Erica Kuhl, Senior Director of Community at Salesforce, has been at the company for 12 and a half years.

She’s been there almost since the very beginning. In that time, she has seen the company transform, including in the way that the billion-dollar corporation values its community.

In February, after seven years building community from scratch in the marketing department, Erica successfully moved community to the product team, where they now have a defining impact on the Salesforce product itself.

Erica worked tirelessly to ensure that the community got the respect it deserved from the very beginning and she built the metrics it needed to prove its value during that time. During this time, Erica learned countless lessons about how to prove the value of community in a large organization like Salesforce.

Many community professionals struggle with these challenges every single day. If you’re one of them, keep reading. In this article we’ll dig into three big questions:

  1. How do you get a community program started in a large company?
  2. How do you prove the business value that community drives for marketing, support and product?
  3. How do you keep fighting so you can’t be ignored?

1. Building the Salesforce Community from the Ground UpErica Kuhl Circle

For Erica, this stuff is all about empowering passionate people, and you can tell how excited she gets when she talks about her work.

“I’m really passionate about the value of advocacy programs,” she says. “I built the Salesforce community intentionally. I knew I could never hire anyone fast enough or keep up with all the trends or channels popping up. We decided to tap into our most passionate advocates to become extended members of our team.”

“Instead of building a team, we hired Sean O’Driscoll, who built the Microsoft MVP Program, to come in and consult. He built the framework for us.” This initial investment in creating the platform paid off big time without long-term costs.

“We had built such a strong base of community members and I had read about the 1% rule [1% of people create content, 9% edit or modify that content, and 90% view the content without contributing]. So we decided we should prove this out ourselves.”

Early on, they also had the MVP Community members sign NDAs, so soon product was consulting them with new projects and running ideas by them. There were early signs that the community would greatly benefit the product team and could also benefit by influencing the products themselves.

What Incentives Exist for Salesforce Community Members?

In any community, it’s important to get membership incentives right, especially if you are asking them to evangelize, volunteer, or advocate on your behalf. Salesforce’s community members are not paid for the work they do advocating for Salesforce or answering customer queries on the support channels. So why do they do it?

There are two key reasons:

  1. Access: They want to be seen as “smarter than the average bear” (either because they’re a consulting company or they work for a company and they are gunning for a promotion)
  2. Recognition: They want to sit in the front row at Salesforce events, have a badge they can display on their blogs, LinkedIn profiles, and business cards, and they just want to be recognized for their knowledge.

So to get their community up and running, Salesforce focused on those two value points for their community members.

2. The Value of Community for Marketing, Support and Community

A. The Marketing Value of Community

Once the framework was built, Erica set to proving that the investment was worthwhile. During this time, she worked in the marketing department and was responsible for driving marketing success.

“For the first seven years, community did belong in marketing,” Erica says. “When I started working on the community, we had to build it first. There was nothing there. The community needed to look great, and the Salesforce marketing team is great at that.”

During this time, the community played a very specific role to marketing: building loyalty and raising brand awareness.

Salesforce needed to see actual results before the product organization would listen, which is an incredibly common challenge for community professionals.

“This didn’t come easily,” Erica explains. “Community was really hard to understand. I had a difficult time proving metrics, especially marketing metrics. I could prove things like case deflection and saving support time, but that wasn’t the focus. They wanted to see numbers around brand awareness and mentions. So I brought them that.”

She went for the quantitative and found a statistic that the team took very seriously: tweets.

Based on social media conversations of their initial community members, Erica discovered that the handful of people in the early Salesforce MVP program generated a whopping 5-7% of their Twitter mentions.

“They amplified our messages in a massive way during events, and they were meeting each other and organizing meetups throughout the world. They really became an extension of the Salesforce team.”

Salesforce user groups
Salesforce now has 200+ user groups.

B. The Support Value of Community

One of the other battles that Erica won with the community was getting the support team to listen and give power to the passionate community that Salesforce fostered.

This was one of the key ways she funneled the community’s power into real business value: support costs were lowered significantly.

“Our support team will tell you themselves that our community is faster than our in-house people at answering customer questions.” “It took five years to prove this though,” she says. I asked her how she had the patience to fight this fight over such a long period of time. She just laughed and said, “I’m a bulldog.”

“We weren’t prepared to talk about nontraditional ways to build ROI and use community as a support tool. But over time, the community showed them that they were able to do the job of 4-5 full-time in-house team members, and they were all volunteers. That resonated.”

“Today, our in-house team doesn’t answer any new questions at all. The community answers about 80% of the incoming questions and the support reps wait 24 hours and then they clean up everything.

This is a powerful force for creating a sense of community in the support forums: “We don’t want to squelch the peer-to-peer support aspect of our community.  If the community doesn’t answer the question in 24 hours, it means they don’t know the answer and support steps in.”

Salesforce community
The Salesforce Questions Platform in their Success Community

C. The Product Value of Community

After Erica had proven the business, marketing, and support value of community, she set off to prove its value to the product team.

She found that if she could promise her MVP community members pre-release knowledge, she would provide them with enormous value that they would shout about from the rooftops. That’s when product value came in. But funny enough, “Product didn’t need to be convinced of community value at all, first because our cofounder is such a major supporter of our community.

“The product team wanted a place to share ideas and people to bounce ideas off of, and they wanted quotes and testimonials for their launches. I didn’t have to build a big team to give them this, and the product team got access to these real customers. They loved it.”

It also benefited the community members: “We were giving them a seat at that table – all based on the fact that the commonality of everyone in our community is our product.”

Two Retention Metrics Salesforce Has Proved Can Be Tied to Community Activity 

Erica spent much of her time fighting for the relevance of community and identifying the data to prove it. Recently, she pulled together major wins for the community team by asking and answering the following questions:

  1. Do active community members spend more with our company?
  2. Do active community members adopt the product more often than others?

Here is what she found (and this is still a work in progress):

  1. People who were active in the Salesforce community in the last 3 months spent 2x more than people who were not active. That is, the average order value (AOV) of a community member vs. a non-community member was double.
  2. People who were active in the Salesforce community in the last 3 months had a 33% higher adoption rate than non-community members. 

Community members spend 2x more and have a 33% higher adoption rate than non-community members.

“The results were staggering. They had to double- and triple-check these results because they were so ridiculous.” Ridiculous, but the numbers did not lie. She confirmed what we all know intuitively: engaging an active and passionate community drives real business value.

3. How to Fight So You Can’t Be Ignored

One of the most fascinating elements of Erica’s story is that she fought this fight almost singlehandedly for the last seven years.

It shows tremendous dedication and leadership and also shows the way she is paving the path for future community professionals.

When she was trying to make strides with the support team, she says, “I kept checking in with the team each year with each change in leadership. ‘Just give me a support rep for one month and we’ll measure it,’ I’d say. Finally, someone said yes. The results were outrageous. We haven’t looked back.”

Persistence was key, and she refused to back down because she knew that community was the answer to so many questions that the organization had. “This change has full-on skyrocketed our community. This is a community builder’s dream. Truthfully, the number one thing that our community members have in common is the product. They all want a strong say in what the product does and how it functions. Now they have that say.

“It would be my dream that community lives alongside other departments, on its own, not within them. And I have made a strong commitment to all the departments I work with to show them that nothing will change just because I’ve changed departments.”

Keep Fighting, but Don’t Forget about Loyalty

Erica is now shifting her focus internally to grow the number of employees who are active in the Salesforce community.

“We have low awareness internally about what our community does. We have focused externally for years so now the external organization is much stronger than the internal one. “There’s no way to keep scaling unless you activate your employees. They’re interfacing with customers too, and their numbers will keep growing.”

The numbers, metrics, and fancy dashboards are astounding and show the ability for community to drive revenue. “But even still,” Erica explains, “Loyalty and value are key. You cannot forget about loyalty. It can’t all be about money.”

Image Credit: Adapted from Steve Rhoades

Carrie Melissa Jones

Subscribe to the CMX Weekly

We review the top community industry news, trends, jobs and resources every week, so you’re always in the know.