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The Community Club

AMA with Jake McKee

alex profile image Alex Angel with Jake McKee ・1 min read

Jake will be with us November 9th throughout the day answering questions from the community. The AMA will happen in this post. Jake has been a professional community builder since 2000, when he was the Global Community Relations Specialist at LEGO (!!!). Ask him any of your burning questions about super users and fan engagement!

Discussion

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kgillum profile image
Katelyn Gillum

Thanks so much for doing this AMA, Jake - your background is so impressive and I absolutely love what you've built with Dinner5! :)

Because you've spent a large amount of time working with online communities, do you find that having a physical, in-person community to support is a nice way to balance what might be missing from an online community? Are there different strategies/tips/advice you might provide for serving an online community vs. an in-person community?

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jakemckee profile image
Jake McKee Ask Me Anything

Thanks! Dinner5 has been a blast these last two years and I'm so glad it's been able to continue virtually through the pandemic. Are you signed up at dinner5.org??

To the events question, let me break this down into two parts:

Super Fan events
Without question, and when we return to normal times, building in-person events into the process of super fan programs is critically important. Some programs pay the costs of flying in members to meet in person, other programs like the Microsoft MVP program ask the members to fly themselves and then offset the costs of lodging and conference once they arrive.

But the goal is to ensure that people who are in the Super Fan program are able to connect to each other because we know that connecting in person has significant power. Super Fans are often doing significant heavy lifting around the community. In support communities, for instance, you may have Super Fans offsetting the costs of hiring support agents by answering tons of user questions. The more you can make them feel connected and part of your team, the more likely they are to feel excited to carry on. It's worth the money... and actually something I'd suggest is a moral obligation.

But if budgets are tight, even putting an event together and offering to host if they can navigate themselves there still shows your commitment to them. And when they arrive, go all out on the little details. You'd be shocked how much a wonderfully decorated gift bag can impact your members. (Which by the way, is a good point separate from events... quarterly Surprise and Delight campaigns to your Super Fans are a requirement)

General Community
I'm not sure exactly what you mean by having in-person communities, but I'll make an assumption that you mean creating offline activities to supplement online activities. Absolutely, 100%, wholeheartedly agree that creating an online+offline combo is an amazing thing to do. As we've all discovered during this pandemic time, online connection only gets us so far. Humans are herd animals... we need our people! As companies like AirBnB and DuoLingo have seen, creating offline programs to supplement online activities can really blow up your communities in amazing ways.

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sagi profile image
Sagi Kadosh

What is the difference between super users and fans when it comes to online communities?

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jakemckee profile image
Jake McKee Ask Me Anything

Hiya Sagi!

Good question, and this one is a good starting point. It’s important to set terminology and then stick to it. Every community and every community professional and every community team may have slightly different terminology for what we call things. What you call “fans” and what I call “super users” may be exactly the same thing. But maybe not.

Yes, I’d like to wave my magic wand and have the industry use all the same terminology consistently because it’d make our lives easier in many ways* (see caveat below). But as long as we as each individual team define (and probably write down so that new team members can understand immediately) what we mean by the various terms, and we stick to those definitions, we’ll be fine.

(*The caveat here is that some industries come with their own specific terms. “Fans” in gaming or sports industries, for instance, have pre-defined, larger scope definitions I’m not going to fight against. Go with it. Super users in deep tech industries means something specific to server administration and using it for online communities gets confusing. Don’t try to recreate the wheel.)

Caveats aside, here’s what I personally use:

Fans:
Members of your community who have stepped up and shown interest in the community at greater rate than run of the mill members. They’re excited, they’re showing a pattern of interest. They’re earning badges in the gamification system (if you have one). Generally they’re making positive noise and showing leadership traits within the community.

Super Fans:
Aka Super Users. These are you community’s leaders. They’re fans as I’ve described above, but they’re really going above and beyond in the leadership, participation, and contribution departments. Fans come and go, their interest may wax and wane over time. But Super Fans are dedicated for a long duration of time.

They’re also modeling positive behaviors, living the culture, and nearly blurring the lines between employee and community member in how much they’re adding value to the site. (But no, there’s no concerns about co-employment here!)

If you refer to that age old 90-9-1 model (90-9-1.org), Fans occupy the 9 and some portions of the 90… the Super Fans own the 1% tier.

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Michael Tharrington

How do you go about creating a safe and appropriate space for users of varying ages? I'm thinking that LEGO likely has a diverse fanbase age-wise.

Also, you know you wanna intro me to someone at LEGO so that I can pitch my awesome plans for a LEGO brand 3D printer. Just kidding... but seriously. 😂

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jakemckee profile image
Jake McKee Ask Me Anything

Hahaha. Give the way that LEGO parts are held to crazy tolerances that 3D printer better be world class!

My work was focused on adult fans, but generally speaking (and I see and hear this principle is how they handle things today as well), it was all about building and propagating a culture that was focused on creativity. "The Brick" was what we were all there for. I talked about the LEGO Values (a platform that was there before I started at the company) and I talked about my goals and values on the community team. I prompted and prodded the fan community leaders to consider their own personal, club, and community values. I asked them to tell me about their values (many that existed before I ever showed up).

Basically I made values a direct and (often) indirect focal point of so much of what we did together. I made it something aspirational. I got the community leaders to rally behind the idea of doing good and being inclusive. Not because it was "for the kids" but because it was more fun that way. If their content was "safe", then it could easily be printed in the newspaper or posted online or shown on TV. It could be displayed in a shopping mall for an audience of thousands. Who doesn't want to be proudly showing off their work??

And interestingly this applied to being "pure LEGO parts" too. (Meaning: don't use competitor pieces, don't use third-party or random parts, don't cut/modify LEGO parts... just use parts that came from LEGO itself as-is). We made it part of the culture. It was part of the fan culture and I exploited the hell out of it.

Everybody goes home happy!

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michaeltharrington profile image
Michael Tharrington

Awesome response all around. 😀 Thanks for that!

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katrine_129 profile image
Katrine

Hi Jake, thanks for being here and answering questions! When you think about building out programs dedicated to super users, where do you usually start? Are there any components that translate well across all types of programs or are they all really unique based on the community itself?

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jakemckee profile image
Jake McKee Ask Me Anything

To your first question, where do you start… this is a remarkably simple answer, at least to start off:

*What will create joy that encourages members to return? *

Before I dive into the program question, let me clarify something… You’ll notice I’ve not said “Super Fans”, but “members”. Any Super Fan program is about building a pipeline system… moving members from interested to active to insanely enthusiastic. You can’t have a Major League Baseball team without a Minor League team feeding great up and coming players into it.

Now back to the question:

Super Fan programs are based on the idea that we are providing a destination, an experience, and some unique value that is so motivating that members can’t help but want to come back often, contribution frequently, and express themselves openly.

So the question isn’t really “how do we create a successful super user program”. That’s a business framing that is only focused on what we the business want. That’s the second question. The first question is what experience are we creating for the members that is so compelling that they can’t HELP but want to come back so many times that they are participating their way into a frequency program (which is really what Super Fan programs are, right?)

So to the second part of the original question: are the program components uniquely based on the community itself? Yes, but also nah.

Yes: every community is different and motivations are therefore different. A community of 50 year old CIOs and a community of 20 year old gamers are going to have different dynamics, motivations, and desires for rewards.

But also, we’re all human and our desires are surprisingly similar at the core level. We seek:

  • Connection to our peers
  • Recognition for our efforts and accomplishments
  • Support during our trying times
  • Solutions to problems we can rely on (and hopefully quickly)
  • Escape from boredom

Now the question becomes HOW do you translate those into specifics for your community culture and member desires. Godspeed, my friends.

By the way, here’s a few resources on Super Fans I wrote with our friends at Vanilla Forums.

blog.vanillaforums.com/community-o...

blog.vanillaforums.com/community-d...

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alex profile image
Alex Angel Ask Me Anything

Thanks for doing an AMA today, Jake! Really appreciate it. Would love to learn a bit more about your background, how you got into community, etc!

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jakemckee profile image
Jake McKee Ask Me Anything

Hello everyone! Thanks to Alex and the team for asking me to be part of the AMA cycle… and to giving me a chance to ramble on about my all time favorite topic: super users, fans, and all things community nerdery :)

Just so you know a little about me as we start this AMA, here’s my brief bio:

  • I love bullet points. I think in them, and I certainly post in them.
  • I’ve been doing community work since that meant convincing clients to put an email address on their web sites (“What happens if someone contacts us???”… uh, you reply? Yes, this used to be a regularly conversation)
  • My brief resume:
    -- I was at LEGO where I was one of the first dedicated “Community” people and was responsible for the relationship between the adult fans and the company
    -- I was at Apple where I ran the Global Support Community
    -- I co-founded Ant’s Eye View, a social and community consulting practice that we sold to PwC (where I then became a partner, working with some of the world’s largest companies on social and community projects)
    -- I’ve had a huge roster of clients like Southwest Airlines, Cancer Treatment Centers of America, Outdoorsy, YMCA of the USA, Dell, MBO Partners, Canon, and lots more.

  • I have two awesome side projects to keep me additional busy:

    • Dinner5 (dinner5.org) - a monthly event for senior community community professionals that helps drive connection, camaraderie, and cone of silence collaboration. In the Before Times, we met in person over a 5 course meal. In the pandemic world, we are meeting virtual, but with some really great food and fun.
    • Home Game (homegamecomic) - a web comic for and about community management

Beyond the work stuff, I’m a proud dad of an awesome 13 year old daughter who is hilarious and weathering the pandemic school at home situation better than I could ever hope. I spend countless hours on photography and scale modeling… and up until recently renovations on my new house. (Pro tip: Never move and/or renovate at the start of a global pandemic)

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jocelynhsu profile image
Jocelyn

Hi Jake! Good to see you in the ~ clurb ~! What has been the 2-3 biggest changes you've seen in the community space since 2000?

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jakemckee profile image
Jake McKee Ask Me Anything

Ah wow. That's a good question! Let's see...

Online community is known
A huge change since I started doing this is that we don't have to explain what online communities are to our colleagues anymore. Well... not as much anyway hahah. When I started doing this work, it was a daily struggle.

Fan culture has gone mainstream
When I started at LEGO, the LEGO Star Wars line had just come out. Lots of people loooooved it, me included. It's what brought a lot of adult fans out of the "dark ages" of LEGO Fandom. But most of us felt weird about sharing our nerd love with the world. You'd walk into an office building anywhere in the world and find tiny amounts of LEGO geekery or a other nerd geekery. But today? Every office building in the world has tons of nerd fun all over them. The impact of our shared comfort as a society with connecting over our shared interest has had a massive impact in how we connect online (and offline).

Products/Services designed with community in mind
Community, social, connection, and sharing aren't marketing after thoughts any more... they're core design features. I don't just mean products that have Wifi connectivity. I mean color palettes, designs, fabric choices, packaging, support features, you name it... from day one the question "how are customers going to connect, share, and support each other with this product" is part of the core design process. This wasn't the case in 2000.
(And as a guy who went to school for Product Design, I'm pretty excited about this!)

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danielle profile image
Danielle Letayf

Hey Jake—you seem awesome! What's the most interesting thing you've learned so far about people and their relationships to each other and products?

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jakemckee profile image
Jake McKee Ask Me Anything

If I seem awesome, it's only because I stand on the shoulders of giants. And @brianoblinger .

Seriously though, one of the greatest things about this line of work is how many great people have offered their support, counsel, ideas, and more support over the years. I don't think I've ever been turned down when I've reached out to another community nerd for help or guidance. That's how I found myself across the best plate of bacon I've ever had getting career advice from Guy Kawasaki as I was deciding whether to leave LEGO. And it's why @brianoblinger still puts up with my (hilarious) jokes. Or at least pretends to. Thanks, Brian. You're a real friend.

Anyway, back to your question...

What's really standing out to me lately is how much we are all looking for connection. I heard this great NPR podcast recently talking about how QAnon followers have been pulled into that movement because it's so easy to connect to other people. So many Trump supporters talk about finally finding "people like me". Sports fans have always known that thrill of showing up at a bar and immediately being able to connect with people wearing the same jersey, no matter what their background.

As we have lost our physical communities (bowling leagues, churches, rotaries, etc.), we are all desperately looking for ways to find groups that provide connection. So when we can jump online and find folks to nerd out on the latest Star Wars fan theory or talk in depth about the quality of knitting needles, we feel like we've found our clan.

The question I've been chewing on lately: if we can provide more "Good Community", can we eliminate the need for nonsense like QAnon? If we make it more acceptable for hobbies to have a place in our society, would conspiracy theories be drowned out? And what role would companies play in this work? Could they be spending their marketing money on "Good Community" instead of disposable marketing programs?

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cole profile image
Cole

Hey Jake, thanks for doing this AMA! I'm curious to hear what you believe is the most important thing to keep in mind when engaging with passionate fans.

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jakemckee profile image
Jake McKee Ask Me Anything

Ask 10 Community Professionals this question and you’ll get 45 answers (we have many, many ideas about this question!). You're asking the MOST important thing though, so .....

I’ll answer this with my mantra: “Everybody goes home happy”.

I’ve been saying this for years, and I think it’s one of the most important things we community pros need to focus on. Here’s there’s skinny:

Say what’s true for you (the company) and repeat clearly back what you understand the needs of the community to be. Say both of these things openly, honestly, and frequently.

Community professionals absolutely must remember they are building a relationship, just like any other relationship between the company and the community and doing so depends on open communication and honesty.

Imagine building a relationship with a significant other where you never shared your needs. Or where you never acknowledged theirs.

As community professionals, we tend to be pretty sharp at recognizing and sharing back what the community needs are. But after 20+ years of working in the community space, I’m still surprised how hard it is for us to say clearly what we (our companies) need from the community.

But when we just state our needs clearly for the record, a funny thing happens… we earn trust with the community. The community starts to work harder to help us achieve our goals. They fight harder to protect our goals. And a wonderful symbolic relationship grows stronger and stronger as they see us deliver on their needs too.

When we are vulnerable with them and accept their vulnerability with us, partnership forms that is much stronger. They stop seeing us as marketing hacks and start seeing us as real people they’re sharing a foxhole with.

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alex profile image
Alex Angel Ask Me Anything

What did your super user program look like at LEGO? Did you build it from scratch or was there something already established?

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jakemckee profile image
Jake McKee Ask Me Anything

I'm so glad you asked. The LEGO work was some of my favorite of my career! :)

When I joined LEGO, there was literally zero connection between the Adult Fans of LEGO (AFOLs) community and the company. Never had been in all the years LEGO had been around. My boss, Brad Justus, was the first person from the company that had ever posted to the fan forums on behalf of the company and his first post, as well as my hiring set in motion the first process of formally connecting with the adult fans.

It’s important to understand that at that time, the world was a very different place. We didn’t have the social/community options we do today…. Or even the understanding from colleagues that are just expected in the marketing mix. Hell, we didn’t even have much budget.

So rather than trying to re-invent the wheel with official forums and events and activities for the adult fans, I took a different tact: I tried to elevate what existed with the adult fans already. These folks were ALREADY putting on amazing events, running their own kick ass forums and sites, building image sharing sites. Why would I want to compete??

Even when I started getting relatively small budgets, I spent most of it on travel and projects that helped add sizzle or support to their existing projects. Sometimes because I simply couldn’t do as much with my pitiful budgets. Sometimes because their message of “I don’t work for the company, you too can do what you see in front of you by simply buying LEGO sets at the store like I did” was a better, more powerful message to kids and families.

I didn’t see my job as building parallel or competing programs. My job as a community professional was making their activities amplified, in the world and within the company. I encouraged them and taught them how to get on TV or in the local papers. I convinced my colleagues (sometimes with logic, sometimes with begging and blackmail) to support their events. I helped to create products that appealed to the “small” market of “not boys 7-12” because I just knew that if we could get nerd friendly sets out there, we’d have a massive audience of buyers all over the world. And you see that in the shelves of Target and the desks of offices around the world today.

After years of this kind of “support work”, I moved to formalized programs including the LEGO Ambassador program. lan.lego.com/

This program was meant to formalize the connections between each of the local clubs around the world and our small team. Instead of an ad hoc whack-a-mole conversation process between our tiny team and scores of local clubs and club members all over the world, the LAN was a more formalized way to connect leaders from each club with our team. This helped communication to and from the community.

The important part to recognize here though is that this “community” was a true community in that it was a group of people collectively coming together to do great things. Not just an online platform run by a company. It was a worldwide network of fans who had largely allowed me, the company rep, to join them in their journey. I had to add value or would be politely asked to leave. Or sometimes not so politely asked to leave! Years later, after I’d already left, the company started building their own official platforms. But don’t think that “community” means that you have to build your own platforms. If the community has great stuff in place, spend your money on supporting them! You’d be surprised at how far small amounts of money can go in the community. And sometimes the impact can be far greater (and on multiple vectors) vs. official projects!

PS: You can watch a presentation I gave about Super Fans that included some of the LEGO story here:
community5.com/insights/confession...

There’s also an older slide deck about the LEGO fan story here (although not as helpful without the voice over… reach out if you want to know more :))
slideshare.net/communityguy/blog-o...