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How was the giffgaff community created?



6 minute read

giffgaff first advert
An example of our early brainstorming work.

Today Robbie Hearn and myself, Vincent Boon, are here to take you on a little trip down memory lane, and give you all a little insight into the very early beginnings of giffgaff and its community. Robbie and myself were part of the startup team here at giffgaff, with Robbie being responsible for the overall Customer Experience and myself being responsible for the Community here at giffgaff.

A lot has changed since we started this, as we can see when only recently the CEO of the world’s largest investment fund BlackRock (managing $6.3 trillion in assets), writes a letter to the world’s CEOs with his views on the future of business. The title of his 2019 letter was “Purpose & Profit”; asserting his view that purpose comes before profit: “Purpose is not the sole pursuit of profits but the animating force for achieving them”.

Similarly, only a few months earlier, a massive global survey found unprecedented public demand for companies to deliver more than just profit: “64% of people globally expect CEOs to lead on social change rather than waiting for government intervention” (2018 Edelman Trust Barometer). Which is fantastic news because when companies adopt a purpose they commit to making positive change in the world beyond their walls. A customer community accelerates this mission because it connects the company directly to that world.

Purpose-led company

In 2008 the business world was very different, and no-one was talking about purpose-led companies, or communities, except in one little unloved corner of a grey office building in Slough. That’s where the start-up team for giffgaff came together. And we did have an animating force: to do mobile differently - more honestly, more transparently.

giffgaff community
One of the images we used to get the community conversation going.

The picture above was used in the very first presentation we ever gave publicly about what we were trying to do at giffgaff. And the implications of the sentence above, ‘break down the barriers between our company and our customers’ were felt everywhere throughout the company and with our customers.

We now had to live a whole new way of doing business. Starting by creating a culture of transparency and openness between the brand and the community. Always explaining our decisions and reasons in detail and to treat our members as intelligent adults and create a better understanding of the inner workings of the business.

Doing this at the start was incredibly hard, with our members showing a clear interest in wanting to be involved with us on many more decisions than initially expected. Which meant a lot of heated discussions around what information we could share (traditionally nothing, until after the fact), what members should be able to influence (again, traditionally nothing) and what was ring-fenced (everything).

Changing that dynamic was hard not just within the business but also for our community. There was a lot of distrust and skepticism that we wouldn’t actually listen, get people involved or change depending on feedback we’d receive and that we would be just like any other company. Great brand message, but no substance.

giffgaff community diagram
An old version of one of our community model diagrams we used to discuss it with the wider brand team.

Kick off

To show how serious we were, we kicked it off with one simple question:

“What do you think we should charge for data?”

Little did we know that it would take us nine months to figure out how to actually charge for data…but at the end of those nine months what we implemented was truly a world-first. A comprehensive data pricing policy that incorporated the ideas and votes of thousands of giffgaff members in a way that also met the commercial needs of the business. We had proved our radical brand promise was authentic and the tone was set. We would have open conversations with those that were interested in how we thought about the business and we would listen and engage with anyone who had any suggestions for improvements.

More and more of our members started helping out, figuring out how to solve issues with our systems, advising us when things went wrong and coming up with solutions or helping us gather data.

This helped convince growing numbers of people that we were in fact ‘the real deal’. We really did want to listen, and yes, we really did make changes through suggestions from our community.

As giffgaff sold only minutes (8p) and texts (4p) when it started, a lot of our initial discussions were around how to get the benefits from a contract and yet still remain Pay-As-You-Go? Well, we all know what happened next when through our discussions with the community the concept of a giffgaff goodybag was invented.

The community proved itself time and again to be a great source of insight, innovation, amusement and friendship. With giffgaff radio being set up and run, which even had its own jingle, to product banner ads created by the community beating our own in performance.


giffgaff first SIM card

Perhaps the greatest collaborative effort of community and business working together in the early years was Microgaff, a site created and run by the community members to distribute MicroSIMs when we couldn’t support them yet. We continued with running community consultations on price rises and a range of other questions posed to the community. We continuously tried to push the boundaries of how we could involve our members in the business. Always aiming to create something special, that was created not just by a team in an office, but by all of us together.

The experience of launching giffgaff and seeing these amazing results inspired Robbie and myself to take the concept further. We wanted to see the collaborative community model work for all sorts of businesses all over the world. That’s why we launched Standing on Giants. We squatted in the giffgaff offices with our team for the first four years! Massive ‘Thank you!’ to everyone for putting up with us by the way.

It’s been a unique experience doing this from the ground up at giffgaff and to now be able to recreate this unique approach with other companies is some of the most rewarding work we’ve ever done.

We really hope you will all continue to keep supporting giffgaff with all of your input and ideas. We might not always get everything right the first time around, but with the help, insight, constructive criticism and vision of the community, giffgaff will continue to be a company that can thrive while creating a service that is unrivalLed by its competitors.

Written by vincent

Vincent is specialised in creating and running branded online communities that bring a touch of magic to the interaction between customer and brand.