In the beginning, there was marketing-led growth and sales-led growth, followed by product-led growth. Now, it’s all about community-led growth. With each new version of growth strategy, prior avenues morphed, expanded, swallowed and supported one another. They took on new shapes and responsibilities in service to ROI.
With the more recent emergence of online communities, there comes a new dawn: community-led growth. Much like its predecessors, community led growth acts as a multiplier on top of product led growth (🎉). In this article, we want to give you a clear and concise answer to the question, “what is community-led growth, and why is it the future?” as well as address how your organization can implement community-led growth strategy in your community space.
Ready? Onward we go!
How Community-Led Growth = Connection + Interaction Over Transaction
Whether IRL or in an online community, interpersonal connection is, more or less, what we are forever in search of as human beings. When we connect with one another, we feel heard, validated, and part of something bigger than ourselves. We feel alive.
The importance of human connection is so great that, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association, it “…can lower anxiety and depression, help us regulate our emotions, lead to higher self-esteem and empathy, and actually improve our immune systems. By neglecting our need to connect, we put our health at risk.”
If we transfer this onto online communities and growth strategy, it kinda makes sense that the trajectory of growth strategy itself has been heavily influenced by our innate human need for connection.
Coming out of product-led growth—yet not entirely consuming it—community-led growth speaks to our desire to connect with others who share similar interests. This online community connection, in turn and if done well, leads to brand loyalty, referrals, growth, and increased ROI.
So, what exactly is community-led growth?
Community-Led Growth in a Nutshell
If you’re not entirely sure what online community is, take a quick look at our recent article—What is Online Community?
Now, in order to help describe community-led growth, imagine yourself doing and experiencing the following:
- Take your organization and, instead of placing your product or service at the helm, build an online community and put it front and center.
- Foster this centerpiece (your online community) through a specific growth strategy and distributed leadership.
- After putting in all the hard work, imagine yourself witnessing the fruits of your labor: a thriving and engaged community that exists at the center of your organization—a community space where individuals feel as though they belong, have a say, and even get to hold key roles.
Through your focused online community, growth transpires organically and authentically. Why? The connections are organic and authentic, and the purpose of the online community itself reaches far beyond your product or service.
Products and services are important, but they can only take business growth so far. It’s through an intersection of quality products/services and authentic online community that real, sustainable, meaningful expansion occurs (and ROI increases).
Now and into the future, community-led growth will be a huge component (if not the component) that most contributes to the success of your business, brand, or organization.
Community-Led Companies are Where it’s at
If you don’t believe the claim we made in that last sentence, take it from the co-founder and CEO of Commsor, Mac Reddin.
In Mac Reddin’s community-led pledge—a signed declaration and manifesto about community-led companies—he begins by stating how he and his fellow pledgers “believe that a thriving community is a company’s most valuable asset.”
He then continues to talk about how:
“Community scales your business, resources, and presence in ways that traditional marketing or advertising channels can’t. When done right, community enables and improves customer acquisition, streamlines support and success, bolsters retention, and provides crucial product insights. Community is the heart of the business that keeps the rest of the team beating.”
Signed by a variety of leaders from various tech startups, the community-led pledge delivers both a strong case for community-led growth and unifies the signees in their pledge to build community-led companies.
In other words, unlike a number of brands and businesses who have added on community as an afterthought, this manifesto declares a commitment to putting online communities first and foremost in business infrastructure. At its core, it’s a pledge that recognizes and embraces the full suite of benefits of online community (for businesses and customers alike) and then gets proactive about ensuring that online community is the priority.
To reiterate (again and again), community-led growth is what’s happening and community-led companies are where it’s at. Community is no longer an afterthought, an add-on, or a new trend in marketing. Community is THE present and future of business infrastructure and growth strategy.
Does all this online community talk make you want to build or grow your own community space? We thought so, and we got you with this article on How to Staff Your Community for Success!
Online Community—not new, Definitely Improved
While the concept of community and community-led growth isn’t new (obvs), there are a number of things that have changed and improved over the years. One of the main shifts (which we’re still seeing unfold now) has been intentionality.
As we mentioned a few paragraphs back, authentic and meaningful online community spaces are now the main priority for a number of top companies across a number of industries. Gone are the days when online communities were an afterthought.
By shifting how a community functions and exists within a company—from side stage to center stage, right out the gate—people start to see themselves as members of and contributors to that community. They are no longer simply “customers.” They are members who belong and bring value, input, and insight to the community table. They are what helps it (and your organization) grow.
Come for the Community & Product, Stay for the Community & Product
But what about adding in a community later on? Sure, that’s great! But also, the sooner the better!
Online community is a power player when it comes to growth strategy. This means that introducing it earlier on (as early as possible, really) in the customer journey is key for creating:
- Front-and-center acquisition channels.
- Low-cost avenues for product feedback.
- Brand differentiation and brand loyalty.
- So much more that’s useful to your organization and its trajectory.
In other words, a quality-built online community has the power to make people flock to you for the community and the product. And then stay with you for the community and the product (and tell everyone about them who will listen).
Leaving a product behind is easy. You just… move on to greener pastures. It’s a different story, however, when you have to leave behind an online community where you feel welcomed, heard, and socially connected. Where you find value beyond the product alone. Remember, we’re all searching for something of value from our communities, including interpersonal connection.
Audience Versus Community
Do you have an audience or a community?
With an audience, the bulk (if not all) of your transactions are business-to-customer. With an online community, you have member-to-member interactions. Yes, there are a variety of other differentiations between audiences and communities, but we’re going to roll with member-to-member interactions, as they are what online communities are all about. They’re also a big part of what fuels community-led growth.
When your organization moves from having an audience (facilitated by traditional, one-way communication and marketing strategies) to hosting and growing a community (nontraditional, human-first, two-way communication and marketing) your goals and outcomes shift in a big way. Your priorities become far less focused on What can I get from this person? and much more about What can I give this person; what value can I provide for free?
With this, you foster your community and let its members build their own relationships— ”separate” from your product or brand. Your organization or brand, in turn, becomes the conduit as opposed to the facilitator.
Which brings us to a key takeaway from this article about community-led growth:
IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU, DEAR BRAND. IT’S ABOUT YOUR COMMUNITY!
In every way possible, your community space should match the needs of its members. It is NOT another channel through which to push your agenda, products, or services.
Is pushing your agenda on others part of the definition of community in the first place? No. So why would it make its way into the definition of online community?
What your members care about—that’s the driving force behind your online community. Simultaneously, it’s also what drives conversation, insight sharing, thought leadership, and meaningful growth.
And if you do attempt to steer away from what your community cares about? Or try to veil your product updates, sales marketing, and advertising as community engagement? Your community will sniff it out almost immediately. Their mistrust will grow. They will jump ship.
Social Creatures—Connection Feeds Community-Led Growth
As humans, we are designed to self-identify as or align with something. Both for our own sense of accomplishment and pride, as well as to signify to others the kind of things we want their stories about us to include. Whether in our online bios or in person, it’s in our nature to state what and who we are.
I am: an artist, a doctor, a lover of literature, a fitness buff, a tech CEO, an activist. And so on.
We are also designed to find our people and build groups with them. To build community, however big, small, or nontraditional.
Just think about the premise and the theme song to the 1982 hit sitcom, Cheers.
“Sometimes you wanna go
Where everybody knows your name
And they’re always glad you came
You wanna be where you can see (ah-ah)
Our troubles are all the same (ah-ah)
You wanna be where everybody knows your name”
At its most distilled point, community is as much about support and an honest exchange of ideas as it is about connection and feeling a sense of belonging. Once this connection is established, members who are involved are that much more likely to:
- Stick with your community and contribute to it.
- Tell others about it, including why they should join (the value of your community).
- Give you crucial feedback about your product or service (which in turn better develops your product or service).
Add up numbers one through three, and you have community-led growth as a result of individuals feeling connected to something useful and meaningful in their lives.
How Community-Led Growth Strengthens Product-Led Growth
No, community-led growth does not replace product-led growth. Thankfully. Instead, as we mentioned earlier, community-led growth acts as a multiplier on top of product-led growth.
If you already have a high-quality product UI (which is essential, really), and then you build an online community, the community itself adds a huge amount of value to the experience of your product (its UX). In order for your community to contribute to the value of your product, however, it has to be rooted in the goals of both your brand and your users.
Remember, it’s not just about you. In fact, it’s mostly not about you. It’s about your online community and what they want and need.
And when you build a community around what your customers or members want, you automatically flip the traditional sales funnel on its head. That is, when customers make a purchase, the product becomes the start of their journey as opposed to its end.
The journey then transforms into more of a narrative where you are dedicated to helping your customers and members achieve a, b, c, or d, and they in turn become evangelists for your brand or organization. Win-win.
Community-Led Growth Best Practices
Some of the biggest factors that contribute to community-led growth start with you (nope, community is still not about you; it just starts with you). What we mean is that in order to build a community and support community-led growth throughout the process, it’s imperative that you plan, strategize, and staff your community with a strong distributed leadership team from the start.
Without proper planning, growth strategy, content strategy, and distributed leadership, you have no community and no community-led growth to speak of.
Hint: For in-depth notes on how to build and staff your community, head to our article about community staffing and have a look around.
Now, let’s dive headfirst into community-led growth strategies and what is essential for their success. Mostly, community-led growth best practices begin with asking yourself a few key questions.
What kind of community are you and why would people want to join your specific community?
While there are different types of online community management platforms, there are also different types of communities. Which one is yours and what makes it worth joining?
- Are you a product community (driven by your product, but not to be confused with product-led; you can be a product community, but still implement and experience community-led growth)?
- Or are you a community of practice (built around a particular industry, profession, or niche problem)?
- Either way, your community needs a clearly stated (or easily inferred) purpose. An impetus that will draw users/members in and spur them to engage, interact, and contribute.
Where will your community exist?
- LinkedIn, Twitter, social media
- Webinars and courses
- In-person events and conferences
- Private online community management platform (like Mobilize!)
If you want to own your community (not in a weird hierarchical kind of way, but rather in a way that lets you own your data, communicate transparently with members, and avoid third-party anything), it’s a good idea to host your online community through a private online community platform.
An excellent alternative to Facebook Groups, LinkedIn, and other public social networks, private online community platforms ensure that your organization:
- Owns all the data generated by your community (and which your community has consented to sharing because they know the exchange, and the value they receive in return from your community, will be beneficial to their personal and professional growth—how neat and… fair!).
- Has complete control over moderation, creation, and content distribution.
- Does not have to compete with algorithms.
- Allows you to export your data and feed it to different systems
- Utilizes data, interaction, and conversation, as opposed to the vanity metrics we find through the “walls and timelines” of public social networks.
How will your community accrue initial members?
When you devise a community-building plan rooted in community-led growth strategy, you’ll want to deliver serious value to your members early on. Once you gain traction and your community starts to unfold and “run itself” (or at least be more independent), you can take more of a backseat role and let your community do its thing.
To reiterate: even if it means your community takes a little longer to grow, make sure you provide lots of value from day one!
Speaking of, what kind of value will you bring to your community table?
In what ways will your community encourage contribution from its members?
Even though your role becomes less active over time and, inversely, the roles of your community members become more active, it’s up to you and your distributed leadership team to maintain the value of your community by encouraging contributions and moderating accordingly.
Some of the ways in which you can maintain the value of your community and help keep interest high include: Q&As with industry leaders, expert-delivered webinars on relevant topics, new discussion threads, high-quality content (like this article!), certifications, and achievement levels for top members, incentivized participation (likes, upvotes, kudos, and praise buttons—but not too much gamification).
Community-Led Growth is Customer-Centric
Yes, we’re going to reiterate this again—at the end of the day, community-led growth is about your community members, not your organization. It’s about centering your people while bringing them into the center of your product or service.
And when you do a superb job at supporting community-led growth? Your organization and your community members benefit greatly, perhaps more than you could have imagined. Your community grows in meaningful, positive, and lasting ways. As does your organization and your ROI.
As Nikhil Kapur writes in a recent Grayscale VC article about community-led growth,
“A true community is characterised by high engagement, members acting as leaders, and light-touch moderation. These communities are organic, brought together by the sponsor, but then left to flower on their own with minimal supervision and sustenance required.”
Additionally, Kapur’s parting words of wisdom remind us how our community-led growth engines “should feed directly into [our] product-led growth engines… [they’re] likely the most natural way of building your product.”
They’re also how you create an economic moat 🏰 for your organization and maintain a competitive advantage over others in a lasting, people-first way.