community garden
According to Rachel Happe, co-founder of The Community Roundtable, "community management is the future of all management" PHOTO: Daniel Funes Fuentes

The State of Community Management 2017 has some good news for community managers: you no longer have to reinvent the wheel. Communities have finally matured to the point of standardization, which means there’s a true formula for successfully launching and managing a community.

This marks the eighth year the Community Roundtable is publishing its annual research report, and it includes great news about the effectiveness of community programs.

As someone who has created, launched and managed several communities over the last 10 years, I was excited to read this year’s report. I spoke with Rachel Happe, who founded The Community Roundtable with Jim Storer in 2009, to discuss the highlights of the report and her outlook for communities going forward.

Community Management Continues to Mature

The main takeaway is that the approaches to strategically building and managing a community have matured. In fact, Happe was quick to point out that the space as a whole “has matured to the point of standardization,” with a definite process and accompanying metrics now in place to effectively launch, grow and evolve any community.

What that means is, community managers no longer need to start from scratch when standing up a community for the first time. 

This finding is borne out throughout the report. 

The report also noted a large (and widening) gap between best-in-class players and everyone else. According to Happe, “‘Best in class’ communities know with certainty how to build a successful community program.” The best-in-class practitioners have figured out this paradigm.

If you want to know what a best-in-class community looks like, Happe pointed to a couple of case studies: the CA Technologies community or the H&R Block customer community programs. In addition, Happe mentioned EY and Bosch as having a particularly strong internal community programs.

Metrics a Key Differentiator for Best-in-Class Communities

One of the key differences between average and best-in-class communities is that the latter focus on value metrics versus vanity metrics. Value metrics are the desired behaviors from community members that create strategic value for the organization. 

Focusing on these types of behaviors over simple metrics like volume is one factor that differentiates average communities from great ones.

The reason, according to Happe, is because, “the biggest value of a community is the transparency of information” meaning accessibility to user-generated content, comments and creations is the greatest value active members contribute. 

Think of it this way: if someone’s answer to a question allows 10 other people to avoid having to contact a customer service person, that behavior offers tangible and measurable value to the community as well as to the business.

Community ROI is Officially a 'Thing'

Community ROI is officially no longer aspirational, but real.

Calculating ROI matters because it drives approval for investment, whether that’s people, budget, technology or training. 

Although a small percentage, it’s encouraging to see 9 percent of the total survey sample are able to measure their ROI. 

Best-in-class communities fare better than the total sample, with 30 percent of this group able to measure ROI, according to the 2017 report. In total, 71 percent of best-in-class communities are able to measure the value of their community.

Strategy Matters, and Is Significant Differentiator for Successful Communities

Not surprisingly, strategy matters when it comes to the performance and value a community can generate. Strategy is one of the key pillars in the structure of The Community Roundtable’s Community Maturity Model, and again, a widening gap separates best-in-class communities and their peers in this competency.

Happe called out what she sees as “a persistent ‘stall’” as communities attempt to evolve from a Stage 2 maturity to a Stage 3 maturity. To successfully move on to the next stage, Happe notes that “ongoing investment must be made — in the form of budget, resources, people and training” as opposed to transactional, one-time investments such as an initial platform purchase or investment in policies.

Tactical Execution of Content and Programming the Secret to Success

So what components make up a healthy community? It’s equal part content and programming.

Community content are the posts, blogs, documents and the like that the business creates, while programming (a term that might be unfamiliar to even seasoned community managers) are the events, activities and tasks designed to drive participation, relationships and member engagement. 

Supporting and encouraging the behaviors that the community manager and the business wants are key to a successful community. 

But programming is the real insider secret when it comes to effectiveness, which is often forgotten in the drive to push out more and content onto a given community platform. 

Happe counseled that it’s important to “have a strategy for programming and make sure it’s aligned” with metrics and goals. She sees a lack of strategic programming as “a consistent problem” with communities and says that programming “is even more important than content” when it comes to community value and effectiveness. It’s essentially the lever that drives engagement.

Unclear Outlook for Newcomers 

I asked Happe about some of the newer options for internal communities, like Slack, Facebook for Work and even potentially Office 365. 

She indicated that these are more of an “and” — something used in addition to the existing company intranet or network — than an “or.” Happe sees these new entrants fulfilling a need to  upgrade existing collaboration tools rather than a changing the way the organization works, which is a strategic departure from what motivated adoption of many of the earlier internal communities.

‘We’re All Community Managers’

It’s exciting to see a digital stalwart like the community programs have their day, as communities play an important strategic role in marketing as well as internal engagement. As an owned platform (unlike social media channels) there’s freedom to set the editorial tone and the ability to customize content and programming. 

The challenge now, is how to integrate the community platform with the other online elements of a business (web, email, customer care, etc.) as well as off-premises channels like social. 

According to Happe the goal is a “seamless integration” that will engender greater technical resources as well as having governance play a larger role in the management of these community-network hybrids.

Happe notes that, “community management is the future of all management” and that at the end of the day, we’re “all community managers” — whether we realize this or not. 

The report is available for download here.