!
Last week StarlingBank announced they were closing their brand community.
“We had hoped the forum would be a place where customers could openly discuss with each other questions they may have about our app. In reality, however, we’ve found that a small but vocal minority of forum members have had unrealistic expectations of what it is for. In addition, the conversations that take place there often expose potentially sensitive customer information.”
A lot of communities have closed down in the past few years because of similar complaints.
- “A lot of our members now talk on social media”
- “Too much spam”
- “Vocal minority causing problems”
- “Legal liability”
These aren’t the real reasons of course. They’re simply the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Every one of these problems has been overcome by others in the past. Facebook doesn’t shut down when moderating becomes a pain, they hire 3000 more moderators.
The real reason is the organization isn’t willing to invest the resources to overcome these problems. They might have plenty of engagement, but it’s not delivering results that matter.
Do you think the community would shut down if it had delivered 500+ great sales leads, nurtured 250 raving advocates, converted 2000 newcomers into premium customers, been the primary source for great PR stories, was the main tool to collect service feedback etc…etc…?
The community is closing down because it’s not delivering the results that make investing extra resources a no-brainer.
Indispensable communities, those which are absolutely necessary, don’t get shut down.
Metal detectives trawl a patch of land, dig up anything that beeps, and then look to see if any of it was valuable.
Archeologists, however, know they’re looking for something valuable. They research where the ancient battle (probably) took place and then go looking for the arrowheads.
Too often community work is more similar to metal detecting than archeology.
Instead of beginning with a clear objective and driving exactly the activity to achieve it (archeology), we drive a lot of engagement and hope some of it was valuable (metal detecting).
If you’ve ever wondered “what is the value of my community?”, you’re metal detecting.
Sure, random engagement might influence loyalty, sales, support, satisfaction, and productivity (and you can measure this too). But why leave it to chance?
You’re far more likely to get results if you’re really clear about the results you want to begin with. If you want great case studies for the PR team, terrific feedback for engineering, more newcomers progressing beyond the trial period etc…you can ask members to do the very things likely to drive these results and measure how many members did them.
Metal detecting is for hobbyists, archeology is for professionals.
They tend to sit in frustrated, isolated, silos at the bottom of the organizational chart.
They often feel they need to protect the community from the evil, capitalist, demands of their colleagues.
They spend their time trying to keep the community healthy, engaged, and happy.
They find themselves first in line for the axe when times are tight and last in line for support when there are resources to invest.
However, the people driving their communities forward are realistic pragmatists.
They don’t protect their communities from their colleagues, they engage their colleagues to support and benefit from the community.
They don’t complain their boss “doesn’t get it” but work hard to get their boss.
They don’t try to maximize engagement but try to maximize the results they’re delivering for their colleagues.
They don’t walk into a meeting with engagement metrics, they walk into meetings with specific results to share (problems resolved, feedback gathered, leads identified, case studies collected etc…)
It’s a lot easier to have 1000 engaged community members than 1 senior, supportive, stakeholder in the community.
Today I’m sharing two free chapters highlighting the difference between the idealists and the pragmatists. You can sign up here to get them.
Spoiler alert: we need more pragmatists!
The biggest reason why most communities aren’t indispensable is most community managers aren’t doing any of the work which makes communities indispensable.
If you were to make a list of all the tasks you’re doing today, it would probably include activities like:
- welcoming newcomers
- initiating new discussions
- replying to current discussions
- removing spam
- replying to individual member queries
- creating content etc…
Do these tasks make your community indispensable to your colleagues (or your members)? Or do they simply keep engagement metrics up?
While researching The Indispensable Community, there was a clear difference in the work of the typical community manager and the work of indispensable community manager.
The indispensable community manager spent far less time on the activities above and far more time doing the following:
- Building internal relationships. They spent far more time attending meetings to build stronger internal relationships and understand exactly what colleagues need. They focus on urgent needs (i.e. not “generate more sales” but “collect powerful case studies”). They worked to proactively identify and overcome concerns.
- Plug the community into broader goals. They pulled together all engagement activities (events, social, customer support, etc…) into a single unified community approach. This is far harder than it sounds.
- Develop long-term roadmaps. They built long-term roadmaps which they used to drive discussions. These roadmaps highlighted which goals they would tackle, in which order, and what financial, people, and technological resources they needed to get there.
- Build useful decision-making systems. They didn’t just collect data, but developed dashboards which highlighted where to focus limited time and resources to have the biggest impact. Activities were properly measured and acted upon. Most of this was automated.
- Design unique user segments and journeys. They built unique user segments based upon a member’s time, talent, or motivation to contribute. These were validated into user journeys and for members through the community based upon their time, talent, or motivation to contribute. They validated these user journeys with data too.
- Spend a lot of time talking directly to members. They tended to spend a lot more time in the field talking to members or scheduling calls and discussions with members.
- Set specific activities for members. They didn’t just ask members to participate but identified specific valuable tasks (advocating, leading, learning, innovating, educating, and supporting) instead of just countable participants.
- Establish clear technology goals. They didn’t randomly use whatever features came with their platform, they identified the specific tools they needed (from their roadmap) and went deep into ensuring they supported exactly what the community needed to do. Many even developed their own platform. They tended to spend a lot more time in really specific areas of the platform (notably gamification, integration, and onboarding journeys).
- Develop a pipeline of future recruits. They didn’t wait for a job opening to start prospecting future recruits, they tended to attend events and build a pipeline of prospects they could reach out to when a job became available.
It’s not a comprehensive list. Once you pass a certain (low) level, engagement metrics become largely irrelevant.
Instead, it becomes far more important to make your community indispensable to your colleagues and your members. That requires a different set of skills, knowledge, and resources. It’s about time we adjusted to this work.
Join our private community for indispensables.
Is your brand community indispensable?
Is it absolutely necessary to the work of at least one of your colleagues?
There is a simple test for this.
Are you going to your colleagues trying to persuade them of its value or are they coming to you seeking value?
Do you send product feedback to product engineers and hope they use it or do engineers come to you looking for feedback?
Do you send case studies to the PR team or do they come to you seeking case studies?
Do you send leads to the sales team or does the sales team come to you seeking leads?
Do you escalate relevant issues to customer support or does customer support come to your community to resolve most issues there first?
Do you highlight possible value to your boss or does your boss come to you asking how the community can save money?
If your colleagues aren’t coming to you, you’re not indispensable…sorry!
I believe everyone building a community today should work to become indispensable to the organizations they work for.
But it’s hard to do this alone. You need help from people who have been there and done it. You need access to data and persuasive arguments to show what works.
Therefore this week I’d like to invite you to join an indispensable-only community.
In this community, we’re going to share things like our data dashboards, our most persuasive arguments, audience research techniques, and break-down the tactical steps we each use to make our communities indispensable.
It’s the kind of discussions that need both honesty and privacy. The contents of this community will never be made public.
To join you need to do three things:
1) You have to be committed enough to buy and read the book ($19.95). This is a relatively small step to filter out the serial joiners of every possible project from those committed to making progress. You can buy it from Amazon in paperback or Kindle.
2) You have to commit to sharing openly and honestly. We’re limiting membership to just 100 members (for now) and we’ll be pruning members based upon their level of participation. There are some great communities for lurking and learning, this isn’t one of them. We expect you to share your struggles and successes with the group.
We’ll be inviting people in batches. This is strictly on a first come, first serve basis with the earliest members being those who get to join first.
See you on the inside!