Enticing a community's members to return and breathing life back into a community isn't easy. The challenges are different from building engagement in a new community. Fortunately, there are a lot of strategies you can employ. In this piece, the third of a three-part series, we'll look at some of the work you might need to do when switching vendor platforms, or when you run into more complex people or technical issues.
In our first piece, we looked at how analytics can help you determine the health of your community. Tools like Igloo's Health Check enable you to determine how your community is doing today, and over time. It helps you figure out which parts of your community are growing, holding steady, or declining. And it assists in understanding what the metrics mean for actual community engagement, like intranet activity as compared to corporate website activity.
In our second piece, we looked at some concrete actions the community manager or team can take to begin revitalizing an existing community that may have gotten a bit stagnant, or which may be holding steady and could just use a boost to help it continue to grow and thrive.
In this piece, we'll look at things you need to consider when selecting a vendor platform, either initially or when switching. We'll look at issues that can arise if those considerations aren't explored. And we'll address what to do if you run into more complex people or technical issues.
Find out the real story
When you start talking to community members you may not learn what you were expecting. The problems may come from different or more complex sources than you thought. It could be that people actually aren't clear on how things work, so you need better (re)training. It could be that that UI you're so used to is confusing to others. Everyone is a newbie once. Or it could be that the platform itself has technical issues for average users that for whatever reason were not raised to your attention.
You can't very well sell the community's benefits when the platform itself is "broken" in some way. Research these issues when you learn of them. Get corroborating stories from other community members. Check the analytics to determine actual usage for those features. Find out what the community's real needs and expectations are that aren't being met. Then make a plan to act.
If the work is going to be time-consuming or expensive, management may balk. After all, they already invested in the platform, training, and resources to manage it. So be prepared to show why the work is necessary, what benefits it will bring, and, perhaps most importantly, why the risk of these problems wasn't identified and dealt with before or when the community was first launched.
Plan against surprises
Here is another opportunity where data is important. Ideally when the community manager or team comes to a crossroads where efforts simply aren't yielding results, you will have two sets of information to help understand what's wrong. There is anecdotal commentary from community members about what the community's issues are, as well as reporting from the analytics to back up (or contradict) what they say.
Use the reports to show how engagement has declined over time. Combine users' anecdotal comments about what was hard to use or didn't fit their teams' needs with the actual registration, login, and participation data. Show the steps you took and campaigns you ran to revitalize interest and activity, and what the effects were, and for how long.
At this point, you'll be the community's most engaged member, so you'll already have a pretty good picture in your head of the sources of issues. However, the combined member information and data will give you clear evidence and direction about what hasn't worked and needs to be fixed, or what can't be fixed with your current platform.
Even if the team involved in launching the community did everything right, the issue may simply be that it has grown and evolved over time and needs have changed. Sometimes these needs may be minimal, sometimes considerable. Members may know how to use the features, but just don't need those features now. Technology is always changing and improving. Make sure that the changes are to your benefit. This is a great reason why a modular community platform like Igloo is a good idea, enabling you to easily turn on/off the features you need.
While this series is about revitalizing an established and struggling community, the possibilities of what could make it fail entirely are something you need to think hard about and plan for during the community needs assessment and platform selection process, well before the community is launched.
You don't want to learn that the platform won't meet your needs after you've installed and launched something huge and complex... but inflexible. You'll end up right back where many companies do, adopting multiple SaaS solutions to try and fill the gaps. This expends a lot of time, money, people resources, and can cause security risks.
Getting from A to B... or C
So you've done the interviewing and researching. You've considered the options. You've even started thinking about making change. How do you get from where you are to (hopefully) where you want to be? Basically, there are three options:
- Invest further in your existing community with tools or campaigns to make the system better or just encourage members to use it more.
- Decide to replace your existing community and begin determining what your evolved needs are and what vendor platforms could meet them.
- Do nothing.
As discussed, by this point you should have a good idea of the source of issues with your community. This information should inform whether the next steps centre around tools, people, or something else. Some of the major considerations in what direction you'll take are:
- How much management support do you have for making changes? Are they inclined to assign more time, resources, or budget to fixing the community?
- How many administrative and project management resources do you have for making changes? If you have a community manager and team you're in a lot stronger position than if your "community manager" is someone with another role, just assigned to helping with the community on the side.
- Do alternative platforms or tools exist that are a good fit for what your community needs to improve it? And is the cost, implementation, and flexibility of those tools reasonable for your company size, project scope, and budget?
- How is your company doing otherwise? Is the failing community hurting business, morale, or growth? Or was it just a mild frustration and after abandoning it it's pretty much business as usual for folks?
- What are your company culture and politics like? Do people generally have a collaborative attitude? Are they amenable to change and embrace new ways of doing things, or fight it every step of the way?
Honestly answering these questions with the information you have collected will help you decide whether your community's future involves renovations, replacement, or obsolescence.
So, what's next?
If you're feeling bold, have support, and the issue is that there is no longer a good fit between your community and its platform, be ready with replacement platform recommendations as part of your plan. Again, be prepared to explain why this one really, truly will meet the community's needs in ways the other one didn't. As the expert on your community, you'll know the most about who uses it and what they need it for. However, an outside perspective can be valuable, and it's not an undertaking you have to make alone.
Check if vendors offer an in-depth "try before you buy" period. Many vendors offer 30-day trials, but that might not be enough time to get a feel for a platform: everyone in your office is busy. Learning how to use and configure a platform, and then inviting others to do the same, takes time. Ask vendors if they have alternatives to get a feel for how a real-world implementation will work. For example, at Igloo Software we offer Proof-of-Concept implementations in addition to free communities.
Explore what services and customizations are available from vendors. Some require you find a third-party for implementation. Igloo has an in-house services team available to consult on your project to make sure things go smoothly, as well as providing design and implementation. And we've worked with communities in a wide variety of industries and geographies, so we can offer options to consider and ideas to help.
Plan to evolve
Plan for a "phase 2" review of the platform's performance, the community's activity and engagement level, and budget to address issues that are found. Spread the cultural understanding that community building is an ongoing project and process, and includes the platform as much as the members. When phase 2 takes place depends on how long the community's been active, when teams were onboarded, and when decline began. Could be a year from launch, could be five. (Often smaller companies evolve more quickly than large ones.)
Planning for evolution means that management and the community members won't be expecting launching the community to be a one-time project. The community will be run from a more scientific perspective, with results to be tested and plans adapted over time. This way there won't be any impression of community manager failure or an expensive and unpleasant surprise for management.
Once you have gotten buy-in for phase 2 and have upgraded the community, go back to the small project or campaign step outlined in part 2. Pick a team that was helpful in assisting you in identifying the issues, demonstrate what you did with their feedback, express your eternal gratitude, and then ask them to help you prove how good the improvements are.
Keep breathing, keep moving
Revitalizing established communities isn't easy. The source of the issues could be purely people-centric, purely technical, or simply reflect a changing company, but most likely it's a combination of those factors. If the community is seen as a one-time project, you can't always foresee what you're going to need in the future when you're busy attending to what's needed now.
Fortunately, community managers and teams aren't alone. There are people who helped you successfully launch the community and make the platform the best fit for your organization. There are external resources like Igloo's services team. There are people who will happily tell you what could be better. And there are successes you can show off to convince people to re-engage (and create new successes).
Start with good data and an open mind and think of the work of revitalizing the community as part of an evolution, and before long you'll find that other people have adopted that perspective and re-engaged, too.
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