Many of us haven’t really scratched the surface of what’s possible with our data.
If you want to see what’s possible, I recommend you watch this talk if you haven’t already.
You can do far more with your data than you probably realise.
Yet just knowing what’s possible doesn’t help us achieve our goals. We also need the knowledge to jump from where are today to get to where we need to go. And that destination is a place where we finally have the data (in the manner we need it) to make the right decisions for our community.
Benchmark Your Current Data System
If you’re trying to jump from a novice to an expert overnight, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.
It’s far better to figure out where you are today and track your progress over time.
As you can see above, we benchmark community data skills along the four levels.
To summarise briefly:
- Basic. Tracking changes in community engagement.
- Advanced. Tracking what happened and why it happened by using external data.
- Professional. Evaluating community impact and making data-driven improvements.
- Elite. Automating the entire process.
These benchmarks themselves are comprised of five attributes:
- Metrics. Which metrics do you measure grow and expand over time?
- Extraction. How do you gather the data from different sources?
- Analysis. Which analyses do you undertake in your community?
- Summary. How do you summarise and visualise the data?
- Utility. How do you utilise the data in your strategy?
Before we begin, take a second to benchmark your current level today. You might be farther along in some attributes than others.
If you’re like most people, you’re at the beginner or advanced level. This is good – it means you can make a lot of improvement in a relatively short amount of time!
Resource: Community Data Benchmarks
The Basic Level
If you’re relying upon the insights that come up with your community platform, you’re at the basic level.
Almost all of us begin by using our community platforms to track engagement. Yet even within this level, there is a huge variation in the data you have.
The quantity and quality of insights provided by inexpensive tools like Facebook, Circle, and Tribe are very different from those provided by premium enterprise platforms.
Generally speaking, the more you spend the better insights you should have.
At the basic level, you can usually answer the following questions:
- Is engagement heading in the right direction?
- Who are the most active members of the community?
- What are the popular discussions in the community?
Overall, you get a simple snapshot which reflects aggregated data for a given time period in a community. Typically at this level, you’re simply gathering community data and sending screenshots or visuals to colleagues.
However, there are critical insights you won’t have. For example:
- What’s causing the changes in engagement (and what to optimise for)?
- Are changing because of your actions or things happening outside of the community?
- Where are people dropping out of the community journey and why?
- Is the community having an impact on key business metrics?
As your community expands (or your ambitions expand), not having this data starts to become a bigger and bigger problem.
Sooner or later, you need to move on to a more advanced level of insights.
The Advanced Level
The advanced level is when you begin to get serious about community data.
At this level, you’re not just concerned about what happened, you’re concerned about why it happened. The why is what lets you improve your community efforts. This is the foundation stone upon which you build a data-driven community strategy.
e.g. If you know [x] is causing a positive outcome, you probably want to do more of [x].
The key difference at this level is you need to combine multiple datasets. You’re still working with aggregated data (i.e. behavior is combined into a metric rather than separated by members), but you need to wrangle a few other sources of data together.
Step One: Gather Environment-Level Data
At this stage, gather data on what’s happening outside of the community to see how it impacts things within the community. We could easily write a series of articles about the precise metrics to measure, for now, I’ll recommend our ROI guide and this guide.
I would recommend getting monthly time-series data to reveal:
- No. visitors to the company website. (Google Analytics, Adobe Analytics, Amplitude Analytics etc..).
- No. unique, new, visitors to the company website (Google Analytics, Adobe Analytics, Amplitude Analytics etc..)
- No. search visitors to the company website (Unique visitors – source: Search).
- No. customers/users (sales data/usage data – usually upon request)
- No. new customers/product activations (sales data).
- No. support tickets/customer calls per month (help desk software/customer support software – usually upon request).
- Any proxy metrics for no. developers, admins, users etc…
Download this data from each source individually. Remember to keep rows as months (use transpose if they’re in the wrong format) and ensure it matches up on a monthly time-series basis stretching back up to 36 months (any longer than this and the data is less relevant).
You can usually download these metrics individually from each source. However, it might take a little effort to clean the data so you can create a single spreadsheet. The spreadsheet should have each attribute above as a column and each month should be a row.
Note: It’s difficult to download monthly time-series data from some platforms (e.g. Adobe Analytics). You might need to download data from each month at a time. This is also true of some community platforms. This is painful and takes a little time – but you only need to do it once (thereafter you’re updating the data each month).
Step Two: Setup and/or Collect Qualitative Performance Data
Quantitative data can reveal plenty of useful insights, but it doesn’t show whether members are becoming more or less satisfied with the community. This is why it’s also good to have a measure of member satisfaction you can track over time.
This can be done in three ways.
- An annual survey. You can set up an annual survey of up to 10 questions to get an ongoing measure of how members feel about the community. This will go out to all members (ideally using the same questions each year).
- A quarterly survey. You can set up a survey which goes out to a rotating sample of members at random. This makes it easier to track data over time but is prone to strong fluctuations if you don’t get 300 responses.
- A poll. A poll is an ideal solution to track member satisfaction. This appears to members as a pop-up in the community and asks members to rate their satisfaction, whether they got the answer or the overall impact of the community. These results can be aggregated into a summary score over time. I’d strongly recommend setting up the community-driven impact score system at this level.
Ideally, you should combine this data with your community data on a monthly time-series basis.
If you can’t get data monthly (it’s hard to do this for surveys unless you sample a rotating group of members), simply share the annual data each month for now.
Step Three: Analysing Community Performance
Once you’ve got your dataset, you should be able to analyse community performance.
You can see the kinds of questions you can answer below (but, be mindful, this isn’t a definitive list).
What are the trends we need to adapt to?
|What content / categories / tags are rising or falling in popularity (use % from normalised baseline).||Aggregate group activity by category.|
|What areas, features, sections of community are rising or falling in popularity?||Aggregated visitor data from different sections of the community.|
|Is there any major shift in locations people are coming from?||Google analytics - top 10 locations - 100% bar chart with trendines.|
|Are the type of users changing (more devs, admins etc..).||Member profile data (or synched customer data).|
|Any specific changes between types of visitors?||Google Analytics data on devices, regions, languages etc?|
To perform this analysis, you might also use your current variables to create new metrics.
For example, you might create metrics like posts per active member, visitor conversion rate etc…You can find an example of what we often look at in this sheet.
You can now create graphs to help you answer questions like:
- Is the community doing well in attracting attention and acquiring newcomers? (i.e. attracting the expected number of visitors, newcomers, and questions)
- Does the community have the right number of superusers / is the quality of superusers good enough? (i.e. are the majority of questions being resolved/answered as the community grows?)
- Are customers more or less likely to turn to the community for support? (i.e. what is the relationship between support tickets vs. community questions?)
You don’t need to use these questions verbatim. Come up with your own questions if you need them. What you should be able to determine though is how well the community is performing and why.
Note: Be mindful that this is always correlational data. This doesn’t make the data bogus, but it should be treated as a relationship which could be explored further.
Step Four: Using the data
If you have the expertise, you can run a regression analysis to show the strength of the relationship numerically. But this isn’t always easy to interpret.
Often simply looking at the data on a chart will help you explain what’s happening.
It’s good to highlight any significant changes within the organisation which might’ve taken place during this time frame to see how they impacted the community (e.g. new product launches, website redesign, Black Friday etc…).
You can overlay these with the data itself to see if there was any major impact.
You should be able to tell a compelling story here which explains:
- What’s happened so far?
- Why did those things happen?
- What’s likely to happen in the future (the forecast function is worth learning)?
- What should you do more of, less of, and change to improve results?
The Professional Level
At the professional level, two things change.
- You look at member data. Instead of only tracking outcomes by month, you track outcomes by member. For example, you might see if members who have been invited into a newcomer group had a higher product trial completion rate than those who didn’t.
- You integrate databases. Instead of getting a single metric from each source per month (i.e. 16,434 customer calls), you get the list of who made the calls and when. You need to combine data from several databases to show the impact of community.
This lets you do a far deeper analysis to determine what is and isn’t working in your community. You can see exactly which activities (or member attributes) had a meaningful impact and which didn’t.
As this example dataset shows, once you have data at the member level the quality of analyses you can undertake improves considerably.
Step 1: Identifying sources of member data.
Member-level analysis requires you to build a database of individuals where each row (observation) is a member rather than a month. This database needs to combine records from several sources.
These sources might include:
- The community platform.
- The customer relationship management system (CRM).
- The mailing list provider (see who did and didn’t open emails).
- The learning management system (LMS) (see who completed training courses).
- The call or help-desk system (see how filed tickets).
- Social media platforms (community intelligence tools).
- The event /usergroup hosting software (see who attended events).
In larger organisations, it’s likely there is already some database which integrates a lot of these things. You might simply be able to add community data to it. The challenge is finding out where it is, who owns it, and in what format it’s in.
It’s also common at this stage to use community intelligence tools like CommonRoom and Orbit to create a more detailed picture of member behaviours from a variety of different channels (i.e. you can learn about member engagements on Reddit, Discord, Slack, and other social media channels).
Step 2: Extract and combine the data
Sometimes you get lucky and the platforms you’re using have a connector which lets you easily combine data (and keep it updated). It’s far more common, however, that you will need to pull together the different datasets yourself.
This might be by extracting the data from the available APIs, or it might mean manually downloading and combining the data from each source individually. The challenge is often matching up records of different individuals across platforms. If members don’t use a consistent email address, this becomes tricky (but not impossible) to do.
Even if you get the data, the quality of it might vary considerably. API data can be in the form of raw server logs which you then need to process to be useful.
Another challenge is it’s very likely you will be working with datasets which are too large to process on your personal laptop – so you might need to consider virtual solutions for collecting, processing, and securely storing the data (data security is going to be a critical consideration).
As a general principle, cleaning and transforming the data usually takes 80% of the entire scope of the project.
Step 3: Analysing the data
Once you have data on individuals, you can still do some really exciting things.
- A sequential analysis to determine the order of member behaviors and community participation (i.e. see what came first).
- Survival analysis to see how retention rate varies by month and member segment.
- Analyse superuser performance by accepted solution rate.
- Segment the community by category and see which areas need more attention.
- See how product usage varies by community participation and types of participation.
- Identify attributes which cause members to stay for longer.
- Identify unique clusters of members by community behaviours and build distinct mailing lists of them.
- Develop detailed journeys of each member.
You should be able to build a model which predicts the outcomes you want to gain from the community and then gain insights into what you need to do to drive those outcomes.
However, this requires expertise in statistics. If you don’t have expertise in this, we can set up this system for you.
Note: you have to be really, really, precise about the definition of any metric you use here. For example, if you want to know the impact of the community on customer retention. You have to define what metrics best represent each of those terms. Two different people can define the terms in two very different ways and come to different conclusions.
Step 4: Summarise data in a custom dashboard
Once you have a clean dataset, you can develop a custom dashboard in Tableau, PowerBI, or any tool you’re familiar with. Again, this requires some technical knowledge. But here we would recommend having colour-coded dashboards which help you make the critical decisions you need to make about your community.
Common metrics here would include:
- Activity-level metrics (no. posts, active members, newcomer retention, and no. active MVPs).
- Program-level metrics (% questions with a response, average time to first response, accepted solution rate).
- Satisfaction-level metrics (from polls/surveys).
- Impact-level metrics (impact upon customer retention, utilisation, or community-driven impact score etc..)
You should know the primary drivers of these metrics and be able to produce performance-based forecasts.
This dashboard should have pre-determined success/failure metrics which identify whether unique community programs succeeded or not. Those programs which succeeded should be provided with additional resources and those which didn’t succeed should be altered or have fewer resources in the future.
From this, everyone can determine both how the community is doing today and what to focus on next.
Resource: The Dream Community Dataset
The Elite Level
The big difference between professional and elite is the automated data pipeline.
A simple overview of a data pipeline is shown via Newsela below:
(p.s. you should watch the full presentation hosted on the Verint/Telligent Community)
At the elite level, you’re not manually pulling and analysing data. It’s not a monthly task you have to (painfully) endure. Instead, it’s a fully automated pipeline of fresh insights.
Typically, data is extracted via APIs (and direct connectors), cleaned, transformed, and stored within a data warehouse. From there a business intelligence or data visualisation tool is used to explore the data. You can provide different colleagues with different levels of access to the data depending on their needs.
This is infinitely more scalable and it gives you regularly updated data (to the day if needed) which others can explore. For larger communities, it’s beneficial to get real-time insights rather than wait until the end of the month to see what’s happening.
The downside is this is a project which requires significant investment. It requires significant resources, expertise, and time. You also need to account for maintenance costs (data pipelines frequently break when platforms are updated or tweaked ).
Before beginning this journey, you need to carefully consider issues such as data quality, integrity, governance, privacy, and security.
The steps you take might vary, but this is what we would usually recommend:
Step 1: Create a steering group to define the outcome
Every process is different, but it’s useful to begin by bringing the right people together to start. I’ve lost track of how many data projects stumble because of issues which weren’t foreseen at the time.
The steering group varies but often includes a combination of:
- Community team
- Community vendor
- Company software engineers
- Customer loyalty/success
- IT (esp. Data security-minded folks).
- Data-specific people
Essentially anyone with any sort of influence or interest in data from the sources you’re likely to collect data from should be included in this process. Your primary responsibility at this point is to learn.
Always begin this process by bringing the right stakeholders together to gather requirements, identify issues and challenges, and understand their needs from the data. It’s likely others want to ensure key outcomes are considered too.
Step 2: Decide who will be doing the implementation
The next step is to define the right architecture for your data system.
If you don’t have a data engineering background, please don’t try to do this yourself. Selecting the right architecture and technology requires considerable knowledge of the competing options and a deep understanding of your organization’s own needs and requirements.
In the past, we’ve seen a community data pipeline shut down after two months because the organisation’s data technology stack was moving to a different set of tools.
The earliest decision you need to make is whether you have the resources to do this internally or not. This is whether consultancies can help. You need someone to work with your team to define the requirements in architecture and help select the right technology stack.
Step 3: Implement the solution
This is a bigger topic than we will cover here. Perhaps the most important difference in this process is you will first import data from a variety of sources into a data warehouse (Snowflake, BigQuery, Redshift, etc…).
In some cases, this might involve writing a custom webhook to import the data and using separate data orchestration tools. You will also need a data analytics tool which integrates with your data warehouse.
We’re not going to cover the process of building the full data pipeline here. There are far better resources than us to learn about data pipelines.
Be mindful that this is an intensive process – one that often involves considerable trial and error. This will usually take several months to complete.
Step 4: Training stakeholders to use the data
The final step in the journey is to develop a process for persuading and training stakeholders to use the data to support their work. This applies to both your immediate team and to a broader set of community stakeholders.
This involves both a combination of emotive-driven storytelling and training workshops where you can guide stakeholders through the process of extracting the data they need.
I’d recommend having three things in place.
- A simple roadshow deck explaining the remarkable value of using the tool. This should cover the basics of community, the type of insights people can get, and how to explore the data.
- A regular workshop (hosted every 3 to 6 months) for stakeholders can attend where you will help them access and explore the community data. This lets them run analyses themselves, address questions and, most importantly, get time on people’s calendars for the community.
- A short guide to support colleagues getting set up on the data visualisation platform – included with some basic do’s and don’t’s. At a minimum, stakeholders should know how to run basic queries and explore the data to find useful insights.
Resource: How Newsela Build Their Data Pipeline
Resource: Fundamentals of Data Engineering
Resource: What Is A Data Pipeline?
If you’ve found this guide useful and want to explore it further, I’d strongly recommend attending our community data workshop on November 2nd.
Ultimately, if you want your community taken seriously you have to take your community data seriously.
Community platforms can show you if engagement is heading in the right direction and who the most active members are, but they’re never going to be able to do much more than that. They can’t answer the critical questions you and your colleagues have. They can’t show a meaningful impact caused by the community.
Many of us need to tread beyond our comfort zone to get the data we need. You don’t need to be a technical person, but you do need to know the process and how to advance to each level. You’re also likely to need outside help.
Begin with the questions you want to answer. You can get a good list of these from speaking with your stakeholders. Refine these questions into specific metrics and start identifying the source of each of these metrics. Be as specific as possible.
Get the environmental data you need and start combining it with community data. Once you can do that, get the member-level data from different databases into a single destination. Now you can consider building an automated system for the whole process.
- Richard Millington – How To Prove (And Improve) Your Community Value (CMX Talk)
- Building Successful Community Data Systems – Nov 2, Workshop
- Community Data Benchmarks
- How To Calculate The ROI Of Online Communities
- Community-Driven Impact Score
- Setting Targets and Building A Community Dashboard
- The Dream Community Dataset Template
- Fundamentals of Data Engineering
- What Is A Data Pipeline?
There are three good principles to consider when designing your community site.
1) Minimize effort and maximize reward. If members have to scroll past large banners or find useful information among static content, that’s bad. Minimise the static material to show the latest activity. Deliver the maximum value for the minimum amount of effort.
2) Prioritise by popularity. Don’t prioritise alphabetically, prioritise the display of topics/categories, content, features, and navigation options by what’s most popular in the community. If you don’t have a community yet, prioritise by use cases.
3) Keep social density high, but not too high. If you’re launching with multiple features (Q&A, ideas, groups, etc…) and a dozen topics/discussion categories, you’re doing it wrong. You need to keep activity high, but not so high it’s impossible to follow what’s happening.
One of my simpler, but favourite, community designs is the Basecamp community by Kony.
It’s clean, simple, shows activity above the fold, displays navigation options clearly, and is probably the best implementation of Salesforce Community Cloud I’ve seen in years.
Developing the community experience isn’t easy, but if you follow the core three principles you will probably be ok.
p.s. Learn the principles of a great community design for free.
Big hero images, large white spacing, plenty of empty areas are all signs of a community designed by someone who prioritized beauty over what members need.
This usually happens when the person designing a community doesn’t participate in it.
Given the choice between beautiful and ugly, everyone prefers beauty.
But that’s not the choice.
When you’re forcing members to waste time scrolling around the page to find what they want, you have a problem. The more time it takes, the worse the community experience becomes. If it becomes too bad they go somewhere else entirely.
It’s no surprise the best communities, StackOverflow, FitBit, Spotify, Alteryx, GiffGaff etc…have densely packed sites that are easy to scan.
More than one community revamp has been ruined by someone on a misguided quest to make something prettier instead of better.
If you find yourself pushing the content people want to see down the page, adding a lot of spacing between content, it’s time to speak up. Because if you don’t your members will.
If you’re going to drive advocacy, pick an advocacy platform.
If you’re going for customer service, pick a customer service platform.
If you’re going for loyalty and retention, pick a platform that helps build a sense of identity and share/document information.
If you’re going to generate and solicit ideas, use an ideation platform.
You’re far more likely to get the results you want if you pick a platform designed to achieve those results.
The problem is we don’t know what results we want.
Have the difficult discussion today, narrow down your goals to specific, singular, things you can achieve. Then pick a platform to match.
If you had a choice, would you launch a new community today on a forum-based platform?
You might, if you expected long-detailed discussions and high search traffic for older questions. Forums do a terrific job of this. They’re great at integrations and customizations too.
But these benefits apply to increasingly fewer companies. Most people just love to talk about the topic without any overarching structure.
Most communities, I suspect, will start to resemble social media platforms.
DriveTribe is a good example. It’s primarily an app based on instant conversations (much like real communities). You can join sub-groups (tribes), follow people, and participate in a live-chat. It’s created about cars and is focused around sharing photos, videos, and simple questions.
You can check out some of the screenshots below:
Unlike most forums, you can easily take the community anywhere you want to go. Have a car problem? Take a photo and share.
See something cool? Record a video and share. Feeling lonely? Go to the chat room. It’s going to seem increasingly antiquated when you can’t do this.
In the coming years, a lot of community folks are going to go to great trouble to try and defend their forum-based platforms. It will look similar to Kodak defending the power of analogue cameras. I urge you not to be one of them.
Thousands of business books are filled with organizations who didn’t see the change even when it was right upon them.
..and it’s right upon us now. Swim with the current, not against is. DriveTribe might well fail, as might Figure1 and other early pioneers, but the trend is pretty clear.
When the entire world has a device in their pocket that lets them capture and share their passions in powerful ways, it makes sense to build a community around it.
I don’t think I’ve met anyone that hasn’t got a complaint about their community platform.
You don’t have the data you need, integrations you need, features you need, layout or design you want etc…etc…
Over time, these frustrations tend to rise until they prompt a great migration.
The problem with migrations is you replace one set of issues with another. In the process you upset members, incur huge costs, and you throw out all the time you spent fixing bugs from the last change. When you migrate, you end up with an entirely new set of unforeseen problems.
Worse yet, platform migrations rarely have an impact on the level of participation. Changing the environment only affects those regular users of the platform (who else will see it?). I’ve seen too many organizations migrate platforms to get features members said they wanted…but never used.
The best reasons to migrate platforms are when the costs of the platform rise beyond your capacity or the platform itself is clearly heading in the wrong direction (worse support, security, falling behind trends etc…).
Changing platforms also feels like the silver bullet to solve your problems. It isn’t.
Yes, you found the perfect platform.
But have you found the time?
Most people underestimate the time it takes to bring a platform to life. The need identification, platform demonstrations, negotiations, approvals, design tweaks, more tweaks, yet more tweaks, fixing the broken single sign-on, more tweaks, explaining internally why it’s taking so long, more tweaks etc…
It might not be quite a full-time job, but if you’re doing a big implementation it’s going to be a huge part of your job.
Where will you find the time to do it well?
Working yourself to exhaustion isn’t a solution, so what will you spend less time doing?
Will you spend less time responding to members? Put aside new initiatives? Hold back on researching your members? Write less content? Remove bad stuff slower? Cancel 1 to 1s with your community team?
The cost of a community platform isn’t just financial, it’s what it stops you from doing in the short-term. Don’t casually push things aside. Deliberately decide beforehand what tasks you will cut and hand over.
We often come across disgruntled prospects who have flown blindly into building a community.
This happens when a senior executive decides to create a community (and typically drops the task upon someone in marketing).
This person speaks to a few platforms and picks a vendor they like best. The vendor recommends a trusted implementation partner. The implementation partner designs a great-looking website which is live within 3 to 6 months.
A few common problems arise here.
First, you will spend too much. This usually means buying modules you don’t need. Trust us, no platform vendor will refuse to sell you additional modules if you decide you need them later. The goal of the salesperson is to get you to sign a 3-year contract.
Second, the implementation partner will often design a site better suited to a mature, developed, community rather than you just starting. If you’re not providing specific guidance for what you need today, you will end up with something that looks great but functions poorly.
Third, this approach tends to force a big bang launch. Once you’ve spent $100k+ on a website, your company is expecting great results. That means thousands of active members quickly. That means having to report numbers early on. This means you can’t test and adjust concepts under the radar. Your colleagues and execs judge you.
(It also means people are quicker to cut their losses if it’s not working out.)
Platform vendors, implementation partners, and others do terrific work. But don’t put them at the controls of your effort. Become informed first. See what other communities were like when they launched. Ask questions from those who have been through your situation.
Don’t fly blind here…it could become an expensive trip.
Spend 20 minutes reading this paper.
“Using interrupted time series analysis and regression discontinuity design, we observe an abrupt and significant increase in social reciprocity after the adoption of a threaded interface.”
In short, adding threaded discussions (expanded all the way, i.e. you could have comments indented significantly as people respond to middle comments in the discussion), yielded an increase in responses.
Almost all community platforms today offer threaded discussions. Your mileage will vary, but testing flat, threaded, one-deep, and full branch structures of discussions is a low-cost and potentially high-reward endeavour.
Some people were afraid to post using their real names. So we recently switched on anonymous posting in our community. This could be a powerful tool if it were a ‘tick box’ alongside a comment someone was writing (like submitting reviews on our online community platform comparison tool below)
It doesn’t work well on Discourse. On Discourse it’s a strange symbol hidden beneath an avatar option no-one will see. Nice idea, bad implementation.
That small detail might prevent hundreds, possibly thousands, of people from sharing valuable posts.
One prospect has an SSO implementation which, when you log in, will take you away from the community site you were on initially. You can write a response to a post, click reply, be prompted to log in and wind up on a different site.
This is a community-killing problem.
We want to make it easier to share interesting links. It gives people a reason to return every day to see what’s new. Sharing links works when it’s just an URL and a short title. But the current forum requires the title, URL, a description, and categorization. Who has the time for that? Easier to wait for someone else to share the link.
One client introduced an activity stream without realizing it would be filled by most members replying to the same discussion. It was a costly waste of real estate.
Just because a problem feels small and niggling doesn’t mean it can’t completely undermine engagement in your community. You don’t realize how important it is to simplify, remove a click, and reduce the mental effort required until it’s too late.
When you’re developing a community platform, don’t assume your developer/implementation partner will get this stuff right. They often opt for the easiest solution to implement instead of the best option for your members.
Go into minute detail and detail exactly how you would like every single feature to work (and keep a record of everything you’ve agreed in meeting notes shared with everyone involved – trust me).
If the first question is what do you want a visitor to do, the second is what do you want a visitor to your online community to know?
Do you want them to know this site is unique or special in some way? If so the site has to offer something unique or different from any other community in its field. This will require custom development. Place it prominently.
Do you want them to know this is a popular place to hang out? If so, show lots of activity taking place, display the number of members participating, and highlight any other success metrics.
Do you want them to know they could build a powerful reputation here? Show the people who have built a powerful reputation in the community. Feature them highly.
Do you want them to know to know this is a private, exclusive, or even secret community? If so, show nothing. They have to join first.
Do you want them to know they shouldn’t be scared or feel they have to be an expert to participate? Place beginner-level topics and a newcomer option on the homepage.
Do you want them to know the guidelines for participating? Then prominently display the guidelines.
Do you want them to know the latest news or most popular topics? If so, feature these prominently (Sonos does this well).
The problem is most platforms aren’t sure what they want people to know. Unable to decide they go with most of the above. Don’t do this.
If the call to action (CTA) is the single action you drive everyone to take, everything else tackles the emotion that gets them to take that action. Make a clear choice what emotion will drive the action you want. This should be linked to your online community’s strategy and where your community lies within the online community lifecycle.
What you want the audience to know will change over time.
Continuing our platform-themed week; a quick primer for those looking at costs of community platforms.
In theory, this means you begin at a low level (usually an estimate based upon existing traffic to your website) and gradually pay more as the community grows. In practice, you’re more likely to be transitioning from one platform to another and stay within a single pricing tier.
The objective of tiers is to make the community affordable to more organizations but create a ‘lock in’ to the platform as your community (and presumably your investment in the community) grows.
For most external communities, the usage tier means the level of traffic (often unique visitors). For internal (employee) community platforms this is the number of registered users (usually a few dollars per user per monthly). Though some platforms (HigherLogic/Salesforce) use different structures.
The usage tiers for a typical external community (let’s imagine, 1m visitors per year) begin at around $1k per year for reduced-featured (forum-based) platforms (Discourse/Vanilla) and rise to $100k+ per year for a similar tier at a full-fledged enterprise platform (Lithium, Jive, Insided).
You can use the slider of the community platform comparison tool to see which platforms become available at which pricing level (see below).
You will notice at 1m visitors per year (833k visitors per month) anything below $50k per year will leave you with one of the smaller community enterprise platform vendors. These come with their own pros (more responsive to customer requests – especially key accounts) and cons (less development resources, fewer features etc…).
The Risk of Multi-Year Contracts And Importance Of Being On The Right Tier
As most enterprise platforms request a 1 to 3 year contract, it’s important to be placed in the right traffic tier at the beginning.
You can always move up (this is why the tier structure exists) but not many platforms let you move down if you’re attracting less traffic than predicted. One prospect recently signed a six-figure multi-year contract with an enterprise platform at a tier which was far too high for them. This can be a very costly mistake to make.
Some platform vendors will talk up the potential of your community and absolute reach to put you on a higher tier. It’s inspiring talk, but it’s better to be conservative here.
Estimate 10% of your current web traffic (at most) if it’s behind a community tab.
If you’re signing a multi-year contract you should usually request some sort of discount. Lithium has given 66% discounts on long-term contracts, other platforms have been known to negotiate aggressively to lock customers into multi-year deals.
In addition to the license, a few platform vendors charge for additional usage. Lithium charges for API calls above 10m per year (an API call is a request to their server via an application), Jive charges for high video usage etc…
The pricing tier is a license to use the community platform for a given duration of time and for specific uses. If this is all you pay for, you will get a barebones platform with limited design or customization. In addition to the pricing tier, you also need to customize the design, integrate the community into any existing systems (CRM/single sign on etc…) and add any additional functionality too.
This usually requires paying an additional setup fee to either the platform vendor or implementation partners. Companies like Grazziti and 7Summits specialize in these implementations. Most vendors will have a recommended list of implementation partners. Make sure you check the financial relationship between these partners and vendors (money often exchanges hands to get referrals).
Implementation costs vary wildly. At the lower end, a typical enterprise platform integration will begin at around $15k. At the upper end this may cost $500k+. This depends very much upon the complexity of the integration and design requirements. Migrating data from one platform to another especially can be expensive. A recent client recently invested a high six-figure sum on data migration.
Be aware that during the implementation time, you’re still paying for the license. Any time wasted here costs you money. Line up the implementation partner and your set of requirements before signing the contract. We’ve seen many people get stung here.
Some vendors will require you to use them for the implementation – at least part of the installation and require a one-time setup fee to help you get started. This is usually in the mid five-figure range.
Additional Charges and Paid Modules
If you wish to use the community for specific purposes (gamification, collecting and storing knowledge, generating ideas, or deploy specific security requirements, hosting events, creating groups) you may have to pay for additional modules to be added to your community.
This is essentially pre-written software which can be lightly adapted or switched on for any client community. At the enterprise level, these cost between $20k to $75k each (this can become expensive quickly) at the lower end HigherLogic offer basic modules for $1.5k each. You may be able to negotiate having these modules included as part of a multi-year package.
It’s worth nothing you shouldn’t sign up for any module you might use. Only those you definitely will use. No platform vendor will refuse to let you buy a new module if you decide you need it later. You can be conservative here and add more modules when you need them.
Note that these modules too are on a license to you for a specific time (usually a year). They are not usually one-time additions. This adds to the total annual cost of the community. In some cases, the additional modules can exceed the license fee itself.
Training, Support, and Consultancy Costs
Most vendors include training and support costs within the license fee. Some will offer premium support or higher levels of training at additional cost, but these usually cover how to use the platform (which they should teach you to do anyway) rather than how to build a community instead (I’d recommend our courses instead here).
A few will include an additional 10 to 20 hours of consultancy time to get your community started. This often isn’t negotiable and tends to be billed at $100 to $200 per hour. You should not be paying more than $20k.
External Consultancy And Other Costs
When beginning the process of picking a platform, be aware of the total cost of the community. This includes not just the cost of additional modules and support, but also the cost of any additional changes later on. Anything you ask for which is not included within your contract will be billed at a $150+ per hour level.
In addition, be aware of your own time. It’s tempting to pick cheaper vendors or developers to help you launch the technology, but if you’re spending half your time every week on the process this costs escalates quickly.
If the risk of a mistake is high or your time to manage the project is limited, you can retain support from community consultants (including ourselves) in this space who have experience guiding clients through the process and developing platforms.
I can’t speak for other consultants, but our costs tend to range from $20k to $100k+ for more complex projects
(around $40k to $50k is feels more common).
Be Aware Of The Total Costs
The total cost of a community is usually higher than you imagine. At the lower end of enterprise platform, $20k would be a good bargain. At the higher end you could easily spend seven-figure sums – especially if large migrations are required. Ensure you have a contingency budget in place for additional changes after the platform is live.