Managing Communities at Scale

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We discuss how you manage a community at scale and the lessons learned scaling up along the way with Ben Lang, Community Lead at Notion. Recorded live at Community Camp on June 28th, 2021.

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Hosts Orbit CEO Patrick Woods and Community Lead Rosie Sherry, discuss how you manage a community at scale and the lessons learned scaling up along the way with our special guest, Ben Lang, Community Lead at Notion.

​Ben is a product builder, former founder, marketer, and community guy, who is currently leading community efforts at Notion.

Patrick Woods (00:00): So Ben, thanks so much for the time today. You've got a huge event coming up this week. So we appreciate the generosity. Let's kick it off with some context. So I think you've been leading community at Notion for about two and a half years so far. I would love to hear your perspective on how the community has grown and changed during that time.

Ben Lang (00:21): Sure. Yeah. I mean, I think one of the most interesting parts about this is just how I ended up at Notion. So I actually discovered Notion on Product Hunt a couple years ago, maybe like three and a half, four years ago. I tried it a couple of times, took me a while to get it. Then once I did, I was hooked. I ended up tweeting about it and then sharing how I was using Notion. A couple of people asked me if I could share more templates. So I decided to make a website, like a template gallery for Notion.

Ben Lang (00:53): I launched on Product Hunt and eventually there were, I think, 20,000, 30,000 people a month looking at it. That was actually how I ended up connecting with the Notion team when they were about 10 people. I think I was one of the more obsessed users. I was buying all kinds of domain names related to Notion. It just made sense to work together in some capacity. So that was really kind of early on, I think, in the Notion community because there weren't that many people like me doing that.

Ben Lang (01:21): Now I think what's really cool, fast forward two and a half years later is that there's just so many people all over the world who are building resources and websites and guides and YouTube channels and courses, and just kind of building these really incredible ecosystem around Notion. I think that it's just amazing to see how global it's become, how many different ways people are contributing and sharing and teaching and people even building businesses on top of Notion. So it really has changed a lot since I built that early template gallery and it's been really amazing to be a part of that.

Patrick Woods (02:04): Yeah. So I'd love to hear a little bit about the structure of the community or the community team, however you choose to answer that, but what are sort of the big pillars or the big sort of parts of your strategy there?

Ben Lang (02:18): Yeah, I mean, that's changed over time. I think early on the two biggest things were templates and our ambassador program, and those are still things that we work on. Our crowdsourced kind of community templates, and then our ambassador program where we bring in folks from all over the world who are building local Notion communities or creating content around Notion and try to kind of connect them to the Notion team more closely. So that's where it started.

Ben Lang (02:45): Today it's kind of much more broad and there's a bunch more things. The way we look at it is, initiatives that either A, contribute to our top of funnel signups, or B, help Notion users learn how to use Notion better. So that includes kind of the two programs I mentioned before, as well as we have a pretty robust influencer program. We have a customer community that we've been building out. We have a Notion consultant certification program, anything to do with swag. Trying to think what else there might be.

Ben Lang (03:25): Yeah. I think those are the big things. There's definitely other things, but those are the big things that have come up. Obviously each of these projects are ongoing and take a lot of work over time. I think if you go to, we have it all listed out, kind of all the different ways you can get involved with the Notion community. So those are really the core pillars of the kind of community efforts at Notion.

Patrick Woods (03:50): Cool. You touched on this a moment ago, but I'd love to talk a little bit about sort of goals and success for the organization. It sounds like new user acquisition is part of that, maybe education and maybe retention as a second order effect of that. But could you talk a bit about what are those top level North Stars for the community at Notion?

Ben Lang (04:11): Yeah, I mean, it's really those two things I mentioned, which are top of funnel signups as well as education and kind of helping people learn how to use Notion. So those are really the two ways we do that. I think each project or kind of pillar within our team, some of them are more related to one or the other, some are related to both. It really depends. These are, I think one of the most challenging things with community is obviously measuring and knowing what to look for and success. So it's still something that we're learning and there's obviously great tools and platforms and new ideas out there and how best to do that.

Ben Lang (04:51): I think for us at the end of the day, what's really great is just seeing how much word of mouth is contributing to Notion's growth. We definitely believe that at Notion our community and the ambassadors, as well as our users, as well as consultants or whoever it might be within the community contributes in a really impactful way to our growth over time. So we definitely want to make sure we're investing in that and engaging our community and providing value in the right ways.

Rosie Sherry (05:20): Hey, Ben. You mentioned measurement of the community. What kinds of things have you ended up paying attention to over the past couple of years?

Ben Lang (05:31): I think top of funnel has been the easiest one for us. Just, for example, if we use a custom link with UTMs, that's I think a pretty easy, tactical way to measure like, okay, this person or this initiative, or this project brought in this many signups and we can attribute it to X. So I think that's a good way to look at it, but it's not always possible to measure in that way. I think another interesting example is there are probably dozens at this point of Notion run communities out there. So these are, to give you an example, a Notion Korea Facebook group, or a Notion subreddit, or Arabic speaking Notion group. There's dozens of these different groups that are focused on different languages or different locations.

Ben Lang (06:22): Some of them have really grown a lot. Like the subreddit run by a couple of our ambassadors has now I think about 120,000 subscribers. The Notion Korean user group has, I think about 30,000 members, and the Arabic speaking group has I think maybe 30 or 40,000 members. We've also kind of been looking over time how these groups are growing. For us, we're making sure that all of the ambassadors who are in our community and program feel supported when running these communities and feel like we're giving them resources and making sure that they're really kind of a part of the broader Notion team, and making sure that they have everything to do to successfully grow these communities over time.

Ben Lang (07:05): I think that's been really incredible to see because if we were running these groups and communities, it would be a lot harder for us to do it and probably not as authentic, just because we don't know the culture as well. We don't speak the language as well. Just having users and folks who are just really excited about the product, really excited about what we're building kind of facilitate that conversation around Notion is I think really special.

Patrick Woods (07:31): I'm curious, what have been some lessons learned around empowering ambassadors around the world? We talk a lot about sort of the transition in small communities from one to many where the sort of organizers are talking to the community members, and then the transition to many to many, where the communities talking to each other. It sounds like you've got a many to many thing going on there where you've gotten this sort of middle tier of ambassadors promoting and supporting and organizing around the world. What would you say are some lessons learned from building out that type of program and transitioning to that type of a scale?

Ben Lang (08:07): You're referring to the ambassadors and just how we've approached building it out?

Patrick Woods (08:10): Yeah.

Ben Lang (08:13): Yeah. I mean, I think we started small originally. Our focus from day one was let's find these people that are most passionate about Notion that are spending time and effort to bring Notion users together and really make sure that they feel as supported as possible. We had probably, I think even in the first couple of months, hundreds of people reach out and we tried to find the folks who were really already just doing so much. Some of these folks had written books about Notion. I remember a couple of folks, there were I think two or three people in Korea who wrote guides, physical guides, books that were published in bookstores on how to use Notion. We were just blown away by that.

Ben Lang (08:52): They started organizing events and this Facebook group I talked about. So we were really just looking for these people in different places and trying to find them and just connect with them and just understand, okay, why are you doing this? What can we do to help you? What can we do to provide value to you? What can we do to make sure you feel supported? It took a lot of conversations and talking and just a lot of iteration to figure out what are those things? I think we even today, we still are testing things out, experimenting, trying to figure out like, what can we be doing better? But at the core of it, it's us just trying to provide value to them so that they feel as supported as possible.

Rosie Sherry (09:38): I'm curious, how do you manage all of that, all the inquiries? Is it a community team or is there collaboration going on through different departments? I guess alongside this is, where does community sit within Notion as an organization?

Ben Lang (09:57): Yeah, so we have a community manager who we hired and he's incredible. So he spends a lot of time kind of running this program and we sit within marketing.

Rosie Sherry (10:10): Is it just you and one other community manager?

Ben Lang (10:13): No. So we have also a couple of contractors we work with. So in total, we're probably about, I think, five or six people. I think we'll probably, I'm hoping in the next year or so, we'll have a couple more folks. I think there's a lot of things we can do, a lot of opportunity, and a lot of places that we can invest more. So, really excited about that.

Rosie Sherry (10:37): How do you find the community staff, I guess? What do they spend time on these days?

Ben Lang (10:48): So, the different programs as I spoke about earlier on, each one has a point person. So our community manager spends a lot of time running and building our ambassador program, as well as a couple of other things. We have a couple contractors who help out with our influencer program. We have a contractor who helps out with our consultant certification program. So we've kind of structured it so that these different projects that we've doubled down on have someone really kind of managing the day to day and making sure that we're staying on track and continuing to build out those efforts.

Rosie Sherry (11:28): Where do you see the future of Notion going? Do you have any goals that you're working towards or any kind of systems or processes that you're looking to adopt?

Ben Lang (11:42): Do you mean the entire Notion, like Notion as a company?

Rosie Sherry (11:46): Well, I guess company community, but more from a community perspective. Do you have any ideas of how it's going to grow and how you're going to manage it? I assume continued growth that Notion is having at the moment.

Ben Lang (12:03): Yeah, I think one of the really interesting challenges is our community and user base is incredibly global. There's no one country or place where we predominantly exist. I think, I don't remember if it's 80 or 90% of our users are outside of the US. So we have a very passionate user base in Korea, and a very passionate user base in Japan and in Brazil and all these different places.

Ben Lang (12:30): I think moving further along in the future, eventually it would be amazing if we had folks who were helping continue to build out the communities in these places. That might be connected to our ambassador program. It might be even more than that, but I think finding more folks to just make sure that we're growing globally, and really kind of nailing local markets in a way that feels natural. I think that's a huge area of opportunity.

Ben Lang (13:08): There's also just other projects and things that we want to get to that we just haven't had the capacity to get to. I think just given that our focus is on top of funnel and user education, there's just so much depth and breadth to where we can go to achieve those goals. So, just having more resources to try out new things, to continue to grow existing programs. It's just going to require more capacity as we grow, as it grows, along with Notion as a community to grow as well.

Rosie Sherry (13:42): Sorry. We spoke to Marie, was it last week or the week before, about her Notion community, Notion mastery and how she runs it as a course and a community. I'm wondering, when you mentioned education just now, do you see the Notion as a company create an education or do you see yourself collaborating with community to create the education?

Ben Lang (14:12): So I think it's both. I mean, we have on our marketing team, we have a couple of folks who are writers, who are focused on our blog, our guides. I think it's definitely important that we have that on our team as well. But I think one of the most incredible things about Notion in our community is that they're also creating and have created so much content around different topics, categories, and different languages that we'll probably never get around to. I think that's contributed tremendously to helping new users get started and helping cultivate more power users. People like Marie who have educated so many people on how to use Notion and built entire communities around that. We're incredibly inspired by that and always want to support that.

Ben Lang (15:07): Whatever we can do to continue to support that and make sure that these folks are feeling connected to us and feeling like we're building in the right direction, I think it's super important. I think the entire team at Notion really understands that and appreciates that because it's very unique. I don't think most SaaS companies have something like that. I think we recognize that and we want to make sure that we're supporting that. Yeah, I'm always just blown away seeing what folks are creating and how folks, like Marie, are educating so many people and kind of building even entire businesses around them. It's really incredible.

Patrick Woods (15:46): So one question I always enjoy asking community builders is if you had to go back two and a half years to when you were transitioning from a Notion power user to the community lead, what is some advice you would give yourself starting out in that role?

Ben Lang (16:02): That's a good question. I haven't thought about that. I mean, I think maybe with Notion, it would just be like, how do you try to systemize things faster? I think just given how fast Notion has grown and how big it's become, it's really important to build systems and processes and not always do everything manually. Obviously that's important as well. But I think if I could go back, I would have tried to be more diligent about building out those processes, about documenting everything whenever possible. I think when you're in a really fast growing company and community as well, that can only help.

Patrick Woods (16:46): I'm guessing you use Notion to document those processes?

Ben Lang (16:50): Yeah. Yeah. We definitely use Notion a lot at Notion. In fact, we don't really use much else. We use Slack, Notion, and Zoom. Barely any other kind of day-to-day workplace tools.

Patrick Woods (17:06): We're Notion users, maybe power users. I don't know. We use it a lot. Is there one tip you would give people for Notion use, like some aha or some trick that you have that you think is particularly cool or powerful?

Ben Lang (17:20): I mean, it really depends where you are on the scale. If you're a power user or if you're just getting started, I think everyone kind of appreciates different things. I have my favorite things. I love toggles. I love call-outs. I'm trying to think what else I really like. I'm big into keyboard shortcuts. I think investing in learning keyboard shortcuts is quite useful. There's so many. I learn new ones all the time.

Ben Lang (17:45): What else? There's also so many new things I haven't even tried yet. I'm trying to think of what. The API, for example, I actually haven't even started to use it. I need to find cool ways to use that. So, there's a lot. I think even just focusing on simple things, the things that you like in Notion, that's a good place to start. You don't have to use every feature.

Patrick Woods (18:09): We used the API a little bit. I see Ben Greenberg in the audience, one of our developer advocates who's been building some pretty cool stuff, connecting Orbit into Notion. So that's a lot of fun.

Ben Lang (18:18): That's awesome. That's awesome. Super cool.

Rosie Sherry (18:22): Have you come across anyone building something community related through the API?

Ben Lang (18:27): I don't think I have. That's a good question. I don't think so.

Rosie Sherry (18:35): What kinds of things have you seen people building? I'm really curious to see how that evolves basically.

Ben Lang (18:42): Yeah. There were a lot of requests before the API came out. I think the most popular requests were forms in Notion. So Typeform and a couple other products that have built form integrations to databases. That's been a really popular one. Zapier and, those types of services. I know a lot of folks have been really excited about that and using those. What else has there been a lot of? People building websites of Notion, I think that's been really cool. Just seeing people kind of really customize Notion to the fullest extent and building entire websites through it. Yeah. I think those are some of the more popular ones.

Rosie Sherry (19:28): I've got one question here. I think about branding a lot when it comes to communities. I think some of the best communities have great branding. I think Notion is one of those. Over the years, I guess how the Notion avatars have kind of become iconic to what Notion is. I'd love to know, has that just evolved over time? Have you been involved in a community perspective and evolving that for the community?

Ben Lang (20:02): So what's really cool about that is actually there's an artist named Roman, and he's the one who came up with the style for the Notion team. It's been funny just to see how people have been so excited about it. There's actually a whole marketplace now with folks who are drawing these kind of Notion style portraits for people. But I think it was a decision. I don't know who came up with the idea. I think it might've been Ivan, the CEO, to have an artist kind of creating a lot of art for the brand.

Ben Lang (20:42): You'll find kind of the Notion style drawing on the website and blog posts, the portraits, really all over. I think that's definitely one of the things that's made the Notion brand so unique and kind of identifiable, which is this kind of style that Roman pioneered. So it's definitely not something I would take credit for. It's a hundred percent Roman and his work and it's been really incredible to see what he's done there.

Patrick Woods (21:10): Yeah. That's super cool. So Ben, you've been really generous with your time today. We really appreciate it.

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