The whole idea of community building is to create places where your prospective and current customers can congregate to chat with each other, offer advice, ask questions and advance their knowledge. Any marketing benefit is indirect.
This only works if the community is more valuable to its members than its sponsors.
No community can be successful — i.e. contribute to the growth of its sponsors — unless it’s a fun and interesting place to hang out. Some of the businesses listed below have created communities so valuable that people actually pay just to be a member. Others have utilized social media, old-school message boards and live events to grow their communities and, as a result, their businesses.
It’s extremely important to remember that a community is not a place to harvest leads. Rather, it’s a place to share knowledge. The marketing benefit is so indirect, in fact, that it’s difficult and discouraged to attempt to track conversions. If you aren’t ready to invest in the good of the community, you aren’t ready to invest in a community.
Here are five communities that have taken on a life of their own.
For those of you wondering what this has to do with email marketing, remember that communities send a lot of transactional email. Those emails have much higher open and click rates than promotional email. More transactional email for communities in a future post. 🙂
Moz has reinvented itself in the post-SEO era. After dropping the “SEO” from the company name and expanding their software to include tools for social media and brand reach, Moz has doubled down on community. First and foremost is their blog, which features daily posts by folks from their community. In fact, anyone can contribute to the YouMoz blog and the best posts are moved to the main blog.
The entire Moz site is a social network of sorts. Anyone can create a free account and profile, join the forums and watch their webinars. Users get more value by registering as a member. It’s an excellent way to encourage those users to eventually do a free trial of Moz’s software but even if they never do, they can enjoy all the benefits of the community.
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One other very cool thing that Moz has done is gamify the community. Users earn points by completing their profile, commenting on the blog and contributing posts to the YouMoz blog.
Earn enough points and you can actually get free stuff, including a free Pro account (these start at $99 per month). After 200 points, you can remove the “nofollow” tag from one of the URLs in your profile. Pretty cool, right?
Marketers are all-in on content but as Rand explains in the video below, it’s not the only way. (He discusses community building at 4:45.)
Copyblogger is an interesting study on community marketing. For years, their blog has featured a collection of dedicated and passionate writers eager to share their knowledge with the Copyblogger audience. The comments section of their posts often featured intelligent analysis of content marketing trends and actionable tips that any blogger could benefit from. (Comments have since been turned off.) Recently, however, Copyblogger has turned much of their focus to growing a vibrant membership-based community.
Communities don’t require registration but for a fast-growing company like Copyblogger, this strategy makes a lot of sense. They use their membership site, My Copyblogger, to give registered users access to premium content like e-books. For a fee, users can get access to even more content, including webinars and a forum. It’s not cheap ($248/year) and it’s not even their main business (software products) but people are paying to be part of it. That’s how good Copyblogger’s content is.
The free membership is part of the marketing funnel that drives users to join the paid community (known as Authority), buy the products and attend live events.
Copyblogger has accomplished something truly admirable here. How many customers of a corporation like Coca-Cola would pay money to join a branded community? My guess is exactly ZERO. Well done, Copyblogger.
For more on Copyblogger’s philosophy, check out The Power of Focused Generosity. Here’s an excerpt:
There are two kinds of people on the Internet: the greedy and the generous.
The greedy want you to pay for everything. Every link is an affiliate link. Every recommendation has a profit motive. The really good content is locked away until you fork over some money.
The generous want to give you everything free.
It never occurs to them that their time or expertise has value. They’re kind, selfless, giving, and (too often) dirt poor.
But there’s a third kind of person on the Internet. And yes, they belong to the Third Tribe you’ve been reading about.
This person understands that you can’t be greedy and build a following. But you also can’t just throw all your treasure to the wind. This is the person who understands the power of focused generosity.
Inbound.org and GrowthHackers.com
Running a community on your domain is a challenge and it’s not the right approach for every company looking to get into community building. Inbound.org and GrowthHackers.com are examples of an entirely different approach. (I’ve grouped them together because their functionality and sponsorship setups are very similar.)
Inbound.org, a community for inbound marketers, is funded by Hubspot while GrowthHackers.com, a community for data-minded marketers, is sponsored by Qualaroo. In each case, the sites are laid out like Reddit. Anyone can join, submit links and vote on other submissions. The idea is that the best and most interesting content is voted to the top. An algorithm keeps new content constantly moving up based on user interaction, and active discussions are the norm.
The reason that these communities are successful is because there is little to no sponsor influence. In each case, users have to navigate to the “About” section to find out who is paying for the software and the hosting needed to run the community. Each has a set of guidelines for users (Inbound.org and GrowthHackers.com) that emphasizes the focus on creating value for the community and avoiding self-promotion. They both put the community first and reap the benefits as a marketing tool indirectly.
This is not the most obvious example of community building but it’s exactly what Buffer is doing with their Open blog. It’s not a forum and it doesn’t require any registration but it’s got everyone talking about Buffer. Others startups have followed suit, creating a slow-but-steady transparency movement in the startup world.
Buffer’s marketing is based entirely on culture. Founders Leo Wildrich and Joel Gascoigne are committed to 1) transparency 2) building a remote team and 3) interacting with customers. They’ve built a culture which they can blog about, use as a tool for hiring new employees and connect them with other startups. Let’s take a closer look at their indirect marketing approach.
On the Buffer Open blog, the company publishes everything from employee salaries to revenue and blog metrics. Startup entrepreneurs could get lost in the wealth of information here.
Take a look at the comments in some of the recent blog posts. In every post, Buffer’s content creators, customer support team and even the CEO are responding to reader comments and offering suggestions to aspiring entrepreneurs.
Remember that Buffer makes money with its social media tools, not consulting with other startups. So why do they even bother spending valuable time and resources creating a realtime revenue dashboard and blogging about how much they pay their employees?
Because people really care about this stuff. They come back to read every post, subscribe to the newsletter and blog about what they learned. They talk about Buffer on social media and interact directly with Buffer employees on Twitter and Google+. The connection is genuine. It’s a community that’s open to anyone and that provides great value to the right audience. Even though it’s indirect, it drives a lot of traffic to Buffer’s website and exposes a lot of people to their products.
As Rand Fishkin says in his Content Marketing Manifesto, the goal of content marketing is to build familiarity, likability and trust. Buffer’s content is on-point with Rand’s recommended relevance scale:
A community based around content is extremely different than a forum or membership site but as Buffer is proving, it’s extremely powerful.
Ready to build a community of your own? Here are a few tips to help get you started.
- Start small. You don’t need to build a forum or create a gamified social network to start building a community. Start by engaging with people who leave comments on your site and respond to questions via Twitter and Facebook. Use social media to poll your followers about what types of content and topics they would like to see. In short, have conversations with people whenever you can. You’ll learn a lot, draw attention to your business and lay the foundation of a bigger and more powerful community later on.
- Media, not marketing. I stole this from Brian Clark who uses the phrase to describe the philosophy of Copyblogger’s new Rainmaker platform. It means that you should use the web to create your narrative. Your blog to tell stories, educate and share. It’s not a place for marketing or selling. “Media, not marketing” means putting the community first.
- Be inclusive. Copyblogger can charge people to be part of their community because they have spent years creating content that people can’t get enough of. Moz can require users to register to gain the full benefits of their community because they’ve spent 10 years building some of the best marketing software in the world. You probably don’t have those luxuries yet, so it’s best to take the Buffer approach in the beginning. Build community in blog comments, social networks and webinars. Don’t require registration at first. Allow people to peek inside, poke around and see if your content and growing community is valuable enough for them to invest their time in.
What communities do you belong to that really add value to your life? Let us know in the comments.