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 which 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 we have seen a major shift in the marketing landscape in which users value natural storytelling and authentic content replacing the idea of traditional ad-based acquisition strategies. Fast-growing startups and new brands entering competitive spaces have found success pivoting away from product-led growth and instead doubling down on creating value through authentic content via community-led growth.
The idea of community is a tale as old as time. Humans innately have the need for connection and want to be a part of something. As younger generations become active consumers, their values and expectations from the brands they choose to interact with have also matured. Just having a good product isn’t enough anymore. Rather, today’s consumer places emphasis on the authenticity of a brand, the values they stand for, and what they can gain beyond their purchase. A brand that is focused on community-led growth can build an atmosphere that fosters these intentions where you are not only focusing on the acquisition of new community members but building a retention flywheel by turning them into loyal customers and brand advocates.
With an endless amount of product options today’s users face, let alone an oversaturation of social advertising, it’s the promise of authenticity, connection, and a strong brand 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 and focus on building consumer relationships, brand loyalty, trust, and advocacy. By providing opportunities to deepen consumer and brand interactions, providing educational resources, facilitating Q&A through real-time support and feedback, and producing authentic content that is aligned with your community values, businesses can build successful brand communities that fulfill acquisition and retention goals at every stage of the marketing funnel. Community-led growth works in tandem with a product-led or sales-led growth strategy and leverages its brand community while tying back to brand objectives and goals.
Building a brand community has historically been overlooked and underutilized, viewed as a “nice to have” rather than a legitimate growth strategy. Fostering your brand community is something that should not be put by the wayside but rather developed from the earliest stages of launch. Instead of replacing traditional growth strategies such as product-led or sales-led growth, community-led is an additional GTM strategy that works within your current 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 self-sustaining flywheel of community-led growth. This growth flywheel is built on brand equity and advocacy that generates growth with little to no additional cost or resourcing.
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 into play and can work in 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 (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. Every brand community needs to be defined individually and centered around not only the brand and audience, but the shared values between the two. 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 brings 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 serves as the catalyst to building trust, receiving feedback, and improving your product whether that is through your content marketing, providing virtual spaces for users to aggregate, or physical live events. These community-building efforts not only introduce new members to your community, but warm leads, build trust, and give space to retention for long-term relationships and loyalty.
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 in your immediate area. 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, #BookTok to discover new reads, or a subreddit you follow for all the latest meme stocks.
Each of these online communities serves as an invaluable resource for those who follow it. These communities each have their own set of rules and guidelines, posting etiquette, and often their own social hierarchy within the group. These groups may or may not be monitored by brand representatives but are able to operate and self-sustain as community-led groups.
The difference between public and owned brand community channels
Not all community channels are created equal. In fact, not all communities are even brand-owned. Here we have two distinct categories of Branded Channels and Unbranded Channels and within each of those categories exist Gated Channels and Public Content Channels.
Gated channels are closed/private communities that require access to join. This could be via application, credentials, paywall subscription, certification, or simply requesting to join. Public content channels are free and open to the public for consumption and interaction. This includes social media accounts, open FAQ pages, and educational resources. These types of channels can be brand owned and operated or unbranded, therefore, established for the community by the community (ie not employee-run). Whether a community channel is branded or unbranded, each plays an important role in developing a successful brand community and culture around your industry or product.
Both types of communities consist 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 ideally consumers further down the funnel) and you want them to be loyal to you and not go to your competitors. By building a community, you are engaging with them, sharing knowledge, and building trust which can return tenfold in brand equity and retention.
The difference between audience and community
A brand audience and community are the same right? The answer is not so simple and the two are often used interchangeably.
On the surface, your audience and community would ideally be similar. But as we dive deeper, the two terms are used by two different strategies. In a performance or growth strategy, a brand’s audience is built upon your buyer personas supported by in-depth research and data. The 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 and left to the actual members to self-sustain. The business may or may not help facilitate these interactions depending on the type of channel. 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 the members there to ask questions, learn new information, or share ideas? The forum in which you host your community should reflect this sentiment.
In turn, a brand can successfully leverage its public communities to create gated ones. Public communities across social media channels can be used as top-of-funnel acquisition and brand awareness. Once this community grows, you can further develop your community and encourage them down the funnel through the creation of private channels, community perks, product feedback, and advocacy.
A more developed and defined community can then inform your target audience based on feedback and demographics. We may think we understand who our target audience is but the community can often further inform this definition and unlock crucial zero-party data.
Who is responsible for community?
Traditionally, fostering a brand’s community has not been a priority for many brands and marketers. The importance of nurturing a brand’s community is often overlooked as a priority as metrics can be tricky to track, there can be a lack of funding or company support, and/or a lack of understanding of community-led growth strategies. This outdated concept of building a brand community not being a legitimate growth strategy is quickly changing as many early startups and well-established brands are reaping the benefits of thriving communities.
As seen by the growing call for community managers on job sites such as LinkedIn and Indeed, it is clear companies are shifting their mindsets toward community-led growth. 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 building a brand 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 the sales team or customer care. The community manager isn’t there to push sales, but to 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.
But we are also missing a crucial element of community responsibility and that lies with your employees. Your community starts internally and expands from the passion and enthusiasm of those who support the company day in and day out. This is often seen on LinkedIn specifically with B2B and SaaS organizations. LinkedIn favors posts from individuals over company accounts to further instill trust and authenticity, and rightfully so. Would you rather hear what a blanketed company account has to say, or hear directly from the CMO, head of community, or CEO? This personalizes the content and proves that those that work at the organization believe and support the mission enough to put their own name behind it.
Three types of community
Up to this point, we have laid the groundwork of what community-led growth is, the importance of building brand communities, and who is responsible for driving community. But before diving into the how of building a community-led growth strategy (which we know you are all waiting for), 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, submitting product ideas, or using 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 its 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.
Similar to defining your tech stack, your community stack is equally important. The key here is to diversify your platforms to reach every type of consumer in your community. Communities can be led by content, take place virtually, or be in-person experiences. There are many ways to create content and drive community growth whether it is done in-house or led by your community members. Start with one platform (TikTok, newsletter, FAQs etc.) and add more channels without spreading your resources too thin. This will essentially allow you to move your community between platforms as your audience grows and gives you the ability to deepen relationships within your community creating strong brand loyalty.
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 where they can continue deepening their relationship with your brand.
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, sponsoring 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 products. 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.
Bridging the gap from virtual perks to in-person events has grown popular in the crypto and NFT spaces. Though NFTs and crypto hold digital value, these communities also participate in in-person events through NFT conferences and meetups. Popular NFT Collection Doodles created an experimental activation at SXSW where attendees were able to step into the colorful world of Doodles through pastel-inspired drinks, interact with their Doodle through large screens, and even purchase custom merch.
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.
Community-led growth isn’t just for DTC brands. From B2B to blockchain, brands are already fostering thriving communities in-person and online focused on brand awareness, educational content, value-based marketing as well as cultural stances and point of view.
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. Community-led growth loops also create warm audiences and leads that are more likely to go through each funnel stage, convert, be retained, and advocate on your brand’s behalf. The benefit of 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.
Community-led growth ensures that your funnel is consistently filled at the top and that brand awareness is constantly in motion without you necessarily investing extra resources into it. Community serves as a complement to the marketing performance funnel, not as a replacement. Though community works in every part of the funnel, it begins as a powerful and sustainable top-of-funnel driver ensuring a more frictionless full-funnel journey.
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 for community and product growth.
Why Community-led Growth?
This is not an out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new concept. Community-led growth works with product-led growth – not against it. And though the playbook for community-led growth may not be as clear as the data supporting paid strategies, there is strategic importance in building a brand community.
- As we enter a recession, battle a heightened post-pandemic culture, the move from brick and mortar to digitally driven eCommerce, and the changing landscape of social media as we know it, brands must now focus on long-term relationships & loyalty. Acquisition efforts give space to retention strategies and the economic downturn is fueling brands’ efforts to foster loyalty and retain consumers. Instead of mass communication and outreach efforts, personalization has become increasingly valued among consumers. In this way, community-led growth strategies are taking precedence over fast bandaid acquisition strategies.
- Consumers demand authenticity and transparency from brands. Trust is what drives consumers to choose a specific brand to purchase from. The curated, Instagram-worthy, and unrealistically aspirational aesthetic is over and with the entrance of TikTok, raw, honest, and value-based and transparent content is king. Users want a brand they can connect with that aligns with their values. Behind-the-scenes content that brings people in on the brand’s story, choices, and identity will ring true with today’s consumers and communities.
- iOS tracking updates and increased tracking privacy has hindered 3rd party data collection and acquisition. Google and Meta platforms are not delivering the same data tracking accuracy as they were pre-iOS14. Because of this, brands can no longer rely on paid strategies based on data collection to reach their target audiences. A more equitable data collection process (0 and 1st party) is necessary for brands to keep users engaged (and can cost a whole lot less). Diversifying channels is necessary to capture a larger audience, collect more diverse data, and introduce more brand touchpoints.
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.