Sumeru Chatterjee (aka "Sumo") is a community builder for high growth SaaS companies. He's super passionate about helping companies scale through Community and Content and led those efforts at several tech unicorns, including Thinkific, Gong.io, Addepar, and Data.ai.
The communities he has led include:
- Share Koro, an e-learning platform with 200K members.
- CustomerEducation.org, a professional community with over 5k members.
- Thinkific Community, a network of over 30K educators.
We talked about all things community and B2B, from the types of existing communities and why companies should care, to his own frameworks for community led growth. This is a tremendously insightful conversation you don’t want to miss.
There are a lot of definitions out there for “community.” How do you define it?
I think there's two parts. For the most part, for businesses, it's the sum total of all interactions that people have about the problem that this company solves.
That is my current working definition. And if you use that working definition, community becomes much more than just a forum or a place where your customers go to ask support questions. It's the sum total of all conversations amongst people who care about the problem that you solve.
And there are two kinds of communities. There are owned communities and not owned communities. Owned communities are basically spaces and conversations that you have control over. And not owned communities are based on conversations that are happening about you that you don't have control over.
So they're like two concentric circles. The big circle outside, let's call it big community is Community with a capital C. And that's sometimes called dark social.
And then there's a little community, which is little c, which is a sub circle. And this is your own platform, your own community where you are able to guide and control the narrative and the conversation.
Gong is a good example. So for Gong, the little community is Visioneers. They've designed this beautiful experience that combines conversations, content, learning an academy and resources all around people who are invested in Gong's brand. But the big community with big C for Gong would include the conversations that are happening inside RevGenius and Pavilion and LinkedIn.
So the community has to be united around a problem and not specifically a product?
Yeah. Definitely not a product. The community of people who care about your product is not a community, it’s a support channel.
Why should companies care about building a community?
There's two different answers depending on the state of the company you're in. If you're a startup, there is an answer. And if you are an established brand, there is an answer.
So if you're a startup, the answer is basically that the modern way to start a company is to start with producing short form content, see what resonates. Convert, then take those topics and start making long form content in a newsletter. See what resonates. Bring your most engaged readers into a community. Engage them there. And then use those community conversations to find the problems and build a solution for those people.
So that's like the new startup playbook that a lot of people are trying to do, which is I'm gonna first build an audience because that's the easiest, cheapest thing you can do for free. Then I'm gonna build an engaged audience. Then I'm gonna build a community, and then I'm gonna use that community goodwill to really understand the problems of the people in those communities. And then I will build a solution to solve this. You're seeing this being executed in real time by PeerSignal and Keyplay.
So that's the answer for start ups on why community is because it's the cheapest way to validate your problem before you go to market so that you don't end up building the wrong product.
For brands, the answer is slightly different. All the traditional demand gen channels are tanking in ROI. If you look at ROI for ad spend, traditional demand marketing is not working anymore or at least the costs are prohibitive. If you actually look at why people buy a particular software, it's like 98% of people buy a software because they heard about it on social media or in a private community from somebody they trust.
So a lot of the buying decisions are starting with good word-of-mouth. The big C answer for brands is because 98% of the people who are buying your product heard about it on social or in a community. So this is one example. But it's higher than what attribution software is gonna tell you the answer is.
Case in point, I run a sister organization to RevGenius, called customereducation.org. We have only five thousand members. We serve education professionals, people who do customer enablement and customer training and education and stuff like that. We have a channel called No Vendor Clubhouse. It's a private channel, invite only. No vendors allowed. And people are posting the screenshots of their RFPs and the actual bills they're getting from these vendors and saying, “Hey, I'm paying twelve dollars per seat, per license. What are you paying?” And someone's like, “Oh, I'm paying fourteen dollars. Like, WTF?”
These conversations are completely private. And this is how buying decisions are getting made. But the AE has no idea that their champion is bashing them in a private channel with other peers because in order to get access to this channel, you have to be vetted by me.
People are discussing Outreach versus Gong versus Salesloft in real time behind closed doors. And that's how they're making decisions. So that's the answer for the why community, because it drives a lot of the buying decision and the traditional media channels have a much lower ROI than they did five years ago.
How do you see companies today using community to actually grow? Are they using those two models?
So this one is a little mixed bag. In general, using community led motions is pretty much at its infancy in the industry. And there are a few companies that are doing this well, like Asana, Slack, Shopify, Gong, Duolingo, Peloton, Notion.
Notion, for example, uses community across three journeys, across three stages: awareness, conversion, and expansion. For awareness, they went city by city doing promotion, running small local meetups with five, ten Notion superfans. They gave them swag and stickers and then they said, “Hey, why don't you start a local chapter?” And the local chapters were responsible for awareness of the product.
Online, they also went into subreddits and Facebook groups. Tens of thousands of people find out about Notion through these groups.
For conversion and activation, Notion realized people used Notion in widely different ways. So they had people in the community create templates, guides, and tutorials. They hosted them, but they were created by the community. These templates really help new users activate the product and convert from free to paid.
The most interesting one is their upgraded expansion motion, which is for companies to adopt Notion at the enterprise level, where you're gonna need consultants and operations people to deploy Notion. So, they basically opened up a community powered consultant database where people applied to the program, Notion certified them, and now these people, who are from the community, help companies adopt Notion across their organization. That way, Notion is not building out a services layer. They're outsourcing that to the community. This way, people make money on Notion and they get more invested in the brand. And this is similar to what Salesforce has done, obviously, back in the day.
But we're just seeing it in a PLG company for the first time, which is pretty interesting. Miro has done something similar with their Miroverse and their template library, all of which is community powered. We haven't seen any big ones from B2B, maybe outside of Trailhead or maybe Drift Insider. So I would say, for the most part, it's a pretty green space.
Do you think there's room for companies to leverage existing communities like RevGenius and actually have some impact?
Yeah. One hundred percent.
When I was doing community consulting, people would be like, “Oh, I wanna launch a community.” And the first thing I would say is, “Are you currently involved in communities?” And they're like, “What do you mean?” I'm like, “Well, is anyone from your company actively participating in online platforms where your ideal customer already hangs out? If you're a creator economy tool, are you on these Facebook groups run by these big creators, are you participating in the conversations?” And they're like, “No.” And my answer would be, like, “If you're not already participating in conversations, you haven't earned the right to have your own community.”
Because I can show you my framework on how to build a good community, but being actively involved and actually performing well inside of other people's communities is the best thing you can do before you start your own.
One of the companies I'm consulting with wants to launch a community. The first thing they want to do is buy a hundred thousand dollar platform and hire a community manager. I'm, like, “You can do that, but that's not gonna make a community. If there's no DNA to actually participate in conversations, write interesting content, respond to other people, then your community is probably not gonna be successful. Or at least, it will never grow out of the little c, which is about your product and product support.”
You mentioned your framework for creating a community. Tell me more about it.
I call it the rising sun model.
This is the number one question I get, what kind of community should I build or how should I build my community? It depends on how big your aspirations are.
So you can build a community of product. This is where the community is focused around a specific product, physical or software, like Nike Sneakerhead. The main driver is utility and you're mostly talking to superfans. It involves paying customers for the most part. Jeep and Wrangler and Harley Davidson, have amazing product communities. It's not a bad thing, but it is restricted to just super users of your product. And if you have super users in the tens of thousands, like Harley Davidson does, or like Nike sneakers do, then I think this type of community makes sense.
It's typically customer support, customer success and the main driver's utility. The tactical execution involves a forum, support documentation and you can use tools like Slack or Discord.
Then you can build what I call a community of brand. This is users plus your partners plus your marketing folks plus your free users. Here, the main driver's social connection. And the main value add is to get connected to other people who love this brand.
And then you have a third type of community. This is the big boy. This is the community of category. Here the main driver's identity. Now you are talking to sales professionals, not just Gong users or Gong lovers, for example. The tactics here involve industry awards, conferences and certifications, and the main value add is belonging.
So depending on your company and your mission, you can choose one of these three types of communities. I can see companies doing any of the three, but I typically recommend starting from product and expanding.
What are the best practices to build and run a community?
If you want to build a great community program, you follow the music, M.U.S.I.K.
M is for movement, and I think this is super important for SaaS companies. When you start a community, you have to declare a movement about what it is, why are you starting a community? What is something that you believe that you think is controversial? Or, what is the evil that you're trying to fight against?
It's super important to declare that upfront to build a community that will survive more than just your support forum.
U is for utility in the first level of community. The main driver here is driving utility for your users. There are many tactics you can implement, like having a chat, learning content, templates, Q&A, a product road map, resource libraries. Things that help users get unstuck.
Then, when you want to go to a brand community, you add the S, the social connection layer. This is where you are organizing meetups and you have peer to peer DMs, private channels, coffee introductions, leaderboards, events, executive round tables, service marketplaces where people can buy and sell services, things that help your users connect with each other, not with you as a company.
The I is the Identity layer. This is a level three community. This is where you are establishing yourself as the leader of the identity that you want to create for your users. For Gong, that identity is data driven sales professionals. They have the Golden Gong Awards, recognizing the world's best data driven sales professionals. You might declare the annual salesperson day, where every salesperson gets a day off, where you are doing things for the identity behind your movement as a whole. This is what elevates you from a level two to a level three community.
And then supporting all of this as a business is the K. You need to know the KPIs of your community. So depending on whether your community reports to marketing or corporate strategy or to customer success, you need to know how your community is driving revenue. That's the most important thing. That might look like membership engagement, churn, conversion, activation of community members, those kinds of things. Reporting this at a company-wide level and an executive level so that your board and your executives are all aligned is something that is your responsibility as a community manager.
So that's the MUSIK framework: Movement, Utility, Social, Identity, and KPIs.