Back in 2006, a Cornell University student named Andrew Grauer launched a startup that would change students’ lives for the better. That startup was Course Hero, where students all over the world could upload their class notes, flashcards, study tools, and educational materials to help their fellow students learn more effectively. On one college campus, an educational community was born.
After launching at Cornell, Andrew brought on his good friend John Stacey III to expand that community to another university across the country, UC Santa Barbara. At UCSB, John brought on his friends and fellow students, and the community grew through his methodical work evangelizing the product and building solid relationships with students.
Today, they’ve come a long way from those humble beginnings at two universities, and they’ve faced and conquered the dreaded chicken-and-egg community problem: People don’t want to join a community that feels like an empty room, but filling that room requires that people join it.
So how did they get from those humble beginnings to where they are today, with a team of 18 community builders on their Campus Operations team and with community-sourced content from every university in the world?
The answer is simple: a well-managed Campus Ambassador Program.
To find out how this was done, we interviewed John Stacey III, Course Hero’s Director of Community Operations, about how they have built and scaled this program.
John distills for us the key takeaways from building a Campus Ambassador program over the past seven years.
When John started working with the team, he was still a student at his alma mater, UC Santa Barbara. When he was there, he served as the “boots on the ground” for the program, convincing his friends to join the site and contribute. He says this was integral to getting things off the ground.
“It might not have been possible to build the site without the boots on the ground,” he says. “You have to get that flywheel spinning to get people to contribute, and your goal can’t be just ‘We’re trying to get the word out.’”
After John launched the community at UCSB, the chicken-and-egg problem presented itself. “Boots on the ground” didn’t scale, and all notions of “do things that don’t scale” go out the window when you’re trying to appeal to those who you don’t know. So what was next?
Find a Bigger Reason for Existing
In 2009, John graduated and realized the team would have to get creative to reach their goal of getting new members at new colleges on the platform. That’s when they decided to look for larger reasons for existing. This was all prior to launching their Campus Ambassador program, but it gave the Ambassadors fertile ground to build community down the line and made their path forward clear.
They decided to launch a philanthropic initiative called the Course Hero Knowledge Drive, which revolved around a simple give-back “equation”: for every 10 documents a student uploaded when they joined the platform, Course Hero would donate to a non-profit called Books for Africa.
“That equation was super important,” he says. It was the key that unlocked the solution to their chicken-and-egg problem: “Students really care about philanthropy and improving the landscape around them, but they don’t have the money to give. As a student, you can barely buy food, but you do have documents and information from your courses, so you can give those away and give back.”
“At new schools, people really loved the idea that they are… working to support education at a global scale. They’re leading a movement that is helping to improve education.”
He admits this was a scary leap: “This was a big calculated bet on our side. This was about our larger mission and living it. We built out a whole mock of the website we would set up and then we set up a call with the Executive Director of Books for Africa. We explained what we were doing and how much we cared. From that, they saw how genuine we were and wanted to partner with us.”
Today, Course Hero has donated over 250,000 books to students abroad.
Recruit Campus Ambassadors through Internship Programs
Now that the team had unlocked a way to get students to get over the “engagement hump”, they were able to set about recruiting their Campus Ambassadors.
Their Campus Ambassador program is run as an internship through U.S.- and Canada-based universities (for now).
“We reached out to career service boards for schools and started posting on school-specific job boards. Because it’s an internship, it has to be educational, so we built our professional development program, which are a series of workshops that students go through each week: they learn about networking, public speaking, and communication, then they apply that throughout the week in their work with Course Hero.”
“Once I was overwhelmed with the students we were managing, we slowly started hiring people. Those people eventually turned into community managers. They’re managing interns on the ground, teaching them to become better leaders.”
Give Back Something Concrete
When you’re building a college program, this piece of the Ambassador puzzle is not just a nice-to-have. It’s essential. You can’t call something an internship without giving value to the students and building up their work experience portfolio.
“You have to know what you’re giving to them, really know. We said to ourselves, ‘We’re going to help the other side just as much as they’re helping us.’ We hired people who really believed in what they were doing and who loved interacting with people.”
Today, the student interns get to learn and apply skills in:
- Databases and technology
- Public speaking
- Event organization
“Interns also know they’re doing something that impacts the overall company. That’s what motivates them. They throw events, have study parties, and all their work leads to new engaged users.”
Set Your Team’s Goals Based on What Matters to the Business
Today, each internal Community Manager on the Campus Operations team manages about 20-30 Campus Ambassador interns, communicating with them via Skype to help them succeed.
“One thing we’ve been focused on: whatever our community operations team is doing, it has to align with the overall company goals. You can measure Twitter impressions, but they don’t map to our concrete company goals. They must be aligned. Right now, our focus is on increasing the number of engaged users at the top 180 schools on the platforms. We have to always ask: How does Campus Ops impact that?”
“Overall as a company, we’re striving for new users at certain schools, so our team supports that. It can be tedious to align these goals. Sometimes others see that as a bad word. But it’s not a scary word. It’s important work. If you don’t care enough to connect those dots and do that work — not just show the number of impressions or viewers, but really show how this supports the overall company — then why should the CEO want to put money into this?”
“Think about this at the beginning. Do that early. Don’t just hope that everything is actually going to fall into place. You’ll just become frustrated because you’ll feel like you’re making no progress.”
Hire Community Managers Who Exude Your Mission, Vision, Values
“We have a highly collaborative, team-oriented culture. We want Community Managers who love being around people.”
Not all Community Managers need to be extroverts either. It’s more important they they live the community’s mission and values, John says: “The majority of our Community Managers would probably label themselves as extroverts, but we’ve had multiple very successful introverts as well. It’s more about: how good are they at connecting with people? At leading and motivating people? Are they truly passionate about what we’re doing? If I can’t hear it in an interview, students won’t hear it.”
Build a Rudimentary Manual
“The first manual we wrote for the program was so rudimentary,” John says. “But if you don’t have the passion and mission, it doesn’t matter how fancy your manual is.”
“Our passion is all we had to go on at the time. It forced us to ask us about our mission and create from there.”
Get as Face-to-Face As You Possibly Can
While face-to-face is ideal for building relationships from Community Managers at the Course Hero headquarters to Campus Ambassadors at their respective schools, Skype was a huge help.
“Skype is a requirement,” says John, “both for the Community Manager and for the Campus Ambassador. Most communities early on can’t fly out their Community Managers because it’s so expensive.”
When it’s not possible to meet in person, some tools you can use to connect with your members include:
- Skype, Google Hangouts, Talky, and other small group video conferencing software
- Slack, Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp, or other asynchronous messaging solutions
- Mobile apps built on community software such as Lithium, GroupAhead, Mightybell, and more
- Synchronous online events, like webinars or Tweet chats
Where Possible, Scale Relationships Through Defined Leadership
“The other thing we try to work towards is having a lead Campus Ambassador for each school. In an ideal scenario, you have one ambassador at each school, then those people manage a team at their school.
Managing student ambassadors carries with it its own challenges: “The one thing that makes it harder for this group: there’s a finite lifespan to an ambassador no matter what, but they can help you find their successor.” In these scenarios, it’s all about leveraging the existing relationships and finding ways to extend the trust beyond one single person to encompass more of their network.
Prepare for Fringe Benefits
While product feedback is not among the team’s immediate goals (for now), it has been one of the fringe benefits.
“One of the other biggest wins that has come out of this program is that we got incredible feedback about the site itself. Our ambassador program is for the students we serve. Our community team is working with those students every day. They learn what parts of product and marketing are broken and share them with the team.”
“That wasn’t our goal, but it’s been a byproduct. Our community team was led by students who were also our users. Every designer, every marketer wants time with those people. If your leaders are also power users, that’s total alignment.”
And, as many community builders learn early on, it’s this kind of serendipity that creates the biggest value for both you and your members. In communities, you often plan for one strategy and learn along the way that you’ve created something with even more value than you ever could have initially accounted for. That’s why it’s so key to get started and to work through the serendipitous twists and turns as they unfold.