There’s something special about communities built by a brand, but not about the brand.
It’s one thing to build a community for your customers.
It’s another thing entirely to build a community for your industry (or topic).
While the former can be great for customer support, gathering ideas, and spreading best practices, the latter can position you as the host of an entire industry.
Whereas the customer communities are great for supporting and retaining customers, industry communities directly attract new customers, position a brand where it needs to be seen, and creates a host of new opportunities.
But doing this well requires you to make some extremely difficult decisions.
Why Create An Industry Community?
As anyone who’s hosted a party knows, being the host offers a lot of rewards. On an industry-scale, those rewards are multiplied.
You’re connected to everyone that matters. You have industry leaders competing for your attention. You are the gatekeeper and tastemaker of an industry. You get to exert subtle influence, learn from others, and have everyone in the industry reply to your emails.
But the most direct benefit is simple. You get to attract new customers.
When you create a community for an industry rather than about your brand – you’re attracting new audiences rather than serving existing customers.
Yet even attracting new customers reveals only a fraction of the community’s value.
Here’s a breakdown below:
Unlike a branded community, there is no maximum cap on the community’s potential value.
The only limit is the number of people interested in the industry – and if your community does its job really well, you can grow this number too!
How Do We Estimate The Value Of This?
This is a little like asking the ROI of a promotional campaign.
The result depends upon the quality of the implementation and a range of factors.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some interesting ways to estimate it.
Multiple By Value of Leads
You can also work with your sales team to find the typical value of a lead. This usually means dividing the revenue by leads generated to get a broad estimate.
You can also be more precise by working with sales teams to go through the sales funnel and match members up to similar behaviors.
You might also create separate values for inactive (subscribers), moderately active, highly active to create a total value.
Multiply By Costs Of Leads
Another way to estimate value is to look at the advertising equivalent cost. How much does it cost you to acquire a customer (or subscriber) through other channels?
If you know getting someone to subscribe to your mailing list (top of the funnel) usually costs you $100, you might estimate the present value of your 20k strong community at $2m.
Once you begin estimating value using these proxy metrics, you begin to see why it often makes sense for organizations to simply acquire communities. If a community in the SaaS field has 20k members and the average SaaS brand spends $344 to generate a lead, any acquisition value under $7m begins to look like a bargain.
Essentially acquiring a community acts as a short-cut to the lengthy and costly process of acquiring the audience through other channels.
Numbers Don’t Capture The Full Value
I’m struck by this quote from Max Altschuler, founder of the SalesHacker community (acquired by Outreach).
“We also use it [SalesHacker] as a value drive in deal cycles. We sell to Sales, so offering a CRO/VP Sales a spot on a podcast for a brand they know that gets 20,000 downloads is a great value driver no other sales vendor can provide and it opens up that relationship at the exec level now.”
There is huge value in being able to feature a prospective client in a community in front of tens of thousands of others. It won’t work for every community but it shows the raw numbers don’t even capture a slither of the full value of the community.
This also highlights something interesting – there is simply natural, innate, immeasurable value from being the provider of the biggest community in your space?
So, why isn’t every brand jumping to do this?
Because creating an industry community requires you to do something really painful – hide your brand name.
Don’t Name The Community After Yourself
With a few exceptions (HubSpot), in an industry community you can’t have your name prominently splashed anywhere.
The moment you call this ‘The [brand] community’ – two things happen:
1) People will ask questions about the brand. You will accidentally create a customer support community.
2) Customers of rival products will stay away. Why would they join? They use a competitor brand. This typically reduces your potential audience by 80%+.
It’s very, very, hard to defy these two outcomes if you name this community after organization. This usually causes some consternation amongst marketing and PR professionals who want to see their brand prominently displayed (and avoiding the effort of promoting two brands).
But this doesn’t mean your name can’t appear anywhere…
Won’t Members Get Upset If They Find Out It’s Owned By A Brand?
Sure they will…if you’ve kept it a secret.
If you’ve been visiting and supporting an independent bookstore for a few years and then suddenly discovered it was secretly owned by Amazon – you’re not going to be happy.
So don’t keep it a secret!
Be honest and upfront about your involvement and intentions from day one.
I’d suggest having your logo on the website such as (provided by [brand]) while giving the community its own unique name and identity.
This name should be something which reflects a commonly used unique symbol by the people you’re trying to reach.
I’d also suggest in your welcome message and about page that you’re clear about why you’re hosting the community. If you’re hoping to attract new customers then say so. But create rules about how and why this will happen. It might also help to create rules about how the brand engages with the community.
“While we hope to benefit from identifying potential customers or getting insights from members, we won’t send out promotional emails to community members. Discussions about competitor products will be encouraged – never removed.”
You can build trust and associate your brand name with the community by being honest and upfront from the very beginning.
What Do We Need To Get Started?
To keep it simple. There are three obvious things you need to get started.
1) A potentially large audience with a unique set of needs you can serve.
2) A dedicated platform to host your community.
3) A community manager to run the community.
As you can see above, if you don’t have someone in charge, you’re risking anarchy.
If you’re lacking a platform, you have a decentralized social media experience.
If you’re lacking an audience, you have a ghost town.
How Do We Get Started? What Should Be In The Community?
How you get started often depends on the size of your audience.
If you’re beginning with zero, it’s best to go through the CHIP process with blog posts, organizing events, engaging with existing groups, and building up your audience until you get up to 100 subscribers/followers.
Once you get near 100 active followers, then you might want to consider having a platform where members can engage directly with one another (hashtags can also work).
As you reach around 200+ members, you probably want to directly promote the community internally to any existing audiences, consider investing in paid promotion, and, eventually, working with influencers and other partners.
Once you have more than 2k members, usually word of mouth and search traffic drives most of your audience (you should optimize for both).
What Platform Should We Use?
The platform you use primarily depends on your budget and the audience you’re starting with.
When you have no people (and no budget), you usually need to use email.
When you have 10 to 250 you can usually use a WhatsApp group.
At 250 to 1000, you’re looking at Telegram, Email, Circle, and other lists.
Once you get to the upper end of that, it starts to become a chaotic mess. So you need to look at an enterprise (often forum-based) platform which allows for more structured discussions. There is always a slight tension between structure and ease of use.
It’s notable however that many of the most successful industry communities over the years have been built on custom platforms. This provides more flexibility and (often) proprietary technology which may increase a future acquisition price.
How Much Will It Cost?
Like most things, it depends.
Many of the big communities acquired by others over the years were launched on a shoestring budget – often by an amateur doing it in their spare time. Others were launched by big brands to much fanfare.
However, we can add a very broad cost estimate to some traditional approaches.
While it’s obvious there are some benefits of the amateur approach (testing things at small-scale first and adapting quickly), you’re less likely to be able to use that approach if you’re working on behalf of an organization.
Organizations have legal, moral, and reputational responsibilities which make them less likely to ‘throw something up and see how it goes’. You can’t launch something which doesn’t look or function well and hope you improve it later (the way a passionate amateur can).
Examples of Successful Industry Communities
You can find plenty of successful communities. Each has grown and evolved in different ways. Here are a few common ones.
- Kaggle. Kaggle launched with a single competition in 2010 for data scientists and gradually added blogs, events, content, and more. Acquired by Google.
- Element14. Launched by Premier Farnell in June 2009, Element14 is a community for engineers and electronic enthusiasts to chat with one another.
- Grow, Gain, Retain. Began as a mailing list created by Customer Imperative for customer success professionals before being acquired by HigherLogic.
- ProjectManagement.com. Began as a place for members to share resources and templates with one another. Over time expanded to enable peer discussions between members. Acquired by Project Management Institute.
- SalesHacker. Began as a blog before expanding to events, courses, and discussion forums and more. Acquired by Outreach.io in 2018.
- MindTheProduct. Primarily began as a series of events before expanding to content, courses, and, much later, dedicated community channels in Slack and elsewhere. Acquired by Pendo.
- RevOps Co-Op. Slack community created by FunneIQ. Began with some content and a Slack channel. Later expanded to resources, videos, interviews, and more.
- The Instructables. Community for members to share their DIY projects. Acquired by Autodesk in 2011.
- Honeybook – Rising Tide. Community for small business owners working in the creative economy. Created by HoneyBook, a provider of client management software for small businesses.
- MakerPad. A definition-stretching community for no-code professionals. Acquired by Zapier.
- IndieHackers. A thriving Reddit-esque style community for independent professionals to earn money directly. Acquired by Stripe in 2017.
- CFO Connect. Launched by Spendesk in 2018 is a community for CFOs. The community began by offering events and a few resources later expanded to include a Slack channel, one to one member matching, and more.
Each community took a different approach, but there’s some important commonalities here:
1) They all began relatively simply. They grew the permission asset of their audience over time. They usually focused on doing single things well before expanding beyond that. Over time they expanded to include content, resources, courses, podcasts, discussions, job boards, events, shops etc…
2) They focused on providing the most value to members. At each stage of the journey, the host of the community focused on providing the content, products, and services most in demand by members.
The Risk: What If A Competitor Does It First?
Perhaps the biggest reason to do it though isn’t the raw numbers but the fear of competition.
What if a competitor launches a community which becomes the definitive community in the industry before you do?
What if they own that mailing list and the right to contact any of them at any time?
What if they host events for that community where they can bring as many of their staff as they like and sell free sponsorships to themselves etc…
What if they can attract leads for free while you’re still paying hundreds of dollars for each lead?
What if they put together a collaborative steering group which creates defacto industry standards?
Is it worth the risk of not doing it?
Being the host of an industry creates plenty of useful benefits. When done well, industry communities can generate leads, convert prospects into customers, gather useful industry insights, and reduce customer acquisition costs.
The catch is you can’t make the community about yourself. If you position your organization’s name too prominently in the community, not only will customers begin to use it to ask product questions, you will also deter customers of competitor brands from joining. You need to give the community a unique name, possibly a unique URL, and let it naturally develop its own identity.
You don’t need to spend a fortune to get started. Many of the most successful industry communities were launched by amateurs in their spare time on a shoestring budget. The secret is to begin by doing the smallest possible things extremely well and expanding gradually. There are plenty of examples you can follow.
And if you’re having trouble using the above to convince others about the value of the community then consider this – what would happen if your competitors moved first to be the hub of the industry?