9 Principles Behind Successful Online Community Strategies

This is part 2 of our 6-part series on community strategy (click here to read part one).

If you like the series, consider signing up for our Strategic Community Management course.

Enrolment is now open and the course begins on October 9th, 2017.

This is going to explain the key processes behind establishing community goals and winning internal support.

About half of our clients ask for our help to set the goals for their community. The following might help.

This is a big topic, so I’ve divided it into 9 key principles.

Principle 1: Engagement Should Never Be A Goal

Many of the community and professionals we’ve worked with and trained over the past decade used to make the same mistake. They believed if they could get the engagement metrics high enough, they would finally get the support and respect they needed. They spent their time trying to get more engagement and reporting on engaging metrics.

The brutal truth is the engagement metrics will never be high enough to get you the support you need.

Chasing more engagement is a fools’ game and condemns you to the engagement trap.

Not many people working in communities today have the right goals. Setting the rights goals should be a transformational process for your community and your career. By the end you should be working towards something you know you can achieve, that other people support and that you know is valuable.

Principle 2: Goals Come From Your Stakeholders

Far too many engagement professionals set the goals for their community and then toil endlessly to win support for them. I know one director of community who has spent five years of her career trying to get internal support for her community’s goals.

The key to career success is to reverse this.

Don’t set goals and try to win support for them from colleagues. Find out what your colleagues already support and use these as your goals. It’s a lot easier to swim with the current. If you don’t want to fight every day to get support, begin with goals people already support.

Principle 3: You Don’t Truly Have Support Until You Get More Resources

Ignore what other departments say, you only truly have support when you get more resources you didn’t already have.

Your organization could commit far more to the community than they do today. For example:

  • The sales team can drive new prospects and clients towards it.
  • The PR team can promote your community.
  • The HR team can embed it within newcomer orientation for all employees.
  • The content team can test content in the community.
  • Engineering or R&D can give community direct feedback into the product.
  • The CEO can participate in the community.
  • Marketing can give-away free products to top members.
  • The web team can feature it more prominently on the website.

Imagine each department as an engine cylinder you need to fire up to support your community. It’s your job to get each department supporting the community with more resources. This is going to require building powerful alliances where you come up with the goods (more on this later).

Principle 4: The Best Goals Come From Extreme Listening

Make a list of your stakeholders (colleagues, your boss, CEO, CFO, CMO, dir. Marketing, HR, IT, and anyone else who might be interested in the community). Interview each of them to understand their priorities. Ask them what they spend their time doing, what they hope to achieve, what they’re afraid of.

Pay careful attention to what they say and how they say it.

What do you they talk about excitedly and what do they sound bored by?

Attend the meetings of other departments too. Learn how they think and what information they prioritize. Almost everyone we interviewed who has won internal support regularly attends the meetings of other teams

Your goals will come from the above information. Remember goals are personal. Most goals will be those which:

  1. Save time.
  2. Save money
  3. Avoid making mistakes/looking bad.
  4. Achieve superior outcomes/better performance.
  5. Impress boss/colleagues.
  6. Feel more important and respected.
  7. Feel better about the work they do.
    (generally in this order)

You should be able to build a clear list of goals, for example:

Your Boss
  • Wants to show improved member satisfaction.
  • Wants to be seen as someone who ‘gets things done’ in an organization that’s typically slow.
  • Worried that other people will get in her way.
Legal rep.
  • Not have anyone ‘go rogue’.
  • No surprises.
  • Wants people to appreciate what the risks are.
Boss’ boss
  • Worried about PR disasters and negative inputs reaching the exec team.
  • Wants to see better media coverage of the company.
Dir. Marketing
  • Wants to be able to reach as many people as possible with a message.
  • Worried about declining reach on traditional channels.
  • Wants the company to look innovative.
  • Present new technology at events.
  • Find ways to save money.
Team members
  • Be seen as valuable by their boss.  
  • Get to work on projects they’re most passionate about.
  • Not have their time wasted.
  • Not have new priorities dumped upon them.
  • Have a say in new ideas the organization will develop.


Principle 5: Avoid The Big, Noble, Goals Trap

Everyone believes that delighting customers, breaking down knowledge silos, and cutting costs are a good idea.

Everyone will agree these are good goals and they want to support it. But few of this group will help you because the goals are too broad and too distant to help you now.

Base your community goals in the day-to-day reality of your audience. What are they working on today? What do they need help with? What are they struggling with?

Principle 6: Use The Stakeholder Matrix To Prioritise Goals

Now prioritise this group by their interest in the community and their influence over it. Adopt the goals of those at the top of the list. For example, above, the goals might be:

  • Answer every possible question our best customers have. (stakeholder: boss)
  • Identify and resolve possible PR problems before they become major problems. (Boss’ boss)
  • Increase reach of promotional messaging. (dir. marketing)

[see goal framing here]

Notice each of these is relevant to goals right now. This is a key part of getting support.

If you can’t tackle all 3 (and 3 is a lot), focus on just the goal for whomever has the highest influence.

This framework will also guide how you interact with each of your stakeholders. You shouldn’t send the same messages to legal as you would to your boss, for example.

Principle 7: Build Stories To Support The Goal

Now you have a goal, you need persuasive stories to establish it. Anytime anyone asks you about the community goal, you should state the persuasive goal and then use a story to illustrate it. This means using Evernote, screenshots, or any system you like as a story capture system.

Your stakeholder framework will show what kind of stories to look out for.

Using the above example, you would capture stories of the top members who were happy they got their elusive questions answered quickly, of potential PR crises avoided, and the number of people your community was able to reach.

Data helps, but it’s only the backdrop to the narrative.

Remember stories have a beginning, middle and an end. Make them fun and interesting. If you don’t have stories of your own, start looking at other comparative communities. Don’t stop until you have at least a dozen great stories. Match each story to your community goals.

Principle 8: You Are Not A Jedi

No combination of words will win you the support of sceptical colleagues. What you bring into the meeting is far more important than what you say in the meeting.

If you want the PR team to promote you, bring them five incredible case studies they can promote.

If you want the sales team to help you, bring them a list of 20 useful leads.

If you want the engineering team you help, bring them valuable feedback they can immediately use. etc…

Success is going to mean building alliances where you have to give support to get support.

Figure out what the community can give to different people and departments within the organization.

Principle 9: Keeping Support Isn’t Binary

Support isn’t binary. People leave and priorities shift.

You need to set aside a big chunk of your time (at least 30%) to building and maintaining internal support.

This means attending meetings, taking colleagues out for a coffee, and finding new ways to bring value to other groups.

Community Goals

Your community goals will guide everything you do in the community.

Your goals determine what platform you select, how you set the platform up, what you ask your members to do, how you motivate them to do it, and what you report internally.

Setting community goals and winning internal support are two parts of the same process.

You should, if you follow these 9 principles, find that you can finally stop trying to fight for support and take a deliberate approach to getting the results you want.

Strategic Community Management

If you found this or the last part of our series useful, please consider signing up for the Strategic Community Management course.

The course will transform how you approach your community, help you escape the engagement trap, and guide you to deliver exactly the kind of results your organization needs.

And the fee is only $675 ($1100 if taken with Psychology of Community).

I think that’s a fair bargain.

How Do People Feel When They Visit The Community?

You’re not going to spend much time in a place where everyone complains.

This a challenge for customer support communities. People visit, complain, get a response, and leave.

Why would they want to visit the moan zone again?

This is true for functional communities too. If people are only sharing serious (but dull) questions and getting serious (but dull) answers, that’s not a place you would choose to spend much time. You might visit when you have a problem, but that’s about it.

If you want people to choose to spend more time there, you need to make sure people feel better about themselves while being there. Folksy probably does this better than most.

This means focusing on the positives, showing success, having places where members can highlight and celebrate each other’s achievements.

There are limits to this, but even within the most serious of professions, you can change the emotion people associate with the community from one of boredom to at least one of curiosity (as Figure1 have done so well).

Consider carefully what emotion you want people to feel when they visit your community and make sure that’s what you’re projecting. As a rule, people avoid misery and seek out joy.

Use your pinned posts and menu of discussions to make sure it reflects the right emotion.

Using Tangible Incentives In Online Communities Intelligently

Tangible incentives have a bad reputation for encouraging the worst behaviors.

This is partly well-deserved. Tangible incentives are great when people had little interest in performing that behavior in the first place, but beyond that, they can cause more problems than they solve.

Tangible incentives (like money) are best used as part of a properly designed system. Three good options here are prize bounties, raffle systems, and tipping.

Prize bounties are when someone sets a reward for the person(s) who provide the best-accepted solution to a challenge. However, if the odds of winning are too low, why participate? It’s best to distribute the prize and offer the chance of random rewards for specific, smaller, activities. LocalMotors’ LaunchForth does this well.

Another option is the raffle system. We use a variation of this in our online community. Each month, people are allocated ‘tickets’ based upon the number of accepted solutions they’ve contributed. At the end of the month, a draw is made and the winner gets the prize. You are more likely to win with more good contributions, but it’s not guaranteed.

The final system is as a tipping system. Each member is given $x per day they can use to tip people who make great contributions. The money expires at the end of the day. Those that don’t tip get less to spend the next time, those that use it get more. Steemit uses a simple tipping system (you can replace money with points, but it’s less effective).

You can figure out the best system for you. Be aware, anytime you create a system with tangible rewards people will try to cheat. But that doesn’t mean you should avoid them entirely. You can get this right.

From ‘How Many’ To ‘How Few’

Two groups, which would you most like to join?

“Join the largest group of design engineers on the web. We have 60,000 members from around the world”

“Join the most exclusive group of design engineers on the web. We only accept 365 members per year, 1 per day”

We spend so much time talking about how many people are participating in our community, attending our events, or joining our webinars without realizing that size isn’t very motivating.

Would you rather stand in a big crowd or be part of a smaller, exclusive, group?

Being small can be a powerful asset too. ‘Who?’ is a more important question than ‘how many?’

Getting Internal Support For Your Community (it begins with the list)

If you don’t have the internal support you want, it’s usually because you don’t have a good process for building that support.

Don’t wait until it’s too late, for concerns to rise, or until you need something.

Start building your list. Few things will have as big an impact on your career as maintaining good, clear, relationships with your list.

Begin with everyone who has an interest in engaging customers in your organization.

Your boss is first on the list, but what about her boss and her boss’ boss? What about your close colleagues? What about the people on the IT team? What about PR and sales?

When you’re done, go back and think again.

Most people exclude about half the names that should be on their list.

Marketing will certainly care if you suddenly start acting human and off-brand within the community. Legal will be worried about members talking about illegal activities or posing as brand representatives. Human resources might care if you ask employees to participate openly in the community. Procurement will care how you select the platform you use.

And that’s just the start. Who else might have a vested interest in the community? Even if they don’t know it yet.

Will the video department be concerned with people sharing videos in the community? Will someone responsible for SEO care about thin content created by the community? etc…

By the end of this, you should have a list of up to 30 names.

Your community’s success (and your career progression) depends upon your ability to maintain strong relationships with this list. You can get engagement metrics as high as you like, but without good relationships here, it’s a waste of time.

Set up meetings with each of them, understand their concerns and priorities, and incorporate these into your community efforts.

Don’t wait, get started now.

It’s Hard To Build Strong Relationships When You Work From Home

Work from home all you like, but don’t be surprised when your requests for more resources and attention are ignored.

Whether you like it or not, you’re playing the relationship game.

Your success depends entirely on you being able to build powerful internal relationships.

It’s really hard to do that if you’re going to work from home while the rest of your colleagues are having lunch together.

Whose problems do you think engineering will fix first? What do you think marketing will devote more promotional resources to? What do you think management will pay more attention towards?

Yes, there should be independent criteria for all of the above. But I’ve yet to work with any organization where priorities weren’t heavily influenced by relationships.

And the more you work from home, the harder it is to build and maintain strong relationships. If you’re determined not to work in an office, then work on the road, meeting as many of your members as possible.

Call Deflection and Insights Implemented

Do you want to deflect customers? Send people elsewhere? Stop them from contacting you?

Or do you want to bring them closer? Collaborate with them? And understand their wants and needs better?

How about instead of measuring tickets deflected, you measure insights gains?

How many insights have been implemented into the product/service? How many of them have changed the service or your company in some way?

When this becomes an agreed goal, your actions change. You focus less on speed of response and driving people away and more towards truly understanding your audience, identifying great ideas, developing processes for gathering information, and building relationships with product teams.

Customer support might still be your primary goal, but insights implemented is a great secondary goal.

Building Internal Support vs. Building An Internal Alliance

Building internal support begins with: “I want to do this thing, will you help me?”

Building an internal alliance begins with: “What are you trying to achieve? How can I help?”

Too many people try to build internal support when they should build internal alliances.

Support is difficult to gain and can quickly evaporate as priorities shift.

If you’re waiting for someone to do you a favour, take a number and get in line. You could be waiting for a while.

It’s a thousand times easier to build an alliance instead. Figure out the goals and concerns of those around you and see how you can incorporate them to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes.

The crucial difference is this means you need to change and adapt your vision of what the community should be to accommodate what others want. You can’t fake this or pay lip service. You earn their trust by showing you’ve truly listened and responded to what has been said.

A friend recently spent hours going through the sales team proposal documents for new business and attended one of their sales meetings. He noticed he had some powerful stories that would help illustrate their points. So he asked if they wanted any quotes from top customers or stories to support their key points?

Now the quotes he’s collected from community members feature prominently in sales decks and the stories are used by the entire sales team. In return, the sales team encourage new clients to use his community.

This is an alliance not built around asking someone for support, but by finding ways the community can help existing stakeholders. (p.s. Also, imagine how community members feel knowing their stories are featured so prominently in company material?)

There are countless opportunities all around you today to better understand the people around you and build more alliances. Alliances that begin with what they want, not what you want.

It’s a lot easier to get support if you begin with something they already support.

The ‘Blind Faith’ vs. ‘Hard Evidence’ Split

I spent two weeks in San Francisco interviewing 20+ community professionals from companies big and small. They split into two separate groups.

Group one were largely from the start-up sector. They had a strong level of internal support for the community. The CEO believed community was important and core principles trickled down. Most CEOs in this sector were more worried about sustaining attention than profit. Let’s call these the ‘blind faithers’. They trust the community is essential to relationships and keeping an audience’s attention.

Group two were outside of tech. They struggled to get internal support or understand their community. They are dealing with bosses and CEOs with limited resources and trying to allocate those limited resources to maximize impact. Multiple departments were using all possible means to get the resources they needed (or just wanted). They needed to see the impact of community. Let’s call these the ‘hard evidencers’.

The challenge dealing with a ‘blind faith’ CEO isn’t getting resources, but understanding their vision. This can be difficult when they don’t know themselves. Is it customer support? Innovation? Raving advocates?

Most problems that arose in this group came from not taking the time up early on to truly understand what a community means to them and what they’re working towards. They felt awkward about challenging or helping frame the goal.

The challenge with ‘hard evidence’ CEOs is building up relationships around them (they’re highly influenced by peers), creating case studies of success, and finding ever more ways for the community to deliver more value (being a nimble way to test ideas usually helps).

You already know which type of company you’re working in. So match your actions accordingly.

p.s. I’m speaking at several events in Israel this and next week. Most are private, but you can join this one if you’re in the area.

The Art Of Writing Good Asks

Sometimes you can get everything else right and stumble at the ask hurdle.

This is the point where you have to ask someone to do something they’re not already doing. Every community effort reaches this point.

This is difficult, especially without an existing relationship.

Most people begin with an email or message along the lines of:

“Hi Mark,

I’m the community manager for WidgetCorp, a community with 3,000 active members of which you are one.

Over the next few months I’m interviewing members of our community to see how we can improve the community.

I would like to interview you and get your feedback.

Let me know your availability. I am available on Tuesday 23rd between 2pm and 6pm, and Thursday 24th between 2.30pm and 5.30pm. Will these times work? If not, suggest times of your own.”

Can you spot the problem? From the very first sentence it feels spammy and impersonal.

It could be one of 50 similar requests you might get this year, all of which you will ignore.

This feels like a minor issue, but we see it consistently undermining the great work so many community managers try to do. Once you’ve ruined that first impression, it takes a LOT more work to bring people around.


“Hi Mark,

Susan Chiu recommended I contact you because you have some experience about [skillset …be specific].

Can I get 10 minutes of your time to get your advice on something we’re working on? It’s for our community which might help a few thousand people.

Any help here would be really useful.”

Notice the difference in tone and messaging? You have a referral, you’re being clear, but you’re talking the way real people talk.

You can adapt any appeal as you see fit, but be sincere. If you’re not sure if your email is sincere, it probably isn’t (not yet anyway). Look to see the messages you respond to in your account and aim to match.

Where Does Good Community Feedback Go?

You’re probably getting a lot of product feedback.

So, what should you do with it?

Here’s what not to do. Don’t surprise people in a meeting or a company-wide report with community feedback that is critical of someone’s work. This makes people defensive and creates enemies determined to undermine everything you do (believe me).

The best time to share negative, yet constructive, feedback is in person after you’ve built a relationship.

It’s after asking each person what kind of feedback would help, what format would they like it in, what would really blow them away?

Certainly, share feedback with the wider organization, but make sure you’re letting each person in the room lead with a solution to overcome that feedback. Your job is to make them look good. Use stories about how they figured out a solution to address the issue.

Now your feedback is making them feel smart and innovative. That doesn’t create enemies, it creates allies.

Far too much great information by communities is ignored because we didn’t lay the groundwork for it first.

Pass on community feedback after:

  1. You’ve built a relationship with the recipient.
  2. You know when they need the feedback (giving feedback to product teams during an engineering sprint isn’t smart – nor is in the middle of the team meeting).
  3. You know how they need the feedback (charts, data, stories etc…?)
  4. You know how they use feedback from elsewhere.

This is one of many small things you can begin doing today to build stronger internal relationships (and your career prospects).

Can You Influence It?

Careful of reporting on metrics you can’t influence.

Customer support communities often fall victim to this. A new product release drives scores of people with problems to ask questions in the community. This is reported in activity or calls deflected.

That’s now the benchmark you’re judged against.

But as the problems are solved in the product, as people become more familiar with the product, both naturally decline.

Now you have to explain why activity has declined in your community.

This is why percentages tend to work better than absolute numbers.

You might not be able to influence the absolute number of visitors, but you can influence a percentage of them to find a solution to their question. You can influence the percentage of questions that have a featured answer. You can influence the speed at which people get a featured answer.

Be careful what benchmarks you set for yourself.

p.s. I’m in San Francisco for the next 2 weeks, send me an email if you would like to meet up.