Like any marketing, engagement, or support program, Super Fan programs require operational rigor. We use the word “program” because success comes from building a structured, planned effort that takes into account the combination of strategy, daily operations, and staffing that ensure the engagement efforts yield the hoped for results.
In part 1 of this 3 part series, we introduced the core concepts of a Super Fan program. In part 2, we dug a little deeper into how to build a strategic plan to develop a Super Fan program. In this third and final instalment, we are going to look at some of the operational considerations necessary to make a successful Super Fan program hum on a daily basis.
Laying the foundation
Every Super Fan program will be designed slightly differently, depending on a range of factors. These include the industry you’re in, the culture of your community and your company, the goals of the community members, and even the budgets you have to work with. But every program should have some common characteristics:
It recognizes “top community contributors”, and clearly defines what that idea means. This definition is generally known to the community so they understand how to achieve the status.
The program is meant to drive participation at all levels of the community. New members, existing members, and high frequency participants alike can look at the program as an aspiration path and something to work towards.
It’s sustained and systematic, ensuring that the program is not easily eliminated with the change of budgets, staffing, or leadership. It’s important that program participants and community members alike understand that this is part of the culture, not just a short term program.
The program has investment of time, budget, and staffing, as well as executive support. Success is hard to achieve if those things aren’t in place from the start. It’s possible to work around these things, but without them the chances of delivering on the business goals are much more difficult.
The program is voluntary, and not based on any quid pro quo relationship.
There is a brand identity to the program, giving Super Fan program members a clear and portable recognition of their participation. It’s a literal badge of honor to be part of the program and that badge can be used as a personal identifier in the community as well as in the world.
Member selection is a critical component of any Super Fan program. Not having the right people in the program will almost certainly hold you back from delivering on your business goals or making the community itself more successful. So what makes a potential member “right” for the program? Good question! But before you decide how to select individual members, you need to decide how to select qualified and interested parties.
We don’t ever want to rely solely on metrics to choose Super Fans. Your program might use participation metrics or gamification levels to set certain baseline qualifications for potential Super Fans. But every final selection of members needs to be based on your oversight… otherwise you end up with a ship named Boaty McBoatface!
Many Super Fan program are based on a nomination model for selecting members. This approach uses a nomination form to allow community members to nominate other community members (or even themselves). This escalates the member’s name to the Community team, who then use a set of non-public criteria to select new Super Fans. This approach works very well in many cases and while informed by the nominee’s participation metrics, it’s not reliant on them. This means, for example, that an active newbie can be added to the consideration set for the program.
Selection criteria & process
Once you’ve received nominations, you will need to have a selection methodology in place to choose new members. It’s important to fully considered what qualitative and quantitative criteria you’d like to have in place well before the nomination process starts.
Quantitative criteria may include the nominee’s on-site activity (number of posts, answers, comments, and/or likes), their length of time as a member, the number of offline events they’ve attended, response time, gamification level.
Qualitative criteria may include respect within the community, leadership abilities, fresh perspective, unique qualification, offline organizing skills, business alignment.
Some community teams find it helpful to develop a rough sketch of these core criteria and create an assessment template. Some teams will meet in-person to discuss each candidate and how best to create a “curated” group of people who can work well together and with the team, represent the community, and generally create a positive group dynamic and output.
It’s critical to consult your company’s legal team about how to best select members for your Super Fan program. Each legal team has a different position on how to select members, what can/should be discussed, and what to write down. Develop an approach and then engage your legal team in this process, early and often!
Super Fan programs need a duration for participation. Granting a lifetime or undetermined period of membership in the program creates significant problems in the long run. Without a pre-determined and relatively short membership duration, you will almost certainly struggle with questions like:
How do we remove people who aren’t participating without causing a fuss?
How do we make room for new members with fresh ideas?
How can community members feel like they have a real shot at getting access into the program?
While there are always exceptions, a one year duration is often the most successful. This is a long enough period of time for program members to feel comfortable and connected in the program without allowing any sort of complacency to settle in. During this annual cycle, members will likely feel a bell curve of participation:
Stage 1 (months 1-3): Initial excitement will prompt new members to want to participate regularly. Whether they jump right in or take some time to slowly integrate is dependent on the member and the culture.
Stage 2 (months 4-7): Members have found their footing, understand the culture, and are actively engaging in conversations and activities. This period is often the most prolific and engaged a member will be.
Stage 2 (months 8-12): Comfort sets in as members find their groove. Without specific community management and properly planned engagement activities, member participation tends to decline steadily.
Your Super Fan Program may work slightly differently, or have a different timeline, but it’s likely that this bell curve, or a similar one will reflect your member participation pattern. It’s important to understand this bell curve, since it’s a natural function of these programs. But that doesn't mean you have to be satisfied with how it’s working. Dial up your engagement activities and your community management to change the way members are interacting.
The participation of a member should be presented from the first invitation to the final note of appreciation as a “cycle”. From the first moment to the last, members understand that this is a limited term and they will need to show value throughout the process in order to be included again.
At the end of each cycle, members will need to be renominated (by other Super Fans, other community members, or themselves). And you will run through the standard selection process along with new nominees. You may reselect 90% of the Super Fans, but this process will ensure that you have the best group possible involved in the program, and ensures an ongoing “curation” process.
The cycle model also helps to continually frame participation in terms of successes and progress. At the end of a cycle or when members rotate in and out, the community team has a chance to recognize member contributions and to reflect on the impact of the program.
Cycles may also be staggered to allow for a steady flow of new members. Members, for example, may have a duration of one year in the program, but every three months, new members are onboarded into the program. This means that the bell curve of participation is offset amongst members. This can be especially important for larger programs.
As an added benefit, cycles allows for more effective offboarding of members who are not pulling their weight or have simply decided to withdraw for any number of personal reasons. There are two areas of offboarding to consider:
Involuntary: If a member’s participation has slowed and they don’t seem interested in the program any more, the natural cycle endpoint gives the community team the ability to simply not reselect the member. There is typically no need for announcement of this choice, and often the members already understand that their position is at risk. And for members who are causing troubles, but haven’t yet broken any specific rules, the cycle endpoint serves as a more subdue, less direct way to remove them from the program.
Voluntary: Over time program membership becomes part of a member’s personal identity. As life changes occur, it can be tough for them to give up their program membership. The end of a cycle can allow them to gracefully bow out.
Budget & Staffing
Every Super Fan program needs staffing and budget. Even the most minimal program will need to invest in tangible goods, community platform updates, design work, and maybe even events like a year summit. And launching a Super Fan program requires upfront work and ongoing operational activities to keep things humming.
Even if you start with a tiny amount of money set aside for your program, put something down on paper. The sooner you start budgeting for the program, the more normalized the idea of a budget will be.
Consider costs for:
Cycle end awards
Mid-cycle surprise and delight gifts
Email distribution tool costs and design costs
Travel for the community team to meet members in person
A yearly summit, bringing in all program members to HQ
Smaller programs may be able to initially use existing community team members to get the program off the ground. But as with budgeting, make sure to line item these staffing realities from day one. If an existing community team member is going to be dedicating 50% of their time to the program, clarify that in front of executives and in planning documents.
As your program grows, you will need to dedicate staff to support the program. This may be half the time of a full-time employee to start. But sooner than you might think, the program will require a healthy amount of attention and likely a full-time, dedicated employee. Remember that the Super Fan program will offset and/or support core needs and objectives of the community. Super Fans help to run the site, not just create additional work. Like any group of volunteers, they’ll need guidance and leadership.
As mentioned above, it’s critical to include your legal team in the process of developing and running Super Fan programs. There are real concerns that most company lawyers will have about how you design the program, what you ask members to do, and how you incent their participation. Companies like AOL and About.com are some of the best known cases of volunteers suing the companies they were working with because of the employee-like relationships their volunteer programs created.
I’m not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice. That said, there is one major way to avoid problems with your Super Fan program: don’t create a quid pro quo scenario. Participation is its own reward, as they say. You never want to ask participants to perform specific functions in order to get some sort of reward.
As discussed incentives in part 2 of this series, incentives are made up of three aspects:
Tangibles, and the expectations we set with members for getting them is often the riskiest of the three incentive types. Consider how to surprise and delight members with tangibles throughout the program. Be clear in how you talk about and market the program when it comes to promises of what tangibles member will get.