Today we are joined by Charles Thiede, Co-founder and CEO of Zapnito, a SaaS online community platform that powers expert communities for ambitious B2B brands. In our interview, we will be talking about the value of building on your own land, how to drive community engagement and what the future looks like for those brands that move the fastest and capitalise on the opportunities offered by platforms like Zapnito.
Charles, thank you so much for joining us.
Dan: It’s a very interesting, distinct proposition, Zapnito, it would be really interesting to hear you talk through how that came about and what it is that you’re seeking to achieve.
Charles: Sure. Thanks, Dan, great to be here. So, Zapnito is an expert-driven community SaaS platform. We typically work with B2B organisations, NGOs, intelligence-driven organizations and create their own communities. Not necessarily just 1 community per organisation but potentially several. And Zapnito was created really in response to a few things but 1 was around the noise on the internet coming out of social media and the four hundred million bloggers that were purporting expertise, and we were working within trusted providers of content and trusted brands and we felt that those brands really needed a set of tools to provide their expertise through a community platform.
So we’re very much focused on expert-driven knowledge-sharing community hubs for our clients.
Dan: It’s a very interesting, distinct proposition, Zapnito, it would be really interesting to hear you talk through how that came about and what it is that you’re seeking to achieve.
I think you’re actually gonna see email marketing go from strength to strength I think right now, cost per sale or cost per meeting – however, you want to measure the kind of contribution to marketing funnel from a particular channel – email has consistently reduced, to I think, right now it’s at its most effective point. Generally, it’s the lowest cost per whatever your metric is compared to any of the other channels in play, and that’s only coming down.
Email marketing is just going from strength to strength. Certainly, over the next decade you’re going to see more of it and it’s just going to continue to improve itself.
Dan: So, Charles I for 1 definitely subscribe to the value of creating your own asset, actually building something that you yourself own as a business rather than always developing on someone else’s land, be it Linkedin or any other form of social.
But perhaps you could share some of the other benefits to a brand of developing this sort of home, this hub for its own community?
Charles: Yeah, and I really see LinkedIn, YouTube you know Twitter et cetera as channels to that home. So it’s not necessarily about moving away from those channels, it’s really about having that, what I would say is almost a hub, a landing place into your products and services. So a lot of times what’s happening now is a lot of fragmentation playing in those social media channels, playing you know in the world of white papers and voice of the customer and case studies and support communities. And the value is not creating something completely new, it’s actually pulling those assets into 1 place, into 1 hub where your experts, your customers, your thought leaders, your internal experts as well, can really share knowledge and be engaged.
So the biggest benefit to doing this is that you own the data. You know it’s private. It’s within your own domain you own the strategy and then from there typically our clients are driving direct revenue or indirect revenue based on that engagement. So you’re going from kind of a push model trying to play in those social media channels and manage your community to really a push and pull peer-to-peer engagement. So the attribution within those communities, particularly in marketing, but also you know after the sale, is much higher because you have that ongoing engagement with the brand and the knowledge that’s coming out of those communities.
Dan: That’s awesome and what are some of the biggest challenges? Because presumably, it’s not always easy to get people to migrate away from platforms that they’re familiar with to something that perhaps they’re not? Presumably, this requires quite a big commitment, this requires quite a bit of patience and really kind of believing in what it is that that the brand is trying to achieve?
Charles: Yeah, I mean again it’s not necessarily about migrating those people because they’re going to go on to LinkedIn, I still use LinkedIn every day, it’s about having that home as you called it, Dan. It’s a place between the social media channels, the events and the products and services. So the old model, particularly in content marketing, if we’re talking about marketing, was around yeah having white papers and blogs and all this sort of push model. So, what we’re offering organisations that do have an appetite to move into this framework is not just a place where they can have a community but also a hub where they can consolidate a lot of that fragmented stuff. The fragmented communications emails, newsletters, blogs into 1 specific place where their customers want to engage with the product and service that they’re already engaged with but in and in a fragmented way.
So It’s not necessarily something that’s a big ask for a brand to do if they’re thinking about consolidation. So in some respects, we create more efficiencies in the communication channel by having that 1 hub as opposed to multiple you know channels and ways to engage with the customers.
Dan: That’s awesome and it makes a lot of sense to me because for years I’ve banged on about the importance of developing some sort of asset and then when people ask what do I mean, can I give an example of a channel, I say: “Well you know your email database”. And then I kind of run out of examples after that. Whereas this is a much more comprehensive way of really kind of building that asset.
Charles: Correct and I don’t want to downplay your question around commitment and the resource required. It is strategic. It’s a strategic thing to be developing. The ROI is obviously in the things I talked about in terms of attribution and engagement with customers, consolidation. But it does take some effort and it does require that commitment of resources and leadership to make it work.
It’s 1 of those things where you get back what you put into it, you know 4 – 10 times in terms of ROI, and you can actually directly attribute the ROI to what you’ve done with the community. So that’s kind of the power of it.
Dan: And in terms of timeframes, so we had Joe Pulizzi on a couple of months ago and he found that the average time to monetisation was eighteen months and he said the fastest he’d ever seen was nine months and of course the trouble is that in B2B where everything’s so sales orientated and typically the sales function is kind of driving the marketing function, that is that can be a difficult sell internally so is that a challenge that you come up against?
Ryan: It’s a good question. I think there are 2 sides to this, 1 side is the retention and the net retention growth from the existing customers, right? So bringing them into a community from day 1 You know that you can actually start to potentially monetise that quite quickly because yeah you see the stickiness, potentially the upsell, education on new products and services with a captive audience which are the customers that are hopefully, you know, using your products and loving your services.
And so we start with that and then the second piece is around the generation you know and the attribution. So we have clients that monetise the communities directly as a revenue stream and they can hit ROI sooner than 9 months in terms of actual revenue delivered, 6 months and sometimes 3 months. And if it’s more of an indirect model, it does take time. And again, the monetisation piece is about the quality of leads. For example, we use our community for customers but also potential leads. So if I know we’re talking to a very important prospect, I can see them potentially following me being added to the community, having conversations in the community. I can see in real-time what they’re doing so it just gives me much higher credibility in any kind of conversation I’m having around the touchpoints we’re having in the community as opposed to just downloading a white paper and then reading it and hopefully coming back.
Dan: Yeah, that makes sense. I wonder if there is a particular type of business that this works best for? Or to put it another way, if you were to look at the 2 or 3 brands that have used the Zapnito platform most effectively, what are some of the common traits that they may share?
Charles: I think there’s kind of the internal side of it and the external side. The external side is that their products and services have some intellectual overhead, right? So they’re complicated products or services that they’re delivering. And that requires thought leadership, advocacy, it requires learning and knowledge. So that’s where we see it work where content meets community. It’s not about just having a forum or chit chat with your core community, it’s about delivering knowledge around that complicated product that you’re delivering.
So where we see, at least with our alignment, is any organisation that has intelligence or expertise at the core of what they do. It could be professional services or it could be a complicated SaaS platform publisher, anywhere where knowledge is really important to what they deliver. That’s where we really see the alignment to what we do because knowledge is half the battle in terms of the communities. So I’ll give you 2 examples. 1 is the Marketing Academy which is a small, niche player providing an academy mentorship around the world for how to become the best marketer. They started out with small events and small cohorts, but now leveraging the community to go into a global model for what they’re delivering. And the second is 1 of our earlier clients which is springer nature and they have about thirty communities with us where their customer is the expert and the author. So they’re 1 of the top, if not the top, research journal and their biggest assets are their experts, their authors that work with them to publish research into the scientific community.
So the 2 things that they have in common is 1 you have experts at the core and the second is that it is strategic to what they do. So the community is actually a very strategic initiative for them. So if it’s not strategic and it’s just kind of a side thing then you know don’t do it. It has to be strategic and you have to have the resources.
Dan: Yeah, for sure. So correct me if I’m wrong. But I think it’s a general truth when it comes to community development, more often than not it comes down, principally, to regular and proactive engagement in terms of actually creating that stickiness. I wonder, in terms of how to structure the team that’s responsible for managing this community, is it best to place ownership of that in 1 person’s hand for the sake of clarity and accountability? Or is it always more of a team effort?
Charles: Yeah, I mean so the way we’ve kind of designed the platform is that you can start with content. So there’s a lot of content that most brands have, hopefully, it’s great content. So you can start with that and build your community in parallel.
So that’s just 1 thing I wanted to call out. But I think where we’ve seen the most success is that there is a community manager and it’s a growing role. You do have a community manager acting as the coordinator and then you have different roles involved, so marketing is going to have a big role, the product certainly is going to have a role, revenue, you know the sales team and then the editors, the content people as well.
So sometimes the initiative comes straight out of marketing and other times it comes straight out of product but as long as you have that community manager at least designated – doesn’t necessarily have to be a full-time role – that’s super important. Without that, you don’t have that coordination.
Dan: Yeah, and is there a particular north star that a community manager would look at because presumably there are a lot of metrics that they could refer to the development of the community?
Charles: Yeah, so we work with our clients with a KPI model and targets. It’s based on the purpose of the community because these are typically B2B communities that we work with. Quality over quantity is important. So having the right people, particularly your contributors. Expert contribution is really important. So that contribution is 1 north star. Get your thought leaders, your advocates to contribute to the community. The second is that engagement.
Engagement is something that needs an evolution of definition. So engagement can be somebody going through a course but not participating in any conversations. Engagement shouldn’t be looked at as what you do on Facebook, engagement can be going through a learning process.
So engagement’s a second and the third is stickiness. So how many times they’re coming back in a month and engaging and obviously the higher quality community members that you have, and the higher the stickiness, those 2 come together. So if you have a low-quality member base engaging, that’s okay. But you want to bring up the higher quality and that really is defined by the organisation.
Dan: Sure, and just finally then, whilst I know you’ve been immersed in it for several years, it actually feels like this is the beginning of something and I just wonder what this possibly looks like in 5 to 10 years from now? Is there a particular destination that you think this is heading towards and to what degree should progressive forward-thinking B2B brands be placing this front and centre of their marketing strategies?
Charles: Yeah, it’s such a good question. I’m not saying social media has had its day, but I do think that social media is evolving more and more into entertainment. And it’s becoming noisy. And you know LinkedIn was obviously a great tool at the beginning – and still is a great tool – but I think this ownership that you talked about of the domain, the community, is the future.
And I would say 10 years is pretty far out, but in 5 years I would say community marketing and owned branded communities will be ubiquitous. I think the new generation of community marketing, which is what we believe we will be part of, will be exactly where content marketing was 10 years ago to today, if that makes sense, in terms of growth, in terms of ubiquity. So it’s almost an evolution of content marketing but beyond that, because product and revenue play such a big role in that as well, 10 years on, I would say probably just more integrated physical and online experiences. And what that looks like is not known but definitely much more integrated experiences between the online world and also the offline community and what that looks like is something we need to spend some time together to talk about.
Dan: It’s really interesting you say that because I was actually just going to ask that question.
It occurred to me as you started your answer, 1 of the most interesting developments in B2B marketing at the moment is so many offline channels have gone through a bit of a renaissance in recent years, and I think it’s an area that fascinates me, because obviously everything is now digital-first but precisely for that reason the offline then becomes the periphery and very often, the most interesting things happen on the periphery because there’s less noise and it’s easier to make an impact with people.
Most people recognise that there’s a limitation to what you can achieve digitally but equally, you know digitally is how we now principally exist. So I just wonder how you see Zapnito, or perhaps other platforms like it, the role that they may serve in bringing together those online and offline experiences?
Charles: Yeah, I mean so we typically sit alongside events and events play a huge role in the communities already. We’re not what we call event tech, right? For us, that doesn’t always work and if it does work, it would be more of a hybrid model. I think events coming back into B2B are going to be much more powerful because people are going to be very selective about what events they go to. And they’re really going to want to see the impact and alongside that.
You can have a community where you’ve done maybe a thought leadership piece or we’ve had a conversation in the community. We show up at the event. We have context. So I haven’t met you for the first time. I’ve actually met you in the community. And then I can chat with you afterwards about what’s happened at the event. So events play a massive role in the community now. That’s where we’ve seen a lot of success in the communities, where events have a cameo role or they’re core to what is happening in the community.
So I definitely think there will be a much more powerful need to have those 2 joined up. It’s very hard to scale events in terms of, you know, you have 2 days, 3 days high touch and then everybody goes back and does their work. With a community sitting alongside that ,you can maintain that moment 365 days around the event or beyond the event.
Dan: Final question, I promise. I’ve got this bit of a theory and it seems to me that since the pandemic hit, a lot of business people, particularly senior business people, have a determination to become involved and contribute to – whether it’s via LinkedIn or other platforms – that perhaps they didn’t in the past. It seems to me now across every channel everyone is sort of coming to the conclusion that you know this is just part of my job. This is just something I’ve got to make work. I’ve got to find my voice. Is that something that you’ve seen at all within your communities?
Charles: Yeah, we’ve definitely seen that taking shape. But that being said, you know, I’m part of a couple of SaaS communities and I go there to learn, so I think learning is a big part of that engagement. So let’s say it’s a CEO that has very little time in their day if they go in and they take a course and they learn. But it’s going to be a subset because I think some people, that’s not their style, right? So they still want a face to face and they’re not chatty but they will learn. They will learn from each other. They will network. And if they’re doing it in a peer group that they have affiliation with, they’re gonna be actually more likely to have that engagement than on LinkedIn.
So I think absolutely we’re seeing that but I don’t think behaviours will change that much because of it. I just think the way they engage online will definitely go up. But it shouldn’t necessarily translate from what they do on Facebook to how they engage with a B2B community, I just don’t think we should expect the same level of chitchat.
Dan: Sure and presumably in a way it sort of helps on the Zapnito platform that you’re not necessarily going to be bombarded with 507 new messages every time you open your profile, right? and presumably with that sort of integrity of the content that’s on there, people have a more straightforward intent and that must help these individuals who are constantly being bombarded from every channel to let their guard down a little bit?
Charles: Yeah, trust is a big part of it. And then seeing their peers there. As you said, people get turned off by all that noise. So if you go to a niche community where you know there’s 50 of your peers there or 500, you will have a higher propensity to engage. But if all of a sudden it’s just getting noisy, you’re gonna potentially bail and not even come back. But if you can get some learning and networking that has a high value, then yeah you’re going to keep coming back for sure.
Dan: That’s awesome. Thank you so much, Charles. I really appreciate your time.