The Thin Community We Get From Marketing

On “Pirate Metrics” and the cooperative alternative

Community is a hot commodity.

This creates an awkward situation for marketing. Tasked with growing revenue for apps and platforms, marketing adds a community layer without sharing ownership or control with users. But for co-ops — and really, any democratic endeavor — shared power is fundamental.

How can co-ops engage users without losing their democratic backbone?

I propose a set of metrics for online platforms to cultivate community power from within, not as a thin layer on top.

Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley investor-activist, gives instructions on how to “run your startup like a cult.” History may be on his side. As neighborly behaviour goes the way of the bowling league, a layer of social interaction on apps and platforms gives them a competitive edge.

Consider the sharing economy platforms that promise a sense of community. They’re among the most profitable, fastest-growing companies. Countless companies are hiring community managers, a new managerial class that even hosts meetups to exchange best practices. Airbnb genuinely believes their home-sharing hosts cultivate a sense of belonging. They’ve recently begun hiring political organizers to grow their community into a movement.

Beneath their community layer, however, these platforms are made up of users, investors, and engineers. Users have no ownership or control to make the platform work for them. But wherever marketing reaches cult-like levels of engagement, users cheerily overlook their lack of power.

As the digital economy grows, the future for users is virtual feudalism. At the same time, I am optimistic about “platform cooperatives” emerging where users can become members and owners.

Cooperatives that organize their membership can buck the trend of powerlessness.

Cooperatives are associations that organize to serve collective needs, especially when markets fail to do so. During wicked recessions, co-ops persevere and prosper.

Grain silos in ancient Mesopotamia and grain elevators in the Midwest are classic co-op examples, insuring members against market volatility and stabilizing commodity prices. Member-owners are the main investors in the co-op, so they make smart, democratic decisions. To continue creating value, they take collective pay cuts before making layoffs. For greater economic gains, they pool resources and form federations.

Although co-ops emerge from market failures, they tend to lose when markets bounce back or new players reach their niche. The most infamous case took place in Austin, TX, where Whole Foods Market took after beloved Wheatsville Food Co-op and grew into a nation-wide behemoth. Wheatsville still exists, however, thanks to its local and loyal members.

Co-op membership is so much more than a customer loyalty card or a paid app subscription.

On the Internet, I certainly believe co-ops need marketing to survive. Like any enterprise, co-ops have to communicate the unique value they offer in the marketplace. Users looking for music or freelancers looking for gigs have little tolerance for crappy apps and platforms. This holds true even for die-hard co-op enthusiasts.

Organizing matters more than marketing, however, because even if co-ops are competitive, they need to achieve their potential as democratic communities.


Let’s use Pirate Metrics for marketing, and Mutiny Metrics for member organizing

Marketing professionals familiar with Pirate Metrics use them to grow a user base like its their job. To be fair, that is their job. They add a community layer to make users happy, but the objective is the same: growth. Cooperatives are different than startups. Their promise of community ownership and control goes beyond marketing.

By showing the limits of Pirate Metrics, and drawing a lesson from pirate history, I propose a new set of metrics for organizing community.

Pirate Metrics

Back in 2007, Dave McClure introduced Pirate Metrics as a way for startup marketers (AKA “growth hackers”) to get traction with users and keep them engaged. He proposed the acronym AARRR(!):

  • Acquisition — users sign up for some product, subscription, etc.
  • Activation — they get started on the app or platform
  • Retention — they come back
  • Referral — they bring others
  • Revenue — they generate value for the platform

These metrics are strictly business.

To see how they work, consider Loomio, a New Zealand worker cooperative that built a decision-making platform. They raised over $100k via crowdfunding in 2012, and have grown their user base by applying Pirate Metrics to create a positive user experience, welcome emails to thank-you notes. People love Loomio. I love Loomio. But in terms of marketing, Loomio operates much like any startup.

For startups and co-ops, success depends mainly on operations.

Some of the most democratic operations in history were, in fact, pirate ships — despite their criminal ambitions. In fact, I recently became friends with a lawyer who swears by pirates. He recommended The Invisible Hook: The Law and Economics of Pirate Tolerance. Here’s what I took away from it:

The ever-present “mutiny” element helped pirate ships become both competitive and democratic. On pirate ships, captains only earned 2x the rest of the crew, and could be replaced whenever they displayed cowardice or failed to go after a bounty. Occasionally, pirate ships would form a fleet for collective action against really big bounty. They also had many black crew members who were free men and participated at all levels, from crew to captain. The merchant marine, on the other hand, operated as a slave ship with 6x differences in income and a punitive approach to handling nearly everything. Mercantilism helped build empires, but even good commerce is hardly democracy.

As a metaphor and a moral tale, pirates have a lot more to offer.

Mutiny Metrics

I propose “Mutiny Metrics” as a starting point to build better community with cooperatives, guilds, and commons of all kinds. While marketing is about revenue, a basic necessity for any enterprise, organizing is about community power, a moral high-road.

The MORAL acronym stands for:

  • Membership — users become members and get a vote
  • Ownership — they contribute equity/investment
  • Reciprocity — they practice mutual aid
  • Association — they create a structure of belonging
  • Leveling — they maintain equality and fairness throughout the platform

These metrics are far from precise or linear, and their application for community engagement is open-ended.

For example, whenever Loomio’s team sees groups use the platform in innovative ways, the team invites them to share insights with others and play it forward with new users. Growing this community of practice can produce beautiful results for meaningful association, full of participation. And as Loomio grows their business in the US, they might get creative sharing ownership through community investment through a Direct Public Offering or better yet, through non-extractive finance. A quick review of Mutiny Metrics can generate many more ideas for better community.

A few reasons to consider Mutiny Metrics:

First, they focus attention on intention.

For getting users and growing revenue, we have Pirate Metrics. Cultivating community power requires a different approach. And instead of prescribing actions, Mutiny Metrics are flexible and adaptive, a natural fit with MobLab’s “open campaigns” framework.

Second, they invite pleasant surprises from community participation.

Campaigners at SumOfUs hacked Pirate Metrics for community engagement, but their framework is still a one-to-many model. Mutiny Metrics go beyond user experience design to what we might call member experience co-design.

Finally, these metrics are a work in progress.

Give them a thought and see if they help make community participation easier or democracy more possible.