Oh SNAP! A Community Incentivization Framework

It’s safe to say that one of the community topics I get asked about the most is contributor programs. As some of you might know, I ran the Salesforce MVP program for close to five years. The Salesforce MVP Program recognizes the top 1% of individuals participating in the Salesforce community. These individuals are contributing to the community at absolutely exceptional levels — answering thousands of community questions, mentoring others in the community, running user groups, contributing code to the open source community, and so much more. It’s an industry-leading program along with other top contributor programs like the Microsoft MVP Program and the IBM Champions Program that have paved the way for programs like these at so many companies.

In a future blog post, I’ll dig into some of the nuts and bolts of these types of programs, but for now, I want to take a step back and look at them from a higher level. What can help drive this type of heavy engagement in your community? Even if you don’t have a top contributor program, how can you encourage this type of engagement and behavior in the community you manage?

Back in 2014, when I was running the AUG (Atlassian User Group) program, I met with several user group leaders to get a better understanding of why they volunteered their precious time to run their user groups. We had incredible conversations. All of the leaders provided their own unique perspectives, but there were also obvious commonalities that were threaded through every conversation. It really boiled down to a few different elements that drove them to participate in the community at this astounding level.

That’s how I came up with the acronym SNAP: Status, Networking, Access, and Perks.

Status- Titles, badges, identity

Networking- Opportunities to network and connect with others in an exclusive group/community of people like them

Access- Special access to product managers, executives, beta testing/feedback opportunities, product roadmaps

Perks- Free tickets to events, swag, free training, special offers

Let’s dig into each of these, shall we?

People want to be recognized for who they are, their expertise, and what they’ve contributed. They want (and deserve!) something they can put on their resume, their LinkedIn, and their community profiles. As a community manager, it’s really rewarding to see how proud the members of the community are when they are bestowed with this type of recognition. Even something as simple as an image they can use on their social profile photos has been extremely well received by members of the communities I’ve managed. If you’re building a top contributor program, put some thought into the title of that program and what the individuals in it are named. It’s important. Are they Champions? MVPs? Superstars? What will they be proud to display when they are bestowed with that title? If you’re not sure, ASK. Talk to a few of your trusted community members and get their feedback. I can’t stress enough how important it is that you regularly ask for feedback as you build out your program and/or incentivization strategy.

With a group of individuals contributing to the community at this level, you are guaranteed to have some of your best and brightest customers among them. These are individuals that take their learning, skill, and practice to the next level. Needless to say, being a part of a group like this comes with a lot of value. Stuck on something and need some help? The group is a direct line to expertise galore! The support doesn’t stop at your product either. There’s also support around professional development. The connections they make with each other, the advice they give amongst each other, and even the career opportunities they share provide a benefit that can’t be measured.

This one comes up all of the time because it is extremely valuable to community contributors. Being that they are exceptional contributors with a vast knowledge of your product, they care deeply about the product, and usually your company as well. They value having access to the people who make decisions related to your product and your company. Think — product managers and executive leadership. Now, sure, it would probably be exciting for them to meet someone like your CEO, but it’s not just about shaking hands (or whatever it is that we’re going to be doing post COVID world) with someone they’re excited to meet. It’s about building valuable connections with these decision makers and representing the collective voice of the community to influence change. Change in the product roadmap, change in the company, change in support, change in documentation, change in policies — you name it. While this is a benefit for these members of the community, this is also a huge benefit for your company. You have a group of people that are experts using your product that are willing to give their time to share feedback with you. Do what you need to do to give them this access. Send them an NDA to sign and start showing them your roadmap. Ask for their feedback. Most importantly, if you ask for their feedback, LISTEN to them and IMPLEMENT their feedback. If you can’t implement what they’re asking for, take the time to close the loop and give them the WHY behind it. If you take the time to do this, they will be your fiercest advocates in the community when you have changes to announce widely. I can’t oversell the mutual benefit of ACCESS. Done right, it can be some of the most powerful ROI of your community. There’s so much to talk about when it comes to community feedback — definitely a topic for a future blog post!

While I have found that perks are the least enticing of all of the incentives here, they absolutely do have their place. Everyone likes a special treat now and then, and the people that are volunteering their time to your community certainly deserve them! Depending on what kind of behavior you’re trying to drive, you can play around with this one. In a professional community, the more educated/skilled the members are, the more value they can bring to their community contributions. Education also brings value to them because it helps them elevate themselves professionally. The perks that come to mind when I think of education and professional development are free product training, free tickets to conferences/events, speaking opportunities, free learning materials, speaker training, writing workshops, etc.

There’s also the more common stuff you think about when it comes to perks like — *whispers softly so nobody in my community hears me* — swag. I’ve yet to find a community that doesn’t appreciate swag. Some people seriously lose their minds over it. Now, you may not have the budget for swag, and that’s ok too. Think about other perks that can make these folks feel special — front row seats at events, mailed birthday and anniversary cards, and social media shout-outs. I’ve really done it all when it comes to swag/perks. If you’re interested in hearing more about my swag adventures, check out my blog post about swag & perks!

Send out some t-shirts and throw around some badges and you’ve got yourself some incentivized community members, right?

That’s a big, fat nope.

I was recently tweeting about SNAP with David Spinks from CMX, and a fellow community manager, Brian Oblinger, wrote a dead-on reply that got a good snort laugh out of me:

The underlying foundation for all of this to work is the “right” people. The “right” people are the people that contribute because they care about the success of the community and the success of the individuals in it. These members of the community are intrinsically motivated to give back, and even if none of the above SNAP existed, they would still give back and participate in the community.

SNAP doesn’t make authentic engagement appear out of thin air. SNAP helps the initial small flame of engagement grow into a roaring fire. It expands, enriches, and grows what already exists within your most giving and passionate community members.

Bringing in the right people to build this foundation takes time. It’s not quick, it’s not easy, and in the beginning, it’s not scalable. It’s about developing personal relationships, building trust, and most importantly, having a shared set of values that span across the company and the community. There’s a lot to cover around culture and values, so I’ll be sharing a separate blog post just on that topic soon!

In my experience, all of the elements above play an important role, and you have to prioritize keeping the right balance of these. I’ve definitely dealt with the mishegas of swinging too far in one direction and dealing with entitlement issues down the line. Focus on things that add value and that are sustainable/scalable. If you want to give a benefit to these community members, whether it be something like swag, free training, 1:1 time with product managers, you have to keep growth in mind. If your program doubles over the next two years, is this sustainable? It might be, but it also might not, and you don’t want to go overboard in the beginning only to end up constantly stripping things away later. Sure, programs evolve, and things will likely have to change at some point in time, but you can build a scalable strategy in the beginning that helps limit how frequently you have to make those changes.

There’s no crackle and pop, just making sure you’re still paying attention. 🤓

There’s so much to cover when it comes to incentivization! I’ve mentioned quite a few related topics in this post that I’ll be expanding on in future blog posts soon — perks/swag, top contributor programs, community feedback, and community culture+values.

I’d love to hear more about what you’re doing to incentivize your community members to contribute, and answer any questions you might have for me. Drop your ideas, comments, feedback, and questions in the comments below!

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Holly Firestone

Community Strategist. Currently: VP of Community at Venafi. Previously Salesforce & Atlassian. Challenge me to a pun-off. Twitter: @hollyfirestone