Building thriving communities Jono Bacon

How To Build Thriving Communities: An Interview with Jono Bacon

7 min read

As a community manager, consultant, author, and speaker – and having worked with industry leaders like Microsoft, Huawei, Intel, and Google, among many others – Jono Bacon can offer an abundance of invaluable insight into the world of community management. We were lucky enough to catch up with Jono to find out how he came to work in the industry and what valuable community lessons he can share with our readers.


How did you find your way into the world of community management?

It was in the late 90s and my brother told me about this computer operating system called Linux, which at the time wasn’t very well known at all. I bought a book about it, and the first chapter spoke about how people from all around the world work together on creating the operating system. I was transfixed by the concept that people were coming together, to share their knowledge and to aggregate their work. From there, I went down the rabbit hole. I started building a community around these Linux users in the UK, and from there one thing led to another, and I started working with more and more businesses wanting to understand and create communities. The second key moment in my career was when I wrote a book called The Art of Community, and people and companies started reaching out to me, asking to consult with them on their communities.


When companies reach out to you about community consulting, what are some of the concerns or challenges they are experiencing?

It can be segmented into two broad scenarios. One scenario is companies who are curious and interested in building a community, and the other is companies who have communities, but they’re not really delivering on expectations.


In the first scenario, it can be incredibly confusing for people. Communities can be focused on anything from a knitting circle to a global technology movement. There are all these platforms, content, incentives, etc. There is so much to think about, and it’s not a linear journey. There are many chunks of individual work that must be glued together, and typically it can be very confusing to know where to start.


In the second scenario, companies often feel exasperated about having a community, but not knowing what to do with it, or how to move it in the right direction.


In this latter scenario, are there common reasons for why the community is struggling, or not moving forward?

One of the common themes is a lack of value. So often when I come in, people are looking for tactical or technical solutions. While we do tend to find these solutions, it’s often really a case of revisiting the fundamental value proposition. If someone is spending an hour in your community, they’re essentially spending an hour away from their family, their work, and their free time. We need to zone in on what the value is to them, essentially what are they getting out of it?


There is also sometimes a case of the current community leaking, that is, they’re falling off somewhere. It can be difficult to determine what might be causing that because sometimes there isn’t the correct instrumentation. Is it content? Onboarding? Engagement? Retention? All of these could be reasons why the community is leaking.


So, Community Managers really have to fight to keep the community valuable, and also ensure they’re keeping their members’ attention so that they don’t drop off?

It’s not something that is unique to communities. There are countless online platforms out there, millions of pieces of content, millions of gamification approaches – there is essentially a sea of options. And I think that sometimes people just aren’t sure what they should focus on, or what their next steps should be.


What are some of the metrics you look at when analyzing a community?

For me, there is a set of ‘umbrella metrics’, the things you look at for an overarching community strategy, and then the metrics you track for individual chunks of the community.


For the overarching metrics, for instance, the things I look at are growth and visibility. From a lot of data I have seen, there is usually only 1 out of 5 people that are active in communities. 4 out of 5 people you never hear from, they’re like ghosts. And because they’re not posting, liking, or engaging, they’re almost entirely forgotten. But I believe you need to track how many people are consuming and observing the community.


Another very important metric for me is daily activity. So, the number of daily active users is divided by the number of monthly active users, and that will give you an indication of the ‘stickiness’ level. You want to be at least above 20%, preferably closer to 30%; and anything below the 20-mark, you know that something is wrong. These metrics tell us very useful things.


For individual chunks, there are many metrics you should consider. Like in the case of webinars – I would track the landing page, the conversion rate, show-up rate, CTA conversation rate, and more.


Using those metrics, would you say it’s important to incorporate them into a strategy for ongoing improvement?

Absolutely. If you’re not measuring your metrics, it doesn’t exist. If you’re not learning from your metrics, there’s no point in measuring them.


When it comes to online communities, especially in scenarios where businesses are communicating with one another, do you think that content is often prioritized above meaningful connection?

The way that I look at it is that content is a powerful way to re-engage in an automated fashion. If you write a blog post, and the key principles of good content are there: it has a compelling headline, it gives you tangible and practical value, you only do the work once and it acts as a fishing net and brings in the right people. But ultimately, what people want is an engaged, humanistic experience. Being in the same space with people who share the same passions and interests and also have the opportunity to learn and grow from one another.


I believe each piece of content is like a wave that moves people in the right direction. But there must be a coastline where people can connect and engage, and that should be the community platform, or a series of events – but ideally both. If you’re only putting content out there – while it’s valuable – I would argue that you’re not really creating a community, you’re just doing content marketing. There must be a central place where people go and spend time with one another.


When choosing a community platform, what do you think people, and especially businesses should be looking out for?

First of all, simplicity. Something that is really easy for community members to use. Typically signing up is easy but going in and extracting value is the hard part. So, it’s important that people can go straight in and do just that: like asking questions and getting help, or reading great content. Tangible value is critical in anything, but especially for communities.


Another thing I look for is whether conversations between people are re-usable. If I go in, for instance, ask a question and get useful answers, is the conversation searchable? This is the problem with a lot of chat-based platforms. Their history is terrible and it’s difficult to go and find previous conversations.


What has been a personal stand-out moment in community management?

Years ago, while I was working for a company called Canonical, they created this operating system called Ubuntu. My job was to build a community around it. I had been in the job for about six months, and one day I received an email from a kid in central Africa. He told me that he would do chores during the week, and on Saturdays, he would walk two hours to the closest town and use the money he earned to use the internet. He could only afford an hour of internet time, but would use that to contribute to Ubuntu, and then walk back home. For me, it was a mind-blowing example of the power of community. And it showed me that when someone is really passionate about a community and feels a part of something, that they will go above and beyond to be involved in it.


You can discover more valuable insights from Jono in his book The Art of Community, which is available to purchase online. You can also stay in the loop by following him on Twitter. Remember to explore Panion’s blog for more interviews with experts in community management and building.

Edwain Steenkamp Content Editor and Writer at Panion
Edwain Steenkamp
Having worked in the media industry for 10 years, Edwain has a deep love for people and communication. As a part of the Panion team, he strives to inform, connect and inspire people from different parts of the world.