Although we’ve had a previous Member Spotlight on the subject of Ambassador Programs, it is a broad and popular topic, so I have deemed it worthy of a second. I recently carried out extensive research into these types of programs and the role they play within communities, and this interview with Jake was part of that undertaking.
Now a community consultant, @jake_mckee formerly worked as a community practitioner for a number of organisations, including Apple and LEGO.
I put a few questions to Jake, and here’s what he said:
Hawk: I think most people are familiar with the concept of super-user programs, but will you briefly outline some the key ways that they add value to a wider community strategy?
Jake: Everyone has a slightly different understanding/definition of what a “super user program” is, so it may be worth a bit of definition first.
In my experience, every online community has a tiered system of participation. We’ve all heard about the 90-9-1 (www.90-9-1.org) concept that states that (roughly) 90% of your users are simply audience, 9% are editors, and 1% are creators. Whether your community fits that model or something similar, there’s always a group of vocal, active leaders that produce far more than most of the rest of the community.
A Super User program, whatever name it may come with, is simply a way encourage super user behaviors and reward increased levels of activity.
Every social group ends up with some form of power users. A book club has that person that makes sure the monthly meetings get scheduled and pushes the group to read the book. Our families tend to have that one person who makes sure that everyone is talking about where to spend the holidays that year and who’s bringing what food. Communities are no different; a small percentage will naturally rise to the top of the participation matrix, so to speak.
Super users are critical for the success of your long-term community goals for several reasons:
- They are the front line, 24/7/365 forces for community good. No matter how excellent your moderators and/or community managers are, you can never be around all day, every day. And even if you could, would you want to? That’d be a huge investment that may ultimately quell the natural growth desires of the overall community.
- Super users, when properly rewarded, showcase to the rest of the community what the positive outcome of tons of participation looks like. The same way a middle school football player looks to NFL players and says “If I practice harder, I could be like him some day”, so to does the community with super users.
- Super users can speak a certain form of honesty that is often not possible for a company. Example: A community member asks a question about a competitor’s product for comparison to your product. Will company policy allow you to reply? Even if you could, would community members believe you when tell them your product is better?
- Super users often have a deeper, more open communication channel to your community team and the larger company. They are able to “represent” the community needs and desires, and are often able to represent the company needs and positions back to the community.
**_Hawk: At what stage of the community lifecycle does it make the most sense to implement a super user program? Are there obvious indicators or drivers?_**
Jake: Repeat after me: “Super users will exist, or at least will be evolving, whether my program exists or not”
The moment you put people in a group where they can interact, roles, participation levels, and leadership will naturally start to evolve. The real question is where are you going to help guide this evolution.
You have two choices:
Let evolution happen naturally and watch for indicators that mark your need to launch a formal program.
Build a program foundation from the beginning as part of your core strategy and guide the level and timing of your formal program expansion.
Personally, I’m a strong believer in laying the foundation for a formal program from day one. Depending on the community strategy, you may implement and execute more slowly or more rapidly, but you know going in what to watch for and how to react.
**_Hawk: Do you have any evidence (anecdotal or definitive) that you can share on how effective these programs can be? Have you seen them work to effect an increase in certain areas (i.e. engagement, content creation, number of questions answered)?_**
Jake: While I can’t share direct details, I know that my work at both Apple and LEGO with super users was a critical to the success of those communities.
The Global Apple Support Community is an incredibly trafficked site, with users asking tons of questions each month. For many years, Apple took a hands off approach to the community and the super users were the primary source of some pretty brilliant answers. To this day they are an invaluable part of the community-based support.
When I was at LEGO, I was responsible for our direct engagement with the Adult Fans of LEGO (AFOLs). This group was amazing at putting together events, generating online content (at that time in their own communities), and generally helping to promote the idea to the world that “LEGO is a creative medium”. They helped change the perception in the world that LEGO was nothing more than a toy, and that change in perception encouraged the company to open up and create highly successful projects and programs.
Hawk: How do you identify potential super users? Would you recommend a formal application process or should members be approached by community staff?
Jake: Identification starts very early. You have to decide how you’re defining a SU, based on program goals, business needs, and community member interests. A SU in a tech support community will, in many ways, be quite different than a SU in a cancer support community.
To help answer the question, however, I have a few rules of thumb:
- SUs are leaders first, contributors second. Just because you add a lot of content does not, necessarily make you are a SU. Leaders participate, but they also bring people together and drive shared outcomes.
- Run the data… figure out what matters to you in the community and then run the reports to figure out who’s displaying those behaviors. If it’s a tech support forum, those members successfully answering a great many questions are inherent SUs.
- SUs typically make themselves known, often through those leadership behaviours, volumes, direct offline feedback, and so on. Typically, though there are exceptions, you should be able to quickly connect to SUs via messaging/email or on site.
- Communication is a critical component of leadership, and too often strong contributors have little interest in broad communication. It’s a canary in the coal mine. If your community managers don’t have a relationship already, you probably have a community management problem!
Program design can widely vary. On day one of a program launch, formal applications are likely irrelevant. But you are almost certainly building to a point where “membership” in a formal SU program requires an application, and re-application after a period of time. The best programs I’ve seen have 12 month (or so) refresh cycles. This allows people to gracefully bow out when their interests change. It also allows you to remove folks that aren’t pulling their weight.
Hawk: Do rewards or incentives work for these kinds of programs? If so, what are some examples of effective ones?
Jake: Yes, and the design of your benefits stack is a crucial component of program design. How you choose to reward and incentivize each level of members in your program will be a huge part of how you drive participation.
And we’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating… we’re not talking about paying money for participation. Incentives can include access to special on-site tools, special badge recognition, or limited edition t-shirts. People will give up their first born for a limited edition t-shirt!
With caution and tons of planning, you can start thinking about heftier ideas like equipment loaner programs or invite-only summits.
**_Hawk: Can super-user programs have an effect on how other members behave? (For e.g. I’ve heard CMs voice concerns that if some members are ‘favoured’ others might not engage.)_**
Jake: Very, very good question. Yes, SU programs can/should/will have an effect on the entire membership base. And this is why it’s so utterly crucial to ensure you’ve thought through the entire program design from top to bottom.
The core goal of a SU program is to drive behaviors you want to see more of from your member base. In any community, there are members that are somehow favored. Whether that’s because they are part of a formal program with formal benefits, or simply because you take their opinions more seriously when they post in the community.
Your program design goals should be focused on how to best create a program that has transparent benefits, expectations, and access criteria.
All members should understand what work it takes to gain access to the program. Most, but not necessarily all benefits should be known to the community at large. The requirements of SU membership, especially those related to representing needs/voice of the community at large should be clearly showcased
The selection process, while never, ever truly democratic, needs to make sense to the membership.
The concern about “some members being favored” tends to be related to a lack of transparency. Members need to be clear that benefits come with hard work.
**_Hawk: Can super-users be used to model particular behaviours in others?_**
Jake: Absolutely. That’s a significant piece of how you choose SUs and how you grade their success as SUs.
Hawk: How much structured intervention or direct supervision is required to effectively manage a super-user program?
Jake: This is a harder one to answer generically, as each program has a significantly different answer. Depending on the industry, for instance, you may be required by law to have significant oversight.
I will point back to program design: what are your SU program goals, and how do you build an infrastructure that supports those goals?
That said, rarely have I seen a program that works effectively at any scale that has less than a couple full-time folks working on it. It can be done, for sure, but building a SU program is effectively creating a “middle ground” of deeply engaged, deeply committed members who are as invested in your business outcome as you are. If you don’t have at least one full-time person managing the program, it’s hard to be reactive to issues, represent the voice of the community inside the company, and push internal and external programs to be successful.
Hawk: Are there particular things to watch out for when scaling a super-user program? At what point do you need full-time resource?
Jake: As far as full-time hires go, I’ve talked about this above a few times. But to summarize: I don’t believe you’re being serious about a SU program until you’ve hired/empowered someone to run it full-time. You are asking for enthusiastic volunteers to do more inside your community without payment, but you’re not willing to dedicate time to support those efforts? SUs sniff that out almost immediately.
Here are a few last thoughts :
- Remember my mantra: everybody goes home happy. The success of a SU program is based on ensuring both company and community needs are being met. Share those needs, talk about them with your community. And balance this with active listening skills about their needs.
- Stay true to your strategy, but be flexible in how you execute as you scale. As you learn more, as your community member demographics change, as your SUs take more leadership within the community, you’ll be faced with challenges of scale that have you questioning your initial approaches. That’s good. But don’t forget your core program goals, mission, and values you started with.
- Include your community as you think about and work on scale. Make sure you’re getting clarity around what excites your members today (vs what excited them a year ago). Make sure you’re constantly listening for feedback, direct and indirect, about how things are working. The community will guide you in how to scale, if you’re listening.
- Don’t forget that it’s your job to act as a mental Sherpa guiding the community through changes you want to execute. Change is hard, especially the longer people have been doing something a certain way. Build in a process of change and improvement from day one.