What Marketers Get Wrong About Community

What Marketers Get Wrong About Community


There is likely no buzzword more “buzzy” in business today than the word community.

The phrase can be found on every strategic plan, OKR, or CEO email. Don’t get me wrong – it sounds really great and altruistic in theory. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be community-led as a business? But in talking to literally hundreds of CMOs over the past year, it’s clear that there isn’t a shared understanding of what we mean by the word community

There’s no doubt, however, that there’s something to the strategy.

The title of HubSpot co-founder Dharmesh Shah’s keynote at this year’s Inbound conference was, ”Why Community Matters Now More Than Ever.” Even in my own experience at Gainsight, community was at the heart of how we built our brand and go-to-market strategy.

But in order for us to truly understand the power of community, we need to clarify what it is not.


Your Community is NOT Your Audience

Many well-meaning marketers are using the words audience and community interchangeably. The truth is they are not the same thing.

Building an audience requires the important first step of sizing the complete TAM (total addressable market) that you are intending to target. This could be female marketing managers, aged 25-40, working in the supply chain industry, and living in Baltimore.

As you create content and start distributing through owned, earned, and paid channels, a subset of that TAM will choose to engage with your brand by reading your content, following you on social media, or ideally, subscribing to your thought leadership directly. That initial act of engagement means that the individual member from your TAM can now be considered part of your audience.

While this might sound like nothing more than a clarification of taxonomy, I believe that this disconnect is the single biggest reason that marketing teams have been unsure about their involvement in the community-led company movement.

It turns out that there are actually two types of community, and we have been using the same word to mean two very different things.


Lowercase “c” Community

This is the traditional definition of community that we have been using as an industry for the last several years. Lowercase “c” community describes our customers or users of the products or services that we sell. We tend to build programs in Marketing in partnership with Customer Success and Product to help our community of customers engage with each other, become better users of our products, and present them with opportunities to advocate on our behalf.

In fact, Gainsight’s CEO Nick Mehta has been on the record saying that community is the most important part of your product. He’s right – helping transform your customers into power users, unlocking the value of your products and services, and empowering them to evangelize on your behalf is an incredible strategic advantage for every company.

Historically, however, Marketing’s role in this practice has been fairly limited.  

We’ve hired a customer or community marketer, typically within the product marketing organization, who focused on creating case studies, building a referral program, and moderating an online community platform to facilitate connection between members. These practices are incredibly important, but have rarely dominated our OKRs or strategic plans relative to hitting our ever-growing pipeline targets.

This insight explains the skepticism that CMOs today feel about the community-led movement. It’s not that community DOESN’T matter, it’s just that as altruistic as it sounds, serving a community of customers is still disconnected from achieving our growth objectives as a business. Ultimately, creating pipeline for new business sales is the outcome we’re held accountable to. As mean-spirited as it sounds, the reality is that everything else is a distraction.

However, the truth is that there’s another type of Community that we do care about – and understanding its significance in our GTM motion will unlock Marketing’s role in the community-led movement.


Capital “C” Community

Marketers have always understood the importance of building their audience as an important leading indicator to pipeline creation. You can argue that building an audience is the thing that we do best in marketing. We produce content optimized for search to drive more quality traffic to our website, we pay for clicks and impressions to drive engagement, and ultimately, we end up with a marketable database of contacts who have opted-into hearing more from our brand.

But social followers and HubSpot/Marketo contacts don’t necessarily represent Community.

There is a behavioral value that draws a distinction within your audience of subscribers. It’s those who regularly read your blog posts, listen to your latest podcast episodes, or come to your virtual events. It’s members who read your newsletter, share an interesting learning, and engage with other members digitally or otherwise.

When members of your audience are engaged with your content and each other, they become part of the most powerful part of your business – your capital “C” Community.

Building a truly engaged Community is the true superpower of any Marketing team. Community establishes thought leadership and market dominance. Community represents the highly qualified leads that actually  convert through the funnel– typically because they were acquired through an exchange of value rather than clicking an ad. Community is a powerful moat for your brand that no other competitor can take from you, even if they copied your product pixel for pixel.

I’d argue that Salesforce would not be the success story it is without their Trailblazer community, nor would Hubspot without Inbound and all the programs around it.

At the heart of building Community is content – a practice that we’ve been executing for years, but takes on an important new focus in light of this new definition. Content is an important lever to build an audience (typically through the performance marketing and SEO function that it’s served in the past), but a mission critical lever to create the engagement that leads to Community (which is best established through a more editorial and value-driven way of producing content).

It’s important to call out that Community, by this new definition, is a superset of community. Our customers are some of the most important members of the broader Community that we operate at the brand level, and deserve a special set of focus and programming to feel special. I’ll share more about that distinction in a later post.


The CMO Role in the Community-Led Movement

As a three-time Cloud 100 CMO, I know the pressure associated with creating enough pipeline coverage to satisfy the sales quota for the quarter. And while I deeply believed in the importance of building a strong community of customers, it was always a secondary or tertiary focus (if that).

What I realize now, however, is that building a thriving Community is my best contribution as a marketing leader to influence every business outcome I could control. Acquiring customers in a relational (rather than transactional) way set them up to be better customers when they were ready to evaluate our product. Attending our conference helped customers AND prospects feel like they belonged to something much bigger than themselves.

Marketing is the tip of the Community-led spear.

Our ability to not just build an audience (although an important precursor), but to build a true Community of people who are engaged in our thought leadership will make all the difference between success and failure in the next chapter of our industry. We do that by taking a lesson from our friends in the consumer media industry, and develop content and experiences that do more than just drive subscribers, but entertain, educate, and inspire them into being part of something greater than themselves.

There is nothing more important for CMOs to consider right now. And perhaps the next time we hear the buzz surrounding the community-led “fill in the blank” movement, we’ll hear Community-led, and know exactly what our role is in creating that future for our brand.



Anthony Kennada | About the Author

Founder and CEO, AudiencePlus

Prior to founding AudiencePlus, Anthony served as the CMO of incredible companies like Hopin and Front. He was the founding CMO of Gainsight where he and his team are credited with creating the Customer Success category -- a novel business imperative, profession and software category that helps subscription companies grow sustainably by becoming customer obsessed. By focusing on human first community building, content marketing, live events and creative activations, they developed a new playbook for B2B marketing that built the Gainsight brand and fueled the company’s growth from $0 to $100M+ ARR, and eventual acquisition by Vista Equity at a $1.1B valuation. You can follow him here.


What Marketers Get Wrong About Community

Community is a phrase that can be found on every strategic plan, OKR, or CEO email. It sounds really great and altruistic in theory. Who wouldn't want to be community-led as a business? But in talking to literally hundreds of CMOs over the past year, it's clear that there isn't a shared understanding of what we mean by the word community.

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