Header image courtesy of Polaroid Originals.

The story of Polaroid Originals: How a community of instant film fans brought a global brand back to life

Severin Matusek
Mar 21, 2019 · 7 min read

When Polaroid Originals launched in September 2017 it built on the groundwork of the Impossible Project: the project that set out to save instant film a decade earlier and built a community of die-hard analogue enthusiasts around it.

What followed is the story of re-inventing the most chemically complex man-made product on the planet. It took a lot of sweat and tears, research and development, user testing, feedback loops, transparency, honesty and trust — eventually turning into one of the most engaged and creative online communities supporting a brand like Polaroid Originals today.

Amy Heaton led their community for 3+ years. In this article, first shared at our Community Leadership Summit in Copenhagen, she explores the five steps that supported the Polaroid Originals community and encouraged it to thrive.

From the desk of Amy Heaton (Former Social & Content Manager at Polaroid Originals):

Amy on her first day as Community Manager, Impossible photo by Alex Holbrook

When the journey started with The Impossible Project, founded by a group of analogue enthusiasts in 2008, the instant film community had been very much involved in the research & development of the film. They were heavily invested both financially and emotionally: testing new emulsions, contributing to the research and eventually investing their own money into the project to further improve the chemical formula and help bring back the beauty of the original Polaroid instant film.

However, due to changes in management around one year before I arrived in my role as Social & Community Manager, a shift in the overarching strategy had left them feeling alienated. People turned to social media to make their voices heard. They knew that in this very public sphere their opinions would eventually start to impact on the business and force the company to listen.

So when I joined The Impossible Project in 2014 my key questions were:
How do we get people heard? And how can we revive the principles of creative collaboration, sharing and participation within the community and the company?

Here are some of my key learnings from the experience of re-building communication, transparency, and trust with what I now believe to be one of the most engaged, creative and dedicated online communities supporting a brand like Polaroid Originals today.

The history of The Impossible Project, which turned into Polaroid Originals in 2017.

Step One: Humanising The Brand

The main focus of my early strategy was to humanise the brand. The reality was that we were just a small start-up with a team of creative people trying to do something beautiful for the world and we wanted the community to know that.

First I chose to introduce myself personally via a newsletter to our most committed group of subscribers, and then I spent some time seeking out and joining all of the different community groups. It felt necessary for me to start being active on socials from my personal account.

Although I was acting as Community Manager on behalf of the brand, I built trust using my personal account until the community got to know me as the figure who was responsible for running the channels. It helped them to realise that they weren’t tweeting to a machine; that there was a real person behind the brand voice. Even if we couldn’t give them everything they wanted, at least someone was listening.

Step Two: Listening in (to the good, the bad, and the ugly!)

An image I captured during my first visit to our Factory in 2015. Test photos and failures are packed together on the film pack production floor.

Something that I figured out quite early on about building a community online is that you really have to open to criticism even when it seems harsh a first. Especially for a brand with an incredibly engaged community who are insanely knowledgeable about your products and hold you accountable for all of your business decisions. You have to be open to learn from them and admit your mistakes. Over the years we tried to increase the opportunities for the community to reach out to us and to be heard, either online or in person.

We were more open and honest about the complexity of our film R&D and offered as much detail as we could about what was going on behind the scenes at the factory. At the end behind closed doors, we were also still struggling, we were learning, changing, and growing as a brand.

Through this approach, the community came to realise that for every one photo that they took that didn’t work, we were shooting hundreds in the factory and testing thousands of different batches of chemistry. Our world inside the company was reflective of what people were experiencing at home with the film. Because we were struggling and they were struggling, but the message that we were all in it together helped build back trust and a connection between customer and brand. And as soon we started to open the doors I could already feel the mood shifting.

Step Three: Start a conversation

An example of our pioneer test kits, available only to colleagues and loyal fans.

There were a couple of things that we did early on that really helped. We re-established an open dialogue about film testing which allowed those customers who had been purchasing the film from us since the beginning of the project to have early access to test batches of chemistry.

These films needed further feedback before they could be released to the public. The Pioneers — as they were known — could test these films and feedback via a detailed survey that was then sent directly to the chemists in the factory who would incorporate it into their research. No matter how many tests you do in the lab. Having the opportunity to field test a new film out in the middle of the desert or in the coldest winter was a huge privilege for a small project like ours.

And without those film testers, it’s unlikely our film would be at the place that it is today. These kinds of initiatives helped to show that we really valued the community’s opinion and their knowledge.

Step Four: Establish trust with your leaders

On the day of the Impossible I-1 Camera launch, Oskar answering questions from the community directly on our feed. Photo by Jessica Lopez.

Having Oskar Smolokowski come in as CEO in 2015 also really helped my strategy to develop. He valued transparency and honesty which benefited our community massively. He was open to hear all of my ideas for bettering our relationship with the community and was open to discuss with me how to take their feedback into account.

I felt like I could always bring community issues to him and he would try to find solutions. When we launched the I-1 camera in 2016 as Impossible Project we hosted a live video chat and a follow-up demonstration that was streamed and available to watch again via YouTube — many of the most engaged and vocal community members joined and had a chance to talk with him directly. On the day of the camera launch, he sat with me at my desk and answered questions directly on the feed.

Step Five: Show your gratitude (and mean it!)

September 12, 2017: An open letter from the CEO to announce the launch of Polaroid Originals.

When we started to talk about launching the new brand of Polaroid Originals I wasn’t quite sure how the community would receive the news. The week before we launched we celebrated some of Impossible’s key moments on our socials and on the day Oskar wrote a personal open letter to the community outlining his vision for the new brand and thanking them for all of their input. With the help of a newly appointed Community Manager and talented copywriter Maree Hamilton, we crafted a whole new social tone of voice for our emerging brand; which the community grew to love and appreciate.

From the day of launch up until when I left the company in December 2018 we had tripled our online community and found tonnes of creative ways to make room for newcomers without alienating our loyal customers. I feel incredibly proud to have been a part of the team who accomplished the mission to make the Impossible possible — and we couldn’t have done it without our creative community supporting us all the way.

You can follow Polaroid Originals on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter and write to me with your follow-up questions via LinkedIn.

This article is an edited transcript from Amy’s talk at the 2018 Community Leadership Summit by co–matter. Subscribe to our mailing list to get first-hand access to our case studies, research and upcoming events.

co-matter

Exploring what makes communities thrive.

Severin Matusek

Written by

Co-founder @co_matter. Into communities, communication & bicycles.

co-matter

co-matter

Exploring what makes communities thrive.

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