Why community could be the next big thing in marketing
In the first part of a two-part article we look at why even B2B marketers are talking about community.
“I was just being selfish. I wanted a way to talk to people who understood what I was doing — which is the entire ethos of community.”
“A lot of people feel isolated and wonder why they can’t find someone that gets them — and you can find that online in the right places.”
The first comment came from Mike Rizzo, telling me how the MO Pros community of marketing operations professionals started out as a Slack channel. The second came from Melanie Aronson, founder of Panion, a community engagement platform. At the kernel of both is a long-standing truth: people like to be part of a group that shares common interests, whether personal or professional. There’s nothing new about that — so why are so many people suddenly talking about the importance of community to brands, including B2B brands, and the rise of new C-suite role, the Chief Community Officer?
Community. The latest shiny object or something brands need to put on their roadmap?
It’s nothing new
Community is as old as humanity, of course, but even online communities are nothing new. Rizzo referred back to AOL chat rooms. Gamers have long constituted a network of online communities. Almost 20 years ago, I was myself moderating discussions on message boards. And looking back over the last few years it becomes clear that a number of players in the marketing technology space were building communities.
Take Women of Sitecore, for example. A community dedicated to building diversity and inclusion, and precisely not aimed just at Sitecore customers but drawing on the whole eco-system of the digital experience platform’s employees and partners too. Similarly, the #flipmyfunnel community of B2B marketers is helmed by Terminus co-founder Sangram Vajre, but seeks to be vendor agnostic.
HubSpot, in addition to being a leading inbound marketing and sales platform, has long been a content powerhouse too, drawing customers and prospects to its blog and more recently its podcast channel. Through its acquisition of publisher The Hustle, it landed a paid community, Trends.co (“Access thousands of vetted business ideas you can launch in a weekend and a community who can help you make it happen.”) HubSpot’s aim in building community is quite transparent. “There’s one advertiser and that’s us,” HubSpot CMO Kipp Bodnar told me. At the same time, the idea is to integrate ad messages with content meaningful to the audience.
I haven’t even mentioned the countless thousands of Salesforce Trailblazers forming community groups around the world. So why does it feel like community is about to take off? The short answer is that it’s part of the transformation in the relationship between businesses and customers, from brand-driven, often in-person and transactional to customer-driven, digital and experiential. Here’s the longer answer.
Passionate communities for B2B
Sarah Cascone, Senior Director of Marketing at Bluecore, the retail marketing tech vendor, has been watching these developments closely. Community building, she told me, “is already in the works at Bluecore.”
She sees community as being especially valuable in the B2B space. “A B2B company doesn’t have the same emotional attachment for a customer as say a brand or retailer, where the product or mission of the company is part of the customer’s lifestyle. So when you create a passionate community behind what a B2B company stands for, I think that’s when it really gets interesting – because it’s no longer about the product.”
It’s valuable, she said, in a saturated space like marketing technology. “Being able to create something that customers want to be part of – where they can learn from one another and do their jobs better and grow as individuals – I think we’re going to see the best martech companies investing in that because community is essentially what’s going to create a gravitational pull around the business and become its own self-sustaining marketing machine.”
I asked her about HubSpot’s overt strategy of marketing its offerings through a combination of content and community. “HubSpot I’ve been following really closely. They do a really good job of balancing the authenticity necessary for a community, but they also operationalize it in a way that scales. There are three things they do well. Reach: they’re increasing the size of the community and touching people more and more. They have depth and they’re creating connections with people. And they have the ability to operationalize these programs with some sort of consistency so the experience is the same for the customer no matter where they go.”
Like so many other things, interest in community was accelerated by the pandemic. “It’s developed a lot of momentum over the past year, and I’m sure that’s partly related to everyone seeking some sort of connection,” Cascone said. Pre-COVID, communities of vendors, partners and customers would convene at live events, once or twice a year. “I think live events will come back,” said Cascone, “and will be big moments with which you keep the momentum in a community, but you have to have those connectors throughout the year. The last year and a half has forced us to figure out what those connectors are.”
For Bluecore, the ongoing connectors with its customers turned out to be highlights from their live events which could be replicated digitally — for example, bi-monthly executive forums and hands-on digital training.
Last year, all the talk seemed to be about revenue operations and Chief Revenue Officers. Now it’s community and Chief Community Officers. “There’s always a shiny object to chase,” Cascone agreed. “What’s important is to understand what is worth chasing and why. For something like community – when you can tie that to the way in which you’re able to build pipeline for your business, it becomes something we need to pay attention to. At Bluecore we found it moved the needle for our business in ways that are tangible and not tangible.”
It starts with authentic engagement — something not easily susceptible to metrics. “Then there are the measurables, where I’m seeing deals accelerate through the pipeline much more quickly when customers and prospects are involved in these community programs – and the deal are bigger.” Showing ROI is essential, she said. “Vanity metrics of impressions or views — that’s not enough. You need to be able to tie it to the impact for sales. Our marketing team has a meetings goal that goes into the sales pipeline, and those are driven directly from our program.”
A long time coming, now maturing
As Mike Rizzo tells it, it wasn’t by design that he became a community practitioner. He had dabbled with a product feedback forum; he had created a platform for millennials to share their success stories. But: “I didn’t even realize I was trying to build communities.”
In 2017 he started a Slack channel. “You certainly wouldn’t have called what I was doing a community-building effort. I just wanted to connect with people who were in marketing operations. I was a team of one and nobody at my company understood what I was doing on a daily basis.” He blogged about the Slack community and it grew slowly. “Eventually it got to a point where something changed — either community was becoming more interesting, or people in the [marketing operations] function were looking for where to go to learn, or some combination of those things. In 2019 I finally turned on an invite automation process and announced it on LinkedIn, and we had 90 to 120 Mo Pros joining Slack every month for an entire year.”
Simultaneously, Mavenlink, where he had previously working in marketing operations, called on him to help build out a user community and establish a client advisory board. “I had my head focused on how to drive value for a SaaS-based community, and I couldn’t help but think about how I could better provide value for these marketing operations peers I’m so passionate about. So I was leveraging both at the same time, a product-driven community for a SaaS company and a community of practice.”
Since leaving Mavenlink in June 2021, he’s been working on a community-based approach to building marketing technology tools, as well as overseeing MO Pros. “Great products are built with user feedback,” he said. “If you can create platforms for them to talk about their challenges and what they want, and you’re the brand that‘s associated with that resource – and at the same time, they feel heard – you will be building alongside your customer versus making educated guesses.
“Community is tremendously important moving forward for businesses,” said Mike Rizzo. “Community as a function of business and a function of practice has been a long time coming. It’s just maturing. You need the technology to enable these things. The people are critical of course, but you need the technology to work really well.”
In the second part of this article, we will meet some of the people building technology for communities.