In my last article I wrote about The Whole Product Concept which is a mindset shift for many product managers. When thinking about the Whole Product, one of my favorite augmented features of the product is your community. Some companies are really starting to get this value-add while for others it is a missed opportunity.
What is a Community?
As with any industry term, there are many people and organizations that leverage this term in their own way. It is important to recognize that communities need to provide some value to their members and, ideally, that value should increase as new members become engaged. This doesn’t mean it needs to be huge but it does need to be comprised of individual members that both contribute and derive personal value from it.
From a B2B standpoint, it is critical to recognize the human aspect of community. Members, while they may be part of separate organizations on paper, as part of the community they are individuals. They need to derive individual benefit from being engaged with others that have shared interests.
It is also important to recognize that by default your customers are not a community. Further, the audience that you communicate with via press releases, webinars, and social media are not automatically part of a community. While they may have some shared interests, individuals need to also participate in the community by engaging with others. The value of such a social organization begins to be fully realized only when community members are supporting and engaging with each other.
What are some types of Community?
There are a variety of types of communities that impact enterprise software companies. Some of these are internally managed, some from external customers, and some are not from customers at all.
- User Groups. The traditional vehicle for enterprise software companies to build out a community is around a product offering, a suite of related products, or their entire portfolio. Customers clearly have some shared interest in both the problem they are solving with your offering as well as the choice to work with you as a vendor. Sometimes, user groups are self-forming but sometimes it takes active community management to kick start.
- Partnership Networks/Groups. You can’t be the center of every community but you can take part in those you don’t directly control to derive value for your customers. As cloud services and APIs thrive, many vendors that maintain platforms and APIs have communities of partners and customers that collaborate.
- Industry Groups. Within your industry there are often one or multiple groups that bring together diverse stakeholders that comprise an area of interest. For example we can find several industry groups around Bitcoin, Machine Learning, or FinTech. It is possible as an industry leader to sponsor and support such groups, but otherwise it is important to participate in these. As a vendor you can learn and influence the direction of the future industry.
- Professional Communities. Almost every professional role within your organization has professional development opportunities and related community organizations. When your Product Team is continuing to learn new and evolving best practices from industry peers they are going to build better products for your customers and challenge your organization to be better.
- Open Source & Tech Stack Communities. As open source technology has become foundational to many products, it is very healthy to take a proactive interest in the technologies that you and your customers rely on. While your company may or may not directly sponsor such communities it is critical that you become involved to take the maximum advantage of your investments.
- Your Local Community. Giving back to your local community is both a good thing to do and it represents a type of added value to your employees and customers. Some companies get deeply involved in community food pantries, working with schools, partnering with local government to improve the quality of life.
These are just some of the types of communities that exist that your organization can play a part in. Of course, individuals may already engage in many organizations unrelated to what the business officially sponsors but thinking through community engagement holistically can create far greater leverage.
How are Communities Managed?
To fulfill the promise of a fully realized community there must be some ongoing engagement. This means hosting a user group event once a year to tell customers about your plans is not sufficient. So what are some of the tools and techniques that community managers use to foster growth and activity?
One of the most popular ways to engage with members today is through messaging and conversation platforms. There are several specialty platforms and some generic tools that are popular for this purpose. Slack is a hot generic tool, but organizations have been using forum software integrated into their website or support desk for years. Further, specialty tools like Upstream and Mighty Networks are helping communities be more focused in their efforts.
Events are another very popular way to engage and build community. These may be virtual events or in person. Popular virtual events include Ask Me Anything, Online Workshops, and Hackathons. Sometimes these happen over Zoom or specialty tools like Chainlinq. Live events arranged with tools like Meetup, or through your own mailing lists, are also incredible ways for members to learn and grow together.
What is important here is that your organization should be continuously evaluating ways to engage with your community and those other communities that you support. Many organizations now have full time Community Managers on their teams that work to define their communities, measure and track benefits, and find ways to continuously increase their direct and indirect value.
Importantly, while many communities do leverage tools like Facebook, LinkedIn, and other forms of social media they are not the best choice to build around. These do not often create the bi-directional exchange of value and participation that alternative tools do. So while these should be part of any marketers toolkit for communicating to the market, you should not anchor around such tools.
What are some benefits of developing a community?
So I have described what communities are, provided several example types, and explained how they are managed. I still haven’t explained why you would want to commit your scarce time and energy into building a community. Here are some of the major benefits to you and the members:
- Optimize Results for your Customers. Communities provide lots of opportunities to share best (and better practices) in around the use and value of your product offerings.
- Build a Better Product. Having an engaged community offers lots of opportunities for market research, testing ideas, and generally advancing the real value proposition of your offering.
- Cross-Sell/Up-Sell. Exposes members to how others are benefiting from your other solutions.
- Create Evangelist. Discover evangelists you can use are references and get quotes from.
- Self-Supporting Members. Reduce the burden on your support team while giving better answers to your customers from members that have dealt with the same situation. We are all in this together, let’s figure it out.
- Members take you with them when changing jobs. Building relationships with individuals in the community creates an opportunity for members to introduce your offering into their new employer.
- Managing the Growing Ecosystem of Community Tools – Commsor is a community solution that works to tie together everything about the members of your community so you can leverage this in a community centric organization. A part of this is tying together all the community and non-community oriented tools. Hence they put together a great blog post on the current landscape for these tools. Their post inspired this article.
- The Community Club – “the community for community builders” is a great and active resource for hear from peers in a wide variety of organizations. They have an extensive listing of community oriented tools: here.
- The Community RoundTable – The professional organization for community managers and sponsors to hone their craft with training, professional resources, and insightful research.