How to build a community around your SaaS
This article is part of the series called Founders Guide which I’m writing currently to help early-stage founders tackle the problems they face during the first year of the startup.
The SaaS world is abuzz with a new word: community. You'll find communities slapped into marketing collaterals, blogs, documentations, and every user-facing asset. As a SaaS founder, it's only natural you'd love to join the bandwagon if communities are really the magic potions they have been made out to be. I have been in this space for a long time and I can say having an engaging community is indeed a competitive edge.
But building an organic community is not easy. It's difficult to get more and more people to join your community, and it's even more difficult to sustain the engagement for a long time. Even if you manage to do both, you'll have to find ways to integrate the community into your product roadmap. I'll go over the elements of community building and how you can create a community that drives your SaaS for you. But first, you need to know why communities are a big thing today despite being anything but new.
The rise and rise of community-driven SaaS
Paid communities, exclusive communities, or just communities—they have become hugely popular today because people love the herd mentality. They're equally effective for B2C and B2B communications and the pandemic has played a big role in their success.
Consumers: the future entrepreneurs
With the internet democratizing knowledge and leveling the playing field for aspiring individuals, I see consumers applying the mindsets of entrepreneurs. If they are convinced of the direct value, they'll make the purchase. If the success of Patreon is to go by, they're also upskilling and monetizing their skills rapidly.
Future entrepreneurs look to learn the ropes from today's entrepreneurs and the only way they can get the inside details is by being part of online communities.
Thriving communities need strong platforms. A decade ago I rarely saw a platform that could help founders launch and scale communities. Fast forward to 2022, and things are widely different. Facebook groups, Discord, Slack channels, Subreddits, and even the short-lived Clubhouse—today's platforms are ready to support thousands of communities with millions of members.
Free knowledge vs privileged knowledge
Most of the useful information found on the internet is free. Everyone's getting the same knowledge, the same data, and the same deal. If everything's available equally for everyone, how can I be better than everyone else? This is a pertinent crisis that has pushed many to find privileged knowledge—knowledge that's not free, knowledge that's secret and exclusive, knowledge that sets them apart from others.
And where did they turn to find exclusive information? Paid and invite-only communities filled with industry leaders. Ironically, the more free content, the stronger the thirst for exclusive communities.
Product-led growth turned into community-led growth
SaaS in 2022 is saturated, no two questions about it. You can definitely have a new and unique product idea, but the larger trend says that there are more options for customers than ever. Product-led growth strategy uses the superstar product to drive growth, engagement, and revenue but when the product itself struggles to differentiate itself, founders need to look at a different approach.
Enter community-led growth.
Community-led growth is the natural evolution of product-led growth where the community members become stakeholders in the product's development. Consumers have grown to appreciate transparency and involvement and community-led strategies simplify their SaaS choices.
You may have seen founders building in public. My post-pandemic experience says that it's time for founders to build with the public.
Why do you need a thriving community?
The timing is just right to unleash the power of SaaS communities. But why does your startup need it in 2022 and beyond? The short answer is if you don't nurture your community right now, your competitors will. The long answer? Read on.
The traditional approach to building a SaaS is to be product-first. You build your product, you validate it with an MVP, and you sincerely hope and pray that it achieves a product-market fit eventually. With communities, things are a lot different now.
You can either build a solution and look for the problem afterward, or you can identify the problem first and build a solution around it. When you interact with a community of your target users, you learn the challenges they face every day, the goals they want to achieve every day, and where they want to see themselves in the long run. Once you have enough insights into the issues, you can build a product that solves them.
Generate community buy-in
It's hard to build a loyal customer base for a SaaS product when 10 more products are catering to the same user base. Instead of fighting competitions with your product, win over the members instead. When you have a community-first strategy, you'll have their support, loyalty, and focus. But all of these don't come easy—you have to invest time and energy to provide value and offer help whenever it's needed.
Here's a great example of how communities drive sales: in the enterprise project management category, Jira is the ultimate winner. It's a well-made product, but so are Airtable, Asana, and Monday.com. All of these enterprise SaaS tools have different approaches to project management, but executives and project managers at large companies go with Jira because of its dedicated community, plugins, and support.
Community members ➡️ customers ➡️ brand champions
The best part about community members is that they serve more purposes as your business grows bigger. In the beginning, they give you the much-needed reality check, in the scaling phase they help you prioritize features and growth, and when you become a market leader, their testimonials help you stay at the top.
Build communities for not only what they can do today, but also for tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.
If you don't position your community as the go-to resource hub in your industry, you're ceding ground to your competitors. Even if you don't see ways you can leverage community users right now, you still can create a peer networking space to stay top of mind for prospective buyers.
Here's another surprising perk of having a community: the more online interactions between people, the more content for search engines to index in results. Imagine if Quora comes up with a SaaS product today, with the amount of traffic they command from user interactions, they'd have superior brand recognition than anyone else. People can copy your product, but they cannot replicate your community DNA.
How to build a community around your SaaS?
I guess having a community for my SaaS product would be a nice thing. But how should you go about building one when I'm just starting out?
I come across a lot of founders and indie hackers asking me how to build a community (hence, this guide).
It's quite simple in its essence. In fact, community building best practices can be implemented in various other parts of your business as well.
Ask yourself the fundamental questions
Start with some soul searching. Why are you building a community? Some founders build it to soft launch their MVP and get their first few paying customers while some build it to engage and retain their paying customers. As a new founder, a community can also help you network with industry leaders and build a list of connections you can turn to for help.
While thinking of the "whys", consider also the type of content, the platform, and marketing strategy in short term and long term.
Deeply observe their conversations
Identify the first 10-30 prospects that fit your ICP. They are the conversation leaders, the crème de la crème of your community. In the early days you have to build a rapport with them because after all, they take a chance on you before anyone else.
However, this is not a one-way street. You have to pour free value to make them not regret their decision. Invite them over for dinners, get to know them better, and spark conversations. Once they're comfortable within the space, they'll open up in the online community as well. Listen to their conversations, see what keeps them awake at night, understand why they complain about existing solutions, and try to solve them by being better.
I cannot stress how important it is to learn from a select few community members in the early days.
Focus on the content
Every community, at the end of the day, is driven by content. Slack groups, Facebook groups, newsletters, and even podcasts and videos—content is the undisputed king. Chalk out a content marketing strategy to lead conversations. It can be feature polls, industry news discussions, or even tutorials for members to solve everyday problems. Use a content distribution strategy where you take snippets of discussions and then turn them into blog posts, Twitter threads, or weekly email blasts.
The more value you offer through your text and visual content, the more engaged the community will be.
Empower members to co-create
By creating products with the members, you can drill down the essential features. I love the IKEA effect in this context. It’s a cognitive bias because people put more value in products they have created or assembled. Co-creation brings authenticity, it makes people invested and really drives an organic community to achieve something together. This also helps you save tons of resources rather than doing everything in silos.
Take the example of Notion. It has an incredible Reddit community of 200k+ members. The best part? At this stage, it’s practically run by the members. Notion started with a support community and then slowly added subtopics such as templates, guides, showcases, hacks, and self-promo threads. The community managers encouraged people to share their work and promptly resolved any queries users might have. As a result, users started building their own homepage templates, themes, app integrations, and tweaking Notion to invent new use cases.
It's probably one of the reasons why Notion is such a feature-rich product—they basically helped people build the product they needed.
Another way you can encourage co-creation is by involving members during the onboarding process. If you have a small community, conduct frequent meetings with a few special folks. I try to avoid a webinar structure so everyone can feel comfortable sharing their screens and have a genuine "pick your brains" session.
This is where you really take the "members turned brand champions" mechanism to the next level. Nothing makes B2B folks more invested in your product than the privileges they can get out of it. Special certificates give them certain privileges such as testing beta builds, monitoring and creating content for the community, and turning into a niche experts. But that's not the only motivation.
Certification programs bring a competitive spirit to the community because "bragging rights" is a strong achievement. You can use gamified elements of certificates to drive engagement and incentivize members to contribute for a long time.
Create a marketing strategy
Closed communities are a great marketing asset and you need to keep promoting them to add new users.
Keep it exclusive
Clubhouse rode on the waves of exclusivity and there's no reason why you can't implement the same philosophy. The more restricted a community is, the more people want to be part of it and feel special about joining. Use a signup tool like Typeform to gather leads (with consent, of course) and allow access to only a few members, either by manual verification or letting existing members share invite codes.
Build a separate landing page
If it's exclusive, it's not searchable on Google. Wrong.
A landing page specially designed for the private community can drive more interest for signups. The landing page must include a couple of elements: the immediate value the community provides, the number of members and its growth in recent times, and a few notable members of the community. People follow famous people and they love outcomes.
Spread the news
Now it's time to drum up excitement for your community. Take out interesting bits of conversations and plug them into email newsletters and tweets to show the benefits, and encourage users to share their opinions. You can use these as social proof in your marketing collaterals because nothing works better than user-generated content these days. If you really want to be adventurous, run a few ads with the landing page to drive more awareness.
Building community: a few things to remember
If you've read this far about building communities, you must be raring to go. Remember these few things when you create your own:
1. Don't be afraid to send a cold email or LinkedIn or Discord message to people you really want in your community. Be genuine in your approach, especially to the first 10-30 members.
2. Choose your platform wisely. You cannot ask busy professionals to break their patterns to join your community. Facebook groups usually have the biggest reach, but Slack offers more personalized group chats.
3. Don't focus on monetizing the private community from day 1. Use it to gain traction and if it takes off, elevate your content production to create a private community on Patreon.
4. People love to give back to communities as long as they get value from them. As a founder, it's on you to align organic conversations in communities with your SaaS development.
By now you should have a fairly good idea about building community as a SaaS founder. So there's only one step left to do: go build your tribe.