👋 Hi, I’m Kyle from OpenView and welcome to my newsletter, Growth Unhinged. Every other week I take a closer look at what drives a SaaS company’s growth. Expect deep dive takes on SaaS pricing, product-led growth, benchmarks, and much more.
In a product-led (PLG) business, some of the tried-and-true SaaS growth tactics aren’t at your disposal.
Since you’re initially focused on users rather than executive buyers, outbound cold calling loses its effectiveness (although that may change as you scale). Since users can get started for free, you can’t always afford to outbid your competitors on search and other paid channels.
But your end user focus is actually your biggest advantage, and it’s a growth lever hiding in plain sight. That’s where community comes into play.
Community is an incredible multiplier on a PLG strategy. In my opinion, a community strategy can be applied to nearly every PLG business; the question is finding the right community strategy. Community is a win-win on so many levels:
Marketing: It helps you reach new and untapped audiences who are highly qualified because they’ve interacted with current users.
Product: It adds value to your existing users by helping them be more successful, both with the product and in their working life.
Customer Success: It creates stickiness by increasing the switching costs associated with changing products.
Finance: It doesn’t need to cost much to get started.
But what is a “community” anyway and how should a founder implement a community strategy for the first time? Hot take: it’s way more complex than just launching a Slack group.
I’ll break down fascinating non-Slack community plays to get inspired by and elaborate on two community + PLG case studies: Notion and Productboard.
Special thanks to Ben Lang (Head of Community, Notion) and Scott Baldwin (Community Lead and Product Evangelist, Productboard) for sharing their insights.
1 - Amplify community creators
Your best users find new and creative ways of using your product to power their own working lives. After spending hours on their creations, these users are often excited to share their work back with others.
This community sharing tends to happen organically and seemingly spontaneously. You can amplify it to reach new users and inspire existing users to do more with your product.
Notion, the team workspace now valued at an eye-popping $10B, makes a great case study.
Ben Lang discovered Notion on Product Hunt well before the product had taken off and become a household name. After using Notion for a couple of days, he was blown away by the power of what he could create. That’s when Ben decided to tweet his Notion setup and start building a template gallery for other users to do the same. Not long after, Ben’s template gallery side project was attracting as many as 70,000 visits per month.
All of that took place before Ben ever formally connected with the Notion team. But it wasn’t long before Notion recruited him to join full-time as Head of Community and one of the first 10 or so employees.
Since then Ben and his team have doubled down on amplifying Notion creators and superfans. Their community efforts include:
Building out the Template Gallery on Notion’s website (pro-tip: these are great for top-of-funnel SEO).
Starting an Ambassador program to connect superfans with the company and each other.
Encouraging the community to create their own spaces to connect and learn from each other. Notion’s community run groups (all started by Ambassadors) reach hundreds of thousands of users (ex: Notion Vietnam has 200k members).
Sponsoring social media influencers who have large followings on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok and are keen to share what they’ve made.
Even now that Notion’s community efforts have taken off, Ben’s team is still pushing further in new and creative areas. For example, Notion has recently leaned into helping creators build a business with Notion through consulting, instructional courses, and premium templates that can be sold via the Template Gallery (here’s an example).
Other examples include the Miroverse Community Template Gallery, ServiceNow’s CreatorCon developer community, Unity’s Asset Store, and Figma’s community plug-ins.
2 - Connect users with their peers
Many SaaS companies build products for one specific function or industry. That level of focus allows them to play a unique role in the working lives of their users: that of the connector.
Playing the role of connector helps existing users become more successful and helps attract prospective users who want to replicate this success.
From my vantage point, connecting users with their peers is something that many companies try to do, but few truly succeed. It can be difficult for a SaaS company’s peer community to stand out when there are other 3rd party community organizations vying for attention. It can also be challenging to demonstrate ROI, especially since peer communities need to be seen as community-centric rather than commercially-motivated.
All that said, it’s relatively straightforward and cost-effective to get these peer communities off the ground. From there you can double down if and when you get sufficient pull from your community members.
Productboard, the product management platform and newly minted unicorn, did exactly that.
The company’s community v1 was a Slack workspace built for product learning; Productboard invited select customers to share feedback and ideas into the product roadmap. It wasn’t widely advertised or formally managed at first. Over time, this Slack group started taking on more and more use cases like support, customer success, and as a forum for users to share their experiences.
Scott Baldwin, now Productboard’s Community Lead and Product Evangelist, was one of the company’s very early customers. In fact, he watched the company present at TechCrunch Disrupt and bought it soon after. Not surprisingly, Scott was an active member of Productboard’s v1 Slack community. He then formally joined Productboard in 2020 with a mandate to amplify these peer community efforts and migrate off Slack.
Scott’s team decided to launch the Product Makers Community, a standalone home for Productboard’s community members to connect and learn about product excellence. The Product Makers community includes a few different elements:
Sub-groups (ex: womxn in product) for users to find their own tribe within the 3,000+ product makers.
“Meet a Maker” 1:1 match-making where users get automatically matched with other members for 1:1 video chats.
Regular roundtables and virtual events facilitated by community members.
An active discussion forum that’s categorized and searchable.
To measure success, Scott and his team monitor acquisition and engagement: size of the community, growth in membership, active usage, attracting non-customers as members. The end goal is to generate an ongoing pool Community Qualified Leads (CQLs), similar to Product Qualified Leads (PQLs) but identified based on community activity instead of product activity.
Other examples include Procore’s Construction Network, which connects contractors, architects, engineers, and suppliers to work together on projects, and Pocus’s invite-only Product-Led Sales Community.
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3 - Be active within existing communities
Before launching your own peer community from scratch, you may want to lean on existing communities where your users hang out.
We’re starting to see the rise of dominant “PLG 1.0” companies across different SaaS categories ranging from eCommerce (Shopify) to marketing (HubSpot) to cloud infrastructure (AWS). These products have millions of active users who frequent the companies’ content, marketplace, and events. By becoming a trusted voice in these existing communities, you’ll benefit from the years of investments that have already been made.
Perhaps the area where this approach has been leveraged to the greatest extent is the Shopify marketplace and community, which counts 1.7 million businesses that have collectively made >$200 billion USD in sales.
Klaviyo, a customer data and marketing automation platform valued at over $9B, is one Shopify-adjacent success story. Other examples include Yotpo (reviews and loyalty), Privy (pop ups), Spocket (drop shipping), and Postscript (SMS marketing).
First and foremost, Klaviyo has made significant investments into its presence on Shopify’s App Store, generating nearly 1,500 reviews and making it free to install for a Shopify’s merchant’s first 250 contacts. They’ve also invested in an extremely detailed help center and content around connecting Shopify and Klaviyo. Meanwhile Klaviyo has partnered with Shopify influencers to promote how to use the products together (one YouTube video alone has generated over 53,000 views). It’s no surprise that the company was extremely well positioned when Shopify removed Mailchimp’s integration from its marketplace in 2019, leaving many Shopify merchants eager for a new solution.
Other examples include the Slack App Directory, Google’s Chrome extension Web Store, Apple’s App Store, and HubSpot App Marketplace.
4 - Build a content community
Another underrated community strategy: technical content.
You don’t need to be a BuzzFeed listicle connoisseur to know that content is inherently viral. Folks have ideas that they want to disseminate. Others consume those ideas and want to talk about them with their peers, share them with colleagues, or respond to them with their own perspective.
A content community helps attract and engage with an audience, which is an important foundation for any broader community strategy. It also establishes your brand as a trusted voice in your industry and genuinely adds value for your target users. Plus it’s something you can both measure and connect back to your product itself, creating a tighter attribution between investment and impact compared to other community strategies.
DigitalOcean, the developer cloud company valued at $6B+, has built one of my favorite content communities and has attracted >1 million developers in the process.
As DigitalOcean’s content community reached a broader audience, the company was able to introduce its DOnations program where authors get paid for contributing a new DigitalOcean tutorial. Payouts can range from $75 to $400 each. Beyond the payout, contributors get help honing their writing skills and get to showcase their knowledge to hundreds of thousands of their peers. Community-generated content helps bring new members into the community, setting up a community powered growth flywheel.
Other content community examples include Twilio’s Documentation, HashiCorp Learn, Drift Insider, and the Applitools Test Automation University.
5 - Acquire an established community
Why create your own community if someone else has already done it for you?
I’m starting to see more SaaS companies acquire (or acqui-hire) an independent media entity rather than build their own from scratch.
Examples are starting to pile up and include:
Pendo acquiring Mind the Product (announced Feb 1, 2022)
Gainsight acquiring inSided to enable community-led growth
These independent media entities have cracked the code on attracting a large and highly engaged audience, yet often struggle to monetize that audience on their own. Meanwhile SaaS companies tend to be excellent a monetizing an audience, but struggle to cost effectively scale their audience over time.
While the acquisition route can be enticing, it’s not usually the best starting point for the average SaaS company. It’s lower risk to begin by partnering with these communities and piloting your own efforts before diving head first into an unknown acquisition.
Advice for getting started
Regardless of which direction you choose, you need to start your efforts with the right mindset. Think of it as building with your community rather than for the community, Scott Baldwin urged. Then extend community efforts one step at a time based on input and feedback from your constituents.
Attribution will a challenge; don’t expect community initiatives to have an immediate or measurable ROI attached to them. Focus instead on what you can control: community engagement.
How many people are participating?
How sustained is their participation?
How often are existing community members bringing in new members?
As you crack the code on engagement, start to create your own definition of a Community Qualified Lead (CQL) and measure their journey through the funnel.
Resourcing and prioritization will always be a challenge. As with any fast growing company, you will likely have more ideas than you have available resources.
The good news is that you don’t need a massive team to get started. It’s usually best to stay lean and test new programs as an MVP, leaning on existing team members, contractors, and freelancers for support. Then hire dedicated program managers to double down on what works.
Pro-tip: your early adopter community members are a great pool for finding community talent.
This is an important insight. For some companies the best complement to PLG will be Community Led Growth. It takes real commitment to the community to execute on this though, it can't just be posturing. Community members have to get value from being part of the community. Ideally, having the community should enhance the value of the product.