I usually spend an hour or two per week browsing Inbound.org, the online community for marketers created by the Moz and HubSpot founders back in 2012.
And because I spend a fair bit of time on the site, when an email from Ed Fry landed in my Gmail inbox, I immediately recognized him as Inbound.org’s general manager.
I don’t usually open automated emails—but since I “knew” Ed, I was curious enough to click.
This message didn’t read like any form email I’d ever gotten before. So, I did something even more rare (for me): I followed the instructions in the email.
After I’d gotten to the thread and posted a comment, I noticed several users had begun their comments with something along the lines of, “Thanks for reaching out, Ed!” or, “Ed, happy to contribute.”
I realized I wasn’t the only one who’d been asked to participate.
When Inbound.org was 10 months old, it had 25,000 members. Now, it has more than 150,000. (The team is hoping to reach 500,000 by November 2016.)
Even though Inbound.org is a community site, not a traditional company, its growth strategies are applicable to any startup. Check out the four factors vital to Inbound.org’s success and how you can implement them.
Even though the site was inspired by Hacker News and Reddit, its early set-up was more like LinkedIn. Inbound.org users posted links to articles—either ones they’d written or ones they’d read. A “good” submission generated a couple comments. A “bad” submission? Crickets.
So, a couple months after Inbound.org officially launched, the team added “Discussion” threads.
“There’s a real difference between people commenting on an article and people going back and forth in a discussion,” Fry explained at the time. “The latter is what we’re aiming for, and it’s the latter which draws more people in and drives growth of the site.”
In fact, after Discussions were added unique monthly visitors surged up by 30%.
When you’re trying to create engagement within your user or customer base, focus on creating discussion. You don’t need your own discussion forum to use this strategy. For example, at Drift we formed a Slack group for product, growth, and customer marketers, which allows us to stimulate discussion with and between our community members.
You can also use Quora. Buffer is a fantastic example of a company using Quora to create discussion within its audience; its top team members will regularly hop on to start and participate in various relevant discussions.
Furthermore, try sparking discussion on social media. Rather than just posting links and product updates on Twitter, ask your followers open-ended questions, such as:
“What do you think of our interface? Any improvements?”, “Why do you use our product?”, or even “What’s the best business book you read lately, and why did you love it?”
According to Mary Green, a community manager for Inbound.org, I was definitely onto something when I noticed other users seemed to have also gotten emails inviting them to join the conversation.
She says they choose which users to email based on interests, past comment behavior, skills marketers have self-selected, and their past visit behavior.
Clearly, their strategy is working well, because every email I’ve received feels personal (even though I know it’s not!) Green also says the Inbound.org team regularly changes improves their segmentation.
Ready for a crazy (and not in a good way) statistic? Only 11% of marketers use list segmentation.
Here are some more comforting stats: When Mailchimp compared approximately 11,000 segmented campaigns to non-segmented campaigns, they found the latter did way better (to the tune of 14.37% higher open rates and 64.78% higher CTRs).
Basically, if you’re not segmenting your audience, start now.
But even if you are slicing and dicing your email list, you can take inspiration from Inbound.org’s continual attempts to improve their strategy. The first characteristics you choose to use may not be the most successful ones.
For example, the email I got worked so well in part because it mentioned A/B testing content titles. In my profile, I’d selected “A/B testing,” “content,” and “blogging”—meaning the topic was right up my alley. Clearly, the Inbound.org team’s decision to segment based on profile skills was really smart. However, they could’ve easily choose to segment based on the post I’d previously commented on. Would this be more effective? Impossible to know without testing.
Ed, Mary, and the other Inbound.org community managers are extremely active on the site, constantly asking questions, submitting comments, and upvoting content.
Apart from being so involved, none of them act differently than normal users. That means they’re not detached, neutral moderators, going around “policing” the site—they talk about their experiences and share their opinions just like everyone else.
As a result, getting emails from them feels like getting emails from a friend. And it’s clearly working: Green says she’s reaching click-through rates of 24%. For context, the industry average is 2.06%.
These days, being transparent, personal, and human is crucial. If you maintain a strict distance between your employees and your customers, sure, it’ll be more “professional,” but you’ll lose the chance to really connect with them.
In fact, customers now expect this intimacy. Buffer, Help Scout, Groove, Baremetrics, Zappos: all companies who’ve been extremely open and approachable with their customers (and profited greatly!)
So, how can you do the same?
First, make your team accessible. That starts at the CEO level—for example, CEO of Toast Chris Comparato spends a couple hours each week calling and meeting with customers. Everyone else should be spending time doing customer support as well.
Second, give your employees the freedom to be themselves. When customers can follow, say, your tech lead on Twitter and see her goofy GIFs, they’ll automatically trust her more and feel a deeper bond toward your company.
That’s how Eventbrite has built a first-class customer service team. Dana Kilian, VP of Customer Service, says there are no scripts or rules that the team members have to follow—so every interaction feels sincere and personalized for the customer.
None of Inbound.org’s outreach efforts would work if there wasn’t awesome content on the site. The team members post questions specifically chosen to generate lots of comments, such as “Product managers! What tools would you recommend for a newbie?” and “Where do you blog? What topics do you cover?”
There are two main themes: questions that allow marketers to show off their expertise, and questions that let them promote themselves or their company. Both are highly appealing offers for Inbound.org’s target user base.
The best marketing campaigns in the world won’t matter if your product doesn’t answer your customers’ problems.
Of course, building a product that transforms their lives for the better is easier said than done.
Here are a couple strategies:
Talk to your customers: The more time you spend interacting with them, the more you’ll understand their pain points, ambitions, and alternate choices
Dogfood your product: “Becoming” a customer makes it much easier to empathize with them
Measure your Net Promoter Score: To quantify your efforts and track your improvement, measure your NPS every month or quarter.
Inbound.org has used these four strategies to get to 150,000 members—now, it’ll be interesting to see which strategies the team will implement to triple their user base. Stay tuned.