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Marketing 101 for Community Builders

Community may not = Marketing, but community builders should still know these marketing basics to support their work

Let’s start here: 

Marketing ≠ community. 

This is an oft-debated topic in the community realm (in my opinion, weirdly so—I don’t think anyone really thinks two things with entirely different names and functions are possibly the same, right?).

So, I wanted to get that out of the way and get my opinion on the record there. 

And while definitions are often limited and grappling over them often does more harm than good to community builders, let’s establish for the sake of this article what these things are, roughly speaking: 

  • “Community building”, in a business context, refers to leveraging peer-to-peer connections, usually but not exclusively in the form of online forums or events, to produce business outcomes. These business outcomes can relate to a variety of business functions, including but not limited to ticket deflection, product research, new user acquisition, or existing user retention. (See my first ever blog post, “What is a Community Manager,” for more!) 

  • Marketing” is an umbrella term for any business geared at promoting or selling a product or service. 

You can see how these things might have some overlap—but you can also see why they’re not, exactly, the same. 

And while I've said I personally think this debate is a bit of an open-shut case, I still understand why we continue to have it. I think we continue to "debate" this because talking about the distinction between community and marketing can still help:  

  • Community builders establish greater career and role clarity, ensuring that the work they do connects to their skill set and defending from large-scale scope-creep 

  • Companies better understand the powerful and unique value proposition of true, effective community programs, and how they may actually have the potential to deepen marketing outcomes 

  • Get closer to collectively understanding and codifying community work, and putting this whole conversation to bed once and for all 😆

But, I’ve also seen some drawbacks to constantly debating why community and marketing aren't the same. What I sometimes see is a sort of throwing-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater attitude toward "marketing” from community professionals. Because we’ve become so quick to say “that’s marketing, and that’s not my thing,” we’ve become collectively allergic to a skillset that actually stands to support our work and careers. 

Because we’ve become so quick to say “that’s marketing, and that’s not my thing,” we’ve become collectively allergic to a skillset that actually stands to support our work and careers. 

That’s why I’ve long been interested in writing a post like this—one that acknowledges that yes, community and marketing aren’t the same thing, but also dives into some of the marketing skills and know-how that are nonetheless deeply relevant for any professional community builder, whether you’re an entrepreneur or you work at a big brand. 

In this blog post, I’m going to try to convince you that building foundational marketing knowledge is essential to you as a community-builder. And, I’m going to walk you through the foundations of three marketing concepts that I think have particular relevance in the community world, with a specific eye toward using these concepts to strengthen your community-building work: 

  • Lead generation & funnels 

  • Organic content marketing

  • Referral and affiliate marketing 

Let’s get to it.

Why should community builders understand marketing?

In the intro, I expounded at length on some of the reasons we in the community industry may have a knee-jerk negative response to being asked to engage in marketing. We’ve all been there: you’re working a “community” job and suddenly you’re asked to handle a seemingly-unrelated broadcast marketing channel, like an email newsletter or, worse, a TikTok channel (😱). 

Plus, it seems like a lot of community builders have the attitude that community-building is good, virtuous, and moral, whereas marketing is bad, icky, and immoral

But, I’m here to tell you that that’s not true, and that understanding marketing will actually help you with all of the things you may feel you’re defending against. 

How do I know? Because in my very first professional community management role, I sat on a Brand and Content team that lived under a marketing department, and getting the opportunity to learn the basics of marketing as I developed my community chops was, in my view, a key to success in my career.

Here are some of the things understanding the basics of marketing allowed me to do as a community builder: 

  • Better articulate, define, and defend the scope of my role at that company and beyond 

  • Become both more autonomous from and more collaborative with marketing teams: with marketing knowledge, I was better able to project-manage community launches and ask for the right assets from marketing specialists to support my work, and I was also better able to understand what aspects of that work I could do independently without getting blocked

  • Design community launches that were as effective as other product launches, allowing the hard work I put into my community programming to make a real impact

  • Understand my community’s role in relation to the business it supported, and do a better job at expressing my community’s business impact in terms that were already understood by executive stakeholders 

  • Understand how to design a community program that would measurably impact existing marketing targets, further underscoring the impact of my community program at the executive level 

  • Give better feedback to inject the voice and perspective of customers into existing marketing efforts to ensure the ethos of community and marketing were more aligned 

Convinced yet? If you want to get some of those benefits, I hope you’ll go on this journey with me! 

Lead generation & funnels 101 for community builders

What is lead generation?

Lead generation,” or “lead gen” for short, refers to the process of establishing an initial point of contact with potential clients, usually via acquiring a potential client’s email, or phone number for SMS marketing, for the purpose of later making a sale. “Leads” often represent the second-largest pool of potential customers that a company has access to distribute their message to, after their general audience

Companies are interested in generating leads because a reliable point of contact allows them to deploy repeated touch-points, or campaigns, to potentially interested buyers, making them more likely to make a purchase in the future. 

Not all leads are created equal—marketers often refer to leads as “warm” or “cold,” where warm generally means that the lead is more likely to buy and cold means the lead is less likely to buy. Marketers make this determination based on a number of factors, including how engaged the lead is with the marketing materials. For example, a “warm” lead might be someone who regularly opens or clicks through buttons on email outreach. 

Relatedly, marketers often refer to leads as “qualified” if they can establish that above and beyond being contactable and even warm, the lead actually fits the profile of someone who might buy the target product. A lead can be warm but not qualified, and vice versa. 

Sometimes, but not always, community builders may feel really far away from the lead generation process, especially if their community is geared toward existing customers. 

What are funnels?  

Marketers use the concept of “funnels” as a shorthand for understanding the customer journey—in other words, how audience members may become leads and in turn become customers. Funnels are usually represented graphically as an upside down triangle, or, you guessed it, a funnel. Here’s an example of a basic funnel graphic: 

The core conceptual takeaway from funnels is that you will, most of the time, have a large group of people with general awareness of your product or business that will slowly diminish as your touch-points become deeper and they get closer to a point of sale. 

In other words: you may have a large audience viewing a free blog post, a smaller group giving you their email address to join your newsletter (i.e., becoming leads), an even smaller group joining a webinar to learn about your product, and finally an even smaller group ultimately making a purchase becoming customers. Volume decreases as depth increases.

Marketers often use “conversion rates” to express the expected or actual ratio of these various drop-off points throughout the funnel. For example, you may measure the conversion rate from a particular blog post’s viewership to how many leads that post generated, or you may measure the conversion rate of how many people received a particular marketing material (i.e., an email) vs. how many people made a purchase as a result of that material. Businesses often want to have a sense of their conversion rates on different marketing activities targeted at different points of their funnel so that they can make good estimates at how large their audience or lead pools need to be in order to make their sales goals. 

Two more things that are important to know about funnels: 

  • You’ll often hear marketers refer colloquially to “Top of Funnel” (or even TOFU) or “Bottom of Funnel” as shorthand for which part of their audience they are trying to reach. Generally marketers target different materials to different funnel segments in an effort to move them through the funnel toward a sale. 

  • While the graphic I shared above is a good shorthand for the basic mechanics of a funnel, many marketers will define their funnel in a way that’s specific to their brand and the audience-to-customer journey they are trying to define. For example, they may specifically decide that their newsletter is intended as a top of funnel tool while their community is intended as a bottom of funnel tool, or vice versa. 

Why are these concepts relevant to community builders, and how can we apply them? 

Now that we’ve defined these concepts, let’s take a look at how they’re relevant to those of us in the community building space: 

  • Realistic understanding of conversion rates during community launches: One place where I see these concepts applying to community is during community launches, when a community itself is really functioning as a product that we need to convince a qualified group of people to consider and adopt. I see a lot of community builders coming to community launches with really unrealistic expectations of community adoption rates. Community builders need to understand that just like with any product, they will generally need to create multi-touchpoint journeys to educate, establish authority, and convince their prospective members to convert to community members. And, community builders need to understand that there will be significant dropoff throughout that journey at each touchpoint, including after the point of “conversion” or account creation. In other words, having and understanding of how lead generation and sales funnels work in relation to other products, and what typical industry benchmarks are (while they won’t be 1:1), can help us design more effective and realistic community launches. 

  • Where community sits in the funnel: As I noted above when I described funnels, although the mechanics of most sales funnels are similar, each business generally uses different tools for different purposes in their funnel. For example, sometimes a newsletter is designed to be a top-of-funnel touchpoint that will show up early in a prospect’s journey with a particular brand whereas sometimes a newsletter might be geared toward highly qualified leads that sit closer to the point of sale. The same is true with communities—some of them are geared toward broad pools of prospective customers and some of them are geared toward more specialized audiences or even geared toward retaining existing customers. Generally in order to make a good case for the impact a community can have on a business, we need to understand where our community sits in relation to our business’s sales funnel in general, and what role our community plays in that journey. This is oftentimes the key to understanding if our community mostly has a retention output, or an acquisition output, which are often essential not only to measuring impact, but to designing the community program itself for the right audience. 

  • Community qualified leads: Lastly, in some cases, if you’ve determined that your community mostly functions as a top-of-funnel acquisition channel, understanding lead generation can help you express the lead generation output your community has for your business. Because communities are places where we often get to build recurring, contextual relationships with members, they are places where we are able to qualify leads. 

Understanding how conversion rates might affect your community launch is one of the core concepts I discuss in the launch module of my online on-demand coaching product. That section also includes a template that will help you make a plan for a community launch incorporating these concepts. If you want to join On-Demand Coaching as a whole, you can learn more and do so below, or you can get that template as an à la carte purchase. (Psst—if you get the template now and later decide you want all of On-Demand Coaching, you can apply a coupon for the cost of the template to your enrollment.)

Content marketing 101 for community builders

What is content marketing, and what are its basic mechanics? 

Content marketing” is a common form of organic marketing that typically uses content forms like blogs, video, templates, and email to establish a relationship with consumers, with the ultimate goal of producing a lead or a sale. 

Content marketing is usually geared toward creating value, often through education, that establishes a brand’s authority to speak on a certain topic and builds trust in that brand’s ability to deliver value to the consumer (rather than creating content that explicitly speaks about the brand itself or encourages a sale). For example, Hubspot’s blog is geared at creating education around topics relevant to its ecosystem, but does not directly sell its products in the way that, say, a commercial or billboard might aim to.

Content marketing is often but not always “organic” in that it relies on discovery via unpaid channels (i.e., SEO, blog or newsletter readership, social media, etc). 

Most content marketing follows the same basic structure, which you can think of as one aspect of moving prospective customers through a funnel: 

  1. Creating a piece of freely available content and promoting it across one or more discoverable channels. For example, sharing an educational blog post on social media or on the newsletter of another brand with a related audience. The goal of this step is to get fresh eyeballs on your content and brand. 

  2. Creating a related piece of “behind-the-curtain” content that is free but requires the consumer to provide their email address. Webinars, templates, or newsletters are commonly used in this step. This is often referred to as an opt-in, lead-magnet, or content upgrade. The purpose of this step is to establish a reliable, recurring form of contact with your prospect (lead). 

  3. Creating additional, recurring pieces of behind-the-curtain content that nurture your new lead. Newsletters and communities are commonly applied here. The purpose of this step in the process is to continue to provide value and build a relationship with your leads while they make their purchasing decision (and often beyond). This is particularly relevant to premium products with long purchasing-decision timelines. 

Why are these concepts relevant to community builders, and how can we apply them? 

Now that we’ve defined these concepts, let’s take a look at how they’re relevant to those of us in the community building space: 

  • Understanding community as a potential content upgrade or nurture sequence: One reason that understanding content marketing is so important for community builders is that your community may actually already be a part of your company’s content marketing funnel without recognizing it. Related to the point I made above when speaking about lead generation and funnels, understanding where your community may fit in existing marketing efforts, and what role it specifically plays there, can help you start to deliver more tangible business impact (and better understand the audience segment your community fits into). 

  • Sourcing & repurposing content from communities: Anyone who works in content marketing knows that creating high-value content is incredibly time consuming, and often feels like a never-ending project. And, what’s more, it’s not always clear what content will really resonate the most with your desired audience or customer. Luckily, community can often provide a solution to this problem without increasing the workload of the community builder very much, because content generation is already a core component of what community members in healthy communities do:

  • Community members create content for community that can be repurposed into roundups, quotes, or social media graphics for broadcast channels 

  • Community managers often create high-value content for community members that can be partially repurposed for appropriate funnel segments 

  • More on this topic here in my previous post, “How to Use an Online Community as a Content Marketing Pipeline.” 

  • Tapping into content marketing metrics to communicate community business value: Community builders often lament the difficulty of expressing the business value of community in tangible terms. Luckily, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel as much as we might think. There is lots of power into tapping into and understanding pre-existing forms of measurement from related, more established disciplines like content marketing and borrowing them to express community impact. 

Referral and affiliate marketing 101 for community builders

What are referral, word-of-mouth, and affiliate marketing? 

This section is probably going to be pretty easy to understand for most community builders, and therefore will probably be the shortest! This is the aspect of marketing and community crossover that I’ve found my clients are most likely to be already thinking about. But, it felt worth mentioning this anyway to help connect it to the rest of the concepts we’ve discussed here. 

  • Referrals” usually refers to existing clients directly recommending a product they use to a net new customer. While this can also happen organically, generally when we talk about referrals in marketing we’re talking about official, incentivized, and trackable programs that allow our customers to give and receive benefits when they successfully convert a new customer on our behalf. For example, a sock brand might offer its customers 50% off of their next pair of socks when their friends buy a pair of socks using their link. 

  • "Affiliate marketing" is related, but different—it usually refers to activating influencers or customers to market a brand on its behalf using broadcast channels rather than 1:1 referrals, and usually involves directly paying affiliates a commission when their efforts succeed. For example, a blogger might be able to share their affiliate link to a software subscription on their blog, and then receive a set percentage of any subscribers’ subscription fees when they subscribe via that link. Because affiliate programs involve direct compensation they are usually a bit less open-access than referral programs, which are generally accessible to entire customer bases. 

Why are these concepts relevant to community builders, and how can we apply them? 

Now that we’ve defined these concepts, let’s take a look at how they’re relevant to those of us in the community building space: 

  • Special referral bonuses rolled into community programs: Community programs can go hand-in-hand with referral programs because they give us the opportunity to specifically reward our community members with special referral bonuses, giving them even more incentive to recommend us to others. They also give us a direct line with community members that allows us to build relationships where we can authentically encourage them to refer others when the opportunity arises. 

  • Building community and skills across affiliates and referrers: Community programs also give us the opportunity to deepen affiliate programs by creating micro-communities for those actively engaged in affiliate marketing. For many affiliate programs, true success comes not just from making tracked-link marketing available to partners, but in actually teaching them how to market your product effectively, providing them with marketing assets or campaign outlines, and activating them at specific, strategic times. These types of depth engagement programs require repeated contact and education that is often perfect for a community setting. 

Want to take any of this a step further?

I hope this post has been helpful for you in thinking about how marketing skills can bolster your community work.

That said, I understand that this can be complicated , and sometimes you need a hand to help put it all into practice.

I work with clients every day as a strategic coach for online community projects, and connecting your community work to your marketing ecosystem in your specific project and all its unique dimensions is one of the most common topics my clients want to discuss. If you would like to work together 1:1, you can learn more about how I work and get in touch here.

For folks who want to deepen their community work but don't have the budget to work with me 1:1, I also offer an online program called the On-Demand Coaching Core Bundle—it distills the most common topics I work with my 1:1 clients on into a self-paced format with videos, my most in-depth templates, coaching scenarios, and a client community with bi-weekly group coaching. All of that comes for a one-time purchase of $500 USD, less than the cost of 2 1:1 coaching sessions with me. You can learn more about that here or enroll now below:

You're also always welcome to shoot me an email at if you have questions, suggestions for what I should add to this or other blog posts, or anything else you'd like to discuss. I love hearing from readers—thanks again for being one!

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