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How to Fan the Flames of Customer Community

Christopher Gillespie

hands raised amid concert crowd

There’s lots of talk today about the power of peer-to-peer buying recommendations. But what about their source: the customer communities that can naturally form around your product?

Only one in four marketers actually encourages communities such as user groups, according to a report by Forrester. But when they do, communities can form like Marketo’s Marketing Nation, which has grown to many thousands of users and aids the software company’s marketing, support and product development—and even closes deals. Prospects are driven to visit the local user group, where they often get hooked.

So what makes Team Purple (Marketo’s community) so active and attractive? Could more companies recreate Marketo’s magic and, if so, how?

Find Your Superfans

“In the early days, there was this superfan who made a point of answering every single question other customers posted,” says Tom Grubb, formerly Marketo’s vice president of product marketing, now chief strategy officer at Digital Pi. The mysterious superfan coached dozens of peers and happily spoke at company events—all for no pay.

Superfans, when companies are lucky enough to attract them, get other customers excited. They cheerlead in public as well as in private conversations to which the company is never privy. They put the flywheel in motion and the bigger their following grows, the more others want in.

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What draws superfans? Grubb believes they gravitate to flexible products. “Marketo was like coding for marketers,” Grubb says. “It gave them a voice and let them be creative in a visible way.” Marketers used the platform to automate emails, trigger events and run reports that the whole company could see. Marketo user groups formed because there was so much to learn and, to a degree, to show off.

“You could always find ways to do something better,” Grubb says. “It was like, ‘Hey everyone, look what I figured out how to do.’” The system attracted individuals who built their personal brands around the company and created their own community tools on top of the ones Marketo provided, such as invite-only Facebook and Slack groups for tips, advice and hiring.

If you think user communities are a B2B-only phenomenon, plenty of consumer products share this attribute. Stylists use Sephora products as their beauty palette, athletes coach each other to new personal records in Nike gear, and The Atlantic’s readers debate the news. But just as many superfan-eligible products—both B2B and consumer—lack their own community. So how can marketers encourage theirs to form?

Use Your Community to Solve a Big Pain

To gather momentum, a customer community must satisfy a genuine need. Marketo’s Marketing Nation hit upon the right problem at the right time thanks to co-founder Jon Miller’s awareness that marketers in the early 2000s craved credibility. The group promised to make them data-driven and “give them a seat at the revenue table” when they were otherwise shunned by the C-suite as absentminded artists.

Shyna Zhang, Marketo’s former director of enterprise strategy, has gone on to co-found her own community, Product Marketing Masters, using this principle. Her group attracted its first 500 members entirely through word of mouth because it too struck a nerve—this time with product marketers.

“The other meetups I was attending were panels where people only had enough time to share glittering generalities,” Zhang says. “It was like, ‘Let’s sing kumbaya then go for drinks.’” Zhang knew from her time at Marketo that professionals are busy. If they’re going to share their attention and return, you owe them practical takeaways and connections that help them on the job. Zhang’s group is the only one to deliver real lessons from real product marketers in TED-style talks. “It’s niche, but you have to niche-down if your attendees are going to know that it’s for them,” Zhang says.

Great community stewards are also fierce guardians. For people to relax and connect, the community has to decide who it lets in and who it keeps out. “People will always want access to your community to promote their own stuff,” Zhang says. “We set an extraordinarily high bar for speakers and content quality. I always ask, is this someone I personally can learn from? Would I hire them to speak to my team? We’ve turned people away and it’s not easy, but I believe you have to respect and protect the intent and spirit of that community because they’ve entrusted you to do that. Once you break that bond, the community dissipates.”

The Marketing Nation was also especially strict: It was only open to current Marketo customers and select partners. Sheltered from the pressures of sales folk and the public, Marketing Nation members spilled their frustrations and needs at in-person meetups and in online forums, and made the groups truly their own. When it came time for their company to renew its Marketo contract, among the “pro” arguments was the fact that those individuals wouldn’t have to cut ties with the community where they had built a reputation, friendships and a career.

Once You Have Control, Give It Away

As tightly as you police your community’s borders, you must cede some control to those inside. “Nobody knows better what customers want than them,” says Chris Newton, VP of marketing at the customer community software Influitive. “Ultimately, they have to take it and run with it, and to a degree, you must let them. You may end up with some bad actors who talk over others or promote themselves, but it’s worth the trade-off.”

Organizers can cede ownership in a number of ways: They can let users vote on the group’s name and purpose, and they can take users’ feedback seriously. Community feedback partly inspired Marketo to launch new product offerings such as revenue tracking and account-based marketing.

At a certain size, Marketo found it necessary to use software to bind its “nation” together. It began using Influitive’s platform, which incentivizes participants to build reputations by answering each others’ questions and leaving online reviews. Software made it possible to add additional tiers to the community, such as Purple Select, an invite-only program for Marketo’s most vocal advocates, and to keep its many thousands of users engaged, active and happy.

All these efforts snowballed into a Marketo user community so raucous and loyal that a wave of anxiety swept over it when Adobe, which acquired Marketo in 2018, suggested it’d roll the Marketing Nation’s yearly summit into its own summit.

In a series of LinkedIn articles on the Adobe-Marketo acquisition, Grubb summarized the sentiments of Marketo’s many superfans: The community makes Marketo more than a software. “It made it cool to be a marketing technologist. … People flocked to the platform because it empowered them to be inventive, creative, valued and even heroic. Companies spend a ton of money trying to create this kind of customer passion—most fail.”

In other words, the true value in a company often lies in its legion of expert enthusiasts who help it sell, market, support its customers and grow.

Christopher M. Gillespie founded the content studio Find A Way Media to help brands ditch the jargon and grow by telling stories. He manages the newsletter The Beat, which helps writers hone their work.