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Building niche and vibrant Voiceflow communities all over the world
An interview with Emily Lonetto, Head of Growth and Community at Voiceflow
Welcome (back)! 👋 We’ve had the opportunity to speak with Emily Lonetto from Voiceflow, which allows anyone to make voice apps without coding. Emily talks about how community spawned what Voiceflow is today, scaling the community globally, and much more.
Enjoy, and don’t forget to hit the subscribe button (if you haven’t) to follow along on the next issues! 👇
About Voiceflow and Emily
Voiceflow is a platform where anyone can collaboratively design, prototype, and launch voice apps for Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, or General Assistants. Voiceflow is part of a bigger movement of companies aiming help raise adoption and innovation in Voice User Interfaces (VUIs). What's special about Voiceflow is that it's a low code / no code platform, where anyone can create voice apps, visually.
Emily Lonetto is a true community builder. She is the Head of Growth, Partnerships, and Community at Voiceflow, founded the largest community of growth practitioners in Toronto (GrowthTO), and worked on international growth at Tilt, a company acquired by AirBnb in 2017.
At what stage of the company did you start an online community and why?
Community is at the heart of everything we do. This culture originated from when we were a company called Storyflow, where we built interactive children stories for Amazon Alexa.
Our initial users were parents, for which we created a Facebook group. Whenever we’d ship new stories out we immediately received feedback through that Facebook group. This helped us learn what people liked and wanted from Storyflow, it also led us to build an internal tool to speed up how we built and delivered new Alexa skills.
You could say that community spawned what we became today.
Eventually, we realized there was a much larger problem at hand. And shortly after, we pivoted away from being a popular Alexa skill to empower anyone, anywhere to build voice experiences. We piloted by turning to our community allowing them to create their own stories and eventually their own (Alexa) skills, which became Voiceflow. You could say that community spawned what we became today.
What platform(s) do you use to run your online community?
We mainly just use Facebook groups and our forum, which runs on Discourse. We also created dedicated channels in Slack for our select community evangelists and global power users to engage directly with the team.
I see many communities eventually move to their own domain. Who knows, maybe that’s where we head in the future. We leave room for things to just evolve and unlock as we grow.
I think the right platform should depend on what stage you’re in. Otherwise, you're making your job so much harder.
Early on it helps to be where your people are. This can be based on what type of user that is, and how they prefer to engage. In our case, developers are more active in our forum, while designers are more active in our Facebook groups.
You need to build up trust and value before you can build a self-sustaining community.
Once you've reached a point where you have people in your community that are highly motivated, that's when you have more opportunities to migrate people into a different space. You need to build up trust and value before you can build a self-sustaining community.
How do people find out about the community? How do you make sure it keeps growing?
Our community is a niche within a niche. If you join our community, you probably care about skill sharing and people, you happen to also be interested in conversation design, and you're not just a consumer but you actually want to build stuff.
So although the community seems very open and inclusive, there are natural filters working for us already. You're not just gonna have anybody show up in the community.
People discover Voiceflow through our live streams and AMAs. When events used to happen, we'd go to conferences, meetups, and hackathons to give workshops. We made sure to also plug our community.
In addition, every new Voiceflow user is also invited to the community automatically via a drip campaign. In that messaging, there is a focus on self-qualification. We describe our community as a place to: ask questions, meet and learn from experts, see our live streams, etc.
A core concept we try to work around is shareability; How can we build a powerful single-player experience that is even more powerful and more inviting when it becomes multi-player.
As you can imagine, we talk about growth and viral loops all the time. A core concept we try to work around is shareability; How can we build a powerful single-player experience, that is even more powerful and more inviting when it becomes multi-player.
We try to consider shareability throughout the entire experience. From canvas creation to inviting other people to the projects. Ideally, those other people that get invited will also get involved in our community and eventually create their own Voiceflow projects.
People also find Voiceflow through User Generated Content (UGC). We have an amazing community of people that follow us on Twitter. Whenever people share their creations, we make sure to highlight their work and engage with them.
How do you keep your community lively and positive over time?
What works for us is to have some small engagements that spark interaction to be automated, combined with more tailored and creative engagements around specific topics that we also do systematically.
For example, interactions like welcoming each individual that joins our community is something that we’ve automated. As for the more creative engagement, we run weekly live builds where we stream someone creating or showcasing something specific in Voiceflow.
At the same time, we try to make clear that when you ask you shall receive and we want people to feel like they can just talk to any of us, at any time.
We regularly ask people:
What would you like to see content about?
What format do you like: live workshops, tutorials, etc. ?
What topics should we cover?
We use the answers to those questions to influence our live builds and decide who to invite for office hours and AMAs.
In some cases. we serve that up in a new format that fits the content better. A recent example of that is Voiceflow Tutorials, which includes deep dives at various topics and skill levels.
That combination of systematic and tailored engagement forms the foundation.
How do you keep it interesting as you grow and diversify in term of members?
At this point, we have a Facebook group of +7500 Voiceflow users, and we manage a much larger community of ~100K Alexa & Google developers separately, which is focused on Voice application development in general and not specifically about Voiceflow.
While we started in a very specific niche, our community is quite diverse now.
User Generated Content helps to diversify content as people have diverse ideas and create things at different levels.
We also began to spin off subgroups so we can better serve that localized audience and their unique nuances. We created those groups based on geography. We already have vibrant Voiceflow Community groups in the US, Brazil, India, Japan, UK, etc..
We also created separate spaces based on skill levels or technical skill, so we have a place for beginners and advanced users. We have our expert chat with some of our more advanced users, as well as our general community, which is geared toward more beginners and intermediate. This is found across our content and naturally in how users engage with each other. You can find these tags on our videos, our tutorials page, our forum topics, or even in the way that people ask questions in the communities themselves. Creating this lexicon makes it easier for everyone to find where they belong and where they can seek help best.
Diversification wasn’t our goal at the beginning, but as we've reached a certain critical mass it just made more sense to also have more localized and specific spaces in addition to our larger groups. It's just a better way of serving that up.
It seems like most communities start in a niche. Then grow to a certain critical mass and then they tend to break into smaller sub-communities to cater to specific needs and nuances.
That’s a pattern I noticed in other communities as well. It seems like most communities start in a niche. Then grow to a certain critical mass and then they tend to break into smaller sub-communities to cater to specific needs and nuances. This keeps things fresh, targeted, and easier to identify with as your community expands and new members self-select which group suits their needs.
I think a lot of folks in Growth and Community leaders beat themselves up because they feel as though they haven't created something for everybody. And the truth is that it's an ever-evolving need and opportunity to work on. One that requires a mixture of both internal and external content creation – community is really about creating a space to start a conversation and inviting your audience to participate.
Do you distinguish between different levels members can fall into? Why? How does the engagement differ per group?
We're still in touch with our earliest users through a small Facebook Messenger group.
We also run an evangelist program, with community leaders across geographic areas. Those people are often domain experts and speak the local language. We try to support evangelists in their workshops with assets and we have dedicated channels in our team Slack to interact with them on a more frequent basis.
When it comes to power users, I keep a prioritized list of people and what they are most excited about in terms of topics or features. When we roll out beta features, I try to match and invite based on relevance.
An example of a feature we beta tested recently was our integration with the Alexa Presentation Language (APL) for Audio, which enables creators to build interactive layered audio experiences that include multiple audio files, graphics, images, slideshows, and video. And the ability to customize them for different device types such as Echo Show, Fire TV and select Fire Tablet devices.
Through our power users, we learned which use cases to highlight and how to make it more approachable for beginners.
How do you educate your team about community building?
Quite often, Community is owned by one person and that person is probably stressed out. They often start with little to no resources and have to balance community with everything else that they do.
With Voiceflow, all of the founders were on board from the beginning. Our CEO Braden is very involved with the community, regularly asking questions, and sharing video updates about the company or product.
When people join our company they learn about our community and how we engage with the people.
These things make it a lot easier for us.
How do you involve your community in improving your product?
We rely on a combination of asking for feedback and responding ad-hoc.
We send out feedback surveys and observe what people talk about in our communities.
And sometimes improve the product in a more ad-hoc way. Recently, we made some changes to how you navigate the Voiceflow Canvas.
Our intention was to prevent people from accidentally moving their canvas and losing track of their project. We thought it'd be a small change, but we quickly learned that it was not. Our Facebook group quickly responded and people shared their views on how the canvas could be improved.
This led to our product and engineering team quickly updating that experience. The result is a more flexible way to navigate and toggle the canvas that is more inclusive to different preferences and use cases, e.g., touchpad, mouse, et cetera.
That ad-hoc response and iteration is really helpful. Community not only provides instant feedback but also an error buffer.
It’s similar to having friendships; If you have a good relationship with somebody and you’re a shitty friend once in a while that’s probably OK. They'll be understanding and still willing to talk to you.
This is really helpful if you're still figuring out what you have to deliver to get to the next milestone.
One piece of advice you would give to anyone that is building out an early community around a software startup:
Start small. Communities are often perceived as these large groups of people, actively engaging with each other. It’s easy to get lost in what works for other people or what the end result has been for other companies – but all good things start small.
Focus on the first 10 people you’d want to invite. Figure out how you’d get each one of them to invite 2 more. By focusing on the early personas, you’re setting the foundation for what your newer members will experience – you’re filling the room at the party. What are the types of people you’d want to represent a positive and helpful experience with your product? How can you engage with them more often? How can you make them part of the team?
Your favourite article or book as a community enthusiast?
I feel like Community is almost always a chapter within a book. Very rarely is it a book on its own, which I hope will change in the future.
I mostly end up visiting TED talks around the concept of community and herds. Talks from people like Seth Godin (Tribes) or Derek Sivers (First Follower).
Learning about gamification and how to apply that is very useful.
There is a lot you can learn from studying Human Behaviour and UX. I like the behavioral studies and Nuggets on Coglobe. I spend most of my time in that camp.
How can we find out more about you and Voiceflow?
Thanks for reading this issue 🙏
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