Here’s a secret: Marketers can’t create communities.
OK, we’re past the hard part!
That’s a tough realization because the words “community” and “marketing” are grouped so often. If you don’t believe me, search Indeed.com for jobs in “community marketing.” I found upward of 80,000 in the United States. And, of course, our job as marketers often involves bringing people together around a cause or a product.
One of the great achievements I’ve witnessed in my marketing career is the building of a community around technology—in particular, technology that people use at work, which may seem like an unlikely product to attract passionate people. I’m often asked how that happens. Where does it come from?
The answer is, well, everywhere! It comes from a fabulous team of engineers building a product that people are excited to make a part of their lives. It comes from leaders who want to engage with customers, fans, and critics, too. It comes from a sales force that builds relationships, not just users.
Where does that leave marketing? I like to think of us as facilitators. It’s our job to provide high-quality forums and networks that encourage our community to gather—and often to facilitate the conversations. Increasingly this happens in digital spaces, but not entirely. So what works? Here are a few lessons I’ve learned about how to become better at helping to facilitate a community.
Meet Your Customers Where They Are
My team and I learned quickly that customers are willing to engage with businesses in different ways. Not everyone wants to travel to attend our annual conference. Likewise, not everyone will follow our latest hashtag campaign.
It’s important to create a variety of opportunities to meet your customers or users where they are. One thing I’ve found works well is helping customers run local user groups. These are meetups that give our like-minded customers a chance to meet each other in their communities, and they are a great way for you to reach people in smaller markets. You might host a large, branded event in Chicago, but what about in Birmingham?
Another successful method is to host virtual meetups, so customers can interact with company leaders and with one another without leaving their desks. The hope is that these types of events provide a meaningful interface between our teams and our customers.
I also realized early on that it’s important to empower individual customers to lead a community. User groups, for instance, should be organized by customers and supported by marketing. I believe in this strongly because customers are often the best resource for one another. I’ve found it creates a healthy dialogue about problems and solutions, bringing us constructive feedback, and more often than not, evangelizing the use of our product within their own organizations.
You can also find ways to help your customers lead your community that will benefit their careers. Our most committed customers become Tableau Ambassadors, who act as resources for their community, share tips, and welcome new members. Our most fervent experts become Zen Masters; think of them as data Jedi. They lend their skills to help thousands of other people solve their data problems. And we hear from them about how these roles have helped them in their careers. It’s not uncommon to see “Tableau Ambassador” appear on their LinkedIn profiles or resumes.
Let Your Community Influence Your Products
The great thing about an active community is that it will share input to help you build a superior product. When customers get together and discuss their problems and their wins, it gives your team an incredible chance to share that feedback with developers or salespeople who need it.
But your marketing team will need to be advocates for this within your business because it means aligning company resources to addressing customer feedback. That’s the important part. If your customers are willing to give you constructive feedback, you had better be willing to listen—and act!
Many companies maintain active user forums where customers can discuss new ideas and share input. This should be a place for discussion, not a one-way system for suggesting ideas. Make sure to devote resources from marketing and other teams to join this discussion and work directly with customers to address their feedback.
Party With Your Customers
Even though most of your interactions with customers will be digital, there’s nothing like connecting and getting face to face. That’s why you shouldn’t put old-school conferences and events in the rearview mirror.
When you do, though, make sure it’s a truly special event, and look for unique ways for your customers to interact with you. Staffing the entire event with your team, for instance, is a great way to build relationships. At our conference, it’s not uncommon to see one of our rock star engineers showing customers to their seats. That’s the level of TLC you should aim to deliver. You should also offer enriching content that will help your customers do better work with your product.
Yes, everyone loves a good concert or a party, but if you can help your customers get promoted, impress their bosses, change a process at their companies, then you’ll really have made a difference. And yes, you should also throw a great party. But with your community, it will feel more like a family reunion.
Ultimately, you need to keep in mind that it’s about the relationships you’re building with your customers. If you set out to nurture a product-based community and you’re thinking only about marketing or only about your company’s needs, you’re missing a thousand other opportunities to create real relationships with your customers.
A true community will be led by them and facilitated by you. It will involve every part of the company. And, yes, it will mean hearing praise but also criticism. The good news? You’ll be a better company and a better marketing team for it.