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The Community Club

AMA with Holly Firestone

alex profile image Alex Angel with Holly Firestone ・1 min read

Have you ever wondered how enterprise communities differ from other types of communities? What about engagement initiatives, team structure, or how the community team works with other internal teams? Or how you define success for communities at scale?

Join us at 3PM ET on 10/27 as Holly answers your burning questions about enterprise communities! The AMA will happen in this post at 3PM ET. Holly will be around throughout the day responding, so feel free to comment with your questions early to make sure she gets to it.

Discussion

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Brian Oblinger

How, exactly, did you get to be so awesome?

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Holly Firestone Ask Me Anything

First of all, thanks Brian! I think it’s really important we lift each other up and support each other in this industry. You are one of the best in the business at that, and it doesn’t go unrecognized! I know you’re joking-ish, but I’m going to answer this question because I am an awesome community builder, and it’s taken a very, very long time for me to get here and for me to be OK saying it!

I have loved building community since the day I started doing it. The unfortunate commonality between most community professionals that have been doing this for 10+ years, is that no matter how much we love our work, we’ve been doubted, under-resourced, overworked, and underpaid at multiple points in our careers. Building community is not for the faint of heart. I think we can all agree on that.

I‘ve written about my journey in a few of my blog posts, and I definitely want to write a fuller version of this story at some point. It’s been quite the journey. Towards the beginning of my career, I was working 16-18 hour days while being underpaid, under appreciated, passed up for promotions, and told that the work I was doing wasn’t important. I’m not going to lie, I shed a lot of tears during that time. It was excruciating. I knew I was doing great work, and I never stopped pushing. I’ll never forget when my boyfriend at the time (now husband!) asked if I was really sure this is what I wanted to do in my career. I can’t blame him. He was (and is!) a successful software developer, and there I was, making no money, being treated horribly at work, constantly upset– all while working my ass off. I told him that I loved what I was doing, I believed in what I was doing, and I was going to keep doing it. He supported my choice and supported me during all of the rough times that came along with that choice. There was a lot of ugly crying, a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of good decisions, a lot of bad decisions, and a lot learned along the way.

So how did I get to be so awesome? Because I’m stubborn as hell. Because I kept getting back up whenever I was kicked down. Because I took a risk by following my passion and focusing my career on doing what I love. Because I care deeply about the people that work for me, and they have been some of my biggest advocates, too. That risk ended up paying off for me in so many ways. Oh and hey, fun fact, I now make more money than my successful software developer husband 😉 He’s super proud of it.

And that, combined with where I am in my career, the impact I feel I've had on the lives of the members in the communities I've managed, and the impact I've had on the people I've managed, is how I got to a place where I can finally say that I'm proud of myself, too.

Now that I'm at this point in my career, I try to do everything I can to support others. Both as a people leader and as a member of the Community Industry community. I call people out when they're doing cool shit, give advice, and share feedback. When recruiters reach out to me about a role, I ALWAYS take the time to send them a list of other great people to talk to. I share everything that I can. Not only resources, content, etc (which is definitely important to share), but also my stories, down to the very last detail. Every twist, turn, and bump in the road got me to where I am today. I want to help others navigate their own journeys by learning from mine. I'm truly invested in the success of everyone in this industry.

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Brian Oblinger

I was not joking at all, and this response is everything I had hoped it would be and more. You've earned it the hard way. Bravo. 👏🏻

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Tessa Kriesel

This is SO good. Thank you for being so open and sharing this. I am a lot like you in that I am stubborn and refuse to give up. It's a pretty good trait for a community leader. 💜

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hollyfirestone profile image
Holly Firestone Ask Me Anything

Thank you, Tessa! The stubbornness seems to be a (great) common thread with community professionals.

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Tessa Kriesel

What Brian asked.

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mac profile image
Mac

Hey Holly, thanks for taking the time to do this AMA!

How do you balance your community's needs with those of the business? Is that process significantly different for larger enterprise companies compared to smaller companies and startups?

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Holly Firestone Ask Me Anything

I always say I work 50% for the company and 50% for the community. I think I can attribute a lot of my success to that mindset. Yes, the company pays my paychecks, but without the community, I wouldn’t have a job at all. So it’s not hard for me to justify maintaining this balance. I also share this when I’m interviewing for a role to gauge reactions and to be clear about how I view building community. Trust is the most important, and I can’t build an authentic, trusting relationship with the community without that balance. The members of the community confide in me— issues they are having with the company, the products, an employee, another community member, some aspect of the community programs— everything, really, and I am there to help get their feedback or concerns to where they belong in a way that makes them feel comfortable. If I don't do that, they'll stop confiding in me. Those trusting relationships lead to some of the best and most important feedback. You can't risk losing that.

Now, the hope is that the needs of the business and the needs of the community overlap, a lot. If they don’t, you might need to rethink your community strategy. I don’t think it differs too much between large and small companies. It really just depends on your leadership team and your strategy.

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Holly Firestone Ask Me Anything

Really excited to chat with everyone today!

A little about me: I have been in the community industry since 2010. I've been focused on Enterprise community at Atlassian, Salesforce, and now Venafi. I'm also doing some pro-bono community strategy work for the nonprofit Pledge 1% (Check them out, they're awesome). I'm going to share a ton of info here (I am loquacious- every answer will probably be a novel), but I also have a blog you can check out at hollyfirestone.com/.

Shameless plug: I'm hiring a Director, Community! linkedin.com/jobs/view/2221290048/...

Sharing knowledge with other community industry professionals is really important and something I try to prioritize. I love the work I do as a community professional, and I'm excited to be here and share my thoughts and experiences with y'all.

I've been working remote for around 4 years now. I love working remote and would be happy to share some tips around remote work if that's something in which you are interested in hearing.

Now the fun stuff: I live in Austin, Texas with my husband Eric and our two weenie mutts, Zeus and Chester. I love 90s hip hop, queso, weenie dogs, and shoes. I'm obsessed with my grandma and love to share some of her top notch quotes in her very Jewish-lady-from-Queens accent. Favorite pandemic TV shows have been Ted Lasso (duh), Umbrella Academy, The Boys, and Never Have I Ever. Probably a million more I can't think of 😃. You can follow me on Twitter: @hollyfirestone , but it's worth a warning that I'm pretty vulgar and...opinionated about current events.

Huge thanks to Community Club for inviting me to participate in this AMA.

Now that you know every last detail about me, come at me with those questions! Nothing is off the table!

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Najva Sol

How do enterprise communities you've worked with come to exist? Did they start when the company was small and scale? Or did they get added in once it hit a certain size?

I'd love to hear more about that journey!

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Holly Firestone Ask Me Anything

They were all different, but at both Atlassian and Salesforce, the communities actually started from the community members!

Atlassian’s first community was the Atlassian User Group program (AUG). The first meeting was he’d by a bunch of customers in VA, and they invited some of the product team to join. Atlassian saw the amazing opportunity and decided to jump on it. The first iteration of the AUG program was led by Brittany (Walker) Caldwell, an awesome community, marketing, and events pro, now at Webflow: linkedin.com/in/brittanywalker/. Brittany grew the initial audience for the AUGs for around a year (2012) and left Atlassian a couple months after I started working there. I picked up the program (2013) and really focused on building out the structure to make it the program measurable and scalable. I also put a lot of focus in bringing more value and resources to our incredible AUG leaders. I made internal marketing a priority as well- to ensure the program got the resources and support it needed. I didn’t have the most supportive manager at the time, quite the opposite in fact, but the program grew massively during that time. That was around 10 years after the company was founded. I’m really, really proud of the foundation I built and it’s amazing to see where it is today.

The Salesforce Community was also started by the community members. It was kicked off by a customer named Pete who put together the first User Group meeting. If memory serves me correctly, there was also a listserv created where customers were sharing tips and tricks. Erica Kuhl, now CEO of Erica Kuhl consulting, (linkedin.com/in/ericakuhl/) saw the potential in what was happening, and she started building the community. That was about 7-8 years after the company was founded, I believe. Now, as many of y’all know, it’s grown into a massive powerhouse of a community, and at the point I joined, the online community and MVPs programs were on fire (in a good way!), so I turned our attention to the User Group program, which definitely needed some attention. There were probably around 50-60 active groups when I started, and when I left where were over 1200. So to answer the question, the community started a long time ago, but has also evolved, grown, and taken on new programs that have had a huge impact.

At Venafi, we’re around 300 people. The company started around 20 years ago. Venafi had their first customer summit in 2019, and it was a huge success. One glaringly obvious thing they saw at the event was that the customers stuck to each other like glue. Meals would end and they’d still be in deep, deep conversations with each other for hours! These customers had never really had a chance to connect with that many other people that do what they do. It’s pretty much how I felt the first time I went to CMX Summit 🙂 Anyway, that kicked off the idea of starting a community. The idea began as a community for customers, but has since evolved into a community that spans all of our audiences including customers, developers, partners, etc. It’s really exciting to see the community vision evolve and be elevated so soon after it’s getting started. The Venafi leadership understands the power of community and knows it’s something they want to invest in and prioritize.

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Tessa Kriesel

The developer in me totally tried to figure out how to look behind the black box. Upon immediate inspecting, I found nothing solid. Going to continue my search. LOL

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Sagi Kadosh

Do you have an ambassador program? If so, what was it like building that?

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Holly Firestone Ask Me Anything

I haven’t run an Ambassador program, however, I did run a top contributors program. These types of programs are really special. I ran the Salesforce MVP program for 5 years, but I didn’t build it. Erica Kuhl, now CEO of Erica Kuhl Consulting (linkedin.com/in/ericakuhl/) built that program from scratch, and I started running it when I started working at Salesforce. As the program grew, it needed to evolve. Everything does. I made a lot of updates and changes to the program throughout my five years at Salesforce. The changes were extremely important in helping us continue to manage the program at scale. I learned a ton about what to do and what not to do when managing these types of programs. I could probably write a novel about all of the things I could have done better or that I wanted to do but didn’t have the resources to make happen.

I will say this— always, always, always talk to your top contributors. Get their feedback. Work with them to make the program a success.

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Alex Angel Ask Me Anything

In your experience, how have enterprise companies generally viewed community? Is it a primary or secondary (or.. god forbid... tertiary!!) focus? Is it something to which they dedicate appropriate resources or do you have to be scrappy?

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Holly Firestone Ask Me Anything

Community has played an important role at every company that I’ve managed community, which is obviously awesome. It wasn’t always that way though. Towards the beginning of my career, community was still a relatively new/unknown industry. At the place I was working at that time, I had a manager that didn’t understand or believe in the value of community, which made things really tough in terms of career growth and resources for the programs. Terrible managers/ decision makers can truly make or break a community strategy or a community career. I mean this goes for everyone in every role outside of community, too, but for community, which is still so dependent on being able to prove value, it’s even more difficult. I knew that the only way I could move forward was to make sure that the community absolutely could not be ignored. I can’t stress how important this was. Getting the community front in center at events, making sure community members and leaders voices were being heard across the company and across the leadership team, and some lucky run-ins between the CEOs and the members of our community got community the attention it needed. Community couldn’t be ignored anymore. The CEOs saw what was happening and they understood the potential. Community became a huge priority for the business the following year and beyond.

At Salesforce, community is absolutely central to the business. You can’t go to a Salesforce event without Salesforce talking about the power of the Salesforce community. This wasn’t always the case— you can certainly ask Erica Kuhl (linkedin.com/in/ericakuhl/) about that— but I believe it was 2016 when community was first mentioned in the Dreamforce keynote. This was a big deal because every single word spoken in the keynote is very intentional, and community had never been mentioned like this before. It was a big deal, and we were very excited about it. It showed up in every keynote at every event moving forward. However, that doesn’t mean we got more resources. We definitely had to be scrappy. People always assume that because it’s Salesforce that there’s a never-ending stream of cash being thrown at each team, but that’s definitely not the case. For the community size, our team was extremely small. It was very difficult to get headcount most of the time I was there. Because of that, I spent 5 years deeply focused on rebuilding our processes so we could operate at scale. I hired 2 people to focus on operations. That was 1/3 of my team. It was that important.

As for Venafi, our leadership team has always understood the investment and resources it takes to really build community. The plan for community was much smaller when I started (January 2020), but I’ve worked closely with our CEO and leadership team to elevate and expand Venafi’s vision for community. They are all in on prioritizing community, and it’s really exciting. I’ll share more about that exciting transition soon!

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Cole

Hey Holly! Thanks for doing this AMA.

It's great to see that you've been remote for 4 years!! Way ahead of the times. As someone who just went remote this year, I'd love to hear any insights or tips you have! Do you ever find yourself sneaking back online after work to check on your community? How do you prevent yourself from burning out? Thanks!

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Holly Firestone Ask Me Anything

I can think of a few things off the top of my head, but I'm sure more will come to me later. :)

  • Dedicated space: Have a dedicated space for work. Even if you're in a small apartment, figure out a specific space you can dedicate to work. That way, at the end of the day, you can walk away from that space as a way to end your work day.
  • A good chair: This is a recommendation I stole from Erica Kuhl- linkedin.com/in/ericakuhl/. Erica has been working remote for over 7 years, so she knows what's up. Make sure you have a great place to sit because you'll be spending a lot of time in that chair every day. Standing desks are awesome, too, but you won't always be standing, so definitely invest in a great chair.
  • Get dressed: I get dressed for work every day. Even if I'm in comfortable clothes, I change out of my pajamas and at the end of the day, I change out of my "work" clothes. It's part of what helps me mentally start and end my work day.
  • Schedule breaks: You might think you take enough breaks, but I would bet money that you don't. Try to schedule breaks in your day, and try to be consistent with them. Make them part of your routine.
  • Get a dog or cat: Ok, ok, this isn't exactly related, but I'm mentioning it anyway. Yes, pets are a lot of work. Yes, they bark or walk across your desk during your calls. However, there's nothing better than having a fuzzy friend to pet and love on throughout the day. My dogs drive me crazy but also keep me sane. They also MAKE me take breaks because I have to walk them/take them out throughout the day. Million other reasons to get or not get a pet, but they are a lovely part of my WFH day, so worth a mention!

Of course I find myself checking on my community after the work day is over, but that has nothing to do with being remote. I'd probably do that anyway. You have to be careful around that though. It can creep up on you! I have a history of being really terrible with work/life balance, but this year has changed everything for me.

I wrote about my work/life balance experience here: medium.com/@HollyFirestone/the-bro...

Like I said, I'm sure I'll think of other recommendations, but hopefully this is a good start!

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Carter Gibson

What does moderation look like inside of an enterprise community? How closely does it resemble moderation on the consumer side? My assumption is that, because people are there in more professional capacities, there's less of a need - but at the same time I think 2020 (and a whole bunch of years before that...) have shown that bad actors are everywhere.

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Holly Firestone Ask Me Anything

Really great question, Carter! I haven’t done a lot of moderation on the consumer side, so I’d rather not speak to that since there are so many incredible professionals that can give you a better answer here. My assumption is a bit different than yours in terms of the need. I think because it’s a professional community there might even be more of a need (or at least equal) to maintain the ideal environment. Bad actors are everywhere, and misbehavior rears its ugly head in an enterprise community just like any other. Think about having a high profile CEO, who is outspoken about social issues. You’re going to have dissent in the community— sometimes even threats— where a security team needs to be involved. I think you’ll also see that with any community where there’s a partner ecosystem, you’ll get folks trying to sell their products and services in inappropriate places. They'll even throw spam all over the community. This always happens, even if it’s against T&C. That’s just online community. Offline community, like user groups, is a whole other type of “moderation.” I once had to deal with a complaint that came in because a leader kicked off their meeting with a Hitler video. I’m not kidding. For an enterprise community, with many channels and programs, it’s of utmost importance to have a scalable moderation and tracking plan in place. People have to have a direct channel to your team to report any of these behaviors across any of the platforms or programs. You also have to have robust policies and guidelines that you and update annually (at the very least).

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Tristan Lombard

Thank you for holding this space, Holly! Wondering how your team is handling (if any) Slack fatigue from both a tactical and empathic approach with your community members? I have been leaning into our virtual events (product related, thought leadership around software quality and development) and creating inclusive learning spaces, as well as launching a customer champion series, and keeping non-test automation topics open. I have also launched an internal rewards program to increase community participation.
Just curious if you had any additional thoughts. Grateful for your leadership

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Holly Firestone Ask Me Anything

Can you expand a little one this one? Do you mean for communities on Slack?

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Danielle Letayf

Curious about metrics of success for enterprise communities! Also, what management tools do you typically use (fingers crossed your community isn't Zap'd together like most others 😅).

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Holly Firestone Ask Me Anything

This is a meaty question, Danielle! I love it!

Success metrics largely depend on your business goals. I always make sure that the work I’m doing ties back to supporting those top level goals. I’d recommend that you always track other success metrics tied to ROI for other teams (and of course also community health success metrics). Some examples of those are: support deflection, product ideation, customer attrition, customer expansion, integrations/solutions built, NPS scores, customer health scores, customer ROI, product adoption etc. There’s a lot- it really depends on the audiences you’re focused on and what your community looks like!

Tools, a much larger discussion than I think I can cover in a response here. 🧐 There’s online community tools, event management tools, tracking tools, support tools, content management tools, marketing tools, email tools, and the list goes on and on and on. Anything in particular you’re curious about?

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Alex Newman

How do you make the case to your CEO to invest in community at an enterprise company? How do you measure the value in $?

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Holly Firestone Ask Me Anything

I developed a vision for community that made the importance and the potential very clear. I presented that to my CEO. I walked through the best way to structure the team, ROI, success metrics, impact on business goals, impact on our most important audiences, etc. Once that was agreed upon, I presented a more detailed roadmap that included milestones and outcomes along with the resources (budget, headcount) to get there. I also shared a lot of success stories from other communities.

There were a couple pivotal moments at Atlassian related to this that I could never forget. I'll share since they're fun stories. At our annual conference, I hosted a User Group Leader training day the day before the event. There were about 40 of us. We were having the absolute best time. In fact, we were having such a good time, that our CEO opened the door, popped his head in and said “what’s going on in here? You’re so loud I can hear you down the hall!” When he saw it was a group of customers spending time together, talking about how to build community around Atlassian, well, I can’t ever forget the expression on his face. That night, we had a User Group Leader appreciation dinner, and it was the same scene. We were all having an absolutely amazing time, sharing inside jokes, giving out awards— it was really a community. It was a family. Two of our leaders had just gotten engaged and I made a huge deal about celebrating and gifting them a bottle of champagne. Our other CEO came to the dinner, and you could tell he was blown away by what he saw. He was thrilled, he was proud, and he was also having a great time. Everything changed for me and for my community programs from there. The CEOs saw what was happening and they understood the potential. I wouldn't say everything was easy from that point forward, but I had a hell of a lot of support from our CEOs!

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Alex Newman

Thanks for sharing, Holly! Great story :)

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Marissa Dimino

How are you tying your metrics and KPIs to other sides of the business that may take priority?

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Holly Firestone Ask Me Anything

The attached photo is how I believe enterprise organizations need to structure community. Community has the ability to create valuable impact for many parts of the business, and putting community anywhere that doesn’t allow it to touch each of those parts of the business does it a disservice. In this structure, you can tie the goals of the community back to business priorities while also delivering ROI to other parts of the business. You can’t do everything at once, of course, but you will see more resources, support, and success if more teams are represented in your long-term strategy.

the.community.club/remoteimages/i/...

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Marissa Dimino

Thanks Holly!

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Katie Ray

Im curious about how you encourage community members to engage more with the platform (ask questions, get on for AMA's, etc)?
Also, what type of marketing do you do to get more members?

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Holly Firestone Ask Me Anything

There's a lot of different ways to do this. I created the O, SNAP framework (attached image) that outlines different ways you can incentivize high levels of engagement/participation in your community. I also wrote a blog post about it. I updated the framework a bit, so the blog post is a tiny bit outdated, but almost all of it still applies. You can find it here: medium.com/@HollyFirestone/oh-snap...

When you're just getting your community started though, I highly recommend seeding some of the content. Reach out to customers you have a good relationship with and ask if they will post some questions and answers. Talk to internal teams about posting as well. That way, when people show up, your community will already have some activity. Nobody wants to join an empty community!

the.community.club/remoteimages/i/...

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Katelyn Gillum

What's a common misconception most folks (community or not) might have about enterprise communities? Any particular theories/myths you'd like to publicly debunk? ;)

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Holly Firestone Ask Me Anything

YES!!! I would love to set the record straight here. Just because you’re at a big company doesn’t mean you are making it rain headcount and 100 dollar bills (or Euros or Yen or Rupees- you get the point) to run your community. You might have an opportunity here and there to lean on other teams for certain types of resources or support, but you also have a ton more red tape and structure to navigate than you would at a smaller company. Things take so much longer. You can’t be as nimble.

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Mac

The AMA will happen right in this thread! You can drop your question(s) now ahead of time to be ready for when our mystery guest shows up to start answering them.

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Katelyn Gillum

What do you think enterprise communities will look like 10 years from now? Or, if you could built an enterprise community from scratch, what would you want it to look like 10 years from now? :)

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Daria Byrne

Holly, we are looking to tether knowledge enablement to KPIs specifically product support ticket frequency. Have you specifically seen community engagement reduce product support tickets? If so, could you provide more detail? Also, what are best practices for a software company to roll out community and garner buy-in from constituents as opposed to constituents viewing it as "just another application"? Thanks!

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Holly Firestone Ask Me Anything

Absolutely have seen community engagement that correlates with reduced support tickets. At Salesforce, we used a combination of page views and questions answered on our forums to calculate support deflection savings. I'll do something similar a Venafi once we've grown enough to do so.

For the second question, a marketing strategy is an absolute must for any community. You wouldn't roll out a product or host a conference without marketing it to your audience(s), so the same goes for community. I highly recommend working with your marketing team to build an external marketing campaign that aligns with your launch, but also ongoing. Make sure that joining the community is an important part of new customer onboarding. Make sure you have consistent messaging around what the community is and how membership brings value.

On top of the external marketing that needs to happen, there absolutely has to be an internal marketing effort. Create success metrics around the company as a whole understanding what community is and why it's important. Double down with that message for all customer-facing teams. You can customize the message for each of your internal audiences so they understand what's in it for them. For example, if you're presenting to a Sales team about community, make it clear what it means for attrition and customer expansion. Also, make it easy! Give them a community cheat sheet with the top things they need to know. Put together a slide they can include in decks when presenting to customers. Getting your internal teams bought in on community is huge. I can't stress that enough. If you can get the leaders of internal teams to require community goals as a part of their team's individual goals, even better. Everyone feeling like they are responsible for the success of the community will lead to incredible results.

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Daria Byrne

Thanks for your thorough response, Holly! Appreciate your insight!