Online community building plays a key part in many SaaS growth plans. In theory, it sounds like a no-brainer: create a community of ‘fans’ and ready-made customers to feed the pipeline.

There’s a deluge of articles out there on the merits of creating an online community, but many are written by community platforms so they already have a vested interest in promoting the idea.

Unfortunately, in practice, creating an online community is incredibly hard work and it’s worth weighing up the potential benefits before committing to such an endeavour.

Before we go into the main aspects to consider when creating a community, let’s first agree upon the benchmarks which define a good one.

Define a successful community

This Entrepreneur’s article lists out the key elements of a successful community: they include a common purpose, a simplistic platform, having advocates and content creators as well as a way to measure community success such as retention and active participation of members.

But I would distil this definition of a successful online community down to…

  • Real interactions where participants collaborate and help each other.
  • Where conversations between members take place without the facilitator or moderators.
  • And where one way announcements or spam selling is not the dominant feature of the community (I’m looking at you, Tech London).

Ben Carew is founder of Othership, a startup which matches freelancers and workers with workspaces. Part of the brand’s offering is a thriving online community. He defines a successful online community as ‘one you’d want to be part of yourself’.

Let’s say you’re serious about starting a community for your SaaS product. Where should you begin?

Have a clear purpose

Just as you’d shape a proposition for your product or service, the same goes for an online community. Put the member at the centre… who are they and what’s in it for them? It could be a community which helps members become better Growth Managers like Demand Curve, or a place for Webflow developers to share tips on the ‘client first’ building framework like Relume.

Whatever you settle on, the sole purpose of the community must not be to promote your brand, because who wants to be sold to?

Ben says: ‘Othership is all about being able to have the freedom to work anywhere, both online and in real life. Most people working remotely pre-COVID were freelancers and founders without their own teams. By connecting members together online, we were just providing a more flexible and accessible way for people to work remotely but stay connected. Something almost all organisations do nowadays.’

What’s in it for your brand?

The purpose of your community must be a cause or goal which is bigger than your brand. But at the same time, it is important to consider how the community can also benefit your brand, otherwise why are you doing it? Are you looking to increase retention rates by helping members and users feel part of something? Or maybe it’s a space for evangelical users to help those who are still getting to know your product? Without this, it may not be worth the effort to establish and maintain the community.

The purpose of the Othership online community is to maintain engagement with members and also a way to listen to feedback and know more about members and their needs: ‘It means we allow members to join and gain benefit every day rather just when using a workspace. That makes for a more valuable service and a great way for us to stay engaged and listen to the wants, needs and rhythms of our members.’ says Ben.

Set clear rules

Community posting rules vary depending on your brand and priorities. How will you deal with spam sellers? What about discussions about competitors or politics? Having clear rules from the start, will help you form a blueprint for how the community should work.

For Othership, rigid rules are less important: ‘As moderators, we will check if anything is posted and unverified. Competitors products and services are welcomed to be shared. This is for our community not for us as a business. Also if members like another service it’s great to know that.’

Keep in mind that as the community grows and evolves, it may be necessary to adjust these rules to meet the changing needs of the group.

Who is doing it well?

They say that imitation is the best form of flattery, so find the online communities which you deem to be successful. Why do they work? Are there any ideas you can take for your own community?

Webflow has a thriving online community led by its forum and social presence. The forum exists mainly to help users with their product-related Webflow questions. Sometimes the Webflow staff respond, but other times, super-user members are happy to help get to the bottom of any bugs or solve functional problems. For Webflow, the forum helps to lighten the load of the customer support team as well as gain feedback on the product and gauge demand for new features to add to the roadmap.

Community however is not limited to an online forum, it can extend to social media. Webflow has a strong presence on LinkedIn, both championing those who share their Webflow projects as well as creating humour and buzz around all things to do with building websites.

Time is precious

Don’t bow down to the pressure that every SaaS brand needs to create a community…how many online communities are you part of?

It’s important to recognise that not every SaaS brand needs to create their own online community. It can be time-consuming and resource-intensive to establish and maintain a following, and not all brands may see the benefits or have the resources to do so.

Additionally, individuals’ time is valuable and they may not want to participate in a community unless it offers something unique and fulfilling.

Therefore, it’s important for SaaS brands to carefully consider whether creating a community is worth the effort, and to have a clear and defined purpose for the community in order to attract and retain members.

Ready to create your online SaaS community?

There’s no denying the fact that building a community is difficult. I asked Ben what he thinks it the key to building an online community and he said ‘love, blood, sweat, tears and doing something meaningful.’

Above all, be clear on the purpose of the community and how it can align with your brand. If there’s nothing in it for either party, or it’s not clear, then why are you doing it in the first place?

Alternatives to a community

As you might have guessed, I don’t believe that building an online community should be part of evert SaaS brand’s strategy. A community can turn into its own beast and requires a lot of time, work and dedication. In a world where most founders are strapped for time anyway, it’s not a decision to be taken lightly.

There are many other effective channels to use instead of a community – don’t underestimate the power of your own digital activity such as socials, a well-written newsletter or effective SEO and content strategy for building your brand.

Also, don’t rule out participating in ready-made communities. If that’s where your market is, create a clear strategy for brand representatives to participate and add value to existing groups without the ‘sell’.

Some final words

I asked Ben whether he can bestow any nuggets of advice to anyone looking to start an online community for their SaaS brand so we’ll leave the final words to him:

‘Be mindful of the time and commitment it takes to grow a community, it’ll be a slow-burner as opposed to an overnight success. I spend 1-2 hours, every day of the week contributing and engaging with our online community. On top of that, I highly recommend that you recruit a skilled community manager, we have Ece and she’s great.’


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