If you asked anyone a decade ago what community-led meant, you’d probably be met with blank stares. Flash forward to 2022, SaaS-superstar companies like Figma, Asana, and Atlassian all have one thing in common: a community-led approach. Communities allow Customer Success teams to scale, get real-time feedback and insights into customer needs, and most importantly, they give customers a voice. Within your company, your community can teach you about what customers want to see from your product, how you should craft your customer communications, source new prospects for your product, and find people who are a great fit to work for your company. The list is endless, but one thing is for sure, community-led is becoming the norm. Why? Because it’s giving power to the people, and by doing so, it enables teams to create better paths to customer success – on the customer’s terms.
Last year, a reported 22% of organizations increased community teams in the past two years, according to Commsor’s 2022 survey. Of the companies surveyed, 25% have community represented as an executive-level role. Not only is community being valued within companies as a revenue driver and being added into the executive suite, but it’s also driving how companies are shaping their retention and expansion strategies.
“A lot of companies are using this as their main talking point without understanding what community-led actually means,” says Hubspot’s Senior Manager of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging Communities, Shana Sumers. The Chicago-based community manager has been building and managing communities for six years and knows that being community-led is more than a buzzword or lip-service to your customers. “Community-led is putting community at the center of your business knowing that community can work cross-functionally to help accomplish business goals. As witty as your marketing campaign is, it can never top a word-of-mouth recommendation from another customer. As fast as your customer support is, some customers will always prefer self-service and finding the answers to their questions immediately.”
Ideally, you’d be able to build your business alongside your customers with this community-led approach in mind from the jump, but that’s not the case for many companies. Positioning community as the focal point can be a challenge given the history of community in many companies has been siloed off. Creating a culture of cross-functional collaboration and making sure your OKRs and initiatives are aligned to the company’s are two key building blocks to creating a community-led approach.
You may be one of many communities whose main function started as a help forum or a way to minimize support tickets for customers, so how do you elevate this space to become a hub for prospects, engagement, networking, and more? When Angie Coleman came to cloud-computing company Snowflake back in 2018, she found herself in this exact position. Over her first year as a community manager, she built out the existing blog from generic help content with trending topics and created a referral and advocacy program. Once she had some data on how community was impacting the rest of the company outside of self-service, she took action to reach out to team leaders to get buy-in.
Angie stayed diligent with biweekly meetings with every team from Product, Marketing, Support, and Education to show what the community had produced or achieved for the respective teams and also see how the community could support their initiatives. “I think getting buy-in isn’t always by necessarily going directly to the CEO or the organization head, but by working with the smaller teams in the company.”
In addition to having meetings with every team, goal-setting with those teams is important to track the success and progress of community-driven efforts. Mary Shen O’Carroll is Head of Community at contract lifecycle management platform, Ironclad. Although she admits she was lucky to walk into a company that understood the value of community, she reinforces that value with specific KPIs linked to other teams as well.
“We just set our goals for the year and we’re making goals that are in tandem with the Product, Customer Success, Marketing, and Sales organizations. So, we’re all very aligned in why we’re here and what we want to do. There’s plenty of work to go around. How can we all pitch in and help each other achieve what’s best for the company?”
Now, when you’re trying to get buy-in at the executive level, you need to prioritize the right metrics to make your case. The metrics for a social advocacy community may look different than those for a product community, but some baseline numbers can work for any type of online community to show its strength such as the number of members, posts, comments, DMs, likes, and new customers, or event attendees. There are also user-generated metrics, which albeit are a little more challenging to rank, but should be considered like shareability, uniqueness, comprehensiveness, and the evergreeness of the content or post.
Unqork’s Director of Community, Danny Pancratz finds the numbers that speak the most are the ones that aren’t there. “When it comes to ROI, our first instinct is to look at what community members are doing. How many logins, questions, ideas, and conversations are taking place? It’s often helpful to look at what community members aren’t doing. Are they creating fewer support tickets? Are they sending fewer emails or asking fewer self-service questions on calls with their CSM? A strong online community should level up the interactions that both Customer Success and Support teams can have with customers. If you have a strong knowledge base and active community forums, you enable self-service for the ‘low hanging fruit’ and focus everyone’s time on higher-value conversations. InSided offers some great analytics for this based on Zendesk benchmarks for how community activity correlates to support tickets.”
If you’re not sure whether something is “working” in your community, then pivot. But resist the knee-jerk reaction of wanting to “tell” your community what they should want. You should empower them to tell you. Community by Association founder Marjorie Anderson suggests trusting in your community to let you know what they think. “Try something for 90 days and see if it works, because I think that’s the bare minimum time it’s going to take for people to really kind of see if it makes sense if people are going to adopt it because community building takes time.” Marjorie has an impressive track record of building a community from the ground up. What started as a blog post here and there transformed into a full-fledged company that offers everything from strategy reviews, community audits, and leadership alignment sessions.
The good news is that as community matures and evolves in organizations, so does the technology and talent to support it and removes some of the guesswork on what your community wants and needs. One shining example of that comes from what Linda Lian has built with Common Room. The Seattle-based startup was founded from Linda’s need for a more effective way to share community ideas and have the proper way to track and manage these types of dialogues. Her approach to community-led growth is that it should happen right out the gate. “We believe that 100% of successful new software companies will engage their community from the start, and continue to build on that engagement through their growth. We see this trend most strongly in Web3, where the community leader is one of the first hires or the role is taken on by one of the members of the founding team.”
The recognition of community whether in the C-suite or as a department is also ushering in a new class of younger individuals ready to dive into a career in community vs. falling into it by happenstance which many have done. Qiana Pierre is a junior at Mount Holyoake College in Massachusetts. She realized her experience in UX and being a Community Member Experience Manager helped her path to community management. Qiana is only, at the moment, an intern but helps manage #HireBlack, a 3,000-member community for black professionals looking to network. She has yet to graduate from college, but can already identify the most valuable part of communities early on in her career. “We believe that wealth is defined by access rather than assets. It’s critical for me to cultivate relationships within our network in order to share experiences, provide resources, and a safe space for empowerment and professional development.”
Regardless if you’re company is a SaaS startup with a community-led approach, a company overhauling from a product-led focus to a customer-centric strategy, or someone just starting in the community field, you know that the value of community is rooted in giving back power to the people and letting them steer your business in the right direction. So when you’re trying to argue for that additional community headcount or the tooling to scale your community efforts, go to your leadership confidently knowing that community is not a trend that will come and go, but be the foundation for any successful company in the future.
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