This article is adapted from Dana's appearance on the CMO Convo podcast.
Building and nurturing B2B communities is more than just a strategy; it's an art that requires a delicate balance of engagement, understanding, and value delivery. In the intricate dance of B2B interactions, communities stand as a beacon, guiding businesses towards deeper connections, insights, and growth opportunities.
I'm Dana Salman, a fractional full lifecycle marketing advisor with over 17 years of experience specializing in B2B SaaS. My journey has been a tapestry of creating spaces where businesses not only communicate but truly connect.
In this article, I'll delve into the power of B2B communities, sharing golden rules and pitfalls, ensuring your community becomes a cornerstone of success.
The growing significance of communities
Communities are set to play a significant role in ensuring growth. Today, there's a palpable yearning for authenticity and genuine connection. Customers, irrespective of whether they're in the B2B or B2C segment, are becoming increasingly wary of standard marketing tactics. This includes advertisements that feel too pushy, webinars that come off as concealed sales pitches, or even LinkedIn requests that are just sales representatives in disguise.
There's a strong desire among people to connect with their professional peers, learn from them, and also share their own insights and experiences.
The need for authenticity in marketing
It's undeniable that marketers often push boundaries to the point where tactics lose their authenticity and effectiveness. People have become adept at seeing through these strategies.
However, if we approach our audience with genuine respect, positioning ourselves as their advisors, partners, and educators without coming across as condescending, we stand a better chance of connecting. This approach becomes even more crucial when we consider the looming economic challenges, such as potential recessions, where marketing and advertising budgets might be slashed.
In such scenarios, how do we ensure a healthy pipeline amidst the evolving market challenges?
Building trust through communities in the sales cycle
Communities play a pivotal role in establishing trust, especially when we're asking companies to make significant decisions. For instance, if we're urging a company to invest in a new software solution, which might cost them anywhere from $50,000 to $200,000, and then train their staff on it, we're essentially asking them to take a considerable risk.
How can they trust us? The answer lies in creating a space where we can share our expertise and experiences, highlight and feature our community members, and foster a hub of learning and discussion. This approach not only builds trust but also alleviates concerns about potential risks.
For instance, consider the impact of webinars. I've attended sessions that were genuinely enlightening, where I learned from the speakers and engaged in meaningful discussions with other participants. On the other hand, I've also been part of webinars that felt like nothing more than a sales pitch, which not only provided no value but also deterred me from engaging with that company in the future.
The customer journey has evolved significantly. Today, customers are proactive in conducting their research and often rely on peer insights from various social platforms. Terms like "dark social" refer to private conversations on platforms like Slack or face-to-face discussions at events. The challenge for businesses is to be part of these conversations even when they're not directly involved.
The key is to offer valuable content and education. We must guide customers without imposing our preferred buying process on them. Essentially, we need to let them learn and trust us before diving into deeper discussions.
Another advantage of communities, especially in the pre-sales phase, is the opportunity to build brand awareness with potential leads. When prospects hear firsthand from existing customers about the benefits of our products and services, it's incredibly impactful - something even the most expensive ad campaigns can't replicate.
Furthermore, communities provide immediate feedback when launching new products or services. This feedback can be invaluable in shaping marketing strategies, product development, go-to-market plans, and content creation.
The power of oversight in community conversations
When we consider the vast landscape of online conversations, it's beneficial for companies to have a space where they can oversee discussions about their products or services. By fostering a community, you can ensure that these conversations occur in an environment where you can guide the narrative.
It's not about censoring or controlling the dialogue, but rather about steering it in a constructive direction, especially when compared to uncontrolled social channels.
When we examine the buyer's journey, a staggering statistic suggests that around 95% of the market isn't ready to make a purchase yet. So, the challenge lies in ensuring that when they are prepared, they think of your brand first.
The key is to establish trust, position yourself as their partner and advisor, and empower them with a robust community. By being instrumental in their professional growth and skill enhancement, you solidify their trust in your brand.
The role of community ambassadors
As communities expand, the significance of community ambassadors becomes paramount. These individuals are not only passionate about your brand but also play a crucial role in keeping conversations alive, answering queries, and ensuring the community remains vibrant.
Their presence is invaluable, especially when the community reaches a size where moderators might overlook certain discussions or issues. An active and engaged community is vital for its success, and as the saying goes, "silence is the death of community."
In-person meetups can indeed be a great way to identify and nurture potential ambassadors. By allowing them to lead events or discussions in their regions, they can become local representatives or "chapter heads" for the community. While it's essential to provide them with guidance to ensure they stay on-brand, giving them a degree of autonomy can be beneficial for both the community and the ambassadors themselves.
To show appreciation for their efforts, rewards, even if symbolic, can go a long way. Whether it's a special icon, a swag bag, or a gift card, these gestures can make ambassadors feel valued and recognized for their contributions. After all, they're dedicating their time and energy to support the community, and acknowledging that is crucial.
Accessibility in communities
Historically, some brands, both in the B2B and B2C sectors, have used access to their communities as an added perk for customers. However, this approach seems counterintuitive. Engaging with a brand, its customers, partners, and employees should be seen as a bonus in itself.
Restricting community access as an additional buy-in feature feels backward. Instead, communities should serve as a gateway to foster engagement and trust, ultimately leading to product adoption.
Introducing a VIP section within a community can be an effective strategy, but it's essential to implement it at the right stage. I've been a part of various marketing communities, including the CMO Alliance and others. Some are free, while others require a membership fee. The value I derive from each varies.
However, with the paid communities, I didn't immediately opt for a membership. I spent considerable time, sometimes even years, engaging with their content, events, and social media platforms. This engagement allowed me to trust them, making me feel that my investment in time and money would be worthwhile.
If a brand tries to introduce a VIP tier too early, without establishing trust, its success might be limited. However, once a community reaches a certain size and engagement level, introducing a VIP tier can be beneficial, provided the value offered matches the investment required from community members.
Diverse types of B2B communities
There isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to building communities. The structure and purpose of a community can vary based on factors like the company's size, industry, target audience, and available resources. It's crucial not to overextend too early, as doing so can lead to challenges in managing and maintaining engagement.
Broadly, B2B communities can be categorized into:
- Employee communities: These are internal platforms where employees can share insights, collaborate, and foster a sense of belonging within the organization.
- User/customer communities: These are platforms where users or customers of a product or service can share their experiences, ask questions, and provide feedback
- Developer communities: Particularly relevant in the SaaS and technology sectors, these communities cater to developers, offering them resources, tools, and a platform to discuss technical challenges and solutions.
- Partner communities: These are designed for business partners, affiliates, or resellers, providing them with resources, updates, and a platform for collaboration.
- Educational communities: These focus on providing members with learning resources, webinars, workshops, and other educational content.
Whether these communities are internal or external depends on the specific needs and strategies of the company. Each type of community serves a unique purpose, and businesses should consider their goals and resources when deciding which ones to establish.
Aligning communities with the sales cycle and customer needs
The type and structure of a community can be influenced by various factors, including the sales cycle stage. For instance, partner communities or educational ones might be more relevant at the top of the funnel, while employee or user communities become more pertinent during the later stages or post-sale. However, it's essential to strike a balance between aligning communities with the sales cycle and catering to customer needs.
If we consider a large enterprise, having one overarching community for both employees and customers might become overwhelming and noisy. In such cases, segregating into distinct employee and customer communities might be more effective. On the other hand, for smaller or medium-sized organizations, a unified customer community that also includes a few partners (with clear ground rules) could be beneficial.
The primary focus should be on the community's objective. Just as B2C communities revolve around shared interests, B2B communities should also unite members around a common goal or topic. The nature of the community - whether it's user-centric, educational, or otherwise - should be determined by this shared objective, the target audience, and available resources.
There's no need to compartmentalize communities into separate platforms. Various channels or forums within a single community platform can cater to different audience segments or topics. Tools like Slack, for instance, allow for the creation of multiple channels under one umbrella community. There are numerous platforms available, from LinkedIn groups to specialized community software, that can facilitate this multi-channel approach.
Setting expectations for B2B community engagement
When individuals decide to join a B2B community, they come with certain expectations. They're investing their time, so it's crucial to offer them value in return. Generally, members anticipate engaging in meaningful conversations, learning new things, networking, enhancing their skills, and building valuable connections.
The onus is on the community organizers to ensure that these expectations are met. After all, in today's fast-paced world, time is a precious commodity, and if members are dedicating some of it to your community, it's imperative to make their experience worthwhile.
Engagement strategies for B2B communities
Engagement in B2B communities differs significantly from B2C. From my experience, the most engaging activities in B2B communities revolve around learning, networking, and crucially, not being overly promotional.
Regular events, whether virtual or in-person, can be highly effective. These events often have a guided topic of discussion, but they're casual enough to allow participants to share their insights freely.
In-person meetups, if feasible, can also be beneficial. Another effective strategy is to regularly pose questions to the community, asking about their current challenges or seeking their opinions on relevant topics. A key aspect of fostering engagement is recognizing and featuring community members. Highlighting them on social platforms, websites, or even featuring them on podcasts or YouTube channels can make them feel valued and integral to the community.
Balancing content and community building
Communities can be a rich source of content and vice versa. For instance, members of a community can be featured on podcasts, and those who start as podcast guests might later become active community members. Activities like "Ask Me Anything" (AMA) sessions can be particularly engaging, though they do require some level of moderation to ensure they remain productive.
Managing international communities
Running an international community presents its own set of challenges, especially when the team managing it is based in a single time zone. Scheduled posts can be a solution, with content timed to cater to different regions.
Another effective strategy is to have community ambassadors from various time zones. These ambassadors can keep conversations flowing and address any issues that arise during off-hours for the primary team.
Collaborating across departments for community building
When it comes to community building, it's not just a marketing initiative. Depending on the type of community, various departments within an organization should be involved. For instance:
- Sales: Especially relevant if you're building a partners' community. They can provide insights into what partners are looking for and how best to engage them.
- Customer Success/Service: Crucial for a customer community. They're the frontline for customer feedback and can offer valuable insights into common issues, questions, or areas of interest for customers.
- Product Team: Communities can be a goldmine of feedback for product development. Whether it's suggestions for new features, feedback on existing ones, or spotting trends in what competitors are doing, the product team can gain invaluable insights.
- Leadership Team: While they shouldn't dominate the conversation, having leadership present (even if just as observers) can show the community that the company values their input.
Community as a voice for product development
Communities indeed serve as the ultimate voice of the customer. From my experience, there are two types of product teams: those who believe in the "build it, and they will come" philosophy and those who understand the importance of customer feedback. The latter recognizes that they're creating products for users to derive value from, making community insights invaluable.
While customer feedback might not always drive the entire product strategy, especially for innovative products that are creating a new category, it's essential for most companies operating in established markets. By tapping into community feedback, companies can ensure their product development aligns with market needs and challenges. This approach not only saves time and resources but also ensures that the product resonates with its intended audience.
B2B communities: Golden rules and pitfalls
Communities have become a cornerstone for many successful businesses, especially in the B2B sector. They offer a platform for direct communication, feedback, and relationship-building with customers, partners, and other stakeholders. However, building and maintaining a thriving community requires a strategic approach. Here are some golden rules and pitfalls to consider:
- Start small and scale: Don't try to do too much too soon. Begin with a clear focus, understand your audience, and expand as the community grows and evolves.
- Know your audience: Understand the goals, challenges, and needs of your community members. Tailor your content, discussions, and activities to address these areas.
- Engage and moderate: Ensure that there's continuous engagement within the community. Appoint moderators to facilitate discussions, address concerns, and ensure that the community remains a respectful and positive space.
Pitfalls to avoid
- Overextending: One of the most common mistakes is trying to be everything for everyone. This can dilute the community's purpose and make it less appealing to members.
- Lack of clear objectives: Without a clear goal or purpose, a community can quickly become directionless. Ensure that there's a well-defined objective that aligns with your business goals and the needs of your community members.
- Over-promotion: While it's essential to share updates and news about your products or services, avoid turning the community into a sales pitch platform. Members join communities for value, discussions, and connections, not constant sales pitches.
B2B communities can be a powerful tool for businesses when managed effectively. By following these golden rules and avoiding common pitfalls, businesses can foster a thriving community that offers value to its members and drives business growth.
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