In the second part of a two-part article we look at two very different ways technology can support community.
“Community as a function of business and a function of practice has been a long time coming. It’s just maturing. You need the technology to enable these things. The people are critical of course, but you need the technology to work really well.”
That was Mike Rizzo, founder of the MO Pros community, in the first part of this two-part series on the significance of community marketing for brands. I set out to speak to two people from very different backgrounds, each of whom has created a technology to enable community — very different offerings representing very different perspectives.
Online networks are actually valuable
“A lot of people feel isolated and wonder why they can’t find someone that gets them – and you can find that online in the right places,” said Melanie Aronson, founder and CEO of Panion, a community management platform. Aronson is far from a typical tech CEO. She continues to work as a documentary filmmaker and cinematographer, she has master’s and post-master’s degrees in the visual arts and a bachelor’s degree in social anthropology.
“I wrote my thesis when I was at Columbia on couch-surfing — one of the first communities where people were using online to meet offline. It was fascinating to me. I couch-surfed in 15 to 20 different countries by myself. I was inspired by those experiences and the quality of the connections I made around the world.” Aronson was speaking about in-person connections; Panion was originally focused on bringing people together in the physical world.
“We started off as a B2C product,” she said, “trying to help people who moved to new places integrate into a new culture, a new city – and we were really about people needing to meet in person; community was about being face-to-face.” Inspired by meet-ups, she sought to create a friendship app as opposed to a dating app. “Part of our platform is about match-making — buddy match-making, mentorship match-making, collaboration match-making; figuring out what is that magic formula of how people really connect and get value out of that connection.”
COVID-19, of course, changed everything.
“COVID really showed us something different — that there were online networks that were actually valuable. It changed my perspective. It’s less about whether you’re face-to-face or not, and more about the depth of that relationship and the value you can bring to each other. What’s interesting right now is that community is becoming this hybrid of online and offline. Of course, it’s really valuable to have your local communities and meet people in person; but also there’s a lot of communities that have been formed that allow people to connect with others that might have a similar life situation that they can’t find in their own local community. This global aspect of being able to connect digitally has suddenly formed a lot of support, whether it’s for mental health or just camaraderie — feeling not alone.”
Social media falls short
Social media, Aronson argues, fell short when it came to creating enduring communities. “Social media in many ways hasn’t given online connections a good name. We’re seeing a lot of movement from global social media to more niche communities where people are really sharing certain values, or life experiences or professional interests. I think this will yield more positive results.”
She believes LinkedIn and Slack to be too transactional. “I don’t really know this person but I need some information; we never get to know each other or connect in a real way. At Panion, we’re trying to create a digital version of what might happen in the real world. You actually want to know more about that person. Not just an exchange of information, but maybe something that continues and benefits you more than just information.”
Panion sees a broad mix of use cases. “A lot of people are using our platform to build a business, because it’s easier not to have to build your own technology from scratch — so we’re seeing a lot of creators or entrepreneurs that want to build a community around a new service or product.” For some users, however, the product is the community itself. “We’re giving them the opportunity to charge a membership fee or event fees inside the community so they can make it their product.” Panion can be used to organize and host formal, ticketed events or spontaneous gatherings.
But what about brands? “Brands know that they should build a community,” said Aronson, “but they don’t realize they need to build it around something that brings value. Some people just see it as a marketing tool. They think it needs to be done, but actually people aren’t going to join a community if there isn’t something valuable that they’re getting and that they’re learning. The value could be connection with other people with similar experiences, it could be information, it could be a combination.”
Panion’s broad mix of clients is reflected in its approach to pricing. “It’s about how many members you’ll ultimately have, because it costs us money to run the servers, but if someone comes to us as a small organization, tight on the budget, just starting out, we try to be as flexible as we can. We believe it’s doing good in the world to create these communities and we want to help them to get off the ground.”
Corporate customers, on the other hand, have special requirements, especially around security and privacy, and often need more integrations or custom features. “That’s a different ballgame altogether,” she said. She also agrees that the age of the chief community officer is upon us. “We’re already seeing that. I’m part of a community that is training people to be chief community officers.”
Putting humanity and authenticity back into business
“It started as an accident,” said Mac Reddin, co-founder and CEO at Commsor, a community operating system purpose-built for corporate clients. There was a no-code hackathon. “I entered for the sake of participating and didn’t do very well, but there was that feeling like — there’s something here. I quit my job two weeks later, and it’s evolved into something much more defined since then.” If Panion provides a platform to build communities, Commsor is focused on helping businesses with community management and metrics across a range of existing platforms.
Community exists in many different places, from social media and Slack groups to newsletters, from meet-ups to conferences. This whole network of engagement makes a community. “And because it’s disconnected,” said Reddin, it’s really hard to measure. “The original idea was like a CRM for community,” he explained. Commsor would pull all the disparate community channels and tie them together in a system of record.
“It’s evolved a lot from there, but that was the genesis. We don’t call it a CRM anymore, we call it a CNM, a community network manager. Admittedly, half of that is marketing, but there are some technical reasons why you can’t just do this with Salesforce or HubSpot or other CRMs. The power of community is the connective tissue between members; we call it a network manager because we’re mapping the network around a business — this network of engagement that makes a community.”
I asked him why the notion of community marketing suddenly seems so urgent, especially for businesses. “I think there’s a bunch of macro-trends,” he said. “It was happening anyway over the past few years. A lot of sales and marketing had gotten increasingly algorithmic and automated and community has been a way of inserting humanity and authenticity back into doing business.”
Guess what? The pandemic accelerated things. “People saw that the companies that had done community right were doing better and were surviving the pandemic. I made a set of predictions about two years ago for what I thought the community space would do over the next three to five years, and I was pretty much right about all of them — except for the fact that I was wrong about the time frame. It was more like five to six months than five years.”
In that short space of time, the digital elements of the B2B buyer journey became critical, and increasingly focused on conversations with peers rather than meetings with sales reps. “Those conversations are going to happen,” said Reddin. “If you don’t have a space for your community to exist, it’s going to hang out on Twitter, Hacker News, Stack Overflow, Reddit, Slack. It still does even if you do have your own community space, but the benefit is that you get the credit for actively bringing people together.”
He points to generational changes too and the increasing importance of experience, especially to Gen Z. “People care about buying into something rather than just buying something. Community has the ability to impact quite literally every aspect of your business. If you do community right, it helps with sales, it helps with brand awareness and with content, it reduces support cost, increases customer success and customer affinity.”
That sounds great, but it also sounds hard to measure. It’s one of the challenges Commsor is trying to meet. “Sales and marketing is typically linear,” explained Reddin. “You go from A to B, you sell someone something. You can’t really tell your community to do something. It’s more like creating a space in which it can exist and flourish on its own. That’s what’s very challenging for businesses to understand; they expect to put a dollar in and get two dollars out. The nature of things that are authentic and organic is that they are harder to track and harder to understand.”
Commsor has good reason to focus on ways to demonstrate ROI. It seems achievable. Sarah Cascone of Bluecore had told me: “There are the measurables, where I’m seeing deals accelerate through the pipeline much more quickly when customers and prospects are involved in these community programs — and the deals are bigger.” “Up until now,” said Reddin, “we’ve mostly been selling to companies that already understood community. They hadn’t proven it with numbers but knew in their gut that it worked. Long-term the focus is on convincing more companies to care about community and that has a very different challenge that comes with it.”
The starting point is just understanding the community — who’s active, how are they active, who the super-users are, and beyond that, who the super-users on Twitter versus Slack, for example. “A step further,” said Reddin, “is connecting it back to sales, marketing and customer success. How do we prove the impact on the rest of the business?”
As Cascone implied, the solution may lie in comparative metrics: “This is what a non-community member looks like, this is what a community member looks like, this is what an active community member looks like — to understand how community impacts the customer relationship.”