Developing a Strategic Super Fan Program For Your Community

9 minute read

August 18, 2020

Developing a Strategic Super Fan Program For Your Community

This is the million dollar question and one that sparks a lot of follow-up questions.

In part 1 of this 3 part series, we introduced you to Super Fans and their interests and motivations. In this second instalment, we are going to introduce you to methods of creating formal Super Fan programs that will help you identify, motivate, and guide the growth of Super Fans and their impact on your community.

What is a Super Fan program?

A Super Fan program is a formal, planned means of engaging existing Super Fans and evolving new Super Fans.

Left to its own devices, most communities will naturally see a select group of members grow to “leadership” positions within the community. They may be what we call Super Fans…or they may be something more like problematic instigators. Without a formal Super Fan program that sets a direction and provides a system of checks, you never know where Super Fans might naturally evolve to.  

There are two key outcomes that Super Fan programs address:

  • Create a means of aspiration that drives members to do more, connect more, engage more in the community.

  • Reduce the overhead it takes to run the community while increasing the value of the community to everyone involved.

Without building a formal plan, all you have is hope and luck. That’s no way to run a community!

Program building blocks

  • Purpose

  • Strategic intent

  • Motivations

  • Roadmap & Timeline

  • Program structure

  • Defined, multi-faceted outcomes

  • Investment (budget and resources)

  • KPIs

  • Clear incentives

  • Formal, two-way communication channels

As with any strategic plan, a Super Fan program strategy can be broken down into some key building blocks.

Let’s look at each one of those elements individually to help guide you through the development process. These are listed in the order you should develop your program. Each element paves the way to the next.

1. Purpose

The first place to start your planning process is to clarify the purpose of this program. Purpose is different than objectives and goals, two critical components of any strategic planning process. Purpose is the reason something exists, the reason something bring meaning to someone’s life. Super Fans are not volunteers because they want to help your company. They are actively participating in something that brings joy, fulfillment, and satisfaction to their lives.

As you think about what kind of program you’re going to build, consider how the participants might connect to this program on an emotional level. What story will they tell their friends and family when they’re asked what it’s all about?

2. Strategic Intent

Any program you build needs to be strategically connected to your overall business needs, of course. So how will a Super Fan program drive your business goals? Determining your strategic intent (meaning the objective and goals that your program will be based on) is your second stop on the planning journey.

Many times we are hesitant to get crystal clear on our business objectives when talking about community member based programs. It feels almost shady or inappropriate to insert our “business talk” into engagement discussions. That is completely false! Without proper strategic planning that includes the benefit to your company, your Super Fan program and the community will suffer from lack of resourcing, executive buy-in, and overall support.

Developing clear objectives and goals are part of a critical OGST (Objectives, Goals, Strategies, Tactics) planning approach that will allow you to have significant clarity about why you’re building this program, starting from the “why” rather than the “how”.

3. Motivations

Whether you already have highly active members or are just starting your community, figure out what would motivate a community member to spend an incredible amount of time participating in the community. Does it (or will it) help their career by providing them resume worthy badges? Are they interested in giving back to a community that helped them out? Are they emotionally or mentally motivated to help others who have undergone similar hardships as their own?

You may not always be able to fully understand what will motivate Super Fans to participate at the levels they do (or will), but gaining an understanding, or even theories about motivations will help guide you as you build your formal program. After all, understanding why a member has earned their way into a Super Fan role is critical to helping to pull more people into Super Fan levels of engagement.

4. Program concept and approach

What is the core concept of the program? Visualize, then document your concept and generally how it will work. Will this program be an award system based on the quantity of highly valued contributions? Will the program be a one time award based on past contributions, or Is this an ongoing communication and engagement tool between the company the program members?

The most successful program model tends look similar to this structure:

  • The program is a limited time. The members of the program join the program for a set period of time (typically a year) and have to be re-selected at the end of that time. This gives members a natural exit point, as well as a motivation to stay active.

  • The program is nomination based, where the member has to be nominated by other members or themselves.

  • Final selection is done based on a specific set of direct and indirect criteria that your team has developed in turn.

  • Invitations are granted in an offset way to ensure that there is never one point in the year where all (or even just a large number of) members are new to the program.

Each program will be slightly or significantly different than this structure, depending on how your business, industry, community, and members operate. But every program will be based on a concept that best allows your company to:

  • Create a path from minimal to significant participation that is exciting for an ever growing number of community members

  • Develop a structure that automates as much of the potential Super Fan identification process as possible

  • Establishes and communicates a strong benefits stack for potential Super Fans

  • Engages selected Super Fans in a way that increases their connection to the community and your company and keeps their motivation to participate as high as possible

5. Roadmap & Timeline 

Once you’ve established your core program concept, develop a road map and timeline that sketches out where and how you want your program to evolve. Don’t worry too much about getting this absolutely perfect at first…it’s almost certainly going to change once you have been up and running for a year or two. Initially, this is a tool to help you visualize how you are going to build the program, gain internal and external buy-in, cycle at least a few rounds of members into the program, and monitor the response of the community members and metrics to see how well you’ve designed the program.

6. Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)

How will you judge whether the program is successful? How will you judge whether the program is having an impact on your business?

These two questions are, of course, highly related. But they are not necessarily the same question. What makes this program successful to your business may not be what excites the members into participating. The question is how are you looking to measure what matters, but from two different perspectives. Let’s break down an example, based on a Super Fan program for a tech support community:

Program success

  • Increased call deflection to the call centre

  • Increased number of knowledge base articles

  • Growing number of members answering questions for other members

Member success

  • Kind and positive culture that recognizes participation and quality answers

  • Gamified experience that has value as you grow your participation

  • Portable identity that is used to define who the member outside of the community

As you can see, program success and member success feel very different. But they are co-dependent elements. Increase call deflection, for instance, stems from members being excited to answer more and more questions.

ebook - building a super fan program

7. Investment (Budget and Resources)

Super Fan programs are often seen as optional, low priority add-on activities to an already tight community budget. Successful programs, however, are properly staffed and have budget to drive the program. The most successful programs often have at least one Program Manager who works as part of the Community Management team, but is focused on supporting program members.

Without dedicated resources and specific budgets, you don’t have a program, you have a hobby. Your staffing resources may be part time, and your budgets may be minimal. But you still need to treat a Super Fan program like any other program, or risk is fading away.

8. Clear Incentives

What’s the value for Super Fans to participate? You’re likely going to be asking more of them and giving them more responsibilities. So what’s in it for them?

Create a specific set of incentives, based on the three key types we talked about in the first article of this series. If you haven’t had a chance to check out this article yet, I’d recommend giving it a read.

The incentives outlined in the first article are:

  • Identify

  • Privileges

  • Tangibles

We will talk more about incentives in the next and final instalment of this three part series, but the key to remember is that incentives are not about “paying” for a Super Fan’s participation. No matter what the cost involved, the incentives you give are meant to prompt a connection to your company, to the program, and to the community. A one of a kind event t-shirt marked with the date can do more to excite and motivate a Super Fan than a $1000 Amazon gift card.

Sharing your incentives as part of how you communicate the existence and value of program is critical to showing how you value the program members. You shouldn’t share every detail, but cover the categories of incentives, and a few tangibles that can prompt potential Super Fans to work hard to earn their way into the program. Here’s an example of how Southwest Airlines presents the benefits of their Community Champions program

9. Formal, two-way communication channels

And the last element of a successful Super Fan program is a means for the program members to communicate on a deep, ongoing basis with each other and with your company. Typically this will be a private sub-forum on your existing community, where only program members have access. But you may use another tool as necessary.

Each one of these elements is a critical piece of developing a Super Fan program, and addressing each one it depth is important. But equally critical is addressing them in the order outlined above. It’s hard to understand how to address each one unless you’ve completed the step before it. How can you know how to build an incentive stack, for instance, if you haven’t yet defined your strategic objectives?

Is it too early/late to start a Super Fan program?

It’s never too early or too late to build a formal program. But there are different considerations depending on what stage your community is in.

Pre-launch or recently launched communities

If you’re still building your community or you have only recently launched, there’s probably no need to rush to build and launch a Super Fan program. Take some time to monitor how member growth and participation evolves for a few months or a year. You will eventually begin to see signals that Super Fan type activity is occurring, prompting you to execute your Super Fan program rollout. These signals may include:

  • Rapid response to open threads/discussions by a relatively small number of members

  • Significant growth through the gamification levels

  • Quasi-competition between active community members and Community Managers regarding the creation of new rituals

  • A push to connect outside of the online community, whether offline or on other digital properties

While you don’t need to have a full Super Fan program fully ready at the launch of a community, it is important to consider how this program will eventually fit into the site and how the design of your community will support it. As you build your community, consider:

  • How will your gamification incentivize Super Fan style behaviors, and how will it help you to identify Super Fans as they rank up?

  • Does your community platform allow you to create private, invite-only sub-forums to allow Super Fans to communicate amongst themselves and with you and your team directly and privately?

  • Will you be able to mark Super Fans with specific badges or indicators that show their Super Fan status?

  • Do your Terms of Service and Community Guidelines account for Super Fan program logistics and incentives?

Existing communities

If your community has been up and running for more than a year or two and you are seeing significant traffic, it’s probably time to build a Super Fan program. The challenge with existing communities is that culture and engagement patterns have already formed, or at least have begun to form. This means you will need to proceed cautiously, showing that the Super Fan program adds value and generates excitement, rather than creating rules and oversight.

If you have an active community already, your Community Managers likely already have an understanding of who the most active, engaged members are. A great starting point is to connect one-on-one with a few of those members to get an understanding of what the community “voice” is saying about the needs, concerns, and places for excitement.

ebook - building a super fan program



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