Most people would much rather donate money to help others than they would donate their time and energy. Getting people to volunteer can be one of the most difficult challenges a community builder can face. How about getting 17,000 people to volunteer? Think you can take that on?
That’s exactly what 7 Cups of Tea did. And as a community of “active listeners,” they did much more than get people to volunteer. Every volunteer listener completes a training program and then actually chats with and listens to other members of the community. And they built and grew all of this in one year.
“We call it the emotional support system for the Internet” explains CEO and clinical psychologist Glen Moriarty. “We just celebrated our one-year anniversary and are thrilled with the way the community is growing.” The community gave back to 7 Cups of Tea on their birthday by making a thank you video to the entire team and joining them in an all-day chat party.
How did an altruistic community of people donating time to one another grow so large and so quickly?
A little over a year ago, Glen got the idea to start the business from a conversation with his wife. He realized that having a reliable, active listener was a rarity and he wanted to make this gift available to everyone around the world.
Glen said he hit the ground running: “We presented at Start Norfolk and we were covered in the local paper. That’s when we met Sheila.” Sheila Swanson, a military wife who has listened to other spouses for a living, became their first listener soon after. Today, she works on staff as their community manager alongside their Director of Community Development, Laura Small.
A few months later, Glen traveled to Mountain View as part of Y Combinator. Once the company’s story got out, the demand for listeners exploded. With just Sheila and Glen as listeners, there was no way that they could take care of everyone who needed help.
“We had to hire students from UCLA and other top programs to listen for the first month and a half. It was hard to meet the demand.” Sometimes you have to make community artificially to meet demand from the outside.
This is what we call a good problem in supply-and-demand community platforms. Lyft, TaskRabbit, and Instacart have all had these same growing pains. But they learned a valuable lesson as demand grew: “Our best listeners were actually our first members. They were helped so much by our listeners that they wanted to give back. They helped us streamline training and grow faster.” Just like that, they flipped demand into supply. As the community grew organically, Glen began a chatroom using Chatzy that they used until the community grew too large for the free service.
Almost instinctively, Glen and his team realized early on that their community could scale by growing itself. Their users were turning into listeners organically and were clamoring to share best practices and help one another get better at listening. So how did they go from one listener to 17,000 in under a year?
Two key steps:
And why exactly was the community platform so effective?
Today, the listener community has a clear path towards ultimate engagement, which helps translate into activity on the site and encourage listeners to mentor one another. This has allowed them to give their community members a clear ladder to climb in terms of community engagement. This is how it is structured:
Listener -> Peer Supporter -> Mentor -> Mentor Leader -> Ambassador
The bulk of the community consists of listeners, who go through active listening training. If they get more involved, they can become peer supporters, who help boost morale among other listeners. Their mentors then come in to help initiate, train, and support other listeners and the mentor leaders help organize all the mentors on the site. At the very top of the hierarchy are the ambassadors, who serve as real representatives for 7 Cups of Tea. All of this is easily tracked with badges on their platform. In fact, the entire system was inspired by Stack Exchange’s badging system.
Glen shared six lessons for other community builders who want to replicate their success.
Create a clear structure for contributors. Give them something to work towards.
Task your community members with growing your community. Maybe that’s through creating educational materials, training videos, writing white papers, or creating collections of stories on your behalf. Whatever it is, don’t be afraid to ask!
Start conversations with members in a freeform way first, using a chatroom or other easy tool like a Facebook group. If you find that you can’t grow your connections on that platform, create something robust using Stack Overflow as an example. They’ve got the social capital thing down to an art.
When you’re first getting started, you may have to pay to supplement issues of supply. This is perfectly excusable, though you should be aware that it is a temporary thing and you shouldn’t try to scale it if you want to build something sustainable.
If you find that you are getting burned out from dealing with hard issues, take part in a weekly discussion with like-minded folks. The 7 cups of tea community has a topic of the week in their chatroom, and they discuss once per week their challenges and triumphs.
Source your community members from the pool of customers you may be serving. If you’re delivering something that makes people’s lives better, chances are they’re interested in giving back and being a part of it. And always promote and give back to your first or most active community members.
“We all have an ‘emotional gas tank’ that we can use to fill up others’, but our own gas tank needs to be refilled as well.” Community managers (just like 7 Cups’ listeners) typically have a large gas tank, but it can become depleted by taking care of others’ needs above our own time and time again. You need to build a supportive community around you in order to refill your own gas tank constantly (community builders, we’ve got you covered with an online community right here). And maybe you can find your supportive community simply by joining 7 Cups of Tea’s.
— Header image via Kevin Dooley.