Sumeru Chatterjee on Community-Led Growth
Sumeru Chatterjee (aka “Sumo”) is a community builder for high growth SaaS companies. He’s passionate about helping companies scale through community and content and led those efforts at several tech unicorns, including Thinkific, Gong.io, Addepar, and Data.ai. He also led Share Koro, an e-learning platform with 200K members, CustomerEducation.org — a professional community with over 5k members. and Thinkific Community, a network of over 30K educators.
What is your definition of “community”?
Community is the sum total of all interactions that people have about an idea, goal or problem set. And if you use that working definition, community becomes much more than just a forum or a place where your customers go to ask support questions. It’s the sum total of all conversations amongst people who care about the problem that you solve.
There are two kinds of communities that companies participate in:
- Owned Communities — spaces and conversations that you have control over.
- UnOwned Communities — spaces and conversations that are happening about you that you don’t control.
The big community is Community with a capital C. And that’s sometimes called dark social.The little community is your own platform, where you are able to guide and control the narrative. For Gong, this little community is Visioneers. They’ve designed a beautiful experience that combines conversations, content, learning, an academy and resources for all the people who are invested in Gong’s brand. What would be the “big C” community for Gong is the sum of all conversations that are happening abouts sales and the Gong brand across the internet (e.g. inside RevGenius, Pavilion and on LinkedIn etc)
So the community has to be united around a problem and not specifically a product?
Yes, that’s the big idea. The community of people who care about your product is not a community, it’s a support channel.
Why should companies care about building a community?
That depends on the state of the company. For startups, the modern way to launch a business is to produce short-form content first to see what resonates. Then, turn these insights into long-form content and check again. Finally, bring your most engaged readers into a community and use the conversations to define the problems faced by this group and in turn, build a solution that solves them.
This is the new startup playbook: building an engaged audience, turning it into a community and then delivering the solutions that will solve their problems. You’re seeing this being executed in real time by PeerSignal and Keyplay.
It’s the cheapest way to validate your problem before you go to market so that you don’t end up building the wrong product.
For bigger brands, the answer is different. All the traditional demand gen channels are slowing down in ROI. If you look at ROI for ad spend, traditional demand marketing is not working anymore or at least the costs are prohibitive. Most folks these days people buy software because they heard about it on social media or in a private community from somebody they trust.
So a lot of the buying decisions start with word-of-mouth. The big C is the answer for brands because most people who are buying your product heard about it on social media or in a community. And this number is higher than what attribution software is gonna tell you.
Case in point, I run a sister organization to RevGenius, called customereducation.org. We have only five thousand members. We serve education professionals, people who work in customer enablement and customer training. We have a private, invite-only channel called No Vendor Clubhouse. No vendors allowed. People are posting screenshots of their RFPs and the actual bills they’re getting from vendors. They’re asking: “Hey, I’m paying twelve dollars per seat, per license. How much are you paying?” And someone’s like, “Oh, I’m paying fourteen dollars.”
These conversations are completely private. And this is how buying decisions are made. But the regular AE has no idea that their champion is bashing them in a private channel with other peers because in order to get access to this channel, you have to be vetted by me.
People are discussing Outreach versus Gong versus Salesloft behind closed doors. So why community? Because it drives a lot of the buying decision and the traditional media channels have a much lower ROI than they did five years ago.
How do companies today use community to grow?
Using community-led motions is at its infancy and there are only a few companies that are doing this well, like: Asana, Slack, Shopify, Gong, Duolingo, Peloton, Notion.
Notion, for example, uses community across three stages: awareness, conversion, and expansion. For awareness, they went city by city, running small local meetups with few Notion superfans. They gave them swag and said, “Hey, why don’t you start a local chapter?”. These local chapters were responsible for driving awareness of the product. They backed it up with subreddits and Facebook groups. Thanks to these thousands of people found out about Notion.
When it comes to conversion and activation, Notion found out that people used their product in many different ways. So they had the community create templates, guides, and tutorials. They enabled them and hosted these resources, but they were created by the users and served as great tools for the net new users (plus they made them convert from free to paid).
The most interesting one is their upgraded expansion motion, which is perfect for companies to adopt Notion at the enterprise level. They opened up a community- powered consultant database where people applied to the program, Notion certified them, and now these community members help companies adopt Notion across their organizations. That way, Notion is not building out a services layer. They’re outsourcing that to the community. This way, people make money on Notion and they get more invested in the brand. And this is similar to what Salesforce has done, back in the day.
We’re now seeing it in PLG companies, which is pretty interesting. Miro has created Miroverse and the content library, all powered by the community. Except for Trailhead and Drift Insider there’s not much happening in the B2B space though.
Do you think companies can leverage existing communities like RevGenius to have more impact?
One hundred percent.
In my community consulting practice, people come to me wanting to launch a community. I ask them if they’re in one already and if their teams are engaging on an online platform where their ICP hangs out. If the answer was “no” then I’d say: “If you’re not already participating in conversations, you haven’t earned the right to have your own community.”
I can show you my framework on how to build a good community, but being actively involved and actually performing well inside of other people’s communities is the best thing you can do before you start your own.
The first thing companies want to do is to buy a hundred-thousand-dollar platform and hire a community manager. That’s not going to make a real community. If participating in conversations, writing interesting content and responding to others are not in your DNA, then your community is not going to be successful. Or at least, it will never grow out of the little c, which is about your product and product support.”
What is your framework for creating a community?
I call it the “Rising Sun” model.
You can build a community of the product — focused around a specific thing, physical or software, like Nike Sneakerhead. The main driver is utility and you’re mostly talking to superfans, mainly paying customers. Great examples are: Jeep and Wrangler. If you have super users in the tens of thousands, like Harley Davidson does, or like Nike sneakers do, then this type of community makes sense.
It’s typically customer support, customer success and the main driver’s utility. The tactical execution involves a forum, support documentation and tools like Slack or Discord.
Then you can build what I call a “community of brand”. This one includes users, partners, your marketing team and free users. Here the main driver is social connection.
And then you have the community of category. Here the main driver’s identity. Now you are talking to sales professionals, not just Gong users or Gong lovers, for example. The tactics here involve industry awards, conferences and certifications, and the main value add is the sense of belonging.
So depending on your company and your mission, you can choose one of these three types of communities. I can see companies doing all of these but I typically recommend starting from product and expanding.
What are the best practices to build and run a community?
If you want to build a great community program, you should follow the music: M.U.S.I.K.
M is for movement. I think this is especially important for SaaS companies. When you start a community, you have to declare a movement, the reason behind it. Something you want to achieve or you’re fighting against. It’s important to declare it upfront.
U is for utility. The main driver here is providing value for your users. There are many tactics you can implement: chat, content, templates, Q&A, a product road map, and resources libraries.
Then, if you want to create a brand community, you add the social connection layer. This is where you should consider organizing meetups and peer-to-peer DMs, private channels, coffee introductions, leaderboards, events, executive round tables, service marketplaces. You should enable users to connect with each other, not with your company.
I is for the Identity layer. This is a level-three community. This is where you are establishing yourself as the leader of the identity that you want to create for your users. For Gong, that identity would be data-driven sales professionals. They have the Golden Gong Awards, recognizing the world’s best data-driven sales professionals. You might declare the annual “salesperson day”, during which every salesperson gets a day off, where you are doing things for the identity behind your movement as a whole. This is what elevates you from a level two to a level three community.
And then supporting all of this as a business is the K. You need to know the KPIs of your community. So depending on whether your community reports to marketing or corporate strategy or to customer success, you need to know how your community is driving revenue. That’s the most important thing. That might look like membership engagement, churn, conversion, activation of community members. Reporting this at a company-wide level and an executive level so that your board and your executives are all aligned is something that is your responsibility as a community manager.
So that’s the MUSIK framework: Movement, Utility, Social, Identity, and KPIs.