Published: Tuesday 16th of June 2015

Every community has the potential to fight for something much larger than ROI: ending childhood hunger, stopping violence against women, creating deep belonging in a world where shallow connections are the norm.

What if businesses looked at community as having the power to fuel missions much larger than their revenue? What if we built communities so engaged that taking collective action was a no-brainer? What if your community made it possible to do what once seemed impossible? These communities are being built in businesses today. 

Airbnb and Lyft have built communities that have changed laws, and they’re just some of the most visible examples we see on a regular basis.

Today, we look at how MassRoots has once again proved you can engage communities to fuel movements. MassRoots is the largest community of cannabis users today, with over 325,000 members, and they’re changing policies at companies like Apple, and helping to change laws all over the United States.

On November 6, 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize regulated marijuana sales. In April of 2013, the MassRoots community was born.

For the first time, a once-hidden community was given the space to celebrate and meet one another so they could get together for events offline, meet cannabis business owners, and share the best brands and tools. [Note: A year after the law passed in Colorado, the state has been deemed the fastest-growing economy in the nation, according to Business Insider, and that means the potential for community influence in this space is huge.]

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MassRoots Co-Founder Stewart Fortier

Last year, Apple arbitrarily removed the MassRoots app from the App Store. After months of trying to solve the issue on their own, the team turned to their community, who then turned to Apple. Within weeks, the app was reinstated. That’s influence. MassRoots has since  gone on to help push pro-cannabis legislation and even went public this year to give their members a chance to invest in the company itself.

So how do you go about building a community that can really influence political or social action? The key is in creating a cycle of giving that promotes community engagement. We’ll show you how.

We sat down with Stewart Fortier, MassRoot’s co-founder and CTO, to get the play-by-play framework of how a community of influence is born.

The MassRoots Framework for Creating Real Influence within Communities

Here’s how MassRoots has built their community from the ground up:

  1. You provide the value, the tools, the product first.
  2. You ask for people to take action for a larger purpose.
  3. You see results.
  4. You give even more.

In this framework, you’re entered into a cycle of giving and organic receiving, rather than putting out marketing messages with sub-par conversion rates.

Here’s some food for thought: What was the conversion rate on your last email to your customers? Airbnb had a conversion rate of 90% when they asked their hosts to take action. MassRoots sent out a message to their entire user base and got a 10% conversion rate from their ask to send a message to Apple.

First: Provide the Value and Tools

MassRoots created a three-pronged approach to creating early community engagement: the space itself, gifts, and offline events.

1. Create a community space

This is your first act of generosity. Businesses who solely focus on ROI are missing the point. This is a long game, not a short-term strategy.

At the current moment, so few companies are getting this right that you immediately stand out when you create something genuine.

How do you create something genuine? You do not look at how you can start conversations around your brand. Instead, you look at how you can connect people around a shared goal, value, or passion (whatever it is that they use your product/service to do at the end of the day). That goal or passion must serve them, not you. Then you launch the space.

At Massroots, “for the first month, we didn’t promote it to anybody outside of our friend networks. We were just building it for ourselves and our friends.” But because they built something that they actually wanted to use, it only took a few weeks for the idea to catch on. “The next month, we got our first users who were outside of our network. We didn’t know the people.”

“We had a really intimate relationship with our users from the very beginning. Every time I pushed a new update, I had users who personally tagged me, and we always responded to the comments. We still respond to every email we get.

“We are actively in the community. We are legitimately users of the product and our members know that. That was one thing we did to build trust.”

Here’s a hint: always ask yourself if you’d still be a part of this community if it were not your own or you were not being paid to build it. And be honest.

They’ve also gone on to hire members of their community to run marketing, propelling the cycle of creating something of real value to the people they wish to serve:

“We’ve actually hired two of our early users on our marketing team. They know the product even better than we do.”

2. Give gifts

“With our early evangelists, on the app and on Twitter, we would mail them T-shirts and stickers to give to their friends,” says Stewart. And, to the self-funded team, this was no small gift.

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MassRoots members sporting their T-shirts

“We were self-funded for the first few months, so Isaac [MassRoots’ CEO] went $17k in debt to get it off the ground and get the app launched. Then we raised our seed round.” All the gifts came out of pocket in those early days.

“We started with one $5 t-shirt and a few 10-cent stickers. It was the least we could do.” To this day, the continue to give generously to their core members, social media followers who interact with them, and event attendees.

3. Plan events

“One way that we have streamlined communication is through the Editor’s Choice profile,” Stewart explains.” This enabled them to easily run events, call to action, and get to know all their members through one central hub. “You automatically follow that profile. It’s ours.”

This was the vehicle that allowed them to easily scale outreach when push came to shove. At Airbnb, the company hired community organizers to call every single host. At MassRoots, this wasn’t even necessary.

“We did a big tech startup weekend and invited everyone in Denver to come,” says Stewart. Because of the Editor’s Choice profile, we could reach them easily. “That was also the channel where we would do giveaways” of their T-shirts and stickers, as mentioned above.

4/20 Rally Cannabis MassRoots Community

Second: Asking for Help

On election day 2014, the worst thing that could happen to an app happened: Apple wrenched MassRoots from the Apple store on the day that three states had legalized marijuana.

Even though the app was in legal compliance, Apple took it down without justification.

“It was frankly devastating,” Stewart recalls. “The initial reaction was ‘Wow, this is terrible, but as far as we know, we are in compliance with state and territory laws. It appears to be a totally arbitrary decision made by somebody at Apple.’”

They thought, like most businesses, that they were alone in this struggle and should face the challenge as a business — not as a community. It took them almost three months to work up the courage and a plan to do something they had never done before and put their community to the test.

But after weeks and weeks passed with no action from Apple, they realized “Apple is not budging and they are giving us no answers. We can’t just let this sit.”

Asking your community for help is a daunting proposition. But it’s counterintuitively the fastest possible way to build engagement. 

The results of asking for help from the larger community are three-fold:

  1. You create a bonding moment — a shared emotional experience
  2. You give people a chance to solidify their commitment and feel a part of something much larger than themselves.
  3. You get to tell an amazing, press-worthy story.

How to Ask for Help

“We never had to ask any of our members to do anything until that point.” But they knew that had to do something.

“Isaac, our CEO, had his first entrepreneurial venture in the political campaigning industry in Virginia.” They recalled their roots in political action and took a page from many political campaign handbooks: “Messaging matters.”

“We decided to hit from every single angle with our relationships with our community and the business world.” This is where all that trust they built by giving again and again was so crucial.

When you build a community and not just a marketing funnel, people want to help you. Serendipity happens because you never know who community members know.

Their first task was to message everyone who uses MassRoots, their community members, directly.

“We did a huge push, sending out notifications to all of our users. We sent them to a website to use a template email or to send a custom email, like you often see in political campaigns.”

The results were enormous: of their membership of about 175,000 at the time, over 10,000 people sent emails to Apple in over 23 states. That’s about 4,000 people in every state, taken on average. In Washington, that would be about .08% of the voting population, probably not enough yet at that stage to spark a political uprising, but certainly enough to be heard by Apple.

Their second task was to reach out to the business voices in their community, those who were tied to powerful people in powerful places.

We got all the legitimate players in the field to sign a personal letter to Tim Cook and we mailed it to Apple as we ran the campaign. Legitimate business owners need the same products and services as any in the industry.”

Almost immediately, the app was reinstated.

What appeared to be the worst thing that ever happened to us, it turned out to be the best. We saw how passionate our users were about the product.”

3. Thanking and Giving Back – with a Public Offering

After the app was reinstated, “We had an onslaught of press, which was really exciting,” says Stewart. So then they went about thanking everyone for their engagement and action.

“We personally thanked everyone who was involved. We personally emailed them letting them know we’d been reinstated. For a good two to three weeks, on all of our social channels, we thanked people. We thanked Apple.”

MassRoots Thank You

They also went back to their roots and sponsored big events.

“This 4/20 weekend, we were the largest sponsor at at the 4/20 rally in Denver. 2 days of live music. We were the primary sponsor. We gave out t-shirts and brought all of our users together. There were around 150,000 people there.” To give some perspective: Denver’s population is only about 650,000.

The 4/20 Rally in Denver, 2015

The 4/20 Rally in Denver, 2015

Beyond sponsoring cannabis culture events, the team made a huge move in April: they went public. This is huge, and speaks to the boldness of this team, the boldness of their belief in community.

This was a movement not just to grow a company, but to grow a community who could be key stakeholders in changing the world — a concrete way of saying we believe in the power of what we are building together.

“We see cannabis legalization as for the masses and something that every person should have a part of. That’s why we became a public company at such a growth stage. We want to be the platform for the entire community and be able to a build a broad shareholder base of every ethnicity and income level.”

Conclusion

MassRoots has already proved that their community is influential and engage enough to make big changes happen. They started with Apple, and now they are turning their sights on changing laws in the United States.

This is a huge undertaking, but if they do it right, they not only can change the course of a nation but mobilize a group that historically does not turn out during election season. This could be the ticket to a much larger civic disengagement problem.

“The plan from the beginning has always been: this is a vehicle for legalization,” Stewart says. “We’re going to build this community and activate them around election season. Get them out to the polls.”

Nothing that this team does or dreams of doing is small, and why should it be? They have put in the work to build trust, connections, and a deep commitment within their community. From there, they are capable of accomplishing just about anything.

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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.