When Richard Millington started his career in the online gaming industry, he didn't know it would lead him to becoming one of the world's top experts in building online communities. Today, Richard is the founder of Feverbee, and author of the best-selling book, Buzzing Communities: How to Build Bigger, Better, and More Active Online Communities.
His focus on the unique intersection between psychology and data makes for an invigorating conversation. We sat down with Richard to learn more about what it takes to build a successful online community.
Mobilize: Since you have been exposed to so many different successful communities, what you would say is the number one key trait that they have when they're successful?
Richard: I think there are traits that make communities successful, and then there are traits they exhibit when they are successful. But don’t confuse the two.
A successful community, depending on the type, usually has a lot of activity. They may have a strong sense of community. They may have lots of members. They should usually be demonstrating clear value to the organization as well.
But it’s not these things that make a community successful, there are the outputs of success, not the inputs. It's very common for an organization to see a competitor with a successful community and they think, "OK. We need a thousand members that are actively participating, we need to have lots of discussions, we need this content, we need these activities."
They end up copying the community at the wrong stage of their life cycle. They don't realize that to get started, you usually have to start small. There are some exceptions to this for huge organizations in customer support but generally, you have to start small. You have to focus on getting those first few members actively participating. This means having a strong concept, a good community manager, and the ability to engage people at the small scale.
Mobilize: What do you think is the biggest challenge businesses have to overcome?
Richard: Their boss. Most of the challenges come internally, especially when they set expectations so high. Usually to get the project approved in the first place, you have to present a case for it. Then you have to deliver that case, but the time scale is usually completely out of whack with reality.
We have organizations who say, "We want 1,000 active members participating within three months' time." You can do that, but it's not going to be sustainable, because you're not growing in the right way. You're just doing competitions, challenges, AdWords, whatever it takes, and that's not sustainable growth.
"Usually setting the right expectations in the first place, is really, really important. You have to spend a huge amount of time building that case study."
The second one and we've touched upon this already is really, truly understanding what members want. That means interviewing members and testing a lot of concepts until you find the most powerful one.
Mobilize: What are the key metrics that you would say community leaders should be paying attention to?
Richard: Almost everyone measuring communities today is measuring entirely the wrong thing. They're measuring the things that you can easily measure, and that usually means things that are on Google Analytics, or things that are native to the platform itself.
The problem is Google Analytics isn't designed to measure a community. The key thing, the fundamental thing, is whatever is your value is.
If you go to your boss and say, "Hey, we saved $50,000 in customer support costs,” that's a different discussion entirely from saying “hey, we have 3000 members engaged”. We need to spend time understanding what each department considers valuable and then delivering on that.
Mobilize: What you're saying is basically that the metric people should be measuring just whatever the main big goal is and go backwards from there?
Richard: Yeah. What I'm saying, you should never go into the meeting and talk about engagement metrics at all.
Mobilize: You wrote a book on the lifecycle of an online community. Can you tell us more about it?
Richard: Initially, the first people that join a community tend to be people that are attracted because they have relationships with the founder of the community.
At this stage you want to be engaging on smaller members, you want to be initiating discussions, responding to every single discussion, doing what you can to keep that tiny sparkle of community alive. Then you've reached that critical mass point which is where more than 50% of the growth and activity is generated by the community as opposed to the community manager.
This is the establishment stage of the community life cycle. This is when you know what begins to shift. You stop moving from this responding at the micro level to do it, things that affect more members at a time. Still creating contents, newsletters, recruiting volunteers, optimizing parts of the website. That should continues to grow at a really fast rate. This is usually the rate where the community reaches that peak growth.
"Then you reach the maturity stage of the community life cycle. This is the point where more than 90% of their growth and activity is generated by the community. Here, you're usually working on things that had the biggest impact over a long time."
Mobilize: How long do you think it realistically takes to build a community?
Richard: Well, it depends on what you mean by a community. A good rule of thumb would be within three months, you should have several hundred active members. This will vary depending upon the size of the audience, internal communities, and all that stuff.
Within the year, you should be looking for at least 500 to 1,000 people that will engage in more in a sensory community. We measure it by this stage in the life cycle.
Mobilize: What do you read and what influencers do you follow and to keep on building your knowledge base?
Richard: I'm really interested in books that are on psychology, books that approach different communities in different ways. Some of the market inputs as well are really interesting. I get most of the stuff that we use from the academic side.