Attracting An Audience Versus Building A Community (And Why Community Is Worth Every Penny)

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Salesforce and its Trailblazers.

Bevy and CMX.

Microsoft and Github.

Outreach and Sales Hacker.

Community, years in the making for many tech companies, is now front and center. 

In 2020, community became the hottest “buzzword” throughout the entire tech sector. More importantly, communities were popping up left and right as companies needed new and different ways to reach their customers. (The more organic “micro communities” formed on Slack this past year also come to mind.) 

When the world went into lockdown, companies’ traditional methods of lunches and sporting events were no longer an option. These companies needed to evolve to a spot where remote work took a front seat, and in-person meetings took a back seat. 

CMX, a community for community professionals, found that overwhelmingly, companies believe that community is critical to their mission and that their leadership teams are going to invest more money into their community teams. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Even marketing is on the community ship; using communities to help improve their customer experience.

Long story, short: Company priorities have shifted. They no longer focus purely on their audience and what cardboard cutout content they are providing, but also how they are interacting with their audience. Many are making this transition to providing communities that bring in new prospects and support current customers. This isn’t a new concept. Some of the original communities, like Salesforce’s Trailhead, have withstood the test of time because of the value they bring for their customers and their company. 

But having a community is much more than just a business need to keep up with the times. The pandemic forced us to reconsider how we connect with prospects, customers and even our own teams. We had to work harder to have meaningful conversations with all of the people we interact with daily. 

This is where community comes into play.


Building an audience, building a community

Many organizations think they already have a community but, in reality, they have a strong audience. When you consider the definition of an audience, marketers often think of the group of people that consume their content. For communities, it’s not just about people consuming content, but how they digest it, how they share it, and how they build relationships through it.

At its essence, building an audience is about providing content for a specific group of people to digest it. There’s no further step needed from an audience. However, building community is about bringing people together over a specific need or topic and creating the emotional and relational ties to each other through healthy conversation.  

Audience building, like community building, is no small feat. But they require different understandings and strategies.

When you build an audience, you create a strategic content calendar. You make plans for how to nurture and grow your audience. You evaluate your plans and readjust so you stay topical.  

Communities require that and so much more. You can’t just take your audience and put them in a Slack channel, hoping they chat with each other. You have to create a posting calendar so you keep discussions alive. You have to create champion programs for members who will be your front line, members who are excited and want to see the community grow. 

Community strategy is really about spending time doing activities that don’t scale. It’s about individual relationships. Those relationships are what turn your audience into a community. At Sales Hacker, most of what we do in the community is time-consuming, 1:1 efforts. We spend time with our audience, and turn them into members through our communication and relationships.

It’s so much more than just a group of people, and there’s not always a great way to describe it because oftentimes it’s about a feeling, not a specific action. 

If it takes all this effort to build a community, then why do it? 

Building long-term customers. When community members take time to get involved in discussions, they remember what’s being discussed and build a bond to it. Their engagement with each other, and your product, create consistent business that you can count on. 

Creating happy customers. Communities that are customer-success driven mean that your customers know they will always have a way to reach you when they need you most. They won’t have to wait after submitting a support ticket. Instead, they can ask a question in your community, and not get just one response, but many they can implement immediately. These customers will be life-long advocates of your products and service, because they are able to access help and advice on how to use it anytime and anywhere. 


Is community for you, and are you for community? 

It makes sense that we’re seeing this resurgence of communities and community-based selling. We’ve been isolated for over a year and need a way to really connect and have those meaningful conversations again.

But now, after digesting all the community-focused tasks you have to consider, you’re wondering if you really should create your own community. 

When you decide to create a community, evaluating your resources and what type of community you want is pivotal. Take time creating your goals and really understanding what your community will do for your organization. 

  1. Customer First: If you are wanting your community to help your customers, then consider your customer success team as the captains of your community’s ship. Do they have the bandwidth to help within the community? Customer first, or customer success, communities are geared toward building lifelong customers who truly know how to use your product. 
  1. Evangelism/Education: Do you have something to evangelize or educate on that isn’t a product? These communities are focused on educating a specific audience on a specific thought process, theme, or theory. For some, it could be wanting to bring about a certain change for a particular group. You use that community to educate them on how to accomplish that, while working collectively. A good example is the Sales Hacker Community. Their focus is to bring about change inside of the entire revenue engine. They evangelize this notion through healthy discussion, community-based events, peer groups and more. 
  1. Networking: Do you have some type of networking need that affects your company’s goals? Think of a platform that needs community driven activity for it to be valuable to organizations, like GitHub

If you check yes to any of the three suggestions, you may want to consider creating a community. Once you decide your community’s purpose, you have to start planning around its expected outcome for your company.


Evaluating the impact of community 

Measuring community isn’t new. Back in the 90s, a theory called the “Sense of Community Index (SCI)” was formally introduced. The theory argued that community is based on feeling, and to measure that feeling you need to measure your community’s membership, influence, meeting needs and (most importantly) a shared emotional connection.

The SCI is still used to help evaluate communities, but there are a few other things you can check to see if your community is more than just an audience. 

When building a community, you plan who you want to have in your community. Who are your community members? Is it your customer? Or is it someone else? Communities need to have a defined target audience and understand what it’s interested in. 

How do your members interact with each other? Members should be discussing with each other and building relationships. They should be self-sufficient in their discussions. Members should  respond with a resounding “yes” when asked if they’re getting value out of the community.

When planning member events, what do they look like? Community members thrive on being a part of the event-planning process. They want to give input and participate. Community members enjoy helping each other, and healthy community members look for ways to get more involved and grow the community. Audiences just absorb the information.

Is your technology enabling a healthy community? Planning out the tech you should use is much more than finding a way for members to chat with each other. You have to be thoughtful about your community platform.

Each interaction your members have with your community is an extension of you. You have to be constantly evaluating between chat-focused tech, like Slack and Discord, to platform-based forums, like WordPress or Disciple Media. These platforms are the backbone of your community. It’s not enough to have a place where you post interesting articles, but you need a space for members to agree and disagree with what’s written in order to build relationships through discussions.

It comes down to a simple question. If I post an idea, will members read it and respond, or read it and move on?


What community can do for your company

You know the difference between an audience and a community, and the types of communities, but now you need to understand what communities do for your company. There are a few ways to measure what that return on investment looks like, because let’s face it, while community is expensive and time-consuming, there’s a few reasons why many companies are building them.

For many communities, their main objective is to provide support for their customers. They focus on keeping ticket numbers lower because they have community discussions which solve many of their problems. These communities usually track case deflection, active users and conversation engagement as success levers. 

For others, they are focused on achieving greater customer success. They enable their customers with tips, tricks and “how to” workshops so their users better understand how to use their specific product and generate more success from those products. The customer-success focused communities look toward active users, new members and net promoter scores (a fancy name that helps predict potential business growth) as their success measurements. 

For both communities, they are geared toward customer retention, because they’re getting problems solved faster and using their products better. But for other evangelism-focused communities, those ROI’s come from active users, engagement, event attendees and user-generated content. 

But evangelism communities are where business returns can look murky at first. When you begin to plan your evangelism community, questions like “How can I show that this community is bringing in new business?” and “What does success look like?” plague your thoughts. But don’t be disheartened, evangelism communities are where you can really build strong first impressions. You have the opportunity to get your business front and center without having prospects feel like they are being sold to. 

These communities are focused on educating a group on a certain notion or movement, and take pressure off of potential customers. They allow you to build relationships and truly get to know them. This is called “community selling,” where you are able to interact with potential customers in communities with the main focus of getting to know them and their needs, with hope that you may get to do business with them in the future. 

When company leadership looks at their successful community, they often see that new customers and customer retention are direct results of these communities. However, this is not a simple task; it requires direct alignment between your C-suite leadership team, getting internal buy-in, and creating useful ways for tracking these successes. 

For the Sales Hacker community, we have had to redevelop our process for measurement. We have had to implement different tech tools that can really show us more about our community, but even more about what we still have to learn. Community building is tough, and sometimes tracking communities’ ROI is even tougher. In the CMX survey, less than 10 percent of respondents shared that they brought $800,000-$999,999 worth of business value to their organization. 

When it comes down to it, community solves a lot of business needs. Plain and simple. But it’s hard. It takes time, effort, patience, executive buy-in and lots of support. Your community will help your company, yes, but how is your company going to help your community? 

Katie Ray is the Community Manager at Sales Hacker (powered by Managing a community of over 21,000 members requires Katie to focus on community engagement, programs, growth and workshops. She enjoys building member programs, hosting CMX’s Community Cafe, and has consulted for other communities. She is also attending Texas Tech University for her MBA.

  • Originally published August 11, 2021