Does the work you put into community actually have an impact on your business? How do you connect the dots between what you do and the bottom line? How do you tell a compelling story that illustrates the value you provide?
We tackle all that and much more today with our special guests, Erica Kuhl and Brian Oblinger. They share their decades' worth of community expertise with us in this episode, as they do on their incredible podcast, In Before The Lock.
If you’re familiar with Salesforce’s Trailblazers, that’s Erica’s baby. She built it all from scratch and now helps companies like Slack, Zendesk, Atlassian, Google Cloud, Workday, and Github build robust community programs of all sizes and budgets.
Brian’s background is equally impressive. From online content moderator in the late ‘90s to Vice President of Community Alteryx, he has helped hundreds of companies build digital experiences for engagement, satisfaction, and retention.
This episode is absolutely jam-packed with tools and strategies for community builders and managers at any level. We discuss the value of business acumen and why starting a membership with no budget is the ideal way to do it. Erica and Brian also share tips for building strong relationships online and caution us against some of the top mistakes big brands make.
You’re not going to want to miss this one. Listen in and join us for a fun, informative, and inspiring chat!
Erica has over 20 years of Enterprise community expertise. Formerly VP Community at Salesforce she built everything from scratch from strategy and programs to metrics & ROI. She understands running community programs on any size budget and with any size team big or small. She’s also seen massive company growth from 176 to 49,000 employees, allowing her to adapt strategies and deeply understand challenges at any stage.
Erica has now ventured out on her own to help customers like Slack, Zendesk, Atlassian, Google Cloud, Workday, and Github build robust community strategies and programs with her extensive expertise, authentic approach, and trusted services.
Ever since I got online in the late 1990s, I have been fascinated with building communities and creating great digital experiences. I was fortunate to turn my passion into a career, helping hundreds of companies connect with their customers to build an engine for engagement, satisfaction, and retention.
From a Content Moderator to the Vice President of Customer Experience and Global Community, I have amassed a vast library of knowledge, experience, and wisdom through the benefit of hindsight that I’ve leveraged to help companies accelerate their initiatives.
Today, I’m thinking about the future of communities and building what’s next.
In This Episode
- How Erica shaped the incredible impact of Salesforce’s Trailblazer Community
- Sharing community expertise through the In Before The Lock podcast
- Why business acumen is vital for community managers
- How to connect the dots between community and business
- Why building a membership without a budget is ideal
- Taking advantage of opportunities within small communities
- Why money is a tool, not a strategy
- Learning from the common mistakes big communities make
- Empowering people to advocate for your membership program
- Find out more about the In Before The Lock podcast
- Follow Erica and Brian on Twitter
- A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving [Amazon affiliate link]
- The Ride of a Lifetime by Robert Iger [Amazon affiliate link]
- Connect with @TeamSPI on Twitter
The CX 062: Communicating Community Value with Erica Kuhl and Brian Oblinger of In Before The Lock
Brian Oblinger: I think the main thing that people can do is learn how to connect the dots between what you do in community and what it means for the business. How do you tell the story of, “We did X, Y, and Z over here and that equates to A, B and C over here” in terms of dollars or a percentage or whatever numbers it is that the company cares about or that your leaders care about?
How do you tie that together and actually do the math for real and prove it, and then how do you tell a story around that?
Jillian Benbow: Well, hello there and welcome to this week's episode of The Community Experience. And if it's your first time here, welcome. I am the host, Jillian Benbow, and for the next however many minutes I am talking to two wonderful guests, Erica Kuhl and Brian Oblinger. They together host another community podcast that you simply must subscribe to In Before The Lock. And we'll get into that name and a little bit more about it in the interview. Why should you listen to this episode or any of Brian and Erica's episodes? Excellent question dear listener. Brian has been in the internet game since the 90s, which is, I keep forgetting how long ago that was because I'm old.
Not to say that Brian is, but he's been in the internet space since the 90s as have I. Brian has since done just all the things, he stumbled into community like we all do, and he has had every sort of title from content moderator to vice president of customer experience, worked for very big companies, and now is really working on just what is the future of communities and what to build next. Erica also incredibly impressive. She used to be the VP of community at a little company we know as Salesforce, if you've ever heard of Trailblazers, that's Erica's. That's Erica's baby. And not to say just her, but she blazed the trail, wink, wink, if you will, at Salesforce. Kind of a big deal.
She's worked with tons of big well known names to do community strategy and consulting such as Slack, Zendesk, Atlassian, Google Cloud, and the list goes on. Lots of extensive experience in community. And so both Brian and Erica bring just a ton of experience in what we're calling enterprise community expertise. These big companies and the strategy and the growth and the hiring and the politics and all of it, that goes in with that. And it's such a valuable perspective to have, even if you are not in that situation in community, you'll learn a lot from this conversation. And also it's just kind of interesting to hear, how do people get to that? This has become a legitimate professional direction and it didn't exist that long ago. These are the real Trailblazers.
Now that that turns in my head I can't not use it, but quite genuinely, they are actual Trailblazers in this world of digital community. Enough for me, let's get into it on today's episode of The Community Experience.
Jillian Benbow: All right, welcome to this episode everyone. So excited because I have not one, but two legit community experts with me to talk all about community and especially about community as a career and working for big communities and just all the fun stuff that the three of us have all done. We all kind of do different things now I dare say. It's going to be a good one. Buckle up and welcome to the show Brian and Erica.
Brian Oblinger: Thanks for having us.
Erica Kuhl: Hello. Thanks for having us.
Jillian Benbow: Brian and Erica have their own community podcast, my rival podcast if you will. No, I'm just kidding. Totally different style show, but if you work in community, highly recommend because they talk a lot in depth about the stuff we talk about here. But I think in just a really great way, you have a whole episode on community guidelines. I recently listened to your episode about to delete our archive. And what do you do with all that old stuff that maybe doesn't need to be there, but maybe it does, is an artifact. Just curious, tell us about each of you, Brian, I'll throw it to you first, just give us a quick little brief, who are you and how'd you get into community?
Brian Oblinger: Who am I? What a question to start with.
Erica Kuhl: Who are you?
Jillian Benbow: Who are you?
Brian Oblinger: Very existential. The story goes that I fell into community at a really early age, both my age being early as well as the internet being early. And just so happened that I stumbled into communities right away, literally the first day I ever got on the internet and just worked my way up and did every job in community and just have amassed a bunch of, I would say knowledge, but it's more along the lines of what not to do, do the opposite of all the things I did for 20 years and you'll be in good shape. So worked at a bunch of companies, worked at a community vendor doing consulting these days. So just all over the place as far as community goes.
Jillian Benbow: I love that. Yes, there's a quote I wanted to say and then it went out of my brain. It was like, haha, too slow.
Erica Kuhl: I can never pull out quotes at the right time anyways.
Jillian Benbow: I was like, I have the best thing if only my brain would synapse. Come on. Erica, how about you? How did you get into community?
Erica Kuhl: Similar to how everybody gets into community, back in the old days it was totally by accident. I started at just a tiny little company called Salesforce that a lot of people know now, but back then they didn't. I started the company when it was about 175 people and I was hired to actually teach system administrators how to use Salesforce. And why that's important to the story of how I got into community is that while we were learning a piece of tech together we were also a bit on a movement and a bit on a journey to change the way people really use or don't use software. And so we just connected with each other really strongly in that class. And so after they left and after four years of watching students leave the classroom and try to forge this digital transformation and I'm doing air quotes and people can't see it, but then I was like we should create a space for people to continue talking to each other regardless of where they are in the world and whatever their job titles are or whatever.
And so I decided to cash in on that idea about four or five years into my journey at Salesforce and started my first community, which was not even a word. I think it was like a portal or something or I don't know, fancy list of. That's how it started. And after many years of blood, sweat and tears, it started working and it's still working there today. There's this little thing called Trailblazers that everybody seems to love that is our community. And so after many years of doing that, I took a step out just almost three years ago and decided that more people need Trailblazer communities and more people need to know how to connect it to business value and just reap all the amazing things that Salesforce was able to reap.
So now I get to do this for other people, which is really fun and I feel a deep responsibility to this industry to keep moving it forward. The reason I started my own business and didn't go and do this for another one company was because I just think there's so much that needs to happen still, as an industry, as a niche we're not far enough along. And so there's just not a lot of us in the world to do that. And so I feel really, really passionate about keeping that moving forward. That's why I started my company was to help as many people as possible, but also just push the industry, which is why we do the podcast, is just get all of that nonsense out of my head and out of Brian's head, and get it into other people's heads as fast as we can so we can catch up with how fast this industry is moving.
Jillian Benbow: It makes sense. And there is something special about, I've done consulting in between traditional roles as well, and oh gosh, I love it. I wish I had had time to still do it honestly, because you get to come in and just someone, it's like you, Marie Kondo someone's company. You come in and it's just a mess and you look through it and it's not stressful to you, it's fun to you. And it's like, well, have you ever thought about this really obvious thing to someone who builds community but to you is like an aha. And so you're their hero in many ways where you're like, yay, I do have a skill set. But it's also just genuinely helping people. Just love going into someone's community and trying to help them make it better. It's magic. Right?
Erica Kuhl: It is magic. When I thought about your Marie Kondo reference, it's true. But one thing I had to stay focused on is that, what I didn't realize is that literally growing up at a company that was on just a rocket ship. I learned a lot of other things along the way. And so when I started consulting for the first time after being in a big brand for 18 years, I was like, I couldn't help uncover just a billion rocks at these companies that I was now being brought into. But I'm like, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Okay, I'm here to do this thing. I need to do this thing first. And then if I get pulled into other things, that's great. But I just was quickly like a kid in a candy store looking at other people's messes or challenges and staying focused on that.
But that it is so much fun. And I think what's more fun to me lately is that now I'm in the business of building leaders as fast as I can because I don't need to do it. I've done it. I have all of the frameworks now and now I've shifted my focus on just making as many people that are trying to do this as their careers inside organizations as wildly successful as possible and staying totally in the background. Once I'm brought in, it's not of my responsibility to build my reputation, it's like all them. And so that's been my super filling my cup, is just seeing them take that, just absorb all of that and become amazing. And then knowing when I leave, because I'm not hanging out, I'm not Accenture or PWC, I'm like success and out, and that I know that they're set up for success.
Jillian Benbow: Oh yes, I love it. I love it. It's not all roses and sunshine in consulting, but-
Erica Kuhl: No. God no.
Jillian Benbow: ... there's something wonderful about it for sure.
Erica Kuhl: It's cool. Especially spending so long at a brand, it's like whiplash difference. It's crazy.
Jillian Benbow: Absolutely. So how did you and Brian connect and then start In Before The Lock?
Erica Kuhl: Well, Brian will tell you a different story, but there's many stories. But how we literally started In Before The Lock is we were having a sit down, we're having some queso and now every year we eat queso and celebrate our podcast. But he pitched me on this idea because the very reason that I said is just like how do we get all this institutional knowledge out of our brain and into other people's brains? And there's so many podcasts out there, not yours, but other podcasts that are, they're not as tactical and actionable and we wanted to do something different. We wanted to do something where we could make it actionable but still get all the information out. But we wanted to give everything away for free. We were literally take the templates, use the templates. And so Brian came up with that idea of let's just go deep on topics.
Let's not be restricted by the confines, what you hear in the podcast world of 30 minutes or less. Let's just pick a topic that's important and just go. We prepare. Well, Brian, prepares and then I just show up and blab. But we prepare and we just go on a topic till we can't go anymore. So the knowledge is out. He came up with the concept of it's the podcast that you do when you're folding your laundry or walking your dog and you can pause it, write stuff down and come back to it. It doesn't have to just be confined for a reason. And the other thing that he suggested that I love to differentiate and to just get this knowledge out and stay true to moving this industry forward, is to not necessarily have speakers come on, guests come on.
Right now we just, it's unbelievable. You brought up one where we spent an hour talking about guidelines so we can literally talk. And so we wanted to differentiate that way and then with staying true to our purpose of moving this industry forward and giving things away for free and getting knowledge out of our brains. That's how it was born. And Brian, you can say why we named it the way we named it and how we came up with the logo and stuff.
Jillian Benbow: That was my next question. I was like, was this a pandemic thing?
Erica Kuhl: It sounds like it could be but it was before that. Brian, take it away.
Brian Oblinger: Well, I wanted something that was kind of an inside joke or it's ours, it's our thing. I've always liked podcasts or really any media that has a really interesting name. I kind of want people actually to ask, what does that mean? What is that? I hope people Google it or they go to about page and they read about it. But basically In Before The Lock is a phrase that if you've been on forums back in the 90s and the early 2000s when a topic or a discussion is completely off the rails and about to be locked by a moderator, people will pop in the discussion and say In Before The Lock. And that's just their way of getting a free post essentially. That's the reference. We just wanted something that our audience owned and felt like was kind of a cool, funny call back to the forums of the old days.
Jillian Benbow: Of yesterday year. Community 1.0. It's like now the equivalent is the people who post first on social media, which I'm not, not that I'm saying social media is community, it is not, I'll die on that hill, but just you see a TikTok or whatever and someone's, there's one comment first. It's like, got it.
Erica Kuhl: Exactly.
Jillian Benbow: And now you're at 90 episodes, so congratulations. That's a feat. We just celebrated a year.
Erica Kuhl: Nice.
Jillian Benbow: So we're in the 50s and I'm like, so much work. I can only imagine 90.
Erica Kuhl: It is so much work.
Jillian Benbow: The hard truths of podcasting, and I can't complain because I have a whole team helping me. But it's worth it. It's great. I like your format. I think it's actually harder than this format of bringing people on and talking to them. I recently did a solo show, it's the hardest thing I've ever done. Anyways it was a learning experience. Something I thought I'd be really good at. It's like I just have to blab on, but by yourself.
Erica Kuhl: I don't know if I could do by myself. Brian and I have-
Jillian Benbow: You have a good rapport.
Erica Kuhl: We didn't even know each other that well honestly. But it worked. We are very different people. We don't see the blooper reel of what happened before this podcast started. I'm a shoot from the hip a lot of times. I've turned everything into strategies and formulas and methodologies now. I'm a little bit of a whirling dervish. I'm late all the time. I'm a bit of a hot mess. Brian is so organized and methodical yet hilarious but dry. Our personalities work really well together. I think we didn't know what was going to happen. We still don't know what's going on. We're still making stuff up as we go. But it's working. It's fun.
Brian Oblinger: I think we shared in the mission, which was, there was two core tenants. One is I want people to learn something from this. I want people to legitimately walk away at the end of an episode saying, wow, I picked up a couple of nuggets or I'm going to go use that template. So many podcasts are just devoid of any value or content and it's just people talking. And so I really wanted people to walk away with that. The second one is we're entertainers. Even if you don't think of yourself like that. You are asking people for their time when they could be listening to something else, watching something else, working. I take that kind of seriously that they're making that investment. And so I figure if you're going to tune in, I should probably make it fun and interesting and not-
Erica Kuhl: You do. You do.
Brian Oblinger: ... super boring.
Erica Kuhl: You definitely do.
Jillian Benbow: Well, and just the brain power, the experience that you both bring to it, it's a gem. Yeah. Because you both have lots of experience from just like you said from the beginning. Back when community was first starting. I think all of us and Brian for sure you've been in it longer than me and I feel like I've been in it forever. So something I wanted to just to talk about, you both have this enterprise level experience and what I mean by that for everyone listening, we have a lot of people who listen who are solo entrepreneurs that have communities to do with their business or they're launching a community as part of just that is what they focus on.
The three of us actually have experience in working for very big companies and working in the community space in that. I think we also have community managers who listen. I love to talk about how, I always want to support people who are doing this as a career and want to do it as a profession and the opportunities to grow, everything. But I'm curious from both of your experience, if you could give advice to a junior community manager working at say, I'm going to like a tech startup or something where it's big, it's a big enterprise community. What are your thoughts for someone like that? How can they best feel empowered? Big question.
Erica Kuhl: I think Brian knows what I'm probably going to say. I'm speaking on behalf of Brian, I don't normally do that but I know he agrees with this and whatever he's going to say I'm agreeing with too just because this is a really big deal, is focusing on business acumen. I was just talking to somebody recently and they were asking me, how did you make Salesforce care about community when it didn't matter? Every single time I go back to, since I grew up there, literally I had my babies there, I grew up there, company grew up. But I knew the business. I knew everything about the business, I knew the product side, the customer success side. I knew the customer support side and marketing and I could speak the language of business from early on. And so I didn't ever really talk about community as community because actually it wasn't a thing then.
I talked about what I was doing and how it was going to make their job better and how it was going to make them more effective and efficient at what they did and then how they were then going to give back, what do they need to do to get that? That's all I did was talk about it that way to each part of the business in the way that matters to them. Because it's not the same. One's product adoption, one is customers attrition, one is expanded use cases or expanded products, whatever. You can't not have that in this world. If we're going to step up and we're going to be legitimate in this industry and we're going to breed leaders that stick around and have communities that are woven beautifully into the DNA of companies, community managers, little, big, medium, whatever, you have to have this. I just think that that's the most important thing that I would say is if you don't know it, go get it. Go get that knowledge.
Brian Oblinger: It's good advice. I also built some hobbyist and kind of enthusiast communities back in the day before I really got into the, I guess I'll call it the corporate side of things. There's a difference, you go from doing it for love to doing it for money. It doesn't mean you can't still love it, but it means that there's a difference in what your motivation is of why you're creating this community. I don't think the fundamentals change. I think there's still 60 or 70% of what we do that's applicable to any type of community, whether you're doing it for love or for money or for both. But it's that extra 30 or 40% that makes all the difference in the world. I think that's what Erica is talking about, is it's like okay, what's changed here?
Well now you work for a company, they have goals, they have a lot of money on the line, they have employees on the line, the business has specific asks or needs that need to be met because Wall Street or the board or whoever is saying that they need to be met. And if you don't you don't work there anymore. The pressures are very real and I think that to Erica's point, the best thing you can do is learn how to speak the language of whatever environment you're in this case we're talking about business. I think the main thing that people can do is learn how to connect the dots between what you do in community and what it means for the business. How do you tell the story of we did X, Y, and Z over here and that equates to A, B and C over here in terms of dollars or a percentage or whatever numbers it is that the company cares about or that your leaders care about.
How do you tie that together and actually do the math for real and prove it, and then how do you tell a story around that? I think those are the big differences between those types of communities and the mindset you have to have. I think that's what Erica and I have just been really good at channeling both in our careers working at companies, but also as consultants, is helping other people figure out if I do a specific program in a community, what does it mean? Okay. It contributed to retention, it contributed to lead generation, it contributed to support case deflection, whatever the number is. That's what I think we espouse all the time and what other people need to really put their focus on.
Erica Kuhl: I think even if you're in a small hobbyist community or I was just talking to a guy recently who started fan communities for bands, it still applies there too. A band that's going to hire someone to run their community is going to want to know how they're spending their money too. They want to know that yeah you have all these super fans but you still have to prove that the super fans buy more swag or something, their spend is still more. We need to focus on these, if I'm saying I want to build out this program, I need to say that I'm building this super fan program and because we did the numbers and the numbers say that they buy 90% more than someone that doesn't.
Like Brian said, it totally applies to everybody, whether you are a community manager that's starting out at a fan with a band or whether you're at Salesforce, at Alteryx or something. It's super applicable. You just have to do it. We all love what we do, we love our community members. You don't forget the passion that you're doing and the people behind what you're doing, but you have to connect it to some value if you want to stick around for the long game.
Brian Oblinger: I'll also say that one begets the other. Right? I think oftentimes this gets positioned as a zero sum, you can either love your community or you can get the money for your company. I think the answer is that you can actually do both. You can play them off of each other in organic ways that don't feel icky. And it turns out that if you actually succeed in connecting the dots and telling that story and guess what happens? You get more budget, you get more head count, you get more capability as a community builder to then turn around and invest that back into let's go solve these people's problems, let's make their life better, let's make the community a better place for them to exist.
And in that way you can actually dare I say build a flywheel where the two things, I love my buzz words, where they exist together and in concert with each other. It's not an either or. And I think a lot of people miss that in this whole conversation.
Jillian Benbow: This whole idea of, the storytelling piece and connecting the dots and speaking the language is so valuable, so, so valuable, certainly for people working for a company where, and sadly community still has to prove it's worth a lot of times. I was just reading the community round table, State of Community 2022 report. One of the questions for the people who filled out the survey was where does your department sit? Where does community sit in your company? And it was fascinating to see the results. A couple, I think somewhere in IT, which is like, and maybe it's an Apple type support, I don't know. But even that I was like, huh. And you saw marketing and product of course were two very big ones. I'm very happy to report that there was a community is its own thing, we report to the C-level, which yes.
Erica Kuhl: Good for you.
Jillian Benbow: It's interesting to see but in that framework, thinking about that, it just shows how important it is working in community. Even if you're not the director of your department or anything to both of y'all's points, hone in on being able to tell that story and depending who you talk to dictates what story you're telling maybe, because it is, it's true. I think this also relates to anybody listening who is that more solopreneur creator that has community, it's the same thing. You're going to be having these conversations with your members. You're also going to be solving for what is the point of this programming? Is it retention? Is it revenue? Is it just because it sounded cool and I don't actually know and it's a ton of work and why am I doing this and maybe I should spend my time on something else. All good things to think about.
Erica Kuhl: If they're starting it themselves, they should be asking themselves that question like self, why am I doing this? What is the point of this? Because yeah, even-
Jillian Benbow: Why are you doing this?
Erica Kuhl: Why are you doing this? Yeah, it's important. Good old strategy.
Brian Oblinger: I have to say too, Jillian, the interesting thing is you sort of said community still has to prove itself. I have bad news I guess for everybody listening, which is everybody has to prove everything all the time. We may not see it. That's the reality. We may not see marketing getting destroyed in a meeting somewhere about their budget or they spent whatever on a campaign and it didn't work. Or the CEO saying, why are we spending so much money on customer success when the product sells itself? Everybody's under fire all the time at every company always. We don't always get to see it. And so I think there's sort of this, we have our blinders on a little bit sometimes and it's like, oh well only community has to fight super hard for what they want.
I'm here to tell you fortunately/unfortunately that everybody has to do this. And so whether it's community or you work anywhere else, the reality is you have to learn how to connect those dots and tell that story. What do we think that other people are doing at companies? Do you think the money's just flowing into their pocket and they don't have to ask for it?
Erica Kuhl: It just flows in.
Brian Oblinger: It's kind of one of those things we tend to believe we're the only ones but it's really everybody.
Jillian Benbow: I haven't decided if that is good news or bad news, but I agree.
Brian Oblinger: I'll let the listener decide.
Jillian Benbow: Yeah, it's up to-
Erica Kuhl: I actually think it's good news because that means you never stop pushing. You're putting enablement within the organization front all the time, constantly, constantly pushing. I think oftentimes people still think community is like an event. It's like you launch it and then you're like bye. And then everyone goes back to their day jobs, is like, no this isn't, it's not a sprint, it's not a half marathon, it's not even a marathon. It's like it's ongoing. And so that that-
Jillian Benbow: It's Forrest Gump.
Erica Kuhl: It is Forrest Gump. Exactly. So you just keep on going and you have to, but that means you have to get real comfortable with being a broken record and just saying the same things because there's always new people coming in and you're never, if you sit back and rest, this is not your job. This is not a job for you, because someone's going to take over. I think our fighter mentality is good to have just as long as you don't get grumbling about it, like, why me, poor me, no, be that fighter and go fight. Just continue to fight and continue to fight.
Jillian Benbow: It's definitely a skill set I look for when hiring in community is, are you scrappy?
Erica Kuhl: Yeah, seriously.
Jillian Benbow: I'm very fortunate, I'm hashtag blessed to work for a company where community is the priority and our department does a lot. I'm not worried about us in that sense. Not to say I shouldn't still be vocal, but regardless we have to be scrappy because that's community. Even with the fanciest of platforms and big teams, guess what, your onboarding is outdated because there was a slight software change on the platform you used, and so now we need to audit. That's just how it is all the time.
Erica Kuhl: My old boss was, when I moved over to her organization, she was like, I cannot believe you built an entire community with your Amex card. Like I would just take my Amex card to the bare minimum limit because I didn't have a budget. But I'm like, I'm not letting that stop myself. Quite honestly some of the best advice if I'm being super honest with people is, it's better to build a community with no budget because then you actually have to do it. You have to do the hard work, you have to fight literally for everything and you build truest of truest relationships. You don't skip over any steps. So if you have no budget you just have to make it work. And so I try to make people pretend like you don't have a budget. So it's a [inaudible] .
Jillian Benbow: That is the juiciest hot take. I love it. Let's dive into that a little bit. If someone's creating a community and they want to do the no budget, the mentality, what do you tell them to do? What are the practical, what does that look like? Is that you can't buy all these different tools and softwares and get really heavy on the products.
Erica Kuhl: Definitely, but for me it's more like the engagement stuff. If you think about when you just launch a community, you have to do the hard work. You have an opportunity at the beginning that you will never have again, which is to connect with those first couple members and do all the really, really super unscalable stuff. That you don't buy. There's nothing that $100,000 is going to do to build a relationship with those first few people that are doing amazing things, because they're not doing it for money. Giving the money is not even what you need to be doing. It's trying to get people out of thinking about spending a lot of money on fancy programs or huge, huge swag budgets and more just take this opportunity to actually talk to that person and ask him, that is so awesome you did that thing, why did you do that thing? And what can we do to make doing that thing easier and do it for more people? People want to skip over all that step. I dream about being back in those days of those-
Jillian Benbow: The one-on-ones.
Erica Kuhl: Yeah, exactly.
Jillian Benbow: [inaudible] chats.
Erica Kuhl: I actually had a phone, I picked up the phone that looks, you can't see me either, I'm on a podcast like a phone.
Jillian Benbow: With the cord.
Erica Kuhl: Yeah, a cord and just called people literally on the phone. And then it became the reason why everything was successful. I knew exactly why people were doing what they were doing. And then it created a strategy of why it did things. And so no money is going to buy that. You have to do the hard work and it should be exciting at that beginning stage and you shouldn't want to rush it. It's like rushing through being a kid. It's like I just want to be a teenager, and I want to be an adult. And you're like, now I'll be a kid again. That's what I tell people. That mindset of just throwing money at things is not always going to do it. You have to just be excited about those early days.
Brian Oblinger: Money is a tool, not a strategy.
Erica Kuhl: Exactly. Say so deep.
Jillian Benbow: Absolutely.
Erica Kuhl: This sums it up like that. Brian, just mic drops, whatever you're just blabbing on. Done.
Jillian Benbow: Nevermind.
Brian Oblinger: That's the episode title, right there.
Erica Kuhl: There you go. It would be great. It's great to have a tool. You have to be built on something. But even that, at the end of the day I built a gigantic community on a pretty low budget platform back in the day that didn't even exist. Hacked together, dumpster fire of a bunch of different platforms. But it still did it. Because at the end of the day it's about people wanting to connect with each other and get information, share information, be elevated, be celebrated. Bells and whistles are super nice, but that's not going to build a community for you. Definitely not.
Jillian Benbow: I just want to sit here and think about that for 20 minutes. But for everyone's sake I will not.
Erica Kuhl: It's like dead air. Dead air.
Jillian Benbow: Yes, like hold on everyone.
Erica Kuhl: Brian can sing. He's a musician. He can play some music while we, I can tap dance if you'd like.
Jillian Benbow: Excellent.
Erica Kuhl: Click, click, cluck.
Jillian Benbow: We could have a whole band. I can grab a tambourine or something. That's amazing. And when you think about Salesforce in particular, I think anybody in community knows about Trailblazers and knows that it's a very kind of one of those North star type communities. And to hear that it was built in that way, that's huge for anybody, especially if anybody listening who's feeling discouraged because it's like, if I just had this one shiny thing or whatever. It really is. Community always comes down to people and it can be those old fashioned things called telephones or even shoot a postcard. That's something I'm exploring because it's like it's so special anymore to get something in the mail that isn't junk mail.
Erica Kuhl: Hand written.
Jillian Benbow: I love sending people cards in the mail. I don't even know how much a stamp costs anymore, but point being it's not scalable, but it's still delightful. And so if I can do it or when I can, I actually have one right here for a member just to prove it.
Erica Kuhl: That's nice. There you go. I love the written word. I lose my mind when I hear people are like, it's Trailblazers. Trailblazers created the community, the word, the identity is like, no, no it didn't.
Jillian Benbow: It's like it's me actually.
Erica Kuhl: Well it's not even that so much. It's just actual hard work and listening and building and it quite honestly has nothing to do with, wait, everyone's going to go crazy. Actually has nothing to do with the word Trailblazer. Nothing. Nothing. Yes, it's a cool identity and it did-
Jillian Benbow: It does work. Doesn't it?
Erica Kuhl: It did pull people together as a unit. They're like put on their hoodie with the word Trailblazer and does make you feel like you're part of a bigger thing. But it's the community behind it. I have a joke all the time with Holly Firestone that when we were renaming the community back in the day and there was like, okay, if I'm with Trailblazers, that makes sense. But it could be called the poop community, because it doesn't matter to the people. What matters is that they have a place to connect all the time and engage.
Jillian Benbow: Totally.
Erica Kuhl: So yeah, call it Trailblazers. That is great. But that does not make the Trailblazer community what it is today. It's the insane programs and connection and mentorship and growth and all those things. And that started, just like I said, it started from the very beginning doing all those really wildly unscalable things on an Amex card, like buying Pliny the Elder for a member that loved that beer and he's amazing and can't get it in Boston and illegally shipping beer to Boston. That's the kind of stuff that people remember and it creates the flywheel Brian, it creates the flywheel, engagement.
Jillian Benbow: Speaking of the flywheel, Brian, you've worked for some very big companies that people would know the names of at PlayStation, Sephora, I'm sure you hate that. I love calling it that, ironically. Guitar Center, all these big, big companies. I can only imagine when looking at strategy, community strategy and is probably involved with brand strategy, almost a band strategy. Going through that experience, what takeaways do you have as far as mistakes maybe that big brands default to or just findings? Is there anything you can share with the audience about just that experience and dealing with community strategy on that level, next level scale?
Brian Oblinger: Three things come to mind I guess, right off the top. One is companies go into this thinking about themselves. What value are we going to get out of this? What ROI are we getting? What value are we getting? And they might not think as much about the customer experience or the member experience or what problems we're trying to solve for members. And that's I think the angle that Erica and I both come at when we do strategy with companies, is we say, let's forget about us for a minute, let's figure out how do we actually solve problems for these people and that's how we're going to build a successful community. I think that's number one. I think number two is not hiring the right people. Sometimes there's this idea that, hey, someone in marketing just run this thing or whatever. And that's not a slight at all on that. Someone in marketing, they're smart people, but they have their own day job.
And so we really try to encourage companies, go hire someone who's done this and has experience and can get you much further down the road than you would otherwise, is a big one. I think we pretty much almost mandate that now. It's like there's certain exceptions or certain situations, but for the most part it's like, listen, I'm going to walk away at some point as a consultant. I'm going to go away six months from now or a year from now. What happens next? You want to have someone that's there 40 hours a week or more inside your company that lives and breathes this thing and is the face of it. So that's number two. I think number three we've talked a little bit about, which is viewing it as a cost center. Getting so fixated on, oh it's going to cost us $80,000 for a platform and $100,000 for a community professional and this, that and the other thing.
And what I've always been telling people is when you do the things we were talking about earlier in terms of connecting those dots and telling that story and saying, hey, did you know we saved the company a million dollars last year or whatever? Then it just becomes a very different conversation. Instead of it being, look at all the money you're spending and everything it's costing us and we have to figure all that out. It actually kind of flips on its side and becomes, so I gave you $200,000 and you turned it into two million. What would happen if I gave you another $100,000, could you turn it into four million? You just have different conversations inside companies at that point. That takes some doing, but it also takes proof. It takes hard work. You have to show that before you get to that place.
So it comes back to what Erica was saying before about business acumen and doing the work, is that you have to prove it. But I'd say those are generally the three things I see that lead to hard times and or failure of community strategies.
Erica Kuhl: And Jillian, we have a little thing that every time we say the word strategy, everybody has to do a shot.
Jillian Benbow: Cool.
Erica Kuhl: Because we say that word a lot.
Jillian Benbow: Be right back.
Erica Kuhl: Exactly. Bye.
Jillian Benbow: Going to start slurring quickly. It's like I already took shots. I feel like this is the theme of the day, not the shots of course, but the speaking the language, it really does come to that. I just have so many personal experiences with a community doing so well that then the higher ups, if you will question, well we don't need to fund this. Look how good it's doing, with just no idea what's going into it. The full-time hours of curation and relationship building that makes it special. Unfortunately sometimes when that happens those communities just are ruined by their own success because the company pivots. I'm just reliving my past here.
Erica Kuhl: I totally, I hear you on that honestly, because I think I'm getting a unique perspective of that where I'm no longer at Salesforce, did that, but now I'm getting pulled in by so many ex Salesforcians that are now at other companies doing awesome things. They land these really killer jobs, but they're at a company that doesn't have the Trailblazer community and they're like, whoa. Oh my God, I didn't know how hard it is to do my job without it. Because they never had to do their job without it. And so it is so wild to me how all of a sudden, and I don't need this, I'm not saying I need the validation, but whoa, is it validating to just hear this? Wow, I don't think I appreciated you when you were there. I don't think I really knew how hard it was. I don't think I really knew how much I relied on it until I was at X, Y, Z new company that doesn't have it. And then I'm lucky that I get to go and do that sometimes with them now.
I wish that it doesn't have to get there. I don't want it to get there with companies. But we're there still, just like we were saying at the beginning of this, we're always going to have to work and as soon as we stop doing this, we'll have to start doing something new. And we just have to be prepared for that. I was just talking to someone else. Brian and I were just at a community conference, so there's lots of conversations like this stuff coming up. So that's why I keep saying I was just talking about this. But I was talking to somebody about how the conversations I feel have shifted Doesn't mean we've achieved like nirvana, but it's a lot less, this is why you need community. And now it's like, whoa, whoa. Think about what you're doing first. Do you really need community and how you want it? What are the business goals?
It's no longer a conversation of yes, you need it, but it's like here's how to do it right. Here's how to make it aligned to what you need. It's slightly different conversations happening. A lot of people still have to prove it. I get it. But I think we're starting to see things, different kinds of conversations happening.
Jillian Benbow: Which is so awesome.
Erica Kuhl: Yeah. It's cool.
Brian Oblinger: I think it's why you have to start communicating and never stop communicating. I often tell people if someone's asking, it's too late, for the value story of why are we doing this again? Or what's going on here? If they're asking, then.
Erica Kuhl: You've lost.
Brian Oblinger: ... you've somehow missed it somewhere. You have to figure out what that story you're telling is and tell it and tell it and tell it and tell it. And then when they're sick of hearing it, you tell it again. That's what you need to do, so that question can't plausibly come up. I'm not saying someone won't ask, but it'll just be like, hey, listen, I don't shut up about this. I send out a weekly report. I'm at every company meeting. I have a slot, we talk about this, my door's always open. You just run people out of excuses to not know internally about what the community is and why it matters and what value it's bringing. And so if they're asking, that probably means either they have willfully ignored it or you just haven't done as good a job as you think of communicating it.
Erica Kuhl: The dream. I remember you saying this once, Brian too. And I remember when it happened for me, when somebody had a slide in their slide deck for their all hands and it had community in it and you were like, oh my god, it's happening. That's the dream. You have to have a bunch of advocates that are doing it for you. The cliche of things happen in rooms you're not there. So they're talking about this community in the value. You can't be in every one of those rooms. You have to have those people that recognize that value and can not only recognize it, but actually spew it. So giving them the actual words is stuff that Brian and I have done in our careers. Like say these things, write these things. When someone says this, say this. Literally spoonfeeding people so that they can feel comfortable. Because often they just don't feel comfortable. They don't know. And people, they just want to know what's in bounds, what's out of bounds. This is new territory, still very new territory for people.
Jillian Benbow: I think that's the perfect mic drop as much as I want to just dive further, but just in the interest of time, we could just go forever.
Erica Kuhl: Yes, as you know we really can.
Jillian Benbow: Talk about community, don't tell me not to have a good time. Okay. We're going to do a double rapid fire, which I'm just going in the order I see. Erica, you'll start, you'll have the first answer. Brian, you'll have the second. So just boom, boom. So basically I'm just going to ask a question and then one word, one sentence responses, hence rapid fire. I will not ask follow up questions even though I want to, because I'm nosy. Let's do it. Erica, difficult questions. What did you want to be when you grew up, when you were a child?
Erica Kuhl: A veterinarian.
Jillian Benbow: Same. What about you, Brian?
Brian Oblinger: Astronaut.
Jillian Benbow: Hey. All right. Erica, how do you define community?
Erica Kuhl: Connection.
Jillian Benbow: Brian?
Brian Oblinger: A group of people all coalesced around something or someone.
Jillian Benbow: Okay. You may or may not have an actual bucket list, but think like life goals if you don't. Erica, what's something on your bucket list that you have done?
Erica Kuhl: You just switched it up. I have a bucket list.
Jillian Benbow: Perfect.
Erica Kuhl: That I have done. I have helicopter skied, heli-skied.
Jillian Benbow: Come on. I'm going to send you an email.
Erica Kuhl: Okay. That's a new one that I checked off on the bucket list.
Jillian Benbow: Good for you. That's amazing.
Brian Oblinger: Probably the best one I accomplished was tricking Erica Kuhl into being my friend.
Erica Kuhl: It's better than my answer.
Jillian Benbow: I feel like that's a cheat, but for time I'll allow it. Okay. And then the flip question, what's something on your bucket list that you haven't done yet?
Erica Kuhl: Hiking Kilimanjaro.
Brian Oblinger: I want to go to Antarctica.
Jillian Benbow: I dig all of these. Erica, what's a book you wish everyone would read or a book you just read that you love?
Erica Kuhl: A Prayer for Owen Meany.
Jillian Benbow: Brian.
Brian Oblinger: I recently, a few years ago read the biography of, what's his name? This the former CEO of Disney, Bob Iger. I think I just thought it was a great book.
Jillian Benbow: All right. The audience doesn't know this. We know this. We all live in Colorado, so we live in great places. But Erica, if you could live anywhere else in the world, where would you live?
Erica Kuhl: I chose to live here, so that's a tough one. This is so hard. Punta Mita.
Brian Oblinger: I think I'm going to have to go with Kauai.
Jillian Benbow: That's a good one. Which part of the island?
Brian Oblinger: Any particular part. Whatever they'll let me do.
Jillian Benbow: The Napali Coast.
Brian Oblinger: I'll just sleep on the beach. It'll be fine.
Jillian Benbow: Okay. Final question, Erica, how do you want to be remembered?
Erica Kuhl: These are so hard Jillian.
Jillian Benbow: The hardest one.
Erica Kuhl: I suppose I just want people to think that I was a gracious person, that I lived my life with gratitude first.
Brian Oblinger: I think the same thing. I just hope that people got some value, some way, some form from me in my life, personally, professionally, otherwise, whatever it is. I think the best thing you can do is have an impact on someone's life. That's what I hope, someday, someone remembers me for that.
Jillian Benbow: Well, I mean, I think that's one of the best answers.
Erica Kuhl: Done. Check.
Jillian Benbow: Check, check. Done. All right, so I'm going to just rapid fire off some links and you tell me if there are any more that we need. So to find Erica, it's ericakuhl.com. That is E-R-I-C-A K-U-H-L. And then the podcast is
Erica Kuhl: ib4tl.
Jillian Benbow: ib4tl.com. So the letters, the number four. In Before The Lock. And then Twitter, you're at Erica Kuhl. Just your name.
Erica Kuhl: Everything you can find me with Erica Kuhl. As long as you remember. My name is with a C and my last name is a K. Not the other way around.
Jillian Benbow: I love it. I love it. So cool by Erica Kuhl. And then Brian, I have you at brianoblinger.com. That's B-R-I-A-N O-B-L-I-N-G-E-R. And then same with Twitter. Your name at Brian Oblinger. Any other links y'all want to share with the audience? Where can they find you?
Erica Kuhl: No, LinkedIn's the same way. All the things. All the things.
Jillian Benbow: Well everybody listening, go subscribe to the podcast. You will love it as much as I do. It's just hot community goss all day long. Brian, Erica, thank you so much for being here. This was so fun. I love talking to other community people.
Brian Oblinger: Thanks for having us.
Erica Kuhl: Yeah, it was fun.
Jillian Benbow: Thanks for sticking around. Wow. Wow, wow. I don't know about you, but are you thinking about, do I speak the language and do I connect the dots for other people effectively? Because I am. I've been in this space, I've been in the enterprise space, if you will. I can see in my past where that would've been helpful. I can think of a very specific meeting that I did not speak the language and I wish I could time travel back and do it, but oh well, life goes on. So yeah, whether your community is a free, small niche community that you run as a passion project, or maybe you are a paid community manager at a corporation or company and you're listening. Hi, I see you by the way. Thanks for listening. I think there's a lot to take away from this. And having business acumen is a big takeaway. Whether or not you're thinking about community in that sense.
I think too, even if you aren't having to talk to a product team and the next day a finance team and the next day a vice president or whatever in a company, having that skill set will serve you even if you're talking to potential members, potential affiliates, all of that. Being able to tell the story and sell, for lack of a better term, but really sell the value of whether it's joining your community or participating after you've joined or some sort of partnership. It's a highly valuable skill regardless of the details of your community and you know how people will often talk about, what's your elevator pitch? I think it's really valuable to have that for community.
And talking to Brian and Erica, I think increasingly it's valuable to have that, maybe having a tweaked slightly different elevator pitch depending who you're talking to. Is it the potential member versus the potential affiliate or partner? I think it's something to add to my list, to make sure that I have that polished. Because I know as time changes and community changes, it's also something like, is this even relevant anymore? Because as I'm thinking about it, my go-to for our communities is very much about our Pro community, but in reality we have four different options. It's not just pro, we've expanded. We've expanded the options of membership at our company. And so I should be leaning into that, right? Homework. Excellent, excellent. I have homework. So excited.
The other big thing I think is super interesting about this, what Erica was talking about with build it without a budget, putting the minimums on the credit card that she was talking about. So instead of, and we all do this, right? And I do this, as she was saying, I was like, whatever, Just kidding. But we're looking in at investing in a new tool that will help just with the live event engagement. Because we all have Zoom fatigue and it's one of those things where will this really help with engagement or is this just shiny and new? So really focusing on the programming that works without that budget, it's huge. Really looking at what do people actually want. It always comes back to that, what do you actually want? When you join this community, why did you join and what are you expecting? And does that align with what we provide or what we're trying to provide? So all good things to think about.
I also think the point about companies specifically go into community thinking about themselves. And let's face it's usually has something to do with revenue. So whether it's increased customer satisfaction for return purchases or create a more loyal customer base for just purchasing more in general. Sephora, a company Brian has worked with is a great example. If you are familiar with how Sephora's community works, there's perks and things along the way. The more you purchase. But also if you're spending a lot of time in that community, nine out of 10 times, if you're creating a lot of content and reviews and helping people, you're spending a lot of money at Sephora. So companies are thinking about that piece. How do we get our already loyal customers to be even more loyal or whatever the metric is they're looking to do.
Our job, whether again, we're a community manager at Sephora, hello, sounds fun. Or we just have our own community. We even need to think it's not about what we want, it's what the members want. So shifting our own framework and thinking about that member, that customer, and how are we solving their problems? And then the piece that we're coming in for, probably revenue or list, growth, notoriety, whatever it is that's secondary. So yes, I could go on and on. I think I'll just end on the point. I just really love the point, it's the irony. It's the catch 22. The thanklessness of community sometimes is that when Erica was talking about colleagues, when she was at Salesforce, colleagues would leave, go to a different company and it was only then that they realized the big hole that Trailblazers filled at Salesforce and they didn't recognize it at the time because it was so baked in to the whole experience.
And it wasn't until they went to a new place that didn't have that they could feel the difference. And yeah, yes, it's super bittersweet. It's left me thinking, how do we prevent that? How do we make sure people see it while they're there and while it's a part of their lives? I don't know the answer to that. If you do, I'd love to hear. At me, come at me on Twitter at Jillian Benbow if you have thoughts on that. But I think that's a really good place to end here and just a good thing to think about when you're thinking, when you got time to think about things like that. That's it for me. Otherwise I will see you next Tuesday.
All right, you can find Erica at her website, ericakuhl.com. Sounds like cool. Spelt like K-U-H-L, In Before The Lock. The website is ib4tl.fm and on Twitter at Erica Kuhl. And Brian, very similar. You can find Brian on his website, brianoblinger.com, and of course In Before The Lock and at Brian Oblinger on the tweets. That's Brian, B-R-I-A-N O-B-L-I-N-G-E-R.
Your lead host for The Community Experience is me, Jillian Benbow. Our executive producer is Matt Gartland. Our senior producer is David Grabowski, and our editor is Paul Grigoras. Sound editing by Duncan Brown. Theme music by David Grabowski. See you next Tuesday.