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Everyone’s familiar with the concept of a go-to-market (GTM) plan, but in the world of bottom-up adoption and product-led growth, a go-to-community (GTC) plan is equally as important.
As the name suggests, go-to-community is the process of operationalizing and optimizing your community-building efforts to align them with business outcomes. Growing a healthy community can create leveraged impact across a business, but doing it right requires time and deliberate effort. And, as with any business function, it’s essential that those investments produce well-understood results. GTC ensures that community-driven programs are a strategic priority and that they, like GTM programs, map back to business goals.
So, does GTC work? The proof is in the profit: 2021 was a major year for tech-led IPOs and many of the companies who’ve succeeded – including Roblox, Duolingo, Walkme, UIPath, GitLab, and HashiCorp – have managed to leverage community as a strategic driver of growth and revenue. There’s no denying that investing in community is a boon to business.
Community-led strategies augment traditional GTM activities. The goal of most GTM campaigns is value capture, which typically involves guiding prospects through a funnel of activities until you arrive at a list of qualified leads, which ideally turn into sales.
Community, though, considers the entire audience around a product – even those who may not qualify as a qualified lead in the short term. And rather than capturing value from these people, GTC seeks to create value with and for them. Rather than discarding them to email drip campaign limbo, as you would in a funnel-driven GTM process, GTC embraces the idea that these folks are still valuable, both to the community and to the business. For example:
There’s value in a person beyond their job title, company size, and where they are in the marketing funnel.
Both value creation and value capture have their role to play in growing organizations but, critically, they must be aligned. When aligned, there’s a clear relationship between GTC and GTM, with community members transitioning to leads when the time is right. Until then, they’re gaining value from, and hopefully contributing value to, the community.
On the other hand, when community efforts aren’t aligned with the business strategy, the value created in the community has no impact on business growth. If you’re creating value without capturing any for your organization, then it’s an expensive, unsustainable exercise that’s unrelated to your business goals. Exclusively capturing value via GTM campaigns ignores all those who might engage with your brand in different ways. Misalignment is often the result of unclear goals for GTC and GTM teams, which leads to a mismatch between activities and their expected impacts.
Not unlike the first stages of product development, the early phases of building community are highly collaborative, require iteration, and involve some upfront, hands-on work. With community, you have to prepare to be in the trenches with folks – learning about people and their interests, answering questions, and seeing where there’s a fit between your goals and the people you’re attracting to your community. This is a process we call community discovery.
Once you’ve identified some kind of product-community fit, you can start to construct your GTC strategy to solve for those needs. Your community will facilitate learning and connection between members, educating and inspiring them along the way. Ideally, this value creation drives community growth and, as we’ll see below, value capture for the business will occur as a second-order effect of that growth.
A good way to ensure the effectiveness of community programs is to map value-creation activities to your business goals. Below, we’ll look at how different community activities can support business outcomes across these areas:
Awareness is how people come to know about your product or service. Ads are a common way to drive awareness, but the advent of brand fatigue illustrates that too many ads can actually result in indifference toward a brand. Rather, people are more prone to trust other users of a product over the company’s own marketing.
They want to try before they buy; read reviews and guides created by other users; and get advice from others on how to avoid pitfalls while getting the most out of the product. That information can come from anybody, as long as they have something valuable to say. In a GTC context, a company’s community should drive positive word of mouth (online or in-person) or create popular content that drives awareness.
The idea here is to provide a way for like-minded folks to gather either around your product specifically or around a professional area, which might be independent of the product itself. However, that professional development should then tie back to the company’s goals. This complements awareness and top-of-funnel activities perfectly, because at this stage there are lots of people talking about your company and, in so doing, pulling their own communities into your orbit.
Cloud provider DigitalOcean understands this well. Faced with competition from giants like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon, it turned to community as a differentiator. By nurturing a community of people around educational developer content like tutorials, talks, and events, DigitalOcean created an extensive content platform that attracts millions of people each month. It has now created more than 6,000 tutorials and is home to a forum containing 30,000 community-generated questions and answers.
Its acquisitions of two major independent educational resources, Scotch.io and CSS Tricks, have only accelerated DigitalOcean’s awareness strategy. The community-generated content is valuable to new and potential users, and the effective SEO strategy is a happy side effect for the business. People interested in furthering their development skills get pulled in by the educational materials, but stick around as the wider community provides a place they can ask questions, hone their skills, and even showcase their own knowledge should they be interested in contributing.
Other examples include Netlify’s Jamstack community; Salesforce’s Trailblazer community; and Amplitude’s practitioner community.
It’s important to be absolutely clear about your goal or intention, and highly specific about your terminology. Everyone on the team should know explicitly what you mean by “acquisition.” Here I’m referring to sign-ups. To drive acquisition through community, you need to bring advocates together, and use your platform to showcase or amplify their outputs.
We’ve seen from popular products, like Slack and Notion, how positive word-of-mouth and product love drives even more active usage. That’s because both products have power users who are excited about exploring the product and discovering new and interesting ways to use it.
A community provides a place for these users to share their insights and fascination with others, often leading to more sign-ups and active users. Notion members started using platforms like TikTok to create videos showing off their Notion setups, and have racked up millions of views that almost certainly resulted in large numbers of signups.
Support forums can also be instrumental for helping users get their product questions answered, so they can get up to speed and discover value sooner. With community members volunteering knowledge and answers, there’s less overhead on the company. Forums also generate content that’s potentially discoverable online, further boosting your product’s signal. Some good examples are Atlassian’s 4-million-member-strong community forum and Fitbit’s product community.
You can also encourage participation by amplifying your community members’ signals. When someone shares an observation or tip, follow up on that with a tweet thread mentioning them and what you’ve learned from them, or include that content in your newsletter (with their permission). When you regularly share content created by community members with your audience, other members are more likely to begin contributing their ideas too. That’s the positive value-creation cycle you want your communities to generate.
Acquisition is just the first hurdle – ideally, you want people to evolve and deepen their product usage over time. That’s where activation comes in. Activation is about the community providing answers, resources, and encouragement to keep other users moving ahead and continuing to engage with the product.
Companies like Codepen and Adobe/Behance run regular creative challenges that incentivize people to use their products and share their results. Notion’s Template Gallery and Airtable’s Universe are extensive user-generated template libraries that provide new users with jumping-off points for using the companies’ products. They also help users easily adapt the product for specific purposes. Planning your wedding, tracking all the flavors of tea that you’ve tried, launching a new product – there are templates that you can start using in just a few clicks, nearly all of which have been created by community members. There’s a similar motivation behind Unity’s asset store and Heroku’s 1-click deploy buttons, which enable new users to build upon the creations of other community members and make it easier for them to get started with using your product.
Getting to this stage is a matter of walking before you run. Start out in a lightweight way by highlighting member-driven projects in a regular newsletter or blog roundup, then scale up. Glitch does this well by curating member-created apps in a monthly digest that inspires people to remix them and make them their own. Taken further, Figma’s Community productizes this idea, building a community showcase into their core product.
SaaS success is predicated on long-term user retention, and a vibrant community can help ensure users receive long-term value. Users who’ve gotten to the point of retention are some of your company’s best spokespeople. These folks likely have a deeper sense of connection to the product and may even have some novel ideas on how to better apply its features and functionality to their role or industry. Hopefully, they’re helping others do the same.
Customer success communities are particularly effective here. These are communities filled with product champions who are willing and eager to connect with each other and share best practices. Airtable’s Community Forum is an especially good example. This forum gives folks a place to dive deeper into questions about advanced product capabilities, like how to run automation scripts. On top of that, community members share a sense of pride in showing off their custom-built Airtable creations.
These product experts help other users, both novice and advanced, overcome product challenges and unlock new and interesting use cases, contributing to retention as well as activation. The work here is to provide users with a space to connect and trade knowledge, along with the tools and resources they need to show off their work.
Other noteworthy examples, which straddle the line between the digital and physical worlds, are meetups and user groups like AirBnB’s host meetups or HashiCorp’s User Groups (HUGs). These are user-run events, with the organizing company supporting them with things like content, speakers, swag, and sometimes funding for food and drinks. In doing so, they enable members to meet up in person and share best practices and build relationships beyond their digital platforms, while achieving a scale an internal community team couldn’t manage themselves. HUGs, for example, reach almost 40,000 people, with 149 groups in 53 countries.
Your most prolific users are likely the best source of product feedback. They want your product to work better for them and in turn, they’re willing to help shape its future. This is an opportunity to get high-quality feedback and ideation from the people that know and love your product most.
HashiCorp does this well. They’ve built what they call “practitioner-friendly” software by continuously incorporating feedback and contributions from their community into their software development efforts. This is an intentional strategy, aimed at harnessing the enormous amount of insightful feedback they receive across GitHub Issues or on HashiCorp’s forums.
Doing this at scale isn’t without it challenges. For this to be effective, you need to be able to see beyond individual ideas and look at things like trends and common sticking points.
Communities can impact product in other ways beyond raising issues or suggesting features, too. Managing an active open source community is a great way to have users directly contribute to product growth. To this end, HashiCorp has benefited from the creation of community-created plugins that play a critical role in amplifying the reach, accessibility, and success of their products for all their customers. Similarly, core parts of GitLab’s products have been contributed to directly by community members. The result of this kind of community-driven product development is that the company has accelerated its ability to innovate and provide a better platform.
These contributions are made voluntarily in exchange for things like prestige in the community or maybe a perk, but often just because they want the product to work better and want the vendor to succeed.
Referral encompasses all of these previous activities and is one of the primary currencies of communities. It’s a deeper level of advocacy in which members are so bought into your community and product that they’re willing to put their own reputation on the line and refer it to others. This happens following positive experiences with a product, but even more so if people have had positive experiences with a product’s community and carefully crafted community experiences. It’s a core driver of word of mouth for your product, something you can’t easily influence using traditional sales and marketing methods, but is a natural by-product of creating value for your community members.
This level of advocacy doesn’t come easily. Again, you have to earn it, but it is something you can deliberately foster and direct. Twilio does an incredible job with its champions program. In the retail world, Lululemon’s inventive Global Ambassador program ensures that people on the ground in communities around the world are talking about their products. In both of these cases, community members are referring their colleagues, friends, and online audience to your product as a result of their love for it and your brand.
Community building can positively impact business growth in a number of ways, across any number of different efforts and programs. But managing a community requires real, sustained investment and alignment with your GTM activities.
That starts with a go-to-community plan that sets community up as a strategic priority, just like go-to-market. By committing to a team, budget, and tooling that will help make community a first-class competency, you’ll create value for your users. This should lead to people learning new things, meeting new people, and discovering new opportunities within the community and the product itself. If you’ve set your targets high enough and create a compelling value-creation machine, revenue will follow.
Patrick Woods is the CEO of Orbit.
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