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.

Educating Community Members

Better educated members make better customers. But, educating members is extremely hard.

Most don’t have the time to be educated beyond a useful tidbit or answer to their problem. Others don’t have the motivation. (A few might already consider themselves experts).

The challenge isn’t sourcing the knowledge in the first place. It’s easy to find experts and useful solutions in almost any field. The challenge is turning the knowledge into a format the audience can digest.

You can spend weeks on a comprehensive resource which only a tiny percentage of the audience sees.

For example, we wanted members to be better informed about community platforms available.

We can do this via:

  • Replying to discussions about the topic.
  • Writing short blog posts.
  • Highlighting digestible tips each month.
  • Developing a series of autoresponder emails.
  • Having a live chat with implementation experts.
  • Hosting a webinar going through each of the big platforms.
  • Creating a wiki/eBook.
  • Developing a video training series.
  • Building an entire training course.
  • Hosting a conference about community platforms.

You will notice the steadily rising level of commitment (and probably smaller audience) at each step. You have to decide which level your new knowledge should live.

The temptation is to go from the easiest, simplest, level through to the more intense. I’ve repeatedly found the opposite works better. Begin with something which requires a lot of commitment and make it exclusive. Perhaps a free training course, but only available to community veterans (scarcity overcomes the motivation problem).

Then turn the training course into a series of short videos followed by a webinar on the topic, a monthly ‘top tips’ on the topic shared by the community, and respond personally. As more people pick up the key elements, they become more likely to reply to other discussions.

If it’s a really big topic, you will also need to change the structure of the community so discussions on the topic appear in a prominent place (ideally above the fold on the homepage). This makes it far more likely the knowledge will spread.

Getting Support For Community By Seeking Advice

There’s a common mistake to avoid when trying to gain internal support.

The mistake is to go to other departments and tell them how the community can help.

I know, this sounds like exactly what you should be doing.

However, in practice, this kind of unsolicited help is usually taken either as an insult or a threat.

It’s an insult because the person you’re speaking to considers themselves an expert. You’re effectively saying you have an idea for their domain they weren’t haven’t already considered (I know, it sounds petty…we’re only human).

It’s a threat if the community can help them do something they already feel they’re doing well themselves. Get off their toes!

The simplest way around this isn’t to tell them how the community can help, but ask how the community can help. Even if you know the answer, it’s good practice to ask.

Ask them for their advice and input into the community as well. What would they like to see? What advice can they give you? Let them see their ideas flourishing in the community (you didn’t take this job for the credit right?)

Now you’re not a threat and you’re respecting their expertise. Give it a shot.

They Didn’t Want To Talk To Each Other

Last year, one community manager in the accountancy sector mentioned their target audience didn’t want to talk to each other.

That’s pretty devastating to discover, but is it true?

If you drop a group of accountants in a room together will they sit alone and avoid eye-contact?

I’d bet they will make small talk and then gradually begin sharing more details and information about themselves and their practice.

A random group of people in any field may not want to talk to each other, but, they do want to chat with friends. They do want help to solve their problems. They do want to feel respected and good at what they do.

A bad community concept often masquerades as resistance to talking to others. It’s rarely the case. It just means you need to change your approach.

If they would talk if they were dropped into the same room then drop them into the same room.

If they would talk to solve their biggest problems, let them know what problems people can solve.

If they would talk if they felt respected or admired, make sure they feel respected and admired.

This isn’t the chicken and the egg, from the very first contact with someone you can invite them to an exclusive event for the top [accountants], learn more about their problems, and let them know how respected they would be in the group.

The solution, like many, is about member psychology.

p.s. Final day to sign up for Psychology of Community.

Avoiding The Biggest Community Problem Because It’s ‘Hard’

Speaking to a community manager last week, she mentioned her biggest problem was proving the value.

Her boss wanted to know what impact engagement had upon customer retention but she didn’t have the numbers.

A snippet from the conversation:

“What have you tried so far?”
“Nothing, it’s not possible”

Nothing…it’s your biggest problem and you’ve done nothing to solve it?

You haven’t spoken to anyone in the field about how they linked engagement to retention?

You haven’t tried the formulas in any of the existing ROI resources?

You haven’t spoken to any data analysts about getting statistically significant data?

You haven’t asked other departments how they prove their value and links to retention?

And how do you even know it’s not possible if you haven’t tried anything?

If it’s your biggest problem, make it a priority and solve it.

No-one taught you how to do it, no platform provides the easy connection, so…do the most wonderful thing we get to do each day…and tackle a new challenge with relish. You might learn a new skill and build a new resource…

Ask around, study data, hire a data analyst if you like (we’re currently working with 3).

Mankind has somehow managed to work out the impact of Facebook on reducing government corruption, rain on retail sales, and boardroom diversity on financial performance..believe me, we can (and do) connect engagement data to customer retention

Always Be Evangelizing

A reminder from Phoebe this week; always be evangelizing.

Gaining internal support doesn’t mean you’ll keep internal support.

Getting the new staff hire or platform you wanted isn’t an indefinite pass to everlasting support from your organization.

Resources are limited and you’re not the only department lobbying for more.

If you slow down while you’re ahead, others will soon catch up.

You’ve got to work hard at this every single day. This means you need to bring a ferocious, infectious, passion for community to every meeting.

It means you need to bring fresh, engaging, and valuable stories from community members at every opportunity.

It means you need to work your ass off to build stronger relationships, educate people on the benefits, and deliver the value they need to see from the community each month.

No, it’s not in your job description. But if you want to keep your job, no wait..if you want to thrive in your job, this is what it takes.

It’s really hard work. Better get started.

Getting More Internal Support

One way is to pull together plenty of facts and hope people are persuaded.

Another way is to understand what different departments perceived as valuable and highlight how the community creates that value.

Here are a few options:

  1. Showing marketing and management teams which questions/discussions get the most visits (use trendlines, not absolute metrics for context). This shows which problems or issues people care most about. If you know a rising number of people are asking a question about integration with your software and another, you might want to work on that.
  2. Ensure customer service teams know the most common questions. Anyone working in customer support should be aware of the most common questions being asked and any novel solutions identified by community members. Continually add community questions to the FAQ and user manuals. Update existing questions with answers too.
  3. Highlight new popular questions to product teams. Highlight questions which haven’t appeared before but are gaining popularity. This might reveal possible future problems to tackle early on. This is especially useful for fixing bugs early.
  4. Show marketing teams terminology members use. Highlight unique terms and phrases community members use to describe problems. Encourage them to use this terminology in their web and marketing copy. This is also useful for product teams working on documentation.
  5. Gather demographic data on most active users. This reveals the most likely sneezers you want to work with who will spread your messages. For example, you might want to filter women, 24 to 30 using Mozilla into a unique mailing list to contact and build relationships with.
  6. Put together focus groups for product teams. Imagine the ability to test ideas and see which proves most popular in a controlled, safe, environment. Make sure the product teams know they can ask questions and get support.
  7. Onboarding new staff members. Embed community interactions within the training of new staff members. Highlight how they can ask questions, get feedback, and use real life case studies to figure out how best to work with the community.
  8. Highlight potential recruits to HR. Ensure HR know the community is a recruiting tool. Perhaps even give them a list of possible recruits to reach out to when a job becomes available. They can even post it in the community too.

The more value you offer, the more different departments will support the community. Take the time to build the bridges and prove the value.

Only then will you get the support.

What The Promise Of Rising Engagement Numbers Means

As a community grows, the rate of growth naturally slows (no. new members / no. total members (or DAUs)).

You might get lucky in a fast-growing industry (data science etc…), but otherwise, you will at some point hit saturation*.

If you’ve set expectations (and constantly reported) on rapidly rising engagement metrics all this time, what will you do when you naturally go past the peak?

Remember that rising engagement growth is an implicit promise. That promise is future engagement = valuable outcomes. If engagement slows and you can’t see valuable outcomes, you have a problem.

At some point (hopefully today) you will stop talking about engagement metrics. Declare in the next meeting it’s time to focus on value instead. From now on, report leads generated, tickets answered, increase in CSAT scores, ideas generated/implemented etc…

You might not have much scope to increase engagement, but there’s usually plenty of scope to boost all of the above.

Yes, these too will eventually slow. But now your company can see what they get for their money. You might not be able to answer more than 50,000 tickets per month, but 50,000 tickets per month are usually valuable enough to keep funding the community.

Remember all growth of engagement metrics eventually slow. Don’t wait until they do to switch to reporting to valuable outcomes.

* Saturation is the point in the maturity phase of the community lifecycle where those most likely to join your community already have. Now you focus on replenishment (converting newcomers to the topic).

Zero In On The Drop-Off Points

Run a cohort analysis (Google Analytics/Community-Analytics can help) and identify the most common drop-off points.

Be aware that the biggest will always be between week 0 and 1. There are ways to tackle this, but ignore this group for now. This group skews your data too badly.

Look at where the remaining 20% or so of survivors begin to drop-off.

Is it after week 3? 4? 8? 12? Focus on these points. Now interview some members who did drop off at this point and ask them why (the last visit date often works).

You will usually get answers along the lines of:

“I just forgot about the community really”
“I didn’t really see anything I could help with”
“It didn’t quite click with me”
“I became too busy”
“To be honest, I didn’t like feeling dumb”

(all genuine quotes)

You might stumble upon an outlier, but assume these reasons are reflective of broad groups of individuals. Find the ones which appear most often and run a short survey for the drop-outs to answer to find out which resonates most.

Now set up an automated reminder specifically timed to tackle these objections. Don’t use facts at this level, you need emotions. Focus on an amazing story that will surprise or dazzle someone. Highlight an action they can take so they won’t forget about you. Focus on how they can help even if they don’t have an expertise. Focus on someone who was in their position and overcame it – with a convincing case study.

You can have fun with it if you like.

Repeat this for different drop-off points. If you get it right, you should see a small bounce in the retention rates. A small bounce might not seem important, but as with all things retention – it builds up over time.