EXPERT INSIGHTS

May-09-2024

Aligning stakeholders: Why every CMO should care about online community building

Holly Lynaugh, Integrated Campaigns Specialist, Khoros

In the life of a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO), every day feels like a masterclass in balancing the unbalanceable. CMOs navigate many distinct challenges at once, from crafting strategies to acquire and retain customers to optimizing spending, and looking for insights that help companies stay ahead in competitive markets. CMOs already juggle a full plate.

However, we see more Marketing leaders stepping up in an area that often resided under other functional domains: online communities.

The role of a marketing leader in a community initiative varies by company. Some CMOs champion the community business case. Others simply act as stakeholders. Some entirely ‘own’ their company’s community and the associated budget, especially in progressive high-tech, e-commerce, and marketplace businesses.

When marketing executives understand the total value of an online community initiative, they become major proponents. However, for those with no prior community experience, questions still need to be answered. In this blog, we share insights from thousands of conversations with CMOs and teams who run the world’s largest customer communities to:

  1. Help marketing leaders better understand, prepare, and align their resources to support and gain value from any online community.

  2. Enable other functions that ‘own’ communities to gain CMO support and partner with Marketing to extract better results.

The blog will cover:

  • Different community strategies and ‘owners’ and how they can evolve

  • Who to involve in community building, and why cross-functional alignment matters

  • Why CMOs value communities, including specific examples of community applicability to strategic outcomes and critical marketing initiatives

  • What roles different marketing teams play in community building, with practical guidance on work required from these teams

We also showcase some of the best examples of communities with solid marketing involvement.

Different community strategies and ‘owners’

Online communities, also known as brand-owned communities, community forums, customer communities, and more, allow people with common needs or interests to learn and interact with peers, experts, and a brand’s employees online. Communities serve as a place to ask questions, discuss topics, find resources, offer feedback, share ideas, or work towards a common goal.

When hosted by brands, a community becomes integral to modern customer experience and marketing. Brands often initiate communities to serve one of these purposes:

  • Scale self-service support: These communities address customer or user inquiries and issues, offer expert guidance, and surface critical support and educational resources in a one-to-many channel. Self-service communities deflect expensive calls and lower contact volume to customer service agents, technical support, and other service functions like customer success. Community posts, comments, and user-generated tips get indexed and ranked highly by search engines, helping more customers find answers without agent help. Chief Operating Officers (COOs) often ‘own’ support communities to start.

  • Foster authentic engagement among a niche, high-impact audience. Common examples include developer communities, partner communities, executive communities, or communities built for sellers in an e-commerce or marketplace business. These online communities bring together specific populations to collectively learn, share ideas, and provide feedback to the brand. Brands often build communities for niche groups that greatly influence business growth and innovation, from new product development to new customer acquisition. Typically, these audiences value peer connections and direct engagement with the brand. Chief Marketing Officers, Chief Product Officers, or Chief Customer Officers often ‘own’ this type of community.

Community ‘ownership’ can vary by intended purpose, aligning more closely with customer service, product, marketing, or other teams. The community could also benefit from shared ownership, with the budget divided among several departments or managed by one.

How community ownership can evolve

Many of today’s most successful online communities began as a hub for customer support. Businesses often gain internal buy-in for support communities because it’s easy to quantify the cost savings from call deflection. For example, Microsoft saves $1M in monthly support costs through call deflection from its online community. The tech giant’s highly trusted community reduces response times, increases resolution rates, and increases customer satisfaction overall. Support community payoff also happens quickly. While the value will only continue to grow over subsequent years, the first year of a community often provides a notable return on investment (ROI).

Out of necessity, support communities also grew in popularity during the pandemic. Brands like Zoom and Bell Canada needed more self-service to keep up with customer inquiries. Today, customers overwhelmingly prefer to find answers about a company’s product or service themselves — not by speaking to an agent. In fact, 88% of customers expect brands to offer self-service options like a community. Many enterprises now view their customer communities as a necessity, not a nice-to-have for retention, especially for businesses in highly competitive markets or with complex product sets.

However, as membership grows, the benefits of self-service communities reach far beyond support. These communities help Marketing, Sales, Product teams, and other functions with varying priorities. As more internal teams engage in communities, customers also deepen their connections to the brand. The Zoom community story provides excellent proof.

Zoom

Zoom’s community story demonstrates why cross-functional awareness and involvement should be a priority from the get-go.

Who should be involved in community building

No single person or team should be responsible for community success alone. Creating a healthy online community requires the involvement and collaboration of many key stakeholders across the organization, including the C-suite, IT, marketing, product, customer care teams, and beyond. Community success relies on each department rallying around its purpose and committing time and resources. Stakeholders must be ready to engage cross-functionally and collaborate across departments. Companies that do so will yield exponential value faster.

Communication tailored to each team's diverse needs and interests is essential. Marketers, for example, tend to care about how a community can grow its audience or generate positive sentiment. In contrast, product teams care more about how the community will help them receive customer feedback and further innovation. When each team recognizes its stake in the community, people can contribute effectively and ensure growth and success.

Since every online community serves as an extension of a brand, CMO buy-in matters for program success. CMOs also act as a powerhouse behind growth and innovation in their companies, so there’s a good chance they already hold a seat at the table if a company plans to invest in an online community. They're not just any stakeholders; they're major players.

With CMOs and other teams involved, communities can save companies money, increase customer lifetime value (CLV), create new revenue streams, and provide hundreds of other near-term benefits to different parts of the organization, especially marketing.

Why CMOs value communities

Since their endorsement is critical, CMOs should dive into the community-building process from the start. Getting CMOs on board early in the process is not just smart; it's strategic.

JumpCloud launched its online community as a hub for IT professionals to share best practices, network, and showcase their expertise. The community's success largely hinged on gaining executive buy-in from the beginning and building on that momentum.

JumpCloud quote


CMOs feel responsible for the same strategic outcomes as other executives:

  1. Customer retention

  2. Top-line growth (new customer acquisition, upsell, or cross-sell)

  3. Profitability

CMOs who champion communities understand that communities can affect each business outcome. Now more than ever, ROI is at the top of CMOs' minds, with approximately 77% of CMOs globally feeling pressure to prove greater short-term returns. A thriving online community also helps a CMO’s team address multiple marketing priorities and initiatives with less spending, including:

  • Customer insights: Data is the cornerstone of modern marketing. While marketers have plenty of data, they struggle to get authentic, real-time customer insights. Many teams pay millions of dollars to 3rd-party expert networks and market research firms to test messaging, execute qualitative studies, and more. Online communities give a company an always-on source of insights about customer preferences, behaviors, and trends. For CMOs, these rich insights fuel informed strategies. The insights can play a role in everything from ideal customer profile definitions to new market or audience identification to higher-performing content and campaigns.

  • Inbound marketing & SEO: Inbound marketing is the art of attracting customers through meaningful digital content. It’s a holy grail for CMOs because it significantly reduces customer acquisition costs (CAC). Search Engine Optimization (SEO) plays a significant role in inbound marketing. Today, CMOs invest lots of people and effort into optimizing content, websites, and blogs for search. CMOs also spend a hefty chunk of advertising budgets on paid search. According to eMarketer research, teams spent over $90 billion on paid search ads in 2023 in the U.S. alone. Communities with active participation provide an ever-growing repository of rich user-generated content (UGC). Search engines index and rank UGC, fueling organic inbound traffic to a brand’s community and website properties. This takes some of the burden of SEO off the marketing team's plates and helps CMOs cut back on paid search spend if needed.

  • Customer advocacy & ‘word-of-mouth’ marketing: Every marketing executive seeks to find and harness customer champions. The value of customer advocacy and ‘word-of-mouth’ or peer-to-peer marketing is clear. It’s the most powerful form of marketing because buyers value the opinions of trusted peers. But ‘word-of-mouth’ can be hard to facilitate. Communities act as an always-on channel for marketers to find and engage champions, gamify participation, capture stories, and build lasting advocates who share with others.

Kudos


  • Customer communications & retention marketing: Modern marketing teams don’t solely focus on customer acquisition or demand. They play a critical role in all stages of the customer journey. Most CMOs hold responsibility for all or a portion of one-to-many customer communications. In industries like high-tech, many CMOs also have team members dedicated to post-sale or retention marketing. Brand-owned communities provide a channel for marketers to communicate and distribute relevant content to customers. Unlike e-mail, communities enable customers to respond with questions or create dialogues around topics. Marketers also leverage communities to educate the existing customer base, drive adoption, usage, and retention, and facilitate more organic upsell and cross-sell.

  • Crisis management and reputation protection: Online communities also provide a platform for marketers to address customer concerns and manage crises effectively, protecting brand reputation by demonstrating empathy, transparency, and responsiveness.

Online communities offer CMOs a powerful tool to tackle pressing business obstacles, including budget constraints, steep customer acquisition costs, and ambitious targets for retention and growth.

CMO perspective


Digging into the numbers, communities also positively influence many of the top-line metrics CMOs prioritize for demonstrating business value, such as Net Revenue Retention (NRR), Net Promoter Score (NPS), Customer Lifetime Value (LTV), and churn and retention metrics.

What roles different marketing functions play in community building

Regardless of which department owns a community, marketing teams often play an essential role in utilizing individual skill sets to support the community program before and after launch. Below are examples of different marketing functions and the potential roles they could play in an online community program.

Community design & build

  • Brand & creative services: Helping to implement brand colors and voice guidelines, maximize look and feel, and advise on best practices for editorial review processes

  • Web strategists: Providing expertise to help development teams create the most optimal community site and navigation structure

  • Product marketing: Helping to align community site structure and content to ideal user or member roles

  • Marketing operations: Leveraging their understanding of customer relationship management (CRM) and marketing automation systems to integrate with the community

Community recruitment & membership

  • Marketing operations: Executing outbound recruitment campaigns for the target community audience

  • Campaign or demand teams: Utilizing different marketing tactics to engage and recruit potential community visitors and members

Community engagement

  • Product marketing: Creating and disseminating engaging, relevant content and updating the community with announcements of new features or product enhancements

  • Customer references or advocacy: Highlighting success stories and engaging community advocates to motivate participation and foster a positive community environment

  • Post-sale marketing: Developing onboarding campaigns to guide new users and using the community to cross-promote related services or products

Each community initiative involves collaboration across marketing disciplines to ensure the community becomes a vibrant, engaging, and valuable space for its members.

Examples of communities CMOs would love

While communities often have multiple use cases, below, we compiled three of the best online communities with a strong marketing use case.

Sony Europe

Sony europe


Sony Europe, a leader in consumer electronics, shifted focus from their 12-year-old online forum to amplify fan-generated content and engagement through blogs, tutorials, workshops, and competitions for their large photo enthusiast fan base. By building an online community, Sony Europe significantly boosted loyalty and sales, recording over 7 million searches, a nearly 10 million strong audience, and sales hitting €33 million.

Hubspot

Hubspot community


Hubspot, the marketing, sales, and customer service software company, launched its online community in 2016 as a support forum for its free users. Now, operating at scale, the community provides support and best practices for all Hubspot users. The program has evolved from a support community to a customer success and marketing use case, driving more customers to join the community, engage with others, and become Hubspot advocates.

SMARTY

SMARTY


SMARTY is revolutionizing the mobile industry by prioritizing customer support and direct communication. To enhance customer trust and transparency, SMARTY launched an online community as an avenue for customers to provide feedback and interact with the brand. Since launch, the SMARTY community has added 20,000 monthly active users and has a 1.6% conversion rate to its online store.

Conclusion

Let’s face it: CMOs are integral to community success.

If you’re part of another team starting a new community, or you’re running one with limited engagement, take the time to turn your CMO and the marketing team into your biggest community proponents. They should help if you know how to articulate why it's valuable to the business and to them.

If you’re a CMO building a new community or running an existing one, prioritize cross-functional alignment and put in the time to learn from companies with the most successful communities. These companies hold lessons learned and tips that will accelerate your success.

By actively involving CMOs in community-building efforts, you will position the community as a competitive advantage and create better go-to-market strategies grounded in your customers' needs and preferences.

Aligning stakeholders

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