Why invest in community leaders?

Last week I met with my friend Sumana from the Wikimedia Foundation. She works from home and comes to the 10gen office periodically to co-work, and while she was visiting we discussed my upcoming Open Source Bridge talk about scaling community by nurturing leaders. As we were talking, I realized that in my previous post and in my draft slides, I was providing a “how to” on investing in leaders, without really explaining “why.” In this post, I’d like to address the main reasons that investing in community leaders is important.

The Psychological Reason

Creating advocates and brand ambassadors within your community can be incredibly powerful in validating your product. The message about your product is always more powerful coming from another user than coming from a vendor. People also respond better to individualized contact from people that they know. Think about it: are you more likely to respond to a call to action in a newsletter sent to 100,000 people, or to a direct request from someone that you know? Surely the conversion rate on the latter is going to be better.

The Economic Reason

Investing in leaders is also an economical marketing tactic. You can invest a small amount in developing a community leader, and expect a potentially large return from that investment. The most obvious example here is the MongoDB User Group network. Let’s build a quick economic model, assuming that I have $50,000/year to spend and one person’s time. If we take the user group approach, we could effectively support each user group with about $3,500 per year. Here is a rough breakdown of how that investment could be used:

Item Amount Cost
Meetup.com fees Annual Membership $150
T-shirts 100 @ $10/tee $1,000
Stickers 1,500 @ $0.25 per sticker $375
Pizza Once a quarter $1,000
Speaker travel Fly in a guest speaker once a year $1,000
Total Cost   $3,575

With $50,000, we could effectively support 13 user groups with some cash to spare. We would need someone on staff to coordinate those user groups, work with local leaders to organize them, find a venue, and connect speakers.

Assume that each group runs smoothly and achieves an average membership of 300 people. (Some markets, like New York City and San Francisco, could exceed that with over 1,000 members of a tech group, while smaller markets might be successful with 100-150 members.) Our $50,000 investment has reached and engaged 3,900 members of the community across 13 different cities, with each group meeting monthly to discuss our technology.

Now let’s compare that investment to sponsoring a corporate trade show, with the assumption that you already own a booth for these types of events.

Item Amount Cost
Sponsorship Fee Per Show $5,000 (this is on the low end for industry shows)
T-shirts for booth 100 @ $10/tee $1,000
Stickers for booth 1,500 @ $0.25 per sticker $375
Bag insert (literature or something similar) 1,000 $350
Staff travel 2 people $2,000
Booth labor and equipment rental Most shows charge you for things like carpet, electricity, etc. and require that you use the labor at the venue $1,000
Total cost   $9,725

With this cost structure, we could invest in about five trade shows. Let’s say that there are 1,000 people at each show. Overall, we will have had a small interaction with 5,000 people via our bag insert and physical presence at the show. And if we can successfully drive traffic to our booth, we might speak with and gain contact information for 25% of the total show attendance, acquiring 1,250 leads that we can market to. Those leads will be of mixed quality: while some will be interested in our product, most will be unqualified leads requiring lead nurturing and consistent follow up before they become customers.

In this model, you can see that the distributed user group model reached and engaged more people than the trade shows at a similar price point. You could build a model for search engine marketing and other marketing strategies, and my guess is that you will find similar results. While the trade show approach is more straightforward and easier to execute on, the user group model can provide a much greater ROI.

The Sustainability Reason

In the example above, we see that an investment in community can be more cost effective than other marketing strategies, like a trade show. The other major benefit of the community approach is the self-sustainability. At 10gen, we initially invest a lot of time and money into our user group organizers. Over time, those organizers often become completely self-sufficient. The user group leaders build a network of speakers and they identify local companies to sponsor their events. The small investment continues to grow into a large, sustainable user group, often with many more than 300 members. We can then shift our attention and resources to developing user groups in new cities. In contrast, our trade show and SEM dollars, once spent, do not provide that kind of continual return.

The Pragmatic Reason

The final reason is a pragmatic one. You simply don’t have the capacity or bandwidth to have relationships with everyone in a large community. You can attempt to broadcast your message across the entire network, but there will always be pockets that you will miss or areas that are simply inaccessible due to distance or language barriers or some other reason.

When you have a new product announcement to make, you could try broadcasting your message to the thousands of potential users. Or, you could reach out to ten people in the community that you’ve identified as leaders and ask them to test our your new feature before it’s released, provide feedback, and write a blog post about it. Each of those people could reach several thousand people with their blog post or tweet, many of which would be outside of your immediate network.

In Conclusion

I hope that in this post, I’ve made a strong argument for investing in community and in community leaders as an effective and efficient means of expanding your reach. I think that this reasoning applies to everything from open source projects to consumer products and everything in between. I intend to cover both the “how” and the “why” in greater depth during my presentations at OSCON and Open Source Bridge. Looking forward to seeing you there!

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