The Prairies fade into the distance as the 737 angles south and west away from Calgary and towards San Francisco. I’ve turned ‘pretentious’ up to another level, with a New Yorker and a beaten-up copy of Cities and the Wealth of Nations by Jane Jacobs tucked into the seat in front of me. My seat-mate, a wonderful woman heading to California to visit her elderly sister, assumes I am a professor, which is both flattering and troubling. I guess my pre-30s grey hair is coming in a bit faster than I thought it was.
I am bound for America to attend the 2019 CMX Summit, an annual conference held by CMX and dedicated to helping professional community builders thrive. This year’s summit is being held at the Fox Theatre in Redwood City, California. The speaker lineup includes folks from Mozilla, Nextdoor, Change.org, Salesforce, Qualtrics, Gainsight, Slack, Zendesk, and other nifty organizations, many from the Bay Area.
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It’s my first CMX Summit. Over the past 6 months I’ve spent time diving into the online community ecosystem, and you can’t do that without coming across a plethora of quality content from CMX and the folks involved with them. CMX Connect, a network of in-person local chapters, brings community professionals together across the world, and the CMX Hub Facebook Group hosts lively conversation on topics ranging from technology to strategy to tactics. As Chaordix continues to evolve our Community Platform, we have set about having conversations with community leaders to understand what they want in a platform. For that reason, CMX Summit attendance was a no-brainer.
I have set out to answer some of the burning questions that have been batted about our offices, that have taken up residence on white boards and have been discussed in product meetings. A notebook shoved into my backpack houses almost two dozen such questions. I hope to bring back specific answers, but I also want to gain a perspective on the larger discussions that other organizations are having.
Back in Calgary a week after the summit, I can confidently say that I have accomplished both goals.
The following is a list of some of the key threads I pulled out from the conference. I could not be in every session, but luckily the incredible community of community folks created a Google Doc, for any readers who want to relive the conference via shared internet document.
5 Macro Community Trends from CMX Summit
Community is in Growth Mode
From the pre-conference workshops and social event on Wednesday through to last call at the Blacksmith on Friday, the crisp September air held a palpable charge. Summit attendance was nearly double the year previous, scraping the thousand attendee mark. When the main stage host asked who was attending their first Summit, nearly half the audience stood. Conversations between sessions, over lunch, and around lobby bar beers often centred on the fact that everyone participating felt overwhelmingly grateful to finally ‘find their people.’ The positivity was infectious.
CMX ringleader David Spinks kicked off the Summit’s main stage with a presentation focussed on the State of Community. Spinks hit the crowd with fresh, rapid-fire stats from a recent industry study of community professionals commissioned by CMX. According to the research, 2/3rds of community professionals were increasing their investment in community in the coming year. Nearly 60% of respondents' companies were focussed on scaling up their communities. 76% of respondents were experiencing increased interest from their colleagues and organizations in community as a tool to accomplish business objectives and add value.
Despite these positive trends, the idea that companies can drive value using online and in-person communities is still a novel one. 34% of community teams weren’t teams in the traditional sense, being that they were only one person, and 75% of teams were 5 people or smaller.
With around a thousand attendees, CMX Summit may seem modest compared to much larger industry conferences like Inbound, but all signs point to a healthy future for the practice of community building and management.
There is a Community for Everything
The variety of communities represented at CMX was stunning. Over 1.5 million women make up FIN, a secret Facebook Group that acts as a giant support community for women experiencing struggle, discrimination and violence. Twenty thousand runners pound the pavement in From Fat to Finish Line. The Mighty hosts the stories of health struggles from over 2 million members. 5,500 foodies frequent restaurants and cafes with Eat Out Madrid. Over 100,000 critical-care nurses frequent events and conferences put on by the AACN community.
I met exceptionally smart and friendly people leading communities for software developers, linguists, and lawyers. Some were launched by companies to support their stakeholders, some were run by associations or NGOs, and others were the invention of one person who saw a need and created a community as a reaction to that need.
For every variety of community came a new set of quirks, characters, and challenges, but the stories of vitality and action were common across all of them.
Online Communities Go Offline
Another thread that ran through sessions at the Summit was a clear interest in taking online communities offline. Around the world, there are examples of online communities starting local chapters, where passionate members can meet in person to have face-to-face conversations. CMX research shows that 58% of respondents ran communities that had online and offline components. Organizations like Duolingo and Atlassian have communities that host hundreds of offline events every year, and 62% of these events were run by volunteers.
I was surprised by the willingness of organizations to let volunteers represent their brand offline and put on events on their behalf, but the nature of community itself depends, to some extent, on sacrificing control. If individuals are not connecting with one another, starting conversations, and voicing their opinions, if a brand or organization is simply broadcasting their views, then I would argue that a community does not exist at all.
Rachel Eilbott of social impact community makesense presented a simple formula for activating offline, IRL events and communities. Rachel described the organization’s lean ‘Me -> We -> They’ model. ‘Me’ saw employees leading events and community building. The ‘We’ phase was characterized by partnerships between employees and volunteers, where makesense trained volunteers and assisted them through events and projects. Finally, the ‘They’ phase saw volunteers taking total control over events and projects. The approach requires a great deal of trust and empowerment, but strong training, succession planning and standardized tools and resources help minimize risk and have allowed makesense to expand exponentially on a shoestring budget.
Communities Live & Die by Their Core Members
Laura Nestler, Global Head of Community at Duolingo, used a formula to explain contribution and engagement behaviour in the language learning giant’s communities.
- 1% Create
- 9% Interact
- 90% Consume
Every community is unique, but even if the formula only roughly holds, that is a dramatic proportion of the community who are there to consume the content created by a tiny segment of the community. So who are the individuals who make up the 1%? They are a community’s rockstars, the super users. They are to be cherished and nurtured, rewarded for the work they do with perks, cultural capital signals (like badges and points), exclusive access, or other community or brand-specific means.
But how does a community builder find or create these pillars of the community? Sarah Leary, Co-Founder of Nextdoor explained that the journey to launching communities in 90% of US neighborhoods was a slow and labour-intensive process.
Community building can be a chicken-or-the-egg situation. In order to draw in members, you need activity and quality content, but by its nature, the activity and content in a community must come, at least in part, from the community. This is why ultra-engaged early members are so important.
Nextdoor sent scouts to attend community association meetings, participate in local events, and pound the pavement in neighborhoods across the States in order to identify and connect with existing and natural community leaders. They then added a lot of friction to the application process. If an individual wanted to add their neighbourhood to Nextdoor, they needed to complete an arduous application process, including proving their home was in the neighbourhood, drawing the boundaries themselves, and inviting ten other members within a set period of time. Conventional thinking would suggest that growing an app requires the elimination of friction, but Nextdoor’s process meant that neighbourhoods would not be added unless champions already existed there. Super users were identified right off the bat.
Engagement is the Main Purpose & the Biggest Challenge
I flew into SF with a conception of the purpose of community for organizations. In my mind, most communities existed for the purpose of customer support, customer insights, or product creation. I was wrong.
In his State of Community presentation, David Spinks introduced the SPACE model. Communities were primarily used for one of five purposes:
Support: Asking & answering questions
Product: Feedback & ideation
Acquisition: Leads & sales
Contribution: Keeping contributors energized and informed
Engagement: Customer loyalty
Engagement was the most common use of a community, with 29% of respondents using their community primarily to build engagement and customer loyalty. This surprised me mainly because I see engagement and loyalty as somewhat ‘fuzzy’, things that are hard to measure. Justifying investment in ecommerce technology is much easier (there are dollars on the line), than an investment in a community for engagement. Clearly others do not share my concerns, or are simply adept at surmounting internal objections to community investment.
Consistent community engagement was also the most common frustration for community professionals. When the main purpose of your community is engagement, you are going to be measured on engagement, and it is likely that you will build your entire strategy around it. A number of Summit presentations focussed on boosting engagement in communities of any size or shape.
- Low willingness to participate
- Patchy participation
- Participation that wanes over time
Perry suggested that two forms of capital, social and cultural, could be strategically utilized to counter these behaviours within a community.
Perry’s definition of social capital focussed on things like branded swag and physical perks, as well as exclusive experiences. The power of swag or experiences does not come from its quality, Perry argued, but instead comes from the relationship between the party sending the swag and the person receiving it. A t-shirt given to you by the company you work for is expected. A t-shirt given to a member of your community is a surprise and carries much greater power. A tour of a brewery is nothing to a brewer, but a highlight of the summer for a brand fan. The more exclusive the capital, the more power it has to influence participation.
Conversely, cultural capital was defined as status. Instead of being related to physical items, cultural capital related to signals that a community member could use to feel valued and knowledgeable. The primary example of cultural capital in the context of a community was badges awarded to a member based on their contributions.
In order to combat low willingness to participate, a community leader could start by awarding members a piece of social capital, despite the fact that they have not been willing to participate. The reception of a prize or reward in good faith is likely to inspire participation, and then cultural capital, like points or badges, could be administered to keep members participating over the longer term.
When tackling patchy participation, a ‘streak’ mechanism could be used to reward consistent participation. Duolingo is a master of this tactic, and their streaks help create language learning habits among users. Cultural capital is an excellent currency for administering streak rewards.
Waning participation can be avoided using a surprise and delight approach to social and cultural capital incentives. Rewarding participation with an ever-changing mix of swag, experiences, badges and exclusives based on shifting behaviour is likely to incentive all types of participation.
Bonus: Community Leaders are WONDERFUL
The content presented at CMX Summit and the lessons learned from speakers would be enough to solidify the event as an annual must-attend for me, but it was the attendees themselves that really separated the conference from any other that I have attended in the past. Conversations (and drinks) flowed late into each night. Rides were shared, as were lessons, tips, documents, research, and emails. People who had been strangers two days earlier even toured San Francisco together after the conference wrapped up.
It should come as no surprise, but the community of community professionals is an energetic, friendly, generous place to be. I am already looking forward to spending more time with all my new friends next year.