In the past year, community has emerged as a hot topic for both startup and ScaleUp SaaS companies alike. At the Insight Onsite Marketing COE, we have been fielding an increasing number of questions from our portfolio companies that are either looking to get started with a community-led motion or for tactics to accelerate growth within an existing community.
Not every company is well-positioned to launch a successful community motion. Generally, we are seeing this model adopted successfully by companies that have self-serve technical products mainly targeting developers. However, there are plenty of other SaaS companies, for example, Insight portfolio companies Mural, Restream, and Bizzabo, that have launched robust communities of non-technical personas and customers alike. Building a vibrant community can benefit your organization in the following ways:
- Establish regular touchpoints for customer feedback and advocacy – A vibrant community provides a direct line of communication between an organization and its end users to establish a feedback loop and build longer-term affinity.
- Power an organic flywheel of content, adoption, and referrals – A community is composed of end users who are constantly creating content about your category, brand, and product. With the correct channels of distribution properly identified, this steady stream of content can expand the organic footprint of the org and attract more interest and inbound demand.
- Improve new user acquisition efficiency – If your community is working for you, this will reduce the overall dependency of paid advertising to increase brand awareness and reach new audiences. Since the demand created is inbound, marketing should be spending less to acquire longer-term customers.
- Soften lands with larger enterprise accounts – For companies that are targeting higher ACV accounts and running account-based motions, community can attract pockets of end users from within the greater organization. Organic adoption not only builds word-of-mouth within the account itself, but makes for a much more compelling business case when sales speaks to the key economic decision makers.
- Nurture product stickiness and expansion opportunities – End users that exhibit a high affinity for your org’s community will have a lower probability of churn, a higher probability to expand usage with the organization, and a willingness to adopt new products and services.
Getting started with community
In order to establish a successful community, your team’s top priority is building and maintaining the infrastructure for a sustainable community ecosystem of interactions. This means both providing the tools and systems to facilitate conversation (e.g., forums, Slack, Twitch, etc.) as well as running regular programs and seeding relevant content to spark new ideas and use cases. Below we have provided a roadmap to help you get started.
1) Define your ICP (Ideal Community Persona)
Clearly define the target end user segments and the unique value proposition that your community will add for your community persona. This should be consistent with the core value the product delivers and adjacent topics. To that end, we recommend that you start with the product use cases that have the highest adoption within your core group of customers. It will be much easier to build a vibrant community with the people who have the highest affinity for the product.
Additionally, you will want focus on your end users first. Generally, you want people who are subject matter experts and are highly engaged in their field to contribute to the conversation. Key economic buyers, unless highly technical and/or influential, should generally be added to a customer advisory board.
Finally, you will want to evaluate where there are potential gaps in the knowledge base and broader market trends where your core end users will be qualified to and want to contribute. These topics must be product agnostic to attract observers who are interested in learning and engaging about the core subject matter, but will not know your brand.
2) Establish your foundations
Once you have defined your ICP, it is critical to establish foundational community infrastructure including documentation, resource center, forums, and technology to facilitate community interactions. As your community matures, you may need more sophisticated technology, but we recommend the following to get started:
- CRM + CMS + MAP: Your foundational MarTech stack (Salesforce, WordPress, HubSpot, Marketo, etc.) will be instrumental to scaling your community motions and mapping engagement points back to target accounts. Some companies prefer to keep the motion entirely separate from traditional demand gen tools, and use more cost-effective email service providers such as Mailchimp to avoid the upcharges in account records in the MAP.
- Community Platform: The central forum on your website where end users can collaborate and the organization can start conversations and gain insight into top-of-mind topics. Many portfolio companies, especially those targeting developers, choose Discourse to manage their communities. Platforms such as Hivebrite, Influitive, and Tribe are also worth consideration, depending on the type of community and what integrations you need.
- Engagement Tools: The underlying tech that will power the different community interactions across video, chat, and customer success channels. These are the tools that you will generally already have invested in as part of your company’s main tech stack such as Slack, Zoom, Zendesk, and new technologies such as hybrid events platform Bizzabo to power meetups and user conferences.
- Community Operations & Reporting: It is critical that you gain visibility into your members’ activity in order to fully operationalize the data points that your community is creating. Historically, this would have been only possible through manual processing and custom integrations. Fortunately, there has been a recent explosion of new players that have entered the market to provide this functionality including Orbit, Common Room, and Commsor.
3) Recruit internal and external influencers
While you are getting your infrastructure in place, establish an inner circle of influencers who are both subject matter experts and well known within the broader ecosystem of your target persona. A deep bench of both internal and external influencers will attract new members, create content, and engage in conversation.
Start with your internal influencers: Identify both the key product experts and the personalities in the company who are most comfortable and capable of engaging with your community. Ideally, the company will loop in representatives across levels and functions, including product, marketing, CS, and sales.
In addition to assembling the internal squad, create a strategy to identify, prioritize, and recruit external thought leaders, based on their reputation, credibility, and the size and quality of their audience. While many external influencers may look attractive on paper, prioritize quality of interaction over the quantity of the reach. Building relationships with thought leaders with smaller reach, but who will regularly go to bat for the community, will help grow organic adoption, rather than recruiting rock stars in the space who are more superficially involved.
Both internal and external influencers should be leveraged as subject matter experts to establish the community as the destination for quality thought leadership. Establish SLAs for your internal team to post on the community forum and contribute to content at least 1-2x per month. You should be more strategic in how you engage external influencers but provide incentives to contribute to key community content (e.g., research reports, technical white papers, product documentation, blog posts) and events (e.g., webinars, office hours, roundtables, and user conferences).
4) Invest in programs to establish and activate your community
Once you have the foundational infrastructure and team in place, it is marketing’s responsibility to run regular programs and seed relevant content to influence interactions and attract new members to engage with the community.
Start by identifying the current community watering holes: external sites and meetups where target end users gather information and engage. This includes destinations such as subreddits, where users learn best practices from peers, and GitHub, where users collaborate on projects related to your solution. Next, evaluate publications where end user personas go to learn about broader industry trends and from the technical experts in their field. Finally, building a following on social media platforms, such as Twitter, will be key, as it will allow your brand to promote upcoming events and interact directly with influencers.
The community will reach an inflection point of adoption and engagement where it will power an efficient flywheel of demand. Beyond generating word-of-mouth referrals and growing overall product adoption, this flywheel will benefit the organization in the following ways:
- Search Engine Optimization – Community forums and technical documentation can make up over 50%+ of a company’s keyword rankings. This type of content is especially effective at ranking for long-tail technical searches that aren’t specific to the company.
- PR and Earned Media – Community events, such as user hackathons, and key pieces of thought leadership can create compelling narratives to earn media coverage. This is especially effective when amplified by external influencers to audiences beyond owned brand channels.
- Content Creation – Regular community events can be recorded and repurposed for YouTube, tutorials, and even sales enablement. Since these events are community driven, this will reduce the burden on the product marketing team to regularly create all of these assets from scratch.
- Conversion Events – Beyond regular meetups, a user conference is the lightning strike for community growth and engagement, but can also provide a compelling conversion event to influence and accelerate pipeline. Even if the primary objective isn’t revenue generation, the entire org should be mobilized to participate and promote.
Launching a community can be an attractive, but a nebulous initiative to pursue. Yet, many different types of companies have successfully launched and integrated communities to fuel growth. This is because companies that invest in community have access to a wealth of firmographic, behavioral, and technographic data points about their end users, usage signals that can be leveraged to better inform the go-to-market. Community data that is fully operationalized is the fuel for revenue growth and will help your org realize return on investment.
In our next installment, Measuring the Impact of a Community-Driven Growth Motion, we cover how to structure and harness community data points, connect community activities to demand gen, and establish the correct KPIs to quantify the impact.