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From Sales Funnel to Community Building

April 6, 2022
Patrick Woods
Co-Founder & CEO
From Sales Funnel to Community Building
Welcome to The Observatory, the community newsletter from Orbit.

Each week we go down rabbit holes so you don't have to. We share tactics, trends and valuable resources we've observed in the world of community building.

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This is the first part of a two part series on how to think about and build a Go-to-Community strategy.

The sales funnel has been ubiquitous in sales and marketing for most of the past century. It’s a helpful tool and metaphor for understanding how a customer goes from awareness of a brand, product, or service to becoming a paying customer through well-positioned marketing content, and sales interactions.

There’s just one catch–the sales funnel does not fully represent how customers make buying decisions. A quick Google search for “sales funnel” will come up with thousands of research articles that show the buying process is much more complex. For example, customers can move from the top of the funnel to the middle and then move back to the top. Others may choose to subscribe to a product, then ditch that product for a competitor only to return to the original offering.

Targeting is also a challenge. Consumers are flooded with hundreds of advertisements every day that are irrelevant to their needs. Most concerning is the impact the oversaturation of advertising has on the growth of brand fatigue among consumers–a feeling of indifference toward brands.

Research shows that 93% of consumers trust the opinions of friends and family when purchasing a product. When it comes to marketing–word of mouth is king. It’s no wonder that the inundation of marketing has pushed consumers to trust the opinions of others who share the same concerns, interests, and values.

The difficulty with word of mouth marketing is the “marketing” aspect. Because buying decisions are made mostly via one-to-one conversations that happen away from sales and marketing, word of mouth can be almost impossible to influence.

That’s where community comes in.

Defining community

Before we start talking about how to create value for communities, it’s important to clarify what we mean by community and how they differ from concepts like audiences, networks, and fandoms. Without getting too philosophical, we define community as “a group of individuals who are working toward something together.” Members can have different levels of dedication to the larger community, but they are all centered around a common focus.

This could be a massive open-source community, a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO), a no-code maker community, your local sourdough baking club, or anything in between.

Whatever it is, there must be shared goals, ideas, or principles that you are working toward.

Community ≠ Audience ≠ Fandom ≠ Network

It’s important to share some other social group definitions so it’s clear what a community is not. Sometimes, the way we use the term “community” colloquially does not match the Orbit definition of community.


An audience is a group of people who subscribe to a creator or outlet. They don’t have relationships with one another, but share the similarity of subscribing to the same content.

Simply attending a concert doesn’t make you a part of a community — you’re an audience member. But if you join the fan club and regularly meet and communicate with other fans, then you’re part of a community.


A fandom is a group of people who are fans of something. They are loosely organized at the surface, but are commonly composed of smaller communities within the larger space.

For example, Rexhars–fans of Bebe Rexha–are loosely united by their love of Bebe Rexha, but may have different things they are working toward like making her new album go platinum or recruiting others into the fandom.


A network is two or more people interconnected through a single topic or point. The intention is to share data, information, resources, or connections.

For example, university alumni networks are pivotal for helping students get their first job by connecting them with other alumni who are looking for vetted, trustworthy, and ambitious employees.

This is extremely applicable to sales and marketing. Just because someone attends a company event, follows your company’s LinkedIn page, or meets with a sales representative does not mean you are part of a shared community.

To make someone part of your community would require that you have shared interests – maybe you run in the same group, go to the same church, or act in a community play. Whatever it is, you must be working toward something.

Credit for these definitions comes from our very own Erin Staples. Check out her post on these definitions on Twitter.

Three types of communities

Now that we’ve defined what a community is and maybe more importantly, what it is not, it’s helpful to think about the different types of communities we should focus on.

As someone who works in sales and marketing, you may be wondering if you need to start joining new sports clubs and language courses. You can take a deep breath. You don’t need to join communities for the sake of marketing (and neither should you!). Communities are best grown through genuine connection.

Rather you should focus on nurturing and signaling the right communities to help them achieve the common thing they are working toward.

So what’s the right community?

To help frame the discussion more specifically, we categorize communities into three specific types:

  1. Communities of Product: Focused primarily on discussing and learning about a specific product.
  2. Communities of Practice: These communities are all about leveling-up their craft and connecting with other practitioners, independent of any tools or platform.
  3. Communities of Play: Members come together around a common interest like sports, gaming, athletics, and more.

Generally most communities are one type with components of another community sprinkled in.

Understanding what type of community you’re building can help you send the right signal. A sourdough baking club, a DAO, and Orbit are all communities of people doing something together, but they’re sending very distinct signals externally which can impact how they’re perceived and who they attract.

A person who works in sales and marketing for a cloud native data warehouse, for example, will want to focus on building and nurturing product and practice communities for people interested in data science and open source.

Learn more about these types of communities in our recent blog post.

How does a community create value?

Now we understand the types of communities that exist and the signals we want to send, how do you translate that into value?

The traditional sales funnel is about extracting value and optimizing each step of the process around extraction. That’s okay of course–companies do need to make money but companies that win also invest heavily in value creation, both in terms of their product, but also in the ways they interact with their community and potential customers.

The problem with that perspective is the lack of value creation for your community. It’s about trying to close a deal, not listening to the needs of the community.

Value creation is about creating events, tutorials, and contents that help the community achieve whatever they are working toward. This includes many activities that community teams, developer advocates, and content creators are already doing for the benefit of that community.

Value capture is about generating leads, accelerating pipeline, and closing deals. This includes many activities generally done by sales and marketing like gated webinars and digital marketing to one-to-one sales conversations.

The problem is, if you don’t first create value for your community, you will not capture much value in the long run. So if you want to close deals, you should spend most of your time, money, and effort building, nurturing, and creating value for your community, especially if you’re a startup.

Over time, as your community grows, so will the revenue - it's a second-order effect of creating a compelling value creation machine. Selling will come naturally as your community builds relationships and trust as they promote and recommend your brand via word of mouth.

Read the next part of this series: The Guide for Driving Business Value with Community

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