Community CRM: Why Regular CRMs Aren’t a Fit For Community Growth

Community Growth
Adam Henshall
CMO at Idyoma
September 1, 2022

Professionals are waking up to the realization that a community team needs community tools.

When the CRM went mainstream, it revolutionized the way the SaaS sector worked and how the teams inside them were structured. 

Now, the modern CRM is starting to feel a bit limited. They’re not community CRMs…

The emergence of community as a sticky-feature, a moat, an insights generator, and a growth channel has started to change the way companies want to understand the people in their orbit. Leads and prospects aren’t enough. CRMs don’t align with the product-led growth strategies driving today’s SaaS companies forward.  

The old CRM model was based around the progression of potential buyers through a funnel; first a marketing one, then sales. But things are changing. 

In this Orbit article, we’ll explore how the funnel approach came into being and how software was shaped around it. We’ll look at the limitations of that model and what it’s missing. Then we’ll contrast the traditional CRM with newer tools: the Community Growth Platform. 

But first, a little history…

The Linear Funnel in a Non-Linear World

The concept of a sales funnel was first introduced by Elias St. Elmo Lewis in 1898. Lewis was an ad man who had a vested interest in understanding what made consumers tick. His “purchase” or “purchasing funnel,” as it was initially called, was one of the first formal marketing theories to be developed and it’s still a major driving force behind most modern sales and marketing efforts. 

Lewis’ strategy outlined how to “get action at once,” using familiar tactics such as, “furnish[ing] the advertisement with a coupon which the reader is required to fill out.” Essentially, these were the early days of direct response advertising.

Mr. Lewis didn’t know it, but his funnel would pave the way for countless sales and marketing optimization efforts for the next 122 years. 

Community CRM funnel Elias St Elmo Lewis

Fast forward to the present day and it’s clear that the sales and marketing funnel has dominated go-to-market discussions. It’s understandable. The model is so linear, chronological, and clear-cut that it appeals to many. 

In fact, an extraordinary number of organizations will spend a lot of time and money trying to perfect and optimize their funnel through things like digital ads, SEO, and email drip campaigns, despite industry-wide issues like click fraud, brand fatigue, and diminishing returns

For decades, people have found the funnel useful for describing and measuring a prospective customer’s journey from awareness and interest all the way to intent and action. The problem is that while funnels are a helpful framework, holding on to them too rigidly invariably leads to missed opportunities for growth and often a myopic focus on metrics and conversion (to the detriment of company performance).   

We’re not saying we need to do away with the funnel entirely, rather that we need to widen the scope of our marketing and sales programs to include community programs. This way, the funnel can be supported through generative and sustainable strategies versus a series of transactional interactions. 

Bottom-Up Adoption Brings Product-Led Growth 

Over the span of a few short decades, consumer purchasing power has completely flipped. This has been especially present in the software industry as business expenses began moving away from centralized decision-makers at the executive level to frontline managers and employees. 

The bottom-up model found particular success among software developers. With purchasing power in more people’s hands, products couldn’t get away with lackluster performance. The introduction of freemium models helped developers try out an API, database, or developer tool without needing the approval of executives or complex purchasing processes. 

Examples of the success of this model are everywhere. A good recent one is Slack. Slack didn’t dominate the business communications category by securing large six-figure contracts, their claim to fame came from everyday consumers—across small, medium, and large businesses—who loved the product and couldn’t stop recommending it.  

The biggest difference to take heed of is the fact that software products are now slowly adopted over time, rather than being outright purchased in the traditional sense. People are no longer willing to put down money and then risk having a tool not work for them. 

In this case, how you bring people to your funnel, and how you subsequently move them through it, will also have to change. In today’s world, unlike in Lewis’s time, getting “action at once,” is no longer the best path to success. Conversely, it may be the quickest path to customer churn. 

Product-Led Growth Requires a New Kind of Community CRM

Product-led growth describes this new phenomenon in which a product’s active usage—i.e. the measure of how much value a person or company gets out of the product—is correlated to success. Put simply: the more people are using your product, the more likely it is that they’ll not only pay for it but recommend it to others. 

Ads do not serve as proof of value. These days people want to see recommendations from friends and colleagues, they want to read a short user guide or watch a demo of how to use a product. They want facts, they want their objections heard and handled, what they don’t need to hear is a tagline (not always anyway, as Lewis’s initial model seems to suggest). 

Ideas like the funnel and pipeline need to be complemented by frameworks and tools that focus on nurturing the whole audience around a brand. Classic CRM systems are built to capture a certain kind of customer prospect at a certain crossroads in their purchasing journey. 

Not all the members of your company’s community will be paying customers, but that doesn’t mean these people don’t have enormous value or that they shouldn’t be treated as integral parts of your funnel. 

Think about people like business consultants, industry analysts, and journalists - people who have enormous influence over the sale of your product but who may not be active users of the product itself. These people are incredibly important to your funnel, but it’s likely that they won’t be captured in your CRM. 

To remain competitive and drive adoption, companies must excel at education, experience, and community—in addition to the traditional sales and marketing tools and techniques.

More and more companies agree that community is a moat, a key competitive advantage, and that bottom-up adoption and product-led growth make the most sense as an overarching organizational growth strategy. And yet we still see so many companies applying the same old funnel-centric playbooks.

Introducing a Community CRM: The Community Growth Platform

A CRM might track things like a person’s title and role at the company, notes about your conversations, and meetings with them over time. Still, one of the most common complaints about CRMs is that they don’t offer a complete picture of the customer or the relevant information needed to nurture the relationship. They’re not a community CRM.

Relationship management is at the heart of community building efforts as well, however, Community Growth Platforms (CGP) are geared more towards understanding how a person is interacting within your network and the impact that their presence and participation has. 

Are they particularly adept at bringing in new, like-minded users? Do they have a knack for producing helpful guides and content that deepen other people’s product knowledge and usage and add value to your existing marketing efforts? 

A community growth platform (CGP) must be re-imagined and re-built to highlight these unique insights. Compared to a traditional CRM, a CGP is built on a different philosophy, using a different data model, and applied towards a slightly different focus than nudging people down a linear funnel. 

How to Envisage a Community CRM: CGP vs CRM

So what does CGP mean? First, there are a few similarities between a CGP and a traditional CRM. 

Both can be understood as the source of truth for information regarding your relationships with current users, customers, and prospective customers. 

They're also both the workhorses for their main user persona—salespeople spend their days in a traditional CRM, while DevRels and community managers should be spending their time in a CGP. 

Both platforms create and receive a lot of value from integrations with other tools and resources, and both can be viewed as reporting engines. Overall, CRM and CGP center around understanding a particular audience, using that information to engage them further, then reporting on the results. But the similarities end there. 

Even among sales folks who rely on CRMs daily, there’s a lot to be desired in terms of features, functions and insights. Some common objections to CRMs are:

  • Too much overhead time spent adding notes and data to CRM fields
  • Lack of insights, reporting and analytics 
  • Little to no automation; too manual to maintain 
  • Incomplete view of customer’s activity and impact across channels 

Alternatively, CGP is designed to help an organization gain a deeper understanding of its members as well as track patterns and the compound network effects of the relationships between community members (as opposed to CRMs, which tend to strictly track relationships on an individual level). 

There are a few more key differences between CRM and CGP. 

Community CRM vs CGP: Philosophical Differences

The underlying assumptions for a CGP are fundamentally different from a sales CRM; namely, most traditional CRMs are based on the marketing funnel and sales pipeline whereas communities are based on sharing and trading product insights, education, and advocacy

Our Community Growth Platform is rooted in a philosophy we call the Orbit Model. Instead of optimizing to extract value from customers for the company (which a funnel or pipeline is designed to do), the Orbit Model is about creating value for and with your community.

Because of the vastly different nature of community programs and pipeline-based programs, it’s important that the right tools are being used to the right ends. That means not using CRMs to measure community growth efforts and investing in a CGP alongside your CRM.  

Community CRM vs CGP: Data Model Differences

The atomic units for most CRM systems are:

  • Contacts. All the people you're tracking and are trying to sell to
  • Leads. People who have indicated some degree of interest in what you're selling
  • Accounts. The companies where those people work 
  • Opportunities. The specific details of a potential sale 

If you can track those things, you can understand a lot about a company's sales pipeline. But for communities, this model provides no insight into what's working and what's not. 

Since the philosophy and language of traditional CRM don't apply to communities, a CGP must provide a community-specific set of primitives for understanding how a community is operating and growing. 

Community managers need to understand who's in their community, what they're doing and saying, and where. Additionally, they need to understand how the core team is interacting with the community to drive activity, and what impact their interactions are having; such as content generated by the community in the form of forum responses, tweets, blog posts, and more. 

For a CGP like Orbit, it's less about company and deal data and more about individuals and their relationship to the company as measured by their: 

  • Interactions (Love) 
  • Influence in the community (Reach)
  • Overall attractive force of the community (Gravity) 

CGPs should be really good at understanding the behavior and needs of the humans and the data model should facilitate that understanding.  

Community CRM vs CGP: Difference in Focus Between CRM and CGP

Viewed cynically, CRM and marketing automation tools exist to the detriment of customers, in the form of unwanted emails via automated drip campaigns. 

A CGP, on the other hand, should provide insights and tools to help teams improve the experience and outcomes for community members across all platforms. That experience should be dictated, not by steps of a funnel defined by the company, but rather by what will be valuable to the community. A good CGP will understand and model those valuable touchpoints.

The touchpoints and milestones will differ across communities, but common examples include: getting new members to make their first contribution (a post or a share), asking engaged members to help moderate forum discussions, recruiting speakers or panelists for events, and soliciting feedback from community members. 

Although community efforts don’t follow a funnel framework, it does not mean that community managers don’t have goals for their members. Those goals differ depending on the audience segment within the community, and the goals of these communities don’t necessarily all directly end in lead qualification. However, these efforts do (and should) align and cross over with efforts to fill the funnel. 

Beyond Community CRM: The Key Features of a CGP

Community CRM Orbit core values

If a CGP is not a CRM, what is it? 

A CGP isn’t a replacement for a CRM, but it can certainly work to augment CRM data with important additional insights about customers and their level of involvement with your brand and company. Equipped with this knowledge, you can start to understand how to build sustainable relationships with users and customers that can positively affect your organization in all kinds of ways, from finding new product champions and advocates to participants for feedback sessions. All of this data can be at your fingertips if you’re willing to invest in the right tools for the job. 

A community growth platform needs - at its most basic level - to take inputs and provide useful outputs. 

The inputs are simple. It needs to integrate into all the owned spaces your community exists. This could be Slack, Discord, or any other community platform. It could also be social media platforms like Twitter to understand engagement metrics. And then it needs to be connected into your other tools and services, so APIs and webhooks to gather the extra data are a must. 

The value of a community growth platform is found in how it processes all that information and makes it useful. There are three stages any community growth platform must be able to deliver at: Intelligence, Action, and Impact. 

Community Growth Platform: Intelligence

Your CGP needs to provide you with community intelligence. The cornerstone of the software is in understanding what is happening in your community. This could mean flagging up people who need help, or highlighting when a community member has been crushing it and deserves praise or reward, or it could be as simple as notifying you in the platform or in another tool when a specific action is taken. 

The intelligence a CGP can give you allows you to find who you care about at a given moment. If you’ve released a new feature, you’ll want to easily find specific types of people who have used it and others who haven’t, enabling you to understand their experiences. 

Being able to search deeply through people who have completed x actions over y timeframe can be huge for SaaS companies figuring out their Aha! Moment. Intelligence is king and the possibilities are virtually endless. 

Community Growth Platform: Action

The platform’s intelligence leads to action. You want to help your community members in any way you can with every chance you get. Using a true CGP helps you find the moments to take that action, and to be able to easily follow up on it afterwards. 

By using a CGP, you can centralize how you message your community members, DMing them on the platforms they actually use. 

You can also set up triggers for notifications when key moments happen so you can dive in and reward members with public praise or swag. 

More than this, the value extends far beyond your community team. Someone shares some great product feedback? Boom - you can get someone from your product team in there and involved immediately. A member with a large social following and media prowess says they love this new feature? Kapow - marketing are already warming up their podcasting studio. 

A CGP reduces the friction around taking action while alerting you to so many more moments where action can add value. 

Community Growth Platform: Impact

The reason a community-led growth approach is such a powerful way to grow your company is that it benefits the user and the bottom line. It treats your community members with respect while delivering business objectives. 

But to know that, you need to be able to measure your impact. You want to be able to prove to the CEO or the board that you can show the ROI of putting users first. 

There are a host of different ways a CGP can add that value:

  • Community growth metrics
  • Marketing metrics like reach or engagement
  • Improved sales attribution and ROI
  • Qualitative feedback from the members
  • Product insights and participation
  • And more!

Given its flexibility, you can twist your CGP’s impact offering to meet the needs of your team and business. 

If you know clearly what you want to report - every month say - then you could set up a custom report to automatically generate on the same date and drop into C-Level’s inbox. The time savings alone will make your life easier! 

CGP: When TradCRM Becomes Community CRM

The world of community moves quickly and the acceleration in the last decade has taken a surprising amount of the industry by surprise.

If you want to focus your marketing, growth, and customer success efforts around value rather than transactional relationships then you need to tie their activities into community. 

Community is what happens when product people get into growth: value, value, value. 

But it’s hard to make it work if you don’t have the right tools to do the job.

If you think you need a hand with your community efforts, book a chat and see how we can help!

Related Articles