Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of posts analyzing community engagement strategies through the lens of of Nir Eyal’s Hook Model. Anuj Adhiya investigates the strategic and tactical patterns that emerge in great community products. These, in turn, may provide a framework for success to anyone thinking about starting a community-centric product. In the previous posts, Anuj talked about how Product Hunt and GrowthHackers apply the model in their own unique ways.
Matthew Barker, one of Outbounding.org‘s founders, spends his days living what many of us consider to be the dream. He travels the world, writing, editing, and marketing as a freelancer on the go. For a long time, he felt that a big problem with travel writing was the signal-to-noise ratio. There was so much junk travel content that it was growing more and more difficult to find substantive travel content.
So, with this in mind, he banded together with Ethan Gelber, Sonja Holverson, and Belinda Whittaker to launch Outbounding.org.
All of its founders are involved with travel writing and/or marketing in some way. It currently has over 1,300 registered members in the community and far more people in its wider audience.
How have these four founders brought so many members together around a concept that is notoriously hard to build community around? Travel is often a small part of our lives, not something we make a daily habit, and yet this team has brought travel into the daily lives of its members.
This community’s value proposition is about more than being the Hacker News or reddit for travel. The focus is squarely on quality.
Side Note: If you’re familiar with Inbound.org, you’ll notice that the look and feel of Outbounding.org is similar. This is because of a relationship forged between the GM at Inbound, Ed Fry, and Outbounding founder Matthew Barker, around a shared vision and passion for great content.
All of this means that that there is a sizable audience looking for great travel writing. Like Product Hunt and GrowthHackers, looking at Outbounding from the perspective of the the Hook model shows us what they’ve done to continually engage their community.
First, a quick refresher of the Hook Model:
The basic idea is that, to create habit-forming communities, you must move a user through a loop that over time will help them develop a habit of returning and contributing to the community. It looks like this:
A trigger, internal or external, drives a user to the platform where they get some sort of variable reward, contribute something of their own, and return to the platform later for the same loop.
Let’s see how this loop works so well for Outbounding:
1. The Trigger
Outbounding employs both internal and external triggers to get its users to think about returning every day. What are these triggers and how are they built into the community product?
Internal triggers are a critical technique for community experts to use to establish habits. That is: find what people are already trying to do and just make it easier for them.
Because Outbounding serves both content consumers and content creators, they have put two divergent but complementary internal triggers to work.
1. Content Creators: For content creators, the internal triggers lie in the desire to find new audiences for their high-quality work. This is a drive that existed before the community was born. More than that, they want to find a way to get those audiences to engage and delve deeper with comments and upvotes. The Outbounding community actively highlights and distributes their content to new audiences. As Nir Eyal explains: For writers, the trigger is “the itch they feel to publish something they’ve just written and the fear it won’t get read by a wide audience.” Outbounding solves this problem as long as the quality is top-notch.
2. Content Consumers: For content consumers, the internal trigger is often that they wish to escape boredom through consuming travel-related content. Outbounding gives readers a predictable avenue to read only the best travel content — and perhaps make travel plans to escape our daily lives as a result.
How did the team know that these internal triggers were what they should put to work?
When Matthew first talked about building the Outbounding community, he explained that, as a traveler and writer himself:
“The sheer volume of digital travel content has overwhelmed our ability to filter through the deluge and find the great travel journalism that certainly exists out there…..the net effect is very damaging. It distorts the economic model (and livelihoods) of creating ‘quality content,’ it provides an incentive for cheap, thin and superficial space filler and click bait, and it erodes audience faith, loyalty and interaction.”
It’s no secret that travel-related products are nearly impossible to form habits around. Why? Because most people don’t travel more than a couple times a year (if they’re lucky). Frequency is, of course, a very important part of forming habits. Outbounding has flipped the script by making the the habit around reading travel posts rather than travel itself. As Nir Eyal explains, Outbounding has made the habit “the daily read, not the travel”. And they do this by using crazy-effective external triggers.
Outbounding uses six key external product triggers to remind people to come back day after day. These are the small prodding actions that get people to engage over time, cementing their bond with their fellow community members.
1. Daily emails: Outbounding sends out an email every morning at a set time. The email contains a selection of the top posts from the previous day. Users come to expect these regular roundups of new information each day.
2. Activity-based email notifications: By default, you get an email when someone replies to your comment, @mentions you, follows you or when someone you follow submits something. You can opt-in to more notifications, like when your submission gets an upvote or when someone comments on your submission.
3. Discussions: The focus on quality content shines through most in the discussions on Outbounding. This is one of its biggest strengths. It’s not uncommon to see discussions with a very high number of comments. Without fail, these discussions are extremely illuminating. It’s fair to say that some of these could make you into a more thoughtful and aware traveler.
So for many users, there is a very positive association with Outbounding of time well-spent.
4. Tweets: Outbounding tweets out a selection of high quality submissions accompanied with the #OBfave hashtag. The tweet includes the handle of the author and a hat tip to the submitter. Since Outbounding has more Twitter followers than registered site members, this triggers those people along with registered members to return to the site to check out what else is going on.
As an additional boost, each #OBfave tweet is retweeted by one or more of Outbounding’s other co-founders and/or moderators.
5. Facebook Status Updates: Like the tweets, Outbounding updates its Facebook Page status with high quality submissions. It tags the Facebook profile of the author in it, so they’re notified and introduced to the site. Also, like Twitter, Outbounding’s Facebook page has more likes than registered members. So the same dynamic is at play here, bringing registered and unregistered users back to the site.
“The ratio of passive discoverers/consumers to active submitters/creators is very high,” explains founder Matthew Barker. “Not everyone is a pro-active curator of top-end travel content. I guess there are many users who don’t have the time/inclination to find and submit, but they do like to discover and read.”
To even out the ratio between passive consumers and contributors, the team has a plan: “In the coming months we’ll be experimenting with various types of events and workshops aimed more at travelers and consumers (as opposed to industry insiders) that might help move us towards a more inclusive community.”
6. Connections: This is a natural by-product of discussions. And if travel is about anything, it’s about connecting with others and new places. Knowing that there is a place where you can interact with people around the world who share your interests starts out as an external trigger but fast becomes an internal one.
In the end, the cycle of internal and external triggers ingrains Outbounding as something to check out daily. As a result, the community comes together on a regular basis to engage around new discussions on high-quality submissions.
2. The Action
The action is how a user responds to a trigger, like clicking a link or going straight to the site. Outbounding raises the odds that users will respond to the trigger by making it easy to act on the internal and external triggers above.
Many users are already motivated from within to check out what’s happening on Outbounding each day. But those who are not are likely to be persuaded to check it out periodically. Let’s see how they remove barriers and encourage members to take action.
1. Daily emails: Just beneath each link in the daily email digest, the team includes unmissable links to view the post and bring you back to Outbounding to discuss the post.
If someone commented on a post you submitted, @mentioned you in a comment, replied to your comment, or upvoted your comment, there’s a section in the email with this summary. This section contains links back to your post on Outbounding, which makes it super easy to come back and start/continue a discussion.
2. Activity-based emails: Similarly, if you are @mentioned, someone replies to your comment, or any of the other actions that trigger an email, you get an easy link back to the discussion as well.
There’s no need to remember to come back to Outbounding to see and take part in the conversation.
3. Tweets: Daily tweets and retweets of the best submissions from Outbounding & some of its co-founder’s handles. This makes it easier to see what’s hot without being on the site.
4. Facebook Status Updates: Similarly, daily status updates (that mirror the tweeted content) on Outounding’s Facebook page allow for its page’s followers to see what the best piece(s) of content are without being on the site.
This here is key: On Twitter and Facebook, the links to the content point to the original URLs, not the Outbounding page URLs. Matthew has said that this is at the core of their mission. They do this because they “want to celebrate the creator and reward them with new audiences.”
This serves to raise the author’s brand authority. This is a key difference from many communities that drive traffic back to their own site first.
Side Note: This, in itself, can be considered an internal trigger, which I mentioned above. Trust, especially among content creators, is a huge factor in their decision to participate in creative communities.
The point being that Outbounding does not rely on the links to the content to bring people back to the site. Rather, it believes that people will like the content so much that they will click on the links in their Twitter bio and ‘About’ section on Facebook or to come back to the site to discover more great content.
As the odds of users coming back to the site increase, the chances of them interacting with other members of the community go up as well.
3. The Variable Reward
Outbounding hits all three variable reward types for creators.
1. Rewards of the tribe (for creators)
This is all about receiving social validation from the community. At the end of the day, communities succeed when individuals work together towards a common goal. As part of helping achieve that goal, our brains are hardwired to seek recognition for these efforts. Outbounding enables this in 5 ways:
1. On the site, with upvotes & comments: When a submission hits the Outbounding trending page, the number of upvotes that post receives provides social validation. Given how the Outbounding ranking algorithm works, posts can be on the trending page for many days. This is especially true if the submissions result in a discussion. And discussions are highly likely if the content resonates with its members.
It’s this dynamic that keeps many members constantly on the look out for great posts to submit here.
Side Note: Submissions are listed in descending order of most upvotes received in the “Top” section of Outbounding. Having (one of) the most upvoted posts doesn’t appear to be a primary motivator as discovering and discussing great content.
2. On Twitter and Facebook: As mentioned earlier, the @Outbounding & some co-founder Twitter handles tweet out high quality submissions. These are also posted to their Facebook page. This provides even more validation (and revalidation as the content gets retweeted, favorited, liked or shared). Additionally, people coming back to the site to read the post may upvote and/or comment on it. This raises the odds of even more onsite validation.
3. On Social Media, by other Outbounding users: Under each post are various ways to share that post. Users who find the post and/or its associated discussion interesting have an easy way to do this. This provides another layer of peer approval.
4. By email: Remember that daily email with some of the top trending posts from the day before? Right above the titles of the top posts are the names of the users that submitted them along with the number of votes and comments that post got.
5. Leaderboard: Like many sites, Outbounding also has a leaderboard. It shows members that have earned the most karma. This serves as validation of value provided to the community.
2. Rewards of the hunt (for creators and consumers):
This has to do with onsite content and how it’s presented, which Outbounding does in 3 ways:
1. Built-in variability: You have no idea what’s going to show up on Outbounding every day. This is true as a creator or a consumer. It’s especially variable as a creator because there is no guarantee when or if the post you submitted will even show up on the trending page. This variability is core to the site’s functionality.
By design, a list of posts with attention grabbing headlines makes users want to read down the list to see what else is new today.
2. Manufactured curiosity: At the bottom of the Trending, Latest and Top pages, the “View More ” feature also plays into this curiosity to see what’s been submitted beyond what users can see immediately.
3. “Top” Page: As mentioned earlier, posts automatically show up on this page in descending order of most upvotes received. This gives users, and especially new users, a quick way to experience the best of Outbounding, beyond what shows up on the Trending page.
3. Rewards of the Self
This has to do with personal gratification. Our brains are always on the look out for new challenges to overcome. The more success we have, the happier we are. Outbounding enables this in 3 ways:
1. Trending Posts: Anyone can submit a post to Outbounding but few make it to the Trending page. Having a submission show up here is a signal from the community that they found a user’s contribution valuable. The more votes and (positive comments) a post gets, the better the user feels.
2. Comments: As mentioned earlier, meaningful discussion is at the heart of Outbounding. More often than not, starting or adding to a discussion with a unique observation or insight is as or more valuable than submitting a great post. The impact of this is potentially two-fold. Either other users (including well established names) upvote the comment itself and/or will respond to continue the discussion. Either way this is important validation that goes a long way towards a reputation of thought leadership.
3. Leaderboard: Moving up the leaderboard, especially from the “Influential” perspective, just compounds how good a user feels. This means that you’re playing a role in shaping what the community sees and/or discusses.
4. The Investment
Outbounding’ mechanics are set up to make users do a bit of work that will set them up to engage with the community continually. Let’s look at this from the perspective of the two user groups in the community: consumers and creators.
Lurkers have an ongoing stream of submissions and comments to scroll through. They can come back every day, but they will always have to do that little bit to scroll down and click “View More”.
For more engaged users, the ability to upvote this stream of submissions and/or comments keeps them engaged onsite that much more.
Consumers can also share posts that they like directly from the site.
This is a passive, but still present, way of loading the next trigger to bring them back to the site. They will get notified of any comments on conversations they follow and if they share on social, will continue to generate conversation about the piece on their own accounts.
Once users are logged off, whether it’s a tweet, a facebook status update, the desire to read and learn from more high quality discussions or the daily email, one or more of these triggers prompts them to go through all the stages of the Hook Model all over again.
These are the users that constantly submit new posts to Outbounding (I’m one of them!) and regularly comment on interesting posts.
If even one of those posts gets featured on the Trending page, that has the impact of wanting to find more great content to submit because of all the validation they receive. The same dynamic applies to commenting. The more they comment, the greater the likelihood of getting a response. And round and round we go.
This ongoing investment through repeated use represents a users stored value on the site. It’s captured as part of the user profile. It gets them more deeply invested in the community and brings them back again and again.
In this way, all the creator investments prime those users to go through all the stages of the Hook Model all over again.
In the end, both consumers and creators investments serve the ultimate goal of Outbounding of engaging around “Travel Content Excellence”. It’s another great example of cooperative design.
Summary: Consumer and Creator Journeys through the Hook
Here are all the Outbounding community hooks set out for you:
Tweet/Facebook Status Update/Email Notification (Trigger) -> Open Notification and click on a link (Action) -> View new content (Variable Reward of the Hunt) -> Scroll through and maybe even upvote new content (Investment) -> Repeat -> Habit.
After a few rounds of this cycle, users come to learn that Outbounding is a great way to relieve boredom and/or just escape from life for a bit. This then becomes an internal trigger that becomes much stronger than any external trigger. Once this happens, the internal trigger is what fuels the habit on an ongoing basis.
Tweet/Facebook Status Update/Email Notification (Trigger) -> Open Notification and click on a link (Action) -> View upvotes/comments on submissions & get social validation/personal gratification (Variable Rewards of the Tribe & Self) -> Submit even more content and/or comment on new content (Investment) -> Repeat -> Habit
Since creators are also consumers, they experience that journey as well.
So Outbounding’s ability to keep its users engaged is another great example of the Hook Model in action. It’s design raises the odds of becoming a community that is also a daily habit, whether you’re a content consumer or creator.
What lessons did you take away from Outbounding’s use of the Hook Model? Or are you doing something that’s working that they aren’t? Let me know!