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Uncommon Conversations: An Interview with Richard Millington, Founder at FeverBee

We sat down with Richard Millington, community consultant, founder at FeverBee, and three-time author, to talk about what every community builder can learn from Gordon Ramsay: Do less so you can focus more on what truly delivers value. It comes down to having a well-defined community strategy that clearly articulates what your community both is and is not for, so you can make informed decisions that align to your goals and result in better outcomes. Eager to learn more from Richard? Register for our live author Q&A with him in March.

Our interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Watch the full conversation on YouTube.

Rebecca: Tell us about your day job.

Richard: What I do, and what my team does, is help organizations develop the best communities they can. Essentially, there’s three parts of that. One is that we do the research. We understand what members want. We understand the psychology of what they need, and we follow the data. Two is the community experience, the technology piece—how do we design a community experience that is going to be world class and really incredible for the org, the organization and their members? And the third part is the business goals piece. What does an organization need when they create a community? And a lot of that work is in lining those three things up.

So on a day to day level, we work with clients and I work with my team to do that. We go through the process, we help clients build the best communities that they can with the resources and the teams that they have.

Recently on your blog, you wrote about the relationship between question specificity and increased value. Will you promise to let me know if a question could or should be more specific?

I'll do to my best. Regarding that post, the background behind it comes from what I'm experiencing with clients and some of the issues that come up and some of the advice that I give them, and also the advice that they give me. I was working with an organization in the scientific field and we just launched a new community for them. Some of the questions that the team was asking to try and get activity going were very generic. You know, how did you become interested in this topic? What do you think the future of this topic is? It's okay, but they’re opinions. Opinions are fun, and everyone can give an opinion, but they're not that valuable over the long term.

What does matter more in a community is experiences and expertise. That's what we want to get at. And that's one of the major reasons that we create a community. You can have a sense of belonging, but getting that experience and expertise, that's the critical part that makes it all connect together. And so if you want experience and expertise, you've got to ask a specific question. So instead of asking, “What do you think the future of this topic is?" What are the specific things or challenges that you're dealing with right now? What are the specific things that you need information about? What's the problem and defining that really specifically, because then people can give you much better advice. I think the challenge with a lot of the communities out there today is that they get a lot of people asking questions that aren't specific enough. If you look at what the best communities in the world do, like Stack Overflow and a few others, they spend a lot more time trying to make you get very specific about the question you're asking, what you've tried so far, what your current workaround is…then people give you much better answers and that's where the real value of community, especially one based around exchanging, information and knowledge, really begins to thrive and becomes an incredible asset for everyone.

As the founder of FeverBee and the author of Build Your Community and two other books, you've helped more than 300 organizations like Apple, Facebook, Google, the World Bank, SAP build thriving communities. That is a very diverse list of organizations and they serve strikingly diverse purposes. Do you find that each of them comes to you with a common set of problems?

I think there's maybe three types of clients that we work with. The first one is an organization which is launching a new community from scratch and they are lucky enough to realize how much they don't know. That's really useful because then they get help and then we can guide them through the entire process to make that community work. Those are a lot of fun to work on.

The other type is a very large, mature community that's been around for a long time, has probably millions of members around the world, and they looking to take their community to the next level. And often that means figuring out what the goals of that community are. They’ve often been chasing engagement and trying to get as much activity as possible. And so you build out a strategy which says, you know what, engagement is good, but at some point that's going to peak because not everyone in the entire world can join your community or if they do, then that's when the level of engagement peaks. So then it's more about building out the whole strategy of processes to take the community to where it needs to be and make sure it’s supporting the organization's goals as closely as possible.

The third type, which is really interesting, is when they've created a community and it's not working or something isn't working out—there’s a problem. And then we try to resolve that problem. Sometimes that would be a technology issue or sometimes it would just be a lack of engagement. They can't seem to get engagement or sustain activity. The other thing I I'd point out, and I think for anyone building any kind of community today, is to figure out what business you are in. Really be really honest with yourself because in the community space at the moment, there's kind of a split and I don't often feel we're honest about it, where there's some people that are building a community that creates an incredible sense of belonging between members, and the other kind is where it's all about the member experience or exchanging information. These are more like the business sponsor communities. We hear a lot about where people generally, I mean, there are some exceptions that we could all name, but generally people don't choose to spend their spare time participating in a brand community. They go to that community when they need help, when they need advice, when they need support. And so once we've realized tha, we can think about how we make these communities the best places to give and share and exchange advice. And it's completely different from building a community where people have a strong sense of belonging or connection with one another. It's very important to figure out exactly what kind of community you are building. And then you can build out strategy to match.

So would you say what a healthy community looks like depends on which type of community it is?

Yeah. I mean, if you're building a community to facilitate a sense of belonging amongst members, then you're usually looking at things like having rituals and traditions and making sure every newcomer gets this amazing, personalized welcome. And they're introduced to other members that can be there. You might be having these shared experiences and events. You might be focusing a lot more on how members are feeling within that community.

When you're building a community, let’s say for a major tech brand, like a lot of my clients, it's more about, “This thing isn't working and I need to go to a place to get help.” And so you have 90% of the people there that'll ask a question, get a response, and then leave, and they won't come back until there's another problem that they need help with.

There are some things you can do there, but fundamentally people come to those kinds of communities because they need information from people that they trust. And that's a completely different strategy. Because now you're looking at optimizing for that. How do you optimize for getting the best expertise in a community? How do you optimize for people sharing information? So you're looking at how you can improve the taxonomy of the website, for example, or how you can improve the structure of getting good questions in the first place or rewriting subject titles or making sure you have a small group of top experts that are responding and answering those questions or escalating issues that don't get a response. And so it's a completely different set of tactics and processes. So it's important to figure out which one you're in, because the strategies are completely different.

I'm interested in this because I think there’s a level two of, or at least a hope for, convergence, right? That a product-based brand community will also be a place where people still feel a sense of belonging. Do you see those having a confluence at some point?

I would warn you that my response to this is a response that many people disagree with, but I've done hundreds of surveys of clients at this point. That means we've gotten probably a million survey responses back. Out all those surveys I've done, I’ve never seen a survey that put ‘sense of belonging’ or ‘making connections with other people like themselves’ as one of the top needs. Every single time it's quality information, useful information, useful expertise. You can name some examples of cult brands, you know, Harley Davidson or whatever, but I think there's more articles and books about cult brands than cult brands themselves.

And this idea that we want to belong to brands, it's the outlier. For 99.99% of organizations, it's not relevant at all. If you go to your your refrigerator right now and look at all the products that are in there, you don't want to belong to your milk brand or your Diet Coke brand or your butter brand or your bread brand. That's just in your refrigerator—you don't want to belong to the utility companies that supply you, you don't want to belong to most of the clothing brands that supply you. And also there's a moral perspective in this, which is, do we want to rely on brands to give us a sense of belonging in this world?

I'm not sure that we do and I admit there's exceptions, but I'm not sure we do. I think most communities, if you look at the data, and we spend a huge amount of time doing this, they want information and that's as valuable as everything else. There's some exceptions, especially like the nonprofit space. But for most of us, people want quality information from people that they trust.

You run a lot of experiments and you get a lot of data. In one experiment, you were working with a tech client whose executive team did not necessarily believe the stats they were seeing about the importance of community in terms of deflecting support tickets. So you did an experiment where you de-indexed the community from search. Can you talk a bit about how you decided on this experiment and what the outcomes were?

In November 2019, I just met with a new client for the first time. At the end of the first meeting while I was still in the meeting room, the VP of the Customer Experience turns to me and says, “I'm not sure what the value of this is.”

I'm prepared for this, so I give her the standard responses of companies that have built communities and all the case studies that we usually use and the statistics and she's still not convinced. And so I say, "Well, the only way to really prove the value of your community is to close it down and see what happens.” And I say that because I know, honestly, she's not going to do it. Because it's madness to close the community down—you lose your top members. People get angry, they can't find the community. So an interesting alternative, which we hadn’t really considered before, is what happens if instead of closing it down, you just hide it or you remove it from search results. And this is kind of interesting because if you hide it from search results, it's like hiding a pub from a map—people that know it’s there can still find it.

But if you don't know it's there, you don't know what you're missing. So you're not upset that you can't find it. The regulars still know it's there and they can still participate, but we know that more than 90% or so of search traffic to communities comes from search. And so we did an experiment for four months where we removed [the community from search] to see what would happen at the end of four months. What we saw was during those four months, the number of tickets that were going through to customer support rose by around 58% and we noticed a sharp decline in customer satisfaction that was caused by more people trying to get through and having to wait longer on customer support lines.

Then we calculated, it was I think, 72% cheaper to answer a question via the community than by customer support. I think it was $5 in a community and $18 by traditional support channels. And this was really interesting because finally we've got data that [answers], if you close the community down, what is the impact of that? What is the value of that happening? And then we can multiply this by the number of deflected tickets. That led to huge cost savings. You can multiply that by the cost saving of each ticket and get, you know, a multimillion dollar value in saving on the community each year, which is kind of remarkable.

It’s also compounded, right? By time and volume of questions?

There's two parts of this. One is once we know it's a lot cheaper to answer questions in a community, the question becomes, how do we drive everyone with a question to ask it in a community before contacting support? [Unless it’s an emergency], everything should go to a community. First, it’s cheaper. The quality of information is better as well and the outcomes [are] a lot better. And even this is only measuring community through support. We don't know the value of people exchanging advice and ideas with one another. We don't know the impact on retention rates from that community. We don't know the impact from ideas that they're sharing that are then implemented in the product. We don't know about surge traffic that comes in through the community.

Once you start multiplying it, you can see that actually having a brand community, a successful one, is absolutely indispensable. And it's mind blowing to me that I've been sharing this data for a while and still people don't seem convinced. They believe that the data is real. It's genuine. They don't think that we made it up, but they still have trouble actually reacting to it. It’s one of the great mysteries in life that I'm hoping to solve.

I'm wondering if there are any experiments you've tried that didn’t show the results you hoped for.

There's a lot of things we have tried. I think a lot of the techniques that people use when they welcome a newcomer don't work. I don't think most automated messages work at all. Often when people join a community, they get a series of automated messages and I have long had a hunch that they didn't have any impact. I've turned them off for a client or two and they didn't have any impact.

I think the biggest one is moving from one platform to another. And very often people don't realize that they're replacing one set of issues with another set of issues.

We have a live author Q&A coming up with you in March, but I want to talk about your book a little bit. In Chapter 10, you break a community strategy doc into incremental pieces. Do you have any guidance around how much time building a true community strategy doc will likely take?

It's funny. I don't think I mentioned this in the book, but as part of these, I asked people to rate their strategy skills on a level of one to five. And most people gave themselves above average, like a 4.1 or 4.2. And then the next question was about how many people had created and executed a strategy for a community before. And it was about 30% to 40%. And that's kind of amazing that a lot of people haven't done it, but they think they're still going to be really good at doing it. I think we have a lack of respect for the strategic process and what it involves. And when we think of a strategy, we often think of the document, you know, like some grand document that we are going to create and we're going to present it to our boss and the boss will say “This is amazing.”

The reality is you might create that document. You'll hand it to your boss. Your boss will pull it in a drawer and no one will ever read it. And it begins collecting like digital dust from the moment you've created. It. That's pretty standard. And that happens because you went into your metaphorical, dark room and you wrote your strategy. And then you expected everyone to behold your genius at doing a strategy. That’s wrong because nothing in the strategy should be a surprise to any of your colleagues. The way we think about a strategy and the way that we approach a strategy is that the final document is simply a summation of all the discussions and the decisions that we've been guiding people through up to that point.

So there's no spark of genius. It's a case of bringing stakeholders together, bringing members together, doing interviews, working with them to understand what the pros and cons of the options are, understanding what the resources are, and pulling all that together at the end. And part of the strategic process is building that support for it. So the strategy should be based upon things that people already support. I think often that's not widely understood and we don't have the right level of respect for a strategic process. Usually when we work with a client, it'll be an engagement of say three to four and a half months.

We begin the first month doing the discovery phase as we call it, which means we interview 20 or more members of the audience. We do a survey of the audience. We interview as many stakeholders involved with the community as we possibly can to really understand their hopes, their fears, their concerns, their goals, and those kinds of things. We do an evaluation of the community. We look at all of the metrics—what’s working, what's not working. We look to see what the trends are and why things are the way they are. We have very specific interventions that we think can improve things at the end of that. Then we have a workshop where we bring everyone together to discuss our findings, gather the feedback, and outline what the options are before going forward.

Then we begin writing out what the best practices are to achieve those goals. And this is where we bring in examples. We make sure it's possible in the technology that they're using, or if they need a new technology, we recommend that. And the whole process is connected and driven by the data. Then at the end we have the risk analysis and those kinds of things. It's a full time job for that amount of time. And I think the reason why we get the clients we do, and maybe I should be more humble about that, but I think it's because a lot of people are realizing it's not just about the expert.

Strategies require expertise, but I think it's [also] about time. It’s very hard to fly the plane while you're still serving drinks in cabin. It's very hard to still be looking after the community and be trying to decide where the community's going because it's two completely different types of work. I don't think people are very aware of the level of work it takes to do a strategy well, or the value of having a strategy and having everyone aligned and achieving their goals and all the best practices and a clear plan of where you go next, what you can execute and what you know is going to work. In my mind, it's a full-time job for a couple of months. If you can't do that, then hire someone else to do it or bring in someone that can do your job while you do it. I think that would be the best way of going about it.

What should a community leader perhaps be striving for at a three month, a nine month, a 12 month, a three year type of milestone? Is there any unifying factor where you're like, this is something that you should be asking yourself at this point when you've been working on community?

The reason we structured the community strategies we have in a roadmap instead of just, this is the final destination, is because A. Clients seem to like that a lot more, and B. We found with almost every project we've worked on, people want to know what they can optimize right now with the time and the resources they have today. So we began making that as part of the plan. And so a lot of our strategies come in the format of optimizing what you have now in the next zero to three months, then upgrading - this is where you make big changes in the systems or the technology or, you know, whatever the big changes to align with are - with the long term goal that usually happens in the three to nine month or three to 12 month phase.

In the 12 to 36 months phase, it becomes, “What is the community’s full potential? What are the things that have to be in place for that community to work?” And originally we presented these as options to a client at the workshop. We’d say, “These are the options, depending on what your budgets are and what your tolerance for risk is.” And more and more they were saying, “We want all we want all three.” So that's why we began to structure it the way we do. We still present options. If there's clearly different audiences they can target or technologies they can use or goals that they can pursue, we still present them as options. But I think it really helps having a roadmap [in terms of] what we are going to do in the short term, the intermediate term, and in the long term.

As brands invest in community and as experiments like yours continue to prove community value, what skills do you advise your clients to look for when they're trying to build their teams?

I think people build teams without knowing what skills that they're looking for. I think you have to build out your team from a perspective of what you want people to do and then find the right skills.

And often people don’t, so they end up hiring someone, want them to build a new community from scratch that has never done it, but has worked for a big online community. And they don't realize how hard it is when you don't have millions of people visiting your site every single day. So the kind of skills I would look for is usually, at the beginning, I think you need an operations person and then a community management person. Someone that can build up the systems, handle the technology, take care of all that stuff. And someone that's going to be in the trench, engaging with members, making them feel that this is a place they want to ask questions and get responses. And so there's a lot of skills we can talk about here, but I think the biggest one for managing community is someone that cares—someone that genuinely cares. And it's amazing how quickly you can tell if someone genuinely cares or not.

I'm wondering if you have an idea for where the community team should sit?
I think a lot of people say the community should be its own team. The reality is that's like arguing from the extremes. There are some examples of that, but it almost never happens. In most of my work, they report to success, customer success, customer support experience…I think it depends very much upon the community team and the structure. If the team is in place and the team is good and they are enthusiastic and well-managed, then everything feels like a natural fit.

One more before we talk about who you chose to donate your own Uncommon Support to…Can you talk to me about what every community leader can learn from Gordon Ramsay?

All right. So let me dive in. This is important. Most people are wasting their lives by not watching Kitchen Nightmares by Gordon Ramsay. It is like the most spectacular trash show that you can possibly imagine. And I love it. Basically, he goes into a restaurant and he tells them how bad they are and then he fixes it. But the important thing to know, and this is why it's relevant here, is that what he usually does is reduce the menu items to just a few. And the reason this is relevant is that I often feel we take a similar approach when we are advising clients.

When we work with a new client, we often tell the person managing that community to just make a list of what they’re working on in any particular week. And they end up having this massive menu of items that they're trying to do each week. Some community professionals list more than 20 things that they're working on in a week. That means they're trying to do four separate things each particular day, and that doesn't work at all. And it's because they have a failure of strategy. They haven't decided what's important, what things really matter. So they're doing all the things. If you get the strategy right, you often only need to be doing three to five things extremely well. Like the menu—if you do three to five great dishes well, then everything else becomes a lot easier.

Alright, we’ve arrived. Will you tell us about the organization you chose to dedicate your Uncommon Support to?

I spent a year of my life working with the United Nations in a refugee agency back in 2009 or so. It's amazing to me that refugees are seen as a problem and not an opportunity. And they don't get anywhere near the level of support that they need. And honestly, that's my cause. I don't talk too much about it, but that's the cause I support. So I’d choose Refugees International, or a similar nonprofit in the USA. They do incredible work, and I think if we could just be more caring and loving towards refugees that have been through hell the world would genuinely be a better place.