As a marketer, you may already be familiar with product-led growth, sales-led growth, content-led growth and even founder-led growth. What’s not talked about enough, though, is another strategy that can be a powerful addition to any of the growth efforts listed above. I might even go as far as to claim that this emerging approach to growth is essential for a company to unlock long-term, sustainable success.
Enter: community-led growth.
In recent years we have seen a major shift in the marketing landscape in which users value natural storytelling, authentic content, and demand accountability from brands — and this particular shift has come to replace the traditional ad-based acquisition strategies. Fast-growing startups and new brands entering competitive spaces have found success pivoting away from aggressive and transactional tactics and instead doubling down on creating value through 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.
What is Community-Led Growth?
Community-led growth places value beyond the product or service and focuses on building consumer relationships, brand loyalty, trust, and advocacy. By providing opportunities to deepen consumer and brand interactions, providing educational resources, facilitating Q&As through real-time support and feedback, and producing authentic content that is aligned with the brand’s 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 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.
The rise in importance that community-first thinking is experiencing at this time is no surprise — there are a number of factors that have almost made this shift inevitable.
There has been a shift away from aggressive acquisition advertising towards value-based marketing.
As “growth hacking” becomes an obsolete term and brands realize that sustainable, long-term growth is a better approach than explosive, quick growth tactics, this shift becomes extremely apparent. A successful growth strategy today looks fundamentally different from a few years ago — and it’s especially apparent with the rise of the likes of TikTok, extreme repulsion consumers have developed towards promotional content, and the increased demand for quality storytelling and content that provides true value.
Ads are not the number one choice for growth anymore; there needs to be a better approach around the content that goes into the advertising strategy, the storytelling behind it, and a fairer exchange between the audience and the brand to help drive the consumer’s final decision.
Community-led growth satisfies that by fostering deeper connections between brands and users that are not simply transactional; the strategy puts the consumer at the center of the brand’s efforts, bringing them along for the entire growth journey; and it puts emphasis on delivering value through content that strives to educate or entertain first, sell second.
Consumers choose brands that they connect with on a value level.
Building on the massive shift in how we perceive advertising efforts today, it’s important to note the evolution in the consumers’ level of education and expectations when it comes to the brands of their choice and the platforms they engage with brands through.
To put this in numbers, studies have shown that 82% of shoppers choose brands with values that closely align with their own — and this alignment is make-it-or-break-it when it comes to their final decision to convert and even remain loyal.
This puts additional pressure on brands to weave community-driven thinking into more than just a marketing strategy; it needs to seep through product growth, consumer insights, feature design, and across every touchpoint that users interact with digitally and in-person.
The downfall of third-party data has put extra pressure on brands to learn more about their ideal customers.
iOS 14+ updates, the App Tracking Privacy (ATT) updates, the cookieless future — these aren’t just gossip or myths anymore. We have officially moved from having conversations about these looming advertising roadblocks towards developing strategies to adapt and evolve.
This completely shifts how brands typically approach their marketing mix and growth strategy, since putting all the eggs in a single basket (the basket being Google and Meta) is not a one-size-fits-all strategy anymore. Instead, brands look to diversify their channel mix and strategically choose where to build their presence; they think who they can reach on these new channels; they prioritize zero- and first-party data collection to build their own repositories of user information now that there are significant limitations to how data can be acquired. And with all that said, the source of zero- and first-party data is the consumer directly — meaning that capturing their attention, showing respect for the data they share, as well as making it an equitable exchange is the new challenge.
Community-led growth solves this by providing a user or consumer base of advocates who are naturally further down the funnel; have bought into the brand’s positioning and values; feels like a participant in the brand’s growth; and willingly shares data and feedback to help the brand scale.
Building brand loyalty and long-term consumer relationships have become the true North Star (especially in an economic downturn).
Differentiation is the biggest challenge in any space that’s relatively crowded — and so is retaining consumers when they have the ability to choose a more convenient alternative.
This reality becomes direr in times of a recession or an economic downturn when consumers are more frugal with where they choose to spend their dime and what they deem worthy of investment. In this climate, consumers who are concerned or strongly impacted by the downturn can be “flighty” — meaning that despite their loyalties, they are likely to gravitate towards what looks like a better deal or “win” to them.
According to the Harvard Business Review, bolstering trust is a key tactic in an economic environment like this — which is what a community-first approach ensures at its core.
Rethinking the Traditional Funnel
We have already established that community-led growth works in a self-sustaining loop — which, of course, is very different from the traditional marketing funnel the industry has used for years.
There are a few ways that community-led growth complements the traditional funnel and takes the idea of scaling a brand to a new level.
The first mode of rethinking the marketing funnel is known as the orbit model. Essentially, the orbit model enhances the funnel by creating a gravitational pull around it — and your brand becomes the center of gravity for this process.
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.
The second way to visualize how the community growth loop marries the marketing funnel is showing how it 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. It also fuels the rest of the funnel stages by ensuring better qualified leads, higher retention and repeat customer rates, a better ROI driven by customer loyalty and advocacy.
Community serves as a complement to the marketing performance funnel, not as a replacement. Though the 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.
Public vs. Private Brand Communities
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. These are meant to provide a platform for a community to come together and establish a network internally — rather than simply have a brand-to-consumer communication pool. Typically, these communities require additional resourcing for community management and moderation and can be considered powerful “focus groups” for a brand; additionally, these communities allow for member-to-member relationships (think: Slack workspaces, Facebook groups, etc.).
As a driver of community-led growth, however, your content strategy can be the cornerstone of community-building as well. Public content channels are free and open to the public for consumption and interaction. This includes social media accounts, open FAQ pages, blogs, newsletters and educational resources. Understanding the exact channel mix, prioritization framework, and brand tone and voice are essential to building public communities across a variety of outlets. With the major shifts towards value-based marketing discussed earlier in this piece, developing a content strategy that educates, entertains, and helps your ideal consumer is another way to build a community at the top of the funnel and fuel brand growth..
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.
As a starting point, your audience and community should ideally be similar. 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 — which is a broader and more encompassing term — goes beyond a simple audience but should still be built on the brand’s ideal personas to begin with. This is especially true for the community strategy with content as its primary driver, making sure that the follower base or readership you build ties directly back to your brand pillars and ideal personas with the likelihood to convert at any point.
With that said, the community even from a content strategy perspective goes beyond lead generation. For example, a community can help a brand generate hires as much as conversions; communities also include any partnerships or relationships that allow brands to collaborate with other brands or thought leaders in a space to tap into each other’s dedicated advocates.
In other words, community needs to be built on an audience and key personas — but its network effect goes beyond a performance-based brand-to-consumer relationship typical to brands vs. audiences.
When you think about the gated communities, the idea of a “community” compared to the audience takes an even more elaborate meaning. Gated communities at their core are made up of member-to-member interactions and left to the actual members to self-sustain. If you create a place for your community to engage with one another, they will come as their authentic, natural selves. The community space is meant to primarily address the needs of its members first, and convert second. 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.
Three types of community
Up to this point, we have laid the groundwork of what community-led growth is, the importance of incorporating community-first thinking in your growth strategy, and why community-building has emerged as a strong growth lever.. 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 when you are planning out your content strategy or gated community.
Community driven by product:
This type of community approach puts the product at the center of any discussion. Think of it as a space where members share product tips, tricks, report bugs, or submit queries to the support team; or a content strategy that centers around how-to content, tips and tricks for product use, future feature announcements and product updates. The users that belong to such public or gated communities seek to connect 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 or Notion’s TikTok account.
Community driven by practice:
Instead of rallying around a specific product, this community approach centers around a common interest or goal of learning in a specific field. This category encompasses educational resources within a given niche, where learning the ins and outs of a specific industry or practice, as well as supporting users in reaching professional and personal goals, is the core of the community’s efforts.
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 driven play:
Unlike product- or practice-driven communities, communities driven by play engage fans of gaming, athletics, the arts, and more — in other words, personal interests and hobbies that users may have. This community approach is meant to facilitate fans to place sporting bets, find others to play Dungeons and Dragons or discover hacks to level up in Fortnite. Similar to the community driven by practice, communities driven by play look seek to bond with the brand or fellow users 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 community approaches (product, practice, and play) have in common? They all allow for a connection with individuals coming together over common interests, wants, and needs. They are by no means mutually exclusive — for example, if you are growing a SaaS startup, you may support your audience in both getting to know the product better and in how they can hit their personal or professional goals while using it.
Questions to ask yourself are:
- What motivates your ideal personas?
- 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. Find your platform
The first step to applying community thinking to your brand’s growth is meeting your users where they are and defining your key channels.
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.
For a content-driven community strategy, look no further than a strong social media presence, a blog or a newsletter as a powerful starting point. The underlying logic is understanding what type of content your ideal personas prefer to consume and what format you can deliver value and meet their needs in.
If you are thinking about creating a private community, 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 — public or private.
2. Connect with your audience
Once you’ve chosen where to host your community, now it’s time to start connecting with your customers. As part of this step, the goal is to translate your brand identity into a strategy that will cater to your customers’ most pressing needs. It can come in the shape of a TikTok content strategy with clear content pillars and videos that educate and entertain; or a weekly newsletter that your subscribers will look forward to; or even a monthly virtual meetup for the members of your private Slack community to invite speakers to.
Building trust is essential to fostering a community — therefore, humanizing the brand is key in gaining that trust as well. A frequently used tactic is putting a face with a brand will help humanize your business. Whether that’s the CEO/founder, Social Media Manager, or a dedicated Community Manager (or showcasing company culture through UGC videos even), 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 subscribe to your other channels beyond the one they connect with you through to unlock faster growth by highlighting the additional value they can get from other touchpoints. All public and private communities are meant to be transferable — and all channels are meant to continuously deliver value and be complementary. This includes newsletters, blogs, and podcasts where they can continue deepening their relationship with your brand.
3. Gather data
Public or private, your communities need to participate in conversations that go both ways. It’s a common misconception that communication flows top-down and brand-to-consumer, but the essence of community-led growth is to create a feedback loop that is self-sustainable and fuels your brand’s success.
Be a listener across public or private communities. Keep an eye on the comment section; encourage readers to respond to your newsletters with feedback; create discussion forums; ask your community for podcast episode ideas. 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, 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. Expand your reach
Now it’s time to scale. And by scale, we mean: think big.
You have a functioning platform or content strategy and dedicated community members, so the next step is to foster new relationships, collaborations and partnerships with thought leaders and experts within your niche. 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.
This is also a great time to cross-promote your multiple channels and connect the dots between your multiple communities if it applies.
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.
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.
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:
- Community-led growth supercharges your traditional performance funnel. It works in tandem with the funnel by injecting more sustainability into it through its natural loop mechanism, as well as a gravity pull that attracts new members while retaining existing ones.
- 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.
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.