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How to Build a Successful Champions Program: A Guide

Community
May 16, 2023
Amanda Quintero
Senior Manager of Business Operations
How to Build a Successful Champions Program: A Guide
Welcome to The Observatory, the community newsletter from Orbit.

Each week we go down rabbit holes so you don't have to. We share tactics, trends and valuable resources we've observed in the world of community building.

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Champions Programs can have many names depending on the scope and business goals they support. Some teams even have a bit of fun with it and call them Avocados🥑 or Beacons🚨

But at the heart of all these programs is the same concept: a partnership between your organization and a group of loyal customers who are passionate about your brand and want to help take things to the next level

Community-led companies like Patreon, Miro, and GitHub run successful programs for their top users and contributors, but you don't need a big team or budget to make an impact. A bit of structure and leveraging the appropriate software can go a long way.

In this deep-dive guide, we'll walk you through the essential steps to plan, launch, and manage a champions program at any size or stage, from initial research through ongoing management. 

There’s a lot to take in, so we’ll start with the basics: what is a champions program? 

What is a champions program? 

Let's start by defining who is a champion. Champions are the kind of members who enthusiastically support your company's mission and go above and beyond to contribute to the product and the community’s success. 

For example, in a product-centered community, champions are the ones who test new features and give feedback, answer questions in the forum, take the time to educate other members, or even create content and make referrals to their personal network. They do this out of genuine love for your product, but also because there’s something in it for them. The payoff could include intangible benefits such as feelings of accomplishment and enjoyment from providing insight and supporting others while helping make a product they love better; or tangible benefits, like early access to features, discounts, or swag.

So, what's a champions program? It's a structured program to collaborate with your community's champions and recognize their meaningful contributions in alignment with your organization's goals

Think of it as a way to work with folks who have shown high love for your product and a willingness to consistently contribute to the community's development.

In exchange, you can help support their goals. And this is important: great champions programs, like great communities generally, create more value than they extract. As you create your champions programs and get to know its members, you’ll find yourself in a position to learn about their goals and needs and to facilitate their journey to those ends. 

There are many kinds of value champions programs can create for their members. A few of those benefits include: 

  • Introductions to relevant folks, and the ability to build relationships with them 
  • Deeper product or technical expertise 
  • Connection to potential collaborators, employers, or even customers 
  • The amplification of relevant member-created content on the company’s social channels and via their newsletter 
  • The chance to speak in front of large audiences at events and conferences 

In this way, a champions program can create a flywheel of mutually beneficial actions, wherein the company creates tons of value for members while capturing some of that value for themselves. 

Supporting your champions, then, should go beyond tit-for-tat swag shipping. You want to aim at helping them to grow their career and/or public persona in the direction they aspire, creating win-win scenarios for everyone involved.

In many cases, this kind of advocacy happens organically, when the mission of the product and/or community aligns with enthusiastic members. This occurs when a customer tweets something nice about a company, and the company retweets it, or when a user provides some one-off product feedback and the company sends them a coffee mug as a thanks. 

A champions program exists, then, to elevate organic advocates while raising awareness of the program among folks who might be interested. 

Bear in mind that while we’re using the term “champions” program, in practice we are far from a naming convention. In our research, “champions” is the most common term, with “advocates” coming in second. However, many programs go by unique and branded names. Here are a few examples: 

  • AWS Heroes 
  • Confluent Community Catalyst Program 
  • Databricks Beacons Program
  • DigitalOcean’s Navigators Program
  • Docker Captain Program
  • Friends of Figma
  • GitHub Stars
  • JFrog's SuperFrogs Program
  • Oracle’s ACE Program
  • Patreon's Creator Ambassador Program 
  • Pulumi's Puluminaries Program
  • Salesforce's Trailblazers
  • Tableau Visionaries

What should you call yours? Well, it’s up to you. Naming should align with your brand’s ethos while keeping in mind that you should kindle pride and joy among program members.

Why Champions Programs Matter for Companies

In the previous section, we explored some ways program membership is beneficial to members. But why would a company create a champions program? In a world where software is adopted (versus sold, like in the olden days), Champions Programs are becoming increasingly important because they can:

  1. Amplify your brand by sharing it with their network
  2. Provide authentic endorsements and testimonials to build trust with your audience
  3. Help others learn how to use your product like a pro
  4. Cultivate a community of loyal fans who can give you valuable feedback and insights
  5. Spread the word about your brand, make it more visible, and get more people on board

Ultimately, fostering a group of highly engaged customers can make every other part of your business easier, from product feedback and learning, to developing user-generated content, driving referrals, building brand awareness, and more. 

Some programs that are driving product adoption, activation and retention for their companies

  1. Salesforce's Trailblazer Community — an extensive network of Salesforce customers and experts who help each other succeed and drive innovation. This is one of the most advanced programs out there and includes a robust training curriculum, gamified achievements, and in-person events. 
  2. Adobe's Express Ambassadors — this is a group of creative professionals who share their expertise, inspire others and provide valuable feedback on Adobe's products. It includes a Facebook Group and Discord server, a YouTube channel, and live events around the world.
  3. Patreon’s Creator Ambassador Program — this program recognizes creators who have built successful memberships and advocate for fellow creators. Ambassadors are responsible for testing new product features, partnering with Patreon on promotional opportunities, and representing Patreon in creator communities both online and offline.
  4. Microsoft's MVP Program - recognizes exceptional community leaders who share their knowledge, passion, and real-world expertise with others.
  5. Tableau Visionaries — empowers product experts to share their expertise with others and help Tableau build better products.
  6. GitHub Stars — this program rewards GitHub’s most influential developers and gives them a platform to showcase their work, share their expertise with other members, reach more people, and shape the future of GitHub.
  7. Algolia Advocates —  recognizes the most innovative members of the community, providing them with opportunities to promote their brand, share their stories, and network with peers.

These examples are all fairly advanced but should provide some inspiration for what’s possible when companies collaborate with their top customers. 

Champions Programs are the gateway to community 

For many companies, the idea of building and launching a community can feel daunting, leading to questions about how to staff a community team, what chat or forum platforms to use, how to generate engagement, and more. 

If you are interested in launching a full community effort, check out our blog post, A Practical Guide to Building a Community from Scratch.

In the meantime, we’ve found that champions programs can be a great way to create a small high-gravity micro community that can help lead into broader efforts, and the lessons you learn from your champions can likely scale to other parts of your potential community. What kinds of events are useful, what kinds of topics seem interesting, what platforms make the most sense — these are all questions you can answer in partnership with your initial champions. 

Finally, some members of your program will naturally step up and become leaders in their own right, displaying a sense of care and ownership for your mission. We call this your Orbit Level One, and the folks here can catalyze the energy for everyone else. 

Here’s what we mean: imagine launching a new forum all by yourself. Who’s coming? Why would they participate? Chances are, the forum would feel dead. 

Now imagine running a champions program for a year, and building deep ties with 20 of your top program members. Based on what you’ve learned from them, you collectively decide that a user forum would be valuable to all customers — not just champions. So you design a new forum with channels that resonate with your champions, and start moving some of your conversations with your program members there, before launching it publicly. After a month or so of doing that, you can more broadly launch the forum, and new participants will arrive to a forum rich with conversation and content. And your champions will be standing by to foster conversation with all the new folks. 

Ready to get started? Here’s how to get going 👇

Do your research and create a plan 

As you set out on your champions journey, you should create a foundation in three areas. First, the goals for your program, which will help you ensure everything aligns with overall company strategy and goals (and will help you get budget). The second is defining your ideal member profile. And the third is nailing down your program's value proposition, or what’s in it for them. 

Keep in mind that these areas are equally important, and, taken together, will keep your planning in balance. Additionally, even though we’ve listed them as if there’s a linear order, the reality is that you might start with any of the three and work outward from there. For example, you might start with a specific business need, and then explore how what you can offer to certain people will help move the needle. 

Define program goals

Before diving headfirst into your Champions Program, it's important to define your goals as they relate to the business. In other words, your program goals should map to your company’s overall strategy — otherwise, the resulting misalignment can create tension internally, confusion among program members, and likely, the defunding of the program. 

So how can you make sure your efforts map to company strategy? 

A helpful framework for exploring and assessing potential areas of impact is Phil Leggetter's AAARRRP framework, which takes into account the full customer lifecycle. 

  • Awareness: Are you looking to spread the word about your product and make it more visible? Do you want to increase awareness with folks in your current target audience, or are you looking to expand? 
  • Acquisition: Do you want to attract new users and increase signups this quarter?
  • Activation: Are you focused on helping users successfully activate and get the most out of your product?
  • Retention: Want to keep your users engaged and coming back for more?
  • Referral: Do you want to encourage users to share their positive experiences and refer others to your product?
  • Revenue: Looking to increase monetization and drive more revenue for your business?
  • Product: Want to involve your users in shaping and improving your product through feedback and collaboration?

Having a clear idea of the goal you’re trying to achieve will determine the type of champion you need and the activities you’d like them to do in partnership with your brand. 

Of course, looking at the list above, you might say, “That all sounds great! Let’s do it!”, but in reality, you should pick one or two focus areas to start. 

If your company uses OKRs, you can then align your efforts with the OKRs in the areas you’ve chosen. 

This early alignment work not only helps ensure your champions program is driving business outcomes, but will also influence the types of interactions you plan for its members. 

For example, if your goal is for your program to help drive product activation, you might ask your champions to host virtual onboarding sessions with new users and make sure they have early access to all your beta features as early as possible. 

On the other hand, if you were more interested in driving awareness, your program may involve collaborating with champions on hosting meetups in important cities or delivering talks at relevant events. 

Define your Ideal Member Profile

Once you've got that figured out, create an Ideal Member Profile (IMP). Imagine the ideal person to represent your brand. What kinds of things are they interested in, or even better, passionate about? What types of events or content do they naturally create for their own communities? Does it matter where they live or what languages they speak natively?

One way to gain clarity on your IMP is to write down your community’s positioning statement. It’s okay if you don’t have an existing community — this exercise will help you refine the specifics of who you want in your champions program. 

A positioning statement is a short articulation of who you want to be to your audience. For example:

For [ audience ], community_name is [ description ] that [ benefit ] because [ proof ] so that [ payoff ].

You can read more about how to craft a community positioning statement here.

Outlining your Goals and Ideal Member Profile will help you frame conversations and engage with the right individuals.

💜 Use Orbit to identify ideal members

Build complex filters in Orbit to find the right potential members

Orbit assigns Love and Reach scores based on a Community Member’s history of activities and connections within the community, with top members making into Orbit Level 1. You can use Orbit Level, Love, and Reach to spot relevant candidates for your program, and also use Orbit’s advanced filtering capabilities. For instance, show me only the members who have submitted three or more PR requests over the last 90 days.

Clarify your program value proposition  

The best programs create more value than they capture, so you should work to define program benefits from the very beginning. Otherwise, your program risks becoming something that extracts more than it gives, which will hamper growth and generally make people feel icky

Value creation = making the pie bigger

But be careful: your value proposition needs to go beyond simple swag

There are lots of reasons a person may participate in a champions program, from external recognition, to the chance to influence the roadmap of products they love, to the opportunity to build relationships with other interesting people. 

In this solid blog post, Mary Thengvall quotes Matthew Revell on the top reasons developers participate in champions programs. The reasons are: 

  • Access to key people
  • Progress their career
  • Making friends
  • Access to knowledge

As you can see, these motivations go beyond t-shirts and stickers and get to the more emotional and cognitive benefits champions programs can confer on members. 

Do some discovery

At this point, it’s probably wise to do some discovery with potential program members, ideally those that represent your Ideal Member Profile. Do your ideal members care about your program’s value proposition? Do you need to refine your ideal profile based on what you’ve learned? If the value seems compelling to them, what kind of contribution are they ready and willing to undertake? 

Check out the community discovery section of this blog post for more detail on how to conduct your discovery process. 

Summarize your plan 

Once you’ve worked through the above steps, you’ll have a lot of information and ideas floating around. That’s great! But it can also make it difficult to get the alignment you’ll need. So to help you summarize your plan and communicate to other stakeholders — both internal and external — create a slide with the following info

  • Program Goal: 
  • Ideal Member Profile: 
  • Program Value Proposition: 
  • Member expectations (what do you want members to do?):  
  • Program support (how will you help them do it?):  
  • Time required (how frequently will members meet? how long will the program last?): 

If you can’t fit it all onto a single slide, it’s possible that you have too much information, so see if you can edit down to the essential bits. 

As you iterate on your plan, consider sharing your summary slide with the folks you did discovery with in the prior step. They’ll help you nail the language and direction, while also providing a reality check on your expectations. 

Once you have buy-in from your first few potential members, and from your company, it’s time to start driving new members to your program. 

Launching your Champions program 

Congratulations! If you’ve come this far, you’ve laid the foundation for a great champions program while building excitement and alignment among key folks. But what next? 

In this section, we’ll walk through specific steps of starting and maintaining a champions program.  

1. Create an Application and Maybe a Nomination Form

With your foundation in place, it’s time to announce your program and start taking applications or nominations. 

For this step, most programs create an application or nomination form to identify potential champions. This form should collect relevant information such as name, contact details, experience with your product or service, reasons for wanting to join the program, and upfront self-sorting data points that can help you filter the type of contributions they are willing to bring to the table.

Take a look at some real life examples:

Algolia’s Advocate Program Form

Patreon’s Creator Hub Form

JFrog’s Nomination Form

Be sure to include open-ended questions that allow applicants to express their enthusiasm for your brand and program, as well as share evidence of why they think they would make a great champion for your product or service.

Do I really need an application? 😅

Putting together an evaluation process can sound like a daunting task at first. 

For early-stage companies with a small user base, an application process may not seem necessary since you likely already know all your users personally. 

However, even a lightweight application form can provide structure and formality to the process, while also allowing you to learn more about your potential program members and assess their motivation to become active participants in the program. 

Moreover, setting up an application process early on can preempt scalability and ease handing over the program to someone else in the future.

Ultimately, an application process can help keep things tidy, uncover a more comprehensive reading of your candidates’ profiles, as well as introduce an air of rite of passage and exclusivity.

2. Vet Potential Program Members

Now that you have a growing list of potential champions, you want to review applications/nominations to select candidates that best align with your Ideal Member Profile. 

Remember, you’re looking for proof that this particular champion will help you achieve the goals you defined during the planning stage. If you are looking for content creators, you’ll want to assess the quality of their sample articles or videos. If you’re looking for a volunteer to host local meetups, you can pay extra attention to their track record of organizing successful events.

In general, look for individuals who have a strong affinity for your brand, are passionate, knowledgeable, and show an intrinsic motivation to be a part of your program. 

In addition to the application forms, some programs conduct interviews to better understand the candidate's motivations and capabilities.

💜 Use Orbit to Vet Champions

Orbit can help you manage the pipeline of champion candidates using our Champions Program module. You can import applications via CSV or by pointing your form directly at Orbit, where you’ll see all applicant info in a single view. Check out orbit.love/champions to give it a try.

3. Onboard New Members

Once you've accepted your champions, it’s time to provide them with a comprehensive onboarding process. This should include an introduction to the program's goals, expectations, and any tools or resources available to them. This often includes specific tasks that members need to complete, like joining a forum and saying hello, sharing their t-shirt size, and sometimes administrative formalities like signing contracts (like NDAs). 

Finally, onboarding can also include organizing a kickoff meeting to get the partnership started and go over mutual commitments.

Onboarding new members is a great opportunity to foster a sense of community by introducing new members to existing champions and encouraging them to start engaging with each other. If you have an existing forum or chat platform in place, consider creating a private section for your program members to connect and converse.  

💜 Use Orbit to Onboard your Champions

With Orbit, you can configure an onboarding checklist and track their progress as they tick items off the list. No more chasing people down to check in on status. Check it out at orbit.love/champions.

Orbit's Champions Program manager helps you automate new member onboarding with custom checklists

Set clear expectations

All initiatives overflow with excitement at the beginning, but sometimes enthusiasm fades away with time. That’s why you want to think of setting some clear rules about what happens if something goes wrong, or if someone doesn’t contribute as much as they committed initially, and what the mechanisms are for conflict resolution. 

It is important that you set clear expectations for your champions and communicate them in no uncertain terms during onboarding.

Remember, enforcing rules and boundaries is a part of making all your members feel safe and like they can trust you as a community leader.

You can read more about the importance of setting community rules here.

Growing Your Champions Program

Now that you have recruited your first program members, it’s time to nurture those relationships and support your champions to achieve their goals.

Every community builder has their secret sauce to running a Champions Program, and in many ways, growth will depend on incentives, the business cycle, and the specific brand.

That said, here are four steps we can recommend that will certainly have a positive impact on growing your Champions Program.

1. Encourage contribution from program members

A program is only as impactful as the quality and quantity of the contributions of its members. These are the members of the visible and tangible assets that educate, inspire, connect, and generally create great vibes for your brand. 

Content creation is a common type of contribution, and creating relevant and engaging content is essential to building and sustaining a strong online community around a brand. But a contribution can be any meaningful artifact or interaction done by a program member, including participating in forum discussions, hosting webinars, writing blog posts, recording videos, participating in case studies, or providing product feedback that can be quoted.

Here’s how the Adobe Express Community communicates their expectations around member contribution: 

Ambassadors spend 2-3 hours a month sharing and teaching Adobe Express with their community: they organize workshops, create and share templates, host meet-ups or events, or produce a tutorial or YouTube video. They’re also an active part of our Ambassador community, where they provide feedback in the forum, share experiences, and insights, and help each other learn and grow (See more details here)

In this example, you can see how contribution for Adobe means teaching and creating, as well as actively participating with other members of the Ambassador community. 

Overall, you should encourage active participation from your champions by providing them with opportunities to contribute in ways that are relevant both to your program goals and to the skills and affinities of program members. For example, if your champion is building a personal brand based on content creation, they will be more likely to create videos for you that can be repurposed for their channels.

2. Re-engage inactive members

Your program members are among your most important customers and community members, but sometimes their presence will wane. Life gets busy, things come up — but that doesn’t mean you shouldn't work to reboot the relationship with them when things slow down. 

Here are a couple of tactics you might try: 

1. Send a personal email checking in, and ideally share some interesting or useful information as well. For example, 

“Hey Tom, I noticed we haven’t seen you at the last few champions meetup sessions, so I thought I’d check in and let you know I’m thinking about you. Btw, we’re doing a beta feedback session on our new AI feature next week, and based on our previous chats, I think you’d be super interested. Hope to see you there!” 

2. Share a specific ask or need you or the program has, such as

“Hey Tom, I know you’ve been super busy, but we’re onboarding a new cohort of members next month and I was curious if you could drop by for 15 minutes and share your experience as a PM at Acme? I think the new folks would learn a lot!” 

This can work if the member’s presence has been waning because they feel like they don’t have anything to contribute. 

Finally, we encourage you to regularly evaluate your program's offerings to ensure it remains relevant and valuable to your champions. Your program members are some of your most engaged folks overall, so don’t forget to get their feedback on the program as well. 

3. Measuring impact

How do you know if your program is “working?” 

Largely, it depends on the goals you set forth earlier in your planning process. You can track the impact of your Champions Program by measuring KPIs such as customer retention, referrals, product feedback, and other areas, as well as the overall vibe. Ask members, “How are things going?”

Use these insights to make informed decisions and improve your program over time, and don't forget to share the program's successes and the value it brings to your company with key stakeholders to maintain their support.

When it comes to stakeholder management, consider blending quantitative with qualitative information. This combination of data and story is a potent mixture that will appeal to all parts of a business leader's brain. For example, “Not only did Champions Program members write 9 blog posts that contributed 15% of our overall blog traffic in Q1, here are some quotes from program members about the impact we’re having.” 

4. Be grateful, explicitly

Saying “Thank you” can go a long way. But like we said earlier, you want to avoid a transactional or swag exchange-based interaction with your champions. Reciprocity is at the cornerstone of great Champions Programs, so being intentional about how you reward your champions will make a difference. 

You can recognize and reward their efforts through recognition programs, exclusive perks, early access to new features, or invitations to special events, etc. Ideally, you would match your perks and swag to their Orbit Level and the kind of contribution, maintaining coherent levels of correspondence between effort and reward.

💜 Use Orbit to Grow Your Champions Program

Orbit can help you keep track of your members’ activities and contributions, letting you quickly reach out to check in or to say thanks. Try it out at orbit.love/champions.

Become a champions champion 

We hope this comprehensive guide has inspired and educated you on all the potential impact a champions program can have on your company. If you want to learn more about using Orbit to build and scale your program, sign up at orbit.love/champions, and if you want to talk with others building similar programs, join us at discord.orbit.love

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