The Uncommon Book Club is a gathering place for community builders to learn from community authors. We welcomed Richard Millington, founder of FeverBee, longtime community consultant and strategist, and author of three books (!), to discuss community-building strategies he highlights in his latest book, Build Your Community.
Our conversation focused on a few key topics submitted by community members, including growing a community from zero, ensuring your founding members feel valued, and when to build internally versus hiring a community consultant.
We've condensed and lightly edited excerpts of our conversation with Richard below. For the full convo, watch the video here or on YouTube. To activate your community and better engage and support your members, get started with Common Room for free.
Uncommon: Tell us about your community consultancy, FeverBee, what you've built across the past decade, and what you're focused on today.
Richard: FeverBee take[s] community building out of the digital dark ages of guessing what works and turns it into a more predictable science. There's always going to be a kind of art about it. But what interests me is how indispensable the data is, how indispensable it is to understand the basic principles of psychology, how indispensable it is to prove the value of the community. Many of the world's largest organizations develop successful communities of customers, employees, fans, and [FeverBee helps them] do that through strategies that help them design a community and [we provide] training as well. What we find is that so many of the practices haven't really evolved from when a webmaster would create a community and then try to get people engaged and participating. So we try to really bring a modern approach, a more scientific approach [to community building], to achieve the best results for clients that we possibly can.
Two other books came before Build Your Community: The Indispensable Community and Buzzing Communities. What does Build Your Community focus on that sets it apart?
Let's [start with] the first book, Buzzing Communities. I wrote that because there wasn't really a good guide to building a community. Everyone at the time wanted to create a community and get a lot of engagement in that community. And that is what Buzzing Communities is for. Then, The Indispensable Community came at a time when people were questioning, "What is the value of having a community?" All [these] members are actively participating, but what does it mean for a business? What does it mean for an organization? What's the value of that? So it's very much about once you've got this engagement, what do you do with it? Now, Build Your Community is more about the playbook of how you do it.
Build Your Community is a very data-driven guide of how to build a community in a modern era. Because things have changed—a lot of the things that worked before don't work today. A lot of the ways that we create discussions, create content, engage with social media forums, and other channels don't work as well as they used to. And so we need a new guide and we need a new approach and we need a data-driven and psychology-driven approach. And that's what Build Your Community is. It's a book that'll take you step-by-step through the process of developing your community based upon a wide range of examples and evidence and proof and all the things that hopefully resonate with some of the people that are watching here today.
We sourced questions from attendees (thanks to all!). To start, one asked: How do I grow a community from zero?
[A] lot of people focus on how to do it instead of why they should do it. Before you even do anything else, you have to answer the question, why am I doing it? That sounds like it's a really obvious question, for example: "I'm doing it because I want to reduce support costs. So I just want a lot of people talking to each other sharing information." But we have to be very clear about why, because there's different types of community. If you are building a community based around support, where people come, ask a question and then leave, that's a completely different model and set of challenges that you need to solve than if you're building a small peer group of people to engage with [and your goal is to create] a sense of belonging.
There are different models. Until you answer that, why you're doing it specifically, you can't really proceed to the how. But I know everyone's going to skip past that and just wants the how of what the tactics are to make a community, right? On the community experience side, there're so many steps here to get right. So let me focus on one of the big ones first: Know what your budget is. Make a projection of how many members you're likely to have because a lot of platforms will charge you by the number of members, and then be clear about how your members engage with each other today.
Then, for the community experience to succeed, there has to be a reason for people to visit that community. Where people go wrong and where they end up creating a ghost town, is that they assume that if they create a new website or a new experience, that people will naturally visit it because they want a community. And the reality is they don't. The reality is most people aren't looking for a new community in their lives. Some might be, but what they are looking for is to solve challenges they have, and to improve themselves in some way. These are the draws that get people to visit any website at all. The challenge before you select your platform, before you build the community experience, is to figure out what is going to be the draw to get people to visit that community in the first place.
Let's talk about the importance of setting the rules before you attract those first members. In chapter four, you discuss three specific kinds of rules: Universal rules, unique social norms, and judgment calls. Will you describe these and how they apply to setting up a successful community?
There are two very specific parts to this. One is how you keep members in your community safe and give them the environment where they feel comfortable engaging with one another. It is usually based around the universal rules. You don't want sexism, homophobia, all of those kinds of things. That is a default position, so those rules are usually pretty simple to create. They're more difficult to enforce because you have to define what those things are in a practical sense, but those [rules] are the foundation. Then you have what we call the cultural creating rules, which are the unique social norms. There's a great book by Priya Parker called The Art of Gathering, which is one of the most fantastic books that you should read.
What she describes is that you can create unique rules that prompt people to engage in a different way. She's hosted groups for, like, moms where you're not allowed to talk about your kids or events where the first person to check their phone has to pay the bill. What you get is that you knock people out of a certain routine they have, and then they can begin engaging in a more honest, authentic, and incredibly memorable way. So there are so many unique norms that you can have within a community. You might, [for example] have a community where people aren't allowed to share an opinion, but they can share research and data with one another.
So, what are the unique rules that are going to make your community different from anything else that's out there? Often, you can't decide so many other things, but the unique social norms you create, you get to decide this. You get to decide what's going to be a remarkable experience for your members. If you go to the edge for this, you can create a culture that's unlike anything else...where people can engage in a different way, often in a more entertaining way and in a way that allows people to have discussions they can't have anywhere else. So that's what we mean by these unique social norms.
Then we have the difficult part, the judgment calls. Judgment calls are the things that get a lot of communities into trouble when they don't mean to because there's no right answer. So if you tell people that they have to use their real names, that's fine. But what if their real names include characters that your system doesn't allow? That happens very often. What if they change their name and the system doesn't allow it? [What if you say you allow pseudonyms?]
Are you happy with a member joining with the name Trumpfans69? Do you want people in your community with an image that says Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter or All Lives Matter? These are judgment calls where it's very difficult to make. But you have to figure out where on that continuum you want your community to be. Do you lean more towards that freedom of speech side or do you lean more towards that safe environment where people aren't going to be threatened or feel uncomfortable. There's no right answer, but there's a trade off in each one.
I'm wondering if you could share anything about things that you've seen successful in helping teams make those calls?
Yeah. I can think of an example, not too long ago, where someone made a judgment call about a pseudonym in a community. That member sent a message to the CEO of the organization telling them what a bad community manager this woman was with examples of people being annoyed by the judgment calls that she had made. Things like that happen...with judgment calls, you're going to get people that are upset. I think for an organization, their brand guidelines are usually the best place to begin. The brand has an idea of the tone of voice that they want to use and the image they want to project in a certain environment. If you're in a community that's created by a brand, then the judgment calls should reflect that. Some brands are fun, some are irreverent, some are very formal and official.
So the brand guidelines are usually a good place to begin. And then if you want the judgment calls to be good, you need someone with good judgment in the first place. That means recognizing that the more rules you have, the more time and investment you have to make for enforcing the rules. So you can create all the rules you want, but if no one's going to enforce them, that's an issue. One thing I would add is that...when you are enforcing a rule, there should be no exceptions to that rule. Either you change the rule or you remove it. When a judgment call does arise, you might have to create a new rule for it. So you're not just doing it once, but you're doing it consistently going forward.
When it comes to everyday community communication, what's an example of a great response from a community leader?
Let me talk about Colleen Young, one of my favorite community professionals in the world today. If you look up any discussion that Colleen Young has [participated in] in the Mayo Clinic's online community, what you'll find is a template [for a great response]. What's really remarkable is that there are a bunch of very specific things that she's doing in this community with [her] response[s]. One is that there's an at-mention to the individual that asked a question, so she thanks them for starting that discussion. Second, she's invited other people to respond to that discussion. That's a really remarkable thing to do, because if you are at-mentioned in a discussion, you feel like you have more expertise to share.
She's realized it's not her job to answer every single question herself. It's her job to facilitate the discussions between others. Then, she tries to provide useful advice as well, and she asks for a follow-up response. There's clear empathy in here. It's clear that she's engaging others and she's doing all the things we want someone to do. And it isn't difficult to do this, to be honest, but it's very hard to do it consistently. And she's done it around 10,000 times over the last couple of years. So when we talk about what a great response looks like, we're not talking about a huge amount of work. We're talking about getting a couple of very basic things in place: We talk about getting a very, very quick response to a discussion. We talk about a response that is personalized to that individual, so they know it's not a template or response you give to every single person. We talk about a response that's friendly that shows empathy for that person. We talk about a response that conveys knowledge, the information that they need - you can share a link, but it's better if you just get them an answer - we talk about a response that facilitates a sense of connection so you're connecting members to each other and, ideally, a response that resolves the issue the member has, or at least asks for a follow up so they can participate.
What's remarkable about the Mayo Clinic community and Colleen Young is the level of activity in the community has skyrocketed as a result. There's so much evidence that this drives a lot more responses and engagement and participation. It's very clear that it works. So that's what I talk about when I talk about what a fantastic response is.
Angelica asked, "How do we make new users with less knowledge about a community topic feel welcome within the already established member group?"
I think there are two parts to this. One is that you've got to tell your current members to be nice. [Getting a response like] "This question has been asked before" is not helpful because [a new member] doesn't know the question has been asked before, and they might not even know how to search for the right terms to find the answer to that question. It's not practical to browse through every discussion to find the answer they want. So getting the basics right, and making sure [you and your top members] want to help is really important.
The second part of this is to make a newcomer feel like they can be useful. The challenge with newcomers, and the reason why most people don't participate in most communities out there, is that they don't think they have anything to share. The way you change that is by telling them that questions are as important as answers.
I often send out a message like, "We've got lots of top members waiting for questions to answer. We need your questions in the community." Even if it's your very first day in that topic, you know what it's like to be completely new, you have questions that you could ask, and if you ask those questions, that's going to help the person that comes after you and so on and so forth. So I think the real challenge isn't to make newcomers feel smart, but to [enable them to] feel like their contributions can be useful because the community needs good questions. If you get that in place, that is such a big win.
Learn more about the Uncommon community, find all of our Uncommon Book Club author Q&As on YouTube, and hear more from community and DevRel leaders across industries in our Uncommon Conversations series.
To activate and scale your community, get started with Common Room for free.