06.25.2015

When Foursquare launched in 2009, CEO Dennis Crowley noticed something special happening. Although they had thousands of users and were poised for growth, some of them were doing incredible things: contributing hundreds of edits at a time and spending hours every week on the app.

Dennis realized that they should recognize and engage these users right away, and he created a special designation for them and gave them tools to connect with one another. These became Foursquare’s superusers.

Investing in Foursquare’s early users and power users has been a huge strategic focus for the team, who decided to unbundle the app into two separate apps last year to better serve their users. Through all the growth and changes (between January 2010 and April 2011, the userbase grew from 250,000 to 8 million), their superusers stuck by their side, growing and scaling with them. There have over 40,000 superusers today.

They have learned a lot along the way about how to grow and engage their most avid fans while building products that people love. And the key to all of that is their 40,000-strong global superuser community members, who help them edit their location content at a superhuman pace.

According to The Community Roundtable’s 2015 State of Community Report, companies with multi-tier community advocacy programs are the most successful: on average, 46% of their members remain active. This fuels external advocacy and ensures that their community remains an active part of the company even as it grows and changes.

Take eBay, which recognizes and rewards Top Sellers, who then go on to generate massive amounts of revenue for the company. Or take AllRecipes.com, which recognizes its top contributors with its AllStars program. As of 2014, they had never spent a dime on marketing and are still dominating the Internet of Food almost 20 years after its launch.

Foursquare Tracey ChurrayWe interviewed Foursquare’s Support and Product Operations Director, Tracey Churray, and researched how companies like eBay, SAP and its clients, and AllRecipes.com have built their superuser programs.

Even if your company does not have an eBay-sized budget, you can still invest in your top users. In fact, it’s one of the most cost-effective ways of building life-long loyalty. Investing in these users now will help you scale while your company is still small.

Today, Tracey will walk you through the superuser program at Foursquare, and we will show you how her work can apply to yours, whether you’re a founder, CMO, or new community manager.

Tracey has immersed herself in the tech world for 10 years now. She grew the AWeber customer support team from zero to 35 people, and has now been growing with Foursquare for three years. She helped them navigate huge change in 2014, when they unbundled the main Foursquare app into two apps: Foursquare and Swarm. Through it all, she has seen their superuser program expand and deepen.

swarmlogo_545x220-63d84cedc944d1aac0df4ff2e6362048 foursquare-wordmark

We present you a roadmap for figuring out how you can scale using a superuser program (is it for marketing, product, or scaling support at a fraction of the cost?) and how to implement the program piece by piece.

Defining Why Superusers Are Key

It’s important to gather your first superusers before launching the program to make sure that you are building for them, but it’s never too late to start a program like this.

You may eventually face these challenges: your internal support team reaching capacity and most customers go elsewhere to solve their problems; your product team feeling at a loss for what to build next; and in the case of major company changes, your marketing team facing an uphill battle communicating with customers they don’t really know.

Turning to your superusers will allow you to scale all these processes without hiring.

But where do you begin and how do you scale a massive superuser community?

Not every company is Foursquare, but you might begin to identify a handful of people who wants to get closer to your brand. That is a starting point for a community. It’s time to leverage your close relationships to achieve your support, marketing, expansion, or product goals.

Pre-Work for Creating a Superuser Community

1. Choose a business case

It doesn’t matter if you’re a founder, a Chief Community Officer, a CMO, or a new community builder tasked with engaging loyal fans for the very first time. You should still think about how to get your top users to engage with one another.

Pick one business case, and start there.

At Foursquare, the role falls under support and product (these departments are interconnected). Here are some other examples to get you thinking about how to leverage your top users.

Examples:

  • If revenue is your goal, take a cue from eBay’s Top Seller program.
  • If awareness is your goal, take a peek at what AllRecipes does with its AllStars. Results from AllRecipes consistently rank at the top of Google search and have been that way for years. Foursquare, too, recognizes its superusers for the content they create and edit. It incentivizes both quality and quantity of content and moderation.
  • If support is your goal, SAP research has shown time and again that superuser programs reduce support costs. This is happening at Foursquare as well as Salesforce.
  • If product growth and internationalization/localization are your goals, Foursquare has that process down pat. It turns to its superusers for localization initiatives and has even created a beta program prior to publicly launching Swarm, which ensured the new app’s success. Twitch does this as well.

2. Know Your Brand

You’ll want to launch a superuser program after you define your brand personality. Find a way to talk to your superusers, create an outline for how you want to communicate with them, and ensure that your voice is consistent.

At Foursquare, this is done informally. “We’re a small team and everyone started here as an intern first, so they’ve gotten time to learn how we communicate with users and how specifically to communicate with SUs. For Tori [who runs Foursquare’s superuser forums], it helps a lot that she’s also our internationalization coordinator and that she’s bilingual, as our community is so global,” says Tracey.

Most communications happen on a forum – which got a start on GetSatisfaction but has since migrated to a Vanilla Forums home – and in a Google Group for power superusers.

If your company is larger, consider creating or following an existing brand guideline that empowers your internal team to speak on behalf of the brand while maintaining a consistent voice.

3. Outline member motivations

If you don’t understand your superusers’ motivations first, what could happen? You might waste money, damage your reputation, or even lose customers who feel patronized. You’ll build something arbitrary and ignore the very people you’re trying to serve.

Tracey has done extensive work to figure out what motivates Foursquare’s superusers. Below are her insights:

  • Leave a lasting impression: “In meeting people and talking with them, it’s almost as if it’s a way to put your own stamp on the internet,” she says.  “You get to make a mark on a product that millions of people use all the time without being an engineer or knowing code. That’s the underlying motivation.”
  • Finding their people: “I think another part of it is because we’ve always had this fun and playful personality and affable brand.” There are no shortcuts in brand-building, and this is why having consistent communication across customer touchpoints is so crucial.
  • Feeling heard and seen: “On the back end of it, we work hard to maintain this database and talk to our users. If they tell us something crazy is going on, we interact with them and fix it.”
  • Make the program feel human: Don’t send your superusers into a human-less void. You need someone to run your program, a human voice in line with your brand voice. At Foursquare, this person is Victoria (Tori) Ugarte.

Doug Whittle, SAP Community Consultant, agrees: “I have yet to see a SU [superuser] program be sustained if there is not SOMEONE at some percentage staying ‘in charge.’”

“The open channels of communication are very important,” says Tracey, echoing the need for a leader at the community’s helm.

Now it’s your turn: If you’re the boss or if you are presenting this to your boss, what is the business case you are solving for? How will you propose communicating with your superusers? What are your superusers’ motivations, and how can you give them what they want while also serving the business?

Image via Richard Shatzberger

Image via Richard Shatzberger

Framework for Building a Superuser Community

  1. Define When to Start
  2. Talk First, Build Later
  3. Define What Superusers Will Do
  4. Create a Superuser Vetting Process
  5. Organize Your Superusers into Tiers

1. Define When to Start

Dennis Crowley, Foursquare’s CEO, came up with this idea almost at the get-go. He immediately saw the potential that their most engaged users would have on the business. He took this early hunch and turned it into a program:

“The SU program came out of Dennis’s head many years ago. He saw everyone contributing and thought, ‘All these people are superusers!’ We engineered an application to define membership. It’s been around since pretty much the beginning of Foursquare.”

But just because Foursquare had a leg up doesn’t mean that it’s too late for you.

For you, the timing will depend on how the work you did above (aligning the program with business goals, creating brand guidelines, and identifying key motivations) and what you learned about the work that needs to be done. Look at what your business goals are and determine when a superuser program can be most effective for each of those needs. For product needs, it’s never too soon to speak with your top users and create open lines of communication among them (Foursquare had a simple Google Group from the earliest of days).

Image via a #4sqhackathon

Image via a #4sqhackathon

2. Talk First, Build Later

Before you decide how your potential superusers might contribute, it’s helpful to define who they might be first.

This might seem confusing: Why consider recruiting applicants for your program before defining the roles of your superusers? But think about it. How will you know what superusers should do until you’ve talked to your earliest candidates? It’s a chicken and an egg problem solved rather simply: talking to those who you have already built a relationship with.

If you’re not sure who to start with, turn to your support queue. Who have you interfaced with multiple times? Who do you know on a first-name basis? These people need not be “influencers.”

Run your business case and motivations by them. At this point, it’s fair to have them sign an NDA, since this mirrors a private beta program. These early confidants will help you define the actions you want your superusers to take.

At Foursquare, they launched a private beta in anticipation of their split: “Before the launch of Swarm, we got 200 people in a beta plan and had them sign NDAs. We invited all of our SU3’s [their top tier of superusers], press people, select superusers who had blogs or had been long-time fans.” This set them off on the right foot to create tools from scratch for Swarm and develop a long-term strategy.

This set them off on the right foot to create tools from scratch for Swarm and create a long-term strategy.

3. Define What Superusers Will Do

Foursquare superusers have a variety of clearly defined tasks and the engineering infrastructure to do them on the app (their open API really, really helps). “They find duplicates or merge venues, flag bad tips, photos, phone numbers. It’s completely volunteer.”

“Our location tips are crowd-sourced as well. We don’t directly moderate that as a support team or a community team. It goes back to our community. Our community then reviews it and then votes on whether the tip gets taken down. That gives that group of folks such a feeling of empowerment. They have real privilege. One of our superusers created a whole set of tools based off our API so other superusers could go in and make edits.”

Today, they also have a forum to turn to so that their members have a place to connect with one another and collaborate. Their new forum officially launched when Foursquare decided to unbundle into two separate apps.

The lesson we can learn is this: give your superusers tools to take desired actions, and then let go. Foursquare’s open API has massively enabled their superusers to build and use even more tools or themselves.

4. Create a Superuser Vetting Process

So you’ve talked to users to see who might be a superuser, then defined their tasks. But now you have to be selective in who actually joins the program.

Foursquare doesn’t try to engage everyone in the same way. Instead, they encourage those who show early promise to take a look around the program. Then they give them the tools to start engaging in it more deeply.

Why? It’s all about keeping those motivations pure. Those who are not motivated intrinsically should not be part of the program.

“We want to make sure that the people who are part of this program are the ones who are going to make edits and make good edits,” explains Tracey.

“We didn’t gamify this because we don’t want to mess up the incentives. We’ve done small viral things to promote the superuser program. On Swarm, you get a sticker. Everyone’s profile has a special emblem on it. We don’t go crazy about it because we want people who are internally motivated. We don’t push to upsell this program.”

But what if you don’t have applicants bursting at the seams?

Turn to your support tickets and find those who give you feedback. Tracey says that they often will turn support tickets that are flagging errors into opportunities to tell users about the program. Early advocacy is often showcased in support.

Now that you have boundaries in place, you’ll want to create tiers of superusers, giving them goals to work towards.

5. Organize Your Superusers into Tiers

Now with boundaries in place, create tiers of superusers, which offer them goals to work towards.

“We’re on our third version of super tools, but they’ve been there for a long time,” Tracey explains.

Below are the tiers that Foursquare uses:

  • “SU1”: A member applies, Foursquare give them a bunch of edits, throws some curve balls at them. The Foursquare team looks to see how many edits they’ve made and how good those edits are. Then members are automatically bumped up to the next level if they meet the requirements.
  • “SU2”: The member has done enough good edits, and SU1 members move up to the level of SU2. These members have more editing ability. Their votes weigh more than an SU1 would. They can then lock venues, etc.
  • “SU3”: These members are moderators in the forums. “They’ve been around for four or five years. We have a separate Google group for them and some of our engineers are on our Google group. They have direct access to our engineering team.” This is the pinnacle of Foursquare superuser-dom.

At each level, Foursquare recognizes their members and (here’s the key) listens to them. They send out about one swag pack per year to their top tier, but that’s not the point, Tracey says. They look at what really motivates their members, and they recognize them in sustainable ways.

This creates a continuous cycle of rewarded advocacy and engagement.

Conclusion

While Foursquare’s superuser program lives under the engineering and product departments, the program touches many more aspects of the business.

“One of the things I’ve been most impressed with is taking community feedback and putting it directly into the product,” says Tracey. “We’ve elevated the community’s voice internally.”

In many organizations, people don’t know where community fits. But a superuser program can pervade the organizational culture in any department. Once a program is started, superusers can contribute in endless ways to the product, marketing, localization, content, or support goals of your organization.

They use superusers for all kinds of tasks internally, even if their business goals are clearly defined around product and support. “In the process of localizing things, we include our superusers.” Localization is hugely important to Foursquare and will become ever more important to companies as they expand internationally. “We recently released a bunch of stickers. A lot are unlocked by shouting things when you walk in somewhere. We had to localize that.” So they asked their superusers: “In your country, what would you shout to get this sticker?”

“We’ve just seen that the smaller pockets of geographically located people tend to work better because they’re using the app in different ways.” They’ll say things like, “Let’s go fix Greece today, and they’ll fix everything that is in Greece in one day.”

That’s the kind of teamwork that many companies dream of, the kind of actions that leaders everywhere wish they could inspire. Building a superuser community puts that kind of teamwork and action right at your fingertips.

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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.