How do you find early evangelists for community-led growth?
Community-Led Growth (CLG) gets a lot of hype right now, but there is also lots of fluff on the web about it. I’ve had many touchpoints with communities as growth vehicles (e.g. I helped build the Atlassian community, which now spans over 300 events). I think CLG is part of Organic Growth, but it also has some characteristics that set it apart from other Growth motions. That’s why I want to cover this question in today’s Memo.
Growth Memo reader Misho asks:
“How do you find the early evangelists for community-led growth?”
It’s a legit question. Startups like Notion, Figma, Miro, Duolingo, ConvertKit, and Midjourney have built impressive communities around their Products, which drove exceptional growth. Notions Subreddit alone has over 290,000 members. Bessemer Ventures, a VC investor in companies like Shopify, Pinterest, Wix & Co, predicts that by 2027 half of all startups will invest in CLG:
We predict that in the next five years, more than 50% of startups and tech companies will have functional groups and executives dedicated to community by the time they cross $5 million in revenue. [link]
CLG is especially hot right now since ads are becoming more expensive, capital is harder to get (non-zero interest environment), SEO is hypercompetitive, and PLG isn’t available for everyone.
However, communities are very hard to get started.
In this Memo, I explain how to:
Find your first advocates
Automate early adopter identification
Leverage advocates for SEO, CRO and other growth motions
How to find your first advocates for Community-led Growth
The best way to find early advocates (I like the term better than evangelists because it has less of a religious connotation) is through the product. Instead of trying to reach potential members through social media or forums, the best advocates are typically early users with high engagement.
Think of them as Early Adopters. Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations model describes how innovations are picked up by different groups of users: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards. You probably heard about this in Crossing the Chasm. Communities are built on the first groups that adopt your product.
Eric Ries writes in The Lean Startup:
Before new products can be sold successfully to the mass market, they have to be sold to early adopters. These people are a special breed of customer. They accept - in fact prefer - an 80 percent solution: you don’t need a perfect solution to capture their interest.
Early technology adopters lined up around the block for Apple’s original iPhone even though it lacked basic features such as copy and paste, 3G internet speed, and support for corporate e-mail. Google’s original search engine could answer queries about specialized topics such as Stanford University and the Linux operating system, but it would be years before it could organize the world’s organization. However, this did not stop early adopters from singing its praise.
Early adopters use their imagination to fill in what a product is missing. they prefer that state of affairs, because what they care about above all is being the first to use or adopt a new product or technology. In consumer products, it’s often the thrill of being the first one on the block to show off a new basketball shoe, music player, or cool phone. In enterprise products, it’s often about gaining a competitive advantage by taking a risk with something new that competitors don’t have yet. Early adopters are suspicious of something that is too polished: if it’s ready for everyone to adopt, how much advantage can one get by being early? As a result, additional features or polish beyond what early adopters demand is a form of wasted resources and time.
Another way to think about these users is as Mavens. In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell writes:
Whenever I look at an unopened bar of Ivory bath soap, I flip it over and burst out laughing. In the midst of all the product information, there is a line that says: ’Questions? Comments? Call 1-800-395-9960.’ Who on earth could ever have a question about Ivory soap? In fact, who on earth would ever have a question about Ivory soap so important that they felt compelled to call the company right away? The answer, of course, is that while most of would never dial that number, a very small percentage of profoundly weird people may well feel compelled from time to time to call in with a question. These are people who feel passionate about soap. They are the soap Mavens, and if you are in the soap business you had better treat treat those soap Mavens well because they are the ones whom all their friends turn to for advice about soap.
Early Adopters are the perfect advocates for building communities. And you don’t need many to start with (5-10). According to the Rule of Participation Inequality, most communities have typical 90/9/1 distributions: 1% of members create the majority of content, 9% engage and 90% lurk. So, the question is how to identify the first 1% who can form the beginning of your community. The answer is: engage users when they sign up.
Finding early community advocates with automated user engagement
Once you have Product-Market Fit (PMF), you ipso facto have a group of passionate users. If you engage with them at the right time, you can build relationships and set the foundation for a community.
You can semi-automate the process by sending users email sequences after they sign up and segmenting them based on their responses. The simplest way to do this is with user engagement platforms like Customer.io, ActiveCampaign or Clearbit, which allow you to trigger emails when users take certain actions, like using a core feature of the product. High usage = high chance of being an Early Adopter.
The email sequence should be engaging and ask questions like “what do you like/dislike about your experience?”, “how can we help?” and “why did you sign up?”. Many users probably won’t respond, but those who do might reveal themselves as early advocates.
User engagement platforms allow you to segment users based on their responses and in-product behavior. You can define simple rules for highly engaged user segments based on email responses, # logins or time spent with the product.
The way to build a relationship is by asking for product feedback: what problem are users trying to solve, and how could you make their experience even better?
Finding early advocates is not the most challenging part of CLG; it’s how to engage them and build from here. Once you have 5 to 10 early advocates, bring them to a platform like Slack, Discord, Tribe Social, Circle or Bettermode to connect and engage with each other.
Beyond the initial relationship building, good engagement can come in the form of:
Exclusive beta tests and product announcements
Weekly events (AMAs, Q&As)
The impact of CLG on other channels
Once unlocked, communities generate value for companies in several ways:
Members are often experts and good blog contributors
Members can create product content like templates
Members can give testimonials that can be used to improve conversion rates
Referral programs can engage members and growth the community
Members can give valuable product feedback
Community content can be repurposed into other forms of content (email, blog, podcast, etc)
A core challenge of CLG is responsibility. Community-Led Growth doesn’t really fit into Product Growth or Marketing. It sits in between. Engaging and moderating is highly operational work and very from two pizza product teams going after Growth loops, even though communities can develop self-reinforcing growth. Early community members are already customers, and you already have their attention, so CLG doesn’t really fit into Marketing either. It needs a dedicated role like Developer Relationship or Community Manager.
You will also find that products with strong Product-Led Growth motions are most prone to Community-Led Growth. Why? Because both work best for self-serve products with low-cost or even freemium tiers. Notion, Figma, or ConvertKit all have freemium tiers to get users into the product. They also showcase community content and templates. For Midjourney, the lines between product-led and community-led growth blur even more: users are generative AI images in public, which inspires other users and drives adoption.
Engage with users when they sign up with user engagement software
Segment them based on their response and in-product behavior
Build strong relationships with your first 5-10 Early Adopters
Find a dedicated role to foster and grow the community
Leverage community content for SEO, CRO and content creation