Hello and welcome to this week’s edition of the Exit Five Weekly Email, a weekly note with B2B marketing lessons & observations, fueled by the community at Exit Five (a private community of ~3,500 marketing pros).
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What Does "Build a Community" Actually Mean?
Building an engaged community of your ideal customers is a complete cheat code for the game of marketing.
I see a lot of companies in the B2B space get lost in the “community” game these days though. There’s sort of a flawed understanding of what "community" is that leads us astray - like it has to be slack channel, for example. And you have to start there. But in reality it’s way more flexible. And that’s good. Because every business and customer base is different. AND you can build a movement in an iterative way before constraining it to specific channel.
We Often Think of A Forum Style Community First
Building a community doesn’t always mean … go out and build a community like Exit Five (on Circle or Slack or wherever). You certainly can do that. For example, DBT Labs serves analytics engineers and built a community of 30,000+ people who work in that field so they can communicate and connect with each other directly.
It’s just really hard to start one of these from zero as a vendor. And the successful ones that we know about today often started once people were already sort of rallying around an idea.
People Often Start at the End…Instead of the Beginning
I’d been writing about B2B marketing and forming little communities online since 2015 before starting Exit Five.
A lot of people trying to build a community start with this end state in mind. Like building the current version of Exit Five with Circle + podcast + email + social all from the get-go.
The road to get to this end state is not just long, it’s actually a series of incremental steps which result in the flourishing community you see at the end. And it's really hard to build momentum in any one thing if you're building five things at the same time.
And it’s great to build the thing your early users want..then expand it. Don’t feel like you have to start with Slack or Circle, because you actually want some kind of critical mass rallying around your ideas before build a home for it.
You can build “community” through content and social media by rallying people with a story and a shared mission. Take HubSpot and Inbound Marketing. Without a dedicated community, there was an entire movement and people who called themselves inbound marketers.
I also saw this in another form at Drift with our “Seeking Wisdom” podcast, which was not about our software and the products the company built, but it was a podcast with the CEO and myself talking about learnings, lessons, hobbies, books, and general personal development topics. The podcast became popular, had fans, and a “Seeking Wisdom community” was built around the podcast - but there was not a dedicated space online.
The “community” came in the form of people talking about the podcast with each other, on social media, sharing notes and ideas with us - and becoming fans. The community were fans out in the public sphere. “Oh you’re a runner? I like running too.” “Oh you listen to Seeking Wisdom? I do too.”
Content then expands into the more formal definition of community that we think about - that’s definitely what happened with HubSpot and Exit Five and others.
The Inbound Marketing concept eventually became an entire movement that HubSpot fostered. It played out across events and meet-ups, social media, online trainings and certifications, and then inside of companies where other people would go and hire inbound marketers “hey we’re looking for an inbound marketer.”
So what started as essentially content marketing became much larger.
I’ve been seeing more companies doing this - building a community through webinar series or recurring live events. The folks at SaaStr have been hosting (and advocating for) weekly webinars for many years. A Series A SaaS company I know well has a weekly CEO webinar where customers and prospects join to talk best practices with the CEO founder.
Any company that hosts regional meetups or events on a regular schedule, or weekly webinar or workshops are building community. You get this amazing thing where the same people come every week and join in the discussion - or you see the same people at events over and over.
I think Gainsight did a great job with this in the early days. They launched their Pulse events super early on in the history of the business. They were actually working to rally a pre-existing community of success managers who were already doing their own meetups in the Bay Area.
What started as one event grew into regional, self-managed Pulse communities and events all over the world.
Small thought about this also – Pulse was very intentionally not named after Gainsight...just like Seeking Wisdom was sort of a thing outside of Drift. It doesn’t have to be like this…but I actually think it helps when its a separate thing from the vendor company.
Nick Mehta has a really great point about content being separate from the brand also - the content has to be insanely authentic and good on its own…it can’t be “marketing.” This talk is about category creation technically, but they're really talking about building a community to create a category.
Social Media Following
At the individual level - community can be built around a person online. Take someone like Justin Welsh who has exploded by creating content around the idea of Solopreneurship. He has a community - followers across Twitter, LinkedIn, and his email list. But he does not have a formal “community” in Slack or Facebook Group or Circle.
Though if he decided to organize that into a structured community for people, a lot of them would probably join, already bought in, and engage. See?
Where To Go From Here:
So when the CEO wants you to “build a community” make sure you understand the ways this can play out - and know that “build a community” does not have to mean “go create a Slack group immediately and put your customers in it.”
As with all things, it’s best to start small, choose one option that best fits your goals and audience, and then build up over time from there. Any of these types of community can be a great starting place, and a great way to build the momentum before confining it to people in a virtual space together.
Hope you are having a productive week.
🎧 Podcast #96: How To Build Your Marketing Plan and Get It Approved (with Rowan Tonkin, CMO, Planful)
This is the perfect time of year for this one -- if you need to brush up on building an annual marketing plan and budget, save this one.
Rowan Tonkin is CMO at Planful. Dave and Rowan take you through the essential steps to build your marketing plan, getting it approved, and unlocking the full potential of your marketing efforts. This episode covers:
Join the Exit Five Community
Please join us in the new home for Exit Five (and our dedicated iOS + Android app). We have officially moved our community to Circle - our own private community on the web, with a dedicated mobile app for iOS and Android. It's bumping over there already and I've been loving the feedback from members so far.
Here's a video overview from me breaking down the new Exit Five community. You can join the community right now for free with a 7 day free trial and then choose monthly or annual billing (or to not join) after your trial. Hope to see you in there.
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