Which department should own your customer community?
This is THE number one question asked by prospects (and sometimes even customers).
Yup, it’s a tough one.
As a customer community is a great fit for multiple departments and can contribute to several business outcomes across the board, should Customer Success, Support, Product, Marketing – or perhaps even an entirely separate department own it?
In B2B and SaaS especially, customer communities and the concept of being community-led have gained a lot of momentum in the past few years. (The latter being spearheaded by our friends over at Commsor.)
Building a customer community has become a growth strategy as it continues to prove its value in driving adoption, increasing retention, and offering personalized customer experiences as tech-savvy customers become more and more autonomous.
To say the least, community is on the rise, especially as more and more B2B companies opt to make it a key channel in their digital-led CS strategies. So it’s time to get to the bottom of who should own the community initiative.
What’s the purpose of your customer community?
The first question to answer before you can make a decision is this: what’s the purpose of your customer community?
Purpose is a multi-faceted concept when it comes to community. The most successful B2B communities give customers a reason to participate and contribute to the community. Whatever department your community reports to, that won’t change.
So start by determining the main reason you’re starting a community. For example, that could be:
- Enabling customers to effectively self-serve or offer peer-to-peer support.
- Creating a central customer hub, for all customer success content and digital-led engagement strategies.
- Building an advocacy program and creating super users along the way.
- Gathering customer feedback and providing a location for customers to submit feature requests.
Perhaps it’s all of the above? But no matter how broad or specific, a defined purpose will help you determine the most logical place for your community – if not solve the issue altogether.
It also helps you to get an idea of the structure of the community, the content you’ll need, and the technology that will support your community vision. Some people even advice creating a “community backstory” to help you think about questions like what’s your message and what’s the most compelling reason for customers to keep coming back? And, the root cause – what are the pain points that sparked the need in the first place?
Now that we’ve covered our bases, what departments typically own a community program in B2B SaaS and subscription-based software companies? And what could be the use cases?
First up, Customer Support.
Customer Support is considered the OG Community Department. Back in the day, especially in a B2C environment, this was the department that usually owned a community initiative. And the reason why is clear: support and self-service.
Support departments are historically viewed as cost centers. While we now know that logic may be flawed – especially given the more proactive approach to customer support that ignited the Customer Success movement – it did spark the original demand for community support.
Imagine you’re a large telecommunications company and have millions of clients. Every day, thousands of those clients call your support department with entirely preventable questions. You could continuously hire more reps to answer those questions – and spend a LOT of money doing so, or you could opt to scale your support efforts by using technology. Read: adopt a community platform to increase customer self-service and scale peer-to-peer support, ultimately saving you a lot of money and enabling reps to focus on more valuable conversations with customers.
Sounds like a no-brainer, right? We thought so (and so did everyone else). And that’s why the most common owner of a community program emerged: Customer Success.
The basic premise of Customer Success is simple: to ensure that your customers are achieving their desired outcomes using your products and solutions.
But that’s easier said than done. Turns out, helping your customers be successful is a continuous process. And it’s a 24/7/365 job to make sure your users are getting the most out of your product. Customer Success is inherently a proactive function, but when managed poorly, your CS team turns into a reactive “everything” department. What it's really about is engagement between you and your customers, relationship building, championing the voice of the customer, and, ultimately – from a business standpoint – Net Dollar Retention.
A customer community ticks all those boxes. They build better relationships between your brand and your customers and grow your retention rates over time. Some of the biggest use cases for Success Communities (as we like to call them) are:
- Self-service: Increase customer self-sufficiency and the productivity of support and CS teams
- Customer engagement: Engage customers with discussions, ideation, events, groups & best practices (engagement is THE leading indicator for customer retention!).
- Product feedback and ideation: Build better products based on customer feedback & beta groups. Communicate releases and roadmap to drive product adoption.
- Community-led strategies: Utilize community as the “central hub:” of your tech-touch or digital-led customer success strategies. A newer strategy that’s picking up pace. Why not have one single platform for your customers where they can find all customer success and educational resources to ensure their success with your products and services.
Finally, owning a community initiative as the Customer Success team helps you in other areas as well. Remember the struggle to prove that you’re contributing to the company's bottom line? Or not having enough data to back up certain customer requests when you talk Product? By implementing a customer community you’ll have plenty of numbers to point to, all coming straight from the source – your customers.
A well-executed community initiative becomes the face of your brand. Your community managers become its eyes, ears, and more importantly; its voice. It’s not a surprise that within Marketing, a community often takes the shape of an external marketing channel.
Marketing has always been close to the community initiative, perhaps even since the rise of webcare teams around 2009-ish. As companies saw more and more of their customers turn to online channels to voice their (dis)content, brands decided to give their customers a platform to voice their opinions. But in this case, it was a platform they owned and could influence to steer the conversation in the right direction.
Obviously, in the early days, this was to minimize any negative impact on a brand or the company. Webcare teams would become the “face” of the company, and as such, they needed to fully embrace and live up to a brand’s values and way of working. A community platform would often be the “home” of this team.
Fast forward to today, and marketing teams still have similar objectives, though in general, we’re all a little more comfortable with letting a few employees do the talking for the whole company. Additionally, customer advocacy, thought leadership, and referral programs have become a major objective for marketing teams, especially in B2B and SaaS. Through clever programs that aim to give valuable customers more influence on the brand and roadmap, they build relationships that are strong enough to spread to partners, prospects, and even investors. Eventually leading to an increase in qualified pipeline, lower CAC, and higher close rates on marketing-generated prospects.
Who doesn’t want that, right?
Ever heard of Product-led growth? Sure you have. Customer acquisition, expansion, retention, it’s all driven by the product itself rather than commercial teams with lofty targets. You can’t have missed it. So, as it turns out, community and product-led companies are a match made in heaven.
We humans, we’re naturally looking for advice with every step we take in or with your product(s) and software. So, facilitating that conversation can become a force multiplier for your product-led model.
By not only setting up a product that enables your users to go through the whole lifecycle by themselves, but actually also supplementing that process with useful information, educational materials, best practices, inspiration, and peer-to-peer conversations you’ll enable your users to get the most out of your product, and your company to get the most (read: adoption, expansion, retention) out of your users. Win, win.
So, how does this affect your product team? Simple. Your product managers and engineers would be closer to the customer, have a more structured feedback loop, and would be able to source and segment better ideas to drive growth through your product.
Last but not least and typically – and ironically – forgotten when talking about community ownership: the community team!
It’s no longer uncommon to see a Head of Community or a VP of Community building an entire department out of a community initiative. This is a really good thing, as it helps cement the community initiative within the organization.
The community department is usually built as a core strategy to increase user engagement. Like Customer Success, they’re focused on increasing engagement between customers, customers, your brand, and other users of your product(s) and software. Sharing best practices, and educating the average users are among their core goals.
You’ll see them run community programs such as a VIP program, ambassador program, or beta groups for testing new product features. They also create content, boost user-generated content, host events, engage partners, and share data and insights about the community with the rest of the team.
We’re biased, but a full community team seems like a sound investment to us. ;)
Purpose first, ownership second
There's no wrong choice here, all of these departments make sense. The differentiator is the purpose of your community, and (potentially) the KPI's you're looking to influence.
Sure, finding a purpose sounds a bit "airy" – but it's important. Because building a community is no small feat. While a community will eventually see momentum and grow independently from your team's efforts, at first you're going to have to be the one driving that growth. That means engaging with customers, creating the content, recognizing members, and so on. So, don't just place community in any team, place it in the team that you know will drive the initiative home.
Finally: ownership is always a difficult topic. What does it mean to be the owner, right? In a community's case, it's important to understand that a community initiative will only THRIVE once more departments get involved. So, even when customer success technically is the owner, it's still important for your product- or marketing teams to get involved, learn & engage.
Found a home for your community initiative? Check out how to get started managing a B2B community here.