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Rewarding the most passionate

Do you treat all users the same? Or do you save something special for the most passionate...


The picture above is Pat Parelli, who built a wildly successful, multi-million dollar organization almost entirely through the efforts of a passionate fan base evangelizing the Parelli "natural horsemanship" approach. To help spread their message, the Parellis go on tour with a two-day event they deliver throughout the US.

The tour serves two purposes: demonstrate their techniques (and results) to potential users, and encourage evangelism. Since it's really a marketing show, they charge very little--less than $40 to attend the full two days. But they do something for their existing users I've rarely seen before--if you are a member of their official "Savvy Club" user group, they send you up to 10 free tickets so you can take your friends. In other words, they help you (the passionate fan) help them (the Parelli organization) get others excited and, ultimately, involved.

But that's just really good user evangelism, and not the real point of this post. Back to the photo... the most remarkable thing about what's going on in this picture is not that one of the horses is completely free (no halter, rope, etc.) while going through an elaborate, graceful "dance" with Pat and the other horse he's riding (what you can't see from the photo are all the turns, spins, jumps they make)--the remarkable thing is that the "free" horse is a stallion and the other horse is a mare. In the horse world, that's a fairly jaw-dropping scenario.

The crowd of 5,000 was enthralled. Existing Parelli users were reinspired, and potential users were motivated to take action.

But that's still not the point of this post. While giving free tour tickets to existing Parelli club members was a wonderful way to both reward (and, let's face it, exploit) passionate fans, what got me was something the Parellis did at their annual conference in Colorado--an event that costs several hundred dollars to attend (although club members get a huge discount).

Here's a picture I took at the conference:


See the difference between this photo and the one from the road tour? There are three horses, not two. And Pat made a big point of saying that he had saved something special just for the conference attendees. Something nobody else got to see. Something that wouldn't appear on their television show, or on their DVDs that go out to members. He rewarded those who were passionate enough to spend the extra money and travel to the mountains of Colorado just to be part of the conference. And it was breathtaking.

I know most of you reading this aren't necessarily "horse people", but as I've said before, I see the Parelli program as a near-perfect example of how to create, enhance, and reward passionate users. And let me tell you, the things he did with those three horses was--for this audience--quite a reward.

The point is--the Parellis could have pulled out all the stops and delivered the most impressive stuff on the marketing tour, where many would assume it would do the most good at getting new customers. But they didn't. They held something back. They kept something very special and reserved it just for their most passionate fans (about 3,000 were there). And the people around me--including some hardened ex-rodeo cowboys--were in tears.

Here's another photo, and horse people will appreciate what's really going on here--it's the three horses after stopping in the middle of a jump. And remember that the one on the left is a stallion. (Picture the effect of all the testosterone you can possibly imagine...)


I interviewed Pat about the ways in which the company is working to create passionate users, and he emphasized how important the user group is (he said it was inspired by all the Harley Davidson clubs). And that he wanted the Savvy club members--who pay a monthly fee to get a magazine, bi-monthly DVDs, discounts, and other perks--who made the effort in time and money to come to the conference to be treated to something extra, something memorable that nobody else got.

We don't do this with our books...everyone has access to javaranch.com forums, for example. My co-authors and I really need to think about this... However, there is one area where I've been conscious of this (albeit on a really tiny scale)--when I give talks on Creating Passionate Users, there are some things that I do/show that aren't in this blog. And now that I've agreed to do the passionate users book, I'm putting things in the book that aren't in this blog. If someone is going to spend their hard-earned money to buy a book, I want them to have additional value beyond just a more convenient way to access archives.

This was something Paul Graham struggled with in doing his book--he wanted to put everything up on the web before it went into the book, but O'Reilly (also my publisher) wanted him to add value to the book readers by including essays that were not available online. There are several problems with doing this "holding back" thing, most significantly that you don't get the kind of feedback prior to print that you'd get if the material had wide exposure. That was Paul's concern--the he knew that the stuff that goes on the web becomes better material because of all those eyeballs. My attempt to deal with this is by having a very large review team (shameless request: if you're interested in being a volunteer reviewer (our publisher provides for only VERY few "paid" reviewers) of the drafts of the chapters, please let me know through email headrush[at]wickedlysmart[dot]com NOW--the book is close to done).

Back to the point of the post... are you rewarding your most passionate? Is there a way to give something special to those who are the most loyal? If there's no concept of something extra special that you can hold in reserve just for the dedicated few, what about a special thank you? I need to spend a lot more time working on this...

Posted by Kathy on October 12, 2005 | Permalink


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This reminds me of Cavalia. Imagine 8+ horses dancing on a stage. Truly one of the most impressive shows I have ever seen.

Posted by: Julie | Oct 12, 2005 12:59:33 PM

Julie, I'm so envious! There was a Cavalia show in SF a week after I left, and I'm so sorry I didn't stay. I had *mistakenly* thought Cavalia would be more widely available like Cirque do Soleil, but that's not the case. Thanks for reminding me:
Here's a nice article about their training approach (and photos):

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Oct 12, 2005 1:21:43 PM

My experience with horses is limited but I have a lot with dogs. Enough that I can tell when an animal has been trained by force and it was clear during the show that there is a real bond between the riders and their horses and that all were having fun.

Both the Parelli work and Cavalia training seem similar to the work Turid Rugaas is doing with dogs:


I highly recommend her to people who have any aggression problems with their dogs.

And of course there is Karen Pryor.

Posted by: Julie | Oct 12, 2005 2:15:07 PM

Maybe the idea from the Pragmatic Programmers about Beta Books would help the reviewing situation. See http://blogs.pragprog.com/cgi-bin/pragdave.cgi/Random/MoreBetaBooks.html for something about that.

Posted by: hgs | Oct 12, 2005 3:15:34 PM

Are you or your books related to JavaRanch.com? I'm surprised at the suggestion. I really like your blog and your writing but I am decidedly un-passionate about JavaRanch. Perhaps this is not the most appropriate place to get into that, though.

Posted by: Chris | Oct 12, 2005 4:25:59 PM

What the pragmatic guys are doing is brilliant; lots of publishers are paying attention there...

Chris: yes, we're related. I'm the original founder of javaranch, and still an (intermittent) moderator. I no longer own it or run it, however--I turned it over to its current Trail Boss Paul Wheaton when I became a Sun employee. And while it's a little off-topic for this particular post, if you can frame your complaints in a way that can be applied to other forums/communities in addition to javaranch, then it would be of interest to anyone here. If it's about a javaranch-specific-quirk, I'd REALLY appreciate it if you posted it in the javaranch forum, but if it's about javaranch problems that other forums might have too (or might want to avoid), then please post it here. Right here on this post is fine.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Oct 12, 2005 4:44:58 PM

I thinking about free software and the whole Linux crowd. Those (we) are without doubt very passionate (often too passionate as seen in many flamewars). On the other side free software is exactly the opposite to "holding back something".

A reward is there. After hours of learning the Linux way and mastering "configuration by text files" you feel more powerful and flexible with your system. My idea is Linux trades specials for idealism, which targets another audience.

The Apple crowd is even more about passion. And Steve Jobs keynotes on Macworld are possibly something similar to Pats horse show.

Posted by: beza1e1 | Oct 13, 2005 4:41:27 AM

I think I can frame my javaranch gripe in large enough terms to make it widely applicable. The problem I have with javaranch is that they incited my passion to get me on their site and then failed to deliver on that. They had a featured book a while ago on a technology that I use every day and was somewhat familiar with. On the mailing list for this technology, they mentioned that this book was being featured on javaranch and asked people to go there to answer questions, ask questions, and discuss the technology. Also, and here is where my passion was incited, you could win a copy of the book! All you had to do was post, and you were entered.

I was excited. I could help other people (show off a little), learn some new things, and possibly win a book that I would use all the time. So I posted, I helped, and I finally won the book. I was pretty excited because, like most people, I don't often win things. I sent my address and information when asked for it, and waited for my book. And waited. And waited. I sent an email. There was a problem with the publisher, but I'd get it. I waited. I sent more emails. Eventually the person I was originally talking to left javaranch. I found someone else to ask about it, and received similar promises of "I'll look into it" and "we'll figure it out". And I waited. Eventually my emails went unanswered, I gave up, and determined that javaranch just wasn't my thing.

So now I want to tell myself things that I know probably aren't true, but nag at me: "Javaranch lies to people" and "Javaranch isn't above tricking people into coming to its forums". But I know these aren't true. I'm pretty sure that it really was a problem with the publisher and my emails went ignored because the people I was writing to were really busy people. But the doubts remain because my initial experience with the website turned sour. I'm not very quick to recommend it as a resource to anyone lately. If I were running the site and I promised someone a book (albeit via a publisher) and the publisher didn't come through, I'd buy the book myself and send it to them.

Now that I've written this out and thought about the situation (and learned of Kathy's connection with the site) I think I will probably give it another chance. I would like to become a certified java programmer, so it's probably a good place to go. But I don't know if I'll ever be passionate about it.

Posted by: Chris | Oct 13, 2005 7:13:16 AM

I thought of something else when reading this, and it is about exceeding the expectations of your users.

People who are less connected to your passion will be impressed and inspired by less than those who are already highly connected to it.

This is important in considering who you are communicating with and what to communicate.


Posted by: Donna Maurer | Oct 14, 2005 4:19:14 AM


The book promotion complaint is pretty common at the ranch unfortunately. I intended this response to say that I've always received my books but when I went to the "winners" site I saw my name as a winner for some book back in January that I never even realized I had won. Bummer. Anyway, I HAVE received books before.

Gregg Bolinger has graciously taken over the book promotion responsibilities for now. He's a pretty cool guy and I think it would be worth your time to send him a FRIENDLY message explaining your case. You should gain his empathy since he is also waiting on a book for HIMSELF as well.

In addition to the positive side, there are some pretty high quality people that frequent the site, more so than any other IT forum I've seen. Pretty much every forum topic has at least a couple experienced, friendly developers. I spend most of my time at the Struts forum and I could name a half dozen people there that I'd be thrilled to join a project with any day. That aside, my privilege to contribute and help others is a reward in itself.

Hope to see you come back soon, partner.

And speaking of deflating user experiences, I'm still waiting for a response to my email volunteering for your "shameless request", Kathy. :)

Posted by: Marc Peabody | Oct 18, 2005 2:06:02 PM

I am trying to differentiate between this and what, for example, a lot of the software companies do with their standard, pro, enterprise - or whatever names they give - versions at different price levels. Obviously more money you pay, more features you get. Is this similar to what you are talking about or is there something more?

Posted by: Jiho Han | Nov 7, 2005 4:22:02 PM

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