In the past two years, we've really seen an explosion of community-driven growth for SaaS organizations.
This isn't in itself a bad thing, — it's actually what has kept me employed as a community builder! (Hey Team Orbit 👋)
If not approached with intention, communities of product can come across as exploitative or value-extractive, solely benefitting the company or organization and not providing any actual value to the consumers that are using the product.
Let's explore some of the pitfalls that I've encountered or witnessed in the community space, but also the steps that I'd take to start a community of products.
What is a community of product and why do they get a bad rap?
A community of product is a community that is designed in order to serve the individuals building or using a specific product whether directly with the product themselves or indirectly in an industry in which the product lies.
The biggest differences in the community's form and function are:
- Often supported by organizations that created the product itself
- Lean 'professional' in nature, relating to a skill or tool in a specific business or industry.
- Have a professional community builder (or ideally, builders!) paid to manage and encourage the community full-time
The two primary fail-cases I've noticed come about when those who are supporting the community fail to understand the community members' goals and align the internal team to the appropriate levels of community buy-in as well. thinking that these communities serve the product and not the other way around.
Communities of product must not only lean into but staunchly prioritize value creation to achieve success.
If I were starting from scratch with a new product and wanted to build a community around it, here's how I'd approach it.
First, understand WHY build a community of product.
Too often we think about what the community will bring to us, promotion, product feedback, word-of-mouth marketing, and general brand awareness. Yes, these tend to be reasons why one would want to build a community — but they tend to not be a good reason as to why build a community.
Leaning on what's in it for you is a bit gross and sleazy and reeks of a thirsty used-car salesman. 🤮
Communities rely on trust to build an authentic connection. When we treat a product community as a marketing channel, we exploit our community members, and in turn, violate their trust.
Ask yourself before starting: am I prepared to give back to the community?
Creating value in product communities can include:
- Exclusive features
- Discounts on the product/events
- Opportunity for professional growth + to be featured
- Advanced or priority support
- Invites, behind the scene access
- Career opportunities
Next, It's time to research.
Do the people want a community? Is this something they're even open to? We quickly forget that not every brand is suitable for a community. Folks who are using products like cold medicine, bandaids, or kleenex are not likely to want to discuss the ins and outs of their colds or what color their boogers are that day. (and if you are interested in discussing it I've found the most wonderful GIF below.)
Before starting any community, do your research:
- What common problem or interest are you creating value for?
- Is this one that would benefit from a community?
- Have you talked to people who have this common problem or interest?
- What other communities are out there?
- Who is relevant in this industry or space?
- Are you knowledgeable in this space?
One thing that we don't discuss enough is the ability to be knowledgeable or interested in a topic that you're creating value for. Too quickly we can get into a topic because it's trending or we're peer pressured to. Resist the urge to move in the way of trends.
A personal pet peeve of mine is when you've got a community of product that it feels like no one actually uses or understand the product itself. It's hard to build empathy or understanding with those who do use the product, and additionally, it can look a little embarrassing if those managing or maintaining the community
Do you have to be the most knowledgeable person of the product and every use case that it offers? No. Do you have to be able to speak knowledgeably from a subject-matter expert position? Yes.
What makes or breaks the community?
There are certain prerequisites that come to mind when I think of communities of product that can make or break your community. If I was starting with a community of product for the first time — here are some steps I'd make sure not to miss.
- Understand how the product is made: Know who the key stakeholders are internally and externally, and what influence the community has on the roadmap. Gain an in-depth understanding of the product's vision and mission and how product development is moved forward. Be prepared to advocate internally within the organization, sometimes at odds with your internal team for the sake of the community as a whole.
- Understand who is using your product and who is in the community: Not everyone is your target user. Understand is actually using the product, how often are they using it, and what value they're getting from it. Have a conscious understanding of who is in the community and what percentage of the community is actually using your product. Don't be afraid to niche down here — it is crucial when narrowing down what activities are going to create value or even have interest among the community members.
- Understand the limitations of the product, your internal team, and community members: When working with communities of product, understand the limitations and bandwidth you have from both a tooling perspective, but also a team perspective. Don't set yourself up for failure by committing to promises you can't deliver, in turn breaking trust with community members, or even potential product users. Identify clear pain points around potential areas of limitation.
Develop consistency and clear expectations
As Pascio put it in the Product Hunt post— consistency is key. I'm going to add one more thing on top of this, consistent, clear expectations. This can be seen in how you post product updates, hold events, and even how you're connecting. If your users have to learn a new process every single time, they're not likely to be coming back for more.
Too many times I've seen product forums abandoned, Discord servers become barren wastelands, or newsletters neglected (I've also been guilty of some of them as well 😅). If you are planning on starting a project, plan on boring consistency.
Boring consistency doesn't just help the members of your community — this helps you as well. As a community builder, it's very easy to end up stretched too thin. Knowing what you have to plan for allows you to build with more intention. 😅
Setting clear expectations of what the community is, and is not will help you plan out your day-to-day as a community builder. These expectations have additional perks including providing clarity on what should (or should not) go into a code of conduct, community guidelines or even what events you should host.
Remember that building is fun!
I was drawn to the world of product communities because of their builder/maker culture, and I'm sure many of you who are also in this industry have as well. There's just something so fun about getting your hands dirty and experimenting! Don't lose sight of this when building a community of product. If anything, embrace it!
Pinky promise no spam. Sporadic updates on what I'm up to in open source, machine learning, community building, among other things is much more my vibe. 😉