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Uncommon Book Club 📚 Adrian Speyer and The Accidental Community Manager

The Uncommon Book Club invites industry leaders and authors to share their expertise with community builders everywhere. We recently welcomed Adrian Speyer, Head of Community at Higher Logic, to discuss key points from his book, The Accidental Community Manager: A Guide to Building a Successful B2B Community.

Adrian distills fifteen years of experience into the pages of his book. We're glad to share a few highlights from it in our Q&A where we cover everything from setting up a CARGO framework to re-engaging a community that has become dormant.

Listen to our full discussion in the video above or read on for excerpts from our conversation.

Let's talk CARGO, your framework that stands for concept, acquisition, retention, goals, and outcomes. Will you walk us through an example?

Part of the important thing to know about CARGO [is that it’s] a vision document [you can use] as you build your community plan to keep you on track. The concept is your elevator pitch or your mission statement but in a very clear way: What are you trying to achieve, who's this community for, and who's it not for? What are we trying to bring in? And that would be informed by the prior conversations you would have with your audience or the people that you're trying to build that community for.

The A in this is acquisition, and that is more about ensuring, for example, [that] the website has a link to your community. It's about pointing out the ways that you're going to make people aware that this space exists and pique their interest. Like, “Hey, why should I even join? What value's in it for me?"

And then R is retention, which to me is always a difficult thing. I'll end up hearing people [say] “Oh, we're having low engagement,” however they define that. [Here I go back to] content programming. What are those touches and things that you have? I'm not asking people in their CARGO to list out all their content programming, but to have thought of, at a high scale, “What are those keystone touch points that we're going to have?”

For example, one customer would do their roadmap release every three weeks, and they said like clockwork, every three weeks they had a spike in their community. That was an opportunity to get most of the [members’] eyeballs, and so using that to say, “Hey, by the way, you're here for this, and we have this cool thing happening on Friday.”

The next letter is G [for] goals. And that's where that “concept” matters, because I've seen so many people set goals [that don’t match their concept]. If your concept is to support folks around your product, then your goal should be measuring towards that. Is it people having satisfaction, or a sense of belonging, or value, or whatever you're measuring? And making sure [your goals are] very specific, measurable, attainable, reasonable, and time-bound, those smart goals, which I'm a big fan of.

And then lastly comes the outcome, which is your North Star. Your goals are, let's say, the elephant bits and the outcome is eating the whole elephant. So it's working together to just keep yourself guided and make sure that you're doing the right thing. At the end, what does ultimate success look like and how would that be measured?

So that's CARGO, and it's a great thing to revisit. The biggest mistake I see people doing is they're trying to do all the things. Great communities have all the elements [of SPAN or Support Product Ambassador Network], but you really want to lean into one of them.

One example from my own career, was [when we launched our] success community for our customers. What ended up happening was the product area was what people really wanted to talk about. They wanted to talk about features, they wanted to hear from our product team, and have more transparency. Maybe one day [support] will work, but back then it was all about product. And that was where we got the most traction.

It worked. And when we were happy with the outcomes, we said, okay, now we're going to focus on support. And support's going really well. And [next] we're looking at the process of networking and building connections.

For those who are just getting started with their community, have a limited budget, or are a one-person team, how have you seen people successfully incentivize behavior without adding costs?

So to me, it all starts with the C, which is the concept. We are, as humans, guilty sometimes of thinking we know the motivations of others and we make a lot of assumptions. But the best way to know what people want and what will make them do the things that we want is by having a conversation with them.

I was talking with this person this morning, they were like, "Well, I'm having a lot of problems with the community, getting them to participate in events after work hours." Essentially, if things can't be done during work hours, most people are not going to do these after-hour types of things. My suggestion was why not look at doing something during work hours and also shortening it to make it less of an ask?

But also to talk with them. Don't talk to your best customers, talk to the people that you're trying to get who are [considering] your competitors. What would motivate them to go to one of your things? Because if someone's already bought in, they're already bought in. Why not speak to someone that's not bought in? Figure out the things that matter to them and build that into the community.

Now let's talk SEO. How does SEO play into public forums and why is it something to consider as a community manager? For someone who isn’t an expert, what are three main things they can do to get started?

A lot of people will say, “Oh, TikTok is the new Google.” And certainly, for consumer brands, that's probably true. But for B2B purposes, at least in the research I've seen, over 90% of folks start at Google. I mean, they say “search engine,” but let's be honest, most people use Google. And so Google's become the default help desk, so to speak. Most people tell me anywhere between 30-70% of their [organic] traffic comes from Google.

And I think Richard Millington had a study saying that he found one of the key indicators for [community success] was their organic traffic. It's just the nature of [the business]. I think SEO ends up being this scary thing for a lot of people. I've done SEO for a long time, and I said, “Here's my opportunity to demystify SEO a bit.”

[I’ve noticed that] some of the SEO consultants would get in there, and they would give really good advice for a website, but it wasn't really good advice for a forum. I understand [that sometimes] you have to work with them, so [in this chapter, I explain] the places that they can help you, where you should spend your energy, and [where] there's no value added. The ranking isn't going to change magically because of these little things that they're telling you.

You talk about cleaning up titles, using human speak, learning how to do keyword research, and using Google trends.

I think the main thing is the titles. Now we can all agree as community builders, that if someone titles a post “Help,” that is of no help to anyone. A community can have hundreds of posts with that title. But at the same time what you want to avoid is if someone says help and they write something that's unclear, you have to be very careful to not over market-ify it, like, oh, they didn't describe it the right way. What you can do is put “editor's note / moderator,” and put a note underneath and add whatever bit [of marketing preferred language] you want. But the reality is the community is going to talk in the language that's out there. And if someone is using that word or terminology, unless it's completely inaccurate, you should probably leave it as is.

The other thing from an SEO perspective [is] folder depth. What that means is: Be very intentional and careful when you start creating all these subcategories. I'd rather have really big categories and build those smaller categories [naturally, over time] than have hundreds of categories that just become a mess. Because you have to understand this: Google is going to come in and crawl [your forum], and so the bigger areas that you have will make it a bit easier from that point of view. You don't want to have people having indecision in [choosing a category].

I think the key takeaway is: think about humans more than the robots. So in a sense, even with the titles, it should be clear enough that people can understand what the person is asking, and there's also a benefit to making sure that it's a search word friendly, but don't go crazy and re-word it into some marketing speak that is of no help to anyone either.

You also talk about where to place your content, and that the top content should be the most relevant and popular because that's going to show up first. Can you talk a little bit more about how a human might work together with the bot, based on what the bot is looking for?

I've had the benefit of looking at a ton of heat maps and seeing where people put their eyeballs. It's amazing how much people put this great content that no one will ever see because it's below the fold. And most people go in and read in a Z format across a page, and then they'll just pick [something], and then they're off to it. They didn't see this really great stuff below the fold.

So for example, one of the communities that I have, we have six bots at the top that have human questions, in the sense of what people [want or need to] do when they come in. "I'm stuck." "I need help." "I'm searching for answers." "I want to learn how to get swag." [People select one and are sent] right away into that. It's the little tweaks and wording [that help you go] about being more human and intentional in that way.

I'm a really big fan of trying to be as human as possible. I mean, this community's about people at the end of the day. We have to do our best to get rid of the word “user.” That user is someone that uses software. [They’re] people. So you want to think about whatever that motivation is that [brought them to your] community and make it easy for them to either connect or solve a problem.

What are the core questions that community builders should be asking themselves about the where, what, and how of creating, maintaining, and managing their forums?

[My answer is] informed by my experiences working at a software vendor. People would come in and sign a contract, because “Oh, we should have an online community...I need to hire someone,” and then “Oh, I actually need to spend time [on it]. It's just not magically build it, and they'll come.” Okay, maybe take a step back, and have a bit more intention in it.

I hate to see companies lose trust by creating spaces and then shutting them down because they didn't think of all the things ahead of time. So I mean, that really was the point of the chapter, to have that thought and say, “Okay, wait a second, should we be doing this?” and “[If we do this, what’s] the right tool?”

...To me, forums—and maybe it's just been influenced by my career and what I've seen—are the ultimate best place for a business to have conversations because you have the opportunity to bring in all the business data, connect all the things, and have some ownership and control over the kind of space that you're creating. [You can] really create something special.

What are a few signs of a stagnant community, and what are some resources or tactics for re-engaging one?

In the book, I have a maturity model or lifecycle model, and it looks at the behaviors that tell you, “Uh oh, we're in trouble.” That's the decline portion of that lifecycle. So the stagnant one is essentially you as a community person are now answering every question. It's on you to post the content because no one else is posting and no one's answering anything that's being posted there. Essentially what's ended up happening is the community has lost its sense of purpose and value and isn't meeting the needs of folks. That's why it's heading in that direction.

Generally, when people are in the stagnant phase, they decide they have to switch platforms. They decide it's a platform issue and not necessarily a program or community issue. But they haven't fixed the fundamental issue, which is the value that they're offering people.

So what are the steps I would do to almost reinvent the community without the necessity of a migration? The most important thing is the audit, in the sense that at some point this community was a good idea, and I'm assuming at some point it was hopping, and people were involved. And if you are new to the community and taking over, it's really important to understand what are the things that you did that caused people not to feel that this is the space to go in. And how to get them back into it?

It's [okay] to take that step back and say, “What are those things and elements that we could [do to] bring people in?” And having those conversations. You may think you have the way out, but you need to talk to people because theories don't mean anything without evidence. And sometimes people won't give you the direct answer either, so you kind of have to infer it.

But if your community is [being active] elsewhere and they're just not being active on your space, then it's something that you've done or something [that’s missing in your space]. Those conversations are still happening, but you've somehow lost your way. And then hopefully if you follow that plan, you're able to think about programming and ways to redirect it.

I would go through the CARGO again. It should inform all the [questions that you’re asking]. What are we going to keep doing? What are we going to change? What are we going to cancel? But to me, the most important thing is the relaunch and that you're trying to say, “Hey, we listen to you.”

Be very intentional. Write it out, and you’ll actually see, “Oh, there's a hole here or a flaw there,” or “I didn't address this piece.” So I would probably take all your interviews and all that stuff and put it into a spreadsheet. Then have your plan and then plot it [against the interview answers to see] how you're addressing or using the [community] commitment curve.

Maybe [you’ll realize], “We missed the boat here. We didn't give people the opportunity to do some intentional things up the curve, and we have big holes in the plan that we need to address.” You might find out, for example, that you weren't doing a good job of recognizing contributions. And everyone wants to be recognized for their contribution in some way.


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