The early stages of creating a community are full of anxiety. Building anything online isn't easy, after all. But the real danger is acting on that anxiety when it comes to messaging and growing your space. In the blink of an eye, the most informed and prepared leaders can become reactionary and lose control of the community flow.
General Start Up Anxiety
Will people sign up? Will people like what they see? Will people talk to each other? Will I be able to support them? Does my website work? How much should I charge?
Will people sign up? Will people get along? Why aren't people participating? Does anyone read my emails? People are going to leave unless I come up with a cool gimmick!
Community anxiety, at its core, is rooted in communication. Community is all about relationships. Being out of sync with your communication not only makes you feel uncomfortable, it can also lead to poor decision-making.
The Painful Overlap between Dating and Community Management
We've all been a part of a challenging text conversation at some point in time. Sending heartfelt and meaningful messages only to wait hours for a response. That empty feeling of the pit of your stomach is one that early-stage community founders know all too well.
After hours of creating and curating unique content, you hit publish. You take a break to change gears before coming back later in the day to check your stats. Ugh, those stats. What stats!? Maybe your website is down? Maybe the email was never sent? Did you send it to the wrong list?
Then the deeper questions begin. Was this the right thing? Maybe I made someone mad! I'll have to change it right away.
Blocking out time over the weekend, you make significant edits, change the title and rework the contents. Monday morning you press go, and within minutes you get a message. Yes! Then you open it to find a question from one of your members: Hey, what was that thing I saw you published the other week? It looked interesting but I can't find it anymore. As the cursor flashes on the screen, you slowly lower your forehead to the table and start banging it gently.
Isn't growing a community totally awesome!?
One of the fastest ways to make running a community super challenging is to ignore what your community is trying to tell you.
Creator x Community Disconnect
You have a disconnect between the pace of creation and the rate at which your community consumes it and acts upon it.
On the customer side, they are unable to locate materials you have published in the past. Every time you log in, there seems to be something new, and they can't find what they need. Topics and themes are constantly changing. Just when things are getting comfortable, a new challenge or contest pops up!
On the community manager/creative side, it's clear that no one appreciates your hard work. Posts go unliked. Messages go unanswered. There is low participation despite all the changes that you are making. It seems as though you have lost the deep connection with the people that you're doing your best to serve.
Relax. Three. It's not like you aren't meant for each other. It's just that you're out of sync with your communication. Here is how you can fix it.
Three Options for Starting with the Data
For a community manager / creator, building an efficient schedule is no small task. However, creating this schedule independently of your community is a fool's errand.
Don't set up a schedule that has you at the center of the universe. Instead, frame your plan around the behaviors of the community as evidenced by data.
Login Data: When do your members visit the community the most? You might have a weekly update plan for Monday. However, if folks only log in on Saturdays or the biggest days are Wednesdays, you will need to change your plan.
Email open rates: After a few weeks, you've seen messages that have succeeded and others that haven't. Glancing over the data, you see that Tuesdays are the optimal days for getting traction with emails. Particularly the 8 AM time slot. Instead of continuing to send your weekly summary emails on Friday, adjust your schedule to message people when they're most likely to open it.
New posts created: When are your members the most active inside the community? Using data from your platform, you can identify exactly when most people are likely to create new content. You can likely even see when people are most likely going to be replying. Leverage these times use these times as possible windows for putting messages on the site.
Use the data to strategically stay one step ahead of your membership consider two steps behind.
Advanced Data Actions
You can use data to go beyond simply managing your content schedule. This information is a resource for improving your approach to engagement.
Optimize Your Participation Timing
If your members are most likely to reply in the evening, block out time late afternoon or mid-day to put up your responses. This will allow them to see your contributions and that of others when they usually log in.
A/B Test Your Message Timing
if you've only ever sent something on Mondays, you don't have the context of how other days work. Planning ahead, schedule sending messages on other days of the week as well.
Do your best to keep the content roughly the same (different content will have different levels of engagement).
Try this for several weeks and then go back and review the data. Which messages had a better open rate? A better click-through rate?
Armed with that information, start messaging on that "winning day." Then you can begin to toggle the sending time to see if you can improve engagement even further.
How Your Local Gym Helps You Succeed
Granularity is not your friend when it comes to planning engagement. While some communities do move at a rapid pace, the majority are asynchronous.
An easy example of this is a gym membership. The gym is a community where people gather on a relatively regular schedule to partake in an activity that leads to self-improvement. Sometimes you collaborate, sometimes you commiserate, sometimes you do it alone.
Your gym has a schedule of hours and a schedule of classes. It has areas for different types of activities. These areas have different levels of usage according to (1) the day of the week and (2) the time of day.
You can imagine how confusing it will be for someone who uses the gym three times a week to find different messaging and different schedules every time they came to work out.
Yet, that's exactly what most of us do. Constantly changing our frequent messaging is disruptive to your community. It leads to confusion as members themselves cannot verify what is and is not happening.
Building a Schedule with Bigger Blocks
Instead of obsessing with frequency, set your goal to be consistent.
Then, using a month as an individual building block, set your theme. This theme should frame the majority of your discussions and actions inside the community.
With this theme established, you can break things down into a weekly flow. One example of an effective weekly flow is Inform, Inspire, Act, Review.
Inform: In this flow, the first phase is to educate community members about healthy weight loss.
Inspire: The second phase is to energize members around this topic. Offer prompts for them to consider, such as a challenge or five simple steps they can take to improve their eating habits. Then, encourage them as they create their own.
Act: Having your community put your ideas into action not only makes your information more relevant, it's what they signed up for! Set them free to do their best on their own or in small groups. Support them, and answer questions. See what works and what doesn't.
Review: Close out the month with a week of review. Recap with your members what worked and what didn't work. Where were they successful? What blocks did they encounter? What would they do differently next time? Closing the cycle of learning as a group is a powerful exercise and a cornerstone of this entire process of engagement.
Why Bigger is Better
Since every week has a different task, members who don't connect every day can still participate. Missing one day does not mean missing out on the entire opportunity.
More time allows others to jump on board and still be in control of their experience. A month is also a reasonable timeframe for people to participate. It's not too long, and it is still enough time to see some results and gain knowledge.
Review The Effects of Your Progress
Whether you are following my suggested "block" strategy for your community or still rolling your own, keep track of the changes you have made. Then, reconcile the changes with the outcomes inside your community.
Resist the short term! Refer to the data quarterly to see if the flow of activity and your new workflow are better synchronized.
Success means striking a balance between what's good for you and what sustains the community. It's a living process, so be patient, open to change, and focused on the long term.
You've got this!
Bonus Thoughts: Stuck at the Analytics Stage?
Some platforms like Circle have built-in analytics, while others may not. In the latter situation, you can use products like Outseta or Commsor to better understand the ebbs and flows of your membership. Again, remember to focus on total activity vs. identifying the least active and most active members. Your goal here is to try to identify a pattern.