Predictability is not predictable

13 11 2009

One important lesson I have learned as a community manager is that no online community is the same as another.

Sure we have learnings and teachings which we refer to as industry standards or ‘normal’ indications of community health – but depending on the audience, the topic, the platform – all are factors in making your community unique.

One community I manage has grown to be a star example of a fully functioning online community. It adheres almost perfectly to the 90-9-1 rule, has several recognisable top contributors, and members regularly communicated with each other. This community is a organically (and continually) growing,  self functioning community.

Another community has an audience of fierce brand advocates, but however they can become disengaged very easily. The members need fresh and new content, and techniques such as newsletters and EDM prove to be successful reminders and incentives for members to revisit the site. While they love leaving their suggestions and ideas, they prefer not to interact with other members, or comment on others ideas. This community has developed as more of a sounding board where members easily give their opinions and thoughts on the brand they love.

But what to do if your community content is difficult to engage with? Is every subject area suitable for discussion in a community atmosphere? This community had the common struggle of recruitment and retention with a perceivably dry subject area – but with the incentive of a prize (non monetary), the ideas poured in. While I’m usually against using incentives for eyeballs, as quality does tend to suffer  when a prize is thrown into the mix, the high standard of ideas didn’t suffer during the promotion.

What if a community is private, only accessible by customer’s – subsequently engagement and recruitment is more difficult than a public, searchable open community?

Comparing the health and success of these different communities is almost impossible and you must remember to take each community at a case by case basis and never assuming that each will mirror the other. You must set objectives for what you see as a successful community – that may be number of members, number of repeat visits, level of participation, time on site. Different incentive, different content, different audience, different brand = different community.

Even factors such as whether or not a community is company driven or only sponsored by a brand (Ruby Connection is a good example of this), or even if a community is based around a passionate subject matter (such as Essential Baby), will influence the size, rate of growth and ongoing success of an online community.

Empower your best contributors

30 10 2009

medalIn an online  community, your top contributors are your site’s godsend. Roll out the red carpet for them, recognise and reward them, make them feel as valuable as they are to your community and brand.

Especially in the early stages of your community, your top  contributors are loyal visitors who continue to comment and post ideas – even if your numbers are small. They talk to the community manager by name, and set the high standards that should be part of any online community – listening and responding.

Once you have an established and working community, these people become your star pupils. But keep in mind – if you make a mistake, or become slack – they will certainly pick you up on it!

Your top contributors answer members questions before you have a chance, and will defend your brand when need be. A response to a customer’s negative comment always looks much better coming from a loyal customer than a company representative with obvious bias!

You can empower your best contributors by:

  • Personally thanking them for the contributions and help.
  • Launching a ‘Top Contributors’ blog post – where you recognise their efforts. Woolworths Everyday Matters community has recently launched their second Hall of Fame (disclaimer: I currently help Woolworths with their community).
  • Assign badges which assigns a special status to your best contributors. This has been effectively done in sites like Tripadvisor, which assigns a number next to their screen name to indicate how many times they have left reviews on the site, or Hostel World which classifies their customers on how well-travelled they are – Novice Nomad, Avid Traveller and Globetrotter.
  • In larger communities or communities where comments aren’t pre-moderated, you can assign these members moderating privileges which allows them to flag inappropriate comments, or allow new comments through. Communities like Game Spot, and Small Business Online Community. Communities like Slashdot use a ‘karma’ system, which depends on how good/bad/neutral your contributions have been so far.
  • Ask them to guest blog for the site.

Remember to regularly research who your best contributors are, as there may be new members rising up the ranks – especially once they see how good it is to be a top contributor on your site!