Hi there and thank you for listening to The Business Storyteller Podcast! I’m your host, Wilson and in today’s episode, we’re exploring why community building is a business strategy.
I want you to think about this question:
What is a product, service, interest, or hobby that you love? And what fuels your support and love for them?
Well, you may have a strong support for the product, service, or hobby that you love, but what keeps your support is more than just the new features, updates, or style.
A popular quote says it best, “People come for the product, but they stay for the community.”
Over the years, we’ve seen the increasing trend of brands growing and building communities such as Lego, Airbnb, Sephora, and many more.
Today, it’s my pleasure to welcome Bri Leever, who is the Founder and Lead Community Architect at Ember, a company that helps purposeful brands become community-led.
Bri has been formally designing, leading, and growing communities in-person and virtually for over seven years. She has successfully helped a social enterprise, Sseko, to launch and build a community that drives millions of dollars in sales annually for the brand.
At the present day, Bri partners with purposeful brands to help them transition to being community-led by crafting a community framework to activate their top customers.
Hi Bri, welcome to The Business Storyteller Podcast and I’m so glad to have you with us today. How’s everything going on?
Hi Wilson. Thank you for having me. I’m honored to get to share the space with you.
It’s great to have you on. I’ve introduced you a bit, but would you like to tell us more about your career journey and what led to Ember Consulting?
Yeah, for sure. So I mean really, I feel like I just sort of fell into community work. I was sort of born into community work. My parents ran a bed-and-breakfast out of our house for about 13 years. So I grew up with lots of people all the time. My immediate family was pretty large but my crew of second cousins was expansive. Lots of family. Lots of people. Community has always been a theme in my life.
But formally, it started right out of college. My first job was at a social enterprise startup in Portland, Oregon, that empowered and employed women in Uganda to create sandals to go on to university with the savings they made from working with them. So I was tasked with creating a community out of the customers in the US who loved the story of the product but also loved the product. It was a phenomenal experience. I learned a ton. Made a lot of mistakes. By the time that I decided to move on from that role which by the way, was in February 2020. So like weeks before the pandemic hit, unknowing Bri quit her job, and I really honestly thought that I was going to be working full-time somewhere.
I read in a book that if you have 100 coffees with you will find your dream job. And so I was like, well, okay, let’s just try that. Let’s just throw it out as an experiment. And so I started asking people to have virtual coffee when we were all quarantined and isolated on Zoom. And after about 20 coffees, I realized that I was kind of starting to pitch every company that I was talking to about like, “You’re doing such awesome things in the world and your customers want to join with you. Like what do you tell them when they ask how do we become a bigger part of this?” And they kind of were like, “We talked to them on social media. We throw them an affiliate link.” And my point to them was always like “There’s so much more that you can be doing to skim that energy off the top just by connecting those people together even in a little bit more formalized fashion.”
So from there, I was like this seems like a really amazing role that I’ve played in a company and I think it’s something that I can do for more brands and especially brands and organizations that have a strong purpose and mission alignment and values behind them. I just think that’s such fertile ground for community. As the journey progressed, I kind of gained more language around it. I realized that what I essentially do is help companies become community-led. So it’s been a joy. I love the work. I get to do my best work every day and to work with people who also want to make the world a better place. So it’s not a bad gig.
Sounds like you’re born into doing this. Looks like a real calling for you to finally fulfill it. Thank you for giving us a further introduction of yourself. I’m excited to get our conversation started on today’s topic.
You’ve been building community for over seven years now. Now, why do you think brands and businesses should place an emphasis on community building at the present time?
We talked about this a little bit beforehand, but I almost want to take a step back before we dive in too much to define community a little bit. The reason for that is I think maybe there are some listeners who when they hear community, they don’t quite have their hands wrapped around like what that means.
A lot of people, when I explain like I’m a community architect. They are like, “Do you do social media?” It’s so different. To me, a community is a diverse group of people with a common set of skills, interests, or values together for a common purpose and to experience belonging. So it’s still very broad. I haven’t narrowed our definition very much yet.
But what I mean by community architecture within a brand or organization, you are no longer just interested in connecting with each of your customers individually. So, before you become a community-led organization, you do have to be pretty customer-centric. You have to be very interested and have a relationship as a company with your customers. But community takes that to the next level and asks, “Well, what could happen and what value could be created in those customers, not just connecting to us but connecting to each other?”
That’s where you start to move into more of a network philosophy. You can do that on social media. You can have more of a community mindset on social media. If you’re, for example, if you see consistently people commenting on your posts and they’re like commenting on similar things, you can say, “Oh my gosh, did you see this person’s comment? Like, you guys are connected.” That’s a community thing. You’re connecting those people together, so it’s not like community only happens in a community platform. That happens all over the place but usually, it’s not facilitated super well on social media.
What I found is that it’s much more helpful to move it into an exclusive space where you can really foster an intentional environment. People often don’t feel super safe on social media. Raise your hand, if you’ve never felt safe on social media. Having a dedicated space where you can create more of those boundaries to hold a safer container for people to really be themselves and to feel like themselves and feel free to share is really important. I’ve totally just ran us down a rabbit trail but let’s circle back to your question. Do you want to ask it again?
I think it’s great that you define it and I think the distinction that you mentioned, I feel like it’s like a vertical relationship between a brand and customers and then when it’s customers and customers, it’s like a horizontal relationship. So you have like the vertical and horizontal.
I think it’s great that you define it but back to the question is basically, why do you think brands and businesses should place an emphasis on growing communities, especially at the present time?
So we really are just at the beginning of community-led design for brands and organizations. It’s funny to say that we’re just at the beginning because this has been happening since we were cavemen. Community is baked into our DNA, so it’s actually nothing new, but from a brand and organization perspective, it is pretty new.
I see it as being like the waves of the future, especially if you consider Web3 and everything that is happening, and being kind of rebuilt and reconstructed on the internet. Community is an essential part of that, which I won’t dive all the way into that rabbit trail. But one quote that I find fascinating, Alex Ohanian, he’s the CEO of Reddit, he predicts that in the future, 50% of Fortune 500 companies will have a Chief Community Officer.
So the more that I’m in this work like when I first kind of finally got the language around community-led brands, community-led design, it still felt like we hadn’t really established ground within the community space. But the more that I’m in it, the more you really peel back the curtain and see community as this foundation for everything that most successful brands do.
Thanks for giving us an insight on that. I think when we look at a lot of brands and businesses today, a lot of them are focusing on community-led. And so we’ve seen an increasing trend towards that and it’s interesting that you say that we’re just at the beginning phase of it, although we’ve heard about community for many years now. But I think for me personally over the phase of the pandemic, I’ve seen an increasing number of brands focusing more efforts on community events and being community-led.
So we talked a bit about the present. How do you see this affecting the longer term? Let’s say, in the next 10 years.
I want to start by answering this from a little bit of a different angle because one of the things that we talked about in community language, that I specifically talk about, I haven’t heard a lot of people use this weird language. I like to refer to, there’s like this essential pivot point in a community, where your community goes from being what I call a cult to a network.
When communities start, usually there’s like a personality or a brand, or a thing at the center that’s like the center of everyone’s affinity. So it’s like, we love this company. We love this product or we love this person. We love the speaker. We all love this thing. So it’s like your fan club, right? Very soon, you’re all kind of facing that thing and it goes back to what I said earlier tha the real power comes when people are not all just facing that affinity, but they’ve now turned towards each other and connected to each other.
It’s like instead of having just like point A connected to point B, you have a spider web which is so much stronger than like a single line and connection. It’s much more secure and the risk in a network is now you’ve created and facilitated a space where these connections are happening and you’re accountable to those connections and to what the community wants of the space.
I think the fascinating case study with this is Facebook. In some ways, Facebook created Marketplace for these networks to exist and it strengthened all of those ties, but Facebook is also like accountable for producing what people want to see. And if not, like you see now, a ton of people obviously moving away from Facebook really trying to find other platforms and other marketplaces where they can have those established connections. it’s like kind of this catch-22, where that’s the strongest possible design that you can have, but it also creates greater accountability both for the company and for the network to create a win-win scenario.
In the long term, those networks become empires. When you start as a cult, it’s very shaky. It could kind of crumble at any second because if it’s all focused on one personality, if that personality or that business changes, your whole system kind of dismantles. So it’s our job as community architects and managers to help transition from the cult to the network. And long-term, I think that creates what I said is that amazing accountability between both the brand and its community of customers.
That’s a good overview when it comes to seeing a community from being a cult to a network. I think one of the mistakes even when Piktochart first started to get into community building a few years ago is that we see it as a place where we just gather our users together. Let’s just hang out there, but we’ve never seen it how do we connect the members to one another?
And I think with the new Piktosquad that we just launched, which we’ll talk about more later on, we try to see the emphasis on networking the members to one another. Making sure that it’s being community-led instead of just being led by myself or by someone else in Piktochart. I think that’s a great distinction. Growing from just a cult to becoming a network. Thanks for giving us an insight on that.
Let’s dive deeper into this episode’s title and the title today is, ‘Community Building is a Business Strategy’. Now there’s often a misconception that community building as a business strategy doesn’t generate clear ROI in terms of sales figures. It could be a waste of resources. Instead, we should focus on building more product features than competitors and trying to win new customers. However, why do you thin community building itself is actually a business strategy?
This is such a good question. It’s one of the things that I’ve loved working with Piktochart the most because you all get it. And it makes my job so much easier. You’re right. Right now, we’re at the very beginning of the analytic side and the data-driven side of the community. There are ways to pull on analytics and to see the ROI on community, but a lot of the value that comes from your community is fairly anecdotal.
It’s difficult to quantify feeling. It’s difficult to quantify a vibe in a space. So I’m really confident that this will continue to be similar to how we used to not really have metrics around social media, but people just sort of assumed it’s valuable. Now there’s like way more metrics built out and integrated into the platforms. So I feel confident that over the years, the analytics will continue to be refined.
But why I see community building as a business decision instead of a marketing decision is because when you treat it like a marketing decision, you really lose all of the value that a community brings to your business. When you treat it as a silo, if you think it’s just a marketing decision, really what you’re saying is this is just one more way for us to like loudspeaker out our message but it’s just a segmented group of your audience. You’re just kind of saying like, “We have these top customers or this top segment who are awesome and so we’re going to like shout-out or message to them, but like over here instead.” That’s fine. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but where the rich value comes from the community for the brand is in all the feedback loops that you get back into the company about what you’re doing.
So rather than just making it a new marketing channel, consider it as this feedback loop that comes back into your business and informs your product decisions. It informs your business decisions. If every time that you were trying to make a really pivotal change in your company, what would it look like if that decision was more transparent to your community? Could you possibly crowdsource some feedback on what they value and what they want to see?
It really does help guide the whole business when you choose to leverage it that way. And I think that’s where the most powerful value comes from the community. And I think that’s what I’ve been so impressed with and so thankful for the Piktochart team is they are so onboard and always want to hear from their users and so for me as a community builder, it just makes it so easy to create that bridge into the community.
Yeah, that’s a great lesson that you’ve shared there and I’m also thinking about perhaps one of the reasons why Piktochart could get on board on this idea of making community as part of a business strategy is because when we started 11 years ago, we were looking for feedback from our customers. I think every brand and businesses starts with that way. They have a solution and during the early days, they would listen to their users, their customers trying to get feedback on how can we improve the product. But perhaps as we grow the brand and the business and we’ve grown to probably like millions of users, the gap becomes bigger and bigger and you’re no longer connected to your community.
I think being community-led just brings us back to one of the core values that we have in Piktochart, which is being user focused. I think every brands and businesses should really come back to that core like why do we start off this brand? Ultimately, it’s for our clients and our customer base, and I think community building is one way to actually achieve that as well.
You’ve been helping Piktochart to build our very own community since the end of 2021. We’ve just launched it back in June and it’s called the Piktosquad. Can you tell us more about the Piktosquad and what is all this community all about?
Yeah, definitely. Piktosquad is a place for people who first and foremost love using Piktochart. So they might be new or they might have a lot of experience. We actually have quite a range of experience from what we call Allies, who are members of Piktosquad. They are usually looking to enhance their skills and find new inspiration for designs. In addition to that, they might already be talking about Piktochart to their friends. So we have it as an option when they join, they can get an affiliate link so that they’re also earning commission when they refer someone to Piktochart.
In addition to that, there’s a spirit of helpfulness and generosity that I think is essential in the community. All these interactions happen in what we call the Squad Center. This is an exclusive space. If you’re kind of listening to this and you’re like, “I think I get this whole community thing.” Even if you’re just interested in what we’re talking about from community, you should join the Piktosquad and just to see kind of how it all works because it really makes sense when you join the Squad Center. You can see it’s an exclusive space where we have both threads where people can post their designs. You can skim through and pick up on other people’s designs, see how they made them, and pick up tips.
We also host within the Squad Center, events. That’s where we bring in Squad experts who are Allies who we recognized as being like super users who make a lot of templates and have taught others how to do it. And so we recognize them as Squad experts and then they host events with us. We’ll feature our graphic designers in tutorials to talk about features that you may or may not know. Like often just the slightest tweak or a little tip for a feature can make a huge difference and save you so much time, speaking from experience.
So all of that, all the learning, all the inspiration happens in Squad Center. That’s a place when you introduce yourself, you can get to know other people and see how they are using Piktochart. One of our hopes is that as the community grows, we’ll be able to start connecting because right now, everyone is existing in the same space. But as the community grows, what I’m really excited about is starting to segment the community into specific ways that people use Piktochart.
So if you are working in education, or if you work in healthcare, connecting with other people who use Piktochart in that same function so that your work becomes even easier by most of us being in the same space with people who are using it in that same regard.
I think this comes back to networking the members to one another as well. It’s not so much of like the brand telling you this is what you should do, but rather, you can find inspiration from other Allies in the Squad Center to see how are they designing a report for example, an infographic and just gain some inspiration from that. The Piktosquad is actually free and you can find more information at piktochart.com/community
We’ll also be sure to leave it in the show notes, so you’ll be able to see it in the description of this podcast as well. We’d like to encourage you to come and join us. We’re still in the early stages but we already have monthly community events going on. We try to engage with also the community there and network you to one another. We hope that you will find this a valuable space to be able to learn and to grow in your visual communication skills.
You (Bri) have helped us to build this community. I’m sure for some of our listeners who are aspiring business leaders, they haven’t perhaps even thought about starting community building as their strategy yet. For brands and businesses that haven’t tried out community building, what would be some practical steps to help them get started?
Great question. I always say, start by talking to your people. I actually wrote a post about this recently, how to host a focus group. I think focus groups are one of the most beneficial things that you can do. I always like to host a focus group. We hosted a focus group for Piktosquad and honestly gained some really helpful insights that pivoted the direction of the program and the community.
So I think if you’re like, “Okay yes, we want to launch a community.” Even before you launch it, get on the phone with people. Host user interviews. Get feedback on what would motivate someone to come to this space and ask them for honest feedback. Is this even something that you’d like? Why? And why not? That information is going to guide your decision making in the community so much better.
And when you go to launch your community, you can now approach the people who provided feedback on what they wanted to see, and you can present it in a way that says, “Hey, you were a part of creating this. Thanks to your feedback, this is how we designed the program.” It gives people a lot of buy-in for those top users who are willing to connect with you, it already creates buy-in for them to be a part of the community as well. So love a good focus group.
That’s a great tip. In fact, when I was speaking with some of our pioneers in the Piktosquad, they said that they love how they are involved in the decision. They love how we love to hear the feedback of how can we improve. So I think I speaking with your users is perhaps one of the best way to get started. That’s kind of one of the tips that you have to get started.
Now, if we’re talking about how do we build community successfully and you are a committee architect, what would be your top three tips for building communities successfully?
You know one, it’s just like a little tip, but I think a lot of people spend a lot of time on something that doesn’t actually have a ton of value to their community and that’s the content. So a lot of times people think like I’m creating a community, I have to be supplying all of the content. This is just sort of like a new space to house my content that I’m pushing out and you kind of mention this with the first iteration of community where it’s like, our team is going to be producing all of this and then the community is going to be. That is important to have some content to get things started, to get the ball rolling, and to set the pace for what types of things you want your community to be creating.
But the bigger question is, how are you activating community members to create the content and co-create it with you? It’s a much more thoughtful design to ask, how are we empowering our community members to be creating the content, rather than how are we training our community members to just be like absorbers of the content. It’s so much more valuable for everyone. Like when people especially in a learning community like Piktosquad where there’s an element of education involved, the person who is sharing is getting as much out of that interaction as the person who is receiving the new information and solidifying the knowledge for them. It’s helping them articulate that educational bit or tip in a way that they maybe weren’t aware of before. Helping people see that and encouraging them to do that and designing for it is really important.
Another tip that is important to consider in the design process is the member journey. I call it like your leadership woo funnel. So, how are you wooing members, get closer and closer into leadership in the community? Not to like really rely heavily on our cult analogy. We’re trying to get away from that. But really it is like what are the actions that someone, a leader in your community, even if you don’t have any today, what are actions that you would hope a leader would take? How are you prompting those actions to happen? What are the rewards for those actions? If you know just kind of basic habit formation, those are like the three recipe ingredients to a good habit. Prompt, action, and reward. Breaking that down for the actions that you would want a leader to take in your community are really important.
And the third tip which connects to this, I’ll just touch on rewards. When I say reward, people think we got to like throw gift cards at them, which can be helpful for sure. We’ve done contests in Piktosquad and so I’m not opposed to gift cards. They can be helpful. But the most powerful voted on year after year after year after year is recognition. And so understanding how to recognize those actions that you want people to take in the community. Calling them out. Praising them. Recognizing them. Giving them some love, even internally in the community or even externally to your broader audience is really powerful in the long run in creating a strong and healthy community.
I think those are really great tips and if I can kind of sum it up, I think when you’re mentioning, I see the three C’s here, which is co-creating content with customers, consider customer journey and compensating customers through recognition. I think those are really great takeaways to be able to take home.
We’re in our final question today and I’d love to get your insight of this. I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of examples of brands and businesses who are nailing it at community building. Maybe you can share some of your favourite examples of them?
Yeah, I’d love to. There’s so many and the different types of communities vary dramatically. I’ll try to give a little bit of a spectrum. One of my favourites on the apparel side, Lululemon. The main way that they grew was through their local ambassadors. They would kind of move into one area of one city and they would recruit local ambassadors who loved the lifestyle, loved what Lululemon was about, and they would really saturate that city before then moving into a new one. Their ambassador program was really key to their expansion.
Lego has a really amazing, I struggled to call it like, full-on a community, but it really is a community. It’s a forum-based community. They have a site called Lego Ideas and it’s a place where people can post their like ideas for what Lego sets they want to see in the future. And then the community members go in and upvote which ideas they want to see come to life. Lego then goes on like picks the winners or the most popular ideas and produces them. It’s like such an awesome thing to be able to say as a Lego, as one of those community members I was the one who came up with this inspiration and to be recognized in that way is like super cool and very motivating for the Lego community.
And then another one of my favourites is the Notion community. Notion has a really robust community because their tool requires a lot of education. They have a really robust community surrounding their learning and education. I’m not like super in depth in that community but I’ve heard a lot about it from people who are and I’ve seen kind of from the outside that it’s a really phenomenally design space.
On the media side, I actually am a part of the community for theSkimm. It’s like a media newsletter and they have like a finance community which was done well.
Reddit communities just fascinate me. There’s like so many in there. When they get like super into the gamification, I’m always fascinated. I’ve never built a Reddit community and I’m not a part of one formally, but there’s some really fascinating game mechanics in Reddit communities that I like to watch from the outside.
I think those are some of the great examples of brands and businesses. I think you cover a great spectrum from fashion lifestyle to a hobby or interest with Lego and also to a software like Notion. So I think all of us can really find a community. That’s why I think the question that I start off with this podcast, what is one product, hobby, or interest that you love? I think with something that you love and enjoy, you’ll be able to find a community for that.
Thank you so much, Bri for sharing so many valuable and helpful insights with us today on community building. I’m sure our listeners have gained a lot of valuable lessons about implementing community building as a business strategy.
Now, as a wrap up to this episode, I’d love to ask you some fun questions to help our listeners learn about what inspires you. My first question for you is this, what is your favourite movie?
My favourite movie is ‘About Time’. If you’ve heard of it. It’s kind of like rom-com, but it’s really about this relationship with his dad and it’s very sweet and time travel is involved.
What about your favourite book?
My favourite book is called ‘To Bless the Space Between Us’. It’s this Irish poet named John O’Donohue. He was an Irish poet and philosopher and it’s this book of blessings. It’s probably the most tattered book on my shelf because I read it frequently.
That sounds beautiful and inspiring. Finally, if you’re not doing what you’re doing today in community building, what do you envision yourself doing?
I think at some point in my life, it would be really ineresting to do like a retreat center, to run like a retreat center for people. I think it kind of aligns for me with the community aspect. My life’s work is to facilitate spaces where people can experience transformation through community and beauty. I think for now, that’s in the community space online and maybe someday, that’ll be more like a retreat element. Hopefully in Hawaii too. That’d be really nice.
I think it goes back to the root of why you started on community building. You were born into it with the bed and breakfast business that you mentioned since you were born. It’s great to see you coming to full circle That was fun getting to know more about you as well and getting a further insight on some of your favourite things.
Thank you, Bri for coming on this episode of The Business Storyteller Podcast. Before we conclude, if our listener would love to reach you or stay connected with you, or find out more about Ember Consulting, how can they do that?
Yeah, so emberconsulting.co is my website and we have a newsletter there. That’s the best place to get tips on all things community-led design. We’re also on Instagram but not frequently, so find us on the newsletter.
We’ll be sure to also include the website in the show notes so you can find out more about Bri and her work with Ember Consulting. Again, if you’re interested in joining our Piktosquad community at Piktochart, we’d love to have you join us so you can check out piktochart.com/community Well, that’s all for today’s episode and until the next one.
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