January 21, 2022

Empathy is underrated. While sympathy can drive people to take charitable action or acknowledge an event, empathy is the basis of genuine connection between human beings—and even between a company and its customers.

Empathy is critical to growing a business and forging a sense of community. You can’t fake concern. That’s why authentic, ongoing communication is the key to building successful partnerships with employees and customers. But how do you reach out to internal and external stakeholders to forge long-lasting relationships based on mutual respect and a desire to help each other succeed?

Empathy is critical to growing a business and forging a sense of community.

UserTesting (NYSE: USER) is built around empathy. Our platform lets companies experience what their customers experience. Our video-first approach allows our users to capture more context about customer narratives. Companies can observe customers’ facial expressions and body language, see visuals of actual customer experiences, and hear customers’ tone of voice and intonation as they interact with content. 

We go beyond simple A/B testing, putting companies in their customers’ shoes to see how they feel.

UserTesting bakes empathy into our everyday operations as well. Our corporate culture is very supportive of each other, and our management team is extremely sensitive to how our employees feel about work-life balance and job satisfaction issues. We are used to putting ourselves in others’ shoes, and that’s why we use the same advocacy tools to connect with our employees as we do for our customers. 


Building a Customer Community from Scratch

I joined UserTesting in 2019, specifically to build out the customer community and grow our reference, rewards, and user group programs. We ran traditional email and cross-promotional campaigns at the time, and our executive team had decided to incorporate customer advocacy into our marketing mix using Influitive.

Our customer community, CommUnity, wasn’t the first customer program I’d launched from scratch. I learned many lessons from my experience building a customer community at my previous employer, Nuance Communications, and as a customer advocacy strategy consultant after that under my own brand, Customers Love Me. My top priority at UserTesting was attracting a group of early adopters who would give honest feedback about what kind of content and activity challenges resonated with them, so that way when we opened up invitations to a broader audience, we would know that engagement would be high.

It was also important to manage internal expectations about when to start seeing results (case studies, speaking opportunities, references, etc.) and at what scale. The strategy was to favor quality over quantity of members, which meant organic growth rather than sending out mass invitations to hundreds (or thousands) of people.


Trial and Error

We went through many iterations of content in order to learn what our customers found to be most useful, and how they preferred to engage. For example, we originally had a channel called “Social Shares,” where we put blog posts for customers to read and share with their social networks. We soon found out that the channel wasn’t getting much traffic, and realized after a few surveys that our customers generally didn’t have social media accounts, had company policies preventing them from posting, or didn’t want their professional lives and personal posts to intersect. As a result, we renamed the channel “Read and Share,” and restructured the activity challenges so that customers could still access the blog posts and podcasts, but would receive bonus points for sharing to their social accounts, rather than making the social share a requirement of the challenge. This minor change led to a big uptick in engagement with the content. 

Another example is how we adapted our “Grab Bag” channel, which used to be a catch-all place for random topics. Again, users didn’t go there often. We made some tweaks, and this channel became our “Bag of Inspiration,” home to customer shoutouts, case studies, and features like Tip Tuesday, a weekly how-to guide that presents clever ways to use our platform. The repurposed channel continues to grow in popularity and to attract new and returning users.


Forging Personal Relationships and Catering to Different Personas

To build a thriving customer community, you have to forge personal relationships with your most frequent contributors. Get to know your rock stars and super users by name. Follow them throughout your community, connect with them on LinkedIn—and then go deeper. Do they have pets? What’s their favorite ice cream flavor? More importantly, what are their career goals and how can you (and your community) help achieve them?

To build a thriving customer community, you have to earn the trust of your most frequent contributors and make them feel like valued members.

I tend to view “get them to use your product more” as a table stakes goal. To really build a relationship with your customers, you need to do more than simply provide the tools to turn them into superusers—you need to show you care about them personally, and help them professionally. When your relationship reaches that level of depth that you’ve helped them reach the next milestone in their career, they will not only be more willing to engage in your highest-value activities (reference calls, speaker engagements, case studies, etc.), you will also have made an ally that will stay with you, even if they (or you!) move on to another organization. 

It’s essential to earn their trust and make them feel like valued members of your user community. That trust will make them want to contribute even more, and they will also be more likely to engage with anything you send their way, just because they trust you as a person. 

We also relied heavily on Influitive’s gamification and personalization tools to customize and scale the advocacy experience. UserTesting started as a tool for UX designers and researchers, but today, marketers, project managers, executives, and other professionals use our platform, too. As more of these personas found their way into our CommUnity, we changed the activities based on their interactions, and tagged these different personas as members of unique groups. This way,  if there’s an article or a blog post that is only relevant to marketers, for example, we can use Influitive’s targeting feature to make sure that only marketers see that content. We now have dozens of “groups” of various tagged personas based on role, region, industry, events attended, and more. 

As a result of this targeting, engagement increased dramatically. CommUnity swelled from a handful of members in the first weeks to more than 1,300  users by the end of 2020, and over 3,200 by the end of 2021.


HUGs Offer Greater Levels of Interaction

While customer communities like CommUnity are a great way to bring customers together, they can also be a jumping-off point for greater levels of interaction and more intimate conversations about strategic matters. After we launched CommUnity, we started a program of regional networking events called Human Interaction User Groups—or HUGs. These HUG meetings focus on high-level strategic topics like scaling research across the organization, creating high-quality tests that don’t create bottlenecks, building credibility as executives, reducing bias, and improving accessibility.

When the world went into lockdown, we moved these meetings to Zoom, which allowed us to invite more people. We currently have 11 regional HUGs in North America, including Canada, New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington DC, Boston, Atlanta, and Texas. UserTesting’s presence in EMEA and APAC have also grown considerably over the years (as a testament to that, our platform was recently translated into German!), and so to better accommodate customers in these areas, we added dedicated discussion boards and HUGs optimized for those time zones. Our London HUG attracts customers from all over Europe, and our recently launched APAC HUG is based out of Sydney. Since we can’t meet over pizza in a live setting, we offer Grubhub/Just Eat/other local food delivery gift cards as a post-HUG meeting reward, redeemable only in the CommUnity. It’s a great way to grow the CommUnity, as well as drive continued customer discussions on the given HUG topics in the forums between meetings.

HUG meetings attract all kinds of users, including marketers, product managers, SMB owners, and PhD researchers looking to build their personal brand and hoping to share best practices. We record these Zoom sessions and fold them back into the community to generate new discussions and, hopefully, lead to deeper interactions within CommUnity. 


I Didn’t Have to Reinvent the Wheel

Even though I built UserTesting’s customer community from the bottom up, I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. I use Influitive’s Campaign Content Library to create engaging customer experiences with monthly campaigns. I often recirculate and repurpose UserTesting’s existing webinars, white papers, e-books, blog posts, and podcasts as CommUnity challenges, and even pull external content for our Health and Wellness and Fun channels from a variety of sources. 

Why have a “Fun” channel with unrelated content when the ultimate goal is to drive customer engagement with our product? It’s a great way to engage new members (and returning ones as well!) in a no-stakes way (we’re not asking for anything ground-breaking or proprietary). It also gives customers a nice break from a hectic day, and it introduces a human element into the CommUnity that is critical to its success (even our most dedicated customers don’t want to “talk shop” all the time!). However, I do limit the light stuff to around 10% of our overall content. We have consistently found that this light content helps establish comfort and trust, and often leads to customers engaging in the bigger “asks” like case studies and webinars over time.

I also have to give a shout out to Meaghan Shepherd, our CSM at Influitive. She’s gone above and beyond in every possible way, providing detailed reporting and insightful analyses that help determine our next steps. She shows us what we’re doing well and how we can improve. She also offers creative feedback to help us set future goals. Meaghan doesn’t check in and tick off boxes on a list. She’s a partner invested in our success. 

Automation helps to identify superusers who are likely to become active and engaged members of your customer community.

We also commissioned a custom API to connect CommUnity with the UserTesting platform. This connection passively rewards customers with points in the CommUnity every time they launch a test, with bonuses for milestone tests (10th, 25th, 50th, etc). I get notified of all these test completions, which provides a perfect opportunity to invite power users to join the CommUnity and redeem the points they’ve already accrued for a selection of rewards in our catalog.


Using Empathy to Build on CommUnity’s Success

Influitive has helped make UserTesting’s CommUnity an undisputed success, but like any program, it’s always a work in progress. As we envision an end to the pandemic and a return to office work and in-person events, we will have to rethink our approach to customer advocacy and our CommUnity. We’ll likely have to tweak how we approach and engage customers, but the foundation will remain the same. 

CommUnity is built on empathy and forging endurable customer bonds. As we move forward and grow our global customer base, we’ll continue to boost engagement and build rewarding new experiences for our advocates. In the coming months, we’ll be looking to CommUnity members to take various leadership roles, including moderating HUG discussions, contributing to content, and mentoring new customers as part of a “buddy” system. In this way, I hope to deepen their ties to UserTesting, reinforcing a feeling of mutual respect and a sincere desire to help one another succeed.

Related: Our guide to community marketing
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