Understanding our volunteers: growing the Expert community

Launching the 2013/14 Apps for Good course with 17,000 students in September equalled a growth rate of more than 300% from 2012.As much as this success was exciting and made us proud, it was also somewhat daunting as it meant we had to catch up on these numbers for our volunteers, Apps for Good Experts.We like to call our Experts the “secret sauce” of the Apps for Good programme. They are a global community of technology professionals and entrepreneurs who are passionate about technology education and keen to share their skills and knowledge with our students. Experts meet with the student teams in one-hour sessions conducted via video call or in-person, giving the students advice on their app ideas and how to move from problem to prototype.
Expert Bob Schukai passing on his industry knowledge to Apps for Good students
Expert Bob Schukai passing on his industry knowledge to Apps for Good students

Not only were there now many more students to support with hands-on industry advice, but we were also aiming to implement the Expert programme as a more essential element of our 2013/14 course content. The goal of the Expert recruitment campaign was to grow the community from 400 members in August 2013 to 700 members by December. Although it was a real challenge and we made some mistakes along the way, we did reach the goal and learned some valuable lessons about recruiting volunteers.

In this blog post I’d like to share our three most valuable insights of this campaign.

1. Urgency creates commitment

Careful timing is needed to avoid peaking too soon. By tapping into various channels (e.g. social media, tech events, newsletters etc.) we on-boarded 150 new Apps for Good Experts in the first 10 weeks of the campaign. The idea was to have enough Experts “in reserve” so that we were prepared as soon as our education partners started booking Expert sessions.

While this approach helps you to calm your nerves and feel prepared, it isn’t effective when it comes to developing an engaged community. During those first 10 weeks, we had new volunteers joining each week, many of whom we couldn’t enlist to give an Expert session right away as the course was only just kicking off, and teachers were not yet requesting any sessions.

People like to feel needed, especially if they agree to volunteer their time on top of a very busy day job. It is crucial to engage new members right from the start instead of leaving them with nothing to do and risking having them forget why they joined.

Going forward, we plan to stagger our volunteer recruitment to meet demand more directly. We will also feature a specific demand when a certain area of expertise is needed – e.g., “15 user experience professionals needed for one hour over Skype to look at our students’ mock-up designs”.

2. Let the community speak for you

Having volunteers share their own experiences, be it at events or by spreading the word online, provides credibility and inspiration when recruiting volunteers. Questions and concerns are dealt with right away and it provides social validation, because people hear from someone who has already “been there”.

Many of our most enthusiastic Experts are well connected and happy to spread the word for us. To help facilitate the process, we provided our Experts with pre-written messages that were easy to share by Twitter or in newsletters.

In this context it was also useful to talk to our Experts about their motivations for joining us. This helped us to understand how they would want to promote our programme to their peers (and thanks to Expert Jon Bradford for his input on this!). Some of the main reasons include:

  • Interest in the topic
  • Desire to give back
  • Opportunity to hone their skills
  • Public recognition
  • Networking opportunities
  • Interest in empowering local area
Finding out what triggers people to become Apps for Good Experts also helped us to improve our messaging. At one university event we had a lot of postgraduate students join us after hearing Expert Tamara Waltho, a recent graduate herself, explain that giving Expert sessions really helps her to hone her new skills.

3. Use data insight for evidence-based decisions during your campaign
Collecting real-time data insight during the campaign, rather than just analysing it afterwards, was a key factor in improving our campaign. In the past we would assess data from a campaign at its conclusion to identify strengths and weaknesses. However, this only gave us learnings to implement in the next year and we risked missing major flaws that could be fixed in time for the current campaign.

We used online data analysis tools such as KISSmetrics and Google Analytics to keep track of the effectiveness of the campaign. This enabled us to make real-time, evidence-based decisions in order to improve it. Some examples include:

  • Implementing UTM-links on Twitter to measure effectiveness of different messaging
  • Collecting data about where new sign-ups had heard about us to understand which channel had the best conversion rates
  • Measuring online funnel and user flow of sign up process and using this data to improve the Expert application form mid-campaign

With more time and resources on our hands, we could have easily increased the number of data points being collected, but overall this was a great start to understand how data insight could nurture and improve our work.

All in all the Expert recruitment campaign was an exciting project to work on and I’d like to thank everybody involved for their great efforts in making it such a success!