Crafting a strong community takes the right balance of talking to your audience and actually listening them. Sarah Judd Welch explains the key tools for cultivation. Yes, content is one of them.
Over the past few years, I’ve seen and felt first hand the skepticism of business leaders and traditional marketing folks around the financial return on investing in community initiatives. While it used to be that most of the evidence was anecdotal, today there are quite a few examples of community efforts moving the bottom line among the biggest and smallest of brands.
Let’s keep in mind the goals of community when talking about return: connect people to each other, make them happy, and make them stay (retention). All three of these goals strongly correlate with brand loyalty, referrals, and engagement metrics. With these in mind, consider the following statistics:
- It costs 80% less to retain a customer than to acquire a new one
- Increasing customer retention rate by 5% can increase profits by up to 95% over the long-term (HBS)
- Increased engagement on community sites can result in up to 25% increase in revenue (MSI)
- Friend recommendations are the number one influencing factor in purchase decisions (Brand Advocates)
Image source: Threadless.com
Although these stats are impressive, nothing demonstrates a point quite like real-life examples. Take Threadless – a creative community created by skinnyCorp that makes, supports, and buys great art – the perfect model of crowdsourcing and customer community success. At Threadless, e-commerce and community intersect; members submit designs (originally t-shirts, and now other stuff) that fellow members can purchase. Founded in 2000 with just $1000, the community has now grown to 2.5 million members globally with more than 500,000 designs submitted and nearly 5000 designs printed. Together, Threadless members have helped raise nearly $8.8 million for more than 1200 artists worldwide. How’s that for ROI on community?
Likewise, The Huffington Post, arguably the largest actively managed community on the internet, also benefits as a media company from strong community investment. HuffPo leverages its commenter community to distribute content and drive new and returning visits to the site with roughly 9.5 million pre-moderated comments per month. As a content trendsetter, the media powerhouse has sought to ensure a safe place for people to comment, according to its previous Director of Community, Justin Isaf. While the company does use an algorithm to help moderate spammy or inappropriate comments, the community is largely self-policed, reducing the need for headcount on HuffPo’s community moderation team. Partially as a result of its community, HuffPo sees 70M unique visitors and 1.1B pageviews in the US. alone. The results are clear: community engagement and distribution means more site views and unique visitors, a major selling point for advertisers and content sponsors.
Like Threadless, Fitocracy is a community platform. The fitness gamification network is built around a community of people motivating each other to get healthy everyday. The network has grown from 300,000 to more than 1.5 million users since it launched out of beta in March 2012 and has more user engagement than Twitter. According to founder Dick Talens, users come back to the app seven days a week even if they’re not working out – just because they’re so engrossed in the community. The app has also found a new way to monetize community with group fitness plans built around two of the most valuable benefits of any community – accountability and support among members. Aiming to replace the typical “gym trainer model,” the group fitness plans assign small groups of Fitocracy community members to one trainer for a fraction of what training would cost at a gym (plans are $50-77/month). The groups are held accountable to report their progress to the trainer and to each other through communication systems such as Google Hangouts and Q&As. Fitocracy has effectively monetized their community itself.
These examples show that community really can have a significant (and positive) impact on your bottom line, whether it’s through retention, increased engagement, referrals, or a revenue stream built around fulfilling the needs of an existing community. You’re most likely already interacting with your users, and many of them are likely already interacting with each other. Challenge yourself to reorganize the structure of these touch points to form a community that will contribute to your bottom line. Are you leveraging the value of community?
You are the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Quibb. What is it about your job that gets you out of bed and into the office every morning?
Sometimes when I tell people I’m working on a news product, they roll their eyes and say ‘…another one?’. That attitude is exactly what I think makes the job fun, interesting, and challenging. News is a busy space with no clear winner and it’s a huge market. It’s an established product category with a lot of room for innovating, and plenty of challenges to keep the work exciting.
Beyond that, it really is all about the people. I’ve spoken to so many Quibb members that have had really positive experiences (both online and offline) that wouldn’t have occurred without the product, and it’s amazing to be able to help those interactions occur and relationships develop. My experience with Quibb has also been a bit self-serving, in that I’ve built the perfect learning tool for myself. I’m new to the tech/startup world, and Quibb is a professional news product. This means that it allows me to easily find and read about exactly the topics, trends and news that I need everyday. The first thing I both need and want to check in the morning is Quibb, which is perfect!
Some would describe Quibb as a Reddit for professionals. Why do you think this kind of platform is so appealing?
There’s so much content available to professionals (especially those of us that work in tech/startups) and it’s getting more and more difficult to find really great content. It’s even more difficult to have interesting discussions around that content with topic experts and professional peers. Through the simple idea of ‘share what you’re reading for work’, Quibb allows professionals to share all the great content they’re reading – and with a basic follower model, others can also get a feed packed full of great content, directly from people within their industry. The initial Quibb membership is focused on tech and startup professionals (i.e. designers, founders, VCs, developers), and will eventually allow professionals from any industry vertical to see what experts and thought leaders from their particular niche are reading and what they think about it. The role of industry journals and trade publications hasn’t evolved at the same pace that social sharing has, and I think there’s a big opportunity to learn from sites and communities like Reddit, Tumblr, Hacker News, and others – but with a context that is 100% professional.
Do you think the popularity of news/content aggregation will continue to grow, and do you have any predictions for the future of the content sharing website?
There will always be a need for professional news. I believe that great content will win, irrespective of where it comes from.
Traditionally, news organizations have been about vertical integration of content, ads, and distribution. Now this ecosystem is becoming fragmented, where each of those 3 is its own ecosystem. Great content will increasingly find distribution because all of the aggregators and various curation products exist and are seeking that content out – they’re making it easier for people to find it
In the past, the editor-curated model was the most popular – someone within a news organization was responsible for determining (based on a variety of factors) which content to promote. Today, people are more enabled to seek out content that interests them. Running this experiment over the past few years, it turns out that sometimes this leads to more funny cat pictures and less serious journalism. The news market will grow and become more efficient over time. Similarly, I believe that we’ll create and people will find much richer and fragmented ways for both distributors and creators to monetize their audience via many different publishing platforms across many different monetization models.
All of this means that everything is becoming more complex… but that’s what an efficient marketplace looks like, that’s what progress in this space will look like.
You’ve been a leader in ensuring transparency between the Quibb and its users throughout the site’s development. What do you see as the benefits of transparency, and what advice would you give to young startups looking to be proactively transparent for their user base?
I’ve written lots of posts on Quibb – everything from why I’ve added new features, to explaining what I’m working on at the moment and why. Personally, I don’t really think of it as a novel approach, and don’t really understand why I wouldn’t act this way! Part of the reason why it makes sense specifically for Quibb (and potentially other products in this product category) is that the product itself is the members – it’s built on their connections, the content they share, the discussions they partake in. It would be silly for me to not initiate a relationship with the members. Also, I often say that I view all Quibb members as ‘mini-advisors’. My background isn’t related to tech or startups, while almost all Quibb members have expertise in an area that touches the product (e.g. interaction design, email deliverability, community management, etc.).
The fact that I’m so open is a way to initiate discussions with members whose opinions and thoughts I really value, and can learn a lot from as I try to make the product better.
You previously spent your career as a climate change and cleantech professional. What do you attribute as the cause for your move from the environmental sector to the startup world?
It’s complicated 🙂 I worked for Environment Canada (Canada’s federal environment department) directly out of school, followed by positions with a few smaller climate change non-profits. After realizing how hard it is to actually have an impact and create change through those types of organizations, I decided to go back to school and get my MBA, focusing on Corporate Social Responsibility. I was very disappointed when I realized that all of the things that I was learning about there wouldn’t be very impactful either. Since 1/2 an MBA is both useless and expensive, I decided to finish my 2nd year – but I shifted my classes to align with my personal Plan B, which had always been entrepreneurship, specifically something tech related. It’s then that I started going to some startup events in Toronto, and got a taste for all of the things I could potentially work on and create. I started by working on a professional volunteer matching product, but never made it very far. I realized pretty quickly that while the Toronto startup ecosystem is full of talented, super smart people – the quickest and easiest way to de-risk any idea or product that I would work on in the future would be to move to the valley. So I did.
Which Bay Area events or communities are you involved in?
Honestly, not very many. The community that has developed on Quibb has provided me with more connections with great tech and startup people than I could ever hope for! I’ve hosted a few Quibb member-only events too (one in Palo Alto, two in SF, and most recently one in NYC) which have gone over really well. I’m hoping to do more of these in the future, as I think that connecting with Quibb members that you meet online is really important, and helps to strengthen those relationships.
Blue Bottle or Philz?
New Orleans Iced Coffee from BB – straight black (…which I have to convince them to serve to me, most occasions).
About our contributor // Eliza Dropkin is a lover of live music, good food, and beautiful places. Connect with her on Twitter via @elizadropkin.
You call yourself a ‘Community Architect’ – what does this mean?
I help companies build a passionate, loyal user base. Generally, community folks obsess about experience of a product or service from a participant’s perspective. What is the value in participating for the individual, how does it move the needle for the company? What is the relationship and interaction between them, and from user-to-user? The Community Architect defines this strategy through product features, offline interaction, and in communication via email or social media.
You’re an advisor to startups like ThreadFlip and Skillshare – do you think companies are starting to realise how important community is to business?
Within the startup world, “Community Management” has become a buzzword in the last few years, no doubt thanks to Yelp. But there is much confusion about where it fits amongst marketing and support. I think about it in terms of function; marketing is externally-focused and geared towards acquisition; community focuses on internal user engagement and loyalty, growth is a bi-product.
The foundations of community: engagement, advocacy, ambassadorship, and loyalty, are not new themes in the worlds of marketing and advertising. Startups have appropriated these principles and given new nomenclature, but the essence is the same. They work across industries, whatever the names, because they speak to universal human drives and motivations.
Do all businesses need community? Well, would your love for Coca Cola be enriched by drinking one amongst the company of others who dig it? Some companies seem to make more sense than others.
You’ve worked in senior community roles for Airbnb and Yelp – how do you think the role’s evolved over the past five years?
The value of community differs greatly depending on the business – there is no universal formula – and I think companies are starting to see that you can’t just replicate programs and expect to have the same success.
A lot of companies hire recent grads to handle community – do you think there’s much career progression for senior CMs?
Like many careers, one starts on the front lines, moves to a leadership role within the organization, then tackles the higher level strategy, or starts a new project.
If someone is relatively green but passionate about a product and thinks deeply about how to make the experience better, that’s far more valuable than an experienced person who isn’t invested.
Community Management Appreciation Day is on Monday Jan 28 – why do you think this day is important and what activities do you have planned?
CMAD is important in raising awareness about the mission and challenges of community folk, and gives us the opportunity to connect and swap stories!
There are many activities planned in the Bay Area such as Community Hacks and Strategy TNT. This year I’m kicking off a series of quarterly workshops for community builders called Together Labs. Through small group exercises people explore community beyond the context of their own companies.
What events and communities do you recommend in the Bay Area?
That depends on what you’re into, but of course The Fetch is a great resource to find out what’s happening in the startup scene and The Bold Italic features the fun and fresh in the city. I belong to the ForageSF community and really enjoy the happenings of SFFT, and of course Yelp is in my heart. Mortified and Tourettes Without Regrets are immensely entertaining events for the silly. Happy exploring!
Check out Ligaya’s TEDxSoMa talk: Rethinking Startup Communities here.
About our Curator // Kate Kendall is the founder and CEO of The Fetch, a community where professionals can discover and share what’s happening in their city. Before this, Kate led product, content and digital at magazine companies, handled outreach for new startups and organised too many communities and events to mention. Follow her on Twitter at @katekendall.