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Community-led organizations: building connections

Date: 2023/09/15

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How creating a community reshapes the way people interact with organizations

Pizza and beer— the ultimate “thank you” for a friend helping you move.

What if you tried handing them a crisp 20 out of your wallet instead? 

The cost of beer and pizza should be about equal. The awkward silence and blank stare will make it clear that it's not the same.

When we're functioning in social circles we're not likely to keep tabs. As behavioral economist Dan Ariely points out, in this type of situation we'd be acting under social norms, based on bonds and connections. Your friend was happy to help (that's why they said yes), the beer and pizza are a nice way to relax together after the job is done. Once we introduce money into the equation, our brains switch to market norms. A basic “you get what you pay for” understanding has clear boundaries and obligations. Market norms are the reason why you can't tell the barista, “I'll get you next time” and stroll out with your cappuccino.

Organizations, and businesses, in particular, have always functioned in market norms. It's why businesses expect us to pay for things, or at least agree to pay, and we expect to receive something in return. We even have expectations for the quality of the service or product we're paying for.

Market norms don't really create the warm and fuzzies. That's what a friend's call after a tough day does. Or your grandma sending you another birthday sweater. Even that super helpful answer in your Reddit community can do the trick.

But is there a way to replicate the bonds of social norms in the world of business market norms? The way we see it, that's what community-led organizations are doing.

What's a community-led organization? How does becoming community-led step outside of market norms? Why do it at all?

Let's dive in, friends. We'll share what we know.

What's a community-led organization?

Community-led organizations are not businesses as usual.

They create and prioritize community as part of their structure. A community is created between a group of people around a shared interest, activity, or common goal. Salesforce, the CRM behemoth, hosts the Trailblazer Community. It's a space for Salesforce users to connect, learn, and help each other get the most out of the product. The Trailblazer community membership is significant enough to make it into people's LinkedIn bios and to bring tens of thousands of Trailblazers to the annual Dreamforce conference.

Adding a forum to a company website does not make a community. First, we need to understand what creates the bonds of community.

Community structure

To create a thriving community, you need to be Goldilocks and understand the different types of community connections.

Jump Associates, a California-based strategy consultancy, identified three types of community affiliation. These are structures a community could take on — and only one of them is just right.

The first is a pool affiliation structure where members are strongly connected to the activity or goal, but not each other. Think Apple enthusiasts — religiously buying every product in the ecosystem doesn't create connections between them. The second is hub communities formed by members who are strongly connected to a central figure in the community. These communities can't be sustained without the individual. Oprah comes to mind. In the Goldilocks hunt for the ideal community structure, neither of these options is the perfect fit.

Option number three, web affiliation structures, is what we're aiming for for the community-led model. Web affiliations are the strongest types of community structures because there are relationships to the organization and between members. That's why Salesforce's Trailblazer program promotes the opportunity to connect with other members as a key benefit.


Salesforce's Trailblazer Community promotes members as the main community benefit.

Why is this the standard for community-led organizations? Because there's value created not just by the organization, but also by the community members. Everyone is contributing. 

David Spinks, CEO of CMX, a network of community professionals, points out a critical distinction between the audience (organizations' typical focus point) and community (what we're talking about here).

It's a subtle but massive difference in mindset. Traditionally, businesses create all the value for the consumer. Community-driven businesses create spaces for consumers to create value for each other.

Community-led organizations don't just pitch their product features and ask for money in return (market norm); they make space for social norms to establish themselves in the community. These social norms are built on the bonds created for and between members. Through these bonds the idea of reciprocity transitions into generosity. Connected and generous members nurture the community — increasing its value for everyone.

Giving community the lead

Community sounds pretty idyllic — people coming together to work on similar projects, solving common problems, reaching set goals, and helping your organization be successful. Cue “What a Wonderful World.”

But we'd be lying if we made it sound simple.

Becoming a community-led organization takes a major shift in mindset and operations from the way organizations have been run historically.

1. Community isn't a marketing ploy

Creating a community is a long-term building project that will need constant maintenance. It's not a marketing campaign that gets scrapped if it doesn't work.

While it's still common to see established organizations house their community teams in the marketing department, Community-Led reports that earlier-stage companies are shifting to a Community Department model. This is a strong indicator that these organizations are building a community into their operations rather than thinking of them as client outreach mechanisms.

It's not just up-and-comers or SaaS companies making the community an organizational strategy. One of the best examples of community-led organizational success is Harley-Davidson, the American motorcycle manufacturer. To save and rebuild the company brand in the 80s, the company decided to center its riders as the rightful owners of the brand. Their Harley Owner Group (H.O.G.) membership club connects owners, hosts events, and even has direct reporting to the company president. Over time, the feedback loops from the community have helped the company expand its offers to better serve its owner base. The brand has used Harley-owner imagery in its marketing campaigns, these supported the overall community-led mindset — reflecting the people who have helped rebuild the company.


Harley Owners Group unites owners worldwide to share their riding experiences.

Building a community will require a shift from thinking like a marketing team that sells into an organization focused on building for and with — a much more direct interaction with the people around your organization.

2. Community is about the connections

The sense of belonging in a community is built through trust and connections.

But the "build it and they will come" approach to community is a bit misguided. If we create a community around what's important for the organization, we're not likely to get enthusiastic participation. What we're aiming for is that sweet spot that overlaps in value for members and the organization. Hitting that mark requires interacting with the members you're trying to engage.

David Spinks's “A founder's guide to community” gives a great outline of how to build connections in your community (and the community in general). Critical in his approach is the idea of connections. Spinks points out that members will first join for the benefits, and then will come to a sense of belonging — a reason to stay.

JIGGY, a direct-to-consumer jigsaw puzzle company, does this with its Puzzle Club, offering exclusive perks like discounts and interactions with artists to its members. Asking for feedback directly and initiating changes based on it, are key ways the company brings members into the business-building process. To foster connections between members, Jiggy holds in-person events, reinforces member and artist interactions on social media, and hosts online puzzle parties — an idea sparked by users' over-Zoom builds.

In Spinks's experience, exponential community growth happens once members have a way to contribute to the community. This is the real test of social norms settling in — members offering their time, experience, and efforts to support the community. 

3. Committing to being community-led

Becoming community-led doesn't mean you give up what's best for the organization. Instead, you commit to trusting that the community you build around it will guide you to what's best.

After you figure out the details of your community — whom it's for, what its goal is, where and how members will participate, etc. — you can start defining your goals and measuring your progress. Remember: building a community means you're taking your organization out of typical market norms. That means you can't expect a perfectly clear relationship between your community initiatives and measurable ROIs — partly because social norms will generally guide the community. You'll need to trust that by creating and enriching an inclusive community, you're seeing benefits in the forms of loyalty and recommendations.

You should of course focus on measuring those things that can be measured. Spinks suggest tracking things like member participation rates, receipt of benefits, or feedback on how connected and engaged members are. While some of these measures are easy to take, others will require you to talk to your members — another level of commitment you'll need to undertake. Ultimately, that level of engagement will create ongoing and insightful feedback loops while strengthening your community.

Taking the leap into social norms by becoming community-led is not to be done on a whim. It takes a commitment to become an organization that exists for something other than itself. That means understanding what community members think, feel, and want. 

While it's a big undertaking, it comes with significant value for the organization and its members. There are important decisions to be made about how to organize a community, how to create value, and distribute benefits, but the question that needs the clearest answer is your “why?”

Have you started building your community? Let us know your why. Better yet, tell us how we can help) you figure out the answers to your community-building questions.