Jake McKee helped form LEGO’s first community team, and usher in a new era of openness at the company. He opened the lines of communication between adult consumers of their products, who had more discretionary income than the kids, driving home the understanding that LEGO was not just a child’s toy company. Plus:
- Finding the job you want, not necessarily the job that’s posted
- How Jake made busy people find time to talk about community
- Building super user programs
Our Podcast is Made Possible By…
“Why not ask? Look past the job postings that are out there and actually go for something that interests you. Put aside the fear of rejection for a minute and just go for it. If they say no, then you go to the next thing. It’s not the end of the world.” -@patrickokeefe
“One of the things that I found fascinating when I got [to LEGO] was how little interest most of my colleagues, at that time, had in talking about adult consumers. … When I would go and try to talk to colleagues, they wouldn’t take my meetings. They had better things to do and giving them the benefit of the doubt, at that time, the adult fans did make up a really small footprint, and they didn’t necessarily see the vision that I had. That’s not what their task was.” -@jakemckee
“A super user program is a fan program, it’s an engagement program. The idea is, there are people in your community that are actively, knowingly, participating more than others and your desire [as a community owner] is to see more of that activity and to maintain those folks doing amazing things, so you put together formal programs that recognize and incentivize and reward that activity.” -@jakemckee
“It takes a few years for any individually, emotionally-driven type of activity, where you engage real people in real time, whether it’s community or super user or anything else, [to mature]. There’s a build to that. You’re building a relationship and like any relationship, you won’t get married on the first date for a reason. It takes a while to get to that point of effectiveness.” -@jakemckee
“There’s a vulnerability to community that I don’t think people understand or appreciate. When you start talking about it in terms of dating, they get a little closer, but it still feels a little odd to use that metaphor. The reality is, somebody that’s spending time on the community is making themselves vulnerable. They are coming in, they’re opening themselves up, they’re spending time in that place, they’re building a profile. … It’s really wonderful in the beginning and we start opening ourselves up and that’s scary, but it becomes really comfortable and that comfort is an absolutely amazing thing you want to maintain.” -@jakemckee
About Jake McKee
Jake McKee calls himself the community guy (as in communityguy.com) because he’s been developing community for a long, long time. Jake’s always joked that this started in 1998 when we finally convinced brands to add email addresses to their web sites.
Over the years, he’s had a series of dream jobs: Jake started his career building websites for the Dallas Stars, Texas Rangers, and a multitude of brands when websites were brand new. He then developed the community engagement strategy and execution at LEGO, eventually landing a Wired cover story due to his work. Jake built a successful social media consulting practice, Ant’s Eye View that he and his partners sold to PwC, where he worked on massive digital consulting projects. He ran the Apple Global Support Community, one of the largest, most active communities on the web. And today, Jake is running Community5, a consulting practice focused on building and designing online communities and fan engagement programs.
- Sponsor: Higher Logic, the community platform for community managers
- Sponsor: Structure3C, expert community strategy for large organizations
- Jake’s website
- Jake McKee on Twitter
- Ready Player One Challenge: The Maze, a brand activation in Hollywood
- Geeks in Toyland, the Wired magazine cover story about LEGO’s efforts to cater to adult fans
- Social media strategy firm Ant’s Eye View to Join PwC
- Apple’s support community, which Jake ran while with the company
- The single largest LEGO set ever sold
- LEGO Ideas, crowdsourced LEGO product concepts
- Community5, Jake’s consultancy
- A summary of Jake’s talk at Word of Mouth Supergenius
- Tarmod Askildsen, who Jake worked with at LEGO
- The Lego Ambassador Program
- Microsoft’s MVP Program
[00:00:04] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Sponsored by Higher Logic, the community platform for community managers, and Structure3C, expert community strategy for large organizations. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[00:00:28] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello and thank you for listening to Community Signal. On this episode, we’re talking with Jake McKee, who has built community for LEGO and Apple in between agency work for big clients. Super user programs are our focus. How you can pitch them internally, the value they represent, and pitfalls to avoid. Right down the street from my apartment in LA is a Ready Player One brand activation, an in-person experience where you have to find three keys to unlock your ticket to the virtual world, the Oasis. As someone who read the book and is excited for the movie, I went down there the other day and it was a lot of fun. It’s free, open from 11 to 11 through April 1st and on the corner of Hollywood & Vine. If you’re in the area, I definitely recommend checking it out.
Taking a step back, what are the community implications of brand activations? Not everything has to be community-led. Not everything has to be community-tied, necessarily. Marketing isn’t community, hashtags aren’t community, not by themselves. I think if you invite members of the community to the activation, if you share the activation with the people who are actively engaged with that company or product and not just casual customers, then you start down the path of community. Is that worth the effort and what else could you be doing? I’d love to hear your thoughts, send me an e-mail via communitysignal.com, leave me a comment on this episode on our website, or send me a tweet @communitysignal.
If you enjoy this show, please consider joining our group of loyal Patreon supporters at communitysignal.com/innercircle. Thank you to Carol Benovic-Bradley, Serena Snoad, and Rachel Medanic, for their support.
Jake McKee calls himself the community guy, as in communityguy.com because he’s been developing community for a long, long time. Jake’s always joked that this started in 1998 when he finally convinced brands to add email addresses to their websites. Over the years, he’s had a series of dream jobs. Jake started his career building websites for the Dallas Stars, Texas Rangers, and a multitude of brands when websites were brand new. He then developed the community engagement strategy and execution at LEGO, eventually landing a Wired cover story due to his work. Jake built a successful social media consulting practice, Ant’s Eye View, that he and his partner sold to PwC, where he worked on massive digital consulting projects. He ran the Apple global support community, one of the largest, most active communities on the web. Today, Jake is running Community5, a consulting practice focused on building and designing online communities and fan engagement programs. Jake, welcome to the program.
[00:02:41] Jake McKee: Hey, thanks for having me on finally. I’m glad to be here.
[00:02:44] Patrick: It’s a pleasure. In the time that I’ve known you, which is about a decade or so, I think, we’ve never actually talked much about your time at LEGO. I want to start there. Late in the 90s, you were a LEGO fan working in basically a user experience role at another company and the dotcom bust is happening and you’re expecting you will get laid off. You went looking for the job you wanted, not necessarily just the companies that were hiring. How did that bring you to LEGO?
[00:03:18] Jake: Yes. It’s a good question. Why don’t we start there because it’s fun to talk about. I don’t get a chance to talk about that particular pieces very often. You’re right. I had a much different approach. I was at a company that was a roll-up of a bunch different local startups in Dallas, when I was there. I had the ear of the CEO, who was a little bit in love with our mobile content when mobile was still brand new. He gave us a little bit of coverage, myself and my colleague when everybody else was getting laid off, I knew that my time was close but I’d probably be the last on the list.
I took that opportunity to flip the book around and say, instead of just running to the wanted ads and seeing who’s hiring or trying to find local companies, what if I wanted to switch that conversation in my head and say, who do I really want to work for? At that time, I was just starting to discover the adult LEGO fan community, this was very late ’90s. Actually, I guess 2000. I was interested in the idea of community. I’d done a lot of community stuff, I’ve said, for years, I’ve been building communities since community was convincing your clients to put an email address on their website. Back in the days, when that was extremely difficult.
I had been doing a bunch of community type of work up to that point. I had been building the Dallas Stars hockey team and Texas Rangers website, Texas Motor Speedway websites at the company that I was at. We were trying to figure out in those days, how do you get the fans more engaged and how do you build digital experience and all fun experience to engage those fans, so the community was a big thing. What LEGO was doing, or actually not doing at that time, was pretty fascinating. I saw an opportunity. There was a growing, very small, but a growing group of adult fans that had organized themselves.
Every time I’d ask about the relationship with LEGO, they would all come up around and say, “You know what? We’ve never heard from those guys and we’re not always 7 to 12. Of course, they’re not interested in us”. These guys were doing amazing things. They were putting on huge LEGO events on their own, completely without any support from the company. Doing some really amazing creations. Things like a dinosaur that replaces a guy’s dining room table built entirely out of LEGO bricks. No glue, no nothing. About six feet tall and about six feet long. Maybe longer. I saw an opportunity, the interest, I should say, in LEGO brand and they were just starting to get back into things that were interesting to adults. Still in the form of what was important to the kids. Things like LEGO Star Wars sets, for instance, and some LEGO monsters, all targeted towards kids, but fascinating to adults.
The day that I drove all over the Dallas metroplex trying to find all of the LEGO Star Wars sets, you couldn’t just jump on Amazon and order and have them delivered the next day, I found myself thinking, “You know? This is Brandon. It’s got something we want on. I feel like I could offer something to them”, and then just happened to reach out to a couple of people at the LEGO Direct company, who are then posting on some of the fan forums. Said, “Hey, would you be interested in this?” They said, “Yes, actually we’re hiring my crazy right now. We’re building our direct to consumer business. You should come to New York and meet with us.” And so I did and the rest is history, as they say.
[00:06:18] Patrick: There wasn’t even a job posting that you were aware of. It was just you liked LEGO. You were into LEGO, getting into it and had been since a kid, obviously, but getting back into it. Getting into that local adult community and looking for the next thing and just had the right mix of some knowledge and experience that was relevant to the internet, at least into technology. Saw the company you wanted to work for and just reached out to someone that you saw on an online forum [chuckles] and that that’s how you got basically got the interview at least to go and close the deal and get the job?
[00:06:50] Jake: Yes. Honestly, at that point, I don’t know how much skill I brought to the table. I sure brought a lot of enthusiasm and idiotic dumb luck. If I had been six months before or six months after, I’m not sure I would’ve been where I’m at today because they may have already filled their roster or they might not yet have been hiring. It was just a lot of luck on my part combined with, I think, an enthusiasm for the brand that matched well with what they were interested in. I actually got hired as a Senior Web Producer. I was building the miscellaneous sites. There was a mini-site, the site was comprised of a lot of mini-sites that would come and go as the product lines would come and go, a lot of it through the miscellaneous sites. Things like the mini-site that we built for Johnson Controls when Johnson Controls was working with Ford and with LEGO on building a LEGO-themed Ford Explorer. I’m not sure that that ever actually came out.
We were building content around it at the time. The LEGO trains, which was an ongoing evergreen product line but not one that had a lot of budget. We were trying to find ways to do some interesting things and get a lot of interesting content going for a relatively low budget. LEGO trains is where I actually worked on the Jake minifig, as people call it, which is a LEGO minifig that’s crafted over my look at the time. I thought I had the claim to fame. No matter what I did good or bad at LEGO, at least I have a minifig crafted after me.
[00:08:08] Patrick: It’s a good nod to the importance of raising your hand because I think there’s always things we throw around, especially in community, terms like imposter syndrome, and in business in general. Just the thought that, in the end, the worst that people can say is no. You asked a question and the worst they could have said is, either thought to themselves, “Well, this guy’s crazy. He’s not qualified. He shouldn’t be asking you this question,” or just simply “No”. Or the worst people can say is always “No.” Why not ask and look past the job postings that are out there and actually go for something that is actually interesting to you? Just put aside the fear of rejection for a minute and just go for it. They say no, you go to the next thing. It’s not the end of the world.
[00:08:52] Jake: Yes, I completely agree. I think the dynamic of community building, even today, I’ve been doing this a long time, now years and years later, I still feel like we struggle from the inability to get attention from your long-term engagement in the community from our colleagues within our companies or clients or whoever. They may be interested for a little while or they’ve been interested in a small footprint but trying to get them interested in big projects, sometimes even getting them interested at all can be difficult. I think your point is spot on and, honestly, I’m not sure that we wouldn’t have a LEGO community like we have today but I think it would’ve taken a lot longer to get to the point that it’s at now, if not for the fact that me and also my team, but I’m only speaking for myself. My success came not from a huge amount of brilliant insights delivered with pinpoint accuracy. It came from just an obstinate nature of desire to see something to the end.
I’ve told this story and I’m thinking I probably talked about this in years past. One of the things that I found fascinating when I got there was how little interest most of my colleagues at that time had in talking about adult consumers. These are the days that we weren’t doing anything with adult consumers. We were barely producing products that had any real, true, direct correlation with adult interest versus the Star Wars sets built for kids who happened to also sell well to adults. This was before we built the 3,000 piece LEGO Star Destroyer. Now the 5,000 piece, $500 Millennium Falcon or the $800, 8,000 piece, Millennium Falcon that has wheels on the box, and this is far before those days. When I would go and try to talk to colleagues, they wouldn’t take my meetings. They had better things to do and giving them the benefit of the doubt, at that time the adult fans did make up a really small footprint and they didn’t necessarily see the vision that I had. That’s not what their task was.
Their task was, “I’ve got to get over this year for our budgets this year,” and I’m thinking that we’ve got to keep moving on this because, in five years or ten years, this is going to be astounding and a massive source of not only revenue but through creativity, product development, overall marketing that’s non-traditional. I really pushed hard for this, but I had a really hard time getting meetings. And so, meetings are scheduled, unless you’re one of the rare few people in the world, meetings are scheduled in that 2:30 to 3:00 o’clock. I’d go and stand outside somebody’s office about 2:15, possibly when they’d be accepting my meetings. I’d stand outside their office at 2:15 and wait for the person to leave, because if they left at 2:30, I’d say, “Okay, well that person’s probably booked up at another meeting for 2:30”. If the person left at 2:25, I knew I had five minutes, or I might have 35 minutes, but either way, I’d have some time that was clearly not going to be scheduled. As soon as the first person would leave the office at 2:25 I’d go, “Hey, you got time?” Could come right in, sit down and say, “Hey, I’ve got a few minutes. I’m sure you’ve got another meeting coming up, but I need five minutes,” and I’d get five minutes.
If they had 35 minutes, we’d end up talking longer than that most of the time, but it was just that sort of obstinate [laughing] pound away, day after day, that ended up getting to the point where I realized it was easier just to accept my meetings so they could schedule on their schedule instead of mine, that we started really having these conversations. This was a new thing, in a lot of ways community is like that, because it doesn’t fit the traditional mold of business. That it is a much more emotional, inherently emotional activity, where the success comes in a lot more indirect ways.
We don’t talk about community successes in a non-emotional direct way like we do a Facebook ad like, let’s say, what are the numbers and how long do they last and what revenue can we directly correlate? It takes a little longer to keep pushing this through and I’ve always said that a great community mind is somebody who hears the word “No” and laughs and smiles and says, “Okay, great. I hear you say yes,” and keeps moving.
[00:12:35] Patrick: When you talk about research and development in marketing and the things you were discussing that LEGO was doing, when you joined the company in 2000, how much of that involved the customer? What was LEGO’s level of interaction with their customers?
[00:12:48] Jake: It’s a good question because, when I joined, I joined into the LEGO Direct team, that team had only been around, really established in December ’99 and I joined in September of 2000. Not quite a year that that team had been in place. That team was a direct output of the realization that the company had largely disconnected its abilities to understand its customer, because of the fact that the big-box retailers had so much influence on what the product was and what the company made. There was sort of a natural growth of LEGO saying to its big-box retail partners, “Give us the data about what you see in stores”, and they would say, “Well, let me really push you to make things that we know we’re going to sell”. After a while, I think both types of companies and partners in LEGO had gotten to a point where they weren’t really all that clear about what customers actually wanted.
That was the “Aha” moment that led to LEGO Direct, which was a desire from the senior leadership of the company to pull all the direct consumer business activities under one roof and really drive them forward. They hired a guy named Brad Justice, who I worked for. He was an extremely talented guy that came in and built the LEGO Direct business unit, but also really set the course, I think, of what we were doing from modernizing the website. When he joined, the website was a stone background, default in color, that blue and purple. This was 1999, this wasn’t [laughing] 1990, right, it was well past the point where we should have had something so old from a large company corporate web experience.
He immediately rebuilt the entire website, built an e-commerce platform and worked through those issues with our retailers all at the time, when e-commerce was from the backwards big-box retailers and they worried about getting undercut and all sort of things. He was able to navigate those waters, build us a modern website, build us an e-commerce platform that is still extremely robust. Started developing direct to consumer products that were basically, not one-offs, but for the most part, even if we kept producing it, we’d basically produce a single run of about 10,000 sets and then sell them until we’re done. If it sold really fast and really well, then maybe we’d get another run.
If they didn’t, then great, we’ve got limited editions now, and we wouldn’t necessarily go back to that one. Then, of course, all of the community effort that Brad and I had worked on and then eventually a guy named Tarmod who continues today to run the community team. We were really pushing a new direction because of the fact that there was this realization that because big-box retailers were really pushing their data and their position and they were expecting us to push back and say, “Hey, look, we know our customer better than anybody else in the world. We really appreciate your feedback, but we’re going to stand firm on this one.” We’ve lost some of that and so we really opened up the connection back to the consumer in a pretty dramatic way and it paid off.
If you look at what is going on with LEGO today, they’re making some really, really amazing products that appeal to ages up and down the age spectrum. You can get parents, male and female, together with kids, male and female to build. I’ve got friends, and of course, my own daughter who is just fascinated by all kinds of LEGO sets of varying sorts. They love to build. That’s something that’s not boys 7-12 anymore. It’s literally all ages, all genders. I’d like to see more female involvement at both ends of the age spectrum, but it’s dramatically different today than it was back then. I think it’s because there’s a better understanding of what really delights the customer, not just what delivers on certain markets and sells as well in certain stores at certain times.
Patrick: Let’s stop for a moment and talk about our excellent sponsor, Structure3C.
Structure3C helps large organizations unlock the full value of community. Founded by Bill Johnston and staffed by a network of experienced community builders from the public and private sectors, Structure3C helps clients transform existing programs, launch new communities, and develop forward-looking strategies for community-based growth and innovation. Schedule a free initial conversation at structure3c.com.
Prior to our conversation, I reviewed, I guess it was a recap of a talk you gave in 2009 at Word of Mouth Supergenius.
You really painted an interesting picture of, as you said, they are big retailers telling LEGO that they didn’t know enough about the customers and they needed to learn more and really a company that was hamstrung by legal fears. To the point of effectively turning customers and their ideas away and forcing them to help each other essentially and really build their own marketplace as they did or their own marketplaces. It sounds like you just wore that down [chuckles] through sheer determination and tenacity to take five-minute meetings and slowly wedged a more open customer experience into what is at that point a well-established toy company and as you talked about, boys 7 to 12.
[00:17:42] Jake: Yes, there are several pieces in there that I do like to talk about a lot when I talk about community work. When you go back to this great community professional, somebody who can take “No,” laugh it off, smile and say, “Okay, I heard you as a yes, but focus on those caveats”.
When I left LEGO, one of my last stops in the US before my last trip to Europe was meeting with our IP attorney. She was great. We worked side by side for years. I was young. I was inexperienced. I didn’t have a lot of legal background. I certainly didn’t have a law degree but I kept asking why. I know I annoyed the hell out of her on a regular basis but I kept asking why, in part, because I truly wanted to understand the “Yes, but.” I wanted to get to her to say, “Yes, you can do this, but here are the caveats of how you need to do it,” versus a flat out “No.”
When I left, I stopped by her office to say, “Hey, it’s my last day. I’m going to miss you,” and all that sort of thing. As I turned to leave her office, I said, “Well, hey, you’re really going to miss me, aren’t you? You’re going to have a boring day now that I’m gone.” She said, “You know what, it’s funny that you say that. In the legal department here, we’ve got the 80/20 rule. 80% of the time somebody comes in and asks us something and we tell them the answer and they say,’Okay, thanks.’ They turn around and walk out and 20% of the time is you”.
I’m like, alright, fair enough. That sounds about right. My goal wasn’t ever to just challenge her or just to be a pain or to try and get my way. I really did ask why a lot because I wanted to understand how to work around things so that I could come to her with better answers from now on. We had a real big problem when I first started where fans were not using the trademark very properly and the IP attorneys got really nervous about that because, I don’t know how familiar with you are with trademark law, but basically, the long story short is that if you don’t try and regularly, actively, aggressively defend your trademarks, it’s really easy to lose those trademarks. Somebody takes you to court to try and use it themselves even though it’s yours and says, “Well, you didn’t bother to try and protect it, so you clearly don’t care about it. Why are you trying to get on us now about using it?” We had this concern from the legal team where they were saying, “Look, we’re in big trademark lawsuits and cases and pursuits and all kinds of stuff right now with our trademark. We’re trying to define some things. We can’t have folks out there on the web just using our logo and our name willy-nilly, without a problem. We’ve got to stop this. We got to these fans to stop using our LEGO logo.”
Then I said, “Okay, hang on, time-out. First, let me understand. What is your concern?” We walked through the fact that she needed to make sure that there was some clear connection to the fact that the brand was ours, not randomly somebody else’s. I said, “Okay, so the problem is X. How about solution Y?” We started playing with that and, over time, what she came to see was that I wasn’t trying to just commit and say, “I don’t want to do it your way, I don’t care about what you have to do as a lawyer at LEGO. I care more about what I’m doing as a business person at LEGO.”
What ended up happening is that we came to a really great positive conclusion that didn’t go and tell a bunch of community members, “Hey, I know you love us and you love our brand and you want to promote us but stop.” What, instead, I told them was, “We know you love our brand but we need to protect our brand and our logo. We have shared some assets with you, of appropriate use, and we would like you to put at the bottom of your fan sites that this site is not associated with the LEGO brand and that the trademark is the property of LEGO and here’s the language.” And because we had built a relationship with them, even though that was still very early days and because I went to them and said, “Look”, I went to the community and said, “Look, here’s our problem. Here’s what we’re working with. I want to make sure you guys can continue to do this, but I need some help. We need to meet in the middle, what do you think? The terms weren’t onerous, they were pretty straightforward and we came to them with better assets than they’ve been using. Better versions of the LEGO logo that they can use on their websites. That was an everybody goes home happy moment. That didn’t happen because the legal team came in and said, “Hey, we want to shut you down”. I said, “Okay, fine. You’re the legal team. You know better than I do, you’re lawyers, you have a law degree.”
The same way you always hear, don’t just take a doctor’s word on the surface because they are humans too. Ask them why. Ask them what’s up. Make sure you take control of your own healthcare. I’m taking control of my own business direction, so to speak. Over time, I learned a whole lot more about what her concerns were and I was able to address those concerns at least in part before I ever showed up to her office and she saw that I was trying to respect her time. It created a much better working dynamic with us because I kept asking why. It was rough at first, but we got to a really positive place where I know a whole lot more and she respected me a lot more for at least giving it a shot to try and understand the background.
[00:22:28] Patrick: That’s a great story because there are a lot to many unofficial fan-led community, however you want to term it, efforts that are shut down or the emotion changes from love and passion to dislike [laughs] and hatred because of boiler-plate legal letters. Instead of trying to find a workable solution with well-meaning individuals, which is the key thing, well-meaning people doing good stuff in the community, not taking money from anyone, the company, but making the company, in the end, more money at no extra cost [laughs] to the company. Empowering those people through finding a way to do it, a licensed language, terminology, specific assets, something. It’s always so much better and less costly [laughs] than sending out boiler-plate.
I had a question from Carol Benovic-Bradley, who’s a listener of the show, about the idea of how her tastes, and it was about toys because we were talking about you and your background at LEGO, but how her tastes have shifted and, over time, she feels like she has less loyalty to a brand and more towards a specific line in that brand or a product. That sort of made me think about the idea, her idea really, was tied to how brands mature with a lifecycle of their customer. LEGO has a fan and they’re a kid. Just to pull from LEGO, and that kid, as you did, Jake became an adult. Your needs and your wallet [chuckles] and everything else change in that time span.
Is there anything in the lifecycle of community building or a super fan program, anything like that you think about when it comes to that maturity of the fan or is that even too long for you to think about? Most of us aren’t in our jobs [laughs] that long. I guess you have fans of any kind of product or company that’s been around for 30 years or more that maybe were fans long-term. Does that change your approach at all to those people, to those fans? Is there anything that should shift, do you think, in any way?
[00:24:26] Jake: Yes. I think it’s a fair point, especially with LEGO. LEGO, to keep with that example for a second, when I joined, had a pretty dramatic problem with what we call the dark ages. That period of time that was somewhere about either right at the beginning of high school through to late 20s or so, where LEGO just wasn’t cool. It wasn’t interesting anymore because it was a toy, it was targeted boys 7 to 12, maybe you could get to 14 before the toy aspect sort of lost its interest. I’m seeing this with my 11-year old daughter. She ages and the interests she has in traditional toys is waning, but for me, what I’ve always tried to pay attention to is not just how do we increase the longevity of the product cycle, reduce the dark age. The question, to me, and that’s part of it, that’s why we developed the products that we did, to direct the consumer products like the Star Destroyer, the blacksmith shop, the legends that went back in time and sort of pull stuff from the early ’80s, for instance, and reboxed those original sets so that stuff we remember from our childhood, we can bring back.
That does help compress that dark ages period of time but, in reality, is that we know – look, if you’re in college and you have a huge LEGO collection that takes up a room, you’re probably not going to take it with you. You’re not going to take the whole thing anyway. No matter how good we get at compressing that dark ages, if we’re not really playing to the person’s overall personality and overall interests, then it’s going to be real hard to just make them buy more products because we want to eek out a couple more years. If you think about this in terms of LEGO, why is somebody taking LEGO to college now, where they wouldn’t have before?
It’s not because of the LEGO product inherently is more palatable or only because it became cool enough to take to college. That’s part of it. What’s happened is that LEGO, as a product, has now integrated itself more in a culture of a high-quality nerdery. That there’s this nerd vibe that’s cool in a way that modern culture is embracing. How many Marvel movies? People buying action figures just for display. People walking into school, to college, to work, wearing a Star Wars t-shirt. These are things that just 10 years ago would have been not abnormal per se, but uncommon, a lot more uncommon than they are today, certainly across a wide spectrum. I just threw the nerd person that you get started talking about Star Wars theory and you go, “Yes, that’s a person like me. That’s a person that all my friends, go, ‘Yes, he’s probably got some in-depth thoughts on Star Wars fan-fiction or fan theories or whatever.” It’s not surprising to them. What’s happened though, is that concept has grown into a whole lot of other parts of the world. My daughter loves going to see Star Wars and she’s an 11-year-old girl who also loves unicorns. It’s a much larger societal change that a lot of this stuff has tapped into.
STEM has become really cool, therefore Star Wars and science fiction and space travel, all of these things have become a whole lot more cool. That’s been the curve in a lot of ways. For LEGO to do what LEGO is doing, just tapping into, not just creating really great collections of products but doing things like the LEGO Ideas, where you, me or anybody can design a product and LEGO models, upload itm and if they get a certain number of votes, then it gets put into consideration for actually being produced.
We see some really amazing sets and designs that are really, really unique and the people that you wouldn’t normally think would build a LEGO model and put it on their desk at work are doing that now. My favorite one of late is the ship in a bottle that looks just absolutely astounding. When I worked at Apple, you’d walk down the halls and most of the desks around there had LEGO stuff on them. Male, female, young, old, it didn’t matter. There was a large percentage that had some sort of cool LEGO construction or minifig, or whatever.
It’s tapping into the societal change of who am I, how do I define my own personality through these products and then align the product to that after that. Versus trying to get the product to align to somebody’s personality because we have what we want to sell, if that makes sense.
[00:28:40] Patrick: It does.
Let’s stop there to talk about our great sponsor, Higher Logic.
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I want to talk about super user programs in a more generic sense but before we do that, let’s set some parameters. There are communities with volunteer moderators. There are communities with teams of people who welcome other members, like a welcoming committee. There are communities with user groups who are empowered to answer questions because of knowledge they’ve demonstrated. Are these all potentially super user programs? Is there something that sets them apart as “super user programs” or is it merely just terminology and we’re all theoretically talking about similar things?
[00:29:47] Jake: Yes, it’s a good question. I think everybody has their own answer to this particular issue. For me, super user program is a fan program, it’s an engagement program. The idea is, there are people in your community that are actively, knowingly, participating more than others and your efforts as a community owner, as a business, whatever that answer is there. Your desire is to see more of that activity and to maintain those folks doing amazing things, so you put together formal programs that recognize and incent and reward that activity. You’re basically saying, “You’re doing great things. Let me call you out for that so that you are feeling the love from us as a business entity but you’re also getting the recognition you deserve,” whatever form that comes in. That’s a super user/fan/engagement program.
[00:30:37] Patrick: Real quick, what are a few of your favorite top of mind super user programs?
[00:30:41] Jake: We were talking a lot about LEGO today. I’ll keep talking about them a little bit longer. The programs that I started right when I left, like the LEGO Ambassador Program, has grown pretty significantly. They’ve done a remarkable job, LEGO, since I’ve been gone, at really expanding that program. The LEGO ambassadors are, I believe, two people from each of the LEGO clubs, the offline unofficial clubs that are built around the world. It feels like every country these days. And those two ambassadors represent their club and they come together in an online forum specifically for ambassadors and they have a year cycle that they have to get renominated for at the end of the year, sort of reinvited into the program.
The great thing about that is that LEGO has a really great funnel that people are really trying to build. This was started with what I was doing, fans, and they’ve taken it to a whole new level. This funnel of, I can’t deal individually with however many people were there when I was there. 5,000 people. Where now, maybe it’s 500,000 LEGO fans that are really active around the world and in all kinds of countries. I can’t pick up the phone and talk to every one of them when there’s an issue and so we’ve got to funnel this concept in. How do I connect? Well, I connect, if I were LEGO – I connect through the ambassadors. The ambassadors represent their clubs. The clubs then go out and do a whole bunch of other stuff that represent the interest of people who are actively getting involved in clubs but even they represent folks that aren’t getting involved at all. It’s multi-tiered there but it gets smaller and smaller as it gets closer to the LEGO connected fans. Which is fantastic for LEGO because they can make a lot of conversation happen. Have a lot of interaction with the ambassadors. Talk about the various programs that they are working on, launch programs, with them and for the help of those ambassadors. Then the ambassadors turn around and go and represent it to their clubs and their clubs, they represent it to people that may – or that they work with. Their kids and their family or whoever that could benefit from some of those activities.
The LEGO ambassador moniker can be a very important bio recognition piece that fans love to say, “Hey, look, I was LEGO ambassador.” I’ve talked for a lot of years about trying to build programs that are so fundamentally important to that person that it does help define their personality. They want to put it on their LinkedIn profile because it helps them represent who they are. Where it helps them get a job.
The Microsoft MVP programs, one of the leaders going way back. MVP members, once they’ve gotten that moniker, they’ve been invited into that program, seeing that logo on their LinkedIn can be the difference between them getting a job there or the person they’re competing with getting that instead. It’s showing that not only are they knowledgeable, but they’re engaged in the community. That’s the type of person they are and that they’re somebody who participates and shares their knowledge enough that Microsoft themselves recognize them. A little bit different with LEGO because you’re not necessarily going to go get a job in industrial engineering because you had a LEGO ambassador moniker on your LinkedIn profile, but maybe. Maybe that’s something that shows who you are as a person and that you’re serious enough about organization and sharing and helping that it can help define who you are as a person to a potential employer.
It’s always been a canary in a coal mine for me is, can we do something that’s significantly important enough to that person that helps to showcase who they are from a program design standpoint? If they are, then they’re going to want to really participate. They’re going to want to take it seriously. They’re going to want to help other fans or community members as much as possible because that’s how they stay in the program. You’ve heard me say it a hundred times before. Everybody goes home happy. That’s really the mantra as far as I’m concerned is, on building communities, is everybody goes home happy.
It doesn’t require the same things. What I get as a company, community manager and what you get as a community member are not going to be anywhere near the same things to make us both happy. We’re both understanding what makes each other happy and helping each other out and getting something in return from it.
[00:34:36] Patrick: When you talk to companies these days, I’m guessing that many are doing something community oriented but they may not have a “super user program” Is what you laid out, the pitch to them, that it connects them deeper to their key advocates. Helps them spread the message. Helps them have a pool of people to reach out to for ideas and research purposes. Is there anything else that is a component or a key benefit for a company who’s looking at a super user program.
[00:35:03] Jake: Yes. I’d almost like to take a step back. Talking about what’s going on in the world of pitching community today. Others may have other experiences. One of the things I’m seeing a lot is that there tends to be a split between a marketing activity and a support activity. We see a lot of pretty robust communities around support. It’s funny, it’s like when you buy a new car, and you suddenly see every other car like that on the road that you never noticed before. Everybody has a Honda Pilot now that I just bought a Honda Pilot.
It’s the same thing as you start looking around on the web for support communities, you realize how many support communities existed. There’s quite a few, whether it’s Samsung or LG, whatever. There’s a very distinct purpose and a very distinct place in the organization for support communities. They have as much different type of mindset for how they approach it versus the calling marketing communities, but it’s not necessarily for direct marketing, maybe just fan engagement. It takes a much different mindset. The support pitch to support executives is a much different one than non-support. The support one is really about driving cost down, improving satisfaction, improving call center wait times, that sort of thing. Very tactical and very important. You’re seeing younger generations just saying, “I don’t want to pick up the phone. I don’t care how easy it is. I don’t care how much faster this would solve my problem. I can go back and forth for three weeks on Twitter, but that’s fine as long as I don’t have to pick up the phone and talk to a call center rep.”
You’re meeting the people where they are at, especially as the age and profile changes. The desire of channel profile. You’re also trying to see, if there’s more people that are doing more things with more complex products, especially with technology in particular, how do we make sure to keep up with their ability to need a real-time help? Well, communities are a really great option for that.
For the non-community though, I think the pitch is about, we’re seeing a much different type of, I almost want to say for all society. Where there is a desire to engage with our products with our peers doing them. Whether it started with the maker’s movement or it ended with it, I’m not sure, but this idea that I want to really engage with my products and understand what’s happening and share these pieces much more than before. Whether it’s my buddy and I talking about the Ring doorbell the other day and what he’s doing with his and how he’s keeping an eye on his house.
There’s a lot deeper connection, I think, to this idea of storytelling, of fan culture, of connecting with Marvel movies and waiting around to the end of the movie to see what happens and then talking on Facebook about it with your friends who otherwise wouldn’t be that interested in such things. If you said, “Oh, yes, let’s go to the comic book store and talk comic book nerd stuff”, they’d be like, “What are you talking about? That’s not what I’m interested in. I’m not going to do that.” “Did you see what happened at the end of the Marvel movie? I can’t wait till the next one that comes out that they just foreshadowed”.
I think there’s a much different realm there that – the support stories are fairly straightforward when I think, the marketing story is – it’s a harder sell, but I think it’s also a more interesting one because it really does talk to the issue of how are we building products right now? How are we making sure that you’re finding a balance between surprise and delight with a new product but also not missing the mark because you didn’t get people involved from day one to really make sure that this is the right type of product? I just got a floodlight camera that I can only mount vertically, not horizontally, and the only way to mount on my house is horizontally. So, I had to take back a $250 floodlight exterior security camera and return it because it didn’t mount right and there was no technology reason that it should’ve been that way. They just missed it. It’s really quite shocking that they did because it’s an incredibly easy design change that wouldn’t have cost any more or less than what I pulled out of the box. Immediately, the conversation that I’m having across social media about it, that I’m looking at different support forums or different social channels that I’m asking others that I have. The way that that spreads so much faster in that that would have been a very basic data program to fans of their brand because it is a brand that has fans already, would have solved.
I may be rambling here a bit, but I think consumer expectations have changed enough about products being right out of the box because why wouldn’t you have talked to us? It’s shocking when things like this, horizontal versus vertical, just because I can’t bend it an extra couple of degrees on the design of this thing. I called the company and they said, “Oh, yes, we understand it. It was a miss on our part. We’re producing a new one that solves that within the next few months.”
But why? Well, they’ve missed it. It’s obvious it was easy and we almost expect such higher level of obvious product flaws to be caught because you’re engaging people earlier in the process. When it’s not, it really feels out of place in a way that I’m really excited about because that hopefully means we’d see a lot more of this type of activity.
[00:39:50] Patrick: When you talk to these companies about super user programs, and you talk to, for the most part, large companies, are you suggesting that they hire someone or put someone in charge of the super user program specifically? Obviously, this will vary by company but in a Fortune 500, that it could be a full-time plus people job to manage a group depending on how big it is. Are you actually suggesting that someone be assigned this specifically as their focus or what’s your approach there?
[00:40:17] Jake: Yes, the answer is an absolutely yes almost every time. The reality is, it’s a hard sell. I see it on a regular basis in most companies with most projects for the last five years, that the hardest thing to get is these three little letters, FTE, full-time employee. To say to somebody, hey, we’re starting a program. In your mind, senior executive, this is a role that can be done as additional part of somebody else’s existing job. You’ve already got a social media team, a social media manager can just do some community work. That’s a hard sell.
Yes, you’re right, I definitely advocate strongly for — You’re going to build a program of engagement, you need to have a consistent voice. Somebody that can show up on a regular basis. Somebody who’s assigned to make sure that, like any other part of the company, if you’ve given us a directive to go succeed, that we have the resources and people and the budgets to go do so. I’m always surprised, for years now, I’ve been surprised at how hard it really is to convince people, senior executives, in particular, to initially invest in that role or roles.
There’s a moderation activity. It’s pretty easy, people understand that, they understand what the function of the moderator is. We’ve got to protect ourselves, of course we’re going to hire moderators. Getting somebody that is maintaining a dynamic and positive nature in the overall growth strategy of the community. For whatever reason, there’s a bunch of them, I’m sure, but for whatever reason, it tends to be a hard initial sell. Part of my strategy lately has been, you mention this upfront, you strongly advocate for it. You expect that it’s not going to happen so then you put in place very quickly thereafter a tiered process for how you move from, we don’t have any full-time community manager to helping the person that’s filling the community manager plus a bunch of other roles function and move themselves into being able to make a case. Making a business strategy case for getting a full-time role.
[00:42:11] Patrick: This plays well with my next question. I’m guessing that a reason that some of these programs fail is often because the company thought it was nice, maybe even hit a consultant like you, but didn’t commit or didn’t put the resources behind it to actually make it successful. With that aside, what are some of the — I guess the biggest mistakes that you see with companies that they make with a super user program?
[00:42:33] Jake: Well, it’s another good question, it’s a fundamental question that I’m glad to be talking about. Really, this is critical to the success of any community or super user program or any engagement that involves real people and real time. I think it’s the time horizon issue and that it comes in two forms. The first one is that, to get started, people don’t quite understand that how much time it takes to invest to get people moving. Especially with super user programs where super user programs are volunteer activity. You’re having people participate in the, let’s say a support forum, to use that example. They’re showing up and answering hundreds and thousands of questions a month in some form or fashion. It’s just, “Yes, that’s correct,” or marked and solved or giving a full-blown technical answer. People who show up in a support forum and work in a super user level for fun are a rare breed.
You don’t get to that point. When I was running the Apple support community, some of those folks have been participating in their own active basis and they’ve gotten to the point of being some of the top contributors because they’ve been doing it for 10+ years. You could imagine a lot of companies sit down and they say, “Okay, great, we’re going to have a full-blown community in six months. We’re going to have, at six months after that, enough people that will be overwhelmed with submissions to our super user program. Then we’re going to start seeing, yes, we’ll give it a year or so and we’ll start seeing amazing returns on directly correlated revenue to decreasing call center volume.”
There’s like five or six or ten different glaring issues with what I just said. The time horizon one, I think is the one that we continue to struggle with, in part because I think it’s, there’s an expectation that, like all of the programs, if it’s not paying off quickly, there’s questions about the investment. There’s concerns about the investment. I think the fact that it takes a few years for any individually, emotionally-driven type of activity where you engage real people in real time, whether it’s community or super user or anything else. There’s a build to that. You’re building a relationship and like any relationship, you won’t get married on the first date for a reason. It takes a while to get to that point of effectiveness.
There’s that time horizon piece up front that continues to be a struggle and on the back end as well. Some of the most amazing communities I’ve seen from brands are plagued with “Hey, this has been working really well with the level of investment we’ve had for three years. It’s exactly where we want it to be. Now we don’t have to spend any more money, let’s cut the budget.” You could drive in a race car at supersonic speeds because there’s gas in the tank. You can take the gas out, the car’s going to stop. We all know this, but that is the reality, is that as new people come in, as new leadership comes in and as senior management tends to change over every 18 or 24 months in most big companies, they come in with new perceptions of what’s important or new desires for their own personal take to go in different directions, that sort of thing. I almost wish we were legally bound. I mean legally bound with a contract to, we’d build the community and it has to stay in place for at least five years. Then if you want to close it down, it takes a number of years to ramp it down to zero, if you do in fact want to close it down. Just because we’re committing to something, we’re building something that has emotional connection to people and it’s amazing to me how fast you can see their communities disappear after it took so long to get to a really good spot because they just stopped investing because why do we need to? Everything is working, let’s stop.
[00:45:59] Patrick: I’m glad you said that because it kills me when people talk about community in a sense of months. That are months that are less than 12 [laughs], especially months that are three to six. Three to six? Send some tweets. I don’t bother with actual community for three to six months. That’s really your window to make it work. Like you said, it’s very difficult and it takes time to get things done.
[00:46:20] Jake: Right. I really have used this dating metaphor quite a lot over the years. There’s a vulnerability to community that I don’t think people understand or appreciate. When you start talking about it in terms of dating, they get a little closer, but it still feels a little odd to use that metaphor. The reality is, somebody that’s spending time on the community is making themselves vulnerable. They are coming in, they’re opening themselves up, they’re spending time in that place, they’re building a profile. That may not be the activity in their head that they’re doing but that is what they’re doing.
If you’re a woodworker and you go into a woodworking forum and you start talking about your woodworking projects and you share your woodworking projects when you’re a newbie and they’re ugly. You’re afraid that somebody’s going to tell you, “That’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen, I can’t believe it’s so ugly.” “Why are you so dumb, why didn’t you do better?” That’s the fear when you start posting content and do something like that.
You go ahead and get past that and you post, and you build this profile over time and you’re expected to be there as you get really connected to the people around you and all of a sudden, they just quit? The site’s shut down or it starts to fade and nobody’s there to pick up the pieces? All of us have been through this with relationships. It’s really wonderful in the beginning and we start opening ourselves up and that’s scary, but it becomes really comfortable and that comfort is an absolutely amazing thing you want to maintain. When it starts to die off, you get scared and nervous. Eventually, you may get so scared and nervous, we back off altogether. The worst thing somebody can do is build the community then either slowly or quickly pull the rug out from underneath you. Where you find yourself going, “Boy, I used to love this brand but they really pulled the head spinner on me and disappeared on me. I’m not sure I’m a big fan anymore.”
[00:47:55] Patrick: Jake, I think it’s time for us to pause on the relationship that is this podcast.
[00:48:02] Patrick: Thank you so much for being on the show. It’s been great to chat with you.
[00:48:04] Jake: Absolutely. Thanks for having me and congratulations on having the same running for so many years now.
[00:48:10] Patrick: Thank you, Jake. We’ve been talking with Jack McKee, CEO and lead strategist at Community5, a consulting practice focused on building and designing online communities and fan engagement programs. For more information, visit community5.com and find Jake at communityguy.com. For the transcript from this episode plus highlights and links that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad. See you in the next episode.
If you have any thoughts on this episode that you’d like to share, please leave me a comment, send me an email or a tweet. If you enjoy the show, we would be so grateful if you spread the word and supported Community Signal on Patreon.