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Strength in numbers: Here’s how PLANTSTRONG consolidated its offering and built a six-figure community with nearly 20,000 members
Featured in this Story of Awesome: PLANTSTRONG Community
Launched June 2020
Free Community + Paid Courses
The PLANTSTRONG Community is a free community that offers paid courses and practical tools to help people take control of their health, eat more plants and adopt a plant-based lifestyle.
The Spark: After experimenting with a variety of platforms for a piecemeal solution, the PLANTSTRONG team stumbled upon Mighty Networks—the only place where they could host virtual events, paid courses, and a dedicated community space.
Ami’s Mighty Moment: “The difference between Facebook and Mighty Networks is that when they come to the PLANTSTRONG Community now, they're coming there on purpose. It's been such a relief to have a more focused audience that is more engaged.”
The true story of how the PLANTSTRONG Community came to be is so legendary, it just may deserve a spot in the annals of American folklore. “The founder of our company, Rip Esselstyn, was a firefighter in Austin Texas,” says Ami Mackey, PLANTSTRONG’s Curator of Creative Content. “And firefighters have a tendency to be a little bit competitive.”
The story goes that Rip and his fellow firefighters had a habit of making bets. After running through the usuals—“I bet I can do more pushups than you,” and “I bet I can do more pull-ups than you”—the competition escalated to a different indicator of physical fitness: “I bet my cholesterol is lower than your cholesterol.”
After a round of group testing, it turned out that one of the firefighter’s cholesterol was over 300. And with that catalyst, the group sprang into action. “One of the unique things about Rip is that his father was a surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic and had written a book called ‘Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease,’” Ami says. “So he said, ‘Listen, I’ve been eating this way for years. If you just do what I say for 28 days, I’m going to take your cholesterol down to a normal level.’”
And reader, it worked. From there, things snowballed. Soon, local newspapers caught on and Rip’s star soared. He wrote a few books, was featured in a couple of documentaries, and began in-person retreats. And eventually, the PLANTSTRONG Community—a dedicated space that provides support, resources, and more for those interested in a plant-based diet—came to fruition.
Ahead, we chat with Ami about PLANTSTRONG’s journey, moving beyond Facebook Groups, and what’s in store for PLANTSTRONG’s future.
Rip’s work has taken so many forms. How did PLANTSTRONG transform into an online community space?
It was inspired by our retreats. You’re there for seven days, you’re eating our food which is plant-based with no added oils, low sugars, all of those things. You have the support of our full team. But we asked ourselves, “What happens when you go home?”
So we started out on a Ning network—Engine 2 Extra— gosh, back in 2012, which is when I came on to the scene. We’d have blogs and PDF documents to help people who wanted new recipes or new challenges. We did that for about two years, and in the end we had over 2,500 members paying $99 a year.
You’re there for seven days. You’re eating our food. You have the support of our full team. But we asked ourselves, 'What happens when you go home?'
And then Facebook exploded. We ended up closing down our Ning network and decided to take a different route. Rip had a new book come out in 2016, The Seven Day Rescue Diet. We thought, “We'll create a Facebook Group for this. We'll do it for three months to support the launch of the book, help people get on the plan.”
What we didn't realize is that we would have such a huge interest and have so many people who were really excited to do this. And once the three-month mark hit, we thought, "We better stick around. We've got a lot of people here who are really excited about our program and we wanted to continue to provide them services."
What made you start looking beyond Facebook?
Well, the pandemic hit. We usually had generally three to four in-person events annually, in Sedona, in Black Mountain, North Carolina, in Claverack, New York. And we of course, like everybody else, had to scramble to figure out what are we going to do about our in-person events. And so we had started using Hopin as our online event provider.
Hopin did a great job of getting everybody online. But when you have a live event, and it's 9:00 AM, you're in front of your computer, that's all great and good. But what if you can't tune in until noon and you miss three hours? What do we do? Where do we host those videos? How are we going to share the recorded event afterward?
By this time, we had two different Facebook groups. One of them was for our seven-day rescue diet plan, one of them was for the PLANTSTRONG plan, depending upon what part of your health journey you're on. But with those two groups sort of being fractured in different directions, and having this need to host our online videos, the recorded videos for the live events, we needed to figure out where are we going to do this? How are we going to do this? And that’s when we started looking into different networks, and we found Mighty Networks.
Once you found Mighty Networks, how did it help you consolidate your offerings?
We had everything sort of scattered and it was really painful. So when we looked at Mighty Networks we thought, "Well this is great." Because not only can we have our free community. We can host our courses—which we had been doing on LearnWorlds.com. We can host our online events, which we had been doing on Hopin.
Our clientele has a tendency to be over 50. And the majority of them are not necessarily the most tech-savvy. So having multiple logins was just a painful experience for our users. We really wanted to have one cohesive service where we could say, "Listen, this is the center of all things PLANTSTRONG. You log in one time. You've got your courses, you've got live events, you've got your community support, you've got all of your documents. You can watch the recorded videos and you can ask questions from the general community."
We really wanted to have one cohesive service where we could say, ‘Listen, this is the center of all things PLANTSTRONG.’
So it's really a lot easier for people to find things, to log in, all of those things in one spot made it really easy for our user base, which was absolutely key.
Now that everything is in one place, what would you say your PLANTSTRONG Community members have in common? What are their goals or motivations?
We have people who have either had the widow maker, but survived. People who just got the diagnosis of having high cholesterol, or being pre-diabetic and don't want to be on medication. We also have a lot of younger people who are in preventative mode. People who know that they have a family history, especially those who have young children. So we have a variety on the spectrum. But there's nothing more motivating than surviving a heart attack and deciding this isn't the way.
It’s been such a relief to have a more focused audience that is more engaged.
The difference between Facebook and Mighty Networks is that when they come to the PLANTSTRONG Community now, they're coming there on purpose. Not because they just clicked on something that just said as a suggestion. And so it is more focused. It's been such a relief to have a more focused audience that is more engaged. That was not a side effect that we were expecting.
Have there been any other surprises since your move? Anything else you weren’t expecting?
There are a few cool things around doing events online. So for example, when we have our events, all of the staff wear tie-dyed t-shirts. It makes us easy to find in the crowd. So you might be able to find one of us and ask us a question, but we are in a room with 700 people. And it's kind of chaotic when you're there and you're live in person.
When we do the events online, and have that online component, if you're asking questions in the chat, even if we don't get to you immediately, we're going to answer your question. And I think it actually makes the event more personal and more accessible to our customers. We actually have staff members around the country that are in chat, that are answering those questions and posting links for the people who want to know, where do I get the book or how do I do this, or how do I do that. We can post those links and things.
I think it gives you a fuller experience when you're actually doing it online, because it feels like there are more hands on deck, even though there aren’t. But it makes our events more accessible to our members, and they actually get to ask more questions and get more answers.
What are you most excited to experiment with next? What are your plans for the future of PLANTSTRONG?
We’ll continue to expand our offerings and we're continuing to load content in. We're actually talking about adding some other courses that take things in a different direction. So once you've got the food down, once you've got the mindset down, maybe fitness is your next frontier that you need to tackle. And so we're going to be adding more content like that over the next year or two.
I’ll say that having people come over and learn from us, it’s been a joyous experience.
I expect our community to continue to grow and to continue to be one of the biggest resources for the actual hands-on practicality of how to go from eating the standard American diet to being plant-based for health reasons. And whether you're here for the animals, you're here because you had a heart attack, you're here just because you want to prevent all of this stuff, the information is the same.
I’ll say that having people come over and learn from us, it's been a joyous experience. Getting to be part of that journey for a lot of people can be super meaningful. It's really neat to see people have the successes that they've been looking for their whole life. And being part of that is just a blessing.