Product Feedback, Experience & Support
Here are three critical principles that founders should keep in mind when leveraging community to shape their product:
Be intentional about incorporating community into your product development process
Look for opportunities to establish the community as the product itself
Design the community to support itself
These three critical principles need to be considered in the context of an organizational design. In other words, where should the community function sit and how should it be measured? We discuss each of these points below.
The first challenge for entrepreneurs is to develop and test their idea with prospective customers. Customer discovery involves deep inquiry into problems that prospective customers face, ideation regarding possible solutions, and identifying falsifiable hypotheses to test whether those solutions compellingly address the problems. Entrepreneurs need to spend countless hours identifying and researching customer problems to explore unmet needs.
Communities can be powerful sources of information to inform customer discovery and product development. Like product managers, community managers can elicit feedback and insight through smart research techniques and community immersion.
As David Noel, the first community manager at SoundCloud, put it, “my job was to be a sponge - to go out into the community and absorb all the water but only squeeze back into the product team the feedback they really needed to know.” 1
SoundCloud went so far as to assign a community lead for each product team to ensure the community’s insights were being fed into the product development process. The Android community team meets weekly with the Android product team, while the iOS community team does the same with their product team.
1 First Round Review, From Instant Pot to Instagram: Critical Lessons in Startup Community Building.
Jono Bacon, author of People Powered, observes that there is a science to extracting feedback from your community. He notes,
__“no matter how much you invite feedback from your community, some people just won’t be comfortable being blunt or critical.” __
You need to lean into the critical feedback and, in particular, solicit feedback from those in the community who have the highest community standing. These community members don’t fear the repercussions of providing that blunt feedback in public forums or private venues such as user conferences or product roadmap briefings.
Anya Benbarak, Chief Revenue Officer of Honeybook, reports that when the Covid-19 pandemic hit the company, it was a clarifying moment for how critical it is to listen to their community and its product requirements. The product roadmap process typically involves deciding among many competing priorities and constituents, but at that moment in time, “we realized that if our customers fail, we will fail.” Thus, Honeybook’s product team solely focused on providing features that their community demanded and innovated its product faster than they ever had before.
The overall key insight here is that customer discovery and validation is a continuous process. Being tied into your community allows you to leverage it as a valuable resource to fuel that process. Listening to your community members, and being transparent about your product roadmap and challenges, can turn them into a valuable product requirements generation machine.
Why do senior executive women, arguably the busiest and most stretched individuals on the planet, flock to sign up for Chief? What is the magic?
The secret to Chief is that the community itself is the product. The company is a private network designed to support exceptional professional women with a core set of services such as coaching, peer learning, and network building.
Yes, there is a mobile app that delivers content and a clubhouse that hosts a multitude of events. But the secret sauce is that members want to be in the community with the other members. They want peer-to-peer coaching and mutual accountability for their individual and collective success. Designing a community to be the product itself requires a well-designed community that rewards participation and generates tremendous value.
Scott Heiferman, founder of Meetup, summarized it well in Bailey Richardson’s book, Get Together: How to Build A Community With Your People.
Community members “show up for the Meetup but come back for the people.” 1
1 Get Together: How to Build a Community with Your People. Book by Bailey Richardson, Kai Elmer Sotto, and Kevin Huynh.
Creating a community that is itself the product often involves creating what venture capitalist Andy Johns calls a flywheel effect to creating content communities. The flywheel effect is that you need to design your community paradigm to create energy, typically content, that itself generates more interest in the community. Johns gives Reddit as an example, where the content created by the users is discovered in Google and shared via social media to generate more user traffic. These social media shares, in turn, generate more content and create a self-propagating rotational engine.
Content communities are not the only examples of communities where the product is the actual community. Others include:
Chief, a network community
MongoDB, a software development community
Codecademy, a learning community
In each case, the community architecture is centered around value delivery and a positive feedback loop that provides a network effect to community creation, value proposition, and community development.
In other examples, you may see the community formed first and then a product built around the community. Community software company Commsor is an example of this approach. Commsor first built out a community of community managers – a very meta concept! After successfully establishing this community, which they call the Community Club, Commsor then built a software product with analytics and engagement tools for community managers. Whether you build community around your product or a product around your community, designing the community to support and nurture itself is a key element of success.
1 Flywheels. Article by Andrew Sohn.
Having a community that can support itself has multiple benefits, the most obvious of which is cost and leverage.
A small, ten-person startup can’t expect its staff to be deeply engaged in supporting across a community of millions. Thus, a community’s ability to support itself not only provides cost advantages but also reduces friction to enable a company to scale rapidly.
One paradigm that Bacon recommends is to create a culture of paying it forward where core members of the community support regulars and casual members, regular members support casual members, and casual members support new members. In other words, at each step of the community journey, members are encouraged to provide mentoring and peer support to the newer members. The figure below from Bacon’s book illustrates this concept nicely:
In her book, Richardson emphasizes that the community design approach taken by cookware startup Instant Pot was rooted in a desire to connect customers with each other and scale support.
“They had lots of people who were hobbyists. They wanted to get the most out of an Instant Pot or do creative things with it. Connecting users directly to one another in a Facebook group allowed them to get basic questions answered much faster than they could've scaled customer support at the time,” she observes.2
Creating incentives for the community to support itself requires careful consideration. In large part, members of a community invest in supporting others when they feel a sense of ownership. Blockchain-based communities literally provide ownership through the issuance of tokens. Financial incentives are powerful motivators of behavior. Other communities require an ethos of ownership to be created and rewards that are less tangible. Stars, badges, and other signals of contribution are ways to convey recognition, status, and competence. By creating methods for members to build up their reputation when they support others -- creating a sense of belonging and purpose -- communities can enhance the self-perpetuating power of a supportive community. On the flip side, as communities scale, it is critical to have strict content moderation and monitoring to avoid illegal content and dangerous behavior.
2 First Round Review, From Instapot to Instagram: Critical Lessons in Startup Community Building
Atlassian provides a nice example of how to invest in community leaders to elevate their effectiveness and status. When a new community leader is recruited, a 60 day on boarding plan is created with intentional touch points and nudges each week to surprise and delight the new community leader. New community leaders are encouraged to host online events with customers to help answer questions, share interesting articles, discuss product usage, and any new features.
If a community leader has not hosted an event within any given three-month period, they are flagged and contacted by an Atlassian community staff member. Community leaders have different status levels based on how many events they host per year and receive awards personally from the company’s cofounders as they progress from silver, gold, and platinum (nicknamed “Beyoncé status”). These mechanisms enable Atlassian to create an ethos of community ownership and support.
Many entrepreneurs struggle with the questions of where the community function should report. Is it a marketing, engineering, or product function? Or should it report directly to the founder? The choice of reporting structure depends on the nature of a community, its objective, and the signal you wish to send internally.
If you wish to send the signal that community is a deeply strategic function, have the role report to the CEO, even if temporarily while some of the other functions are maturing operationally. More typically, the community function reports to a customer-facing function like marketing or product. For example, the Atlassian community team reports to the head of Brand Experience and Customer Engagement, who reports to the Chief Marketing Officer.
Community managers typically require demonstrated expertise and skills in the following areas: • Customer support • Content generation • Social media marketing • Branding and PR • Internal organizational navigation
Typically, those skills fit well inside a marketing organization, but they can also be well-suited for a product organization or even as a standalone function reporting directly to the CEO.
Critically, the Head of Community needs to operate and prodigiously communicate cross functionally. They need to understand the engineering workflow and seek out technical insight to help address customer needs. They also need to be close to the product team, as mentioned above, to provide tangible feedback as efficiently as possible. The best community managers avoid silos. Instead, they are team builders, service-oriented, and dedicated to playing that liaison role, bridging the two worlds between the community and company. In short, it matters less who the head of community reports to and more how it operates within the organization.
The value of building community to enhance your product development process, customer experience, and support processes should be clear. The community’s impact can be woven into each of the organization’s operational systems if designed and integrated properly.