Brand Community 101: How Modern B2B SaaS Orgs Leverage Community to Fast-Track Growth
By Carl Thomen on 1/18/2023
Primary data source: The PLG List
- Brand Community 101: How Modern B2B SaaS Orgs Leverage Community to Fast-Track Growth
- What is a Brand Community?
- Brand Community Checklist for B2B SaaS
- 10 A-List B2B SaaS Brand Community Examples
- 1. Figma
- 2. Metadata
- 3. Salesforce
- 4. LinearB
- 5. HubSpot
- 6. Zapier
- 7. Docker
- 8. Miro
- 9. Lemlist
- 10. Notion
- Brand Community for Dummies: How to Build a B2B SaaS Community from Scratch
- When does it make sense to invest in brand community?
- How do you develop community values?
- Where should you build a community?
- How do you set appropriate goals for a brand community?
- How do you resource for a community?
- What else do you need to build a successful community?
- Conclusion: The next phase of brand communities in B2B SaaS
Brand community chatter has taken over your LinkedIn feed. And maybe for good reason. 58 of Cloud 100 companies — widely considered the best of B2B SaaS — have a brand community.
Importantly, many of the role models for active, value-adding communities in our study were product focused. And on reflection, it’s obvious why communities form around users facing similar technical problems: people are there to learn and get better. It’s up to B2B brand owners to help them continue to help users find better ways to work.
Brand communities have become a key business focus in B2B SaaS, according to PeerSignal research, especially among product-led growth companies. 40% of B2B and 55% of PLG SaaS companies have dedicated brand communities.
Unicorn companies certainly got the message. On top of 58% of Cloud 100s already owning a brand community, 26% were actively hiring for community roles in Q4 of 2022, despite the tech downturn.
It’s not just tech banging the community drum. CMX’s annual State of Community Programs Report surveyed B2B and B2C businesses across sectors and confirms the number of organizations that have a dedicated brand community department is up 7% – from 15% in 2021 to 22% in 2022.
But despite 79% believing community has a positive impact on organizational objectives, only 10% can actually quantify the impact of their communities in financial terms, and only one-third can connect their community data to their customer data. Community might be maturing, but there’s still a ways to go.
This article will define brand communities, outline best practices, and profile some of the best brand communities in B2B SaaS.
What is a Brand Community?
For as much chatter as there is around brand communities, few people can define it. While formal research is thin, Melanie Zaglia of Journal of Business Research outlines three common markers of a brand community. Although she’s talking more about Harley-Davidson motorcycle clubs than Reddit forums, the markers are instructive. We’ll see these emerge clearly when looking at examples of great B2B SaaS communities further down:
- Consciousness of kind. Members feel connected to other members via shared interests.
- Shared rituals and traditions. Through social practices, members create meaning in the community experience.
- Moral responsibility. Members feel responsible to other members, and try to help them integrate and share in the community experience.
Putting on our academic hats, we define a brand community as a place where interactions happen between people united by common interests and administered by a business with a stake in those interests.
This differentiates a community from an audience, where information flow is typically unidirectional: from the authority (or brand) to the audience, who consumes it. Simply put: community is about dialogue. And the most important part of that dialogue is that members want to keep it going.
As mentioned previously, our research suggests people who join B2B SaaS brand communities do so to learn and get better at their craft. These people face similar problems, and if a brand is curating a safe, engaging space where connections can be made and these problems can be solved, it isn’t difficult to imagine the raft of benefits that brand might reap.
Our B2B SaaS brand community checklist below describes the evolution of brand communities we see in the B2B space. Many start simply as a forum – a place where like-minded individuals can connect and help each other solve problems. Smart companies define clear business goals and employ dedicated community professionals to drive engagement and business value from their communities. The best brand communities turn customers into evangelists for their products.
Brand Community Checklist for B2B SaaS
✅ Advocacy or Champion program
Salesforce HubSpot Docker Figma
✅ Exclusive member programs (events and promotions)
Miro Metadata Notion
✅ Dedicated manager employed by the brand
Zapier Intercom Retool
✅ Educational content influenced by interactions in the community
Rudderstack Bubble LinearB
✅ Forum where member conversations take place
Gatsby.js Lemlist ActiveCampaign
10 A-List B2B SaaS Brand Community Examples
Channel(s): Discord, Reddit
Type: User community
Strengths: Conferences and forums
How it works: Figma has one of the most active communities of any software product. Their approach to community is multi-pronged, involving two large and active online forums, global user groups and events, and a powerful advocacy program.
Channel(s): Slack, email
Type: Open community
How it works: Metadata’s Demand community stands out for its high level of engagement. Common Room’s Community-Led Growth Report puts the average online community engagement between 2% and 12%. Metadata’s engagement rate is above 50%. The Demand community is exclusive, includes in-person and virtual events, and has highly active community management and focuses on the bleeding edge of B2B SaaS marketing.
Audience: Sales, marketing, customer success, operations
Type: Open community
Strength: Trailblazer community learning hub
How it works: One of the most-referenced and large-scale communities in B2B SaaS, Salesforce has a learning hub where industry credentials can be earned, connects learning content to career paths and actual jobs in the market, and hosts an online community forum with its own dedicated mobile app.
The community has online and in-person events globally, among a host of other community initiatives. The Trailblazer community is a great example of what can be achieved with a dedicated focus on community (and let’s be honest, a fairly big budget as well).
Channel(s): Discord, Podcast
Type: Open community
How it works: DevInterrupted is a Discord community and a podcast for engineering leaders that focuses on best practices in engineering, and consistently features respected and experienced developers in the B2B SaaS industry.
Channel(s): Website forum
Audience: Marketers, Sales, Customer Service
Type: User community
Strength: Community Champions & Leaderboard
How it works: HubSpot’s deeply comprehensive community forum covers questions and conversations on all aspects of their platform; the HubSpot Academy offers training across marketing, sales and customer service; events and user groups are global; they have a Community Leaderboard and highlight Community Champions each month.
Channel(s): Website forum
Audience: Marketers, Developers, Sales, Customer Service, Operations, Product, Finance
Type: User community
Strength: Zapier University learning hub
How it works: Taking their cue from Hubspot, Zapier’s community also revolves around a large website forum and an education hub, called Zapier University. With a flexible product capable of solving many problems across a business, Zapier’s community appeals to a broad swathe of professionals.
Channel(s): Website forum
Type: User community
Strength: In-person community-led events
How it works: Dockers runs in-person meetups around the world, which are organized by their Community Leaders, and have experts (Captains) that are available to share knowledge with the community.
Channel(s): Website forum
Audience: Design, product, operations (and anyone else who wants to collaborate)
Type: User community
Strength: Miroverse template hub
How it works: Miro hosts a website forum for community discussion, but also has a separate space dedicated to developers. They educate their community through the Miro academy and regular webinars, and their approach to PLG through the Miroverse – guides and templates has helped set the benchmark for the industry.
Audience: Sales, marketers
Type: Open community
Strength: Exclusive member content
How it works: Lemlist recently switched their primary community from Facebook to Circle, a community management platform, presumably for greater control and more optionality. They also have a blog, newsletter and YouTube channel for sharing content, and host regular webinars.
Channel(s): Slack, various social channels
Audience: Sales, marketers, creators
Type: User community
Strengths: Community-fueled template marketplace and in-person events
How it works: While Notion’s community-contributed templates to help new users get started have fueled a lot of their community growth, they’re notorious for their breath. There are multiple Notion Slack instances and ways to partner – from hosting a webinar, legitimizing your organic Notion group, becoming an ambassador or more.
Brand Community for Dummies: How to Build a B2B SaaS Community from Scratch
When does it make sense to invest in brand community?
Any business can spin up a forum on their website, create a Facebook group or open a Slack channel and announce that they have a brand community. But the extent to which members of that community find it useful and engage, and whether or not it drives any kind of business value, is a function of both a thoughtful motive and proper planning and resource commitments.
Here are three signs you’re ready to start a brand community, according to B2B community professionals:
- When the community supports an important business goal
- When you have executive buy-in.
- When you have a proven concept to warrant dedicated budget.
“I think I'd try to illustrate how you'd design the community so that it serves a specific business goal. I learned the importance of this from community-led founder Mike Rizzo (no relation), who shared the importance of mapping a community to a specific goal you want to achieve. For example, you can design a community to source feature requests from, and accelerate product-market fit. Or you could build one with the primary intention of driving new customers. But you have to pick a specific goal it serves, to prevent everyone at the company from trying to commandeer for their own use case.” Jeremiah Rizzo, Content and Community, Databox
“If your executive team comes to you and says, ‘We should do a community because everyone’s doing it’, I would say, ‘Let’s think about this. Let’s take the time to talk to our target audience and get their feedback on platforms and community program ideas, to see if they find our ideas valuable.’ And if you don’t have a substantial amount of money set aside to achieve the things you want to achieve, I wouldn’t start a community. You need all your execs to buy in to what your target audience requires and the money it will take to give it to them, because you’re going to need that executive sponsorship later when you go back to them and ask for more money!” Katie Ray, Head of Community, Metadata
It could also be the case that starting your own community isn’t the right way to go, at least initially. There are easier ways to explore the value of community to your businesses:
“If you’re thinking about a community at your company, a lot of the time, you don’t necessarily need to jump in and start your own community. There are plenty of SaaS companies that have sponsored communities. And, by doing that, they’ve got their brand in front of a community of people they want to serve and they’ve seen what works and what doesn’t, and saved a lot on the upfront investment you need to make an owned community valuable.” Joel Primack, Host of The Community-Led Growth Show presented by Charla
How do you develop community values?
A strong theme apparent in the research is that without explicit and visible values to guide the community and fall back on if necessary, it’s more difficult to create the psychological safety members require to share openly and engage with one another.
Importantly, a set of values or a code of conduct for your community is much more likely to be respected and disseminated if the community helped create it.
Common community values community experts say brands should consider the following when developing a code of conduct:
- A thorough vetting process: Open forums are likely to attract a wide variety of members. Many of these would genuinely be looking to connect and share. Others might join for any number of reasons not conducive to the healthy functioning of the community.
- No selling or solicitation: As we’ve seen, communities are groups of people who share common characteristics, so they’re attractive to anyone whose ICP aligns with those characteristics. No one who joins a community to share and learn wants to get sold to.
- Respect for other members: Abuse, harassment or other disrespectful behaviour is not tolerated.
- Respect for privacy: Information shared in a community isn’t shared elsewhere.
- No inflammatory topics: In a professional community, diversity of belief needs to be assumed and respected. There’s no need to involve religion or politics.
- A helpful and positive ethos: Members are encouraged and very often incentivized to contribute and help one another. While there are always members that are naturally quieter and less confident, they should never feel afraid to participate.
“People just want to learn. They want to learn and connect, and in order for them to do that, you need to create a space that is psychologically safe. By having a strict application review process and a code of conduct (and actually enforced) that was co-created with your members, those help create a space where members feel safe to share honestly and openly.” Joel Primack, Host of The Community-Led Growth Show
“I’ve kicked out a lot of members, and it makes me feel bad every time that I do, because I want people to feel like they can come and ask questions. But I have to do that, because the sanctity of our community and making sure that our members aren’t being sold to is my number one priority.” Katie Ray, Head of Community, Metadata
Where should you build a community?
There are many options for a community space, and no “best” channel or medium. We’ve seen engaged communities on website forums, Slack, Discord, Facebook groups and Reddit. Hubspot has a huge website forum; Figma and BitTitan have active Reddit communities; Gatsby has a large, engaged community on Discord. A better question might be: what do my members expect, and what’s easiest for them?
“[Channel] very much depends on what type of community you’re building and what the engagement expectations of your members are. Some members don’t want that Slack or forum-like experience. Some members might just want events, while others want a podcast and newsletter.” Joel Primack, Host of The Community-Led Growth Show
All channels have their pros and cons. A large, publicly searchable website forum might help customers and non-customers alike find answers and research your product, but it lacks the intimacy and ease of use of a Slack channel; Discord is useful if you’re targeting developers, but it can appear intimidating and unwieldy to those not familiar with it. Also, many companies have more than one place to engage their community (e.g. Slack channel and website forum). There’s no silver bullet. Consider your audience, and then, think about what makes sense for you.
According to CXM and Common Room industry reports, Slack is not only the most popular place to host community forums and message boards, but it’s also superior to platforms like Twitter, YouTube and Discord for retention (returning members) and middle-of-the-pack for positive sentiment (after LinkedIn, YouTube, and Twitter).
Our theory? Slack straddles that line of owned and rented ground. Many WFH and tech employees already have it on their computers. A separate Slack instance is easy to toggle to without becoming as distracting as traditional social media channels.
Free social and community channels like Discord and Slack can help you start small. Once communities hit the 1K-100K mark, they’re more likely to consider more robust paid platforms, according to customer data from Common Room.
How do you set appropriate goals for a brand community?
When Annette Cardwell took over Lattice’s community in 2019, she knew the community needed goals for both its members and the business, so that they could be sure they were focused and intentional about their community work. Through research conducted in the community, she identified four community goals and associated KPIs for Resources for Humans:
- Be the community of choice for HR leaders: Community growth and sentiment score via survey
- Establish Lattice as a trusted ally: Lattice awareness score via survey
- Inform Lattice’s ICP: Content output and engagement on social media
- Introduce Lattice in new regions and industries: Membership growth in new markets, ambassador recruitment, and events in new geographies
Notion, famous for its enthusiastic community and blistering growth, gauges community impact based on enterprise opps, according to their founding marketing leader, Camille Ricketts:
"It’s when your community helps you achieve such ubiquity and such name recognition that it actually allows you to start moving upmarket into the enterprise… It derisked Notion as a choice for a lot of companies because they had heard about it through so many channels. They had seen it on social media. They heard it on a podcast their friend told them about it.”
According to Joel Primack, three other worthwhile goals for a B2B SaaS community include:
- Driving product or feature adoption
- Influencing pipeline
- Contributing to CSAT or customer happiness
A level down, the most common leading indicators for community are growth and engagement. But regardless of the goals or metrics you choose, it’s important these align with the kind of community you’re building and the resources you have available.
When we did our initial research into SaaS brand communities, we found that those with more active community management and/or a group of highly engaged users had more lively communities overall. Specific business goals might also depend on what type or stage of community you’re focused on building.
Goals for decentralized brand communities
“We decided we weren't ready to build a more "owned" community yet (Slack Channel, forum, etc.), so when we think about "building community," we think of it as building a ‘decentralized community’ of followers, subscribers, and listeners. These are people who opt-in to get our content in their feeds, and engage with us in some capacity – just on platforms we don't own. The primary KPI we track is "audience growth": the cumulative growth of subscriptions and followers. We also track impressions, views and downloads as leading indicators that our content is getting consumed. Then we track signups as a lagging indicator which lets us know we're actually creating demand among that audience.” Jeremiah Rizzo, Content and Community, Databox
Goals for centralized brand communities
“I think your goals depend on the kind of community you have. My goals revolve around brand awareness, promoting Metadata thought leadership, providing feedback opportunities for customers, creating top tier events for discussions in the community, and being self-funded throughout 2024. And then more granular goals would be increasing community membership at X percent quarter over quarter, influencing Y pipeline and launching and maintaining our Customer Advisory Board program.” Katie Ray, Head of Community, Metadata
How do you resource for a community?
Again, the answer depends on the kind of community you’re building. A platform (whether it’s a dedicated Slack channel or a purpose-built community platform like Circle, Common Room, or InSided), a community manager and discretionary or gift spending budget seem to be the most common line items.
“In general you need to be prepared to spend around $300,000 a year. A platform is probably going to be $75K-$100K, and then you want a good enough community manager to build and run it, so salary there is probably between $120K and $190K. Everything else is going to be swag and developer help. One of our goals is to be self-funded, so we’re going to be looking for a lot more sponsorship opportunities in the future.” Katie Ray, Head of Community, Metadata
What else do you need to build a successful community?
- Executive sponsorship. As with any new initiative, C-suite buy-in is a must. Strong communities take time to coalesce, and some events are going to be way more successful than others.
- Understand and promote what your membership responds to. Members might love sharing frameworks or discussing best practice, but sometimes they just want to know other people are going through what they’re going through. Sharing failures or embarrassing stories, for example, might elevate trust and empathy in the group. Try and embrace the full breadth of members’ professional experience.
- Be willing to operate cross functionally. Making sure other customer teams in particular are aware of how the community works, can promote it, and can action any insights that come from it is important in utilising the full value of the community across your business.
- Meet your members where they are. Katie at Metadata puts it succinctly: “We have about a 30% superuser rate, which is great for us [but] people’s lives are going to ebb and flow. I want there to be something for everyone, regardless of where they are in their lives. At some point, they’re going to ask a lot of questions and need help, and then they’re going to be in a different stage and not be so active. But I want them to feel like they can come back when they want to.”
Conclusion: The next phase of brand communities in B2B SaaS
Effective brand communities that drive real value for the organizations that create them have the following:
- Invest in a dedicated community professional (¼ of Cloud 100s are hiring for community, despite the downturn)
- Co-create a code of conduct with members
- Define community goals for maximum business and member impact
- Optimize for engagement with rewards and incentives for contributing members (along with consistently enforced guidelines)
- Understand the importance of exclusive events and content
- Reward power users and contributors with partner, influencer, leadership, and marketplace opportunities.
Done right, brand communities can drive product adoption, revenue, customer success and product development, ultimately creating passionate evangelists for an organisation. But all of that depends on making the right investments in the community – tools, people and budgets in place to give members the value they need to actively participate.
As the pace of innovation in B2B SaaS continues to grow, and buyers continue to tune out the vast majority of advertising they encounter, a safe place to explore solutions and help evolve best practice becomes more and more attractive. ‘
Macro factors are also at play here: distrust of the ‘experts’ and centralized sources mean people are looking to their peers more than ever for information and recommendations they can trust. Brand communities have the opportunity to create a space to connect with similar people facing similar challenges. It seems unthinkable that a community strategy wouldn’t be central to a successful business strategy for the foreseeable future.
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