The latest growth tactic to enter the SaaS sphere is community-led growth, and it’s already proving to be a mainstay that will shift priorities for marketing.
Growing a community is hardly a new concept, and the role of ‘Community Manager’ has been around for over a decade. But the understanding of what this really means has shifted significantly. What was once ‘managing’ a community of followers is now defining, growing, and fostering a loyal, engaged community of individuals who truly believe in your brand and product.
This slow evolution has led to a more dramatic shift in the role of community and its importance to a brand: Community-led growth.
What is community-led growth?
Community-led growth is a SaaS marketing strategy that makes fostering a strong, engaged, enthusiastic community a key component (or, in some cases, THE key component) to your product’s growth.
Anyone who has managed a social media platform in their career will be thrilled to hear that community-led growth is a lot less focused on the vanity metrics like followers or likes, and a lot more focused on the things that make a real community special. Think interaction, participation, a sense of belonging, giving advice or solving problems together, and even sharing in-jokes.
What’s caused the community-led growth wave in SaaS?
Community-led growth has been gaining traction because of a confluence of events:
People started seeking community online
By now you’re probably sick of hearing about COVID-19 accelerating changes in the tech world, but it really has caused a seismic shift in the way we interact online as professionals. Sent indoors, away from the chatter of colleagues and the coffee catch-ups with peers, professionals around the world have been craving a sense of community and a way to network. So we built it or found it online. Throughout the pandemic, Slack groups around specific topics like B2B content marketing and product-led growth popped up, while Instagram accounts like @workinsocialtheysaid and @mediasellerproblems flourished as workers looked for people who just got it, and wanted to laugh through it.
All of this meant that people were gathering in online communities to “talk shop” in a new way. Given that hybrid work is here to stay, those communities will only get stronger over time.
Crowd-sourcing opinions is crucial in a saturated market
And where once there were a few solutions to each problem, now customers are faced with a huge array of options. Short of trialing every single one, the best option is to speak to other professionals who have tried one or multiple options. Let’s say you’re the Managing Editor at a digital publication. You need a productivity tool that is robust enough to support a huge number of tasks and team members, but intuitive enough that writers and creatives will actually WANT to use it. Maybe you’ve tried Asana and Trello before, but you’ve heard good things about Monday and Notion. And, so, before you’ve even had the need to search ‘best project management software for writers,’ you have four options in front of you. So you go to your community of writers and editors and you ask them. What you get in return is more than just a star rating, it’s a real experience from people who use the platform in the exact same way you intend to. What could be better than that?
Parasocial relationships have strengthened
Parasocial relationships are most often referenced in relation to celebrities or, more recently, influencers. The COVID-19 pandemic (here we go again) has made these unidirectional relationships more common than ever before.
A 2021 study showed that the “pandemic-induced reliance on screens to engage with real-life friends may have blurred the cognitive distinctions between real-life friends and liked media personae, thereby strengthening PSRs.”
Brands have implemented the same principles as celebrities and influencers who are, increasing, brands with multiple products to sell themselves. By facilitating connections with consumers, brand love grows, along with loyalty and ambassadorship.
While this is not directly related to SaaS consumers, it does mean that consumers in general are more open to parasocial relationships, giving industries that are more regulated, technical or specific license to play.
The beloved, ‘unhinged’ Duolingo owl is a great example of how parasocial relationships are formed in online communities. Before it amassed nearly 3M followers on TikTok, Duo had a cult following on Reddit where memes about the big green owl becoming threatening when you forget to do your lesson were popularized.
This was the inspiration behind the strategy that Zaria Parvez, Duolingo’s social media manager, built. Today, Duo behaves on TikTok exactly like any other member of the community would — commenting, starting conversations, and riffing off the in-jokes that fuel TikTok. And the millennials and gen z’s who hit like before they’ve even finished the video love the brand mascot in the same way they love their favorite influencers.
Benefits of a community-led growth approach
It’s clear from the above that SaaS consumers are primed for online communities, but the question remains — how will a community-led growth approach benefit your SaaS business, and what type of SaaS businesses should prioritize this approach?
These three benefits of a community-led growth approach are common but, the truth is, until you open your brand up to a community, there’s really no telling the potential.
Create brand loyalty and advocacy By creating a community around your brand, you are better able to establish a differentiation point to ultimately grow brand loyalty and, soon after, advocacy. People fall in love with products because they solve a problem in their life, but people fall in love with brands because they have a personality and a set of values and beliefs that resonate with them. By creating a community of like-minded individuals, your brand can really show off its personality.
Become a thought leader With a community, you open up a forum for a group of people to ask questions, share solutions, and work through tricky business problems together. As the business facilitating this, you are a part of the solution.
Along the way, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to solve problems with your product or through business advice. Or you’ll uncover some of the stickiest problems and find a way to solve them with your product.
This is a far more meaningful and productive version of the thought leadership we see from brands time and time again.
Low cost, low churn acquisition Make no mistake, establishing, growing, and managing a strong community takes time and the best communities are well-resourced. But the cost often ends there. Most communities live on free or low-cost platforms and do not require your business to spend on a CPM or CPA basis. Think of them as a growth loop — each input creates an output and the cycle continues.
If you’re operating in a sales-led or sales-led/product-led hybrid model, your sales team will be able to use the forum to identify leads and chat with them right there in the community channel.
Additionally, the individuals who discover your product through the community are more likely to stick around. After all, they’re part of a group of people who can offer inspiration and advice on how best to use your product and they have a form in which they can share feedback with you, the brand.
Real-time feedback and idea-generation Sure, you have customer support and a forum for your product users to submit requests, but nothing compares to the kind of actionable feedback you will receive through a community portal where you can chat to those requesting a product feature or poll a group of people who are an active part of your industry. Customer support can also benefit as community members solve each other’s problems and can search the community for answers previously provided. By doing this, you’ll decrease the number of tickets received and make every answer you’ve shared go further.
Examples of SaaS community-led growth
In the 2022 Community-Led Report, it was shown that the most common community engagement channels were online events followed by a forum, Slack or Discord channel. Social media platforms, including Facebook groups, and real-life events are, naturally, two other front-runners.
In the SaaS sphere, some brands have made huge strides with their community, tapping into these platforms and letting the community take them where they need to be. Let’s take a look…
Notion's Marketing lead Camille Ricketts, “saw that there were a couple of people on Twitter who were very, very vocal about how wonderful Notion was. And she saw this and she realized, 'Okay, this is our community. What do we need to do to embrace these people and bring them in?'”
In exploring this, Notion came across Ben Lang who was running his own Notion fan site and offered him a full-time job as Notion’s Head of Community. From there, they aggregated the ambassadors they had around the globe and gave them access to founders and Notion employees, funds if they wanted to secure venues for events, and invited them to share feedback on the product — both in real life and online.
This started a ripple effect — more people who used and loved the product started their own clubs, communities, forums and even their own businesses. One member of the Notion community, Marie Poulin offers a course called Notion Mastery that regularly sells out classes and is endorsed by Ivan Zhao, CEO and Founder of Notion.
So, what have Notion done here? Instead of creating strict rules around brand usage, they allow fans around the world to use their brand and make any swag they want. Instead of just sharing or liking content created around their product, they actively encourage and sponsor it. They’ve created pages for templates, share a calendar of community events on their site, and offer merch to anyone who attends or hosts a webinar. They even offer Notion-inspired art for iPhone and Zoom backgrounds.
This ‘go with the flow’ example is a great lesson for every brand. Encouraging community means really encouraging it. Not merely sharing, but funding, facilitating, offering access, and really allowing your community to, as Nottebohm says, “tell your story for you.”
Figma profiles and templates
Figma was designed for collaboration between teams, but it takes things one step further with the Figma Community, a place where users can access plugins, wireframes, illustrations, icons, and design systems from Figma and its entire user base.
One of the great things about this model is that it actually gives their community a chance to self-promote, while sharing brand love. Illustrators, designers, and UX professionals create profiles and share their templates with people all over the world, showing off what they can do.
Figma also offers designers, developers, and design systems creators a chance to share their opinions, research or work with the world in their Design Systems digital publication. More than a brand blog, Design Systems is more like a magazine that offers articles, lessons, and perspectives from industry professionals, as well as a regular newsletter.
Surfer SEO Facebook group and live training sessions
Surfer SEO was ahead of the trend, having created their private Facebook group back in 2017. It’s now grown to over 10,000 members and counting, with active discussions about SEO and between SEO experts, entrepreneurs, agency owners, content creators and more.
The Surfer Academy also creates a sense of community with live training sessions happening regularly. Users who sign up to the product and attend or watch at least two training sessions in their first 30 days are incentivized with an extension to their existing money-back guarantee.
And, finally, Surfer SEO’s ambassadors and employees make an effort to show up on existing SEO and content slack channels to share advice, network, or promote their free and paid tools.
Roam Research’s Slack, Twitter, and help pages
Roam Research, a note-taking tool that allows you to organize research and ideas more effectively and efficiently, has a Slack community of over 11,500 members and growing. It’s a place where ‘Roamans’ share their tips, themes, and troubleshoot together.
The fun doesn’t end there, either. On Twitter the #roamcult hashtag that helps users keep up to date with updates, a directory of Notable Graphs leads people to public graphs they can contribute their own ideas or research to, and their help section predominantly features articles and videos from Roam users and fans rather than content created by the brand itself.
It needs to be said that, in every single one of these examples, there is a very strong product that forms the backbone of the community. These are communities of people who have had an outstanding product experience and have an active desire to learn more about how they can get the most out of it.
Community-led growth strategies
Starting a community will feel daunting because it requires active involvement, one-to-one conversations, personalization, monitoring, and a desire to really test new and different approaches.
The truth is, there’s no one step-by-step process to community-led growth (yet). There are several places you may want to start. Listed below are some common strategies that emerged in the examples above and others we are seeing in the SaaS space.
Find your fans Many more established SaaS products may have a fanbase of users or a few individual superusers on Reddit, Twitter, YouTube or another social platform. If that’s the case, it’s worth exploring how you could better activate this existing community. In the Notion example above, facilitating these fans with whatever tools, funds, or access they needed was step one, and things snowballed from there.
Create a community of practice In Greylock Investor Corinne Marie Riley’s Medium piece on community-led growth, she mentions a community of practice, “The idea of a community of practice was coined by Anthropologist Jean Lave and educational theorist Etienne Wenger in their book Situated Learning. A community of practice ties together members who share the common goal of learning about a specific field. Applied to the tech world, we’ve started seeing communities of practice grow significantly.”
For many brands, this will be a great place to start. Newsletters, events (IRL and online), templates, or a place that professionals in a specific area can go to troubleshoot or find inspiration. In many ways, the more niche the better. For example, ‘Marketing’ is far too broad a topic to really bond over, but ‘Social Media Marketing’ or ‘B2B Content Marketing’ can bring people together quickly.
House or facilitate user-generated content In the example above, Figma allows users to share templates on their community hub and articles in a digital publication, while Roam Research links to real users' videos and articles in their help section. Notion actually funds videos created by users if they meet specific requirements.
The thread here is that all these brands are doing more than just sharing UGC — they’re actually housing it or facilitating it in a more meaningful way. Not only does this give the creator exposure to a much larger audience and incentivizes others to make similar content, but it also takes the pressure off your content team.
The final word
Community-led growth is something that companies need to commit to if they really want to see results. It requires a lot of time, creative thought, and effort, but when it’s done well it can result in growth without the churn and could benefit every single team in your business.
If you’re a small company feeling overwhelmed about where to start, make like Notion and look out for the people who are already spreading the good word about your product. When you find them and nurture them, you’ll quickly find new ways to build your community and bring that good growth to life.