While support cost deflection is the gateway for most companies to find value with online communities, product-focused communities are on the rise — and with good reason. There is tremendous value to be had by engaging your customers to better educate them about product capabilities, gather critical feedback, and leverage their collective experience to build better products through ideation.
When customers understand the product better, feel that they are a partner in driving functional enhancements, and have a more active role in defining the product roadmap, your products get better and business value quickly follows. During my time in tech, we discovered that customers that visited the community regularly tended to have higher levels of satisfaction, expanded their accounts more rapidly, and used more of the available functionality. In turn, we saw our revenue and net retention rates skyrocket. Oh, and they required less hands-on support.
The Open Source community has been engaging in these behaviors for years and should be lauded for the learnings that many software companies have adopted and are enjoying great success with today. You can use these same strategies to help build better products and ignite adoption among your customers.
Let’s take a look at three key areas in which product-focused communities can add value to your organization, in order mirroring the path that community growth typically takes place.
Companies spend a lot of time, money, and resources guessing what their customers want. Instead, you should simply ask them.
Having a lively community full of customers that are eager to engage puts you in a natural position to solicit feedback on their most pressing needs, overall product direction, and feature/functionality prioritization with a level of efficiency and scale that is hard to achieve by other means. If you already have a community, chances are high that they’re already discussing their pain points and how they would like to see forward progress.
In addition to assessing the tone and tenor of conversations, there are opportunities to leverage your community for more formalized methods of gathering feedback — embed a survey, create an advisory group, open a formal ideation area, or invite top contributors to directly connect with Product Managers and Engineers. Your community will embrace their advisory role and provide you with insights that you never would have gained otherwise.
Of course, none of this matters if you don’t do something about what you hear. The biggest mistake that companies make is not gathering the feedback with formal processes, prioritizing it in the roadmap, dedicating engineering cycles to make the product better, and closing the loop with the community at release time. Don’t be that company.
Many companies struggle to gain wide adoption of features and functionality in their products that drive additional revenue, satisfaction, and retention. A core reason for this is that, frankly, they don’t do a good job of educating their customers about the benefits of various features. Even when education about new features is done, it's often not framed the way customers speak. Communities force you to think and talk like a customer.
Another key learning, which should be obvious, is that customers that are more informed about how your product functions and the value that it can add to their work/lives tend to utilize more features, achieve higher levels of satisfaction, and adopt new functionality faster. Community can play a central role in this formula by enabling knowledge sharing among members, presenting them with a steady stream of high-quality education and enablement materials, and rewarding them for being recognized as experts with specific functionality.
Some organizations have taken this to the next level by integrating interactive learning directly into their communities. Salesforce Trailhead and Alteryx Academy are excellent examples of what can happen when you make education and enablement a core piece of the community experience and reward users for learning something new. Challenges and certifications drive competitive behaviors among your members, leading to a self-sustaining model of customers’ overall acumen and adoption of features.
Communities are uniquely positioned to deliver on this experience in ways that traditional content marketing and siloed e-learning can’t because of the member-centric environment, tight integration with other community modalities, and critical mass of users that visit every day. You have the opportunity to show them something they’ve never seen before. Don’t miss it.
At the end of the day, a product is just a product. The people that use it, what they use it for, and how it makes them feel are what makes it special. Building a community and a sense of belonging to something bigger than one’s self around your products has incredible benefits. When your customers seize the reins of personal ownership over a product that they love and that they feel loves them back, it becomes something else entirely. They will share the profound impact of your product with others, recruiting more loyal customers that are excited to help you shape the future of it.
This virtuous cycle is extremely difficult to achieve without the weight of a vibrant community full of passionate supporters behind it. Expecting customers to fully embrace the many facets of your product and help you build it better with every release requires thoughtfulness, care, and attention on your part to ensure that you’re leading with value for your community members. Then you’ll see better adoption, higher satisfaction, and more eagerness to collaborate with your teams.
There are many tangible strategies, tactics, and best practices that you can use to get there. When it starts to happen, though, it feels like pure magic.