How can you build a really engaged online community around your business and what challenges are online communities going to face in 2016? We caught up with Richard Millington who is founder of FeverBee to get some advice on developing a more engaged community.
Listen to the interview on iTunes, SoundCloud or keep reading for a summary. And here’s a link to the Best UK Digital Agencies on Instagram and Messenger’s 800 million users as mentioned at the start of the show.
Tell us about FeverBee and what you do there?
So what FeverBee does is take a lot of complicated psychology out there, a lot of sociology, a lot of proven science about how to build online communities, how to increase engagement, and distill that into simple lessons that we use for our clients, for our audience, for the people that attend our events and things like that. What we’ve been trying to do for the last maybe three to five years, I think, is figure out what are the proven, battle-tested ways to increase engagement. So what do people respond to at a deep, psychological need, and how do we introduce that within the engagement programs that organisations are working with.
And what my role is there is, besides running the business, is to try and figure out what’s on the cutting edge of this. What’s going to be working tomorrow, and what actually works, because there’s so much material out there today about what people think works, or maybe an anecdotal story from one sector, from say video gaming, and will that work for clients in the banking sector. So I’ve got to try and figure out what works and what doesn’t, and how we do that in a scientific way and how we do that in a way that’s actually useful to the people that we’re trying to help, which is the practitioners that are trying to get more engagement for their online communities, or their collaboration efforts, or their knowledge sharing efforts, or getting their customers to support them and give them great ideas. So that’s what we’ve been doing for a few years now. It’s been interesting and it’s a lot of fun to do.
What challenges do communities face in 2016?
So we’ve been tracking this space for a long, long time, and I think what we’ve seen for the last, maybe 10 years or so, is that for a lot of communities, the level of growth and the level of activity has gone up and up and up, and there are many reasons why that has happened. One of them is that there have been more people online than ever. The Internet speeds are getting higher and higher. People are spending more time on the Internet, which has been fantastic, but now we’re seeing a couple of things beginning to occur. One is that this endless supply of new people to join communities is coming to an end, and unless you’re willing to increase your audience to different languages or different sectors entirely, we’re dealing with a plateau there.
Two, is that there’s more competition for limited attention. There simply aren’t enough people to participate in all these communities that we create today, and the failure rate, especially by communities that are created by brands, by organisations, is getting so amazingly high. You can search for this. You can search for organisations that have announced they’re launching an online community. You can use those exact words. And then you can do what we did, start clicking on every one of these results and seeing does that community still exist? And what you’ll find, overwhelmingly, is that these communities either don’t exist or the level of activity is pretty much nil. So that’s a big challenge that we have to face.
— Sotrender (@sotrender) November 12, 2015
And I think the third one is the value of the work that we do. Whether you work in social media or online communities, and I think I’m preaching to the choir here, one of the biggest challenges, and we’re not the only ones; people that work in PR and other sectors as well have the same challenge, but how do we prove the value? I think part of it is that online communities as an industry, I don’t think it really exists. I think we need to figure out what industry are we really in. So are we in the collaboration industry? Is our job to help people collaborate much better with one another? Are we in the customer retention industry? Are we in the customer loyalty industry? What industry are we in and how we do we move up the value chain, how do we move up to higher levels within that? Because I think if we focus just on online communities, it’s a very tiny, narrow approach to achieve our goal. What we need to look at is how it integrates with everything else that also achieves that goal.
A lot of people, for example, know the story of the postman or the iceman at the turn of the century. People used to pay a lot of money for people to bring them ice, so around the turn of the last century, people would take the saws and they would cut massive blocks of ice and then they’d transport it from house to house. But then what happened? Well then the refrigerator came along and put all those people out of business, because these people didn’t realise they weren’t in the ice business, they were in the cooling business, and there are other ways to do that. So I think we’re in kind of that same situation now, where I don’t think we’re in the online community business, I don’t think we’re in the social media business so much, I think we have to figure out what business each of us is really in and get really good at moving up the buyer chain within that, understanding the broader role within that and connecting it to those goals. So I think those are the three big things that we have to deal with right now.
You talk about visible engagement and valuable engagement. What do they both look like and what’s the difference?
So, I think what happened, maybe around 5, maybe 10 years ago that I noticed it, and maybe much longer before this, is that we began to notice that people that did engagement really, really well got a lot of clicks, they got posts, they got comments, and then later on they got likes, they got shares, they got retweets and things like that. And we looked at that and we thought, “Wow, that’s what a successful engagement program looks like.” So what happened is that we began thinking, “How do we optimise to get more clicks, to get more likes, to get more shares, and get as many comments as possible?” And what happened is that we began simplifying what we asked people to do. We began making our content, our updates as entertaining as they possibly could be. And the problem with that is that whilst this gets a lot more visible engagement, we can count the clicks, likes, shares, links, whatever, it doesn’t get more valuable engagement. It doesn’t get engagement that changes the level of behaviour over the long term. It doesn’t get the kind of engagement that’s going to solicit a decent level of contribution from me.
So a good a metaphor here would be: imagine that you decide to get fit. Imagine you had this great New Year’s resolution and you decided to get fit, you decided to join a gym. And you join the gym and you notice that a lot of people there are sweating a lot, and then you think, “Wow, I have to figure out how I have to sweat as much as possible.” And so then you, I don’t know, you might sit in a sweat lodge, you might wear more layers, and you might eat more spicy food, you might optimise everything you do to sweat as much possible. But that doesn’t get you any fitter. And I think we’re doing a similar thing in engagement right now, is that we’re optimising to get as many visible metrics as we possibly can, and what we’re not doing is thinking, “What is the valuable end result here?” And the valuable end result should always be, “How do I change the behaviour of the people I’m trying to reach over a long period of time?” So how do I change their behaviour, how do I get people to do something differently for a long period of time?
And if you think of most of the most engaging things, quotes, then what you’ll notice is that a lot of them didn’t really achieve much. I mean, if you look at say the ice bucket thing from a year ago. Okay, that got a lot of attention for a short amount of time, but it didn’t change the behavior of people in a fundamental way. If you look at some of the biggest campaigns that have happened over the last five years, you’ll notice they get a lot of attention for a short amount of time, and all of that has been a result of us chasing as much visible engagement as possible. So here’s another really simple example. Imagine if I am working internally within an organisation and it’s my job to get people to share more information with each other. If I’m chasing just that visible engagement: more clicks, likes, comments, or whatever, I might change the articles to be as entertaining as possible, I might put them in digestible chunks, I might try and simplify them and dumb them down as much as I possibly can, and if I do that really, really well, then more people will click it, like it, share it, whatever. But that doesn’t change their behaviour. That doesn’t make them more likely to share more articles in the future.
Visible engagement = making an article easier to share.
Valuable engagement = making people keen to share more articles.
— Richard Millington (@RichMillington) January 5, 2016
And what we want to be doing instead is doing deep engagement work, which is the kind of engagement work where if you have a challenge of getting people to share information, you begin by thinking, “Why aren’t they sharing information right now?” That means interviewing the people you’re trying to reach. Understand is it because they don’t know who to share information with, they don’t know what information, they don’t know how to share information, are there rivalries, and then begin stitching those relationships together: introduce them to the right people, building more of a sense of community among them. That’s doing deep engagement work that is less sexy, but lasts much, much longer than just chasing the visible metrics. Because one of the challenges we have is that a lot of people in the social media space are just jumping around from one engagement idea to the next, hoping that something is going to have a long-term impact, and that’s not how it works. What we need here is a method, a method that lasts over the long-term, so every day when you go to work, you know exactly what the next step of that process is, because it’s underlined by the psychology behind what drives engagement. So valuable engagement is about doing that long-term work.
And if you don’t mind me rambling on here just a bit longer, what we mean here is that the engagement that usually lasts for a long period of time, that changes the behaviour of the people that you are trying to reach, is usually when you increase someone’s skill, when you increase their autonomy, so they feel they can act more in line with their true beliefs and pursue their passions, and when they feel more related and more of a sense of belonging with other people. So what we want to be doing is stop chasing these show business engagement ideas where you’re trying to be as entertaining as possible, or more entertaining than the next person, and instead thinking, “With the audience I have, what is a challenge that I need to solve?” So why aren’t they doing what I want them to do at the moment? And it’s probably not because of a lack of entertainment. And instead think, “How do I increase their level of skill? How do I increase their level of autonomy, and how do I increase their sense of relatedness?” Because this has been shown over and over again to achieve the exact results that we want. So, this is what we’ve been trying to do recently, is get everyone to move away from these new, funny, silly ideas that come out every single day, and instead help people to do the real, deep engagement work, the engagement work that leads to long-term results that connects to the actual results that we’re trying to achieve in the first place, which is greater customer retention, loyalty, advocacy, knowledge sharing, more donations, whatever you want it to be. I hope that makes sense.
Does up-skilling your community members lead to more valuable engagement?
Yes, we do want people in a community, and it depends on the kind of community: if you’re building a community around fitness, for example, then the competence and the level of skill makes sense. Most B2B communities, they’re usually about increasing someone’s level of skill. So, if you look at the communities of say Wistia, Moz, or maybe on Unbounce as well, you join them and they are entirely focused upon increasing your level of skill. All the conversations that take place are about increasing your level of skill. That tends to be what B2B communities do. But that’s not the only one. If you look at say Mumsnet in the UK, that’s all about relatedness and belonging. It’s about finding a group of people just like you and being like, “This is for me, this is where I belong.” And then you have content and discussion that orientate around that.
And then you have a lot of communities that are about pursuing a passion or a unique belief, and those are those autonomous communities. So what we try to do, or what we try and help our clients do, is that when someone joins a community, they get a message from whoever is running that community, maybe the audience, maybe a volunteer or whatever, asking them about what their goals are, what they hope to achieve in that community, how do they feel they can contribute to that community, and then putting them on a path to achieving that. So that’s going to be a path where they get to increase their level of skill, where they learn new things, they can begin contributing to their group, and they gradually feel that skill is increasing more and more and more. If you go to, say, Bodybuilding.com, they’re very clever at that. Their profiles now are first you benchmark yourself when you begin, and then you benchmark yourself later on, and you can see the before and after pictures right there that show you how much you’ve improved, and that’s an incredibly great way of engaging people over the long-term, changing the behaviour of the people you’re trying to reach over the long-term, and getting real, valuable, meaningful engagement, stuff that’s going to really help you.
Tell us about micro skills for community managers?
What I’m talking about by micro skills is the gap between the people that are running these communities and knowing what they want to achieve. So, with the knowledge that we just talked about here, how do you actually put that into action? And one of the challenges we have is that people don’t have the skills to do it. So micro skills is a term from counselling, I think, where it meant you can’t be a psychologist, or you can’t counsel someone, you can’t help someone if you don’t have these core skills. And back then, it meant skills such as looking people in the eye, building a sense of empathy and rapport with them, asking questions the right way and having the right tone of voice. What we’re talking about in this context is slightly similar, which is most people who are doing social media, most people who are doing any kind of online community work whatsoever, need to spend a little bit more time working on the core skills they need.
So here’s an example. We were working with a client I think a year or so ago, and she was fantastic. She knew her stuff really, really well. And she sent a newsletter to the audience of people that she wanted to join the community, and it read something like, “The top 10 ways this community can help you achieve your goals.” But then if you were to look at the inbox and the emails that she personally ignored, it would be exactly the messages like that. So whilst she knew her stuff really, really well, she wasn’t able to take herself out of her current mindset and put herself into the mindset of the person that would be receiving the message, or even her own mindset: what kind of messages does she read, what kind of emails does she read? So what we need to be working on is how we develop these micro skills that let us achieve our goals.
By micro skills, I’m talking about things like how do you write persuasively? So for example, most job descriptions say that you must be a great communicator and have good written skills, but they don’t say what that means. Does that mean being able to write without making a mistake, or does it mean being able to write in a way that persuades people? And persuasion is a whole separate craft, and there are ways of doing that. There are ways of making things more visual.
If you look at what the top speech writers in the world do, they will begin with the context of what they want to say and then they will encode that message using certain cues, certain rhetoric, certain visual metaphors, that are going to get the audience at least to understand what they’re trying to say, to actually internalise that message. So it seems like being able to write in persuasive way, encoding your messages in a way that they actually get read, and there’s a lot of psychology behind that. It’s about being to interact with a stranger, someone you haven’t met online, and turn them into a friend. And that sounds really easy, but it’s really difficult when you get so many emails every single day and almost every person wants you to do something that helps them. And it’s going to be things like how do you display the right cues that you are a credible person to listen to.
Micro skills is what gets you from the strategy that we’ve just been talking about, which is increasing your audience’s sense of competence and their autonomy and a sense of belonging, to the end result, which is the collaboration, so how do you actually make that into action. And that’s going to involve having these skills at a very good level, because we are seeing so, so many organisations that have so many great community professionals as well, who really know their stuff, but when it comes time to execute the plan, despite having an amazing platform that they spent millions on, and despite having a great team behind them and a great product or service, they fall down because they simply can’t engage the people as a human would, they can’t empathise with the end person. So what we want to be doing, and one of the things we’ve been working on recently, is how do we get people to develop those micro skills.
And the last thing I’ll say about this is that that means going outside the field we’re in right now. If you read as many blogs as I do, if you read as many books as I do, you know that generally, it’s people talking about the same stuff over and over again. I think for this field to advance, for us to get much better, we need to go outside of that field. We need to bring in skills from speech writing and psychology, copywriting, and other fields that are like that, and bring them into this profession, because I think that’s the way that we achieve results. I think that’s the way that we will move forward, and I think that’s the way the organisations get as much value from us as they possibly can.
How can you spot valuable engagement? What does it look like?
So that’s the big challenge, right? And what we’ve seen over the years is that a lot of companies, Dell, Nokia, Best Buy, and many, many more, have these wildly successful online engagement efforts, they have these social media command centres with a row of screens, they had the whole “24” Jack Bauer fantasy thing that was going on, but their share price didn’t change. They weren’t selling more of the products, and they weren’t keeping the customers that they had. So was that a successful thing or not? What valuable engagement looks like is whatever your end result is. So it’s the hardest thing in the world. This is one of the reasons why we go for visible engagement instead of valuable engagement, because valuable engagement is much harder to see, because it’s mental. It takes place in the human mind. You have internalised new ideas, you’ve been persuaded, your habits have changed.
So we tend to measure the end result here, and it’s a very complicated thing to do, and I can share a document in the show notes if that helps, but what we try to do is that if the end goal is to increase customer retention, then we measure that. If the end goal is to get your customers buying more, you can measure that. If your end goal is to improve collaboration, then there are ways of measuring that by reduced duplication of work, productivity ratios. If the end goal is knowledge sharing, then you can measure, not just the quantity, but the quality of the knowledge that’s shared. Did you achieve your goals more than what you used to? There are ways that you can measure this, and sometimes it’s tempting to use correlation, and you can do tests. So, for example, let’s say you have a group of customers and you divide them into two categories. One category you do your engagement efforts with, and the other you don’t, then you can track whatever you want to achieve. Do they buy more? Do they recommend you more? You can track these things by doing a withholding test. There are different ways you can do that, but it’s about going to the end result and not chasing those visible engagements anymore, because that just puts you in the show business sector, and we don’t want to be that.
What are some of the community examples that inspire you?
So something I’ve mentioned already. The Bodybuilding.com site is really good. It’s kind of old fashioned, but it’s great. Let me think. Wistia and Moz, and Unbounce as well, their communities are really good at not just focusing upon the customer service, but actually providing a place where you can learn more about that field. If you want to learn more about video marketing, Wistia is probably the best place to go. If you want to learn about search, then Moz might be the best place to go. If you want to learn about the inbound marketing, then Inbound.org is probably the place to go at the moment. They have created a community based around increasing the competence of people that live there. The Fitbit community is really good as well, and my friend runs that. She’s done an incredible job of having not just a customer service space, but also a community that’s going to help people live very healthy lives, so I recommend you check that out. Mumsnet has always been fantastic. I also like what my colleague Sarah Hawk has been doing with our own online community. So if you go to Experts.FeverBee.com, you can check out what we’re doing here. So, if you join, you get a message from us, asking you your kind of goals and things like that, and then you get put on the right path to success, or at least increased engagement is going to help you as a result of that.
I’m trying to think who else is doing this, but I think those are the ones that immediately spring to mind. But at the moment, there are so many amazing people. Then there’s a lot of people in the association space as well. If you look at companies like Higher Logic, Socious, ASAE, which is the Association for Associations, you can find these people that have spent years and years and years refining how they engage people in a meaningful way that keeps them actively participating, that achieves the big results that they set out to achieve. And then there’s a lot of communities in the advocacy space hat are doing great things as well. Greenpeace with their Greenwire community is really, really good, the Truth Initiative in the USA, is good. There’s a lot of organisations out there that do incredible work.
Why do I unsubscribe and leave communities like Moz?
Well, you know what it is? With any type of online community, you can’t keep every single member, and one of the biggest challenges that people have, especially if you’re running a community, is to do it in a data-driven way. So, I know with Moz, and I don’t know the other two so much, but Moz, if they’re sending you more messages than you would like, you can tell them and they will respond, but ultimately, they will make a decision based upon what the data says. Not what 1 person says, not what 10 people say, they will think, “Is sending out this many messages getting us as much engagement as we possibly can, and is that the right kind of engagement?” And I know their team far too well. And I think there’s always going to be a situation where you can’t please everyone, where sending out too many messages is going to drive someone like you away, and that’s a shame, but at the same time, it might be bringing a lot of other people back into it, it might be keeping them more engaged, and there’s always a trade-off in every single thing you do.
So I know, for example, in our community, we send people a message when they join, and some people are like, “Whoa, why are you asking me what do I want to achieve here? This is really spammy. I’m going to quit.” And that happens. We’re like, “All right, maybe this person wasn’t the right person to join the community, or maybe this just doesn’t work.” We can’t keep every single person. So I definitely don’t speak for Moz, but I imagine that’s what they’re doing. On the other, perhaps they’re not and they’re sending out too many messages and you need to get in touch with them and find out why. And the Inbound.org community, I don’t know them as well, but what I see on their website is that they’re getting very good at being a place you go to to figure out how to do marketing at that sort of level. And I like that kind of design of the website, the up-voting Reddit-style site. I think that’s taken over a lot of platforms at the moment, and it’s a very interesting kind of platform to watch.
What’s the next big thing that’s going to happen in this space?
I would predict, and I hate doing this because I’m always wrong, I would predict that there will be a new, big platform that comes along and everyone says that you should join it. There will be, I don’t know, a new Pinterest, or Google+, or whatever. But here’s the interesting thing about all of these platforms: what happens is that, and this is what I remember doing communities 10, 15 years ago, is that back then you had just one platform, it was a forum or whatever, and that was it, that was all you had. So you spent all your time on this one platform, making it as good as it can possibly be, and you usually did a really great job. Then came Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Google+, Pinterest, Foursquare, and all of a sudden, all these people came along and said, “You need to be on all these platforms.” And what happened is that we began driving our audience to every one of these, we began separating them, we began dividing them, and at the same time, we increased the amount of work we had to do significantly, whilst dispersing the engagement across all these channels. So I’m going to predict, in the short-term, there will be a big, new thing, and that will get all the attention, but won’t really change much overall.
What I do think will happen, and I don’t know how quickly it will happen, is online communities as a profession begins to die out. I think what will happen is that it will be assumed within broader roles. What we’ve noticed, and we’ve been tracking this on LinkedIn for a long time, how many people list themselves as a community manager and online community manager, and last year, for the first year ever, that number went down. There are less community managers today than there were a year ago. I don’t know about social media so much. I assume that’s still going in the right direction for now. But I think what’s going to happen is that this is going to change. And also what’s really interesting is what these people move into. They’re still doing online community work, but they’re doing it either as part of a broader thing or in a related role, they’re doing it in a slightly different space, and that’s really, really interesting. So what I think is going to happen is that we need to evolve with them. We need to start acquiring a broader set of skills. We need to start understanding the psychology behind why these online communities work, and then we need to begin implementing it, and we need to get very competent and very good at understanding how to convince our own organisations.
So here’s an example: if you read any article about how to gain internal buy-in and how to persuade your boss or anything along those lines, the article will be entirely focused upon facts. It will be entirely focused about, “this is the information that you should give your boss, these are the metrics that matter most,” but if you talk to any psychologist at all, they will tell you that facts are the worst way to persuade anybody of anything, and that emotions matter far more than facts. So, it’s things like that that we need to start getting good at and start mastering that, and how do we deploy that when we’re trying to talk to a boss, what are their emotional appeals, what are they worried about at a deep level? So I think that’s going to be a challenge that we’re going to have to overcome as we move up in these roles.