In early September this year, 500+ shipping professionals met online at the Digital Container Summit organized by our portfolio company Container xChange, a marketplace for shipping containers. Over the last few years, Container xChange has also fostered a community of shipping professionals.
According to First Round’s State of Startup survey from 2019, communities are very high up on founders’ agendas:
Nearly 80% of founders reported building a community of users as important to their business, with 28% describing it as their moat and critical to their success.
We see the same trend within our P9 Family, where more portfolio companies are building or looking to build a community:
In this post, I’d like to highlight why I think communities are the next phase of online customer engagement and why many B2B companies are looking into building communities. I also want to provide some successful examples and share some tips & tricks I gathered from experts and from building the P9 Family over the last few years.
Online Customer Engagement in B2B
I group the main different formats of online customer engagement in B2B into the following three segments (I’ll touch on how they influence each other later in the post):
So let’s take a look at each of the three segments and the main characteristics.
Companies have used thought leadership for a long time, and with the rise of the internet, they moved part of that thought leadership online in the form of content marketing. To educate and engage with customers and leads online, companies started to create blogs, hold webinars, and publish whitepapers. This form of content is predominantly informative and serious.
Take Hubspot as an example. If you work in SaaS, the chances are high that you have read their blog a couple of times. Besides the blog, they have added many different content formats ranging from eBooks, customer stories, and free courses to certifications.
With the rise of social media in the consumer world, B2B companies adopted similar strategies. They built their presence on various social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and even on Instagram and Tiktok today. Compared to content libraries on the website, social media posts often appear more engaging, dynamic, and playful.
A good example is Intel with nearly 2.2M followers on LinkedIn. I found it cool that Intel even shows its stock performance on the LinkedIn page.
Intel’s posts on LinkedIn usually show relatively high engagement, as you can see in this example.
On top of that, social media made every employee a potential evangelist. Since Covid-19, LinkedIn has felt much more like Facebook, with many people posting personal notes and business updates. Janina Kugel, the former CHRO from Siemens, is a good example. She has 45k followers on LinkedIn and is posting a lot about Diversity and Inclusion. Her LinkedIn activity can positively impact the companies she is working with or has worked with.
However, even on social media, what’s still missing is more interactive engagement at a high frequency with customers, especially between customers (n-to-n instead of 1-to-n). Enter Communities.
Before Covid-19, customer engagement in B2B was often happening in person at sales meetings or trade shows — especially in traditional industries such as manufacturing, logistics, or construction. Now even trade fairs had to move online, and more companies are thinking about how to engage with their customers online continuously and build communities.
But what is a community? My favorite definition comes from Bailey Richardson. She was responsible for building the Instagram community before she started People & Company — a company that helps people build communities. In her words: “communities are simply groups of people who keep coming together over what they care about. The most vibrant ones offer members a chance to act on their passions with each other.”
Getting customers together online to talk about a subject they care about in B2B is not necessarily a new topic. Salesforce is doing it, Atlassian, Zendesk, Intercom — you name it. But Covid-19 has accelerated this trend and triggered even more companies doing it, also at a very early stage.
One big difference to Social Media is that not every employee is a potential influencer, but every customer within the community is a potential influencer (think customer-to-customer marketing). The influence of customers that validate the value of your product can influence potential leads and spread the word about your brand. Furthermore, engaged customers show higher loyalty. This brings us to why building a community can have a significant positive impact.
Why is building a Community important in B2B?
B2B communities can have a very positive impact on the whole customer lifecycle. In the pre-sales phase, the community can address prospects’ questions and provide showcases. For customers, the community can boost customer satisfaction, stimulate product adoption, and decrease support requests (Extreme Networks has a 91% (!) peer to peer support ratio). You can also use the community for insights and to develop new features. That’s why building a community in B2B is impacting many other departments — from customer support and marketing to the product department.
Holly Firestone, who was leading building the communities at Atlassian and Salesforce, shared some numbers in her talk about Communities at SaaStr and the results are eye-opening. People (and companies) that were part of the community showed 2x bigger deals, 33% higher product adoption, and 3x lower attrition.
Communities can be a powerful moat, as well. Competitors might copy features and follow similar acquisition strategies, but it’s incredibly hard to replicate a community and user-generated content. This moat is even more critical today since SaaS companies t founded a year ago face 9.7 competitors compared to just 2.6 competitors for SaaS companies that started five years ago.
Content, Social Media, and Communities also influence each other. There is a potential network effect between these three elements: Great and unique content leads to higher engagement on social media which grows your community. A growing community can produce more content and unique insights that you can post on social media to grow your community even more. As Alex from Lattice put it when I talked to him: “A community is an eBook that writes itself.”
It’s never too early to start building a community — start now.
Here are a few tips & tricks that have worked for us building the P9 Family — the community of our portfolio founders and all the people who work there — over the years and other community leaders I talked to:
⬆️ Focus on bottom-up: Building a community is similar to building a product — you have to focus on what people want. Therefore, top-down initiatives usually do not work well in my experience. Listen carefully to your users and the most active people to understand what they want. Bailey’s advice resonates very well with me: “You must build a community with your people, not for them.” For example, after the shutdown announcement this spring, we thought “let’s do weekly catch-ups with the people in every channel of our P9 Family”. We realized pretty fast that “random” catch-ups without a clearly defined topic and the speaker didn’t work well and canceled the project to focus on issues people really wanted to talk about. It works much better to co-create with your power user than trying to develop topics by yourself.
✍️ Write playbooks and replicate them: when we find something that works, we try to double down on it. For example, in our #sales channel, we started doing a virtual roundtable to discuss a specific topic with a group of people for one hour. That worked so well that we copied that concept for other areas such as product and marketing. I would be cautious with using community-building strategies that have worked for other companies, though, as your target audience can be very different.
🏆 Recognition and rewards: run competitions and reward your most active members. We gave away trophies to some people who contributed a lot to our community at our Founder Summit last year. A widely used practice is to share success stories to inspire other community members or have leaderboards with the most active members.
🏃♀️ Habit-forming: understand the key moments that can form a habit for a new member. Usually, it helps if you define the user journey and the “aha” moment. From talking to other community leaders, one of the typical pathways for a new member is the following:
Many people I talked to defined the “writing a response” as the “aha” moment. Try to reinforce this behavior with recognition and maybe even a little bit of gamification.
📈 Define and track metrics: as with every project, define your key success metrics and measure them over time. You find a good overview of metrics community managers report here. We typically look at total members, weekly active members, messages sent per week (public vs. private), and attendees of our webinars and virtual roundtables.
✊ Empower the community: scaling a community is very hard if you do it yourself. Some companies have implemented an ambassador program and let ambassadors lead projects, host workshops, and crowdsource knowledge. Again, recognition and rewards help to stimulate motivation, especially if the work they are doing can also help them with their career.
I hope some of the examples above can be a good inspiration to start building a community if you haven’t done so already. Summarizing the key takeaways from this post:
- Focusing on building a community does not mean that you should drop other ways (content & social media) to engage with your customers online as they are still powerful tools.
- There is lots of good content out there on how to build and run your community (here, here, or here). However, nobody can offer you an exact playbook as this needs to be tailored to the exact needs of your specific audience.
- Communities can be a powerful moat that can’t be replicated by competitors easily. B2B companies should consider investing in it if they don’t already do it.