The Four Fs of Community-Led Product Development

Community-led companies are the future. Product development has to catch up to play the game. We need to see our community managers as accelerators and key stakeholders to every step of the product development lifecycle. From ideation, where the community can help us ensure we’re spending calories in the most impactful ways, to launch when our community can help ensure smooth rollouts, community-led product development is the way we will build for the foreseeable future.

Many companies are now building communities through things like an ideas forum to solicit ideas from their customers, or a slack group to communicate with groups of partners. These tools are just one piece of the puzzle, the community that uses your product is a cumulation of all the interactions a subset of people have with your brand.

Four principles to keep in mind while adapting to a community-led model:

Feedback

Building a product is hard, there are no true right answers. The only right answer I adhere to is that you have to solve for the customer, and that means listening when they tell you what they like and, more importantly, what they don’t like. For many people building products, it can be hard to interact directly with the customer, whether due to internal roadblocks, complexity in business process, or keeping the customers safe from an overwhelming amount of requests from PMs.

Perhaps internally, you may already have communities forming around your customer base or your account and success managers may have community channels to connect users with similar goals. Externally, your customers may be meeting on Reddit or LinkedIn to share tips and best practices. Some companies are lucky enough to have intentional community building teams, like Notion or Salesforce. A manager I had used to say “start at home,” and that applies for feedback in your product cycle. Ask for feedback frequently and specifically from your peers, and use that to gain traction and support for approaching customers, either through your internal teams, or directly into the communities they’ve built.

Build with Focus

“What we focus on becomes our reality”

If community is your focus, you have to be laser focused on that to make sure you improve what works for your customers. That means sometimes trading off a feature that may be amazing for a single person, but harmful to the community as a whole. For instance, your marketing or sales teams may request a feature that allows them to directly prospect from the community. Building with a community focus means taking the health of your community seriously in product development. So you may not build a feature that could inadvertently lead to mass-spamming of your community members from your sales team, but instead build a way for your team to see good fit candidates in the community.

Build in good Faith

Make sure your community feels like they’re part of the process, and that you’re being transparent and open. We’ve seen what happens when a community-led company doesn’t make transparency a part of their first principles — anything from misusing data to abusing the trust in a community space. If you’re a product manager you’re likely a guest in the community, and you should make sure not to take all the oxygen out of the room — be respectful and don’t monopolize conversations as a company member in a community space. If you’re taking people’s time as part of product development, consider compensating them. Tools like Rybbon allow you to send gift cards, but you can also do swag boxes or membership in an ambassador program. Lastly, trust is easy to break but hard to earn. If you’re collecting data, tell people how you’ll use it. Before recording a call, tell the attendees why (“just for internal note-taking,” or “to get quotes for our blog”) and don’t use it in other ways without asking first. It’s not just on the community manager to establish trust with community members — it’s on you as a PM and anyone else on the team who is building product with your members.

Follow through

Community-led product development is a two way street. There’s what you do for your customers, and what they do back for you. One way companies follow-through on their promises is by responding to their community in-line, like Spotify’s ideas forum. Some companies do open roadmaps, like Front, so customers have full transparency into what’s coming from the company. Other companies take a more passive approach, using changelogs to tell customers what changed and when. Open source communities can update the product themselves to gain and share value. Developer communities like the ones that exist around programming languages like Flask, and even software like Atom.io are great examples of following through on the promises they’ve made to their communities. Building directly with your community members and keeping them in the know will yield a better product and help deepen the community’s relationship with your organization.

It takes work to build a product with a community-led mindset. But the outcome is so worth it. To have an engaged customer base that’s excited not just about what your product is doing, but about the network of use around your product will pay your team back for their efforts.

Have thoughts? Share them with us on Twitter @commsor @chebathurst.

Product designer in Boston, just trying to pet cats and have a good life.

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