In this opinion piece, co-Founder of community management conference Swarm, Venessa Paech (pictured below), offers some top tips to ensure your online community doesn’t go running for the hills…
Once, when I was managing a significant global community, our search functionality broke. Members could still come and go, interact as usual, but their ability to search for specific conversations or information was hobbled.
I sent out the alarm to the organisation, explaining that the core function of the platform had fallen over. The response surprised me: ‘Why do they need to search?’ ‘Surely this won’t have any impact on our site traffic or business?’
I was mortified. How could they miss the point so thoroughly?
Traffic (to the entire site) inevitably and quickly fell off a cliff, as the many lurkers who mined the community for helpful information couldn’t get what they needed, and community loyalists were frustrated they couldn’t add value, or easily continue existing conversations. Though the latter knew their way around, so were less reliant on search than newcomers, they were invested in the purpose of the community, which was to build knowledge and learn stuff. When they felt that was compromised, they weren’t happy (and they let us know).
Customer communities, subject matter communities, and communities of practice are knowledge communities first and foremost. That knowledge has to be harnessed and smartly managed to achieve successful maintenance and growth of that community. If your members can’t find the answer they need in the timeframe that they need it, they’ll leave, and your community health will suffer. These tips can help:
Optimise desired information
How many times have you searched for what you need in a community only to get quickly disappointed and head elsewhere? Make sure your community has relevant information that’s easily findable. Make best answers obvious. Invest in top-notch search functionality.
Parse off irrelevant content (archive, don’t delete), optimise names and titles, and don’t build gates or walls around the good stuff. And clean house: one of the most common reasons users turn away from customer communities is that information becomes less, not more, useful over time.
Raise barriers for reward
Social media systems prize different things to community – the focus tends to be on visible engagement rather than meaning-rich engagement. Don’t hand out superficial badges, bells and whistles for tasks that aren’t driving the core value of the community. Match rewards to the personal investment in the action taken.
Recognise the right things
It’s not uncommon for community managers to reach out and personally thank new members for their first contribution, or answer questions asked. That can help create a lovely first impression, but a better use of time is to acknowledge a member’s first detailed, helpful response to another member. If you want to nurture advocates, involve them in discussions of value: what do they actually want out of the experience?
Audit member behaviour
As well as your standard community reporting on community health and ROI, ensure you look at behavioural patterns in relation to the informational goals of the community.
Consider ways you can summarise and aggregate helpful information, based on actual user preferences and behaviour, not just what you want to do with your website or infrastructure.
Encourage off-topic chatter
If you’re too militant in prosecuting on-topic discussion, you’ll kill user engagement. Even in very transactional communities, it’s the human exchanges that drive stickiness over time.
Promote self-disclosure and build trust by allowing casual conversations based on personal interests (just make sure these are separated navigationally from key information visitors are seeking).
Offer an escape hatch
Customer communities can reduce call volumes and positively impact customer experience, but they’re not the right solution for everything. It’s frustrating as one of those customers if you feel you’re being railroaded into forums to have other customers solve your problems, without any ‘official’ recourse.
It pays to create an escape hatch (like a phone number or an email) for people who can’t find what they need or are in a state that isn’t compatible with community engagement. This offers relief for that person, and protects the community from unconstructive engagement.
Customer communities can be strong assets for an organisation, but to truly succeed, their owners must recognise that they’re embarking on a knowledge management journey.