Interview: Richard Millington on Building Great Communities

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Interview: Richard Millington on Building Great Communities

A neighbourhood community

Communities are a critical part of many organizations. Building and fostering a community is not an easy endeavor — organizations have to take care to successfully integrate it into their business models. Today, I’m happy to be joined by Richard Millington, who has studied communities for several years and helped many organizations with theirs.

Richard is the Founder of FeverBee, a community consultancy, and The Pillar Summit, an exclusive community management training course.

Richard Millington

Elio: Thanks for accepting my invitation, Richard!

Richard: My pleasure.

Elio: Can you briefly explain what FeverBee is about? What made you start Feverbee in the first place?

Richard: FeverBee is all about using social science to solve social problems. It’s remarkable how many of the challenges we face when building communities, trying to collaborate better, share knowledge with one another, have their roots in social psychology, motivation, and habits.

What we try to do is distill an unwieldy amount of information into very practical steps that will help people build powerful communities and collaborate better with their staff or customers.

We’ve been doing this since 2008. Prior to that I had been managing communities in the video gaming sector for many years. After I graduated I did an internship with Seth Godin and learned a lot about how to build successful communities. Since then the company has grown through offering consulting to some of the world’s top organizations, training a generation of community professionals, and publishing books that help provide advice. We do a bunch of other things too, but this is a good summary for now.

Elio: I’ve noticed communities and contributors have gradually gained a bigger role in today’s business models. What’s the reason for this shift?

Richard: I think communities are a little overhyped at the moment. There are plenty of great examples of organizations building communities and succeeding. However there are far more examples of communities that tried to build a community and failed. Either they couldn’t get the concept right or they didn’t figure out how to get people to join and participate.

One of the natural problems here is the attention barrier. There are simply too many communities around today competing for a finite share of audience attention.

However, the community approach has worked extremely well for many organizations both internally and externally. This is partly the result of having much better technology than we used to. While forums were great, the tools we have now are far easier to use, more integrated, better designed, and more aligned with our habits. It’s also partly the result of social changes. The office cubicle isn’t as popular as it used to be. We expect to participate and collaborate more with one another.

We’re slowly getting better at having a clear use case for the community. We’re seeing fewer communities for people to chat about whatever they like to in the morning and far more communities where people visit for a particular purpose. That might be to get answers, to share ideas, build their reputations, etc…

The value when there is a clear use case is quite clear: organizations save money, they increase customer loyalty, and improve productivity.

But be careful of the hype. Not every organization should build a community and those that do are going to struggle in the war for attention at the moment.

Community values

Elio: Community Management is a rather broad term. What are some metrics you think are important when measuring community impact, as this is usually a difficult aspect to pin down?

Richard: This is a HUUUGGGEEE topic. I’ll try to simplify. Community ROI isn’t easy to measure but it always can be measured. If you can define it, you can measure it (to steal a quote from Michael Wu).

First, let’s distinguish between community health metrics and ROI metrics. They’re not the same and not as correlated as you might imagine. Health includes measures of activity, membership and sense of community. ROI is the money the business gets back from its investment.

Depending upon the data we have access to we either use database analysis, sampling techniques or surveys to identify.

Has the spending of members increased since joining the community MORE than the spending of non-joiners increased by the same period? If the average customer was spending $60 before and now spends $90, while a non member was spending $40 and is now spending $60, you can attribute a $10 difference ($30 members – $20 non-members) to the community. Multiply that by the number of active members and you have a figure you can use.

Has the community generated new business? Were leads identified through the community and has conversion rate increased? My friend Jenn at Moz knows that members whom perform {x} tasks are more likely to convert into customers. That’s relatively easy to track.

Has retention increased? Have the retention rates of members in the community improved by more than the retention rates of non-members since joining / not joining the community?

Call deflection. This is more relevant to customer service communities. You identify the cost per call (total cost of call staff + overheads / number of calls) and then see how many of those questions are answered in the community instead. Then check how many would have called a customer service line (survey) and whether they resolved the problem. This can get much more complicated than this, but you get the basic idea.

For topics like productivity and collaboration, people tend to measure all sorts of things. Reductions in email, self-reported cases of value, surveys of perceived value, etc. The ultimate measure, arguably, is employee productivity ratios. You divide the revenue by the number of employees. But so many things can influence this that it often becomes unpractical. A simple thing you could do is survey members to see how much time they spend looking for documents and then survey them later.

For non-profits, you’re looking more at satisfaction surveys and doing before/after with costs per satisfaction points. Again, a huge topic, but you can measure it.

The common mistake here is to compare members against non-members. Don’t do that. You’re just comparing your best customers against everyone else. It’s a huge sampling error.

Elio: What about critical mass? Most community managers struggle to reach it. What would be your best advice for someone trying to reach critical mass before a community does things on its own?

We’ve covered this topic in a lot of depth before. I’ll try to summarize here:

1) Start really small. Find the smallest possible niche who’s needs no-one else can be bothered to satisfy and absolutely dominate this niche. Gradually expand from there.

2) Build relationships before you launch the community. The biggest factor in getting a community off the ground is the number of pre-existing relationships you have. The more well known you are, the better. Follow the CHIP process here. Once you’ve built strong relationships with 50+ members of the target audience, then launch the community and invite people to join it.

3) Keep it really simple initially. Only have one area where people can participate and focus everything you’ve got on making that one area as incredible as it can possibly be. You really want this to be an amazing place for everyone to visit every day. Defy expectations, be twice as good as what they’re expecting… this is how people will grow and refer you.

4) Focus on inviting people, building relationships, and discussions. That’s it when you’re just getting off the ground. Narrow your focus to doing these 3 things incredibly well.

That should be enough to get going for now.

Elio: Then there is the question “What’s in for me?” that many community managers encounter in their community. After all, most community members dedicate their free time to something they do not get paid for. How would you suggest community managers handle these situations?

Richard: Well, I don’t think many people say that, it’s more about the associations we form about the community.

Are we giving a lot and not getting much back? We’ll associate the community with high effort and low reward and stop participating.

People don’t participate in communities for tangible rewards so we should absolutely avoid giving them. I’d kill most gamification that doesn’t use the variable reward principle.

Instead people will keep participating for a few reasons:

1) Mutual support. If the community helps members solve a problem better (and most importantly faster!) than elsewhere, people will visit when they have a problem to solve. The problem is people will only visit when they have a problem to solve.

2) Greater influence. If participating in the community affords members with greater influence, they will keep participating. If they feel they can build their reputation and impact their surroundings better as a result of participating, they will keep participating.

3) Sense of belonging. If you can nurture a strong sense of community, people keep coming back because they enjoy interacting with their peers. This is pretty powerful to do.

4) New ideas / exploration. If you can make the community a place where people share new ideas, people will visit every day because they don’t want to miss out. It helps people be better at the topic.

If you can provide at least one of these four REALLY well, you will solve the WIIFM problem.

Elio: Let’s talk a bit about your book “Buzzing Communities”. How was your idea to write a book on community management sparked?

Richard: There were already some great books about communities out there, but they came at the topic from the theoretical side or the sociological side. For example, they would discuss how communities should work or their impact upon society. Clay Shirky’s ”Here Comes Everybody” is probably a great example here.

I really wanted to write something from the most practical perspective possible. I wanted to be really clear about a lot of the mistakes we kept seeing repeated and how we can adjust what we’re doing accordingly. Most of all, I wanted a guidebook that people could use when they had to initiate a new discussion, sustain a discussion, create content, or plan out a user journey through the community.

One of the things we really try to do (and don’t always succeed) is to make our material as practical and immediately actionable as possible. The downside is the more specific the tips, the shorter the shelf-life of the book. But I’m really humbled by the kind reviews so far and I think the trade-off has been worth it both for the book and our business thus far.

Elio: Do you plan to write another book in the future?

Richard: We’ll see :-)

Elio: Any upcoming events of yours in the near future which people interested in community management could attend?

Richard: We recently had our New York workshop on June 6 (, we’ll also be relaunching our online training courses soon and will most certainly have a few big events coming up later in the year.

Elio: Thanks for the great interview Richard! It has been very insightful.

Richard: Thanks for having me!

Elio QoshiElio Qoshi
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Elio is a open source designer and founder of Ura Design. He coordinates community initiatives at SitePoint as well. Further, as a board member at Open Labs Hackerspace, he promotes free software and open source locally and regionally. Elio founded the Open Design team at Mozilla and is a Creative Lead at Glucosio and Visual Designer at The Tor Project. He co-organizes OSCAL and gives talks as a Mozilla Tech Speaker at various conferences. When he doesn’t write for SitePoint, he scribbles his musings on his personal blog.

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