How Erica Kuhl Proved the ROI of Community at Salesforce - to Marketing, Support, and Product

Carrie Melissa Jones
October 27, 2014
May 3, 2024

Erica is doing amazing things for the community profession, discovering metrics that will be valuable for all of us in our work. She's pushing the boundary of what community can accomplish at a large organization, and she's done it from the ground up. Here, we share some of the discoveries she has made in her 12+ years of time at Salesforce.

Erica Kuhl will be joining us on stage at CMX Summit on November 13, so come and meet her in person along with hundreds of other community professionals and businesses.

Now, let's dig into today’s article…

Erica Kuhl, Senior Director of Community at Salesforce, has been at the company for 12 and a half years. She's been there almost since the very beginning. In that time, she has seen the company transform, including in the way that the billion-dollar corporation values its community.

In February, after seven years building community from scratch in the marketing department (and five previous years working as a Salesforce educator and training coordinator), Erica successfully moved the community to the product team, where they now have a defining impact on the Salesforce product itself. Erica worked tirelessly to ensure that the community got the respect it deserved from the very beginning and she built the metrics it needed to prove its value during that time.

Now, community lives under product, where it can directly impact the future of Salesforce and influence adoption. And that’s a very powerful place to be. During this time, Erica learned countless lessons about how to prove the value of community in a large organization. Many of us struggle to do this every single day, and we're distilling the best takeaways to survive that struggle here.

So how did Erica Kuhl prove to this giant company that community needed to be taken seriously? How has she worked to show the decision makers at Salesforce the unbelievable business value that community drives? And how will she continue to grow that community now that she's under the product team?

Building Salesforce Community from the Ground Up

Erica Kuhl Circle

For Erica, this stuff is all about empowering passionate people, and you can tell how excited she gets when she talks about her work. “I’m really passionate about the value of advocacy programs," she says. "I built the Salesforce community intentionally. I knew I could never hire anyone fast enough or keep up with all the trends or channels popping up. We needed to empower our customers to do this for us.”

“Instead of building a team, we hired Sean O’Driscoll, who built the Microsoft MVP Program, to come in and consult. He built the framework for us.” This initial investment in creating the platform paid off big time without long-term costs.“

We had had such a passionate group of people, and we knew the common 90-9-1 wisdom, that is, 1% of people create content, 9% edit or modify that content, and 90% view the content without contributing. So we decided we should prove this out ourselves.”

What Incentives Exist for Salesforce Community Members?

In any community, it's important to get membership incentives right, especially if you are asking them to evangelize, volunteer, or advocate on your behalf. Salesforce’s community members are not paid for the work they do advocating for Salesforce or answering customer queries on the support channels. So why do they do it? There are two key reasons.

  1. Access: They want to be seen as “smarter than the average bear” (either because they’re a consulting company or they work for a company and they are gunning for a promotion)
  2. Recognition: They want to sit in the front row at Salesforce events, have a profile on the blog, have something to put on their LinkedIn profiles and business cards, and they just want to be recognized for their knowledge.

The Marketing Value of Community

Once the framework was built, Erica set to proving that the investment was worthwhile. During this time, she worked in the marketing department and was responsible for driving marketing success.

“To be honest, for the first seven years, community did belong in marketing,” Erica says. "When I started working on the community, we had to build it first. There was nothing there. The community needed to look great, and the Salesforce marketing team is great at that.”

During this time, the community played a very specific role to marketing: building loyalty and raising brand awareness. Salesforce needed to see actual results before the product organization would listen, which is an incredibly common challenge for community professionals.

"This didn’t come easily," Erica explains. “Community was really hard to understand. I had a difficult time proving metrics, especially marketing metrics. I could prove things like case deflection and saving support time, but that wasn't the focus. They wanted to see numbers around brand awareness and mentions. So I brought them that.”

She went for the quantitative and found a statistic that the team took very seriously: She broke down the social media conversations of their initial community members, and discovered that the handful of people in the early Salesforce MVP program generated a whopping 10% of their Twitter mentions.

“They amplified our messages in a massive way during events, and they were meeting each other and organizing meetups throughout the world. They really became an extension of the Salesforce team.”

Salesforce user groups

The Support Value of Community

One of the other battles that Erica won with the community was getting the support team to listen and give power to the passionate community that Salesforce fostered. This was one of the key ways she funneled the community’s power into real business value: support costs were lowered signicantly.

“Our support team will tell you themselves that our community is faster than our in-house people at answering customer questions.”

“It took five years to prove this though," she says. I asked her how she had the patience to fight this fight over such a long period of time. She just laughed and said, “I’m a bulldog.”

“We weren’t prepared to talk about nontraditional ways to build ROI and use community as a support tool. But over time, the community showed them that they were able to do the job of 4-5 full-time in-house team members, and they were all volunteers. That resonated.”

“Today, our in-house team doesn’t answer any new questions at all. The community answers about 80% of the incoming questions and the support reps wait 24 hours and then they clean up everything. We now have 8 months of 0 unanswered questions, and we get 4,000 questions per month.”

After that triumph, she went on to prove even more impressive statistics.

Salesforce community

3 Metrics Salesforce Has Proved Can Be Tied to Community Activity

Erica spent much of her time fighting for the relevance of community and identifying the data to prove it. Recently, she pulled together major wins for the community team by asking and answering the following questions:

1. Do active community members spend more with our company?

2. Do active community members adopt the product more often than others?

Here is what she found (and this is still a work in progress):

  1. People who were active in the Salesforce community in the last 3 months spent 2x more than people who were not active. That is, the average order value (AOV) of a community member vs. a non-community member was double.
  2. People who were active in the Salesforce community in the last 3 months had a 33% higher adoption rate than non-community members.
Community members spend 2x more and have a 33% higher adoption rate than non-community members.

“The results were staggering. They had to double- and triple-check these results because they were so ridiculous.”

Ridiculous, but the numbers did not lie. She confirmed what we all know intuitively: engaging an active and passionate community drives real business value.

Driving Product Value with Community

After Erica had proven the business, marketing, and support value of community, she set off to prove its value to the product team. She found that if she could promise her MVPs pre-release knowledge, she would provide them with enormous value that they would shout about from the rooftops.

That’s when product value came in.

But funny enough, “Product didn’t need to be convinced of community value at all, first because our cofounder is such a major supporter of our community.”

“The product team wanted a place to share ideas and people to bounce ideas off of, and they wanted quotes and testimonials for their launches. I didn’t have to build a big team to give them this, and the product team got access to these real customers. They loved it.”

Erica had the community members sign NDAs, so soon product was consulting them with new projects and running ideas by them. “They could virtually bring them in the loop because they were under NDA. This was so powerful.”

How to Fight So You Can’t Be Ignored

One of the most fascinating elements of Erica’s story is that she fought this fight almost singlehandedly for the last seven years. It shows tremendous dedication and leadership and also shows the way she is paving the path for future community professionals.

When she was trying to make strides with the support team, she says, “I kept checking in with the team each year with each change in leadership. ‘Just give me a support rep for 1 month and we’ll measure it,’ I’d say. Finally, someone said yes. The results were outrageous. We haven’t looked back.” Persistence was key, and she refused to back down because she knew that community was the answer to so many questions that the organization had.

“This change has full-on skyrocketed our community. This is a community builder’s dream. Truthfully, the number one thing that our community members have in common is the product. They all want a strong say in what the product does and how it functions. Now they have that say.“It would be my dream that community lives alongside other departments, on its own, not within them. And I have made a strong commitment to all the departments I work with to show them that nothing will change just because I've changed departments.”

Keep Fighting, but Don't Forget about Loyalty

Erica is now shifting her focus internally to grow the number of employees who are active in the Salesforce community.

“We have poor awareness internally about what our community does. We have focused externally for years so now the external organization is much stronger than the internal one.

“There’s no way to keep scaling unless you activate your employees. They’re interfacing with customers too, and their numbers will keep growing.”

The numbers, metrics, and fancy dashboards are astounding and show the ability for community to drive revenue. "But even still," Erica explains, "Loyalty and value are key. You cannot forget about loyalty. It can’t all be about money."

---Image Credit: Adapted from Steve Rhoades

Carrie Melissa Jones
October 27, 2014
May 3, 2024

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