From 0 to 3 Million: The Erica Kuhl Approach to Building Communities

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Erica Kuhl, founder and director of Salesforce’s Trailblazer community initiatives, has gained extensive knowledge and expertise in building communities. She has transformed her learnings into core strategies, which she now applies as a community consultant for her company, Erica Kuhl Consulting. Kuhl believes that connecting community and bottom-line business value has led to magic, as it puts the community in the spotlight. She divides metrics into two primary categories: enterprise-centric and health and wellness metrics. Kuhl emphasizes the importance of aligning with business metrics and focusing on expanding revenue through larger transactions, upselling, and cross-selling. The community drives product adoption, reduces attrition and volatility, and offers self-service scales and case deflection. Kuhl emphasizes gaining internal support from stakeholders and focusing on what is in it for them. She emphasizes the importance of understanding the needs of each organization and discussing business acumen to effectively engage with communities.

Erica Kuhl founded and directed Salesforce’s Trailblazer community initiatives for 17 years, during which time the community grew from zero to three million members. Along the way, she transformed her learnings into core strategies, which she now applies as a community consultant for her own company, Erica Kuhl Consulting, to communities across market locations, sizes, and contexts.

She recently sat down to share some of her extensive knowledge and expertise with the Mycreative Fansite. She also co-hosts a podcast, In Before the Lock, with a community-oriented colleague, Brian Oblinger, in which they explore community-building best practices in depth.

Not typical: Let’s begin our interview with the most important query. What are some of your preferred metrics for measuring ROI, and how do you obtain them?

This is probably one of the most common topics people want to discuss with me and attempt to figure out for their community because it’s so difficult…Before I reveal all of my favorite metrics, I believe that when I hit my stride at Salesforce, when I was building the community there, and when I made the connection between community and bottom-line business value, magic began to occur because it put the community in the spotlight. It had genuine commercial value, not just for entertainment purposes. I jest on the podcast that it’s a drinking game whenever I or Brian, my co-host, utter the word “strategy” because I can’t discuss anything without first discussing a strategy.

Once I have an aligned strategy and understand what on earth [someone] is attempting to do, the metrics fall into place. I divide them into two primary categories: One is more the enterprise-centric, north star metric. In addition, there are a number of health and wellness metrics that must be met in order to achieve these business metrics. I tell people, “Big business metrics do not appear overnight. These require effort. You may keep a watch on them. It is beneficial to remain aligned with them, but you need all of those other metrics to propel you.” Consequently, I remain focused on expanding revenue, such as through larger transactions, upselling, and cross-selling.

I believe that the community drives product adoption. And I consider how they reduce attrition and volatility. In addition, there are self-service scales and case deflection. People frequently use this term. I would say that these are the ones that everyone desires because they solve a problem that everyone has. If not all of those, at least one of them.

Can you elaborate on gaining internal support from stakeholders? What worked to bring people to the conclusion, “Okay, maybe there’s something to community”?

It was all about what was in it for them, while I maintained my concentration. And you can ask anyone at Salesforce who is or was employed there… what was my primary focus? Always, it was the consumer. I am aware that this is not always the focus of everyone. However, I attempted to [illustrate] the benefits for each category of group that needed to participate in the community, as it could not be just me. I could not do it by myself. Before anyone presented a value proposition story to me, [it was] simply a matter of comprehending what each organization required. In addition, I frequently discuss business acumen.

I do not believe that this is a standard competency for community members at this time. But for me, understanding the business of each of the organization’s essential components, being able to speak their language, and positioning the community and their engagement in the community in terms of what it would contribute to them and their business was crucial. Therefore, I was able to acquire a few individuals, a few advocates, and sell them as hard as I could on the benefits they would receive from working with me. From there, I invested all of my energy in them. And just as I invested my entire being in my consumers, I did the same with internal constituents. I made them tremendously successful, and as a result, I acquired so much enthusiasm that they created a ripple effect for me.

Now, I employ a very strategic approach. I am aware of the specific requirements of each organization. The connection between their participation in the community and their business objectives. Their business objectives, not mine.

Would you say that there are certain teams that are the best to win first, or that you can truly persuade people more readily because of the direct one-on-one relationship?

I argue that you do not have the right to refuse to respond to your customers’ feedback. You can choose modest, medium, or large strategies to invest in from the outset. But as soon as you create a community where customers can communicate with one another, they will post customer feedback in a community, regardless of whether you provide them with a form or a method to do so. Consequently, I seek out this individual and strive to align myself with him or her.

For me, however, it is customer success. I see the most connection with customer success because, as a rule, expanding businesses are attempting to support at scale. Adoption is one of these metrics, which is nurtured by the community. It’s a content breeding ground. It’s a way to offer people a human touch regardless of whether you’re interacting with them one-on-one or attempting to manage multiple organizations or businesses. Even though they are attempting to scale, they are enthusiastic about this type of content and this method of interacting with their consumers. Therefore, this is typically my go-to metric, and our metrics are typically very well aligned with customer success. So, it is not unreasonable. There are still a great number of others, but I would say that one and product are the two that must be on board.

Can you describe the evolution of some Trailblazer programs by Salesforce? How did you determine where to allocate your time in terms of the solution you were attempting to develop?

I started where I did [at Salesforce] because I wanted to get people to answer each other’s queries, which was my sole objective. We were expanding so rapidly, hundreds of students were enrolling, and it was impossible for our Support team to attempt to scale.

[Customers] desired unfiltered [answers] and use case examples of individuals implementing the solution on the ground. I anticipated that there wouldn’t be a massive outpouring of support, and I’m happy that there wasn’t because it fostered peer-to-peer engagement. Consequently, this was my primary concern: answering queries and connecting customers in different regions who were isolated from one another. Consequently, this lead to forums. And I continue to believe in communities. I’m aware that some individuals believe forums to be extinct. They are still alive. They are not deceased at all. They are truly indispensable. Occasionally, they are the most vital component of a community. And these evolved from a Q&A format to include best practices.

This was my primary focus. I was like, whoever is creating customer-to-customer content by contributing to one another, that’s my flavor. Currently, I am not taking on any new responsibilities. Thus, I initially drove my strategy in this manner. That may or may not be someone else’s strategy, but I hope that the takeaway from this is to begin with focus and strength. Do not assume that you must take on everything.

I also maintained vigilance over the persona. I assumed the role of the change agent, which meant I would be responsible for configuring and implementing the new system within the organization. I focused all of my content and engagement efforts on this particular persona. This is where I began. I’ll say the common thread, halt to see if we want to go in a different direction, and then conclude that I listened to what they had to say. I was intimately acquainted with them. They are humans. And I believe, and I hope everyone is aware, that at the end of the day, it’s individuals you’re building, whether it’s an online or offline community.

Important for me was getting to know them, understanding their motivations, listening to them, and including them in the conversation and the strategy. So, once I adjusted something, I became the enabler. I thought, “All I need to do is enable them to obtain what they desire.”

Where did your community team’s Salesforce seat reside? And, knowing what you know now, would you structure your own community team within the organization the same way?

The question I am frequently asked is, “Where does it belong?” I repeat, in a very general sense, follow the money. Get as near as possible to the money. Who will make an investment in you?

As long as [you have] an innovative leader who recognizes that it is a service function and has the financial resources to provide you with what you need to serve. This is comparable to a lengthy evolution narrative. In many instances, this is Marketing. Marketing is very wealthy. They achieve greatness. They receive a substantial sum of money. Therefore, if that is where it must reside and you can serve there, by all means.

I’ve witnessed incredibly successful Customer Success communities when the alignment focused more on best practices, adoption, and knowledge. My preference is not to include Support because it becomes extremely isolated. If I can’t have the C-suite, where [Community] resides at the topmost level, I believe Marketing and Customer Success are excellent alternatives.

I’d love to hear your perspective on the current landscape of who is and should be developing community.

I am persuaded that everyone requires it. The only question is how they require it. What does it appear to be? What is its manifestation? What is the purpose? What are they trying to find? It goes beyond B2B SaaS. In fact, I believed that when I ventured out, that would be my forte, and if I were to add one more word, it would be “enterprise.”

The most exciting thing that I’ve been able to observe is more startups—late-stage startups—taking advantage of this community strategy as part of their growth strategy, as they move toward going public, another funding round, or acquisition. And they are investing a considerable amount of money and time developing a strategy to establish an early community. I believe [they’re] using it as a differentiator, and it’s establishing the tone for companies in a wide variety of industries, ranging from travel to consumer electronics to healthcare…you name it.

Interestingly, I am not in the business of persuading individuals that they require community. Therefore, if they are coming to me, they are already there, which is wonderful because I do not wish to operate my business in this manner. I am the person to whom you should turn for community. I am the person to turn to when you want something done correctly and in the minimum time feasible.

I find that the initial portions of my conversations are focused on eliciting the why, such as, “Okay, you want it. Now, do you understand why you desire it?” Because I believe they need to realize that they either do not know the answer to this query or that what they believe they want may not be what they actually want. Consequently, for me, the game begins when I begin working with them. Let’s start zeroing in on exactly what you want. Now, does this match the needs of your customers? Does this align with the remainder of your organization’s objectives? Then, let’s begin constructing the strategy around this. Everyone, however, bypasses this phase and immediately states, “We bought this tool and hired this person.” I attempt to draw folks in by asking them why they want to do this.

When advising clients on the hiring of their own community teams, what would you say are the most important qualities to look for?

When it comes to community manager and associate community manager duties, I’m looking for candidates with a broader perspective than just community experience, as our industry is not yet at that point. You will lose out on many wonderful individuals.

Therefore, I endeavored to broaden recruiters’ perspectives by encouraging them to consider candidates with immensely intense and empathic customer-facing responsibilities, such as customer support. People who have spent a significant amount of time in such a role make excellent community administrators due to their connection to the consumer, empathic nature, and ability to listen and then take action. Creative genius. And ultimately, the word empathy surpasses everything. One can be instructed in community management. That can be taught conceptually. However, one cannot be taught empathy and concern for the customer. It must be within them. This may sound a bit nebulous, but I value this quality the most. In addition, I look for individuals who have conducted adequate research into why they want to be your community manager.

Will you describe the organization you have chosen to receive your Uncommon Support?

I adore it. And it’s simple for me because I devote all my zeal to the National MS Society. Therefore, I have supported multiple sclerosis for over a decade. A intimate acquaintance of mine has been affected by it. And we’ve been cycling for MS with a Salesforce team. Now, I ride with a large group. Every year, we raise funds for Multiple Sclerosis and then embark on a two-day, 199-mile cycle excursion.

We ride to get closer to finding a cure. MS is therefore very dear to my heart. There is no treatment available. Consequently, it is of the utmost importance and impacts my demographic as well. And it is incredible when you consider it. If you begin discussing MS now, everyone will know someone who is affected by it.

More information

You can visit my website or contact me on LinkedIn.

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