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Product-led vs. Industry-led Communities: A Pragmatic Approach

Last night, I attended a gathering of sales and marketing executives. We were enjoying a happy hour in Washington DC and talking shop.

I had mentioned my upcoming book, Unfair Mindshare, when a common question arose: 


"Should my company build a product community or an industry community?


It's a question that often perplexes business leaders seeking to tap into the potential of community engagement. The answer, however, isn't as straightforward as one might hope. I do cover this in more detail in my book, but let's use this chance to delve into the dynamics of product-led and industry-led communities, considering your business size, resources, and growth potential.


For Large Enterprises: Balancing Product and Industry Communities

For corporate giants like Microsoft, Google, Salesforce, HubSpot, HashiCorp, and others, the landscape is vastly different. These behemoths often have various product or brand communities, each attracting very large tribes of users, customers, partners, and technology collaborators. In such cases, a product-oriented community can be so extensive that it essentially represents an entire industry.

For companies of this size, their responsibility is not to form a community. Their focus is to grow and sustain the product-specific communities they have built.


For Smaller Enterprises: Navigating Resource Constraints

For small businesses with limited resources and manpower, running a thriving community can be a challenge. Establishing and nurturing a successful community requires significant time investments, often exceeding 1000 hours annually. In smaller setups where resources are scarce and priorities are abundant, allocating 50% of someone's time to community management may prove difficult.

Consider a scenario where your company comprises fewer than 40 individuals, with a marketing team of only three members. Resource constraints are evident. In such cases, engaging in local or regional communities aligned with your business interests may be a more practical approach. This not only conserves resources but also allows your brand to flourish through active participation in established communities, bolstering your market presence.


For Growing Businesses: The Decision Point

For businesses that generate annual revenues ranging from--let's say--$15 million to $500 million, the possibilities expand. At this stage, the decision lies between establishing a product-led or an industry-led community, or doing both.


Product-led Communities: Nurturing the Customer Base

Product-led communities primarily engage audiences who have already purchased your products. Members participate to gain insights and assist others with your offerings. However, these communities represent only a segment of your industry—the portion that has purchased your products. 

From a marketing perspective, the focus revolves around educating users, customers, and partners. Every member is a customer or supports a customer in some fashion. Content is generated through internal resources or guided participation, and narratives align closely with the brand's voice. While these communities excel in product education, user training, and sharing product roadmap information, their scope is limited. They serve an audience that represents your market share.


Industry-led Communities: Embracing the Entire Market

Industry-led communities, on the other hand, cast a broader net. They can be built to serve your Total Available Market (TAM), including potential future customers. Building and nurturing such communities requires a different approach. They already exist to some extent and need a catalyst or a forum in which to thrive. 

The purpose of these communities is to educate, collaborate, and inspire. They are not sales forums for product pitches. Personal experiences and trust-building are central. Content and information exchanges foster trust and build expertise. The responsibility for community growth lies with its members, with your company's role being that of a supportive facilitator.




The Power of Industry-led Communities: Insights and Brand Affinity

One compelling advantage of industry-led communities is their potential for massive participation. For a scaling business, imagine your product community attracts around 2,500 active participants. By comparison, an industry-led initiative might draw 200,000 individuals. Depending on how you approach the effort, but communities might take a similar effort to orchestrate (speaking from personal experience).

Importantly, these participants aren't there to discuss your company and products; they seek shared experiences, information exchange, mutual support, and professional growth. 

Managing such a community offers invaluable insights into your TAM's dynamics—priorities, influences, shifts, and growth trends. It informs your long-term business strategies and enhances your brand's affinity within the industry.

Let's go back to the original question. 


"Should my company build a product community or an industry community?


The path to community-led growth is not one-size-fits-all. Consider your business size, available resources, and long-term goals when choosing between product-led and industry-led communities. Both serve their specific purposes and offer tremendous value. It's up to you to decide which path os most appropriate for your business.