graphic showing workers putting together large puzzle pieces

If You Build It, They May Not Come

Jocelyn Brady
Executive Creative Director, Scribe
Evan P. Schneider
Founding Editor, Author

Editor’s Note: In the dual interests of experimentation and community building – keystones of this article – I am, semi-reluctantly, turning over this precious editor’s note space to the writer of this piece, Jocelyn. Pray for me.

"Fun fact: When I started research for this article — with search terms like “building an online community” — I got ALL sorts of ads to all sorts of online communities and membership sites. Join this tribe! Get secret insider know-how! Download this FREE amazing thing! And that’s the catch, my friends. That FREE amazing thing! is known to list builders and community builders as a “lead magnet,” wherein I am so magnetized by your FREE amazing thing! that I enter my email to obtain said free thing, locking us into holy email matrimony ‘til Unsubscribe Do Us Part."

 

Let’s say you have a great new product or service that people tell you they definitely want to buy. You get interest from hundreds of thousands, all of whom come to your site to check out your offer in more detail. And then they get to the checkout and…

Nothing.

You wonder, what gives? They SAID they wanted this thing! In exchange for money! They clicked on your ads and read all about your great thing and everything seemed promising so why then, isn’t anyone actually buying?

Here’s the short answer, brought to you by Captain Obvious: People don’t always do what they say.

The only way to find out what humans will actually do in actual reality? Test. Adjust. Test some more. 

Just ask the team behind PX Exchange, an online community for people who create or manage employee incentivization programs. Think Fortune 500-level access to content and experts, at decidely any-level-of-fortune budgets. (Editor’s note: PX Exchange is owned by Maritz which is also the parent company of PeopleScience.)

PX Exchange launched in June, the low-season for incentive planning action, or as its General Manager Chris Galloway, put it, “the absolute worst time of year” to do this. Which made it “the perfect time to test and have the least amount of negative impact.”

The immense challenge of getting it right is well known to even the most successful online community builders and business owners. The ones who literally make their careers off of online products, courses and membership sites they create. The ones behind the worldwide online communities market — whose revenue grew from $392.95 million in 2014 to $1.2 billion by 2019, according to IDC.

 

The only way to find out what humans will actually do in actual reality? Test. Adjust. Test some more. 

Why that seemingly wrong time was so right

When PX Exchange started getting the word out, mostly via highly targeted ads on LinkedIn, Google and Facebook, people seemed pretty into it. You won’t be surprised to learn that their ads using emotive language like “create unforgettable experiences” performed best. In fact, within two months, that handful of ads generated 281,956 impressions, which led to 2,688 clicks, which led to 45 leads, which led to a whopping … ONE single sign up.

So what gives? Why did only one person sign up after so many people clicked the ads, got to the site and considered joining?

On the surface, the answer appears to be simple: money. “When we launched,” Galloway says, “the entry level cost was $199. And we did that on purpose, because we had a significant amount of original content that we worked really hard on, and we wanted to monetize that – but that cost was a giant barrier to entry in reality.”

With only a single person signed up, PX Exchange was in the unenviable position of not being able to live up to its potential – a place to, you know, exchange ideas and insights with other people. PX Exchange wanted “the discussions and access and support to mean something,” and for that they needed a community. They needed people, interacting.

So the team decided to change tack by slashing the price of its entry-level membership to … zero. They decided to promote their free membership to a specially targeted group of American Society of Administrative Professionals and sent that offer in a simple email to 25,000 people.

Can you guess what happened?

“By the end of 24 hours we were at 75 new sign ups, and the end of 48 hours we were over 120,” says Galloway. Compare that to one new member after two months of extensive advertising. (Don’t worry, that one paid member was made whole.)

Right. So, give stuff away, and people will come. Makes sense people love free. It’s one of the many reasons you love PeopleScience. (Editor’s note: Nice buttering me up, Jocelyn … also, more on the power of “free” in the first episode of our forthcoming PeopleScience podcast. Yeah, I said it.)  But what seems obvious on the surface after the fact isn’t always so clear going in.

 

What seems obvious on the surface after the fact isn’t always so clear going in.

“It would be confusing if you were to look only at the data,” says Zarak Khan, a behavioral scientist who sits on the PX Exchange advisory board. “We had a market study where people said they wanted [what PX Exchange provides], and they wanted to pay for it. And then we had a product launch that virtually no one was interested in. No traction. So we wanted to figure out why that was, why the discrepancy.”

As Khan points out, it’s not all that surprising that people don’t always do as they say. Real behavior isn’t the same as aspirational behavior – it’s like saying you want to be healthy, and then you put off that run until … well. Who needs to run anyway? The pizza just got here FFS.

“I think that will always be a part of every project, looking at the discrepancy between what people say versus what they do – and a behavioral science lens prepares you for that,” Khan says. Because data can only tell you one side of the story, and people’s revealed preferences have to be revealed, after all. They may say they’re willing to pay, until it comes time to hand over the cash.

 

Data can only tell you one side of the story, and people’s revealed preferences have to be revealed, after all.

The sciences behind the decision

There are all sorts of reasons people may pull back from paying up … which is likely why entire branches of the internet are dedicated to deciphering shopping cart abandonment.

For one, shoppers might be looking for social proof that what you’re offering is worth a damn. For example, if I see that a ton of other seemingly smart people paid for a thing, I’m more likely to want to be part of that group – HERE’S MY WALLET! Take me to the cool kids table! Social proof is everywhere from product reviews and celebrity endorsements, to waitlists and perceived scarcity because it works.

People are also motivated by reciprocity. Not only do they like you more if you give them something free first, they often feel a bit indebted to you as a result, whether they know it or not. As author Kendra Cherry puts it, “engaging in that first reciprocal exchange can make it more likely that you'll respond to other, often bigger, requests in the future.PeopleScience’s own Bob Sullivan makes it even clearer: “Want to get more out of people? Give them more … They'll want to return the favor.”

And when you’re trying to prove the value of an online community, it’s wise to nurture a network effect, where more people exchanging ideas makes idea exchanges more valuable. Bonus: being part of a valuable network fosters familiarity and trust. Up the perceived value, build the network. Build the network, and you have more people who’ll likely be talking about your valuable thing.

For PX Exchange, building community, and knowing what that community wants, is crucial to the business. Without people, there isn’t anyone to exchange with. “Revenue is of course valuable to us,” Khan points out, “but flexibility in testing and learning are much more important at this phase than revenue. It’s long-term versus short-term value.”

 

Flexibility in testing and learning are much more important at this phase than revenue. It’s long-term versus short-term value.

Now that its community is over 100 strong, the team behind PX Exchange can see what people are clicking on, downloading, talking about and asking for. They want to build on this momentum, make improvements and track progress, one experiment at a time.

“We’re learning new things every day,” says Khan. “It will be interesting to see what winds up being successful, and what we think success looks like.”

Because one thing’s for sure: People can always surprise you. And what they say they want isn’t always what they want ... unless it’s more free (and valuable) stuff. Which is to say if you build it, they might not come, but if you give it to them free, chances are they’ll take it — and they might just love you for it.

 

Jocelyn Brady
Executive Creative Director, Scribe
Evan P. Schneider
Founding Editor, Author

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