Introduction to Champions Program Management
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 article, we'll walk you through the essential steps to plan, launch, and manage a champions program at any size or stage.
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 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: AWS Heroes
- Confluent: Confluent Community Catalyst Program
- Databricks: Databricks Beacons Program
- DigitalOcean: DigitalOcean’s Navigators Program
- Docker: Docker Captain Program
- Figma: Friends of Figma
- GitHub: GitHub Stars
- JFrog: SuperFrogs Program
- Oracle’s ACE Program
- Patreon: Creator Ambassador Program
- Pulumi: Puluminaries Program
- Salesforce: Trailblazers
- Tableau: 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:
- Amplify your brand by sharing it with their network
- Provide authentic endorsements and testimonials to build trust with your audience
- Help others learn how to use your product like a pro
- Cultivate a community of loyal fans who can give you valuable feedback and insights
- 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
- 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.
- Adobe's Creative Cloud Ambassadors - 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.
- Microsoft's MVP Program - Recognizes exceptional community leaders who share their knowledge, passion, and real-world expertise with others.
- Tableau - Empower product experts to share their expertise with others and help Tableau build better products.
- GitHub Stars - 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.
- 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.
Champion Programs are the gateway to community
For manny companies, the idea of building and launching a commumity can feel daunting, leading to questions about how to staff a community team, what chat or forum platforms to use, hwo 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 yoru champions can likely scale to other parts of yoru 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 prgoram 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.