As a marketer, you may already be familiar with the idea of product-led growth. In this typical go-to-market strategy, the product is the main driver throughout the user experience that encourages growth at every stage of the funnel. The product is at the center of the strategy and is the key driver in acquiring, retaining, and keeping loyal customers. If you have a successful product it can essentially market itself. Though this strategy is tried and true, there is another strategy that can complement product-led growth efforts. In recent years, another strategy has come to the forefront and is earning an increasing amount of attention — and it is community-led growth.
The idea of community is a tale as old as time. Humans innately have the need for connection and wanting to be a part of something. A brand that is focused on community-led growth can build an atmosphere that fosters these intentions where you are not only acquiring new community members but turning them into loyal customers and brand advocates.
With an endless amount of product options users face, it’s the promise of connection and a thriving community that will make your business stand out from the crowd.
What is Community-Led Growth?
Community-led growth is a go-to-market strategy in which companies place value beyond their product or service by providing a platform to deepen consumer and brand interactions, providing educational resources, facilitating Q&A through real-time support and feedback, and building brand loyalty, trust, and advocacy.
In traditional marketing strategies, communities are often taken for granted and have been historically overlooked and underutilized. Fostering your community is something that should not be put by the wayside. Instead of replacing another strategy such as product-led or sales-led growth, it is an additional GTM strategy that can be added to your marketing mix. Consumers today have an overwhelming amount of product options and a myriad of platforms to communicate on, which means they are more often turning to their peers and online forums for brand recommendations. In fact, 90% of U.S. online users trust brand or product recommendations from family or friends, while only 10% trust ads from websites. When a community already thrives and exists within a certain sector or around a specific product, consumers will be more likely to gravitate toward a brand that has proven loyalty and enter the flywheel that is self-sustaining community-led growth.
It’s easy to think, “if I build it, they will come.” You could have the best product in the world, but getting people to find it and believe in it is another battle that doesn’t come as easily.
This is where community-led growth comes in and can work in tandem with product-led growth, not replace it. Don’t get me wrong, a community can literally be a company’s product (think Slack, Instagram, or Salesforce), but the product can also be built around the community in the D2C sector (Peloton in at-home workouts or Glossier starting out as a beauty blog). Consumers of these brands view themselves not just as customers, but as members belonging to a community larger than themselves. Community-led growth builds upon a successful product and harnesses the power of enthusiastic consumers. A sense of belonging is what is at the heart of community-led growth and it is the product that is bringing these users together.
In a community-led growth marketing model, your brand community remains at the center of the strategy. The means by which you communicate with your audience is the catalyst to building trust, receiving feedback, and therefore improving your product to draw in even more converting community members.
Who makes up your community?
Following the lockdowns of COVID-19, there has never been more of a need for finding a community. After a year of painful isolation, people want to connect with each other in more ways than ever before and there are more opportunities to do this than just connecting with those who live in your neighborhood or go to the same gym. Online communities are especially thriving and will continue to as we enter the age of Web3 and the metaverse. Think about all the online communities you may be a part of: your College Alumni Page on LinkedIn, a Facebook page dedicated to recipes for busy moms, or a subreddit you follow for all the latest stonks. Each of these online communities serves as an invaluable resource for those who follow it. These communities have their own set of rules and guidelines, posting etiquette, and even can have their own social hierarchy within the group. They are community-led and self-sustaining.
Now, think of this untapped potential for your brand.
Your brand community is no different. This community consists of anyone associated with your brand. This could be contributors, creators, fans, employees — anyone and everyone who interacts, uses your products, or follows you on social media. Your community is your audience and you want them to be loyal to you and not go to your competitor. By building a community, you are engaging with them, sharing knowledge, and building trust.
So what is the difference between audience and community? Can the two be used interchangeably?
On the surface, yes. But as we look deeper, your audience is what a go-to-market strategist would consider, while community is left to the actual members to self-sustain (with the guidance of your community manager). Your audience is made up of buyer personas while communication happens business-to-customer across paid social, landing pages, and email campaigns. Community, on the other hand, is made up of member-to-member interactions that the business may or may not help facilitate. If you create a place for your community to engage with one another, they will come as their authentic, natural selves. The community space should reflect the needs of its members, not a place to continue promoting sales pitches. Are they there to ask questions, learn new information, or share ideas? The forum in which you host your community should reflect this sentiment.
Who is responsible for community?
In the past, fostering a brand’s community has not been a priority. The importance of nurturing a brand’s community is often overlooked as a priority as there are not traditional KPIs, funding, or known strategies for connecting and encouraging a thriving community around one’s brand. This outdated idea is quickly changing as the need for community managers continues to grow. In 2021, jobs listed under “Community Manager” grew by 9% and the title “Head of Community” rose by 20%. These roles are rising in popularity as businesses learn to listen to their constituents and put a greater emphasis on the value of community.
Consumers today have a myriad of options to voice their opinions and frustrations online, so why not control the narrative of your brand? The role of a community manager is to listen, learn, connect, and if necessary, serve as a liaison between the audience and sales team or customer care. The community manager isn’t there to push sales, but nurture and serve the community from within. This person acts as a monitor, checking the pulse of audience sentiment, attitude, wants, and needs. This inner-circle research can fuel product and service discussions to deliver even better results and make your audience feel heard and cared for.
Three types of community
Before diving into the how of building a community-led growth strategy, there are three different types of communities for your brand to consider.
Community of product: This type of community is driven by your product. It is a space where members share product tips, tricks, report bugs, or submit queries to the support team. They use this space to stay connected with your brand but also support each other in answering and responding to others’ questions, submit product ideas, or use it as a place to complain.
A great example of a brand that has built a strong product-led community is Apple with its Support Platform.
Community of practice: Instead of rallying around a specific product, this community is made up of people who share a common interest or goal of learning in a specific field. Instead of being tied to a specific product, this community platform serves as a resource within the niche, where community managers or salespeople may step in later down the funnel.
Hootsuite, SproutSocial, and Later all publish valuable resources on social media management and often include how their own products can assist in their goals.
Community of play: These community members are fans of gaming, athletics, the arts, and more. They may use their community platforms to place sporting bets, find others to play Dungeons and Dragons or discover hacks to level up in Fortnite. Similar to the community of practice, communities of play look within their community to bond over niche interests and may not be married to one singular product but rather a product genre such as AR video games, traveling, or fashion.
The metaverse is filled with a “community of play” as users from across the globe can connect with brands and each other in new and exciting ways. Brands are taking community-building to the next level in the metaverse by creating meaningful immersive experiences and producing NFT collectibles for users to feel digitally connected. Read more examples of NFTs and community-building in the metaverse on our Marketing in the Metaverse blog.
What do all three of these communities (product, practice, and play) have in common? They are all individuals coming together over common interests, wants, and needs. You should be flattered if consumers are bonding over your product, but if community is a part of your strategy (which we hope it is), then it is essential you foster this community, nurture it, and tend to it as you would a garden or latest trendy succulent.
Questions to ask yourself are:
- What motivates your audience?
- Why are they gathering?
- Where are they gathering?
Once you are able to answer these questions, you are ready to find your community, interact and engage with them, and create a self-sustaining platform that keeps members from running to your competitors. Continue reading for a step-by-step guide on how to grow and foster your community-led growth strategy and start building bonds between consumers and your brand.
Step-by-Step Guide to Community-Led Growth
1. Finding your platform
The first step to building up a community around your brand is meeting your users where they are at. Where are the consumers of your brand gathering? Creating community forums is easier than ever before because of social media and the desire to connect digitally. Creating a dedicated Slack channel or Facebook Group that is invite-only is a popular low-lift way to start building your community. Twitter even rolled out their own Communities feature for users of similar interests to gather. Gaming communities communicate on platforms like Twitch and Discord, while other brands are hosting their communities on dedicated community platforms such as Tribe or building out their own in-house platforms like Salesforce’s Trailhead. Take a look at the community-led growth marketing stack below for ways you can start building your community.
2. Connecting with your audience
Once you’ve chosen where to host your community, now it’s time to start interacting with members. Building trust is essential to fostering a community — therefore, putting a face with a brand will help humanize your business. Whether that’s the CEO, Social Media Manager, or a dedicated Community Manager, it is imperative people have someone to connect to.
Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube all have Live capabilities where followers can tune in, participate in the comments, and ask questions throughout the Live. This was a popular way to connect during the pandemic as brands were able to host webinars and educational events as well as live shopping or product releases.
Encourage these community members to also subscribe to your brand-owned channels beyond social media. This includes newsletters, blogs, and podcasts.
3. Gathering data
Be a listener! Discuss topics your audience is interested in, whether that is insider tips and tricks, growth ideas or virality, or answering product-specific questions. What emerges from your community can be incredibly insightful. Learning their frustrations, what they need to be successful with your product, the conversations and content they are producing, the connections they are making — all of this can be used to fuel research to make your product or service even better. If you interact with your audience, they will trust you even more knowing that you are being an active participant in their community.
Ask your community what they need help with, what they want to see out of your next product update, or how you can improve your services. Your community is the most authentic and important focus group and can provide invaluable insights as users of your product or service.
Historically, user feedback only used to come from frustrated support calls, Google reviews, or post-purchase surveys. But by listening to your community, they will provide even more valuable data on the everyday attitude toward your business. New tools such as Common Room are making it easier to track community data through social listening across platforms including Discord, Discourse, Twitter, LinkedIn, Slack, and more to target top users, deepen relationships, and analyze the data and insights that come from these communities. The better pulse you have on your growing community, the stronger your learnings will be to support future product and brand decisions with your community’s needs and interests at the forefront.
4. Expanding your reach
Now it’s time to scale. You have a functioning platform and dedicated community members, so the next step is to authenticate your products by bringing in industry experts. Invite a guest on your podcast, go live with an expert on a niche topic, or invite a guest writer for your newsletter or blog. By partnering with other experts, you are not only providing your members with new opportunities but introducing your brand to your guests’ communities and followers, therefore expanding your reach. When outside experts show support for what you are doing, this creates even more buy-in for your community members and increases brand awareness among other industry experts and communities.
Bonus points if your guest returns the favor and invites you to guest host, write, or speak. Not only does this double your community reach but builds up your own rolodex of industry experts.
Building authentic relationships with community leaders can be a massive expansion lever to brands. Tapping into influencer marketing can help raise awareness and build brand credibility. Platforms such as TikTok Creator Marketplace help match brands with creators and influencers that align with their brand and sales goals.
5. To offline and beyond!
So you’ve mastered the online community; now it’s time to take things offline. Do this by hosting in-person events– or even better, sponsor events held by brand ambassadors. Lululemon stores around the country hold in-person and online yoga classes that consumers and yoga enthusiasts can take part in without having to buy product. Take your community to the next level with a brand summit inviting your industry expert pals and employees to educate and, by proxy, generate new leads while fostering your dedicated following. Hubspot does this through their annual conference called Inbound in which they establish themselves as leaders in the industry and bring their community together.
Offering online courses are also a great way to reach users at every stage of the funnel, keep users engaged and on your platform, and educate by using your own products as examples. LinkedIn generates even more revenue through a monthly subscription to their learning platform, LinkedIn Learning, in which users learn new skills and earn badges that make them stand out in job searches.
Below you will find a list of brands that are getting community-led growth right. From B2B to blockchain, these brands are already fostering thriving communities in-person and online.
Rethinking the funnel in Community-Led Growth Strategies
In a traditional marketing funnel strategy, leads are collected at the top and trickle down to the point of conversion. But in a community-led growth strategy, the funnel lives within a larger idea of an orbit model. Don’t get us wrong, we love the traditional marketing funnel, but it’s time to think of your brand community as an avenue that feeds generates qualified leads into your funnel with each orbit ring offering another level of loyalty and value.
A properly functioning community can self-sustain as it is able to retain existing members and pull in new ones who may or may not have purchased your product. But the good thing about acquiring new community members is that they are already highly qualified leads and much further down the funnel before they’ve even begun.
With the brand at the center of this community-driven orbit, the community-led growth approach is not about driving the consumer towards transactions, but rather naturally attracting users to its center and keeping them in its orbit.
Now that you are familiar with what community-led growth is and how to start building your brand community, it’s time to take a look at an example. The custom template platform Notion is a masterclass on how building a community can help inform the success and sustainability of your product.
Created for spreadsheet lovers, Notion relaunched in 2018 to the sound of 6,000 upvotes on Product Hunt. Now valued at $10 billion with over 20 million active global users, Notion’s corporate team has remained relatively small. So how did they do it? The answer lies within their thriving community.
First and foremost, Notion users LOVE Notion. In fact, Notion’s current Head of Community was once a Notion fanboy with a site that was getting over 80,000 hits per month. Notion’s CRO Olivia Nottebohm met the community where they were at – first finding fans on Twitter which then led her to Ben Lang’s site. Together the two built an army of brand ambassadors, or Notion Pros, that have helped the company expand globally through community events, YouTube tutorials, assisting in translating assets, and managing thriving social channels.
By encouraging user-to-user interactions, Notion has been able to better its product through community-created templates, product feedback, and has created a flywheel of trusted users and ambassadors to continue building their collaborative empire. The graph below shows examples of Notion’s community channels that serve as the catalyst to community and product growth.
The TL;DR of Community-Led Growth
Now, if we haven’t made a case strong enough for a community-led growth strategy plan, here is your short-list of why you should consider it for your brand:
- The community can provide customer support to each other. Who needs a customer care team when your users are helping each other out. An active FAQs forum on your website or even a Reddit page can encourage users to help each other out.
- The community offers instant product feedback. This may be the best focus group you could ask for. People on the internet don’t hold back and if they don’t like something about your product, they will let you know.
- Your community serves as brand ambassadors and social-proof. Members of the community are more likely to refer your brand to others, while the sense of belonging won’t drive them toward your competition.
- Your community provides networking opportunities for you and your community. Members are brought together by a shared interest (that is your product or niche). You may find they are adding each other on Instagram or collaborating on TikTok stitches or duets, while you are networking by bringing in guest experts.
- By fostering a community, you are driving content creation and UGC. One Instagram Live can be turned into a TikTok video, podcast episode, or shared to your YouTube channel. By interacting with your community, you are gaining access to not only the content you put out but the content your users share.
- Your community is already highly vetted leads. Don’t be afraid to upsell and cross-sell to your community. They are automatically further down the funnel due to their interest and loyalty to your brand.
Having a successful company takes more than a superior product or service, the best prices, or top-notch employees. Building a community around your brand is just as important to your go-to-market strategy and can work with your current product-led strategy.
But it’s not just about building your online community, the maintenance is just as important. Yes your brand community can be self-sustaining but if not nurtured or left unattended it can turn into something that harms your company, not supports it. Be patient with growing your community. These members will be some of your most loyal and highest LTV customers because they feel connected to your brand in ways your competitor cannot offer.
You cannot force a community, but you can assist in facilitating meaningful conversations, creating opportunities to learn and grow, providing a platform to ask questions, and the ability to connect with others. Your product may be the seed, but it’s the community that helps it grow.