launching a fire lantern
PHOTO: Austin Neill

Launching one brand community is a significant investment for any organization. But what if you launched three, all at the same time?

That is the question that Asana’s head of global community Joshua Zerkel is answering with the launch of the Asana Together program. After months of planning, Asana, which creates a tool that helps teams manage their work, launched the three-pronged community effort on Feb. 14. As a result, it's become one of the most recent technology companies to take the leap into organizing a thoughtful and robust community program, paving the way for other organizations looking to do the same.

The Asana Together community has three groups: Asana Forum Champions (power users who answer questions from other customers), Asana Certified Pros (consultants looking to offer Asana to their clients) and Asana Ambassadors (champions who are leading the Asana charge within their organizations). Bucking the one-size-fits-all community program trend that many other organizations follow, Asana has put intensive resources behind the effort to ensure that it meets customer, organizational and business needs. Additionally, Asana’s community team hosts events around the world (they'll host over 175 in 2019, up from less than 30 in 2018), so building programs that are manageable and scalable is critical.

Asana’s Zerkel, who leads these community programs from within the marketing team, sat down with me to talk about the work that went into this effort. Here are his top seven lessons from the launch.

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1. Talk to Potential Members

Often organizations launch communities because they assume it's what their customers want, or because a competitor is doing it, or because they have an obvious organizational need for user-generated content, self-support, or word-of-mouth marketing. That isn't a recipe for success. Instead, follow Asana’s lead: Zerkel began by looking at Asana’s existing nascent community-oriented programs and then assessing what else its customers needed.

“Before I got here, there was a program called Forum Champions,” Zerkel said. “It was a group of the most active members within our online community forum. That was valuable because there are people who will only want to talk in forums rather than one-to-one or via other programs, and this was harnessing their desire for deeper engagement with us and giving them access to our product team. With the new launch, we’ve added on two other components: Asana Ambassadors and Asana Certified Pros.”

How did they know to launch three distinct programs? When Zerkel joined the team, “I heard from Asana team members that in addition to people who were really active on the community forum, we had people who were the Asana champions on their teams at work, and others who wanted to offer Asana consulting to their existing clients. Each of these is a really different perspective, with motivations and needs that are specific to each group. This led us to create a program that had a spot for each of these three types of people.”

With these early indicators and personas mapped out, the team talked with customers who had asked about Asana’s community programs, along with folks who were already active on the community forum. “The conversations we had helped confirm our hypothesis that having distinct but related groups would meet the needs of our customers. There was no guarantee that these groups, or the program in general, would be successful,” Zerkel said, “But … take as much input as you can find, and make educated decisions based on the information you have available.”

It helps that Zerkel had previous first-hand experience as a community leader — and member. Prior to joining Asana, he served as one of Evernote’s first community ambassadors and then later became Evernote’s director of global customer education and community. Because of that unique experience, he approaches community building from a place of empathy: “What do members want and what do they need? I strive to bring that kind of empathy to everything when designing community.”

To begin creating a community with empathy for members, ask yourself and your team: What experience have we had ourselves in joining and participating in communities? What was it like? What worked to get you more involved? What didn’t? What keeps you coming back? Write down what was most valuable for you in these communities and build from there.

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2. Set up Meetings With Every Department

Zerkel said his most important piece of advice for others investing in brand communities is to “make sure that your management team is bought into what you’re doing. If they are not, you will not be successful.” According to Zerkel, “You as the program manager need to have a community strategy that maps to your company’s goals. Build a story around what you’re creating, and then socialize that story. You can't just say ‘We’re going to get people together and have fun!’ You might get a year of life out of that, but not much longer.” Given that the most common reason cited for brand community failure is lack of resources and support, Zerkel’s advice is critical.

“When you do the work of getting buy-in, people on your team will be a part of the community’s success and not a gatekeeper to it.”

How do you socialize a new community launch? Zerkel’s advice is to make the rounds in all the different departments in your company. Let others know: if we create a community and it works, the community team will have more access to customers than anyone else in the company. Then ask: how can this access help your department?

Zerkel set meetings with every single customer-facing group within Asana (along with others that can benefit from increased customer exposure, like product teams), and he also convened a meeting with the executive team when he first started in order to explore what community meant to each person. Gathering key decision-makers allowed him to understand the varying perspectives (and expectations) about what community at Asana could be.

From there, it’s about asking: which of these perspectives will the community serve? “Your job is not to cater to every team’s needs — it’s to balance what you have to offer with the variety of asks,” Zerkel advised. “I had to take a stand at some point; I have limited resources. So I said, ‘Here’s what I can do, here’s how we’ll track that, here's how we’ll grow over time, and here’s how we’ll be able to help the other teams at Asana.'”

3. Distinguish Community With This Trick

Zerkel found a clear way to explain his team’s work makes to the rest of the organization: “The fundamental difference that I’ve helped people understand: when they send out an email campaign or make a product change, results come back almost immediately. It’s clear if something is working or not. But when we engage the community, we’re beginning a relationship, and it flows in two directions. Like all relationships, it takes time to develop, nurture, and (hopefully) see results from. Everyone needs to understand that distinction.”

The relationships created both between customers and between your organization and your customers, therefore, opens up opportunities for further innovation, ideas and value for and from community members. It isn’t about the transaction. It’s about the risk of missing out on all the ideas and information that is only shared if people feel they are being listened to and their ideas are being incorporated into a brand’s operations.

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4. Give It Your All

Asana didn’t launch with a one-off program or event, and this whole-hearted strategy was intentional. “Personally, I think it’s a mistake to launch a one-size-fits-all program,” said Zerkel. “You can tell when a program is just being spun up half-heartedly and there are not a lot of resources behind it.” The program will often appear as a random event, have a confusing onboarding experience, or feel disjointed from the rest of your interactions with the brand.

Zerkel stresses that these half-hearted attempts erode trust, which is fundamental to the creation of a community. “With what we’re doing, we want to ensure people see that it’s fully baked and we’re ready to welcome them into the family,” he said.

5. Measure What You Can, Immediately

“Our focus is on the things that are measurable, and then we can talk about things that are harder to measure,” said Zerkel of their measurement strategy, determined prior to their launch. “When you host an event, you can measure the number of registrations, people applying for the community after the event, and, further down the line, the number of free trials or upgrades to premium accounts that start as a result. We have the ability to tie all that together.”

Determining KPIs prior to planning your launch systems and choosing technology is key here. The technology you use to organize your community will determine what data you have access to and how deeply you can integrate with existing systems, like CRM tools, customer databases, and existing event management platforms. In Asana’s case, the systems they use all tie together, which gives them a powerful advantage when it comes time to show their business impact.

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6. Resource Accordingly

Asana’s community team organizes itself around the various stages of the community funnel. They have one person devoted to top-of-funnel community activities (like getting people interested in joining the community program, getting them up to speed on how it works), one person dedicated to the mid-funnel activities (engagement, performance, and retention of members), and one person dedicated to managing Asana’s in-person events. They also work closely with other teams, such as sales and customer success. The effort is therefore not siloed and is instead integrated into the operations of the broader Asana team.

7. Do a Soft Launch

Before the program launched, Asana’s community team invited approximately 100 people into a pilot version of Asana Together. This allowed them to set the culture, learn quickly, and then stress-test the system as it grew.

Soft launches are critical to the success of community efforts because they help early-adopters feel heard and seen and they also give you space to make mistakes, apologize, and course-correct quickly.

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Building a Community For the Members

Asana’s community launch holds countless lessons for other organizations looking to fuel community program growth and results. Of course, no brand can simply copy and paste Asana’s template for success. Zerkel urges others, “You can’t just create a community. Unless the product you’re building it around is truly loved, it’s not going to work.” What’s more, the community cannot be about the product or service itself, but about what that product or service does for your community members. For Asana, that means the community must help their members focus on doing the work that matters most to them.

What does community mean for you, and how can you create a community that not only drives business impact but also transforms your customers’ lives for the better?