Community-led growth is a go-to-market strategy that relies on a supportive community as a driving force for customer acquisition, expansion and retention. This can be achieved by various types of community engagement – anything from simple newsletters to elaborate membership systems.
In short – it’s people coming together and supporting the brand or business they love. While the business usually needs to introduce the first members and provide some means for collaboration, best communities become self-sustainable with active members taking the lead.
There is little core difference between brand communities and nonprofit communities. Both are created by people who have faith in the success of the cause. Just like nonprofit supporters are chipping in for a goal they believe in, brand communities come together for a product or service they consider impactful.
In return, the community members get to belong to a group of likeminded people and have VIP access to their favourite brand and product. While it already feels good to back a company you love, most companies offer special perks to their community members as a thank you for their help and support.
While this may present itself in a simple brand ambassador program for their main influencers, some companies take on the journey to engage a wider circle of support.
Why do we need community-led growth?
If you are providing a great product or service that speaks to your users on multiple levels, community is the most inexpensive way to scale your acquisition and expansion. There is nothing better than harnessing the love from your users and growing your company with their support.
There are many ways your fans can support you, all you need to do is ask and provide clear instructions. Here are a few ideas.
Whether you’re building a product or service, there’s always room for improvement. With user-centred design practices, you need a continuous supply of users to test, feedback, report and troubleshoot.
While user surveys and feedback forms may feel like reaching out to a community, they fall extremely short compared to having proactive community members instantly and directly let you know of the problems they face and features they miss.
Once you are able to build enough trust and rapport with your community members, they will feel privileged to fill in your surveys, write down their experiences and share their user stories. Usually, this is quality feedback unachievable with any other means.
Communities are excellent at peer support. Many companies direct their free tier users to an open forum to ask and answer questions. Several Q&A forums are successful brands by themselves (like Quora or StackOverflow).
While many people feel accomplished by simply being able to help and be the smart person who knows the answer, reward frameworks can drive additional engagement. You might even have your community members take care of the more simple helpdesk issues better and faster than a devoted customer success agent could.
If your marketing department has ever done a popularity run in your company (or extended network), you can imagine the power behind a large collective. Whether it’s a Product Hunt launch, clapping to a Medium article or simply upvoting your special post on Reddit, bringing this as an opportunity to the attention of your devoted community members may bring way better results than spamming your relatives and Facebook friends with help requests.
Of course, there is a limit to how much you can ask from your community, and the best impact comes from focusing effort on the special occasions rather than begging for likes on every single post on your Instagram.
Testimonials and case studies are extremely powerful tools for convincing new customers. A devoted community can happily populate review portals with personal five-star experiences that describe in detail how they’ve managed to make your product or service work out for them.
They can also refer their friends and peers and advise everyone in their network to adopt the solutions by your brand specifically. Having a personal community experience makes it much easier to proactively advocate for your products than just user satisfaction.
Not all community members need to be active clients. Often it’s important that a person gains enough information or skills before converting – they need to grow the need for your product. Community is an ideal place for members to share mentorship and advice, eventually nurturing a new generation of loyal clients. They have gone through the journey inside the community, so there’s no question which brand they’ll choose once they form a purchase need.
Is community-led growth a new thing?
Absolutely not. There have always been collectives with common intent, working towards a single cause and helping it grow.
But community-led growth has recently become even more relevant for brands and businesses. The new generations (starting from Generation Z) are extremely social, setting a high priority on direct experiences and value alignment instead of simply looking for a good deal. And in order to target them, it’s no longer enough to just sell and advertise.
Communities are thriving for the same reasons that power the rise of sharing economy and gig economy.
Instead of purchasing a house and a car, we prefer to spend our money on travel and experiences – we can always rent a car for the days we actually need it. Instead of settling down for a 9-5 job, we prefer to enjoy collaboration with different people every week and build flexible freelance careers.
And as consumers, we also value experiences and social interactions over assets and savings. When buying products and services, we feel that getting to know the founders and having access to a factory tour is exactly the amazing extra that makes us prefer one brand over another. And your community-led growth strategy should consider these values.
How do I start a brand community?
Start small, start now. While there is no one right way of community engagement, and different things may work for different brands, the bottom line is clarity.
Here are three aspects that will make it easier for members to join, if considered:
- Be clear about what the participation deal is.
- What level of engagement is expected from the community members? Do you need to be active in order to belong to the community?
- Are there some suggested activities, and do they result in rewards?
- What is the level of entertainment provided by the brand – will there be events or other organised activities?
- Be clear about the communication housekeeping.
- Where is it OK to ask questions about the brand or product?
- Where do I ask questions about my community membership?
- How do I engage with other community members?
- Are there any rules about the content (what’s allowed)?
- Be clear about the goals
- What is the current goal of the brand (launch a new product, reach a certain number of users, etc)
- How does the community help with the goal – people are much more likely to help when they understand how much their contribution means!
What tools do I need?
Tools don’t lead community. There’s no magical tool that is better than others, and one community can use multiple tools at once. Also, a platform that works really well with one group, can be a disaster with another.
Most communities are coordinated on an online platform, usually by a single community manager that the members get to know by name. Most often this person is a member of the marketing team, but with early-stage startups this could also be one of the founders.
There are many choices for software tools that you can use for your community. Not all are optimised for community-led growth, but with some smart management, you can set up combinations to serve your exact needs. It’s probably smart to make the final choice once your initial strategy is set, and you’ve run a few tests to confirm your needs. Changing platforms at a later stage is a headache, so it’s only reasonable to research well and pilot any software with a small group before making a decision.
Here are a few general categories:
These are freeform chatting environments like Slack and Discord – great choices for small and active communities where participants follow the threads daily? . For a larger community, chats have the downside of scrolling by – it’s easy to lose important information amid other topics. While it helps to create multiple channels for each topic, chat-based communities need a lot of admin support and moderation to keep the community going
Communication platforms like Vanilla Forums and Facebook Groups can be suitable for communities of all sizes and are straightforward to use. Topics can be posted either by admins or users, and responses will be conveniently threaded. Many products let you launch a private instance of a Facebook-like platform, for example, Tribe and Mobilize.
For goal-oriented communities, it sometimes makes sense to use productivity tools such as task managers and spreadsheets. While this enhances the productivity and getting-things-done mentality of the community, training a larger community to use the tools typically takes quite a bit of administrative effort. But specialized apps can also offer a simple interface for group collaboration such as the task dispatch app from Zelos that is meant for large communities.
Many social media channels let you create closed groups (free or paid), and if your community members are already active on the platform, it may be an ideal way to engage them where they are. YouTube, Twitter and Clubhouse are only a few examples of this.
There’s nothing wrong with keeping community members offline and greeting them with the good old email greeting or even a phone call with most recent news and instructions for events and offline meetings. This may be your best option if your target audience isn’t software-savvy, but it can also be a personal way to start with anyone when you can still afford the extra personal relationships at double-digit membership numbers!