Community is not a tech thing: an interview with Ken Carroll

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Transcript

Gerry Gaffney:

Today I’m very pleased to welcome Ken Carroll from ChinesePod. According to your website ChinesePod is an amazing new way to study Mandarin, combining podcasting, online learning materials and a global community

Ken Carroll:

Yes.

Gerry:

Now, firstly Ken I should say fáilte go dtí an [welcome to the] User Experience podcast.

Ken:

Go raibh maith agat. [Thank you.]

Gerry:

ChinesePod is enormously popular. Can you give me some idea of its’ popularity?

Ken:

Okay, since we started, which is almost a year ago, we’ve seen approximately 5,000,000 lesson downloads, a little bit difficult to estimate exactly the number of regular users and so we estimate that about 120,000 people are using it. We’ve had 70,000 trials for the premium service and we’ve converted a number of those, in the thousands, I won’t disclose that, Gerry, that particular number in terms of sales, and so we haven’t actually spent anything on advertising.

In fact we’ve spent some on Google paid search, but apart from that, no marketing or advertising costs, so I think that those numbers you know in terms of other sites are not absolutely huge, they’re not absolutely huge, they’re not yet in the millions but for me anyway it points to the possibility that this model, or this medium, this combination of web tools and so on will in one context or another be extremely big in the future.

Gerry:

I guess that brings me to an issue I’ve always had with on-line learning tools, is they’ve always been hyped to the max for many many years and quite frankly most of them have been absolute crap as I’m sure you’d agree.

Ken:

Absolutely.

Gerry:

But it seems to me that with things like ChinesePod, that on-line learning is beginning to come of age, do you think that’s the case?

Ken:

I think it is. For us it’s a combination of two things, two equal things, it’s the technology plus the methodology.

We can talk about I think the technology in a moment but I think the methodology is important. One distinction that I would make, a very clear distinction, and it was the distinction that for me defined this medium is the fact that podcasting is a very personal medium, right, you have the chance through podcasting to develop the character of the teachers, let’s say.

You know, you’re a podcaster yourself Gerry, the sound of the human voice for some reason it works very very well for some people, more than for others, I’m not quite sure why that is, but if you get that character into the lessons, if you get that person into the lessons and that personableness and that warmth that you can get in a studio unlike let’s say recording a lecture in a university, that’s a very very different way to podcast lessons, but lessons let’s say that are crafted by a teacher who knows how to use the medium, and secondly who then has an overview let’s say of a syllabus, of a series of steps that the learner has to take over the coming weeks and months and years in order to achieve the desired outcome which is in this case, a degree of fluency in the language.

So if you have those things, if the podcasting has those things and the technology supports that on the back end through things that they can do on the website, I think you have a very powerful medium.

If you contrast that, by means of an example, with language learning software, you know there’s hundreds of programs out there and some of which you can do on-line, and it’s basically up to you the learner. You sign up for the software, you get access to a massive web site let’s say, but it’s, you test yourself and then you go in and you start doing lessons and so on, now you very much feel I think in that situation that you’re on your own, because you are.

And secondly there’s actually in most of the software programs that I’ve seen, there’s no guide, there’s no teacher, there’s no personalities, there’s no-one to motivate you, there’s absolutely no way to get to offer feedback on your own learning, there’s no, well there’s some, to a certain extent some of these sites offer the chance to interact with other learners… but I suppose the big one for me, Gerry, is the point that now you could personalise the lessons with a real teacher, really in a sense you feel like they’re speaking to you, because the lessons are driven mainly by user requests and user needs.

So that’s how I would distinguish the recent development and podcasting in particular, and the way that it differentiates from a lot of the older learning tools, the software based tools for example.

Gerry:

I guess that’s come across clearly to me is that level of if you like personality, obviously yourself and Jenny Zhu and the others to a certain extent.

Ken:

Now I know that you’re an educator yourself Gerry and, you know, I’m in the language school business for the last 20 years and, you know, customers come in time and time and time again, for 20 years you’re asking them what do they want, they want a good teacher.

There are different types of learners, some feel independent whatever you want to call that, some people rely more on teachers then others, but at the end of the day when people are paying for training service, the first thing they want is they want a great teacher, and with a podcasting medium that allows you as a provider to source the very very best you can as opposed to let’s say hiring a slew of teachers, you can invest in hiring the very best one and the one who suits that medium best, and then you can scale that up and the economics become quite attractive from the point of view of the provider so I think there’s a fairly powerful economic dynamic behind that.

Gerry:

I guess one thing I should point out for people who are not familiar, most of the listeners to this podcast might not be familiar with ChinesePod, but basically what you do is you’ve got five lessons a week that are completely free to download, people can access them at their convenience as a podcast, and then you have value added services to which people can subscribe and I guess you’re giving away a hell of a lot of pedagogically sound intellectual property absolutely free of charge but you’re still trying to run a business. How do you balance those things?

Ken:

Well that is the $64,000 question right there, yeah, we give away the crown jewels in a sense, the most attractive part. But I think there are precedents for this. To use a very crude analogy, I don’t like it but it might throw some light on it… in the old days we used to talk about razor blade marketing. Gillette or whatever give away these beautiful razors for a very very low cost and you have all these latest designs on these wonderful razors and they’re so cheap that you say; “I’ll have one of those,” but what you found is the blades, you know the razor blades, you keep using it and it’s quite expensive. [Laughter.]

Now I’m not saying our premium services are deliberately jumped up in price, they’re not, but I think that the idea has analogies let’s say off line. In terms of on-line service I think there are a lot of services that take this approach. We could talk about edge competencies in making, you know, trying to make revenues on the edge, because there’s very little you can do to lock down your content these days. I think you’re fighting very much against a very strong tide if you try to do that.

As I like to call the strong force in the internet universe is this unbundling, where people if content is good, they’ll clip it, they’ll snip it, they’ll put it in to remix it, it’ll be out there, there’s really not a whole lot you can do and to stop that so our approach has been, okay let’s do a great job on the audio, let’s make it viral I don’t like that word but let’s make it viral in that sense, and we know then that people will share it with their friends and that it has the effect let’s say advertising and marketing might have had in the old days and so yeah I think we’d be foolish to fight against that, and so what we have to do is to be very very focused on the users and how they follow up from that. For example you know, you can only learn so much, certainly at the level of language, from the audio. Particularly the adults, they need to consolidate it, they need to see the content, to read it, study it and do exercises and so on. Not everyone is willing to take that step and to put that extra time in and to pay for the extra service, but a number of them are and so we work on the basis that we’re very happy to see 5,000,000 million lesson downloads. We know that only a small percentage of those will translate into paying customers but as long as that number is a) growing and b) profitable we’re quite happy with that.

Gerry:

One of the things that’s really impressed me about ChinesePod is the level of user engagement and. You’ve got the wiki, you’ve got the blogs, you’ve got the various community aspects of it, you’re always requesting feedback, you guys seem to be on-line responding to feedback on a daily basis, on an ad-hoc basis. Was it a deliberate policy to have that level of engagement and is there some sort of philosophical underpinning for that or did it just emerge?

Ken:

Absolutely. In many ways this really was the core of what we’ve always tried to do. I’ve been in the education business for my whole working life, for 20 years and we’ve authored, I’ve authored text books that are in the book stores and we did a series that came out three, four years ago and it took us I think about four years to produce the series, to write it, sit down, get the manuscripts, get the artwork, get the audio stuff and it took four years from the time we sat down to write it to actually seeing them in the book store and it was kind of like, when I saw it in the book store that day and I looked at the book and I thought; “Oh, I know so much more now you know then I did 4 years ago.” [Laughter]. And I felt slightly as if it was almost irrelevant and so that feeling was pretty harsh, and so in this case what we could do was the very opposite. What we could do is say, this is the best that we know now, this is what we think is the best we can do, we don’t know how users are going to respond, and we have to allow for the fact that users are very very different in their response. So what we could do is do the very best we can now from a tech perspective and from an academic perspective, put the very best lessons up there and then just go crazy on the feedback.

Gerry:

How you manage that level of feedback? You’ve got so much feedback coming in from users you must get swamped by it.

Ken:

That is a huge question. You know there’s, from the beginning we realised that there would be different types of feedback, so you’ve got to be careful with it. Initially when we launched it was okay to get amorphous very general levels of feedback but after a while that becomes very difficult to manage, so you learn to ask different questions, you learn how to use your questions or your surveys or even your blog, and you learn to focus more specifically and you’ve got to be careful about the qualitative stuff as well because, you know if I say, what do you think about this feature, and 40 people give me basically gradations from really good to really bad, the question is what have I learnt there?

So you’ve got to understand what you’re trying to achieve, you’ve got to narrow it down and then you’ve got to differentiate the different types of information that you’re receiving back. If you use your feedback properly and if you’ve got a fast team who can respond, academic and tech team, then you are strapped to the rocket. You will go wherever you want to go. But that doesn’t make it easy. We’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to manage, we’ve got a full team and that’s what they do all day, three guys that’s all they do all day, is read the data, categorise the data and then drive it out to the various departments and then weekly meetings, early morning meetings every Wednesday and just hammer those points until everybody, until we’re sure that everybody in the relevant department has taken the right action. So, yeah it’s a hugely difficult task but it is, to us, it’s what makes us relevant and so it really is crucial.

Gerry:

I get the sense, Ken, sometimes from… well I guess in the medium, because even though I guess most people think of podcasts as being something fairly straightforward they really are still in the realm of the geek, and sometimes I think that the community of people that you’re serving, that are giving you feedback, and I mean no disrespect here whatsoever, but they’re a little bit on the geeky side perhaps. Is that an issue and do you have a strategy for engaging the less technically inclined users or are they just not your market at the moment?

Ken:

I think that we get a mixture of the people who are like very active, you get the geeky types, no question, but you also get the real linguistic types, and then you get the people who are just obsessed about learning the language. So I think we have like a mixture there but all of those definitely fall under the sort of general you know topic of people who are let’s say to a greater or lesser extent tech oriented.

Given the approach that we’ve taken, medium being the message I suppose it’s not that surprising. The big issue always, for someone in this, if we’re in the Web 2 space, I don’t think we’re in the Web 2 space but let’s just use the term for the sake of argument, how do you go mainstream, do you have to go mainstream, should you go mainstream with it and I think at our stage we’re quite happy to grow the way we’re growing. It’s very steady, the trend is definitely positive but we do know that if we were to take other strategies to do off line sales and so on, that we could possibly very much broaden our user base and our paid customer base. For now though I can live with the fact that our first generation of users are slightly geeky, but they are, to me they are gold because they’ll give you so much feedback because they care about these things and they’ll go into details and they’ll give you the feedback.

Gerry:

I’m sort of super impressed with the level of user engagement that you’ve got at ChinesePod and I’d like to know Ken, what’s your advice for businesses, for other people out there who want to have a highly engaged user group who may not be in the podcast space but who are providing something. Is there any core lesson that you’ve got that you could pass onto people?

Ken:

I think the community spirit and the community sense and the community development, it’s not a tech thing, you know. People will go to great lengths to develop; “Oh, give everyone their own page and give them their own this, and let them put their own podcast,” and it’s not really to my mind what it’s about. Some of those tools are very very effective there’s no question but I think there is a mistake that people can easily make to think that that’s what community is about, it’s not. Community is about one thing and one thing only to me and that is discussion and conversation and so what you need, my suggestion is this, that somebody, one of the developers of the product, somebody who founded it, somebody who’s passionately and completely believes in the product that that person is embedded into the community at least one if you can do more it’s better, because even if it’s just slightly niche area of expertise that that person has, I think their passion and love for the subject, their willingness to engage in it, I think that’s really to me the key to creating a community. Now if you can go beyond that and you’ve got extra tools that’s fantastic.

The second point I would make is you know blog, the blog kind of supports my first point there, the blog is so much more powerful then say a BBS because the blog represents an individual, again their passions, their beliefs, it’s consistent, you have some degree of control over it and it’s an enormously powerful PR machine as well. So as you’re discussing with the users as you’re talking to them, learning from them, showing them that you respect them, making changes according to what they request, what you’re actually doing as a really important side effect is you’re creating a very powerful PR machine. But at the end of the day it’s the conversation to me that really really makes the community.

Gerry:

Fantastic, and I guess you know Ken you’re a bit of an inspiration for me because you’ve proved that Irishmen can learn how to speak Chinese.

Ken:

[Laughs.]

Gerry:

我学习汉语但是我说的很不好. [I studied Chinese but I speak very badly.]

Ken:

Wow! 你说的很好! [You speak very well.] [Laughs].

Gerry:

No, no, no! Ken Carroll, thank you so much for joining me on the User Experience Podcast.

Ken:

My pleasure Gerry.

Published: August 2006

A note on the transcripts

We make verbatim transcripts of the User Experience podcast. We then edit the transcripts to remove speech-specific elements that interfere with meaning in print (primarily space-fillers such as “you know…”, “um…”).

Gerry GaffneyCommunity is not a tech thing: an interview with Ken Carroll

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