Let me come clean.

I am new(ish) to the community industry.

Well, new to the industry term and the ins and outs of how online communities thrive. I’ll be sharing from and linking to some of the smartest people in the space, but wanted to own my own newness to this and my journey to uncover whether “community” was a fit for my marketing strategy.

And now that community has become the tactic d’jour in marketing and tech (like demand gen, product-led-growth, and account-based marketing before it … and, dark social is and will likely continue to have its moment) it’s the question on every marketing leader’s mind: “do we have a community? Should we?”

Why community is all the rage

Community, as it is defined, came into its own right before and during the start of the pandemic. Many brands looked to market leaders like HubSpot, Salesforce, Drift, Atlassian and StackOverflow for tips and tricks to create an engaged and rabid user base.

Like, we all woke up in 2019 and looked at brands that had passionate and vocal customers and said “we’ll have what she’s having.”

And so, community became the way that we were all going to 10x our growth, hack our way to advocacy and create the strongest customer experience moat that anyone could ever see.

And as I dug in, as Director of Customer Marketing at Sprout Social, to research, understand and uncover the pros and cons of how a community strategy could benefit our customers and the team … I discovered something probably not surprising.

Community was now a hot tactic, but was built on the foundation of tons of hard work by community builders, community managers and passionate users of products who wanted to share, learn and grow with their fellow users and folks who had a common interest … in some cases, the product or service that they used.

Customer-focused brands like HubSpot and Atlassian recognized this early and made it their mission to create a space and curate experiences for these passionate users and soon-to-be power users. From meetups to forums, power user programs and digital / in-person events … the seeds of community that were sown year prior were being given a more visible name, strategy and brand in its own right for how companies could create more value and be at the center of what their customers needed.

And like many stories and blog posts these days go … the pandemic happened.

Our lives, jobs and day-to-days were upended. Some of us became busier and overworked as we kept up with work in a new environment. Others could no longer safely work in person or their jobs were put on pause, and so they navigated the uncertainty as best they could.

But the one commonality was that we all turned online for our connections.

Facebook groups > Instagram Lives > B2B digital events > family and social Zoom calls. You know the story.

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The brand community got its time in the spotlight, at a perfect time.

Because at the same time, marketers were reckoning with and (finally) publicly saying what they whispered to each other in the halls and at industry happy hours … our “funnels” and “lead stages” and “customer journeys” were ways for us to put some guardrails and controls over what our buyers were doing. 

But in reality … more and more of B2B buyer decision-making was happening between like-minded people connecting in 1:1 and closed spaces. Not when our nurtures, campaigns and marketing events dictated they should.

So, what happens when marketers discover that we’re not in the room for all of these conversations, but that … the best companies were actually the ones who were building the house, hosting the room and, oh by the way, had beautiful branding for when a prospective customer did want to chat with us and take a look?

Well, community and marketing just found the way to a.) create brand b.) generate interest c.) delight customers and d.) yes, capture demand.

If this sounds cyclical, it’s not. I turned from community skeptic to someone who is long on community because below the sheen of “the next big thing” is a real, fundamental strategy for making better connections with customers.

And as a customer marketer first, this speaks to me. Deeply and truly.

Why community actually matters

Community as a growing industry and practice matters for one simple reason: it’s recognition that the voice of your customers actually matters. 

Not just “oh yeah, we listen to customers.”

Like, really matters.

Communities, when developed and built properly, are safe, inclusive, open and collaborative spaces for people to gather and discuss, learn about, connect and bond over a common interest, topic, field of study or yes, product.

Evan Hamilton has written and pitched a ton about the difference between community and audience, fandom.

Carrie Melissa Jones and Tiffany Oda have long talked about how community foundations and operations power the strategy of a community, and help free up the time of community managers and brand strategists so that they can do more for their audience.

Shana at HubSpot has done an amazing job of highlighting how communities, when curated and created with a specific point of view and value in mind, can be game-changing for a business and its users.

Natalie Gullatt has shown how community can start as an organizing principle around a common goal — networking and raising up talent as a Black marketer — but how it’s turned into a movement that others can support, advocate for and amplify.

And when you put all of these people together, you see what community can be. When built with purpose and intention, a sound community strategy can result in:

  • Your single greatest brand awareness strategy
  • A source of invaluable customer feedback and insights into how they use your product and how they’d like to see it continue to grow and develop
  • The purest form of customer referrals, credibility building and sales assists that doesn’t have to come from you
  • A gathering space and connector across all of your initiatives, from customer feedback to campaign distribution, customer connections and forums optimized for search

A community build with the wrong strategy? Is a:

  • Broadcast zone, where one-way conversations and announcements are sent from your brand ,,, with little engagement
  • Ghost town, with few users, and transactional questions, conversations and mentions (typically, @mentions of your admins for troubleshooting)
  • A loud and purposeless space, where anything and everything gets thrown at the wall and, eventually, no one wants to come to

So, how does your brand determine whether an owned community strategy is a fit?

Here’s a checklist to get you started:

  • Where do your customers, prospects and industry currently gather? Do they have a place to connect? Is it serving them?
  • Does curating a community or community experience add to their relationship grid and center their experiences? Or, are you looking for a way to move existing relationships and conversations to a place that you happen to own?
  • Is there a real, tangible reason why you should be the one to host this community space?
  • Have you staffed to support the conversations, connections and relationship work required to create, facilitate and maintain community?
  • Have you determined what “features” of a community are most important to enhance their experience? Are indexed and searchable forums important? How about meetup features, video or ways to learn together? You want DMs?
  • Finally … are you prepared for it to take a long time because you can’t growth hack your way to real connection? (this last one is for self-reflection. For those of us who are achievers … take a beat before marking this one as “done”. :)

This is … literally the baseline version of how to determine whether to start a community. 

The important questions to ask yourself are … Do you understand what a “community” actually is? 

Does your brand offer value and can it benefit your brand in return? 

And do you have the time, longevity and investment to truly bring it to reality?

In a sea of “communities” it’ll take some time to see who is truly providing authentic connection and real value to their users. Make sure you have it in you to see it to the finish line.