These days, brands big and small are laying claims to their “community” development. The harsh truth however, is that most brands are not building actual community. They’re building one-way marketing conversations, and in doing so, are missing out on huge business potential. 

Over the last year, I have spoken with hundreds of founders, CEOs, community builders and venture capitalists about the power of community in the business world. From these conversations, I have learned that those businesses that are building deep community are the ones that will survive for the long haul. Those that don’t invest in real community simply won’t last in the next 10, 20, 50 years.

So who's getting it right? What follows are the companies that are doing it right and reaping the rewards. Take a look at what you may be missing out on:

Community as a Product Engine

Companies like Dell, Apple, Coca-Cola, Intel and Spotify have all begun to build communities. Why? They know that they can build better products with their customers’ input. All of these companies have seen the effects of what happens when you empower your users: your company builds better products supported by the people who already support you.

By opening up a conversation among your users through online forums, meetups or other community spaces, you'll begin this journey toward a better product.

Apple's first User Evangelist, Ellen Leanse built up the company’s first user groups and got internal stakeholders in on the process. Apple’s Guy Kawasaki opened the door from product to user and Apple’s user groups exploded in popularity and influence. Community allowed for a two-way conversation and Apple benefited hugely from community buy-in.

Twitch, the gaming industry success story (acquired by Amazon for $1 billion last year), also improves its product by interfacing with customers. In 2014, Twitch reported that it implemented five to six ideas from the community directly into the product after hearing feedback at its Twitch Town Hall.

The product team knows that they simply can’t come up with all the ideas on their own,” says Director of Community and Education at Twitch, Marcus Graham. 

Community as a Sales Engine

Not only can community members create winning product ideas, but they are also more loyal customers. Giving without asking for anything in return may seem like a radical business notion, but companies like Salesforce and Brainshark have proven that this type of generosity fuels sales and retention. 

Salesforce's Senior Director of Community, Erica Kuhl began its MVP community almost eight years ago in an effort to give back to Salesforce’s users and give them a space to learn from one another. But what she didn’t expect to see was that those MVPs who were active in the community were also the MVPs spending the most money with Salesforce.  She discovered that external Salesforce users who were active in the Salesforce community in the last 3 months spent two times more than inactive people. 

Brainshark discovered that not only can building community make money, but it can keep your existing customers loyal. As Brainshark has found, customer retention increases by 15 percent after they attend a community event. 

Building community can also keep your competitors at bay so you don’t have to fight continually for their loyalty, said First Round Partner Rob Hayes, the first investor in Uber,

There is certain failure in trying to start a parallel community if your competitor has built something that incorporates all of the leaders of the community you’re trying to reach. Those people won’t want to move over.”

Community as a Marketing Engine

Community is a dream marketing engine if you do it right. When you create a space for customers to talk to one another, you also create a space where you can share messages to your “tribe.” In addition, giving generously to your community makes them more loyal to you as a brand, and more likely to spread the word on your behalf.

Structured community ambassador programs and VIP events are a great way to get the ball rolling. 

Salesforce's Kuhl discovered that the handful of people in the early Salesforce MVP program generated a whopping 5-7 percent of its Twitter mentions

They amplified our messages in a massive way during events, and they were meeting each other and organizing meetups throughout the world,” she said. “They really became an extension of the Salesforce team.”

Product Hunt’s Head of Community Erik Torenberg shared that it grew the massive successful community from 4,000 to 40,000 users in four months through community alone -- with zero spend on marketing. 

“You can certainly build deep connections with those first people, connections that will endure and spread through each of those people’s communities,” he explained. It’s about giving to your loyal customers first and then giving them the tools (stickers, events, special community titles and badges and privileges) to spread the word. 

Yelp also tapped into the power of community to scale quickly from 2004 to present. It empowered its Yelp Elite community to manage local neighborhoods, spread excitement and gather their friends at the hottest restaurants and bars in town. 

Keep in mind, though, that community is all about playing the long game. Invest in the people who you are hoping to serve with your business. As Yelp’s former Brand Director Nish Nadaraja explained, “None of this was supposed to happen overnight. Community is the antithesis of growth hacking.”

It’s Not Too Late

It’s not too late to invest in a community strategy, no matter what type of business you are building. If you’re reading this, you’re already on the right track. Start caring, start listening and see the value that your customers can bring to you -- and one another.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic LicenseTitle image by  qronoz