10.09.2014

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Weight loss is a multi-billion dollar international industry. We’ve got commercial  diet programs, meal replacement companies, diet books, plus pills and supplements, all created by companies who aim to cash in on people’s desire to lose weight and look better.

But most of these companies are doing it wrong. They’re selling a quick fix and they end up churning through customers who aren’t satisfied with their products.

So how do you do it right?

Jamie Rosen, CEO and founder of DietBetter, believes it lies in building and sustaining community.

In this article, we get to sit down with Jamie and talk about how DietBetter is using their die-hard community to drive real business value, all with an ad and marketing budget of zeroWe also talk about how DietBetter sustains a community in which 80% of members in their DietBet games engage with the site every single week, an engagement metric we rarely see so high in online communities.

Jamie shares with us what a healthy community looks like, how anonymity can be more rewarding than real identity in communities of purpose, and how to leverage influencers in your community to grow your userbase on your behalf.

A Community Sparked Out of an Idea

In 2008, Jamie Rosen visited friends at two different companies and noticed a strange coincidence: both companies were hosting dieting challenges for their employees, putting money into a pot and betting one another that they would lose weight together.

“I saw my friends doing this together and having fun. The whole thing was a morale-building experience. People would go out running along the Hudson River during their lunch breaks. Losing weight is usually solitary and dreary but in this case people were laughing their way through the experience.”

Therein lies the power of community, Jamie discovered: we can take our everyday solitary struggles and flip them into manageable chunks when done as part of a community.

Yes, Sometimes Your Users DO Know What They Want

Jamie may have come upon this idea back in 2008, but it took several years of thinking through the concept before launching the actual product.

“It took a while for the idea to germinate. To be honest, I didn’t just drop everything and start this.”

Instead of merely launching a platform, he asked potential users what they actually wanted – and then listened to the responses.

“First, I put up a test website,” Jamie explains, “and asked: ‘Are you interested in playing with your friends or with strangers?’ I’m not even sure why I asked that question. I just threw it in there. But the answer was so surprising. Over 70% of people said they’d prefer to lose weight with strangers.”

That’s when the true idea dawned on him: people could come together anonymously online, in a totally private way, and allow themselves to be vulnerable and safe, and accomplish goals they were too self-conscious to discuss with their real-world friends.

“The idea that people were interested in playing in these games with strangers was really intriguing to me. That’s what piqued my interest.”

“You could start to see where people’s heads were at. They were saying, “I’m uncomfortable with my weight and I don’t want to talk about it with people at work or friends.” But that didn’t mean that they did not want community – in fact, it was quite the opposite.

This social dynamic is not intuitive. We often hear fitness “gurus” tell us that we need to make our real-life friends our “accountability partners” when we are achieving goals, whether they be around weight loss, kicking bad habits, building a side project, or being more productive at work. But the truth is, an anonymous community of strangers may be better at holding us accountable, a community that won’t judge us when we falter, so that we can push ourselves and share our missteps.

“Weight is a very sensitive topic and people feel vulnerable when they talk about it. Losing weight often results in failure, so there is safety in doing this with people who you will not have to face in the real world.”

“So what really drives our community is this idea that we are social but with an anonymous component to it.”

This won’t work for every community, but it certainly works when we want to discuss sensitive topics, better ourselves, or challenge ourselves in new ways in the company of likeminded individuals.

Some of the open "games" on DietBetter

Some of the open “games” on DietBetter

How Structure Breeds Community

What is truly surprising about DietBetter’s success is that the team consists of just 5 people, none of whom currently focus on community-building, and yet they have tens of thousands of die-hard community members. Within the games, over 80% are actively engaged on a weekly basis.

How is that possible? It’s because everyone’s goals are aligned in each “DietBet” game, which have a clear structure: lose 4% of your starting weight in 4 weeks (the “Kickstarter” dietbet) or lose 10% in 6 months (the “Transformer”). Each game has its own organizer (or host) who can play the role of  a community manager, along with a cohort of “players” who sign up, bet into the pot, and commit to lose the weight in the specified timeframe. In this environment, community is a natural byproduct.

“People have a lot to talk about in our games, from the mechanics of the weigh-in process to the ups and downs of their struggles along the journey. People really bond in our 6-month games as they get to know each other really well.” Over the course of of the game strong communities emerge — but are suddenly dispersed at the end.

They realized that in order to really create long-term engagement and retention, community must exist outside of this temporal structure. This is a huge turning point for them and signals a major focus on community-building to retain and motivate customers outside the game framework.

“After 6 months, the game would end and you’d never see these people again.” It was a major lost opportunity. Here is how it originally worked:

Early Days Game Structure

  • A “Game host” creates the game and defines the parameters (including the start date and bet amount). The game host can be an influencer like Jillian Michaels who invites their fans to join her dietbet or a community member. Games can be public or private but most are public.
  • Incentives are sometimes offered to build excitement while the game is filling up: “When Jillian Michaels hosts a dietbet, she regularly gives away autographed books and DVDs to the players who invite the most friends each day leading up to the start of the game. She also offers  content tips and suggestions throughout the experience.

This has major limitations in that hosts like Jillian Michaels don’t scale. There’s just one Jillian. So in order to create a sustainable and steadily engaged community, the community needs to scale itself.

The Opposite of Facebook: How the Blogging Feature Was Born

While Facebook has militated that we all use our “real name”, there are thousands of reasons why anonymity can and SHOULD be the way of online communities. This is one of the key ways that DietBetter has begun to scale up.

“We keep hearing from people: ‘Facebook is depressing.’ On Facebook, everyone’s always bragging about what’s going on in their lives. Everything is always ‘great.’ No one is talking about their struggles or confessions. In our world, however, that’s exactly what people share. Everyone is honest because they know they’re not going to be ridiculed.”

And isn’t that what we all want – non-judgmental validation that we’re going to be okay?

Again, Jamie saw that his users knew what they wanted – a safe space where they could talk about their mishaps and move forward. In response, last month, they launched blogging as a new social area on the site, so that people can share experiences in a non-judgmental place.

“This is all about camaraderie. Everyone on the platform can relate to what everyone else is going through. The vibe is like, ‘Hey, I’ve done stuff like that too!’”

Jamie insists: “It’s the anti-Facebook element that is really attractive to people.”

“Within the first month, we got over 1000 blog posts in a community of just tens of thousands. We didn’t even promote this feature. People really want to journal and share their experience. They become natural advocates.”

One of the blog posts from a DietBetter member who has played 6 games and lost over 40 pounds

One of the blog posts from a DietBetter member who has played 6 games and lost over 40 pounds

Focusing on Retention: How the Groups Feature Was Born

“We’re expanding our definition of community to include groups outside our game cohorts. It’s going to help drive two key business objectives.”

  1. Retention: This will allow people to continue their relationships with other players after their game is over.
  2. Acquiring New Users: Some people aren’t in the mood to take out their credit card on Day 1, which we require to join a DietBet. So we launched “Groups” to let people get value from the community without immediately joining a game. They can stick around and make friends, get inspiration from other users, and make healthy lifestyle choices in a safe space.

“Making habit changes that are sustainable takes time and requires a long-term perspective. You’ve got to take it in stages.”

The games are fun and motivational, but Jamie argues that, “People really get the most value over the long-run from the community support: it’s all about camaraderie and a safe space to get and give support.”

“That’s what’s been working for people, creating a circle of accountability with other members of  our community. So we’re building more of that.”

The New Moms group on DietBetter

The New Moms group on DietBetter

The Fitness Warriors: A Story of Strangers Transforming into a Community

People’s lives are changed every day with DietBetter, but some people are truly transformed by their online weight loss journey. They’re not just losing weight, they’re building intimate friendships and a support network for making sustainable lifestyle changes. This is what Jamie is trying to scale over time.

“When we first launched in 2013, among our early users a group of friends formed organically. These women met in games and stayed together. Their games would end after 4 weeks, and instead of going their separate ways, they’d ask, ‘Where should we all go together to join the next game?’”

“They would jump around as a group and they added to their numbers as they did. They became a tribe inside the platform. They named themselves “The Fitness Warriors”. When they started, they were all size 12’s and higher. Together, they all got down to size 5 or less.”

The Fitness Warriors cemented their friendships as part of the first group of players in the beta version of the six-month Transformer game.

“One day, they were bemoaning the fact that they were so close to each other and yet they would never meet. One Fitness Warrior said she had a house on Nantucket and offered to host everyone. She didn’t think anyone would take her up on it but they did … more than she could even fit in her house. So over the course of Mother’s Day last year, all of these women flew in to meet each other. It was a chance for them to finally meet each other.

The Fitness Warriors meet in person for the first time

The Fitness Warriors meet in person for the first time

“When we heard about it, we sent them T-shirts, a healthy gift basket, and a VIP bag from C. Wonder on Nantucket, which is owned by one of our investors.”

Acquisition and Retention: Size Doesn’t Matter

“In terms of our size, we have a couple hundred thousand people who have played in games. A few tens of thousands of people are actively playing at any given moment.”

“We’re not a HUGE community. But we’re seeing really intense engagement, largely because people are paying for our service up front. We used to have an opportunity to play for free, but nobody did it. People want to pay for this.”

This is what we call a good problem.

They want to commit to putting down a deposit. And these are sizable deposits. “The average bet size is $30. You get a significantly enhanced engagement rate when money is at stake and people are commiting to make life changes.”

“Others try to create so little friction in their communities and onboarding process, but then there is no skin in the game. In our case, that high bar of commitment and betting on yourself has kept us on the small side but the engagement is incredibly high.”

Key Takeaways from the DietBetter Story

  1. Structuring your product in the right way can create community even if your team is lean. DietBetter does not have a dedicated community manager and their entire team consists of just 5 people.
  2. Anonymous communities work when people are seeking to challenge themselves in ways that make them open to failure or ridicule—people are actually more supportive of others in these situations than in a “real identity” environment because everyone is struggling together.
  3. Ask your users what they want – they often have the right answers or will lead you in the right direction.
  4. The quality of engagement in your community is far more important than the sheer size. If people are pulling out their credit cards to join, you’re doing something right – even if your userbase isn’t the size of WhatsApp’s or Twitter. Keep that key userbase happy and keep delivering them value worth paying for, and size will come in time.

Conclusion

“We’re building out a database of ‘local heroes’ who can be ambassadors for us. They help us to organize new groups or invest in the community other ways.”

They’ll be tying together their power users in more tight-knit ways and finding new means through which to make people healthier – together.

“We can all do this together. There’s a karmic component to helping people.” And if they can find a way to scale good karma, I’m pretty sure we’d all agree to be beta testers.

Image Credit Hernan.Seoane

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Carrie Melissa Jones

Carrie Melissa Jones | @caremjo

Carrie is the COO and Founding Partner of CMX. She has built community at Chegg and Scribd and has consulted with community companies around the world. She lives in Seattle, WA with her pup, Bruce Wayne.