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.
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.
A bridge provides a connection across a chasm.
You and your team can be the bridge between your organization and the community.
You can shuttle (and filter) information from one group to the next. You can pass and filter information from one group to the next.
Most community professionals are the bridge between their brand and the organization.
Bonding is different.
Bonding removes the chasm by interlinking the two. The deeper the links, the stronger the bond.
You’re bonding when you persuade employees to test their marketing ideas in the community, source case studies from members, and get developers to host AMA chats directly with community members.
You’re bonding when you persuade members to provide direct feedback to engineers, have voting rights on key brand decisions, and invite members in to meet the staff and CEO.
The problem with being the bridge, is your colleagues don’t get direct experience of the community. They don’t see the enthusiasm, the remarkable contributions, and the same opportunities you do.
The problem with building bonds is it takes time, persuasion, and subtle nudging to gradually get more colleagues to see the community as an objective which directly supports their work.
At the moment, we have far too many bridges and far too few bonds.
I’m often surprised by people who run large, mature, communities and haven’t segmented their membership in any meaningful way.
They still treat their communities as one massive lump of people.
They ask all their members to do the same thing at the same time regardless of how long someone has been a member or how active they have been.
In The Indispensable Community, I noted the reason most people don’t participate in your community is they’re simply not able to.
A solution to this is to properly segment your members and develop a series of emails, unique weekly messages, and on-site calls to action (CTAs) they will receive.
The most common one is the onboarding journey for newcomers. But this is just one of several you should develop.
Over time you should be able to segment every member by their current level of participation and adapt your messages to each accordingly.
A simple system is shown below:
You can set up default rules (by direct access to server logs or using the current platform) to show each group different messages based upon their current level of participation.
Based upon this, you can assign them to a specific group which receives a different experience.
This would cover the automated email series they receive, the calls to action they might see on the website, and what kind of weekly email they are sent. You can see an example of this below:
These calls to action should be based upon your segmented survey results and interviews with each group.
They must also naturally lead into the goal of your community.
The further you develop the community, the more complex these rules might become. For example, as you’re getting started:
Over time, you want to continue to push the boundary here. Develop more specific rules for unique groups of members. Guide them to make their best possible contribution to the community.
You should constantly use your data (open rates, click-through rates, cohort retention rates) to gradually refine each message/call to action to gain the greatest number of valuable behaviors within the community.
It’s easy to create a content calendar, you can fill it with items like:
- Member of the month
- Member Interview Tuesday.
- What Are You Working On?
- Expert Advice About [x]
- Throwback Thursday
- Promotion Friday
It’s harder to make the content exciting enough to sustain interest.
The problem with anything regular is unless it’s regularly (and surprisingly) interesting members learn to ignore it.
Working out loud discussions typically begin strong but the popularity soon fades as members realize the number of useful connections from them doesn’t justify the effort.
Interviews with members typically falter because many members don’t have anything remarkable to say. Once you’re in week 20, you’ve been through most of your top members. Worse yet, the audience often has to wade through an hour-long interview, or a 2000+ word transcript to find a few interesting nuggets.
A few tips that might help here:
1) Tweak the format to make it scannable. Reduce an hour-long interview to a members’ top 5 tips, what I learned this month, top links, top resources, or an edited digest etc…
2) Only publish content that passes the interest test. It’s harsh, but if you interview a member for an hour, and they don’t say anything remarkable, respect your community and don’t publish it. Your duty is to the entire community, not one member. Better yet, wait for members to say something remarkable in the community and interview them. Have a few people you can run content past to see if they like it.
3) Drop the content calendar. If you’re just churning out content to fill an arbitrary slot in the calendar of your own making, it’s probably an idea to drop the calendar. There simply isn’t enough meaningful activity to fill out. Wait and help create the conditions for amazing things to happen and then write about it.
Publishing content “because it’s Thursday” is the worst reason to publish content.
We can all agree promising $1000 to the top contributor each month is short-sighted.
You will get a lot more activity, but it won’t be good activity. Within a month you will be left with a spam-filled shell of a community.
That’s the short game.
Any time you’re using tactics to get the activity up, you’re playing the short-game. Sure, you need some activity, but it’s far less than we imagine. Beyond a fairly low level, it’s the quality of activity that matters.
The long game improves the fundamental quality of the community.
When you play the long-game, you’re making the community better (not just bigger). You’re making the community a more desirable place to be (which in turn attracts more people to participate).
When you’re gradually building strong relationships with top experts, improving the signal to noise ratio, enforcing higher standards of contributions, you’re playing the long-game. The community is becoming a better resource. This pays off over the long-term.
When you’re building a more powerful sense of community, providing better ways for people to connect and build more genuine relationships, you’re playing the long-game.
When you’re enabling everyone to explore the cutting edge of the field, report back their findings, and learn from each other, you’re playing the long-game.
The problem with playing the long-game is there aren’t any easy metrics to tell if it’s working. You sacrifice short-term activity for long-term success.
Most of the communities which are growing rapidly today had a year or more of obscurity while the community professional gradually built the relationships, attracted the right members, and established the right quality norms of contributions.
If you’re playing the long-game, you can’t be held accountable to short-term metrics. You need to set the strategy, determine what your community is capable of being, and give yourself enough runway to take off.
I know a car company that once tried to launch an online community. The problem was their audience already had their own communities. So they tried to sue their rival communities off the web.
Suing your own fans, your best fans even, is clearly dumb. A far better approach is to support the ecosystem around you.
Have a place in your community (or on your website) where you list the top fan communities, let people with a big social media following apply to be listed as a verified top influencer in your community, sponsor relevant events, give members who host their own event a small budget to cover basic expenses.
Show up and participate (ethically) in other communities too. Host prizes for members who share links to their best advice and let anyone from any community vote on it. Invite the top members to meet your team and get insider access.
You don’t need to own and host the community to get most of the benefits from the community. You can still deflect support tickets, increase customer satisfaction, spread information, and get great insights.
And even if you can’t, doesn’t it just make sense to support the ecosystem growing up around you instead of fighting it? Once you have a page listing the top communities to join, members to follow, and best resources shared, you become the beginning of someone’s social journey. That’s a useful place to be.
Last year we reviewed some research on a developer community.
A somewhat crude paraphrasing would go something like this:
Q. “What would you like in the community?”
A. “Great documentation!”
Q. “What about better discussions, expert interviews, live chatting with product engineers?”
A. “No, we just want great documentation”
Q. “Do you think we should have a Slack channel?”
A. “We don’t care, we just want great documentation”
Q. “Would you be interested in publishing a blog post sharing your expertise?”
A. “No, I.want.to.see.great.documentation please”
Q. “If you had to choose between a blog post, expert interview, or a live chat…which would be your favourite?”
A. “Good documentation”
It’s obvious the community manager isn’t listening. S/he is looking for anything that validates the kind of community they already plan to build. No-one is going to win here.
A far better set of questions would go:
“Documentation? Great what kind of documentation do you most need?”
“What format do you like documentation in?”
“Would you like to edit it? Would you be interested in other developers adding their notes/comments on it?”
“How would you like to be notified of updates by documentation?”
“If we allow others to add their notes/make updates, should this be hand-selected or should we have a review process?”
Now you can start shaping exactly the kind of community members want.
It might not even have a discussion area. It might be a wiki, a series of updated guides people can clip notes to or something else entirely.
It’s far harder to listen that we might imagine. Don’t go through a research interview with a set of questions hoping to get an answer that supports what you already want.
Genuinely do the research with an open mind and go where it takes you.
A staggering number of online communities have terrible onboarding journeys. They usually waste time teaching people how to use the platform, sharing bland welcome messages, or asking members to do inane things (“update your profile photo!”).
Your audience is smart. If they’ve signed up to your community assume they know who you are, how a community works, and have a reasonable idea of what they want. Don’t waste extremely precious attention.
The purpose of an onboarding series is to change and enhance how people feel about the community.
You can do this by:
a) Telling them something they didn’t know or expect (and find remarkably interesting or useful).
b) Nudging them to take an immediate action – which makes them feel smarter or better connected.
c) Create unique opportunities they can join in.
A great onboarding series steadily helps members feel more competent, more connected, or more autonomous.
- Email 1 – Just Getting Started? Sign Up For A Mentoring Group (+1 Days)
- Email 2 – The Top 5 Resources for Beginners, Curated by Our Top Experts (+7 Day)
- Email 3 – Share What’s Holding You Back (what can we solve?) (+14 Days)
- Email 4 – 5 Members You Should Connect With (+21 Days)
Likewise, you can focus on a specific pathway (usually competence).
- Email 1 – It’s Time To Set Your Goal (and our members will help you get there)
- Email 2 – How Our Top Members Learned To [Key Skill]
- Email 3 – The Top Questions You Probably Have About [Key Skill]
- Email 4 – It’s Time For Your Newcomer Blog Post (share your progress!)
- Email 5 – Getting Stuck? Our Top Members Share Their Tips
Each email can contain relevant links to discussions and content shared in your community.
You might focus on an autonomy journey.
- Email 1 – What Can You Contribute To Our Community?
- Email 2 – What’s The One Thing You Knew When You Started In This Field?
- Email 3 – Who Would You Like Us To Interview?
- Email 4 – Can You Share Your Best Tips About [X]
- Email 5 – Want To Lead Your Own Group?
- Email 6 – What Can We Do Better? Help Us To Help You!
You steadily make people feel more in control and able to feel a sense of ownership over the community.
If you haven’t looked at your community’s onboarding journey recently, I recommend you sign up for it and go through the entire process. Then decide what kind of journey you need for newcomers in your field and create the series.
This is StackOverflow in 2008:
This is StackOverflow today (10 years later):
The homepage has had a few tweaks over the years but otherwise hasn’t changed much.
They constantly tweaked and improved their way to success. No major platform changes.
Whatever platform you’re using, it’s easy to identify things your current platform doesn’t offer and convince yourself it’s essential. Try to resist this.
I’d estimate only around 50% of people who migrate platforms truly believed it improved the community. Far too often, they trade one set of issues for another. They break things which were working, members get lost and frustrated, search traffic declines, integrations fail, and other features don’t work quite as well.
Migrating to a new platform should usually be the last resort to solve a problem, not the first option. It takes months, costs a fortune, and has a mixed record of success. You’re playing Russian roulette with a year of work and up to $500k+ in costs.
This happens often when a new head of community joins and compares their new community to their last one. Resist this temptation. The benefits rarely match the costs.
p.s. After 10 years, StackOverflow remains the best functioning community on the web.
Last week, I presented at the CMX Summit on how to build an indispensable community.
Speaking with many of you afterwards, the biggest takeaway was our approach to measuring an online community. We don’t focus on ROI, we focus on something different entirely.
Today I published my first Medium post which I hope you will check out.
It’s a longer reads than most blog posts here. It breaks down what’s wrong with our current approaches (true believerism, call deflection, ROI calculations) and identifies a new path forward.
Everyone gets excited talking about who the community is for.
Everyone gets nervous when talking about who the community isn’t for.
Which segments of your customer base, your audience, your employees aren’t a good fit for the community?
Literally, list them down. Be aggressive about it. The more segments you put on the list the better you can delight those off it.
In theory, everyone sees the logic in being specific in who we target and delight in a community.
In practice, ignoring member segments unleashes a bewildering array of internal and external issues. People prefer to avoid the discussion, try to cater to everyone, and create an average community which delights no-one.
Have these discussions early, openly, and honestly. Have a rationale (begin with your most valuable or most enthusiastic audiences) and then create a timeframe or list of requirements to add that segment too (i.e. must have someone to manage this audience).
Now the conversation isn’t about which segments you will or won’t target…but when and why you might target each segment. That might help you…at least a little.
Big hero images, large white spacing, plenty of empty areas are all signs of a community designed by someone who prioritized beauty over what members need.
This usually happens when the person designing a community doesn’t participate in it.
Given the choice between beautiful and ugly, everyone prefers beauty.
But that’s not the choice.
When you’re forcing members to waste time scrolling around the page to find what they want, you have a problem. The more time it takes, the worse the community experience becomes. If it becomes too bad they go somewhere else entirely.
It’s no surprise the best communities, StackOverflow, FitBit, Spotify, Alteryx, GiffGaff etc…have densely packed sites that are easy to scan.
More than one community revamp has been ruined by someone on a misguided quest to make something prettier instead of better.
If you find yourself pushing the content people want to see down the page, adding a lot of spacing between content, it’s time to speak up. Because if you don’t your members will.