Community management lessons learned - Part 2

Since posting ‘Community management lessons learned – Part 1’ a couple of weeks ago, I’ve learned further important lessons that I’d like to articulate in this second post. Again, these are lessons I’ve learned with and from colleagues through our work to look after and run the National College’s online network.

1. Know your readers from your writers. Find out about where your members ‘spend’ their attention.

You know from the community itself what the hot topics are, don’t you? These are surely the discussions or questions that are attracting the most comments and contributions? So, to boost the growth of the community, you should generate or promote more activity on these topics, shouldn’t you? Or should you?

Does the volume of contributions tell you anything about the volume of attention your members are devoting to that topic? Well, it doesn’t necessarily.

We had an extreme example of this in the National College online network recently. There was one discussion we ran which, on the surface, looked as if it had completely bombed. It attracted fewer responses than any discussion we had initiated since the launch of the network in April. However, when we came to look at our Webtrends analytics at the end of the month, we were initially quite staggered to see that this discussion had received the highest number of page views of any discussion during July, a month in which we had some topics which really flew and attracted substantial contributions.

So the lessons here seem to be: pay real attention to what your members are reading. There’s no necessary connection between volume of contributions and volume of page views. Don’t go chasing contributions only. Generate and promote content and activity in those areas where you know your members will ‘spend’ their precious attention. Perhaps you need to experiment with different ways of turning readers into contributors when it comes to these topics.

The fact that we only really discovered the success of this low contributions / high page views discussion at the end of the month, as we prepared some of our monthly reports, perhaps suggests a further lesson:

2. Keep a constant eye on your analytics – it is a tool for growing and managing your community not reporting about it.

A simple, basic, important web lesson: knowledge about what your members are interested in and paying attention to is gold dust. In something as fluid and social as an online community, accessing that knowledge and acting upon it are vital. The life and rhythm of your community won’t follow the rhythms of your internal organisation or your measurement cycles. So, try to make time to keep an eye on the data about what your audience are doing as frequently as you can. This will give you the ability to promote and plan new activity and content at the right time, at a time when a topic is grabbing your members’ attention, not just at the time you’d set aside to plan new activity.

3. Be agile in your community management

When what you are running is about people and communication and behaviour and the internet, and particularly when you have a team running your community, it can be tempting to feel that you have to have a set of Policies and Strategies all fully worked out in advance for how you will work and respond consistently to various scenarios, both positive and negative. If you feel you have to decide everything in advance you stand a chance of expending energy on ideas which will be ineffectual when exposed to the social realities of your community. And you possibly don’t give yourself the opportunity to be responsive to the actual behaviour, motivations and interests of your members.

So what might agile community management look like in practice? It’s small cycles of action, review and iteration, not long cycles of Policies enacted regardless. Let’s take a simple example. You want to encourage your members to fill out their profiles as fully as possible, ideally with good profile pictures. An agile approach would be to select and prioritise three or four tactics for encouraging this behaviour and then to execute them in turn over a short period. Let’s say that over a three week period you will target every new contributor in a particular space with a direct message which encourages them to complete their profile. Put your weight behind the approach you are testing out. Do it thoroughly. Review it swiftly. Where has it made a difference? Be prepared to amend, adapt or dispense with each approach and in the process build the real, current, useful knowledge in your team about what is really working with your members.

Image CC BY Kimmo Räisänen