Lessons from geocaching
My personal hobbies don't often intersect with my professional duties, but since it's Friday I'll make an exception and introduce you to geocaching. It's a fairly new hobby with a growing community facilitated mainly by a single for-profit company, which offers some interesting lessons for associations.
But first, some background. All over the world, people have hidden small containers and posted their geographic coordinates online. Anyone with a GPS device can find a cache and sign the log inside. The fun is in the hunt and in feeling a bit like a secret agent. I once found a cache inside a hollowed-out bolt on a street sign; others might be hidden in stumps or rock walls deep in the woods. It's also a great excuse to get outside, and the barrier to entry is low. All you need is web access and a GPS device, which these days includes most smartphones.
The geocaching community is an active one, with a few million people that participate, ranging from novices to highly engaged enthusiasts who blog about geocaching, discuss it in forums, and hide caches for others to find. Does that engagement curve sound familiar?
The geocaching community's leading facilitator is a for-profit company, Groundspeak, Inc., which operates geocaching.com, by far the largest repository of cache locations. The people who founded Groundspeak a little more than 10 years ago could have established a nonprofit to oversee the activity, and, in fact, there are competing geocaching sites run by nonprofits, such as Navicache.com and Opencaching.us, but the one run by the for-profit has been the most successful.
So what can association professionals learn from Groundspeak's success in fostering the geocaching community? Here are a few thoughts:
Get out of the way. On the geocaching.com homepage, Groundspeak isn't mentioned once "above the fold," which is a sign that the good of the geocaching community is the company's primary goal in managing the site. Of course, Groundspeak sells its geocaching gear and accessories below and alongside the functional areas of the site, but none of those offers are pushy or in your face. This allows the community and hobby to thrive without overt interference.
Freemium and products. That's the business model for Groundspeak. Access to the hobby and the community is free, and I'd bet that the majority of geocachers in the world have never spent a dime with Groundspeak. But the ones who are enthusiastic can opt for a Premium Membership or can purchase geocaching gear that Groundspeak sells. By aggressively and skillfully facilitating access to the hobby, Groundspeak grows the geocaching community and, thus, its pool of potential customers. It's important to note, though, that this approach takes a great amount of faith in the "get out of the way" philosophy.
Smart, useful tech. Geocaching.com is a powerful but easy-to-use site. The tools and info geocachers need is front and center and easy to find, which is why users keep coming back and why, in turn, it's the dominant site in the community. Meanwhile, Groundspeak hasn't built everything from scratch. Its cache locator map is a Google Maps mashup, its videos are all posted via YouTube, and its forums run on a licensed platform. Once again, this all arises from a dedication to providing what the geocaching community finds most useful, not what might benefit Groundspeak most directly.
We often hear that "associations need to behave more like businesses." I'd argue Groundspeak's model and methods are the type of business behaviors associations should emulate.
Anyone out there a geocacher? Know of other examples of communities fostered by for-profits that associations can learn from? Please share.