PaulCamper’s community-building playbook for marketplaces

Take a page out of PaulCamper’s book and super-charge the community around your marketplace. In this interview, COO Julia Wadehn reveals the community-building tactics that helped PaulCamper solve the chicken-and-egg problem, build virality and word-of-mouth, scale customer support, and boost employee motivation.

PaulCamper is a Germany-based marketplace for renting camper vans. Within the past 24 months, their supply has grown almost five-fold. Of their providers, 70% do not list their campers on any other platform than PaulCamper. The engagement rate of their online community is 90%.

Ever since PaulCamper was founded in 2013, forming a community of camper-owners around the platform has been an important part of its strategy. When Julia Wadehn, now COO of PaulCamper, joined the team, she made a conscious decision to further invest in community-building.

The results have been impressive. Wadehn is convinced that the community-building efforts have helped PaulCamper in business challenges as varied as solving the chicken-and-egg problem, building virality and word-of-mouth, scaling customer support, and boosting employee motivation.

Wadehn has six strategies for building a powerful marketplace community. According to her, marketplace entrepreneurs should start community-building early, identify a purpose, think beyond an online community, leverage key members, keep track of the community, and scale the community carefully.

Start community-building early

When PaulCamper first launched, camper-sharing was still a widely unknown concept.

That meant the company was facing the infamous marketplace chicken-and-egg problem. The first camper-owners had little proof that the vehicles they listed would see demand.

During the first few years, the goal was to build a proprietary supply that had a long customer lifetime, explains Julia Wadehn.

To achieve that, we needed something to lock early providers in when demand hadn’t kicked off yet.

At this point, PaulCamper first witnessed the power of community-building.

Ever since the marketplace launched, the team had been hosting events to allow early providers to meet offline on a regular basis. Wadehn says these events were the first steps into building a community around PaulCamper. The events ended up bringing the marketplace some of its most loyal providers.

The community earned us the early providers’ loyalty even before they had made a lot of money. This was incredibly helpful for us when we were working to solve the chicken-and-egg problem.

Particularly at an early stage or in times of fast growth, it’s easy to prioritize more tangible, short-term activities over the long-haul of community-building. Wadehn, however, strongly recommends putting the energy and resources into it as early as possible.

Building a community is about being dedicated to your customers, having a direct contact with them, and listening to what they need. That will pay off in many ways.

What is more, Wadehn notes successful community-building doesn’t need to set any marketplace back financially.

Our biggest investment in community-building so far has been time, not money. When you’re building something you and the team are passionate about, the team can go a long way without any financial investment.

Identify your marketplace’s purpose

The foundation for forming a community, says Julia Wadehn, is a unifying purpose.

You need to understand the common thing that unites your users and draws them closer to you. If you find that there are different purposes for different customers, build separate communities around those!

Communities that are built around a purpose have tremendous power.

For instance, Wadehn attributes a lot of the lock-in effects of their platform to an active community. 70% of their providers aren’t listed anywhere else than on PaulCamper. In a supply-constrained market like PaulCamper’s, retaining providers is crucial.

Our community gives us a unique selling point, high defensibility, and great retention of supply, Wadehn explains.

For many of our customers, being a part of the PaulCamper community has led to a deep emotional connection. They won’t list elsewhere because they want to be a part of PaulCamper’s story and help us become the biggest.

In fact, some customers have even stayed active in PaulCamper’s Facebook community groups after stopping to list their campers. They want to remain members of the community and know what’s going on there.

Seeing customers find purpose around the work you believe in can be a powerful feeling for the team, too, says Wadehn, who is an avid camper and owner of two camper vans herself.

In the end, community-building is about people, on both sides of the table. It’s time-consuming work, but it’s very likely your team will also find the human touch and closer relationships with customers very rewarding, she says.

Even the newest members of our team have been to a PaulCamper community event at least once. It’s always so amazing to see this personal encounter boost a new colleague’s understanding of what makes our customers tick.

Think village, not online community

When Julia Wadehn talks about building a community, she means something a lot more than moderating a Facebook fan page.

The offline meetings the team started arranging in the early days remain a big aspect of PaulCamper’s community-building playbook. Each new provider gets an invitation to join the community as a part of the onboarding process.

For many marketplaces, the definition of community is a well-moderated fan page or an Instagram account. For us, it’s completely different. Having followers that are interested in your content is one thing, having people that are actively engaged with your marketplace entirely another.

In fact, the PaulCamper team likes to think about their community as a family or a village. However, that means genuinely embracing dialogue.

We are not circus directors in control of everything that goes on in our village. Rather, we see ourselves as members or caretakers, Wadehn says.

Your brand should be there like a real person: personal, funny, present. But don’t risk making your community sound like an over-moderated marketing monologue. The more real and dialogue-like your communication is, the more people will be interested in what’s going on.

Wadehn confesses that despite its highly motivating aspects, embracing a village-building attitude can also be tough on the team. PaulCamper grew quickly both in terms of team size and customer volume. At the time, however, support operations were largely done manually, and the hiring budget was limited.

It was a leadership challenge to keep people motivated. Sometimes emotions grew high on the customer side, which was trying for team members.

Nowadays, Wadehn and the team have been able to automate a lot of the support work. That leaves them with more time to engage with their community. Wadehn has also learned to deal with harmful member behavior.

Identify and exclude unhelpful community members before they have the chance to harm the vibe. And be open about it. That shows you are a brand that cares.

Luckily, unhelpful members are a rarity in the PaulCamper community. Quite the opposite, in fact: PaulCamper has leveraged the commitment of several key members in the community to help scale their marketplace.

Leverage the ambassadors of your marketplace

Though the PaulCamper community is very active and engaged overall, Julia Wadehn says that there are some members that are absolutely key to the community.

They are members that are highly committed while still keeping it real. They do most of the communicating, question-answering and spirit-spreading inside the community. And they do it in the most natural and approachable way.

Not surprisingly, Wadehn credits much of the growth on PaulCamper’s supply-side to virality and word of mouth. She often quotes Airbnb’s Brian Chesky and thinks that if a marketplace can find a hundred people that love it, they’ll market the platform to everyone else.

The more committed our community members are, the more enthusiastic they are about spreading the word about PaulCamper. They share their experience in social media and especially in their offline private conversations, where we will never be present, Wadehn explains.

This is why our offline events are also a very effective channel for converting leads. There, the leads get to feel the vibe and ask questions from enthusiastic providers. We never need to give them the sales pitch.

In addition to bringing in new people, Wadehn encourages marketplaces to leverage the power of these individuals by promoting them into many types of official and unofficial roles. Such as helping with customer support.

Wadehn says that especially when scaling their support operations, collective knowledge from the community was a big help. Key members are also a phenomenal source of customer insights. PaulCamper turns to their community often when they are in need of beta-testing, interviewees, or poll groups.

Our community members love to help and be involved in the development of PaulCamper.

Keep track of your community-building

The first months after I joined PaulCamper, we spent a lot of time managing the community. Since then, we have calmed down a bit, Julia Wadehn laughs.

Overall, she says that during her first year at PaulCamper, the team has been able to greatly streamline and professionalize community work. The community has become a strong organic growth channel for PaulCamper, no longer requiring high maintenance from the team.

To understand just how well the PaulCamper community is doing, Wadehn employs a variety of KPIs (Key Performance Indicators). For example, she keeps track of metrics like online community members and online community engagement, ticket sales to offline events, and the number of first-time and repeat participation.

In addition, Wadehn recommends making some cohort-based analyses. Such as comparing the lifespan of customers who aren’t community members to a group of customers that are. She highlights the importance of learning and iterating also in terms of tracking.

There is no blueprint out there for measuring community. We are constantly working on getting more and more precise about pointing the cause and effect between our community and business metrics.

Seeing the results that PaulCamper’s community already brings has led Wadehn to believe there is a lot more unused growth potential there.

Our community members are spreading the word about PaulCamper heavily. But there is a lot we can do to boost that. We have an ambassador program in place and are experimenting with finding the best way to use and promote referral bonuses, for instance, Wadehn explains.

One experiment the company did was to offer their providers large, branded stickers to decorate their vehicles.

Within two weeks, we had so many requests that we expect to have at least a quarter of our fleet branded before they start traveling Europe in high season!

Wadehn thinks the PaulCamper community would be even more advanced had there been a dedicated person in charge of developing the community further. Up until now, the work has been done as a team effort on the side of other tasks. Things are soon about to change, however. Wadehn is looking for a person to take over the community-building and help scale it to new markets.

Scale your community carefully

At the time of this writing, PaulCamper lists more than 5,700 campers and has sold over 500,000 nights under the stars. More than quadrupling the supply in only two years has been a challenge, not least in terms of community.

It has been a surprisingly emotional journey. When a marketplace builds a community around the idea of a village, growing quickly does affect people on a deeper level, says Julia Wadehn.

Wadehn says that in times of growth, the community will require some extra attention. They need to know that the team is there for them and still values the oldest key members. In PaulCamper’s case, the fact that they were quickly able to scale their demand to meet the supply helped. As a result, existing providers didn’t feel negative effects from community growth.

PaulCamper has camper owner communities in Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands, and has its eyes set on more countries in the near future. The company recently closed a Series A financing round of €7 million, directed at future expansion.

We started internationalizing from countries that are geographically and culturally close to us. But there are always challenges that come with internationalization, explains Wadehn.

How to make your product exportable? How to organize country teams so they are fast and autonomous but not too distant from the rest of the organization? How to deal with local legislation? How to translate your value proposition to fit the local language, culture, and values?

Geographic expansion also poses a challenge to PaulCamper’s community-building strategy, as each new market will need a new community of its own.

At first, it always feels like you’re starting from scratch, says Wadehn.

But it’s never completely from scratch. You’ve already understood the dynamics of group-building and finding purpose. That will make building a community a lot faster.

In fact, Wadehn says community-building is the sweeter part of scaling to a new market. PaulCamper’s country managers have a deep understanding of their home market and know PaulCamper’s community-building playbook by heart. What is left for them to do is to invite a few people over for a barbeque, set them up with an online group, and take it from there.

However, Wadehn notes PaulCamper is now entering uncharted territory in terms of marketplace community-building.

There really aren’t examples of marketplaces doing exactly what we’re doing in terms of community. Scaling a village vibe internationally. That is what we want, and what inspires us.

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