October 10, 2020

Building communities around products

topics: articles, product
Rosie Sherry
A guest post by Erin Mikail Staples

☁️ This is our first guest post for Rosieland! It’s by Erin Mikail Staples. ☁️

Increasingly, communities are the larger parts of the marketing ecosystem, becoming one of the trending topics as of late. But when did communities only become communities for a brand's sake, and not just getting people together to bond? Can brand-driven or product-driven communities be a way to drive success? Or are they doomed inauthentic from the start? What should community builders keep in mind when building a brand community?

Today we'll be diving in and understanding the rise of product-led communities, the pros and cons behind them, and what they mean for the larger ecosystem of community builders.

What is a product-led community?

A product-led community is created on behalf of a company or organization, with a goal of marketing or promoting their product. There is some inherent benefit for the company or organization to create by investing resources into a community. The community is most likely to be moderated by a professional community manager, and members of the team are typically largely involved within the community. 

While product-led communities aren’t inherently bad things, there are definitely some things to keep in mind as you (or your brand) builds a community.  Not all product-led communities are the same and  they break down under a few different types

Types of product-led communities:

There are three main types of product-led communities – each operating a little bit differently.  Through setting your intentions of your community (which goes for any type of community) you’re building, you can start to plan out more of what is and isn’t involved.

In support of a company: Most commonly seen in SaaS platforms, communities can be built in support of a company. It works in a twofold approach: users of the product can connect with one another and see real-life use cases, while the product’s team benefits from having a direct line of access with their users and can identify trends, offer support, or build new use cases. 

Examples of brands building company-supportive communities: Sprout Social, Gusto

Developer Community/Developer Relations: One of the newer product-led communities we’ve started to see pop up in the last few years is the concept of developer communities or developer relationship roles (DevRel). DevRel communities build a network of seasoned developers to empower, mentor, and get feedback from new developers. Often the unsung heroes of the many tools we use on the internet, developer communities exist to advocate for the needs of developers. These can be internal-facing or external-facing, depending on the nature of the beast.  

Examples of developer relation communities: DevRel Collective, Dev.to

Community as the product: Previously written about in Rosie Sherry’s paid newsletter, Rosieland, we can also have communities as the product at the end of the day, as we see with many paid communities. People will pay for events, see ads, or have content behind a paywall, in order to have access to connect with other community members on the internet. These types of communities rely on strong community managers or leaders to keep it functional.

Examples of brands that are building community as the product: Product Hunt, Indie Hackers, Dribbble

Ambassador Communities: Ambassador communities often stem from a community built with support from another company. They’re often filled with top users, experts, and people genuinely passionate about the brand. While not formally started by the company, these communities often receive early invites, additional perks, and goods for their work representing the brand. These communities often stem from early beta testing communities and can play a significant role in product development as well. 

Examples of brands that are building strong ambassador communities: Discord’s HypeSquad, Notion Pros, Figma Design Advocates

Pros of product-led communities 

These communities often contribute to the development of the actual product (especially if the product is a community) and can help users feel connected to your product, in turn having a marketing benefit. These pros have quickly led to an increase in more people being interested in community building than before.

  1. Product-Led communities can create a culture of a supporting community, building a strong network effect. 
  2. Product-led communities can help provide better customer experience and offer customer support programs. 
  3. Product-led communities can lead both users and product teams to identify product-experts, key users, and early adopters.
  4. Product-led communities build a direct relationship with their users, offering a direct line for product feedback.
  5. Product-led communities can be lean, and achieve a lot, with little resources.  Communities can have a larger impact. 

Cons of product-led community

While there’s a lot of pros to building a product-led community, it’s still a relatively new concept.  Product-led communities are often touted as a quick fix or even the trendy new way to be marketing oneself, but what happens when incentives aren’t aligned? There are cons that need to be taken into consideration before starting a product-led community. 

  1. Product-led communities exist and are built by an organization, what is the plan if the organization goes under?
  2. Product-led organizations have limited incentives to promote competitors.  The company’s interests may supersede the communities. 
  3. Product-led communities need to be “profitable” or contribute to the product.   Proving ROI or seeing the long-term value of the community can be hard.
  4. Product-led communities aren’t prioritized as they should be.  Community is treated like an afterthought, not a focus, setting it up for failure. 
  5. Product-led communities can have a lot of red fucking tape. 

What do product-led communities mean for the community ecosystem?

While there's no denying that the community ecosystem benefits from the increased focus, it’s important that we’re becoming aware of the context of the community ecosystem. That said, capitalism is the driver for these actions — can we have a truly healthy community ecosystem when we’re building with products in mind, especially when the community is not subservient to its people but rather to a corporation that may or may not be around in 10 years?

How to approach product-led communities

Community increasingly has been added into the must-have for every marketing plan, proposal, and product launch. This brings us to our next point; when creating your product-led community, it is critical to make sure that you’re considering the purpose. If you haven’t determined who your target community members are or come up with an intention for your community, you’re not off to a good start. 

Consider this your 10 step plan to building a successful product-led community, we’re talking more and more about this and why it’s important. 

Determining your intention

Step One: Resisting the temptation 

Community is largely in-vogue right now, but that doesn’t mean that community is the way to go.  Take a solid step back, and figure out why you want a community.  Sure there are a ton of benefits (especially for product-led communities), but if you’re not coming with the intention of actually building connections within its members and committing the resources to that community to make it happen, then you should reconsider. 

Questions that you should answer before moving on: 

  • Why do I want to build a community? 
  • Do I have the resources to build a community successfully? 
  • What am I willing to invest in this community? 
  • What am I wanting to achieve? Is there another way to do this?

Step Two: Get real about your bandwidth, commitment, and objectives

Now that you’ve determined that you’re ready to start a community, it's time to determine if you’re really ready. Are you prepared to commit resources, time, energy and money to the cause? Have you considered the business perspective -- is this something that fulfills a short-term need or is this part of a long-term strategy? 

Building a community, especially a successful community is one that we need to take seriously and think about.  It’s one thing to build it because you’d like a community, but if your intentions, bandwidth, and commitment are not in alignment with your goals or business objectives - this community will fall flat on its face, and has the potential to hurt your brand more than help it. 

Especially with product-led communities, there’s a large chance that you’ll be communicating with a higher-up that doesn’t understand how community building works.  By outlining clear, focused objectives, as well as best estimating the bandwidth and commitment, you are setting up your community, and internal relationships from stakeholders, to be set up for success. 

Questions that you should answer before moving on: 

  • What are my objectives? 
  • Is this something I am ready to commit the resources to?
  • Do I have buy-in from key stakeholders?
  • Does this add or detract from my brand image?
  • Is this part of a long-term strategy? 

Getting your community off the ground

Step Three: Study your people 

This is an important step that we must consider before really thinking about what we’re doing. Get your community off the ground by determining what segment of your users you want to be talking to. Are you looking to connect and serve a particular segment of your audience? Are there existing communities out there with the same purpose and intention of this community? 

The biggest mistake I believe that people make during this process is forgetting to actually talk to members they’d like to have as part of their community.  It’s not much different than the product development process – you need to determine what is missing, and what people would like. This also means doing research to determine what rituals people in your target audience are already taking active practice in. Folks are more likely to join a community if they are familiar with some of the rituals from the get-go. 

Before moving onto the next phase, you should develop a key idea of: who you want to be in your community, what they actually need or are looking for, what the expectations are for you and your team (and the investment), and how you see this community taking shape.  This is when you build the loose plan; but remember that iteration is your friend and, as you’re testing, you should change the plans. 

Questions that you should answer before moving on: 

  • Do I *know* my target audience? 
  • Is there an existing community that I can support vs. creating my own?
  • Does this community fulfill a need? 
  • What do I think my community looks like? 
  • What are people expressing a need for?
  • What rituals are important among this audience?

Step Four: Lean, Mean, Community Building Machines

Keep it simple, stupid is the way to go.  How can you test your community theory as lean as possible. As you’re in your early stages, you need to test your theories developed during the research. Your goal, as a community builder, would be to build and test your community theories as quick and as lean as possible.  Act as if this was your own money and resources that were being invested into the community.  

Personally, I like to test community building by trying new types of content and engagement on social media. Is a newsletter or email a new efficient way to build connection?  Maybe it’s a hashtag we can follow? Maybe you learn at these early stages that folks aren’t looking for a new community and you just saved yourself a bunch of time, money and resources.

Questions that you should answer before moving on: 

  • How can I begin to test my theory before creating a community? 
  • What is the most efficient way of testing my theory? 
  • How can I validate the need for community in this space?

Step Five: Imagination Station

How are you going to test your theories on what works and what doesn’t? You’ve started to determine the tone, and voice through your initial research and early testing online, but how does that translate to a community? During this phase, you’ll be establishing the rules on how to gather, how to build, and where you’re gathering. This may look like a slack channel, this also could just be a group DM. 

This phase relies on two key things that take the core root of community building: trust and participation.  During this phase – your goal is to determine how not only you can build trust within early members and adopters, but also how can you encourage participation in an early community.  At this phase – I believe in hyper transparency and believe it can be helpful to explain to your audience what you’re building and why. As well as explain with transparency any pivots that are happening as you begin to build your community. 

Questions that you should answer before moving on: 

  • How do I foster trust and participation within early community members? 
  • What does my early community look like? Who are the best early adopters?
  • How do I make sure that I’m providing value, and fulfilling the needs of the community?

Providing Value and Incentives

Step Six: Building Relationships

Now that you’ve got your early community, how do you provide value and foster relationships within your early community? Understanding how those in your community connect with one another, and relate to the overall communities intention is important - Danielle Maveal covers this in her newsletter, breaking down the different types of community relationships.

Cultivating a network where people connect with one another will create stronger bonds within the initial community. How you take time to build these early relationships will help your community grow to the next level.  Without tight relationships to one another in the community, people are more likely to come and go -- but depending on your goals, this may be what’s best for your community. 

Questions that you should answer before moving on: 

  • How am I encouraging cross-member relationships?
  • What do I want users to know about each other? 
  • How do I use member-to-member relationships to build community?

Step Seven: Determining your brand as it relates to your community

Taking a peek to zoom out and look at the specific type of community that we built - a product-led community, it’s important to look at how your brand relates to this community. Your community can be a direct connection to key stakeholders and conversations held within your community can provide a positive or negative brand experience. 

Through determining your brands values, you can best reflect on how this best represents your individual brand. If you’re priding yourself on user experience, make sure that your users are having a good experience within your community as well.  If you pride yourself on ease of use, how are you communicating that within your community as well. 

It’s this part of product-led community building that takes up time and resources, and is much of the reason you outlined your bandwidth and commitment to your community above.  Through working with your internal team, and determining your internal values, you can best come up with a set of guidelines that help you carry out your brand values within a community. 

Creating a set of internal community management guidelines helps all members of your internal team best represent your brand in the way that it should be represented in the community. Things this document should include: how do we introduce new members, when should we jump in and offer a response to the community,  how can we start conversations, and who should we go to for guidance. At this stage you can start determining rituals and routines that reflect on your brand’s guidelines. 

Questions that you should answer before moving on: 

  • How are my brand’s values communicated through this community?
  • What rituals are we developing that reflect on my community’s brand?
  • Who is responsible for what as we build this community? 
  • How does this community start to scale? Do we want it to scale?

Investing in the community

Communities aren’t like an instant pot, you can’t exactly set it and forget it. It’s important to continue investing in your community to see results that you would want to see. Getting buy-in from your own internal stakeholders is important and reiterating the fact that sometimes the return on investment isn’t as direct as one would like. Oh! And communities are hard to build, especially at the beginning. Encouraging your team to have proper investment, rather than community being an afterthought is important. 

Sometimes investing in a community, means supporting an existing community.  If your product-led community has an existing relevant audience, it is often beneficial (and more cost effective). This is often a good approach. Chat with known community leaders and offer to sponsor an event or host an AMA are good first steps towards your brand or product gaining presence within the existing community. 

Step Eight: Establishing a routine and boundaries

Now that you’ve got your community starting to grow, how are you building a routine and boundaries around your community.  While it's well known you need to know what your community is about, it’s also common to know what your community is not about.  What types of conversations won’t your community stand for? Also when and how will your internal team members interact with your community? 

Among community managers, and social media managers, burnout is real. Oftentimes, this means you’re responding and building relationships outside of the 9-5. Through establishing these routines and boundaries, not just for those managing your community, but also among the community members as well. It’s important to set expectations on what the community is and isn’t, along with what appropriate conversations are within the community. 

Questions that you should answer before moving on: 

  • What are our hard boundaries that we have zero tolerance for? 
  • How are we moderating this community? 
  • What does our community support offer? 
  • How do we make this community manageable? 

Step Nine: Building ritual and habits 

With your early members, it’s important to make sure that you’re continuously providing value to the community.  One way to do this, is through establishing rituals and habits in your community. If your community knows what to expect and how they can participate, they are more likely to become an engaged member of your community.  Through these daily actions, product-led communities can further build connection and drive in the values of your brand. 

There is also a unique opportunity here for product-led communities – through building rituals that encourage active feedback, you can gain more insight about your product, while creating rituals about exclusive access can create hype and anticipation in your community. These rituals can create part of the flywheel effect that will get your community to continue to grow. 

Rituals for your community can be anything from soliciting feedback in a specific channel, AMA’s, or identifying leaders or segments in particular ways. Developing rituals that build positive connections to your brand is especially important for a product-led community.  

Questions that you should answer before moving on: 

  • What rituals are important to our community? 
  • How can these rituals add or detract from your brand? 
  • What habits can your community expect from you?

Creating a plan for success

Arguably, the most important part of starting a new community is coming up with a plan. Sitting down and outlining intentions, purpose, who the community serves, and how will they be served is a good first step. Communicating this plan to stakeholders is almost just as important as well – breaking it down by steps, action plans, and goals are important. 

Step Ten: Determining what success looks like

As your community scales and gains more interest, it’s important to understand what success looks like and how it’s communicated.  It’s important to understand that many times, there are no direct impacts on the community. It’s hard to track whether someone joined your community and just lurked, what their long-term impact is, but you can track how engaged they are and what this means for the future.  Setting expectations for internal and external members is important as your community grows. 

Questions that you should answer before moving on: 

  • What does success look like to key stakeholders?
  • What role does community play in the larger goals within your organization?
  • Who are important community leaders to build relationships with? 
  • What are the long-term goals for the community? How do you plan on hitting them?

To wrap things up

The future of the community building industry is exciting! However, thinking through how we’re starting each community and the intention behind them is important.  As we’re starting to see more and more product-led communities, let’s make sure we’re starting them with intention and purpose, and investing appropriate resources to them to make sure we’re building for the sake of community, not just a marketing tactic. 

Are you planning or do you run a community around a product? Ask me anything!

—Rosie Sherry