How Rosenfeld Media built an engaged community driving long term retention for their business.
Publisher and Founder
Today on the show we have Louis Rosenfeld, publisher and founder at Rosenfeld media.
In this episode, we talked about what information architecture is and how it led to the formation of Rosenfeld Media, how the UX Design space is evolving, and the importance of understanding your customers’ needs when building out your product’s information architecture.
We also discussed Lou’s plans to introduce Memberships and Subscriptions at Rosenfeld Media and how introducing Attendee Cohorts at their conferences, increased retention, and engagement of their community.
Andrew Michael: Hello Lou. Welcome to the show.
[00:01:29] Loo Rosenfeld: Thanks Andrew. I'm really glad to be here.
[00:01:31] Andrew Michael: It's great to have. For the listeners is the publisher and founder of Rosenfeld media connecting people interested in designing better use experiences through books.
They publish events. They organize the communities they built. Lou started out his career as an information architect and then founded a series of other companies before getting started with Rosenfeld media over 16 years ago. So my first question for you, Lewis, what is information architecture and how did it lead you to Rosenfeld?
[00:01:56] Loo Rosenfeld: Good Lord. We could spend a lot of time on that, but I'll try to be brief [00:02:00] information architecture is the art and science of organizing and structuring and labeling information so that people can actually find it, manage it. And if any of you are old enough to remember an O'Reilly book with a polar bear on the cover.
That was the one I co-authored information architecture for the web and beyond it's now in its fourth edition. And most people know me as the guy who wrote that book, but it's funny. It's been a long time since I wrote that. Since then I moved into a very related area, user experience design, which is really an umbrella for areas like information architecture and usability and contents strategy and interaction design.
And it's a really interesting feel that synthesizes, as I said, other areas brings people together, really appealed to me. And I decided Really as a hummus, as a hobby to start a company that published books for the UX community and that's Rosenfeld media started that 16 years ago. [00:03:00] And I did that primarily because I felt like there wasn't enough attention being paid to UX.
And my hero, one of my heroes is Tim O'Reilly, who obviously found it that Riley. And I'll. I still remember, he told me, oh, you're like a lot of other publishers. You're a frustrated author. And when you see that there's ways to do things differently, you want to do that. You want to try some new, innovative ways out.
That's what we did started the publishing company branched into events after a few years, like a lot of publishers to. Also offer training all about user experience design, which itself keeps morphing and transforming and broadening.
[00:03:42] Andrew Michael: Absolutely. It sounds because it was a good hobby to say cops after 16 years,
[00:03:46] Loo Rosenfeld: it's a hobby that, it's keeping me pretty busy.
[00:03:49] Andrew Michael: I can imagine the thing that I was just going to ask you then as well, as obviously being 16 years ago, there wasn't really good content out there. When it came to UX and UX design today there's like a, an abundance [00:04:00] of content out there in your opinion, what have been like maybe one or two big shifts or changes that you've seen in the UX design space.
And maybe that could be something to do with the understanding or how the market itself has.
[00:04:13] Loo Rosenfeld: First of all the field has grown old guys like me tended to be folks who were comfortable with helping pioneer new areas. And we were good with uncertainty and used to be in oddballs.
And many of us had deep experience in other fields any thing ranging from. Theater to my case, library science to graphic design. And we all came together under that umbrella of UX. And as the field took hold and really started to grow, it became very democratized and to some degree commoditized.
A lot of people entering UX today, unlike it back in my day are able to get into. Or go to a bootcamp and just for [00:05:00] UX or some related area. And so you have a different level of knowledge. It's less sort of school of hard knocks and more programmed curriculum based.
Those people also they may have really great knowledge, but they also don't necessarily have deep knowledge, like many of us did. So that's one interesting trend. Another one is that as you look at UX is evolution. It's been constantly panning back. So I think a lot of people start in. Like what we might call now, UX UI, where they're very focused on the front end and at a level of micro interactions at the degree of designing things like radio buttons and pull down menus, which is important, but over time, the field and actually many individuals and their career paths pull back to broader and broader.
[00:06:00] Perspectives. So you start seeing areas that are like beneath the tip of the iceberg. Not always so obvious and visible, like for example, information architecture, you can't really see it, but it's important or service design, and it's panning back even further to systems thinking. So how do you design.
Systems, maybe echo systems may be something else, or how can you design within a broad system that you may have limited control over? And it may span many physical and digital social media. All at one time. So that's a really hard ask and not so easy for people to start there in their careers, but that's where we're often heading.
Let me say
[00:06:46] Andrew Michael: evolving. Yeah. I definitely see that as a trend as well. Like becoming a lot more sophisticated in the way we view UX. And it's less about that AB test with the blue and red button now. And it's more about like, how do we start thinking what, like from first [00:07:00] principles, what are we trying to achieve?
How can we help our users help? Customers and the consequence. Yes on the other end, because we've seen some really bad consequences is the nature of badly designed software or manipulative software. If we want to call it that way. The other thing you mentioned, that's interesting as well. And I've noticed this as a trend on the show, is that like roles like UX research or customer success, or even like user researchers to a degree.
Most of the people I've spoken to their backgrounds on tech. I went to study UX research for user research. So as they come from vastly different backgrounds and then they somehow stumbled into it and that God, this is something that I could be interested in. It's more unlike the behavioral sides.
And you mentioned some of coming from the arts and things like this is a common thing I've actually heard which is quite interesting. Yeah. Information architecture on that note as well. I think this is one of the things that, like you say, it's sometimes maybe an afterthought, but thinking through it with your product from the very start can really save you a lot of pain.
Further down the line and. W in the context [00:08:00] of churn and retention, I think like one of the main things is like being able to allow your users to grasp and understand your products like in seconds and be able to navigate around and be able to understand how to use the product and how the information is going to be working there.
If you're getting started out with a product and like you wanted to think a little about your information architecture, how do you go about thinking through the initial work that you want to do initial research? Is there any sort of format that you followed in the past? Going into new projects, it's a new product.
When it comes to information architecture,
[00:08:30] Loo Rosenfeld: different information, architects have different approaches. There's not a one size fits all. For me, I like to really focus in on information needs. So there's this interesting relationship that if you could, let's say, get a list of information, let's say when people search your website as an example, the search queries, if you were to figure out the frequency of the search queries and plot them on a distribution chart, what you would [00:09:00] find is the Pareto principle.
Very clearly illustrated the distribution looks like a hockey stick. And what you find is that a handful of in this case search queries, but it could be any type of way of expressing an information need the most common handful of accounts for a huge, surprisingly huge portion of all the traffic.
So let's say if a site gets 30,000 searches, The top 10 might account for 20% of all the traffic out of those 30,000. And it, as you move down the distribution curve and you move more to the esoteric needs of people have one offs and so forth. Those you can afford to maybe ignore or treat differently.
But if you're. Does not really address well, those really common information is the few things that everyone really needs to be able to do. Then you're going to have a failure [00:10:00] and that's where your information architecture in my mind should start determining what those needs are, figuring out which ones are the most common and making sure that your.
[00:10:12] Andrew Michael: Making really simple. I like that notion as well of looking at search as an example. And as you mentioned, like prejudice principle, like the 80 20 rule coming to play into that. Next thing I'm interested as well as you started talking a little bit about your journey, like starting out writting books, publishing books, and then going into events and building community now.
And we touched on this a little bit before the show. That's like the next evolution now that you're looking into is actually memberships and subscriptions as part of Rosenfeld media, and maybe let's start off, like what got you thinking in this direction.
[00:10:46] Loo Rosenfeld: Actually in thinking about it for many years and why now is because we're finally in a position, both in terms of volume of content audience size exposure, and internal resources [00:11:00] that we can actually do this when you boost.
The company is a hobby from the very get-go and you never have funding. And you're constantly just trying to keep it going and see where it goes. It's hard to take on projects like that, but fortunately we're at that point now. And we have as I said so much content that's coming together now.
And a lot of Goodwill, a lot of exposure and some specific audiences that I would like to serve. So for example, if we had the membership approach that I envisioned I would like to make it a free or nearly free for students. I'll never forget in the eighties. When I was a college student at the university of Michigan apple made sure to make sure that we had access to their whole.
It locked us in. I'm still an apple user today. I'm talking to you from a Mac book air. And I know there's a lot of students out there that are trying to learn about user experience [00:12:00] design. I'd love for them to know about our content through a membership site.
[00:12:08] Andrew Michael: I think that's an interesting point. I think a lot of companies offer this free for students are free for education.
And the knock-on effect like compound over time. It's crazy because one, like you're giving your product or service to students while they're learning to study. So as they're going to work into the workforce and start working there. I already have a concept of this product or the service going into it.
So if they can try and bring in a product, they're going to be thinking about that product to service and they have the experience. And then slowly over time, This mess. Audience says they're growing into certain roles to push and promote some, as you mentioned in your case the MacBook is still a, your number one device.
I think it's a very powerful way to, for user acquisition without an indirect way for it to power. Th
[00:12:51] Loo Rosenfeld: there's actually a, another side to it as well. And I don't mean to be negative, but let's face it. Students are not used to paying for [00:13:00] content. Even when I was a student in grad school, I still remember faculty giving us reading that from books that they simply made copies of themselves and made course packs to help us avoid buying books and as a publisher.
And that makes me sad. And I, even though our books are pretty reasonably priced, there is a mentality. You don't pay for content. And rather than fighting that, I want to go with it because eventually those people are going to be professionals and they'll have budgets and then hopefully some good number of them will remember us.
[00:13:36] Andrew Michael: Absolutely. Okay, so now, so you're thinking through a little bit in that direction. How do you think this is going to change, like your focus as a business? Have you got any ideas behind that? So you obviously have the different pillars that you work on an operates, like how do you envision moving more towards a membership subscription model, changing the business?
[00:13:54] Loo Rosenfeld: So in my mind, a membership models can require three. [00:14:00] One is content and we're doing great. There too is engagement. People should engage over the content. Let's talk a little bit about that in a moment. And three, you need to have some sort of a glue to connect all those things, which I would describe as an information architecture so that when you have content coming from different silos, here's one conferences, content. Here's another books, content those need at some point to be joined in ways to be integrated in ways to add value that creates some greater than the parts. I may be a member who wants to read a book, but I may be a member interested in a certain topic. That's a through line through some conference content and books and their contents and training.
That is an interesting challenge that is not surprising that an information architect would be considering the. No, but we've got to start somewhere. And so the [00:15:00] thing that is really changing for us already, it's really less about membership, changing the business as much as membership, responding to the businesses changing.
Is this where we're talking in November of 20, 21 back in March of 2020? We struggled because we had a brand new conference sold out five weeks in advance. Suddenly we had to virtualize and we had some experience with virtual conferences, but this was really daunting and stressful. And we did our very good job, but we knew instinctively that content digital content delivered through things like zoom or even asynchronously access content is just not that interesting.
Or compelling because there's so much out there that's free that it competes for. We want to be able to sell it. We were already working on a membership [00:16:00] system. We had a problem and the live conferences were problematic. You don't want to sit for three days staring at zoom while people drone on. So what we started doing in June of last year is what we call Attendee cohorts.
Attendee cohorts or small groups of around 10 randomly assigned attendees at our conferences who have the aid of two volunteer facilitators. They meet just before the conference starts and zoom to get to know each other and to talk about their shared learning goals for the current. They then check in each day on zoom and have a wrap-up at the end on zoom.
And during the conference, they are together in a private slack channel and our of cell tater is also often make use of canvases help bring the experience together and the ideas [00:17:00] together from their cohort things like mural neuro, and it has been. Amazing. This is free to our attendees.
It's first come first serve. But they are finding that the experience is at least on par, if not superior to an in-person conference, when it comes to both networking and learning. And especially for junior people for introverts, people are not comfortable in the in-person setting. And you're, if you go to an in-person conference, you might run into.
While you're waiting to pick up a croissant at breakfast. You may never see them again. You may not get their contact information. Here you get some of that serendipity, but then you're together and you find each other, you get to know each other. We broker that and people ultimately often continue talking long after the conference is over in these slack.
Johns, the model has been so compelling. That we are now [00:18:00] going to be establishing it for all of our lines of business and not just tying it to a conference, which is a short term convening of people for few days, but to our communities, which meet year round, it's the perfect model for working groups for birds of feather meetings.
It's the sort of thing we can tie to books through book clubs. It's the sort of thing we could tie to training in terms of how students convened for the training that we sell. We even can use it internally because our authors work in cohorts. They convene their own cohorts of advisers, our our speakers, prep and cohort.
Our curation teams working in cohorts. So we have this nice, simple hunk of technical infrastructure that we manage through our membership system. And it's not that hard, but it is [00:19:00] what is going to make the membership system compelling that people can interact over the common conversation piece of the piece of.
Whether it's conference content, book, content, training, content, community content, you name it.
[00:19:18] Andrew Michael: Yeah. I definitely see that working because I've experienced that in a couple of different areas in the past. And I've seen how effective it is in a previous startup. We went through an accelerator program and what they had was they used to call it.
I think it was brain trust sessions where. Because there was other 10 people in the cohort with you, you would break up into individual roles and you would have a weekly session where you discuss your challenges. What are the pain points you've been having? What are you going through at this point in time?
And the shared learnings you got out of there was like unbelievable from it so much so that I actually, even at some point, decided to do something like this as a startup, as an idea, I put together a website called like brain trust or FM. I wouldn't even show it's [00:20:00] still up there. And I was just doing a bit of like pricing and packaging testing and seeing like demand for it.
And the problem that I found was that you had this notion that mostly like the senior people didn't want to, because they were already doing it and the junior people readily wanted it, but they couldn't get access to like maybe more senior people that direction and learned from. But I think in your case, it's totally different because.
You already have one like an amazing network and amazing community from it, you have amazing content behind everything. And that's what sort of sets the anchor point to flip discussion. And so I definitely see that being something like super, super powerful and like a big value add to the content because a lot of times you can read a book, you can go to conference, but it's actually the discussion that you have that like triggers new thoughts, new ideas.
And so I love that
[00:20:43] Loo Rosenfeld: to add to that. You mentioned community and that is. So I mentioned that the cohorts, at least that we've done so far are facilitated. And I don't know that work unless you're facilitated. So let's not leave that out. It's not so simple. There's no facilitators, but we've been able to draw on our communities [00:21:00] for facilitators.
So our facilitators get a free ticket to the conference. They love the experience so much. They invest quite a bit that they are running the program. People who run the facilitators to facilitate the facilitators and do the training, our volunteers. And they are often holdovers. We do four conferences a year.
They're like at least half have done it once before and wanted to come back. Even if the conference is not that relevant to them, the communities are fantastic because if you invest in them, they also give a R are enabled people to Build their skills in a way. That's gradual. So the people who are facilitating this year, next year, they might be serving in a more specialized role as a, say, a research analyst for our conference research, the research we do for programming, or we have this new role of community [00:22:00] librarian for sibling, all the resources that communities discussing and.
Compiling resources or eventually our paid curators. We, each of our communities and conferences is run by a paid curation team of subject matter experts, but we're basically able to build almost like a maturity model for people to be involved in communities this way. And it's very cost-effective and it's very, win-win all around.
And I don't know if we could run a community of any sort behind a membership wall. If we didn't think really seriously about enabling people to own a piece of it in this. Yeah,
[00:22:38] Andrew Michael: content is not enough. And I think that thing that you said as well, like the facilitator's side of things, I even think back to this podcast actually, is that the first four or five guests?
I think I had on the show actually came from one of these groups that are organized together. We always a facilitator and I put in the effort because I got so much out of those sessions. If I hadn't done that, if it probably would've dismantled and fallen [00:23:00] apart, which it didn't in the end when I stopped doing anything about it.
That's I think there. The value that you get back from these sort of groups and cohorts. And then on top of that, you add on all the products and services that you have as a whole can see that being something super, super impactful. You mentioned engagement. I think obviously this is one part of it, that really involves engagement.
Are there any other areas that you're thinking about, like how to keep the membership engaged in the members?
[00:23:24] Loo Rosenfeld: That's a really good question. And cohorts are only one model. And I feel like mentoring is probably another program that we could consider. I feel the idea of building libraries of resources, not just that we.
But that come from the broad world of content that is interesting to each of our communities is also really interesting. And we're getting a lot of traction there right now. The problem we have with any of these things is that we've [00:24:00] opted to not go with a commercial plot. For conference for vertical conferences or for community management or for really any kind of, one size fits all application or platform for any of these use cases.
What we've decided to do is basically build our own platform, which is WordPress five zoom and slack and mural and things like that. And It's not bad because you can actually design it the way you want it to. You can design in ways that respond to your customers. But you're constrained by your your dev cycles.
That bandwidth issues a problem for a lot of organizations, especially for a really small one like us. So now what we have to do is just realize it's hire full-time before. And keep investing in the platform, the human platform, the human infrastructure is another thing that we have to invest in.
[00:25:00] And we have a role. We had someone in it a little earlier this year, and now we're going to be filling this role again, of community manager. We are seeing that role again, not as something that is just about, being like. Someone to get people talking and excited, but to actually be looking people to step up into these more specialized, more engaged roles, librarian, research, analyst, facilitator, whatever it might be, and his support, our curators, and finally to really be looking at.
At what each community wants. We can come up with all kinds of ideas for creating membership systems that are strong and retention, but ultimately it has to come from the people who are there and asking them and doing the user research that we all preach in my field that we should do. So that role of community managers can be instrumental in making sure we're doing the research.
[00:25:59] Andrew Michael: [00:26:00] How much duck feeding do you do? So like how much user research are you doing as an organization?
[00:26:04] Loo Rosenfeld: A lot. A lot of it comes down to the research that we do for our conference program developed. So our conferences tend to be in areas that are fairly new communities of practice and We actually do substantial research every year for each program that we develop.
And that has a lot of benefits. The obvious benefits as we develop a really strong program, but when you're in a new area one of the real challenges is defining it. So as an example, the newest conference that we're launching, which is about a month from now is called civic. There are people who are civic designers, but it's not like a common term yet.
There are people who use adjacent terms like civic tech and service design, and so forth. Yet there's this awareness that there's this new [00:27:00] thing called civic design, and we need to spend time really investing in understanding and the idea of developing a program. For a conference that is when you're doing research to support that program is that you're doing an exercise it's definitional.
So it good definition of civic design in 2021 will be our conference program. And it'd be interesting to compare it to our program in 2022. So our communities know that they know that we are seriously. Curating and defining the areas we work in that we're doing the research that we shouldn't do and that they are part of your research and with them and often involving them.
So in effect, they are invested in what we are creating. They are stakeholders if there ever was, and that helps retain people. So it really is, I don't know enough about [00:28:00] common membership models, but I know enough. There's probably a lot of talking the talk, but not enough walking walk and I think a really good way to be taken seriously is to involve the community.
[00:28:14] Andrew Michael: Yeah. And I think you get in a lucky position when it comes to research that like UX designers, UX researchers are a lot more willing to participate in research because I know the pains of conducting their own research and they tend to be as well very thoughtful and it definitely is a big value add.
To the community and to yourself. I see we're running up on time. I want to ask you one question that asked every guest that joins the show. Let's imagine a hypothetical scenario now that you join a new company and you arrive there and churn and retention is not degraded this company and this year comes to you and says, Hey, Lou, we really need to turn things around.
We have 90 days you're in charge. The caveat is you're not going to send them to me. I'm going to speak to customers and figure out what [00:29:00] their pain points are. And then start there. You're just gonna choose something that you feel you've seen as being worked because it's impacted other companies before that's helped reduce churn or retention and run with that playbook.
What would you choose?
[00:29:13] Loo Rosenfeld: Good Lord. So I can. Things like analytic data analytics
[00:29:17] Andrew Michael: data? No.
[00:29:19] Loo Rosenfeld: Okay. So I have to figure out how I'm going to help, but without any data talking to anyone. So I'll fall back on information architecture, and I'll say that the hallmark of a strong information architecture.
And actually more importantly, a flexible information architecture and adaptable information architecture that supports multiple paths to content. And I would do something along the lines of thinking about whatever my offering is, whether it's content, application, whatever the product is. I want to give people [00:30:00] alternative means to get into.
To engage and not put all my eggs in one basket. And just that statement forces one to think maybe a little more consciously about how people are entering and how they are engaging. And you may have multiple ways, but may not have thought about it that way. And you may not have contrasted them or compared them.
And as you do that, you might start seeing interesting issues like blockages barriers or halves that are too open. That there's not enough. That would be my approach. I'd say let's seriously. Think about how we are enabling people to access and engage with whatever it is we're doing and look closely at how they move through and maybe open up some new ones if we need them and improve some of the [00:31:00] existing ones that might need them.
So that's the best I can
[00:31:03] Andrew Michael: do for fairness. I love that. Hey, it got me thinking about another point is all onboarding and how sometimes people say nobody reads people just want to watch videos. And I think that's a very bad misjudgment because there's a lot of people that just prefer to read and don't like to watch videos and the K.
Offering two versions to be able to see one or the other, like you just serving more of a wider audience. And there's so I think it's different ways of learning. Yeah, exactly. And
[00:31:27] Loo Rosenfeld: I can tell you, people do read last year either we had
[00:31:30] Andrew Michael: in the book publishing. Exactly. Yeah. But I hear this, like sometimes you say quite a lot, like when you're building products and then people are close, you want the fastest way or whatever they don't want.
They don't have time for this XYZ. It's just not true. That's you? And that's your opinion. That's how you like to consume products. And there are other people in the other people that like to use them. Last question then what's one thing that you know about churn and retention today that you wish you knew when you got started with your career.
[00:31:54] Loo Rosenfeld: Oh, that's a really tough one because I don't really think in terms of retention that much, but you put me on [00:32:00] the spot. So let me think. I think so much of not just retention, but really everything we do that I wish I knew better early on, even though people were trying to tell me all the time is to listen.
We're terrible listeners, especially those of us who start businesses and are entrepreneurial. Anyways, we fall in love with ideas and it's so easy to do. We're creative species. And it's one thing to get reactions to our ideas, but sometimes we should, we wouldn't be best served by not even getting that far down the path by listening to the people around us, the people who we may want to reach.
And I've spent plenty of time chasing ideas that were a total waste of time and money that if I only would've listened earlier on to the people in my market before. Fully formulated in the idea I'd been in much better shape.
[00:32:55] Andrew Michael: Yeah, a hundred percent agree with that. It's so easy to get attached.
And [00:33:00] somebody said to him this once and it stuck with me a lot is don't get attached to ideas, get attached to the problem. And then like ideas will come and solutions come. But if you focus on the problem and you focus on the person you're serving, ultimately you're going to be able to build better products and to solve for them.
But if you get attached to the idea and you become precious with it like that, Danger happens. Solution
[00:33:20] Loo Rosenfeld: hearing is a very dangerous pursuit.
[00:33:24] Andrew Michael: Yeah, absolutely. It's been a pleasure having you on the show today. Is there any sort of final thoughts you want to leave the listeners with? I think obviously we'll make sure that we have in our show notes, all the links to things we've discussed today, but is anything you want to bring up or you want to mention before we start.
[00:33:37] Loo Rosenfeld: I just want to thank you first of all, for the opportunity. And I'd love to hear from people. That's the only thing I'd say is I'm sure we'll provide my some contact information for me. And this is a new audience for me to be interacting with. I'm hopeful that I might get to learn something through interacting with your audience somehow.
[00:33:55] Andrew Michael: Awesome. Yep. And definitely I would recommend checking our residents of media on slack. [00:34:00] You can check out their sites as well. They've got a great community going there as well, and we'll make sure to leave all the links to the different spots for the listeners. Thanks so much, Lou. It's been a pleasure.
I wish you best of luck now, going forward in this new venture and seeing how the memberships or subscriptions ends up running out. Thanks
[00:34:15] Loo Rosenfeld: so much. Maybe we can talk in a couple of years and I can tell you how it turned out.
[00:34:18] Andrew Michael: Yeah. Say some learnings. Cheers.
[00:34:22] Loo Rosenfeld: Take care, Andrew. Thank you again.
[00:34:24] Andrew Michael: And that's a wrap for the show today with me, Andrew, Michael, I really hope you enjoyed it. And you're able to pull out something valuable for your business to keep up to date with churn.fm and be notified about new episodes. Blog posts and more subscribe to our mailing list by visiting churn.fm. Also, don't forget to subscribe to our show on iTunes, Google play, or wherever you listen to your podcasts.
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My name is Andrew Michael and I started CHURN.FM, as I was tired of hearing stories about some magical silver bullet that solved churn for company X.
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