Community-Led Growth Nirvana

Five misconceptions and tactics to triumph over community-led growth roadblocks

Unless you have been at a silent retreat without access to the wild web since 2020, you are likely to know that community is the latest buzzword in tech. While sports teams and religions have been growing community-led for ages, communities are crowning new influencers in crypto, driving Github projects to global adoption, replacing formal classroom training, and driving brands to tens of millions in sales. Interest in the community is higher than ever, budgets and team sizes are growing, and more frameworks and tools are emerging.

During the last four years of building Femstreet, I have learned a lot about what it takes to launch, manage, scale and monetize a community. Femstreet started as a newsletter and then launched a paid membership. We run global events, now have a job board to help members post or find opportunities, and we are always exploring new ways for members to become more powerful builders and open source their knowledge.

Community building is top of mind for most founders. However, even with increased attention and tooling, there is still a lot of uncertainty around investing in a community, hiring the right talent, and measuring its impact.

The power of a GTC Strategy

In B2B, software buyers have endless choices in today's market, so companies can't only rely on features and pricing to win. Founders are more focused on building products that optimize for value and retention.

Developers replaced the classic RFP process, finding their answers in developer forums, and self-service trials have replaced vendor-controlled POCs. The purchasing power has become much more decentralized. Software buyers now often turn to their friends and peers for guidance and come to the table with a much more straightforward opinion on the available tools. They get information from people in their networks and social media, and use it to form their opinions on what is best for them.

The power of community-led growth is undeniable. I am convinced that community building will be one of the most important, if not the most important, skill for future founders across industries. It is one of the most powerful ways to establish your brand as the most trusted leader in a category, get close to prospective customers, partners, or even future employees. Every company has a GTM strategy, and those with enduring impact will also have a GTC (Go-To-Community) strategy.

But building community is more than just launching a Discord or Slack channel. There are many building blocks and questions you should ask yourself before going all-in: Who is the community for and who not, how the community's vision aligns with organizational goals, what value will you create for members, what members can do once they've joined, how to deliver insights from community conversations to the rest of the organization, and how to incentivize and reward participation? You can read more about this in one of our most popular Femstreet Q&As with Kim Johnson of Geneva, ex Glossier.

"You need to do the work to earn people's trust. You need to place yourself at the right place at the right time. You need to lead with the right intentions," said Rosie Sherry, Community Lead at Orbit.

While the benefits of a community-led go-to-market strategy are widely known and celebrated, the challenges associated with adopting this strategy are less often discussed. Getting it right is a lot harder than it may seem.

"We haven't reached a universally accepted definition of community. The tech space seems to have acknowledged that building community within or around your product is worth it, but I'm not sure everyone knows what we mean by it. Once we go beyond thinking of communities as audiences, social media followers, and general customers, I imagine we will see more valuable community-led growth." - Willa Tellekson-Flash, Head of Community at Public.com.

Five misconceptions and tactics to triumph over community-led growth roadblocks

In many industries, verticals, and stages, teams face similar challenges that inhibit the full potential of their community growth motion. I have combined my learnings from Femstreet with the thoughts of several community leaders from Orbit, CMX, Public, and Magic.

Here are some of the most common misconceptions:

1. You need to push for engagement & share content every day.

2. The community will run itself as you grow.

3. New community members will just find their way around.

4. It’s a push activity.

5. Marketing initiatives = community initiatives.

Let’s dive in to each:

1. You need to push for engagement & share content every day.

Companies can be too ambitious with their plans and start doing things that don't align with what the community wants. Members can easily get overwhelmed by all the links, resources, events, and new activities you're pushing. Engagement is a constant experiment, and it takes time to activate your most significant contributors. I have gone through many lows and highs with Femstreet. Don't be disappointed if some activities don't resonate; pick a few and move on if it doesn't work.

Tactic: Create peak moments.

Have you ever heard of “The Power of a Free Popsicle”? Compared to all the other fancy hotels in Beverly Hills, the Magic Castle Hotel is 3x cheaper and has a stellar rating on Tripadvisor. Visitors at the hotel's pool can pick up a red phone on a poolside wall to hear, "Hello, Popsicle Hotline" and request an ice-pop in their favourite flavor, which will be delivered on a silver plate by an employee wearing white gloves at no charge. What does it tell us? You only need one impactful moment for a member to have an authentic community experience, and you don’t have to be good at everything. We tend to retain only the most exciting, scary, or surprising experiences, so focus on creating defining these moments. For some Femstreet members, a peak moment was our party with a DJ on a rooftop in NYC in 2019, making a meaningful connection at one of our bi-weekly community check-ins, which tend to be a little quirky, or getting linked to the right person to help with a specific ask on Slack, or even getting a job through the community. Keep innovating on how you bring people together, and when something works, double down. Less is more.


2. The community will run itself as you grow.

At some point, you will have to organize your members into scalable teams and empower them to lead. When we reached a substantial number of ~ 300 paid members, I felt we had enough people on Slack to help each other, volunteer to lead on new initiatives, and for a while, it seemed as it would run itself. You can set up more processes and frameworks over time, but your community will need continued leadership. And the transition from hands-on community building in the early days to building community at scale is where many companies get stuck. And where I got stuck at myself with Femstreet.

"A company may start running a program where community members can become chapter leaders running events for their local community. They can get by using spreadsheets, disparate event tools, and duct-taping together dashboards for a while. It usually breaks at about 30 chapters." - David Spinks, Founder of CMX.

Tactic: Plan for and review community operations at scale.

At scale, growing your community becomes less about hands-on relationship building and more about community operations. Communities are forever evolving, and you need to adapt or risk dying. Approach community building as progressive acts of collaboration, and review your activities based on members' feedback accordingly. As you grow, it's all about creating repeatable processes that will enable you to onboard hundreds of chapter leaders and collect data from hundreds of events being hosted every month.


3. New community members will just find their way around.

Many companies don't think about how to meaningfully onboard new members into a community. One thing that is often overlooked and only gets harder as you grow is tackling fragmented learning in your community. Many benefits you offer might end up being underutilized because members aren't aware or can't keep up. Joining a community can be overwhelming, and fragmented learning is a real pain.

Tactic: Create an on-boarding guide and docs to tackle fragmented learning early on.

Consolidating material/resources and unifying the learning experience is essential. You want to help new members navigate your community, find vetted resources & docs, events, and connect with relevant people. Our community has created many resources, but members continue to ask the same questions on Slack. We have a member directory, which I believe is still under utilised, and launched the Operator Ocean, a community generated Notion page with 250 resources about company building. We also created a one-pager for new Femstreet members, including a check list that helps new members get the most out of the community. You can also start by sending them a personalized welcome email and inviting them to an initiation event for new members. Or assign them a buddy or mentor. Make this fun; treat on-boarding like you're inviting a mutual friend to a party.


4. It’s a push activity.

Your customers are adept at learning what they need to know about products and services. Customers have become self-directed. They're using all the devices, channels, and resources to develop their impressions and form their conclusions. Community isn't about pushing people toward a binary endpoint, but creating a compelling space that naturally attracts more people.

Tactic: Focus on high gravity.

A community is a robust web of bonds that form from the rituals and memories that members experience. If done well, you enable fruitful discussions between community members, create value, and understand the second-order impacts of those activities on your business. You should build relationships and environments that encourage people to pull from you what they need when they need it. Building and nurturing community relationships takes time. Create a clear, valuable incentive for your users to keep coming back, delight those who do, and work with them to send a clear, authentic message to the world about your product. Community is all about pull and high gravity, being clever at attracting and retaining community members and pulling in new ones. You can feel the gravity go up when members participate more, and go down when you lose some or participation declines. With Orbit you can even measure it.


5. Marketing initiatives = community initiatives.

Building a community is a manual process and requires a lot of human time and attention. Some of your efforts today and the impact of them could take months or years. Companies often view community as a nice-to-have addition to GTM efforts. They hire a community leader in the marketing team, and then measure their success based on the goals of everyone else in that team. Community and marketing however, have different inputs and outputs.

It's tough to retrofit a marketing-oriented plan onto a community initiative. That's why, for example, developer relationships and community teams should not have sales metrics to measure their success. - Maricris Bonzo, Developer Advocate at Magic.

Tactic: Treat community as a separate organizational entity, with its own measures, budget, and people. Define and test hypotheses on how your GTC plan affects your GTM. Configure your own CQL model.

Results for go-to-community must be measured by the growth and retention of the community itself, and by less tangible qualities, such as the number of new relationships or the degree of trust developed. Unlike GTM, GTC focuses on creating value, educating, entertaining and equipping individuals independent of their business relationship. Define and test assumptions about how your GTC plan affects GTM. For example, "Active community members retain 50% longer in the product than non-members." and communicate it to other departments. In addition, keep track of your Community Qualified Leads (Mary Thengvall coined this term) to attribute value to the activities in which your community team is involved: your introductions between community members and your colleagues (in marketing, sales, product, engineering, BD, HR) and your introductions between community members. Community leaders can also help identify new patterns in your audience that can inform the personalities on which marketing and product teams work. All this has business value, and you can measure it.


Thank you for your input on this post, Rosie Sherry of Orbit, Willa Tellekson-Flash of Public.com, Maricris Bonzo of Magic and David Spinks of CMX, and many other community wizards that inspire me every day. 

If you’re building something where community is at the centre of your GTM, in consumer or B2B, please contact me to trade notes and tell me more at sarah@northzone.com.