How can you connect with your customers and team members in a way that changes their lives?
Engaging your customers is something all companies strive for, but it’s employee engagement that is a growing topic of concerns for leaders. It’s a well-known fact that a truly engaged workforce creates a more productive and innovative team, and can even benefit you for years down the road. So how can you insure that your employees are as engaged and delighted as your customers?
Tara-Nicholle Nelson is the former VP of Marketing for MyFitnessPal, where she led a team that grew the platform to over 100 million customers. She's been named the #1 woman Silicon Valley tech companies should be naming to their boards by Business Insider. She's the Founder and CEO of Transformational Consumer Insights, and also the Board President of City Slicker Farms, a nonprofit food justice organization in West Oakland, California. Her new book is The Transformational Consumer: Fuel a Lifelong Love Affair with Your Customers by Helping Them to Get Healthier, Wealthier, and Wiser. I recently interviewed Tara for the LEADx Podcast, to understand more about how she reaches her audience and her employees. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Kevin Kruse: What is or who is The Transformational Consumer?
Tara-Nicholle Nelson: The Transformational Consumer is a massive and rapidly growing customer segment. It's a group of people who sees all of life as a series of projects to change their own behavior for the healthier, wealthier, and wiser. These people are very much early adopters, they believe the good life is possible and available to them, but they know that being able to control their own behavior is kind of the linchpin for that. Like, if they're going to live the good life, it's going to be because they get their own habits, good and bad, in order. They are constantly out there combing the marketplace, looking for the products, services, and even content, that can help them make really hard to make behavior changes.
Not only are they early adopters, they are also highly influential on the buying behavior of the people around them, because everybody knows that that's the guy who's always got a side business he's starting. That's the guy who's always getting a certification; that's the gal who's always trying out different new food philosophies. Here are a couple rules of thumb: If you have been both vegan and paleo in your lifetime, you are likely a transformational consumer. That's kind of a joke, but also kind of accurate. Also, if you're an entrepreneur, or you're the kind of person who listens to podcast to make your career better and to improve your business, the chances are really good that you may be a transformational consumer, too.
In the book, I did a survey of 2,000 American consumers, and what we came away with was this one big takeaway that 50% of American consumers are transformational consumers. The one big thing to remember as we talk about this stuff is that this is not a niche by any stretch.
Kruse: You're saying half of consumers have the mindset that they have power to change their habits, and they're looking for the knowledge and tools to do that.
Nelson: I think that most people would say ‘Yes’ if you asked them if they want to be healthier, wealthier, and wiser. Humanity has always wanted that. The Transformational Consumers have a really strong and—this is one of the big differentiators— they have a bias towards action. They may not always be doing the right things to achieve their goals, but they're always doing something and that does differentiate them from that other 50%.
Kruse: How did you figure out the best way to engage with consumers? How did you get so effective with your content marketing?
Nelson: First, we decided that as a company—something that you'll see all through the book, which is growth of user numbers—that having more people have the app on their phone is important, but having those people using it over and over again, engaging them over time is vastly more important. That was just a perspective and lens shift. The problem that we were trying to solve as a business was the growth of engaged customers, and in order to engage people, you have to understand not the newest digital doohickey or what the big social media platform du jour is. You have to understand their deep humanity, like what do people care about?
Instead of trying to force people to care about the thing you make, how can you align the thing that you make and the content you create to the things people already care about? One of the very first questions I asked when I came into MyFitnessPal was, “What do we know about people who are trying to solve this problem of going from living an unhealthy life to living a healthier life?” What I heard back was, “We've done a bunch of focus groups in our office in San Francisco.” I was like, “Wait guys.” I love San Francisco, I live in the Bay Area, but we are not representative of any human beings anywhere.
What we did in an effort to really fixate on the undying human aspirations of our people in their real world journeys, their real world obstacles, and the real world things that we're helping them make progress from unhealthy to healthy living, was we got out of the office. I took everyone from my executive team members to my line marketers, and we went out to meet with the people. We talked to people, anyone who was trying to solve that problem of living a healthier life was a candidate for our conversations. We went into people's homes, their pantries, we went to the gym with them.
We sat in the living room with someone who was struggling to get to the gym, and we just talked to them and we spotted patterns along these interviews. What we ended up doing was creating this really beautiful visual map of that journey that identified an inventory. Where do people get stuck? Where do they get unstuck? What are the moments where they do research? What are they researching and where are they going to do it? Here's one big thing that I think differentiated our health and fitness content from a lot, there is a lot of health content in the world, as you might imagine, and we grew that blog to 10 million readers a month in a nine-month period of time.
We differentiated in large part by using people's natural language patterns back to them. Spent a lot of time understanding what are the patterns that we keep hearing over and over again in the way these people are talking about their experience of trying to live healthier. You would be surprised. I'm a consultant, I do this for a living now, and you'd be surprised at how many times there is a big disconnect between the way real people in the real world talk about the problem they're trying to solve, and the way the companies are purporting to innovate solutions for them talk about that problem.
One really basic example is we early on would have published a post, let's say “Here's some exercises for people with knee injuries.” Exercises, knee injuries. After we sat in all those interviews, we changed a lot of our workout content to be more like, “Here are workouts for people with bad knees.” No one says, “Knee injuries” in the world, but when you use people's natural languages back to them, it triggers and clicks their preexisting mental frames, like “Hey, that's a thing I already care about because I use that language all the time.” That was one really big success factor for our content marketing.
Kruse: Okay, so after nine months, did you have multiple contributors? Was that part of your strategy, to bring some of your customers in as contributors?
Nelson: Not so much customers as contributors. I had a full team and content marketing was a huge element of what we did for MyFitnessPal. Probably half of the marketing team were, on some level, content marketers. We wouldn't have done much casual contributor content because credibility matters when you're doing health content.
So I had two full-time nutritionists who worked as food and nutrition editors, but we had a lot of people contribute from other blogs that would syndicate content to us and we would often trade that content, syndicate ours back out, to nutritionists who are recipe bloggers, and we would hire some of them to create original recipe content for us. We had doctors and all kinds of other people contributing content, and a lot of freelance contract writers too back then.
What we did was really important for us to start to showcase some of the user success stories that we had. Because there is nothing that will get someone more interested in using an app like MyFitnessPal than seeing all the stories of the people who are actually using it to live better lives. We would not necessarily have our customers write that content, but we definitely would put our calls for, “Hey, we're looking for someone who's dealt with this issue or this challenge and the app has helped them,” and we would end up connecting them with a writer to write that story out.
Kruse: That's great, that you ended up bringing the audience in by highlighting their success stories.
Nelson: Oh, yeah. Then we integrated a lot with our PR programming, right? We'd have our customer success stories end up on the Today Show and on USA Today, and different media outlets. We would also then create stories around those same people, especially if they had a problem that was representative of a problem we knew a lot of people in our target audiences were dealing with. We would have to use that same kind of content on our blog.
Kruse: So when I read your book the more recent example that jumped out to me was the success of SoulCycle. What makes them different? How did they become so successful?
Nelson: You have asked the right person this question. I'm a spin aficionado, I'm a cyclist, I take spin everywhere in the world that I travel, and I travel outside of the US three months of the year, so I take spin everywhere. Except in France where they keep being like, “Get on the bike. Go outside.” I've taken spin at probably 20 SoulCycle studios. I think there are a bunch of reasons SoulCycle has been so successful. One is that there has been an evolution spin. Spin used to be very much training for cycling, and I think SoulCycle ushered in this era of spin as dance, spin as party.
There's some evolution in the experience of spin that they brought in with what we would call “beat based riding” versus just everybody's in the room on the bike. I think that happened at the same point in time as we were seeing a real inflection point in customers being willing to spend a lot more of their disposable income on group exercise, and the popularity of boutique group exercise studios in general. I think SoulCycle happened at that time when people were much more willing to spend a couple hundred dollars a month on fitness, for CrossFit, for yoga studios, and for any sort of group exercise experience.
We call this, I'm going to say “zeitgeist”, around group exercise, boutique group exercise, fitness tribes, because people have realized that they are much more likely to work out consistently and much more likely to work out hard if they do it with a group of people that they see all the time. You've seen that fitness tribe and experience start to take way off at the same time as SoulCycle. The other thing, though, and I would be so curious to hear what you have to think after you go into a SoulCycle studio and get through one whole class.
SoulCycle offers a very branded experience that taps deeply into how people want to be, not just the changes they want to make—like sure, it helps people get healthier because it's fun and they meet their friends there, and it's kind of cool—but it also taps into how they want to feel. It's very, very motivational, it's very inspirational, it's very high energy, and I don't just mean the teacher. Everything, like studio design, they build out big empty square studios to create corridors that force people on top of each other, specifically to generate a really high-energy feel.
There's a lot of stuff that's built into the physical plant of a SoulCycle studio that really cranks up that energy level, and it just makes it be really fun. I think that those are some of the things that have made them be so successful, whereas spin classes before were kind of boring.
Kruse: Are they doing the same approach that you did at MyFitnessPal? Or, do you think they're doing something different with their online marketing?
Nelson: I'm going to guess at this, because I sort of know some people over there. I think they arrived at some of this in a less systematic way. I think it was a little more organic, whereas mine was like a marketing professional sitting down being like, “How can we drive more engagement?” I think SoulCycle was started by a couple of women who had a really beautiful internal, organic vision for what this experience would be like. Then, they started doing it. Then, I do think they got really systematic about optimizing and continuing that over time, both on a marketing perspective and on the internal experience.
I think it's probably less systematic in terms of mapping out the customer journey up front, but I assure you that they have a world-class marketing and brand approach now.
Kruse: What would be some practical ways that we could apply your findings to employees in the workplace?
Nelson: I think my findings apply to all human beings, to be clear. I think they apply to customers, I think they apply to employees. I think they even apply to customers in business-to-business and enterprise businesses. I think that we would drop some of the siloed ways that we think about these things. One of the opening data points of the book is that Gartner says something like 72% of American employees rank on the disengagement spectrum from bored and checked out, to actively hateful toward their employers.
Your employees are transformational consumers, too. They have transformational desires and aspirations and dreams, too. They want to live healthier, wealthier, and wiser lives, too, and work is so deeply intertwined with those aspirations. When you think about everything from stress management to fulfilling your potential that you were put on the planet to fulfill, to working more productively, to finding the right career fit for yourself. If your workplace is terrible and fear filled, which is something I talk a lot about in the book because I see it and hear a lot among consumers, that their corporate cultures are anxiety or fear driven, transformational consumers in your audiences will leave.
I think that is something we'll see more and more as we get into a place where millennials become more and more our workforce. I just read a stat that like 70-something percent of kids in high school today say that they don't expect to ever work for a company. There's like a real gig economy, they don't necessarily have the same beliefs in the institutions of companies and employers the way that we were raised to. What I spend a lot of time doing with my employees that I think has overcome a lot of these things is several fold.
One is I recognize that I only want to work with and hire geniuses, so I think and study a lot on what are the conditions of a workplace that are conducive to great people? Not just good people, great people, being able to do great work. I keep in mind that geniuses can work anywhere, right?
So I'm always seeing it as a blessing to me, their employer, that these people choose to spend this season of their career with me. I’m thoughtful about what they can do for me, and I talk to my employees about this, but actually, probably currently, my highest performing employee right now I am helping find another job. I spend a lot of time thinking with my employees about their career plans and paths and what they want to create in their lives, and what they think is the way they can be the biggest contribution to the planet, and helping them figure out, like “If you're going to be with me for a couple years, what can I do while you're with me that will help not just be a value to my organization, but help you create the career you want after?”
That sounds crazy, but gets great loyalty and engagement. It's the reason why I think probably 50% or 60% of my team at MyFitnessPal had worked with me at three or more companies. Because they know that I care more about them, and it's an interesting conversation to have as an incoming CMO to your CEO to say, “My employees actually matter more to me than this company.”
Kruse: Not only are you getting geniuses who are going to stay engaged, but when they move on, you've strengthened your own network. Now you have a friend and potential partner.
Nelson: You have a friend, you have a partner, you have a customer, you have a referral source. You have a referral source for new customers, you have a referral source for new employees. Like, this woman that I'm coaching right now, only because I think she's at a place in her career where she needs to have a couple of other experiences, she's sending me her friends who are similarly qualified. Well, that makes my whole life easier, to start talking to people who she's already vetted. And it is a novel thing, but it's also an artifact of a workplace. My parents worked at the same company for 30 years and that company has taken very good care of them in their retirement. Companies don't really do that anymore. You can't really expect for employees to do that either.
Kruse: It's so much easier just to complain about the millennials and to make it all their fault.
Nelson: Unfortunately, I just had a whole conversation with some really brilliant millennial people who I would say are like members of the workforce. I try to say ‘millennial’, noun. Like ‘millennial’ is a descriptor of something else. There's almost always something that is more salient and relevant to the conversation than that they are millennials, even in marketing. Like, ‘millennial moms’ I do a lot of work around, or ‘millennial employees’, but ‘millennial’ itself is a huge group. It's like 18-34 or something. There's a lot of other stuff that's going on in people's lives that is more relevant to what they buy and think.
Kruse: There are a lot of variables for the generation between 18-34. Like did they grow up in an urban environment or rural environment? etc.
Nelson: And what do they want to create in their lives? That's a theme of the book, that people's aspirations matter much more than their demographics do. Like, what is it that they're trying to do, create, problem they're trying to solve, dream they're trying to unlock, and how can you help make that happen? That is the ticket regardless of what their age is.
Kruse: I always like to challenge the LEADx listeners to get a little bit better every day. What’s something you’d like to challenge us to try today either at home or at work?
Nelson: I really thought about this long and hard. I thought ‘hug a puppy.’ ‘Hug a pug’ is what I say at my house, because I have two pugs. Take a walk. But what I really want to share is I have a daily writing practice that has changed my career and my life. I would say this. Spend 30 minutes tonight before you go to bed just writing. Never show it to anyone, it's not ever meant to be sent to anyone, it's not for anything. There's no writing assignment, expect to just dump your brain out. You will find it to be an emotional windshield wiper, I suspect. It will, I hope, entice you to experiment with doing just ‘free writing’ is what we call it. Any time you just need to clear the slate.
Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.