How to build and scale B2B communities

Published on
February 21st, 2022
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This story was contributed to the Product Hunt Blog by Patrick Woods, co-founder and CEO of Orbit.
Companies are increasingly understanding the strategic value of community to grow their business. They realize that buyers have endless choices in today’s market, so relying on features or pricing to win business won’t lead to a sustainable advantage. That’s why a commonality across this year’s many public listings has been companies who have made community an integral part of their business strategy. From Roblox and Duolingo, to PoshMark, Confluent, and UIPath—businesses across all sectors are becoming community-driven.
Yet, based on my hundreds of conversations with leaders from early-stage B2B companies to global consumer brands, one of the biggest challenges for many is how to get started. Community building may be as old as humanity itself, but community in a commercial context is an emerging competence. There are tactics and frameworks you can adopt to get you going on the right path.

Before building community

Why build a community?
The relationship between companies and customers is changing. Buyers no longer rely on sales pitches and marketing to learn about and choose new products. Their decisions are also based on what they know and love or the recommendations of friends, colleagues, social media peers, or even strangers online. They want to try before they buy, read reviews and guides, and get advice from others on avoiding pitfalls.
Community embraces this behavioral shift. It gives people a path to explore and learn about a new product or technology on their own terms. This empowers potentials customers, contributors and fans, and can lead to all sorts of positive outcomes for the company, including:
  • Guest contributors who can write, give talks, provide quotes, etc.
  • An engaged, relevant audience to invite to events
  • Users who can share their success and knowledge with potential users
  • An engaged pool of people to gather feedback and ideas, or even hire from
As a result, when done right, community can be a moat from competition and can build brand advocacy, increase switching costs, and provide go-to-market efficiencies, among many other benefits.
How will you create, not just capture, value?
The most successful community programs are focused on value creation for members, not solely on capturing value for the business. By value creation, I mean connecting, educating, equipping, and inspiring your audience, independent of the economic value of those individuals.
Practically, this means things like creating content, running events, writing tutorials and guides, or establishing ways for people to connect. As a business, you’re not building community for altruistic reasons, so of course, capturing value at some point is essential to the success and continued investment in any community program. But, for best outcomes, it should be viewed as a second-order effect of creating a compelling value creation machine that leads to a vibrant community and stronger relationships. To dive into this, the Community Discovery framework can help you explore ideas as you prepare to build community, while the SPACES model enables you to consider the business value. Once you have a clear view of what you hope to achieve, then it’s time to get started building your community.

Getting started with community

Study your people
Not unlike the first stages of product development, the early part of building community is highly collaborative, requiring iteration and manual, hands-on work. It starts by being genuinely interested in the people — the potential members of your community.
One way to do this tactically is to be the first to privately message a new person in the community. If they’re active online, then subscribe to their newsletter, jump into their Twitch stream, be their first follower, or the first to comment on their latest blog post. It pays to take the time and learn about your first members. Once you’ve engaged with 15-20 people, you’ll start to understand them, which is crucial for the next step of the process.
Build real relationships
If you want to build relationships, then try to build genuine relationships. Facilitating conversations is a big part of early-stage community building. If a user is asking a question about your product or making an observation, then reach out. Have a conversation. Then, close the loop — follow-up with community members when a bug impacting them is squashed or their feedback is implemented. Going the extra mile resonates with community members.
Curate content
Another successful tactic is curating content. On the one hand, it's a great way to get to know community members through the types of things they're writing about and consuming. But it also gives you the chance to make sure you're fully ramped on the subject matter yourself. Lenny's Newsletter, for example, is a community where people talk about product management and growth and share all sorts of wisdom about these topics. It started with curating content. Lenny asks for questions and returns actionable advice to the community. He also highlights helpful conversations from Slack channels in a weekly newsletter.
After you have tried these steps, decide what's working and what's not before leaning into your initial momentum.

How to scale up your community

Track activities across channels
To understand your momentum, you need to know the conversations that are resonating on which platforms. Most communities today are distributed across multiple platforms, including social media like Twitter, forums like Discourse, chat platforms like Discord or Slack, events platforms, and first-party tools like mailing lists and in-app messaging. Start by figuring out how many community members are active on each platform, then ask yourself questions about which actions drive engagement, like: Does tweeting more drive engagement in the forum or elsewhere? Do meet-ups increase participation? This will enable you to identify the most significant opportunities to maximize your impact.
Create value where it is needed most
You will also maximize your impact by creating value where it's needed most. Start segmenting your community by engagement, and armed with that, build programs for each of them.
One of my favorite examples of this is the community team at Rasa. They realized that they lacked contributors at what they call “the hero level.” By speaking with their existing heroes, they figured out what heroes typically like to do and then created engagement initiatives around them.
Build community flywheels
Have an experimental mindset as you're testing approaches during this phase. Instead of focusing on big-bang tactics, the compounding effect of building community flywheels helps build momentum more consistently. An effective flywheel creates energy or traction, which then naturally leads to growth. For example, in your forum or chat, you might ask new members to introduce themselves. Then have a second step where you comment on something specific in their intro, ask a follow-up question, and add relevant emoji reactions. Though it may seem trivial, this type of interaction de-risks that initial touchpoint for folks as they're onboarding to the community. When they see other people having conversations and lots of emojis and comments flying around, it signals that this is a safe space, and they're encouraged to contribute more.
Another tactic to experiment with is writing about community members. When someone in your Slack community shares an observation or tip, follow up on that with a tweet thread mentioning them and what you learned. Then include that content in your newsletter. When you regularly share content created by members with your audience, other members are more likely to begin contributing their ideas too. Glitch does this well by curating member-created projects in a regular round-up. Taken further, Figma and CodeSandbox have built a community showcase into their core product.

Is your company ready to build community?

The last question: is your whole company ready? Community requires a long-term view and can take a few iterations to get right. Companies can struggle with this by beginning but then quickly shuttering community programs when they don’t see an immediate return. Your company will see the benefits, but only after you’ve nailed creating value for the community. So you’ll need buy-in from senior management to steer the course.
If your whole organization becomes community-driven, you increase your capacity to build relationships and connect to people in the community. You can make this happen by asking other teams to participate in the discussions, attend your events, and share their news. Get product team members involved in conversations about features and feedback, and connect your recruiting team with active community members. Along the way, share and socialize all community input, ideas, and concerns with the rest of the company.
Together, these steps create a virtuous cycle that can kickstart your community. Those that see community as merely an add-on to their go-to-market efforts will fail, but when adopted thoughtfully, it can be a unique competitive advantage that leverages the entire audience around a product.
Comments (8)
Abraham Samma
Building relationships is a very underappreciated thing you could do that doesn't scale. It's fulfilling, you get ideas for future products, features, constructive criticism. It's amazing really!
Chris Mottes
Hi Patrick, I am not sure I understand how this relates specifically to B2B community building? The challenge with B2B customers is that you are appealing to people who themselves are looking to create value for their own companies with everything they engage in as a representative of their business. Consumers are motivated by very different things and are more passionate about the products they choose in my experience.
Divya Rajendran
@cmottes In that case you can build external engagement community where the community connects people with similar interests!
Manab Boruah
Thank you for sharing @patrickjwoods. If I have to choose an Online Community Platform, what are the boxes should I tick? Any recommendation helps.
Monica Lent
Lots of great topics covered here. Another post people reading this might find helpful, and digs into "Study Your People", is this one from 2020:
Roshan Jain
I would say, a mind blowing article on building and scaling community.