sunbutter-1One of the Techstars companies I mentored this summer, Pak’d, delivers healthy custom lunches to your door. Targeted at moms, Pak’d has had a lot of success using a “Mombassador” program in the Chicago area as part of its launch.

I was recently having lunch with Rebecca, one of the co-founders, when she asked me for advice about managing and maintaining ambassador communities. What she didn’t know is that the word “community” is one of my hot button words, along with viral and cool.

Managing a community is time-consuming and resource-intensive. I’ve seen many instances of start-ups that felt obligated to create a community as part of their marketing plan, even when they didn’t know how or why it would help their business.

Because of this, I don’t recommend starting one unless there is a clear path to driving a revenue-related conversion.

That said, it can be the right thing for some companies, and I didn’t want to jump to too many conclusions, so I first asked Rebecca about the Mombassador program’s objectives.

She had a great answer and told me that the purpose is twofold:

  • Help get the word out during the launch (let’s call that Word of Mouth)
  • Test new recipes

Based on this, the first thing I wanted to do was help Rebecca set realistic expectations for her Mombassador’s abilities to help her with the launch.

Thinking first about Word of Mouth (WOM), there are two things required to drive true WOM: Amplification, driven by people called “connectors,” and a message that is “amplfiable.”

Most people have limited social circles and are not “connectors.” Connectors have large, diverse social networks and they genuinely enjoy sharing information. When I was working with Procter & Gamble’s Words of Mouth Group, they estimated that fewer than 20% of all people are connectors.

This means that most of the Pak’d Mombassadors are probably not connectors. That doesn’t mean that they can’t be useful in sharing the Pak’d message, it just means they probably won’t be able to amplify it far.

As I mentioned, having access to connectors is only half of the recipe for strong WOM. The other half is having a message that is worth spreading, and the good news is that Pak’d does! Most parents don’t like making lunches for their kids. It is an endless, thankless chore. Now Pak’d is making it easy to give kids great-tasting, desirable, fun lunches. For parents trapped in lunch-making hell, this is a wonderful idea worth sharing.

The second part of Rebecca’s question had been about maintaining the community of Mombassadors. I call this the care and feeding of your network. The additional good news for Rebecca was that her goal of using Mombassadors to test new recipes has the added benefit of keeping them involved in a useful way.

A good way to make sure that this testing is working hard for you and maintaining engagement is to schedule the frequency to make sure that the outreach is regular. I recommend at least quarterly. Also, it’s always a good idea to develop some parameters or “membership requirements” to get rid of any deadwood. For example, if someone doesn’t provide feedback three times in a row, then maybe it’s time to stop sending them expensive free samples to test.

A brand-based community can be a great addition to your marketing efforts, but be sure it serves a clear purpose. If you’re going to start a community, it’s important that you know how and why it will benefit your business, and you should be prepared to dedicate resources to engaging and maintaining your community.