Community is the “new” moat (or so some have said), and it’s true: Having a community helps protect against competitor companies or products entering your territory. Whether that community is a group of power users, open source contributors, creators, or even just a brand (or franchise)’s super fans, it lends greater brand awareness, higher switching costs, and scale economies.
Buyers have endless choices in today’s market, so companies can’t rely only on features and pricing to win business. This is why companies like Figma, Lululemon, Salesforce, Sephora, and Twilio — ranging from developer platforms and CRMs to consumer brands — put community first and foremost in their strategy. And there are countless other examples of companies that have communities as well, even if they aren’t yet actively engaging them.
The upside of community extends beyond just defending one’s position and territory, though. In a world where software is no longer sold, but rather adopted, more companies than ever before are embracing the customers, contributors, and fans they had previously overlooked. But while some of them do recognize the importance of community in their go-to-market (GTM), I’ll go much further here and argue they need a related but distinct competency: go-to-community (GTC).
In my hundreds of conversations with leaders at early-stage B2B companies, large open source projects, and global consumer brands all trying to define or build community programs, it’s clear that the road to community is fraught with peril: Underinvestment, lack of internal alignment, and fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of community have led many companies to attempt and then quickly shutter their community programs. But the biggest challenge I’ve seen is that they lack a go-to-community strategy. Too much of the discourse around community has focused on either high-level concepts (like empathy and belonging) or on the tactical aspects of community management (such as job titles or channels).
So what changes when we think about GTC, and make community a first-class competency in a company?
“Bottom up” go-to-market strategies and product-led growth are changing the game, forcing companies to rethink traditional funnel-focused processes when it comes to sales and more. Compared to the old world, where software tools were imposed upon workers who had little say in the matter, this world is one where purchasing power has become decentralized; where users expect as much from their work products as they do from their personal apps; and where paywalls and “call us” pricing have been replaced with trials, free tiers, and self-serve.
So where does community come in then? A strong “go-to-community” competency not only helps companies proactively compete in this new environment, but it also provides the framework and tools to shift from top-down to bottom-up. Go-to-community helps build positive-sum relationships beyond just sales. And perhaps most importantly, it uplevels the very notion of community from something that’s purely company-centric and transactional (e.g., “good for deflecting support tickets”) into something that impacts every part of the organization.
Community, in other words, can become a force multiplier for the entire business.
But first, what do I mean by “community”? The term can mean many things — a support forum, a networking group, an open source project, even a tribe of sports fans could all be considered communities. A more useful taxonomy is to classify communities into:
- Communities of Product — Members of these communities are focused primarily on discussing and learning about a specific product, like Sephora’s Beauty Insiders, Twilio’s Champions program, or Salesforce Trailblazers.
- Communities of Practice — Members are all about leveling-up a discipline or craft, and connecting with other practitioners, independent of any tools or platform. Examples include cohort-based learning community On Deck, or design communities, like Dribbble.
- Communities of Play — Members of this category come together around a common interest, like sports, gaming, athletics, arts, and more. Think gaming communities on Discord, or NBA Top Shot.
We can slice it different ways, but the key distinction among the above is what motivates the community members? This question gets to the heart of why the community is gathering, an understanding that will then influence how the company interacts with those community members. Note, the specific channel where they interact or gather — a forum, Facebook group, in-person meetups, a Slack group — matters less than the underlying motivation. The channel itself is just a tactical manifestation of where the community meets.
There’s also an aspect of who do you trust, which Corinne Riley usefully distinguishes as trusting the salesperson (in a sales-driven world), trusting yourself (in a product-led world), or trusting a community of peers/friends (in a community-led growth world) when it comes to seeking guidance or making decisions. As we’ll see, trust building is an essential element of go-to-community.
Most of the mindsets I offer in this article are focused on communities that are formed around, related to, or sponsored by a specific company or brand. These tend to blend the motivations of both product and practice communities — you can imagine members of the Photoshop community discussing Photoshop itself, as well design trends and principles — but the mindsets shared below could help other kinds of communities, too.
GTC vs. GTM — The focus on ‘go-to-community’ vs. ‘go-to-market’
Every business has a go-to-market strategy that informs their segmentation, targeting, pricing and packaging, distribution, and more — their “go-to-market”, quite literally — yet they do not apply anywhere near this level of rigor and discipline when it comes to their company’s community strategy… even when said community is critical to their business.
Too often, companies view community as a nice-to-have, an add-on to the GTM efforts. In this approach, instead of elevating the community to a role of unique influence, the community program is often co-opted by the goals of other teams, and is expected to influence core business outcomes. But the lens of business metrics is NOT the best or only way to view a community’s success.
This is an all-too-common failure case for companies attempting to build a community. When companies limit their conception of community activities as something “top of funnel” only — I often hear that “community = marketing” — it implies that the only way to measure the success of a community is through metrics like leads generated or awareness driven, even though the impact reaches well beyond that. What I think people really mean is, “Sometimes community managers sit inside the marketing department, and their activities look like other awareness-generating tactics.”
They may look similar on the outside, but community and marketing have different inputs and different outputs. This is why go-to-community strategy and tactics should be viewed as its own system, with its own processes, outcomes, and incentives distinct from go-to-market strategy. By distinguishing between the concepts of classic “go-to-market” and “go-to-community”, business leaders not only reason more precisely about the role of community in their overall company strategy, but also more mindfully define which teams are working on which outcomes.
For instance, optimizing a lead flow process (typical in GTM programs) is quite different than hosting meetups and creating educational content (critical in GTC programs) — yet today, these activities are often grouped under the same team and strategy, leading to situations where a head of revenue can define goals for a meetup program, or where companies hire a community manager into the marketing organization, and then measuring their success based on the goals of everyone else on that team. These are all common failure modes.
Outcomes for go-to-community need to be measured by the growth and retention of the community itself, as well as by less tangible but equally important qualities such as the number of new relationships, the amount of trust developed, or even degree of self-actualization. Incentives are where it all comes together; “show me the incentive and I will show you the outcome” (to quote Charlie Munger). The key difference between the incentives in go-to-market vs. go-to-community strategy can be summarized as the difference between value capture vs. value creation.
The logical implication of all this is that the relationship between GTC and GTM is synergistic, not synonymous. Community must be treated as a separate organizational entity, with its own measures and its own people. But there also needs to be permeable boundaries between the community and other parts of the company, so the community is not drifting off on its own, siloed and unconnected to the business.
From funnel to center
The classic metaphor of the “funnel” has defined most go-to-market strategies. It’s focused on optimizing every step of the process — from awareness and discovery to evaluation, engagement, conversion/sales, loyalty, and advocacy — pushing leads through linearly, extracting value at each stage. Community, on the other hand, isn’t about pushing people toward a binary endpoint, but about creating an environment so compelling that it naturally attracts people toward its center.
In other words, healthy and active communities have gravity; a “high gravity” community is one that excels at attracting and retaining community members. The go-to-community strategy is what helps build and maintain this gravity while connecting the benefits to company objectives. And there are all sorts of benefits for the company:
Community assets can help drive awareness, adoption, and retention
Community is now the “new pre-sales”. More non-employees willing to guest post on your blog leads to more thought leadership materials, which drives increased awareness. On social, current users talking to potential users leads to organic self-qualification and objection handling, thus impacting user acquisition. If your community has a forum where users of your product as well as potential users congregate, they’ll naturally share ideas and best practices, and experienced users will lend a hand to new users. In this case, successful users talking to struggling ones leads to community-led support discussions, which in turn leads to improved product adoption and retention.
The outputs of an engaged community therefore serve as the perfect complement to a product-led go-to-market.
There’s also a separate but related benefit here: increased trust between community members and company employees. When employees are aligned around creating value for the community, it frees them to focus on positive-sum interactions, doing what’s best for each person independent of targets like leads generated. A community manager’s role is to listen, learn, and connect the members, and sometimes, the appropriate experience is an introduction to a salesperson. When the time comes, and trust has been established, that prospect will then enter into the funnel much more qualified and at a later stage compared to another lead source.
Community can de-risk the GTM strategy
The conversations, content, and connection that emerge from a community reveal what matters to them, what they struggle with, what they need to be successful, and what matters in their world. If you’re paying attention to the community and talking to the folks in it, you’ll have a clear point of view that can empower others within your company to act with conviction and clarity.
But the key is actually feeding those insights back into the company. A GTC strategy helps deliver these insights from the community back to the product, marketing, and sales teams. Better yet, these insights are informed by the more “natural voice” of the community — as compared to the skewed feedback of frustrated support conversations, or from customers incentivized to provide feedback via gift card. (This is similar to reviews, where only the haters or otherwise highly motivated people leave reviews, and the silent majority doesn’t say anything.)
Compared to more formalized feedback programs, community learnings will be more frequent and consistent overall, allowing the company to rapidly iterate through ideas and approaches before scaling up the ones that work.
Community strategy can help with alignment
A go-to-community strategy helps align teams, as it brings clarity around organizational priorities and who owns what — who’s working on value capture, and who’s working on value creation? Today, the marketing team will likely have folks working on both, which can cause a mismatch between activities and their expected impact.
It’s hard to define success when everyone harbors differing underlying assumptions about what’s at stake. For instance, you wouldn’t ask an account executive to spend time chatting with community members on the forum, since they should be focused on closing deals and capturing value. And yet it’s not uncommon for someone to ask a community manager or developer advocate a question like, “How many leads did we get from the meetup last night?” That person is asking a value capture question about a value creation activity.
If you build it, will they come?
As we’ve seen, the conversations, content, and connection that emerge from a vibrant community often lead to improved awareness, adoption, self-qualification, retention, and ultimately, revenue for the company.
That all sounds great, but it’s important to note that these kinds of outcomes are only a second-order effect of building a high gravity community. You can’t just tie revenue, marketing, or product metrics directly to your community strategy. Instead, the goal is to nurture and facilitate fruitful discussions between community members, create value, and understand the second-order impacts of those activities on this business.
In other words, you can’t force a flower to grow, but you can create the ideal context for its growth.
Now one could ask, why do we even need “go-to-community” at all? Can’t we just call it “community”?
The challenge with the term “community” is its broad scope: Both Kubernetes and my local running club can be called communities, but they’re only similar in the most abstract ways, which is why I think we need a reframe. The concept and term “go-to-community” (hat tip to Sam Ramji, one of my early angel investors who sparked this phrase) is useful for a few reasons:
- It borrows from the already familiar concept of GTM and frames the community discussion in terms of commercial impact. Historically, most community teams have struggled for budget and authority, leaving community programs underfunded and underutilized. If you’re convinced that community can drive value for your customer and your company, elevating community programs to a GTC strategy will help frame the strategic import of community and help guard against the common failure case of underfunding and lack of mandate.
- It provides a conceptual wrapper around previously seemingly different ideas and teams like community, content, and events. So what’s the ideal organizational chart placement for the community function? We’ve yet to see a clear consensus, but ideally, community teams — much like an Operations function — work best as a cross-functional multiplier, rather than as a vertical functional area with linear handoffs between teams.
- It is pithy and direct. GTC is a meme the whole company can rally around, even the sales team.
But go-to-community is more than a concept; it’s also a roadmap to incorporating one’s community into one’s strategy. It transforms questions like “How many leads did the forum generate last week?” into questions like “How many people did we help”? Again, the key difference between go-to-community and go-to-market is the focus on value creation vs. value capture.
Ideally, GTC and GTM plans should complement each other. By clarifying the GTC alongside the GTM, and describing both plans in detail, companies can reduce their coordination costs and enjoy all the benefits of both.
Although community building may be as old as humanity, the practice of GTC in a commercial context is relatively new; modern GTM has had many decades to evolve and refine, but the GTC journey is just beginning. There’s no playbook yet, so I think it’s helpful to start with having the conversations. To help make the concept more concrete, here are some questions to add more nuance and rigor around the potential for GTC in your company:
- Who is in our community and why are they here? Who is not in the community?
- What value will we create for the community, whether or not they are paying customers?
- What value will the members provide each other?
- How will we listen, talk to, and be directed by our customers?
- How and where will we deliver insights from these conversations to the rest of the company?
- How will we incentivize, recognize, and reward participation?
- What values and norms will we model and do we expect of the community?
- How can we make our community smarter, happier, wealthier? Through what programs, which channels?
Based on the questions above, the next step is defining and testing hypotheses about how the GTC plan impacts GTM as well:
- We think active community members will retain 50% longer than non-members.
- We think we can double the output we get from our existing blog by generating four community-created posts per month, resulting in a 20% increase in trial signups.
Hypotheses are a good place to start, primarily because communities should be understood as complex systems, which means the connection between efforts and results may not show up for a long time. But the act of discussing and debating these hypotheses, and questions, will bring more clarity and alignment about the purpose and impact of the GTC and GTM teams, as well as engage everyone in a creative discussion about how to create value in different forms. The value creation mindset has implications for every area of the business, benefiting customers, non-customers, and audience members alike — it’s ALL community, and community spans the customer journey from beginning to end.
A first-class competency in a non-zero-sum world
I believe the relationship between companies and customers is trending toward a positive-sum orientation, versus one that’s focused only on one-sided value extraction. Companies with a go- to-community strategy will be more incentivized and equipped to participate in this kind of relationship, ensuring that they deliver consistent value to their communities (while also benefiting from the second-order upside).
There’s upside for everyone in a company’s orbit, not just for “leads”. And by creating, not just capturing, value, companies earn the trust to enter into those conversations and build relationships with anyone interested in what they’re building: current customers, potential customers, or just folks driving by to learn something new. By giving value first, these companies position themselves to be ahead, compared to the companies who are still playing a more extractive zero-sum game.
So does having a go-to-community strategy mean only the company benefits from an active community? Hardly. The good news for the community is that when GTC is elevated to a company-level concern, the community members themselves will see more benefits: more regular and high-quality events, education, training, and opportunities to connect with others. It also means the community members themselves are more empowered to co-create the community and culture they want to participate in. The company can also deliver a higher-quality, safer, and higher-gravity community experience, since the community team will be resourced with tools and staff to onboard new members, moderate the community and deal with toxic behavior, and facilitate connection between members.
This means that go-to-community needs to be a first-class competency: one with the team, budgets, tooling, and a spot at the leadership table. When companies create more value than they capture, people learn new things, meet new people, and discover new opportunities — and of course, the company enjoys the benefits as well.
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