What does it take to develop and maintain a truly engaged online community around your business? What challenges are communities facing? And what skills should community managers have? We had a chat 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.

About FeverBee and Richard’s Role:

What Feverbee do: 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.

Richard’s role: What my role is there is, besides running the business, is to try and figure out what’s on the cutting edge of this. 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.

The challenges that communities face in 2016:

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.

  • I think the third one is the value of the work that we do. Whether you work in social media or online communities, and 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 is visible engagement and valuable engagement?

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.

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.

The micro skills that community managers need:

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.

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.

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.

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.

How to spot valuable engagement:

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.

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?

The next big thing for online communities:

I would predict that there will be a new, big platform that comes along and everyone says that you should join it. 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. 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.


About Jörgen Sundberg

Founder of Undercover Recruiter & CEO at Link Humans, a social and digital marketing agency.

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