Many community builders dream of the far-off day when every program in their community runs smoothly, obtains measurable results, and brings people together flawlessly. That’s the elusive dream of a well-run community at scale.

But is such a dream obtainable?

If anyone knows the answer to that question, it is Caleb Gardner. Caleb, formerly Head of Digital for (Organizing for Action), now works with giant global brand

Caleb Gardner

s at Bain & Company. He also knows a thing or two about building community from scratch, having founded his own company, 18 Coffees. He’s seen both sides of the spectrum and knows what a successful community at scale looks like.

We talked with Caleb about the hope of community in large organizations, the internal structure you need in order to scale a community and the metrics you need to have in place to succeed.

Carrie Jones: You’re speaking to us today from many years of experience building digital strategy for startups as well as for (Organizing for Action) and now Bain & Company. What does community building for giant political campaigns and brands look like?

What’s interesting about political campaigns and brands is that, for instance, Hillary Clinton has no shortage of media attention. She has no shortage of people going to Media is not her problem. What she does have a problem with is activating those people who are interested in being a part of her platform.

So the entire digital strategy has to be built around creating experiences that bring people deeper into the campaign, to feel a part of it, to feel that they should be phone banking or giving money.

It’s all built around a community strategy.

Your title for OFA was Head of Digital. What does that mean?

Ostensibly, it meant everything under the sun that you could possibly think is related to digital, all of the outbound digital products, like e-mail, social media, any website content in terms of the blog, but also just static website content. We also had back-end/front-end developers, so we had the technology side within digital as well: design, analytics, all of those enablers of the outbound products.

Compared to most companies, it was a massive organization. At our high point, it was more than 40 people within our digital team.

How did you begin to set up operations for a digital or community strategy as large as that?

I think about it like concentric circles. If there is the mass of people we’re talking to and there are millions and millions of people there, what we want to do is create experiences through digital that would allow you to raise your hand and self-select that you were someone that we should be talking to in a more sophisticated way.

So let’s say you’re following the Barack Obama account on Twitter, which has 78 million followers, but then that account says, “Hey, if you care about climate change, could you sign up here?” And then you sign up on an e-mail list of millions of people.

And then at least we know your e-mail address, where you live, and that you care about climate change. So already we’ve segmented you so we can have a deeper experience with you.

And then from there, we can say things like the Clinton campaign does. For example, “Your senator is voting on climate change right now. Can you call them? Can you come out to an event in the Chicago area, because we know you live in Chicago, and meet other volunteers?” So we can make that concentric circle smaller.

We talked about this like a ladder of engagement, but I think this is a little bit too linear. The experience is a lot messier than that. The idea was that we were constantly asking for permission to bring you into a deeper engagement, closer to our mission, closer to what our advocates were doing.

You talked about segmenting. With a lot of startups, they say they don’t have enough people to start segmenting community outreach. Where do you start?

I think you start right away. You get data no matter what.

Let’s take Bonobos, which is a great pants provider that I’ve been following for a long time. They had a really great digital operation when they launched in 2010. They’re sophisticated now, but back then, they literally sold a few pairs of pants and it was all online.

Let’s say they wanted to add a few new products. They got a great e-mail list going. They just started seeding ideas about, “Hey, would you be interested in this?” Maybe they seed it as, “This product is coming,” and they’ll give you a date to see if they can get you to raise your hand and say, “I want to know when that comes.”

The data point is about who is saying, “Oh, I’m totally interested in that,” in a way that gives them decision-making ability with a little bit more data behind it.

It’s the same way startups iterate on their product-market fit. You’re doing that, but you’re doing it in-market at a rapid pace that allows you to make resource decisions.

So you constantly need to be gathering that data, whether it’s through lead pages or any other way of gathering it. You just need to be putting forms up.

The technology isn’t complicated. It’s all about the process and the approach.

Let’s talk about that process and approach. There is tons of work to do with a community at scale. How do you divide up tasks and make sure, internally, people are getting all the information they need when you’re working with all this complex member information?

At OFA, we ran an Agile model. And what that meant is that we had daily standup meetings with what you might call the “product leaders”: the social leader, the e-mail leader, that kind of thing.

It forced that collaboration. But it gave a lot of visibility into what each team was doing every day, and it gave me as the director the ability to break down roadblocks if I needed to fix things that were stuck.

Now, what about from an external perspective? Jeremy Bird, who was the organizer of the 2012 Obama re-election campaign, spoke at CMX Summit East 2016, where he mentioned that the ideal member-to-organizer ratio was 10 members per organizer. Do you also think that’s true?

Depending on what you’re activating them to do, of course. Jeremy wants people to go out and be knocking on doors, which from a political standpoint is maybe the highest ask.

That’s why one of the innovations that the Obama campaign created, which no one talks about because it’s not sexy, was the organizing model. It was a snowflake model: you train a leader, that leader gets ten organizers they can mentor, and then maybe they identify another trainer, and then that trainer finds ten more people.

They did that in an amazing, systematic way, especially in the swing states in ‘08 and ‘12. That made a huge difference for things like Get Out the Vote.

Are there red flags that you’re growing like this just to grow and not scaling your community effectively in a way that makes sense for your organization?

Growth in and of itself isn’t a good metric. Growth is a tactic. It’s not a strategy. You grow for a reason.

From my standpoint [at OFA], I always looked at two big buckets of data. In one bucket were my mission-critical metrics. So for a political organization, we wanted to grow a community. Ultimately, we wanted to activate that community to be involved in political engagements. So, again, growth for us is great, but if we’re not getting people to call their senators, we’re not really having a return-on-mission.

Something similar could be said about a startup or a company. You can grow all you want, but if you’re not moving sales, if you’re not hitting the harder metrics your business needs to hit to survive, then it doesn’t really matter.

In the other bucket were community health metrics, which were reflected in our content metrics. If we were asking questions and no one was answering, that was a huge red flag for us. So we would track content metrics by topic over time to see what the appetite of our community was for any of those topics.

So you’ve joined Bain & Company now, working with a lot of longer-standing organizations. What do you think is next for these big legacy brands?

We’re at an interesting point right now where they’re starting to wrap their minds around digital as having a bigger implication for their business. We are at a point where they’re realizing this matters more than just to their marketing organization.

Any time you’re talking about a big brand, where the brand actually matters because it’s what people trust, I honestly think we’re at a point where that isn’t built by a creative piece anymore – at least, not by itself. It’s not built by spending a million dollars on a TV ad. It’s not built by a Super Bowl ad. It’s built by a combination of consistency in terms of the message, and consistency in terms of the relationship-building with the customer.

Digital enables that, but a lot of times, it hasn’t reached its full potential within companies because they don’t understand the community-driven value of making someone not only have affinity for your brand, but want to be engaged with other people who have affinity for your brand.

We’ve actually released research that shows the elements of value for brands. One of them is affiliation and belonging, which is at the top of the pyramid. What that hints at is that this whole idea that has been floating around the ether that community can have real business value, there’s something to that, and we’ve proven it through research.

We’re at an inflection point, especially with digital being so new still. I think personally that we’re probably 10 years into digital really having an impact. And that’s probably 10 years into a cycle that’s going to take 50 or 60 years of really changing how business actually functions.

We’re just starting to scratch the surface of the implications of this from a technology standpoint and from a human standpoint. Everyone sees it coming around the corner, but they don’t understand the full implications of it. And so we’re still sometimes having conversations that are based around older marketing practices.

People are still trying to figure it out within their current worldview. If we were starting from scratch, would this look like it does today? I don’t think it would. So what are the traditional institutions that we’re going to have to break down and rebuild?

How are companies taking that news?

Those conversations are happening because people know it’s time. They now sense that this has bigger implications.

Five years ago when I was having these conversations, people would say, “Just tell us what our digital solution is.” And now people are saying, “Tell us about digital transformation.”

I definitely think we’re turning a corner. That’s why I think we’re at an inflection point. Businesses just don’t know, in terms of execution, what that should look like yet, but we’re starting to create roadmaps for people.

Do you think that the technology is there yet to enable that across an organization?

I don’t think that’s a technology problem. I think we’ve had the technology for years. I think it’s an infrastructure problem. It’s a mindset problem.

To have a true community strategy, you have to be constantly bringing people in, giving them a reason to be there, giving them ways to engage, giving them that affiliation and belonging, while creating value around a product or a service and a brand. So that entire construct has to be fluid. And that’s why I think startups are naturally better about this because they build their companies like that.

It’s so hard for large companies to wrap their minds around this. To some extent, we are suggesting going back to the drawing board. But I think mostly it’s going to start by piloting an idea over here, piloting an idea over here, piloting an idea over here, and then asking, “Where is the value created in all of that and how do we rebuild an infrastructure around it?”

I’m curious if you see any companies or people who are really doing things well in this space?

I feel like, if you’re doing it right, it’s all behind the scenes mostly. That’s kind of the hard thing about this is the unsexy process stuff that has to happen, you don’t get to read about in the AdAges of the world because they only talk about the outliers.

Can you tell me a bit about what you’re doing with your company 18 Coffees?

We actually want to intentionally take a community-driven approach to building a model of getting digital creators together, getting them to know each other, and then activating them to work on projects together that matter to make the world better.

So it can be private-sector projects that are worth tackling, but it can also be non-profit projects. We’re having a few conversations with people here in Chicago. There’s obviously a lot of need here in this community for technology-driven solutions to some of our big problems. We want to find the people who want to work with each other and who want to build long-term relationships with each other, because to me, on the other end of that, the product is always better.

So we’re in that early community-building stage right now. It will be interesting to report back to you in a few years, even in a year, about how well it might turn out. We know the approach we want. We’re trying to figure out the business model for it now, how to make sure those people get paid appropriately and how to facilitate that community-building part in an economically-efficient way for us.

That’s always the hard part when you’re starting something from scratch, figuring out where the money is going to come from.

Yeah. We’ve done some projects. We’re starting to get a small pool of money. We hosted a dinner for interested people a few months ago where I wanted people to be able to sit down and have longer conversations with people that they find interesting and want to work with those people, instead of just having it be a networking event with a hundred people where you barely talk to anyone.

We are intentionally trying to break down the typical networking model, but it is expensive. So we’re now asking how we scale up that real one-to-one relationship building in a quality way, where we know those are the people that we want to work with in a way that doesn’t break the bank for us.

So the cycle continues. Our work is never really done. 

Carrie Melissa Jones

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