Lessons from launching Make Boise Better
What I’ve learned from the first three months
I launched Make Boise Better in June 2018 with the mission of creating an easy way for Boiseans to engage with important local issues and become better informed through access to facts. We believe that makes for more civilized dialogue and makes it easier to find and implement better solutions.
To do that, we use weekly surveys, publicly-shared results, and analysis delivered via email. Our subscribers tell us what they think, and we tell them what everybody else thinks. With the data we collect, we help our clients better understand their market and better serve their customers.
It’s been a constant learning experience. From developing an innovative idea, designing how it would work, putting it out there, seeing how users engage with it, making frequent changes, and finding success — it’s given me a huge appreciation for entrepreneurs and what it takes to build something from scratch.
As the lessons crystalize in my mind, I’d like to share them so others can benefit too. I’m thinking a good cadence for this might be every three months or so. I hope it’s helpful!
Not! More like, if you build it, you’ll have to bring it to them… And make sure they notice you. And keep their attention. And then turn them into active participants. And keep them that way for as long as you can.
It’s. Hard. Work.
The thrilling myth is that you can create something new, and if it’s a cool-enough idea, only a few people need to hear about it. They’ll loose their minds about how amazing it is, they’ll tell their friends, it’ll go viral, and before you know it, you’re have a huge, successful company.
Maybe that’s true for some (and we’re just not quite that cool), but I doubt it ever happens like that. I know it’s cliche, but you have to hustle. All the time. You build your following with determination and constant iteration.
People love our mission. It’s been thrilling to hear the responses we’ve gotten to our vision, and how many people have wanted to join us and help make it happen.
But, when I do user interviews, I often ask “what would be a great improvement to Make Boise Better?” More often than not, the answer is “more responses.”
People love BIG surveys
You see, people often feel uncomfortable with survey results without large sample sizes. We’ve been trained that you need tons of people, statistical significance, and answers that represent the whole population for surveys to be worthwhile.
But I don’t think that’s true at all. In a world where we often have no data about the timely, important issues impacting our lives, any facts are helpful.
The news does a great job of telling us about the stories as they emerge. They do interviews, and share the experiences of maybe a handful of people. This is really important, but a natural response is to wonder how many people actually share those perceptions in our community.
The next step is asking a bigger group. Sure, it’d be great if there were resources available to constantly ask hundreds or thousands of people about perceptions, but there aren’t. Existing mechanisms to conduct research like that costs tens of thousands of dollars. Yikes! No wonder it’s few and far between.
The case for small surveys
So, in my mind, the next logical step is asking as many people as you can about the issues, with affordable methods. That’s what we’re doing. We want hundreds or thousands of responses each week, and we’re aiming for that, but you have to start somewhere.
One tricky thing is explaining the results and analysis carefully, so people don’t get the wrong idea from the small results. We need to explain that we’re making interpretations instead of drawing conclusions.
In other words, we try to explain what the data is telling us, that it’s what our respondents think and maybe not what all Boiseans think, and it’s not “case closed.” It’s the best we understand now, but we’ll keep an open mind and continue to do research and learn.
The chicken and the egg situation exists when people think our surveys are worthless if they don’t have huge sample sizes, so they don’t want to join us. But we need them to join us for our responses to grow.
I wish more people understood that small samples are valuable too, and they can build a bridge to larger, more-representative results down the road.
Getting people to do things, every week
Other lessons have been about engagement. About getting people’s attention, keeping it, and getting them to do something, and keep doing it. It’s pretty hard to accomplish, even with our committed followers.
We live in the information age, and the game is all about getting people’s attention. That’s why there’s so much click bait out there. It’s not easy to do.
But what if you don’t just want people’s attention, you want their actions as well. Whoa, that’s crazy talk.
That’s what we’ve been trying to do.
Our user experience
The logistics have shifted over time, but here’s what we try to get people to do on a weekly basis:
- Survey: open the email, click the link, give us your two cents
- Analysis: open, click, check out our hot takes
- Results: if you’re interested, look at the primary source and consider it on your own
And besides those things, we routinely ask users for feedback on the process, or ask them if they’re up for connecting with one of our clients so they can get more of the story (there’s usually a gift card or other goody involved 😃).
Our engagement rates
All told, people are really excited when they join us, and almost everybody takes the first survey. By the 3rd or 4th survey, about half of those folks disengage.
By the time we’re into our 5th survey, the respondents are typically those that are really into it, and they’ll keep responding thereafter. It’s roughly a quarter that end up in that group.
Maybe that sounds low, but the industry average for “Media and Publishing” companies is to get 10% open rates on email, and a small fraction of those to click. We’re several multiples better than that, so, I think we’re doing pretty well actually.
Getting the word out
The more responses we get to our surveys, the more impactful the results will be, and the more they’ll add to public discussions. To get more responses, we need more subscribers.
Immediately after launch, our main goal was getting people to interact with our content so we could learn and iterate. With that in mind, we weren’t going for massive numbers, we just wanted to get some folks signed up and serving as guinea pigs.
For that reason, most of our early marketing leveraged my extended network, Facebook groups, Nextdoor, and eventually Reddit. We got to our first hundred subscribers right away, but things slowed down as we got our next hundred. I think we’ve mostly exhausted those channels at this point.
Stepping it up
Now it’s time to level-up our awareness activities. We’re introducing social media accounts (Instagram, Facebook, Youtube), in-person presentations (Boise Young Professionals, Rotary Clubs), media coverage, shares from clients, and experimenting with hosting discussions.
We’re still taking a lean approach with our outreach, but we’re getting more established, and doing more “big kid” things. We’re going to experiment and get more sophisticated over time.
From Interesting to Legit
We think of our Make Boise Better’s development in stages, and we tailor our strategy for each one.
We named them by how we think we’re perceived by the average engaged Boisean: first “interesting,” then “legit,” then “proven,” then “mainstream.”
We believe the key to advancing through the stages is the number of responses to our surveys. For example, we think we need to get >50 responses every week to move from “interesting” to “legit.” We’ve been getting about 30–50, so we’re getting closer. To get to “proven,” we’ll need >100 every week.
Make it familiar
This learning is about explaining your value proposition to clients. Business leaders generally know a thing or two about market research, but not many of them do it, regularly or at all.
Because of that, when I’ve explored “research opportunities” with them, they’re often unfamiliar with it, and that makes them uneasy about cutting a check.
A better angle has been to connect the value propositions to things that the client’s extremely familiar with and thinking about constantly. For many, that’s leads. So, of our paid offerings, we now like to focus on how we can connect clients with the people that want what they’ve got.
We’ve gotten a lot more traction shifting from something that feels ambiguous to something concrete and familiar.
Make Boise Better is finding it’s groove. We’ve grown and made lots of improvements. Our biggest focus is getting more people to join us and take our weekly surveys, and we have a bunch of new ideas to do that.
As that happens, we’re hoping people can see the value of small surveys when big, expensive surveys are unavailable. Our subscribers are helping us figure things out, and we’re excited about all the learning that will happen in the next three months.