How Truth Initiative grew an online community



36.5 million U.S. adults smoked cigarettes in 2015; that was about 15% of all American adults, according to the Center for Disease Control and PreventionTruth Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to smoking prevention, is working to reduce tobacco use, and it's relying on online communities to help achieve its mission. 

When Mark Schwanke joined Truth Initiative in 2015, he was tasked with enhancing its online community EX. According to Truth Initiative's director of media relations Sarah Shank, EX launched nationally in 2007 after being tested as a pilot program. Then in 2008, Truth Initiative and its National Alliance for Tobacco Cessation partners launched a campaign to promote EX across TV, radio, online, and home advertising. These ads drove people to the EX website BecomeAnEx.org.

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The program has proven to be a success. Shank says that smokers who follow EX's quitting plan quadruple their chances of succeeding. However, Schwanke says the community hadn't really been updated since 2011. 

“The marketing team was running out of steam,” Schwanke, Truth Initiative's community manager, said during a panel at the JiveWorld17 conference in Las Vegas. “They didn't know what to do.”

Schwanke knew that Truth Initiative needed a new platform to scale EX and highlight all of the tobacco research it had accumulated from medical research group Mayo Clinic. 

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“We wanted to create a future-proof [experience] where we keep the community updated,” he said. 

So after evaluating a few vendors, Schwanke and his team decided to implement Jive's online community platform this past January.

When implementing the new platform, Schwanke decided to migrate only community members who had been active (i.e. those who had posted content). He then worked to create an online community experience that would give members more opportunities to engage.

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For instance, members can ask questions and share their quitting experiences within community conversation forums. They can also take “daily pledges” to commit to not smoking for a day or longer and cheer on other members trying to quit. In addition, members can partake in the community's “freedom train”: a forum where people post how long they've been tobacco free and celebrate others' milestones.

Furthermore, members can access EX's “expert advice” blog — which is written by Mayo Clinic College of Medicine professor Dr. J. Taylor Hays — as well as the community bonfire: a “virtual party” where members “throw in” the number of unsmoked cigarettes they've avoided since quitting.

“Moving to Jive offered other ways for [members] to get involved,” Schwanke said.

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Schwanke also said that the community has an EX Café where members can chat virtually to provide support or a quick “pick me up” when someone is having a craving; however, it currently isn't active.

In addition to the Jive-powered community experience, Truth Initiative still hosts its clinical research-based experience BecomeAnEx.org. Here, members can learn why they should quit smoking, create a plan for quitting, identify their triggers, and learn how to avoid relapsing. This web experience is also where people can enroll in the EX community, sign up for email or text alerts to help them quit, and provide Truth Initiative with insights into their demographics and smoking habits. In other words, people can register for EX to receive content and notifications but not partake in the Jive-powered community experience. 

So far, about 800,000 people have enrolled in EX and about 29,000 have joined the Jive-powered community. Schwanke also said that about 2.1 million cigarettes have been avoided. 

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However, Truth Initiative isn't stopping there. Schwanke said he'd like to combine the two EX community experiences, which currently have separate URLs. Still, he said he has to be careful not to take too much control and to ensure that the community is owned by the members. In other words, he said there needs to be a “symbiotic mutualistic relationship.”

He also said that, as the online community scales, he has to be careful not to rely too heavily on automation or remove too much of that human element. As he put it, “How do you fold those into one another to make sure they're not stepping on the other's toes?”

Update May 5, 2017: Additional details were added regarding the launch of EX. Also, while the Jive-powered community and BecomeAnEx.org site have separate URLs, Truth Initiative's director of media relations Sarah Shank says they are not separate experiences, as previously stated.

This story originally appeared on DMN.