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Marketer of the Month Podcast- Understanding Community Led vs Product Led Growth with HubSpot’s SVP of Marketing 
21/06/2022 Tanya Kapoor
23 min read

Hey there! Welcome to the Marketer Of The Month blog! 

Understanding Community Led vs Product Led Growth with HubSpot's SVP of Marketing

We recently interviewed Kieran Flanagan for our monthly podcast – ‘Marketer of the Month’! We had some amazing insightful conversations with Katelyn and here’s what we discussed about – 

1. Current industry-changing trends that are attracting major VC investments

2. The future of media companies

3. The 3 types of community-led growth and what most people get wrong about it

4. Why a product-led funnel is easier to build than a community-led go to market 

5. Depth vs breadth – how to drive real, meaningful growth

6. Why hiring A+ talent does not always imply creating an A+ culture

About our host: 

Dr. Saksham Sharda is the Chief Information Officer at Outgrow.co He specializes in data collection, analysis, filtering, and transfer by the means of widgets and applets. Interactive, cultural, and trending widgets designed by him have been featured on TrendHunter, Alibaba,  ProductHunt, New York Marketing Association, FactoryBerlin, Digimarcon Silicon Valley, and at The European Affiliate Summit.  

About our guest:

From working for large brands in both B2C and B2B to scaling one of the largest customer acquisition engines in B2B, Kieran Flanagan is a Senior Vice President of Marketing at Hubspot, holding a proven track record of assisting SaaS businesses of all sizes. With heavy experience in inbound marketing, he is also a growth marketing thought leader and speaks at events across the globe on the topic. Tune in to learn everything there is to know about driving engagement, community and product-led growth, and his transition from a software engineer to a Serial Marketer.

Understanding Community Led vs Product Led Growth with HubSpot’s SVP of Marketing 

The Intro!

Saksham Sharda:

Hi, everyone. Welcome to another episode of Outgrow’s Marketer of the Month. I’m your host, Dr. Saksham Sharda. I’m the Creative Director at outgrow.co. And for this month, we are going to interview Kieran Flanagan, who is the SVP of marketing at HubSpot. Thanks for joining us, Kieran.

Kieran Flanagan:

Yeah. Great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Don’t have time to read? No problem, just watch the Podcast! 

Or you can just listen to it on Spotify

The Rapid Fire Round!

The rapid fire round

Saksham Sharda:

So Kieran, we are going to start with a rapid-fire round just to break the ice. You get three passes in case you don’t want to answer the question. You can just say pass, but try to keep your answer to one word or one sentence only. Okay?

Kieran Flanagan:

Okay.

Saksham Sharda:

All right. So the first one godfather or star wars?

Kieran Flanagan:

Star Wars.

Saksham Sharda:

How many hours of sleep do you need to function?

Kieran Flanagan:

Five.

Saksham Sharda:

What’s your favorite carb bread, pasta, rice, or potatoes?

Kieran Flanagan:

Pasta.

Saksham Sharda:

Most embarrassing moment of your life.

Kieran Flanagan:

The past.

Saksham Sharda:

What does the acronym Cuba stand for in scuba?

Kieran Flanagan:

No idea. Pass.

Saksham Sharda:

What’s your ideal outside temperature?

Kieran Flanagan:

Oh, wow. I don’t know. Cold.

Saksham Sharda:

All right.

Saksham Sharda:

Favorite type of muffin.

Kieran Flanagan:

Blueberry.

Saksham Sharda:

The first movie that comes to your mind when I say the word ambition

Kieran Flanagan:

The Wolf of Wall Street, Money Never Dies.

Saksham Sharda:

The city in which the best kiss of your life happened.

Kieran Flanagan:

Pass.

Saksham Sharda:

A habit of yours that you hate.

Kieran Flanagan:

Anxiety

Saksham Sharda:

And the last question is about your favorite Netflix show.

Kieran Flanagan:

Ozark.

Saksham Sharda:

Okay. Alright. Well, that’s the end of the rapid-fire round. You got seven on 10, so you’ve won a car. Just kidding. You don’t win anything. 

The Big Questions!

the big question

Saksham Sharda:

We’re gonna go to the long-form questions. Now, the first one is as a Sequoia scout, what current industry-changing trends would you say are attracting major VC investments?

Kieran Flanagan:

Yeah, I think the look, the areas that I stick to are really the areas that I know. So products like growth SaaS, and Web 3, I think all of those are still growing. I think all of those are still, we’re still at the early stages of innovation in particular in web 3 is obviously at a very earlier stage than cloud and SaaS and product-like growth businesses. So I can’t speak to the full range of all of the things that different Scouts within the COIA company and program actually invest in and the different sectors that they spent time in. I think as a good investor, you try to invest in the things that you understand. And so for me, that predominantly is cloud, SaaS a little bit more of Web 3, because I spend a lot of my time there and they’re the kind of businesses that I enjoy spending time with and getting to know and invest in.

Saksham Sharda:

And speaking of industry-changing trends, why do you think most tech companies will look like media companies in the future?

Kieran Flanagan:

I think media is a great investment for most tech companies. If you look at a lot of the different trends that are happening altogether, it’s never been more expensive to do paid advertising. CPM costs have gone up each year over the past number of years because we’ve just seen a record number of companies being started. So when companies are being started, they were very reliant on paid advertising in the early days. If you look at venture funding, there’s never been more venture funding. I think there was a record venture funding allocation in 2021. I think 2022 may slow down. I don’t, haven’t seen the correlation or the comparison to 2021, 40% of all VC money is actually spent on Facebook and Google. And so a lot of that VC money goes into advertising. So that increases the competition within paid advertising platforms.

Kieran Flanagan:

You saw during COVID, that a lot of businesses kind of pivot their money from offline activities to online advertising. And so you see the cost of CPM going up. So it’s harder to reach people through paid advertising channels. There’s a lot of decline in the amount of organic traffic from searches over time. Like Google has really optimized those pages to keep people on those pages or to keep people clicking, paid ads. And so you see a decline. We see a decline in the amount of organic traffic. We can get through the different positions on page one and Google. So a decline in click-through rate on search, and organic search listings. And so it’s increasingly becoming harder to like figure out how we can reach our audience. I think one way that you can do that is to invest in media and really become a destination for your audience.

Kieran Flanagan:

Like how do I interact with them? How do I be a place where my audience wanna consume content each and every day during COVID digital content actually consumption, increased 4 X. So the four times the amount of content we started to continue online. So digital content is really just part of our daily lives. And I think what tech brands have an opportunity to do is really invest in media and build in media products that people want to come on and engage with day in, day out, whether that is your blogs, your newsletter, your podcast, your YouTube channel, whatever kind of medium is the right medium for your audience.

Saksham Sharda:

And what role do you think community-led growth plays in all of this and what do people get wrong about community-led growth here?

Kieran Flanagan:

So I think community-led growth is somewhat different. So I wouldn’t, I conflate them. I think there’s maybe some overlap. So, we should try to define community because it’s defined in many different ways. And so tech companies, there’s not like one clear definition of community, but I’ll kind of go-to what people mean by community-led growth. So historically there are, you know, three types of communities you can build as a business, you can build a community or product, which is the kind of community that most brands build for their products or services. I build a community of customers who can help other customers be successful with my tools. And that is the most common type of community. You see tech brands build. There are other two are as a community of practice where we build communities around knowledge.

Kieran Flanagan:

Like you join a community because you wanna become better at something. And there are people within that community who can help you and then a community of interest and hobbies. And so you actually want to join a community because they share the same passion as you. I think the community of product is really, you know, I interact with your brand in some way, I become a customer, use your product and then become a community member. So community at the end of that, the flywheel in community-led growth community as like ubiquitous across the entire flywheel. So community helps attract people to your brand. Like it’s the first interaction they have with you. It helps people onboard to your product, and then it helps those customers stay engaged with your product. So it’s actually across the full kind of flywheel from acquiring customers to activating them, to onboarding them onto your products, to retain them. To do that, you actually have to get really good at building communities or practices, which is like, how do I build communities around knowledge? So I actually teach them something before they ever need my product. And so that is what community-led growth is. What was the second part? Make sure, I wanna make sure I answer that.

Saksham Sharda:

And what did most people get wrong about community-led growth?

Kieran Flanagan:

Oh yeah. Okay. So what most people get wrong is actually they really underestimate how hard it’s gonna be to do so. A community of products is actually much easier to build, coz there’s no real competition. Like you are building a community around your product. So you’re the only community of that type. You don’t have competitors. You don’t have like competitors trying to build a community around your product for the most part but a community of practice, like we build a community around knowledge topics, then anyone else can build that community. Right? And so you imagine there’s a ton of companies who are trying to build a community of practice around the same topics. Now they’re actually all competing with each other, each other, for those people to join their communities. And so it becomes much harder to build a community of practice, coz you have much more competition.

Kieran Flanagan:

And because all companies will eventually wanna build communities in the same way and actually have large amounts of people coming into the community before they ever used their products and services. There’s gonna be much more competition. The other thing that people get wrong is it’s really gonna be hard to turn a community into a really core acquisition channel for your product. And so if you really just kind of just do the math, let’s say that we had 10,000 people in our community, which is a lot of people actually that would be a very successful community. It’s really hard to build a community. Anything above a thousand people gets really hard to manage because communities are at their best when they’re smaller because people can interact with each other in very valuable ways. They become much more complex where they get bigger, they become, it’s harder to drive engagement because there are so many more people in there and you’re trying to cater to so many more needs.

Kieran Flanagan:

And so if we say we can, oh, well, like let’s say we can build a community of 10,000 people, which is very common in web3. We can go into why they’ve done it so well. If you kind of just do the math and look at like how many of those will be weekly active users, how many of those will actually click on something and go on sound to my product? It doesn’t become a meaningful part of how you acquire customers at those numbers. You actually need probably hundreds of thousands of people in your community. Not thousands. I think it’s very, very complex to build a community that big. So I think one thing is that community-led growth looks much more com competitive than people probably think and much harder to do than people think. And actually community-led growth as an acquisition channel. You actually need far bigger numbers than you probably realize to make it a sustainable part of how you acquire people for your product.

Saksham Sharda:

So what advice would you give to a SaaS company for going about community-led growth?

Kieran Flanagan:

I think you have to know why you’re doing it. Alright. I think that doing things just to do them is never the right way. So I think if you have a core, you need to kind of start with how is this valuable to my customers? Like you’re always trying to solve your customers. Like how can we fill a need that they have, if you’re just trying to recreate a community that already exists in the world, and it’s gonna be very hard for you to turn that into something that’s meaningful for your business? Most tech brands don’t even really have a successful community or product. Like they don’t really have. They haven’t even mastered how do I create a community around the product that I offer. And so I think, first of all, being able to master that is really important before you start to actually think about how do I master a community of practice or a community of interest, a community of interest and hobbies is not really applicable to B2B.

Kieran Flanagan:

It’s more applicable to B2C. And so I think that they really wanna start with, how does this solve? What problem is this solving for our customers? What opportunity do we have to solve that problem in a way that actually will help to drive a large community? And then what are our goals for the community? Like, do we want this to be a place where customers can come get more knowledge on the product? And our goal is really to reduce the number of humans we need in the customer support channel, because that they’ll get most of their support from the community. Do we wanna actually be the go-to place for this topic of knowledge? Coz it’s relevant to our product and we just wanna build up a large community. Coz we believe by having a large community will increase our kind of word of mouth referral, people talking about our products and services because they’re learning from us. And so you wanna have a clear goal in mind, you wanna have clear customer insights of why that’s a goal worth having and what problems your community could solve for the customers that you’re trying to service.

Saksham Sharda:

And how exactly would you contrast this to product-led led growth and like to what extent is product-led growth supposed to be about acquiring new customers?

Kieran Flanagan:

What’s your product-led growth community like growth has kind of stolen its table a little bit from product-like growth, but product-like growth is easier to define. I think in terms of, I don’t think the community-led growth is perfect like for like to product-led growth, product-led growth is basically how do I put the product at the heart of my go-to-market. And I acquire people through a product. I activate them through the product. I onboard them. And then I sell them my product all through a touchless experience. And so good examples of companies who do that are like Connelly, loom mural Evernote back in the day, a notion like there are these kinds of companies that have these tools that you can use for free, then you can start to use through their onboarding and buy touchless without having to talk to another person.

Kieran Flanagan:

So like it’s the consumerization of B2B. And so your product is across your entire go-to-market. So the community that grows, that’s the definition I get, right? It’s like, we’ve kind of done it with the product. And now we believe that community, which used to be at the end of the flywheel and used to just really be a customer delight tool can actually be part of our entire go-to-market. And I think that it’s easier to build a product-led funnel and a product-led business than a community-led go-to-market. I think a community-led go-to-market is gonna be much harder to build than a product-led go-to-market. We can get into why that is if you want, the listeners will be interested in that.

Saksham Sharda:

And so what has it taken like to scale one of the largest customer acquisition engines in B2B?

Kieran Flanagan:

I think we can leave tactics from one side because I think you know, There are just everyone talks tactics. And so I think some of the things that actually are kind of gotchas in when you’re trying to build a very large customer acquisition engine and things you may not think through is often it’s not the new things that actually drive a lot of your growth. It’s the things that you go deeper into and find the kind a couple of nuances that really matter. So instead of trying to kind of peanut butter, your resources across a lot of different things, you actually find a couple of channels that can drive real meaningful growth for you. And you go very, very deep into figuring out all of the kind of absolute, you go into very deep to find all of the things that truly matter in being successful in that channel.

Kieran Flanagan:

So if you’re saying, oh, like, I think the way that I’m gonna grow is through search and content, then how do you go really, really deep and find all of the kind of core things within that channel that truly matter in terms of beating your competitors in terms of differentiated you from everyone else. And so I think most kinds of teams wanna do everything at a surface level. Like, I’ll do a little bit of this, a little bit of this, and a little bit of this where actually, where you’re better doing is trying to figure out like what is the one, two challenges that are truly gonna matter? So I think going deep versus going like depth versus breadth, I think is really important. The other thing is there, the team alignment is really, really important. It sounds really kind of boring, but actually making sure that you have teams who are aligned around goals and making sure when you have those goals, you have teams that can be fully autonomous for those goals.

Kieran Flanagan:

So they can own those goals in totality. They’re not dependent upon other teams who have different goals. When you grow pretty rapidly, what happens is you have a bunch of teams, they all have their own goals, but no one team can own its goal individually. And so they’re all dependent upon each other, but because they have their own goals, they’re all in conflict with each other. And so again, coming back to like real prioritization, what are the couple of things that matter? And making sure I align my teams around them, making sure they can be really autonomous to those and own those things in totality. So I think depth over breath, I think team alignment is one of those gotchas. And then I think like everyone kind of knows like hiring. And so there’s just like a big difference between good and great. And I think really trying to find some people who are truly great in the areas that you matter are gonna not just have a large impact on your results, but have a large impact on how they can teach everyone else on the team to be truly great.

Kieran Flanagan:

The other thing that we do really well is we bundle everything up into like repeatable playbooks. So we build like, what are the absolute truths of the things that matter? And then build first principles around here are the things that we need to Excel at to build this thing in a repeatable scalable way. And we bucket that up into a playbook and we can teach that playbook to the entire team. And we kinda repeat those things until they no longer work. And so I think there are some of the kinds of things that truly matter and building one of those large distribution engines.

Saksham Sharda:

And so what’s been your experience doing this for, I guess you’ve done it for Salesforce and then marketer, and now you’re the SVP of marketing at HubSpot. So what has been the trajectory here?

Kieran Flanagan:

Yeah, So the trajectory is you know, each one is different. Every company has a different set of goals. Every company has a different kind of roadmap to get from where they are to where they want to be. I think the cool thing is that the problems just become more complex. Like the more amount of success you have and the larger you get, the more complex and larger the problems are and so I think that’s the thing that kind of changes as you grow. And as the thing you do becomes more successful you have to just solve much larger problems, much more complex problems.

Saksham Sharda:

And you started off as a computer science major? So what was the shift from computer science to marketing for you?

Kieran Flanagan:

I think computer science and software engineering is around problem-solving. Like how do I find efficient, scalable ways to solve problems? And to me, when I went into the market, then that’s my approach to market then is how I find complex problems. Like the problems that we’re solving. How do I know there is a problem we’re solving? What are the insights I have to show that they’re a problem we’re solving and how do I build repeatable, scalable playbooks to solve those things? And so it’s the same sort of thing you pull apart problems, and then you find like really good, efficient, scalable ways to solve those problems. And I found that my background in computer science and software engineering was actually a really good background to have when I went into marketing.

Saksham Sharda:

And speaking of what you talked about earlier about hiring talent. So what is especially in the current economy, when everyone’s talking about how hard it is to hire a plus talent, what is your thoughts on that?

Kieran Flanagan:

I think companies, I think it’s, there’s only a finite amount of a plus talent, and I think it’s the interview process is a clunky way to find it. I don’t think it’s the best thing we have, but it’s still a clunky process. It’s much better if you can build a plus culture like if you can actually build a culture where people can come in, learn and do their best work and become a plus player on your team, like the reality is even if you could have a process that always a 100% accurately pinpointed A+ players, there’s only so many of those people that exist. And so not all companies are gonna hire like the, a plus whatever that even means. And so I think if you can build a culture and an environment where people are learning from each other, where you give support to them for those people to do their best work or provide them with the kind of the opportunities to do their best work. And I think that’s much more important or you’re gonna have a much better team overall versus if you kind of have a team that there are these one or two good people, and everyone else is like struggling to reach that level versus having a culture where everyone can kind of rise and become good and A+ players over time together.

Saksham Sharda:

And do you think it’s possible to build such a culture remotely considering the debate we’re having around remote work versus coming back to the office?

Kieran Flanagan:

Yes. Yeah, I think so. Like, I don’t even think it’s really much of an argument. We’ve seen great companies operate remotely and great people within those companies. Great, great people can do great work regardless of location or where they do that work from. If you’re a person who is not fully engaged in the company, you go into the office and you slack off work, then you’re gonna replicate that if you work remotely if you’re someone who’s truly engaged with the mission does great work. And you can do that whether you’re in the office or you are working remotely.

Saksham Sharda:

Okay. And one question about, coz you’ve mentioned several times in this interview the flywheel, the marketing five flywheel. So what exactly are your thoughts on the traditional demand funnel collapsing in this era? In what sense do you think it’s collapsing?

Kieran Flanagan:

Yeah, I think the flywheel is just a recognition that your customers are your best marketing channel and that we’ve underinvested in making sure that our customers are happy and making sure that our customers have an amazing experience with us and the flywheel is like, if you acquire someone, you engage them, you convert them into a customer. Then you need to have that delight stage to turn a portion of those customers into referrals for your business and all the truly great businesses have a really engaged, successful, happy customer base that is willing to recommend their tool or product or service to other people. And so to me, this kind of does speak to the community part that we started with, which is if you have a really great community where customers are engaged, happy learning from each other, you’re just gonna have a much better flywheel because of a portion of those customers are either gonna recommend you to their networks or when they go to their next job, make sure that they bring your tool with you coz they’re not just happy with the software, they’re happy with the whole package of all the things that you provide.

Saksham Sharda:

Fair, okay. So the last question is what would you be doing if not this?

Kieran Flanagan:

That is a good question.

Kieran Flanagan:

I would like to think that I would’ve been building like developing but I actually, wasn’t a very good developer, so likely not being very good at that. And so I think I would’ve like to write film scripts.

Saksham Sharda:

Alright. That sounds good.

Let’s Conclude! 

Saksham Sharda:

So well, thanks to everyone for joining us for this month’s episode of outgrows market of the month. That was Kieran Flanagan, SVP of marketing at HubSpot. Thanks for joining us, Kieran.

Kieran Flanagan:

Cool. Thank you for having me

Saksham Sharda:

Check out their website for more details and we’ll see you once again next month with another Marketer of the Month.

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