Forgepoint Field Guide | The Power of Community: Standing Out as an Early-Stage Startup

05.31.23 | Connie Qian | Blog Post

For this edition of the Forgepoint Field Guide, we caught up with Derek Weeks, a 4x CMO/VP of Marketing for organizations that include the Linux Foundation, Sonatype, Global 360, Systar, and Hyperformix. Derek also co-founded All Day DevOps, the world’s largest DevOps community and conference, attracting over 100,000 IT professionals across 100+ countries. His upcoming book, Unfair Mindshare, is a CMO’s guide to community-led marketing in a product-led world. 

For marketing leaders, Derek sheds light on the importance and value of building communities. He goes into detail about the investment, the approaches, and the benefits. We also ask Derek to reflect on what works best when marketing to developer and open source communities.

 

Derek, you’ve successfully cultivated communities around different B2B businesses and industries throughout your career. To kick things off, how do you define community-led marketing? How can it fit into a company’s broader marketing strategy? 

As a marketing leader in B2B start-ups and scale-ups, community-led marketing has been a way to reach larger audiences, create more content, collect better data, and grow revenue faster. 

I’ve often worked in smaller organizations that play in crowded market spaces. Community-led marketing initiatives helped the teams and companies I worked for punch above their weight class and out-distance ourselves from competitors.

Marketing in three orbits

I describe marketing in three orbits to help business leaders better understand community-led marketing. Orbit 1 is product-led marketing. It’s where you promote a single product or service your business offers. Orbit 2 is brand-led marketing. This is where marketing teams promote their company and portfolio of products. Product communities fit nicely inside this orbit because they are built around your customers and users.

Orbit 3 is community-led marketing. In this orbit, your marketing team engages the community surrounding your business.This can be a community segment your business creates or an existing market community where your team plays a leadership role. 

For example, if your company builds cybersecurity tools, it might take a leadership role in a community of CISOs. Or suppose your company provides cybersecurity solutions to Managed Service Providers (MSP); in that case, it might play an active role in a community that brings together CEOs of MSPs that discuss how to improve in their executive roles or better manage their businesses. Orbit 3 communities can represent a group of professionals, a technology segment, people in specific functional roles, or folks living in a particular region. 

To be clear, the third orbit has nothing to do with your products or company. It’s about people, relationships, collaborations, exchanges, and education. In B2B market spaces, these communities help professionals uplevel their skills and knowledge through interactions and collaborations with others like them. They also build trusted relationships that can lead to collaborations, new content development, or industry initiatives. Imagine it as a community centered around your market niche (e.g., CISOs, application security professionals, medical device manufacturers, or government IT leaders).

 

That makes sense. So what is the value of community-led marketing? Any guiding principles in building and operating communities of trust?

Community-led marketers reach larger audiences, create better content, analyze more data, and grow revenue faster. They are successful at identifying, engaging, and activating individuals who come to identify with their community’s mission and ethos. Community marketers can also build strong affinity for the brands, businesses, and products they represent.

One of the primary benefits of community-led initiatives is the size of the audience you can reach and the relationships you can form. People in these communities want to connect, collaborate, and inspire one another. In this orbit, relationships are not centered around pitching products and solutions. They focus on being helpful. Because selling does not occur here, the relationships reflect higher trust and authenticity. 

Combining trusted, authentic, and helpful interactions can produce amazing content. For example, imagine you are part of a CISO community and want to build helpful content for them.  You find five people in the community that agree to collaborate with you to build content that serves CISOs. You might choose to work on a maturity model, a salary survey, reference architectures, or a call-to-action letter for the industry. I’ve seen content like this produce results with 10 – 1000x reach of traditional company content because it is centered on being helpful and avoids being promotional.

Once the content is produced, marketing teams are great at amplifying its visibility. Blogs, webinars, conference presentations, social posts, panel discussions, whitepapers, and books can draw more attention to the original piece and attract large audiences interested in the topic. While the original content should be free and ungated, derivative works can be built into marketing campaigns that generate marketing-sourced pipeline (e.g., hosting a webinar to discuss the content).

Marketing teams that play a role in promoting this content can use it to learn more about their markets and target audiences. Data collected from webinar registrations, surveys, and polls, or event attendees can be valuable. Analyzing data from these broad audiences can help improve the targeting of digital and social promotions, refine ideal customer profiles, and better educate sales teams about prospects.

The 1000-hour rule

Executing programs in the first two market orbits moves quickly because you control the resources and narratives. Things move fast, but the audiences are noticeably smaller.

Marketing programs in the community-led orbit take longer because they rely on building authentic relationships and trust. While things move slower, the audiences and reach can be much larger and make a more lasting impact. 

For community-led efforts to start generating a return for your marketing investment, I advise a minimum contribution of 1,000 hours per year. The thousand-hour commitment means that your team is not just showing up in the community but contributing to content development, information exchanges, and establishing your brand presence. The thousand hours often lead to taking on visible leadership roles in the community as well.

As community-led participation grows and matures, the most successful CMOs contribute 5% – 12% of their annual budgets to these efforts. The investment generates larger audiences, fills sales pipelines, and leads to higher revenue for the organization.

Community is integrated, not an island

The role of the CMO is to integrate the three orbits of marketing across all functional areas. Community, demand gen, communications, product marketing, brand, design, and marketing operations each play an important role in marketing’s success. They all own strategies, tactics and budgets supporting critical outcomes for the business. The more the marketing strategy and its execution integrate these functions, the more successful the results.

All too often, I see community leaders in marketing teams positioned on an island. They are building value in the community, but their siloed nature prevent valuable collaboration, knowledge exchanges, and feedback loops with the business.

Community-led marketers can deliver tremendous value to core demand-gen initiatives. As we discussed, high-value community content can be leveraged to generate top-of-funnel demand through whitepaper downloads, webinars, and digital promotions. Community marketers might also invite their industry peers to present a topic during a company-sponsored roadshow, helping draw a larger audience to the event. The marketers can also provide input from the community to better inform product roadmaps, company strategy, alliance recommendations, and sales enablement strategies.

 

I’d love to spend a little time on quantifying the benefits. How can community-led initiatives generate revenue for companies, given that there is no direct tie to products or services?

Generating a bigger audience

Let’s start with a simple example. Imagine your business is pulling together an event in the cybersecurity industry. The event will have 15 speakers. Which will attract more participation:

Event A: The 15 speakers represent executives and subject matter experts from your company, plus a channel partner and three customers.

Event B: The 15 speakers represent thought leaders, executives, and practitioners from the broader community you serve. Only two of the speakers are from your company. 

Event B will draw a bigger audience. To execute this approach, everyone in marketing plays a role. Your community leader assembles the speaker roster. Your demand gen team promotes it, and your event team hosts it. Members of your executive team and sales team network at the event, and everyone attending represents a potential lead for your business.

The larger audience at Event B also lowered your cost per lead. The larger audience means more top-of-funnel leads for your demand and sales teams to nurture into future customers. And because you started the audience engagement by offering something helpful and authentic versus immediately diving into a product pitch, their response to your future outreach is higher. It was not uncommon for teams I’ve managed and advised to see a 10 – 40x return on their community-led marketing investments.

Rent or buy the community

When your company attends a large industry event like RSA, Black Hat, or Infosecurity Europe, it is effectively renting access to someone else’s community. That access can come at a hefty price.

When it comes to marketing budgets, CMOs should strike a balance between the investments they make to sponsor [rent] or build [buy] their communities.  Renting has its benefits, but is temporal. Building a community requires time and investment, but access to the audience is more persistent. Additionally, when efforts start in the community-led orbit, the relationships formed have a higher trust quotient, and the content created is more authentic.

 

Tell us more about All Day DevOps (ADDO), which is an excellent example of community-led marketing. You saw an opportunity to invite developers to learn and engage with each other. Can you tell us more about the ADDO mission and journey?

I spent seven years at Sonatype, where I co-founded All Day DevOps. 

As a business, we wanted to expand into the DevOps market with our products. As you can imagine, that meant participating in many DevOps conferences, meetups, and events. We often met people at these events who would tell us that their DevOps practices included hundreds of people at their companies. Unfortunately, they only had the budget to send one or two people to the event.

In 2016, we decided to build a community that could serve everyone in DevOps. Working with six people outside of Sonatype, we organized a free online conference and community. Our approach removed the barriers to DevOps education. No conference fees and no travel budget were required. The first year attracted over 13,000 people, and each year after that attracted over 30,000 people to the community.

Our mission was to educate the world about DevOps. Each year, 180 community members would deliver 30-minute sessions at the conference across five tracks. No vendor pitches were permitted, which meant ADDO produced 90 hours of authentic, high-quality educational content. 

Building trusted relationships with this huge community delivered tremendous value to our business. We were recognized for doing something great for others. We built countless trusted relationships and forums for people to share information throughout the year. And we could measure the positive impact on our bottom line from the investments we made.

 

You were head of marketing for Linux Foundation, a $240M open source software business. Tell us more about the business value behind open source and what you would consider “best in class” open source metrics.

Open source appeals to developers and businesses alike. Code contributed by a developer helps other individuals who benefit from that developer’s time and expertise. I’ve often said, “Why code from scratch what you could download from the internet in a second?”  

Open source benefits businesses too. A team of developers who use open source packages to build proprietary software for their business can get their applications to market faster. When businesses open source code to the community (e.g., Google contributed Kubernetes, Meta contributed PyTorch), they benefit from having other developers work on code that helps run their business. At the same time, the global developer community has access to that same code base to help run their businesses. It’s a great symbiotic business model.

Regarding open source metrics, the first thing to examine is telemetry. Telemetry metrics tell you how many people use an open-source piece of code or application. Telemetry can also provide insights into feature usage, integrations, and frequency of use. The more code is used, the more relevant it is to the market.

Documentation is also a good source of metrics. Documentation around a product can be posted on your website, Github, community pages, or inside your product. There, you can measure the engagement: how many people view it? What parts are they viewing most often? How long are they staying there? 

Downloads are important as well. It’s not just the total number of downloads. Suppose there are multiple versions of your application or code. In that case, you can track how quickly people download the latest version, how quickly they update, or how many people are updating after a vulnerability is fixed. 

From a marketing perspective, all of these metrics have value. They can tell you what code or parts of an application the developers value most. The metrics can reveal the size and growth of a user base which can be promoted to attract even more attention.

 

While development teams typically do not have budget authority, they can heavily influence the buying decision. How do you factor this into marketing efforts focused on developers? 

The developer community is filled with some of the most innovative and interesting people you’ll meet. Their job is to build something new in a concise period, usually through two-week sprints. There’s often no roadmap to tell them how to expressly create that capability or function. Because of this challenge, the development community is very social. They share ideas. They collaborate, and they help one another. 

One of my industry friends, Adam Frankel, said marketing to developers is not about providing an exact solution and discussing your product. It’s about being the expert on a particular problem. You educate everyone on an issue they face repeatedly, explain its nuances, and know the specifics better than anyone. The developer community will notice that and see you both as the expert in that problem and in fixing it. 

When it comes to developers, it is more important for marketing to be helpful than to be product-centric or pitchy. Developers can quickly assess if you are in it for them or you. Those who are helpful will win more business.

 

Looking ahead, what are you most excited about from a technology or marketing perspective?

The growth of communities across the marketing professional has been amazing to witness. I’ve joined many active marketing communities to learn from others, share knowledge, and grow my career. Knowledge, insight, and content is being exchanged in these forums, very similar to the communities developers have built for themselves. I’ve seen communities build around CMOs, business development reps, sales and marketing alignment, and cybersecurity marketers to name a few. We’re only at the beginning of this movement. 

On the tech side, generative AI is exciting. Humans plus generative AI is the killer new app. I mean that services like Bard or ChatGPT don’t immediately produce what you want. They require a human touch, curiosity, and ingenuity. I’m excited to see the benefits of this ingenuity and curiosity come to market.

 

To learn more about Derek, read his blog or follow him on LinkedIn. Stay tuned for the release of his book: Unfair Mindshare: A CMO’s Guide to Community-led Marketing in a Product-led World, to be published later in 2023. 

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