How Fitbit Built An Indispensable Online Community

Sharing today one of my favorite snippets from The Indispensable Community.

You can learn how Allison Leahy and her incredible team at Fitbit made their community indispensable.

More than any other chapter, this explains the neverending, ongoing, process to maximize the value of a community.


Fitbit

On a cloudy San Francisco day in 2013, Allison Leahy, a novice with just a single year of community building experience, walked into 160 Spear Street to begin her first day of work. The offices felt busy, but rundown. Empty boxes littered the floors and were stacked high against the walls. Leahy’s team consisted of just her and two colleagues. Within five years, they would build one of the most successful brand communities in the world.

Fitbit was six years old by the time Leahy arrived. The company was founded in 2007 by James Park and Eric Friedman, two computer scientists who realized the same accelerators used in the Nintendo Wii could be placed into smaller devices to track people’s exercise. They scraped together $400k from friends and family and built a prototype tracker. They premiered at TechCrunch50, an industry startup competition, and came second. More importantly, they secured 2,000 pre-orders.

A year later, the pair released The Fitness Tracker, which could track footsteps, sleep and many other movements (or lack of them). Sales were slow at first. Fitbit sold just 5,000 by the end of the year. But it was enough to secure a big investment from a venture capitalist and a partnership with BestBuy. Sales rose rapidly from 58,000 in 2010 to 1.3m in 2012. The following year, Fitbit released their breakout product, the Fitbit Flex. Sales were heading into the stratosphere and the holiday season was only just beginning. This was a big problem.

A tsunami of new customers would soon flood Fitbit’s tiny support team with questions. There was neither enough time nor money to train a new support team. But Fitbit already had over a million customers who had solved most problems.

Leahy’s job was to build a community to connect the people with questions to the people with answers.

Leahy didn’t have much time. She had to scale the community to handle the influx of members and get a lot more people answering questions. A new website was already in the works, but it needed to be tested and the community needed to support it. In early December 2013, Leahy invited 20 community members who had already answered a lot of questions (superusers), to join a customer council. Leahy hoped this group would not only test the new website but also help answer a lot of questions over the Christmas rush.

Leahy and her team knew their customers were buying a Fitbit tracker to get (or stay) healthy. They would have questions about more than just the product: they would have questions about getting fit, eating well and having healthier lifestyles. The new community website wouldn’t just be about Fitbit’s products, but the role the product played in the lives of members. It would be a place for members to swap their best exercise, weight loss and healthy eating advice.

The new Fitbit website was launched just two weeks before Christmas. It had a tiny group of core users to answer questions, provided support in five languages and was designed to answer any product or fitness questions customers had. Now it was time to see if the community could handle an incredible influx of members.

The customer tsunami crashed upon the website hard over Christmas. On Christmas Day, 6,220 new members signed up with 1,254 posts (questions and answers). On Boxing Day, another 10,000 members joined and created another 2,000 posts, but the system held firm. Customers were asking and answering almost every single question. Even the healthy lifestyle area of the community was a hit. The tiny group of superusers Leahy recruited had helped her weather the storm.

By February, over 100,000 members had joined the community, yet the system was working. Members were stepping up and answering each other’s questions. Better yet, the superuser group had also answered the huge backlog of questions. Having shown the concept worked, Leahy was now eager to open the community up to the world.

So far, only registered customers could ask questions and see the discussions. This made the community exclusive, but more difficult to find. Anyone who searched on Google would never find the thousands of answers in the community. If Leahy could open up the community, its value would rise massively.

It took a year, but in July 2015, Leahy got the support she needed to let anyone browse the discussions in the community. The level of traffic rose by an incredible 500% in just six months. The significance of this is huge. If a customer asks a question of the community and gets an answer, they don’t need to call customer support. But if that answer solves the problem for 500% more visitors, that’s even more people who don’t need to call customer support.

The community was now tackling all the questions it could see, but what about those it couldn’t see? Customers didn’t just ask questions on the Fitbit website, they also asked them on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms. If the community really wanted to show its worth, Leahy and her team needed to find a way to answer questions no matter where they were posted.

At that time, if members directed a question to @FitbitSupport, they would usually get a response. But if they casually mentioned Fitbit, their chances of getting an answer were slim. So, in the summer of 2014, Leahy and her community team setup listening software to flag any mentions of the brand and respond to those they could help. They didn’t just respond on Facebook and Twitter, they responded anywhere they could have an impact, including the forums of other brands. When QVC sold 62k Fitbit trackers, the support team answered questions in the QVC community too.

Most brand managers would be thrilled with a thriving community which answered tens of thousands of product-related questions every month. Leahy, however, wasn’t satisfied; not yet. She had a bigger vision for the community: the community could be far more useful to Fitbit than just answering questions–it could help colleagues in other departments too. But to make this happen, she needed to build alliances throughout the organization.

In the Fitbit community, value comes from some unexpected places. For example, if the community management team knew what topics most people were talking about, they could tell the marketing team, who could create content they knew would be a hit. Even the most benign discussions now had great potential. One popular subject, debating whether a tuna or chicken sandwich was healthier, became an entire content series of ‘quick lunch’ ideas. Fitbit had nutritionists on staff who could quickly respond to topics like these. Soon, all the best performing content was sourced from the community.

More alliances soon followed. The PR team began to use the community as an early warning system of problems and Leahy’s team began responding to negative reviews on major shopping sites. Each alliance made Leahy’s community more valuable to her colleagues. But, by far the most important alliance was with the engineering team. Engineering teams can now see how many times community members discuss a product issue and prioritize what to fix next. They get more insight into the customer experience and can find testers and gather feedback before and after every product launch. The community is now helping develop the very products they will soon be using. Today, Leahy feels the product feedback is even more valuable to Fitbit than the thousands of questions the community answers every week.

In the five years since first walking into work, Leahy and her colleagues have transformed a small, scrappy, community project into a core pillar of the business. At each stage, they pushed the envelope of what was possible. They didn’t wait for customers to come to them with questions, they went out to customers. They didn’t hope people answered questions, they built a community council of top members to answer hundreds of questions each month. They didn’t turn away members who just wanted to get fit, they created a place for them to have discussions about health and fitness.

Not everything has been a success. Leahy is quick to point out it helps to be working for a brand with a breakthrough product. And certainly, no community can be a panacea for every problem a brand faces. The Fitbit community hasn’t prevented a sales decline in recent years. But the overarching theme at Fitbit has been to continually drive the community to deliver the most value it possibly can to its customers and its members.

The community team today, which has grown to over 80 staff members around the world, now supports over 500,000 community members and several times more across social media. It delivers value to Fitbit’s customers across the entire buying journey and even shapes the very products Fitbit releases. The community is a powerful testament to what a community manager with a big vision, great passion and indomitable determination can achieve. Leahy has done something far too few people building a brand community today even try to do: she’s made her community indispensable.


You can buy The Indispensable Community on Amazon.com.

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