Published: Wednesday 6th of April 2016

According to recent research by Microsoft, humans’ attention spans have dropped from 12 seconds to eight, largely as a result of our increasingly “digitalized lifestyles”. If you’ve never pondered what this may mean for your community platform, consider this: you only have eight seconds to prove to prospective members that your community is worthy of their attention and contribution.

If you’re not working ruthlessly to optimize the design of the product your community lives on, you could be adding hours, days, even weeks of extra work to your plate. And you may be working in vain, trying to engage members on a site that is unfriendly and unwelcoming to them. No matter how amazing you may be, community builder, your community platform may be holding you back. But how do you know if that’s the case?

Amanda Swan, community manager at Optimizely, knows how to spot a community platform plateau and get it right back on track.

When the Optimizely team launched the Optiverse community in 2014, they did so with a clear goal in mind: connect the members of a blossoming profession in an online community space. The team had seen early success and had created a strong business case for a community. But, after a year of collecting data, performing user interviews, and looking a heatmaps, they noticed that the community platform was not delivering on its full potential. They decided to do something about it: they would re-design their community platform.

Armed with that data, Amanda and her team set about overhauling the user experience of their community, knowledge base, and academy.

The results — after just three short months with the redesigned community — speak for themselves. Here is a small snapshot of the re-design’s impact:

  • Their members’ time on the site increased by 103%
  • Their completed registrations jumped 190%
  • Their member log-ins rose 117%

Maybe you, too, have noticed that your community engagement has plateaued, members are churning, or that your community growth has stalled. If that’s the case, your community’s design may be the answer to getting back on track.

Want to know how to get started? Amanda Swan can help you pave the way.

1. Gather Your Stakeholders and Set KPIs

As community pros, we know inherently that we can do more together than we can do alone. But not everyone around this is as privy to that reality. We often face internal company siloes and roadblocks that can feel insurmountable. Without internal support, a community re-design is nearly impossible to accomplish. That’s why finding your community stakeholders is the first key to success in any platform re-design.

“Start simple and make sure you get the right people in the room right off the bat,” advises Amanda. “You want the people who actually have a stake in the project to help you set the goals.”

Which stakeholders did Amanda gather for the Optimizely community redesign?

  • Her manager, the Head of Customer Marketing
  • The Customer Education team (who owned two parts of the community site: the Knowledge Base and the Academy)
  • Optiverse Subject Matter Experts: included one account manager, an onboarding manager, an SEO specialist, a lead designer, and representatives from customer success and customer support

This is also when they brought in an outside development agency, Roboboogie, since their in-house development resources were constrained.

Together, they outlined the main KPIs (focused around support and engagement), which were:

  • Increase in overall site engagement by [x]% in [y] months
  • Increase user participation in community discussions by x% in [y] months
  • Increase contributor participation in community discussions by x% in [y] months
  • Increase discussion shares to social media by x% in [y] months
  • Decrease in support tickets by x% in [y] months

Note: these goals were concrete with a clear date for measurement (SMART goals), but that information is proprietary.

If you’re working on a much smaller team or for a small business, this can still work for you. Who can you bring on to help you set goals and get clarity? What concrete goals can you set for yourself for the re-design or re-launch of your product?

2. Do Your User Research and Testing

After the project kickoff, Amanda began another round of user research and testing. This is an essential part of any community platform launch process, and yet many people skip it and launch community strategies with false assumptions about what their members may want.

“Do your research. You need information to move to the design phase. We had a year of data to look back on from the prior design, so that helped. But even if you were doing this from scratch, you should look at peer sites, talk to people about what works,” says Amanda.

Understanding how to optimize the members’ experiences starts with gathering data. “We went through six different iterations of how to get people to post in the community more easily. And that was just with one test,” she explains. There are many tools available to measure community actions (perhaps even the tools provided by your community platform provider), but Amanda was lucky: Optimizely is made for this. They used the Optimizely product to run A/B tests in combination with user testing to analyze and explain the data they gathered.

Amanda conducted all the user testing, teaching herself how to run these tests and interviews. She used UserTesting.com and conducted interviews with power users and engaged customers who had yet to invest in the community.

She suggests employing the 5 why’s approach here: “You get a superficial answer from people and then you dig deeper by continuing to ask ‘why’.”

Don't Forget User Testing

3. Craft Your Compass: The Strategy Brief

Most new community professionals have likely never worked with a product designer before and have little to no experience writing strategy briefs. But if you’ve been in your role for a while or are focused on moving up the career ladder, it’s time to get familiar with the strategy brief. In times of change, strategy briefs serve as your compass. They tell you where you’re going and give you concrete milestones to work towards.

“You have to create a clear document: What is your vision? What is the mission? What are your KPIs? What are the no-break behaviors? This is the ‘source of truth’ for you to come back to every step of the way,” says Amanda. For her team, “having that brief was the single most crucial element of the whole project. It gives you something to be able to come back to and say, ‘Here’s how we know we are accomplishing our goals.’ ”

Amanda shared with us the exact components of their strategy brief here, in their table of contents:

Strategy Brief Table of Contents

The strategy brief also gives you a central place to “house” your community’s mission and vision (or the particular mission and vision you’re pushing forward as you make strategy changes) as well as the experience you hope to create for members:

Vision and Mission of Community

4. Organize Weekly Internal Check-In’s

After the initial kickoff meeting with the team, the internal stakeholders met weekly to check in on the re-design’s status: “We updated each other on what we were doing and what we were changing. We kept communication really open and kept feedback moving along throughout the process.”

Some of their efforts involved deep data dives, whiteboarding sessions, and charting ideal paths in the customer lifecycle where the community could be most helpful.

“We used wireframes, did weekly ‘thinks,’ looped in customers every week. The whole time we were coming up with new designs, we’d spin them up as proof of concept, then would bring that back to customers, internal, etc.”

And while this definitely did take a lot of time and planning, it “shortened the entire timespan of the project,” says Amanda. “Worse-case scenario you’ve fallen behind a week, not a month or more. Rather than designing everything, it allowed us to move fast and not waste time.”

5. Loop in Customers Regularly

At the same time that Amanda kicked off the project internally, she kicked off the project with a handful of external power users, who she kept in the loop throughout the re-design.

“We elicited feedback just at the major milestones, not at every turn. With small things, it was more ad hoc. Feedback came through informal e-mails and surveys, phone calls, and one-to-many type sends through Influitive.”

“Just make sure your community is up to speed,” she advises. You want to avoid surprises and help members feel “bought in” to the changes as they happen.

Meeting

If You Don’t Know Where to Start, Start Testing

This community re-launch took meticulous planning and communication with other departments, but all the hard work paid off. They tripled their new membership and, most significantly, doubled their members’ time in the community. With data in hand, they’re now able to test engagement tactics without the burden of having a platform that holds them back. In the coming months, with a more effective platform, Amanda will also work to prove the value of engaged members just like other community pros like Erica Kuhl at Salesforce.

We’ve already seen correlations that people who view the Optiverse and engage in the Optiverse have higher expansion numbers, adoption numbers, and retention numbers. The more we can engage them there, the more they increase their lifetime value.

While all of us might not have the internal buy-in that Amanda had, she urges community professionals to start with data and show value with concrete numbers. That’s where buy-in begins.

“There are a million things you can be testing. Just start now. I can promise you that you will have an enlightening moment.” Tools like Optimizely, Google Analytics, Salesforce, Hubspot, UserTesting, and so forth should become your allies in your work, so you can prove the efficacy of all the actions you take to engage your members.

You can get so blindsided as a community manager. You need to look at your work through members’ eyes. You get to be the CEO of your community of people,” she says. While that’s a gift, that also means you have the responsibility to give them something of real value, in a space designed to meet their needs.

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Carrie Melissa Jones

Carrie Melissa Jones | @caremjo

Carrie is the COO and Founding Partner of CMX. She has built community at Chegg and Scribd and has consulted with community companies around the world. She lives in Seattle, WA with her pup, Bruce Wayne.