Impact Helps Communities Achieve Their Full Potential

In The Indispensable Community (and elsewhere), I shared how smart community professionals focus and measure the impact of their community.

Impact can take many forms, but there are generally three key rules:

  1. Impact is very specific (vague ideas about increasing loyalty don’t cut it).
  2. Impact is something someone is responsible for.
  3. Impact is something someone(s) cares a lot about.

Impact isn’t what you think the value of the community is (or what you want it to be), it’s how the community directly helps colleagues achieve their goals.

Some examples of impact might include:

  • Bring 50 qualified sales leads sourced from the community to the sales team and you’re having an impact (Eventbrite)
  • Get your members to publish 100+ reviews on TrustRadius or G2Crowd for your product and you’re having an impact (Quickbase)
  • Provide your PR team or web team with 30+ case studies they can share and feature, and you’re having an impact.
  • Help engineers prioritize exactly what needs to be fixed and you’re having an impact.
  • Reducing the number of support tickets customer service reps answer or equipping them with the best knowledge from members to answer questions is a big impact.
  • Identifying some great recruits for future job roles is a big impact.
  • Having members co-create a comprehensive set of documentation and user guides is a big impact.
  • Helping newcomers create their first success in using your products and keeping them around is an impact.

This doesn’t mean impact excludes ROI metrics. It means that ROI is just one of many possible (and desirable) impacts of the community. Someone might care about it, but it’s comparatively rare. Worse yet, ROI metrics aren’t persuasive to colleagues.

The secret to having a big impact is two-fold.

1) Deeply understand what your colleagues want. What do they need this week? What about next week? More sales leads, feedback, expertise? Focus on the immediate pain point. What are they struggling with this week?

2) Align your community to that impact. If you want people to create reviews, provide feedback, or anything else you need to persuade them to do it. That works at the emotional level. Creating an identity or incentives around doing it and rewarding them when they do.

The communities which thrive today aren’t the ones which focus on engagement or exclusively on ROI, they’re the ones which drive the most impact for their colleagues.

What Percentage Of Our Members Should Be Active?

This is completely the wrong benchmark to use.

First, most people don’t delete their account when they stop participating. This means the older a community becomes, the worse this ratio becomes. It reflects community maturity as much as anything you can control.

Second, it’s too broad to give you any actionable insights. Let’s imagine your number is 20% and you hear the average is 30%. So what? What will you do differently? To get actionable insights you need to look at specific ratios.

Third, it varies tremendously by your community’s topic and type. A customer support community (where most people only visit to get an answer) is going to have a far lower percentage than a lifestyle community where people come to chat. Gaming communities, where new games are released frequently, have higher churn rates as people move on to the next game etc..Comparing yourselves to others on this benchmark is a bad idea.

Instead of wondering what percentage of your members should be active according to others, focus on what’s keeping people active today. I’d track:

  1. Is traffic to your community going up or down?
  2. What percentage of visitors register?
  3. What percentage of registered members participate?
  4. What percentage of those that participate are still active in 3 months time?
  5. What is the average number of contributions per month your top 1%, 9%, and 90% of members make?

Each of these are metrics you directly influence, reveal how well you’re doing, and reveal exactly what you need to work on to make changes.

Finding The Golden Members In The Blind Spot

Spend a moment to read this post (really do it).

If you’re a community professional, you’re probably in the top 1% of people by technological savviness.

You’ve participated in many communities, you intuitively get how platforms work, you know what different terms mean, and why certain rules have to be enforced.

You also probably have a big blind spot that hides a large percentage of your audience.

This is an audience, as the post above explains, who don’t quite understand how to participate in the community, who feel it’s like high school when they’re reprimanded for posting in the wrong place and feel frustrated trying to get an answer in the community when there is a perfectly good helpline available.

In our pursuit for ever more efficient processes and better technology, we’re increasingly leaving huge chunks of our audience behind.

At some point, probably around now for most of us, we would get far better results not from improving our processes but from figuring out how to engage the growing number of members in our blind spot.

This year, two clients have had almost 80% of their top users in the older demographic most community professionals completely ignore. Yet the members in this very demographic often have more time, motivation, and expertise than any other. They are the golden members hidden in our blind spots.

The largest opportunity for increasing participation in many communities today is learning how to engage the people who have never really participated in one before instead of fighting for the scraps of attention from the people who participate in many.

Some questions to get you started:

How do you meaningfully reach out and engage people of lesser represented demographics and hook them into the community? (literally, how do you make contact with them?)

How do you help someone who hasn’t participated in a community understand how the technology works without reading long, complicated guides?

How do you ensure enforcing important rules (posting in the right area) doesn’t feel like a reprimand but assisting members to get the best response or be seen by the most people?

How do you make the community feel like a place where someone, like the poster above, wants to hang out and spend time (instead of being forced to by complex customer support services).

Get comfortable recruiting from your blind spot. You might be as amazed as I have been by how much value there is there.

What Do You Want Top Members To Feel? (being part of the group)

We tried a small experiment two months ago among 23 members of two superuser programs.

One group of members received private, personal, rewards (notes of gratitude, swag, introductions to engineers).

Another received the same but it was in public, i.e. members received @mentions, thanks in the private group channel, swag they were encouraged to photograph themselves with and share with the group, and group introductions to engineers.

The rewards weren’t exactly equal, but the results weren’t even close. The public rewards were far more effective at driving more contributions, increasing positivity of contributions, and anecdotally helping members get along a lot better.

The purpose of the reward in a superuser/MVP program is to make members feel something. It’s so rarely about the reward itself.

The reward is a tactic, the feeling you’re trying to provoke is the strategy.

The most powerful emotions are those which make members feel a part of a unique, exclusive, group. This is a group whose status a member compares favorably with another group (typically normal, regular, members).

This doesn’t mean they see the other group negatively, they just see their own group more favorably.

How you give the reward is more important than the reward itself.

Seeing The Emotion Behind The Behavior

I’m not much of an artist, but from what I’ve (over)heard the skill isn’t so much how you move the pencil, but whether you are able to see the world as it really is.

Much of community work is similar.

It’s about dropping much of our preconceived ideas and personal experiences and being able to see who our members really are.

It’s about understanding their desires, their fears, their frustrations and finding ways to help each of them in the most effective way possible.

I’m often surprised just how few people seem to truly grasp this. Much of what drives a members’ behavior probably isn’t what you imagine.

It’s far less about earning points, getting answers to questions, and being a ‘top member of the community’ and far more about their own emotions (‘I’m frustrated and no-one seems to care’), insecurities (‘I’m worried other people don’t really see me as part of this group’) and ambitions (‘I want my peers to think I’m really good at this’).

Product complaints aren’t just about getting the answer. Any customer support rep can offer that. They are about someone in the community acknowledging and validating the emotional state of frustration the member has been going through.

User tips aren’t just about a member helping others, but about how they are seen by others and whether this makes them seem more part of the group.

Conflicts are less about the issue at hand than fear of losing standing in the eyes of other members of the group (p.s. notice how quickly a conflict fizzles out when you take it private?).

In my experience, some people intuitively understand this. They have an intuitive knack for seeing what members really want, their true desires, and picking up on their insecurities and adjusting their behaviors accordingly.

These are the people who know the real reason you shared that photo on Instagram today wasn’t to capture the moment for posterity but to remind your tribe that you’re still there, to feel connected to them, to have people you care about see you positively.

However, the rest of us need to work on it. We need to drop our rational ideas of how people behave (and preconceived ideas of what motivates them) and work hard to spot the specific underlying emotions members feel. Hint, people rarely act to maximize their own economic potential and instead respond to the emotion they’re feeling in the moment.

Almost anything you want to achieve in a community (changing of behavior, increasing participation, specific contributions) is related to being able to truly understand what really motivates members to do the things they do.

Naming Conventions on Gamification Levels

Take a look at the screenshot below.

The person in first place has 84% more points than the person in 7th place, yet they both have the same ranking.

I bet he could have 300% more points and still share the same ranking.

The problem with naming levels is you soon run out of names and members quickly ‘top out’ at the top level.

If attaining higher levels is motivating additional contributions, then being unable to go any higher similarly reduces motivation to keep participating.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there’s a cluster of members just after the points to achieve Expert status.

You can add more levels…but how many levels above expert can you really have?

There are a few simple solutions here. One is to use numbers. Numbers rise infinitely. Another is to consider naming conventions (like wedding gift anniversaries) which allow for far more levels than ‘novice, beginner, regular, top member, superuser’ etc..

Don’t underestimate just how quickly top members will progress through levels and just how demotivated they might become when they realise they’ve reached the top.

Don’t Be Defensive

The moment you get defensive, take insults personally or react badly to criticism you’ve lost the chance of building a positive relationship with that member (and other members who see your response).

Every interaction is a great opportunity to build a stronger relationship, deepen mutual understanding, and find better solutions to community problems.

You shut down those possibilities when you try to defend your own reputation instead of making the other member feel great.

Defensive responses are selfish responses.

The great irony is the best way to improve your reputation is to ignore the personal insults against you and focus on helping other members solve their problems, feel understood, and more appreciated.

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.

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/2056305118815908

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.