Going Back Is Never An Option

A cautionary tale for all community professionals.

A group of World of Warcraft (WoW) gamers created a private server running an older version of the game because they didn’t like recent changes. They felt the changes made the game more competitive and less social.

Forgive the (6,000 word) spoiler…the group discovered it was they who had become more competitive and less social.

An interesting trend is most veterans in large online communities believe the group’s glory days were in the past. This was usually at a time when the group was smaller, there was greater familiarity and the quality of discussions was higher.

Most believe changes in the community platform since then have ruined that sense of familiarity and quality of discussions.

And they are usually wrong.

The problem is simple. Any successful small community (high familiarity, a strong sense of community, and high quality of discussions) attracts more people. More people reduces familiarity. Worse yet, newcomers ask more beginner-level (or repetitive) questions which reduce discussion quality.

At the same time, the community professional (you) has to keep upgrading and updating the platform as it grows to deal with a variety of issues. But members confuse cause with correlation.

Simple example. As the community grows you notice the discussion area is overwhelmed by too many discussions. No-one can keep track. You create multiple groups and categories. Yet, members now believe this has destroyed the sense of community and high-quality discussions they used to have. It’s not true of course, it’s just a natural evolution of community growth that requires some adjustment.

Now your members will ask you to go back to the way things used to be. This won’t bring back the glory days but it will bring back the original problem.

Unless you’ve made a rare catastrophic mistake, going back is never an option.

Instead, reach out to 20 or so members to outline your vision going forward. Explain the problems you’re facing and where you need to go. Be bold and forward-looking. You might just get their understanding…or even their support.

Training Groups To Build And Manage Your Community

We’ve done a lot of community training in groups.

What clients want can differ from what they need.

Many pay for the transfer of skills when they need a transfer of passion.

It’s pretty futile to sequester a group of people into a room and force-feed them community building skills.

Until you’ve felt the bug, the skills don’t matter.

And that bug comes from experiencing the community.

That experience includes asking questions, getting responses, building a reputation, seeing first-hand how the community can help them solve their problems and make valuable connections.

Once you have experienced the community, you can see the value in getting more responses to questions, building valuable relationships, and creating useful content etc…You’re eager to overcome your problems.

But you have to want to be in the room to learn those skills first.

A quick tip for anyone about to teach anyone community skills; set a simple task first. Have participants identify a problem they want to solve or a useful connection they want to make and pose this as a question in the community.

(If you don’t have a community, find the closest possible community and ask there instead.)

They have to experience community before you can teach it.

Start With The Fewest Possible Restrictions

If gratitude, recognition, and power are the engine, then rules, restrictions, and instructions are the brakes.

People want to feel creative, they want to have autonomy, they want to feel good about what they’re doing. They want to build relationships with people like them.

Anything that you do to satisfy these needs will increase their motivation, anything that stops this will damage their motivation.

Sure, you might not be able to get every single person eager to help do exactly what they want. But be aware every restriction loses people and reduces their motivation to help you.

As you grow, the challenge is to find and manage the balance between the two.

The secret is, to begin with very few restrictions and add them as needed until you find the balance – not the other way round.

The Daily Practice Of Helping Members Feel Great About Helping You

Almost every community has people who want to help, but how far will they go?

You can (and should) test this.

Don’t overthink it. You don’t need complex MVP programs with big asks and detailed reward systems to get started. These programs should handle complexity, not create it. You can develop these when you need to.

Focus instead on getting really good at the daily practice of sending out simple messages of appreciation and asking for something more – something valuable.

If you’re not getting much of a response, try different messages. Vary the tone and the ask.

If you send a single message today and get a volunteer for years, that’s a lot of bang for your buck, so feel free to send out plenty.

Find the things members want to do and help them feel terrific about doing it. Get really good at the simple stuff, then move on to the complicated systems.

My Boss Won’t Let Me Is The Best Cop Out

It’s too easy to say “my boss won’t let me”.

It lets you hide from any risk or responsibility.

It lets you tell your buddies; this would’ve been great, if only…

It lets you believe you are great without having to prove it.

I’m often amazed by how many community pros walk away from great companies because they didn’t get everything they demanded.

Are there many organizations that will give a new employee everything they demand? I doubt it.

I have a friend onto his 3rd company within 14 months. Each time he walked away within 3 months claiming “my boss wouldn’t let me do {x}, so I quit”.

You can keep jumping from one organization to the next if you like. You might even get lucky and find the one boss in a thousand who will cede such control to you upon demands. But we can agree it’s unlikely and no way to build a career.

The other option is to confront the two impossible choices.

1) You can get used to doing things without asking. If it works, you’re a hero. If it fails, it’s your head (maybe). You take all the risk and you get the reward if it works.

2) You can learn to get your boss’ support. This is harder. You need to get good at building relationships, learn what your boss needs and solve her problems first. You need to build a reputation for executing on what you say, build a decent case, and drive an emotional narrative.

Neither option is easy. The easy thing is to walk away and start again somewhere else.

Ultimately you’re going to need to decide which of these two options matters most to you. You need to decide how you’re going to act when your request gets turned down. Are you going to put everything on the line to do something great or muddle on through? Are you going to walk away from your community when things get hard or fight for your community?

You’re not going to find a boss that will hand you a blank check. Time for plan B.

Bring A Smidgen Of Data To The Table

We’ve worked with several hundred organizations. Of them, only 1 had full and unrestricted access to every piece of data they needed.

The rest had to make a case with what they had.

You may not have access to Omniture, Google Analytics, or any other package that will let you gather all the data you need, but that’s no excuse for bringing no data into the meeting.

Even if you’re not asked for data, you should bring some evidence that you’re seeing success.

My advice, bring at least a smidgen of data to the table. Gather a sample of 10 to 20 members and see what they do differently once they join a community.

Does their spending increase? Do they refer others?

Can’t track it directly? ASK THEM!

You can be forgiven for missing pieces of the jigsaw. But you shouldn’t be forgiven for ignoring the puzzle altogether.

Gaining Valuable Community Insights From Thread Views

This is a screenshot from Apple’s online community.

You probably notice two threads attract thousands of reviews while the rest barely muster a few dozen views.

This usually indicates one of four things.

  1. The organization is promoting or featuring the discussion somehow.
  2. The discussion has been linked to from a popular site.
  3. A small group of people are repeatedly participating and updating the discussion (hence the views).
  4. A lot of people are searching for this discussion.

You can find out which by looking at the source of traffic on Google Analytics and the diversity of participants in the discussion.

Seeing which discussions get the most views yields a lot of value.

Let’s assume the answer above is search traffic (it usually is). This might tell you:

1) A lot of people have the same problem that engineers need to fix. You need to develop a system for passing this information to engineers or management to fix bugs or problems. You need to persuade them of the value of identifying issues that might not have appeared on their radar yet but they can fix in advance.

2) You’re using the wrong terminology. Very often a company will write material which is accurate but doesn’t match the terminology their customers would use. If a discussion is more popular than the comparable article in the help center or FAQ, that’s a sign the terminology used by the brand is wrong. You can pass this information on to marketing teams and update the relevant articles on the main site.

3) A very small group of people really care about an issue. If only a tiny vocal group care about the issue, it might be a sign the organization can prioritize others problems and ride the wave of discontent if there are bigger problems to fix.

4) New product / service ideas. There might be new product or service ideas that the organization can explore based upon which discussions are most popular.

Seeing which discussions attract the most views can be one of the most useful pieces of information and simplest ways of gaining internal support. We can usually do much better in using the value this data yields.

Internal Support

A tale of two stories from clients in the past few months.

One had achieved organization-wide internal support. The other hadn’t.

The client that didn’t gain support had reached out to key members of the organization, set-up numerous meetings, and put forward a strong case showing a clear business impact. At best, they got acquiescence on a project.

The key stakeholders might not stand in their way, but they weren’t rallying to the cause neither.

The organization that did get the support they wanted began 6 months earlier.

They had their staff members ask if they could attend meetings of other teams. They invited others to their meetings. They had regular lunches or post-work drinks with them. They systematically offered help to other departments without any expectation later on.

They took the time to really understand the unique goals, motivations, and (most importantly) the constraints of each group.

It turns out when someone feels you have taken the time to really listen and understand them, they are far more willing to help you (later).

This also lets you be smart about who you ask for support from, when you ask for support (not during major project deadlines!), and how you ask for support.

The great irony in many discussions about getting internal support is we know all of this. We know better than most the value of building positive relationships to getting things done. Yet still, over and over again, we wait until we need something important (often on a short deadline) before trying to build a relationship.

Believe me, people are very good at sussing out people who are only building relationships when they want something. It doesn’t feel good.

Jump All Over That Value Question. Every. Single. Time.

You could mumble something about engagement, try to wing it, and hope you survive the spotlight from a senior exec.

That’s not very fun though. And it’s certainly not great for your career.

Or you could pretend to be a caged tiger just waiting for the slightest question of value to arise so you can jump all over it.

Your attitude will determine your career altitude here. If you try to avoid it, slink away from it, hope it doesn’t come…you won’t rise very far. If you become determined to definitively prove value at every opportunity, your career outlook will look very different. You don’t hide from the question, you sit in meetings hoping it will come up.

Measuring your community’s ROI is only one small part of this challenge. The numbers are useful, essential even. But they’re useless unless you know the process of communicating and establishing value with stakeholders.

Ever wondered how to get your boss on board? What to communicate to whom? And why some people are so resistant to clear value? You can begin solving that today.

Jump straight to communicating value here and take the 10 to 15 minutes to read this chapter. Not every idea will work for you but you might pick up the exact skills you need to establish value and get the support you need to do truly amazing work.

Calculate Your Community’s Value (free spreadsheet package)

If you don’t have time to develop complex formulas to calculate the value of your community, we’ve created a free spreadsheet package to do this for you.

It’s accessible to each of you for free today.

This simplifies the process of calculating return, profit, and ROI into a much easier process of collecting and dropping in relevant metrics.

You can download it, duplicate it, adapt it, rip it apart and customize it entirely to your community. Have fun.

How To Calculate The ROI Of Your Company’s Online Community

We’re nervous, excited, and proud to launch this free resource today.

This is a 40k+ word guide to help you:

Establishing and proving value is the most pressing challenge we have to tackle every single day.

This guide will hopefully equip you with some tools and techniques to face down that challenge.

Not every method will work for you. But you should be able to make real progress in understanding the multitude of ways your community creates value and how to communicate that value to others.

The fate of our industry hangs upon the ability of each one of you to prove that the work we do creates a lot of value.

I hope you like it. Please share it if you can.

p.s. Ask your ROI questions here.

p.p.s. A huge thank you to SAP for their sponsorship, support, and expertise on this project.

Shaping Purchase Decisions

Think about how a community influences purchase decisions.

  • It establishes and reinforces social norms within a peer group (e.g. ‘people like me drink coffee like this’). If those social norms involve you or your products, you win.
  • It shapes the environment to encourage the behavior (e.g. ‘I can find better information on home-roasting coffee beans here than on Google’ or ‘It’s easier to buy in bulk or through subscription here’). If the community makes the behavior easier, the behavior will happen more often.
  • It increases the perceived value of the product (e.g. ‘I didn’t know this coffee was organic or home-roasted by an independent retailer, I’m going to buy it more frequently’). If the community encourages people to better understand the value, they might buy more of it or remain as a customer for longer.
  • It rewards the buyer and incentivizes further purchases (e.g. ‘by buying this coffee I can find a peer group of people who love coffee as much as me’). People are rewarded for their purchases.

If your community is designed to increase sales and you’re not doing one of the above, then what are you doing?