An Interview with Asana’s Head of Global Community, Joshua Zerkel

Joshua Zerkel - Head of Global Community at Asana

There’s no denying it anymore: a strong community can have a huge impact on your bottom line. How huge? McKinsey estimates word-of-mouth to be the primary factor in between 20-50% of purchasing decisions. Community building can help your business create an army of advocates who spread that word-of-mouth across the globe. Just ask Joshua Zerkel, Head of Global Community at Asana. 

Joshua and his team are responsible for all programs that bring Asana customers closer to the company and to each other. The goal? Building connection and thought leadership, to foster the open sharing of ideas and insights. And it’s working.

In January, Asana announced that their community program, Asana Together, had hit the 1,000-member milestone. That’s a thousand Asana ambassadors, forum champions, or certified professionals who went out of their way to become more involved in the company and share their stories of success. 

We asked Joshua to discuss how Asana managed to build such a strong community, and give us a bird’s eye view into the life of a community leader.   

How have you built such an engaged community around Asana? What steps did you take? 

The very foundation of a strong community is having a product that people really respond to and love. Without that you can’t build a community. It starts with having a product that makes a difference for people, which Asana truly does. 

From there, we started by building an online community. Beginning with our community forum, we offered a place for people who were using Asana to talk about challenges or questions. We let the community respond before the Asana team did — helping to build that sense of knowledge and discovery among the people who were actually using the tool. That helped foster a community spirit and feeling of “we’re here to help each other.” 

With the online forum as our starting point, we then built a membership-based community: the Certified Pros, Ambassadors, and Forum Champions. These are people who want to be seen as experts on Asana, who want to meet in person or virtually, and who want to connect with people who are doing similar work to them. 

We really used the enthusiasm for our product as a foundation to build our online and offline communities. The power of the community at Asana is that mixture of offline and online — it’s not one-size-fits-all. 

What takes someone from tool user to tool advocate?

It varies, but a common motivator is just “I don’t just use this tool, I really love this tool.” These are people who have found something that makes a big difference in how they work or what they’re able to achieve. They’ve found some magic that really speaks to them. That’s one of the key things that helps people move along the community path. 

What I’ve found in my years of community building is that these people often want to help other people find their magic moments too. It’s critical for us to figure out what those magic moments are and help them express that to others. 

If we’re able to do that, these people might become advocates for Asana. From there, giving that person recognition is key. It reflects the value that they’ve received. And if we can give them more tools and resources to help them spread the word in a way that feels authentic to them, it continues to reinforce all the positive feelings they’ve had about what Asana has done for them. That’s true for any community: it’s about reflecting what they’re feeling and the value that they’re getting. It’s showing that individual that you, the company, and individuals at the company, see them personally.

What are uncommon benefits of a strong community? What opportunities are brands missing out on by not focusing on community building?

There’s no shortage of review sites that you can go look at online. You can find positive reviews for whatever tool you’re looking at, no matter how good or bad it is. When it comes to getting recommendations for the things that actually matter, you ask people that you know for their advice. If people you know and trust, online or offline, give you a personal recommendation, that’s what you’re going to check out first. It’s all about building authentic advocacy. That’s one of the byproducts of building a really great community is you earn the right to ask people to advocate on your behalf. 

So, advocacy-based referrals are one thing a community can bring, but certainly not the only thing. And they’re not what we’re anchoring on at Asana. I think people underestimate the competitive advantage of a strong community. When you have an army of people willing to advocate on your behalf, that’s marketing that you can never pay for. You can pay your way (via advertising) to a lot of brand awareness, but when you have real humans who are willing to go out into the world and talk to people about what you’re doing, that’s a huge competitive differentiator that can’t just be manufactured overnight and can’t be bought. That’s such a powerful thing that most people don’t recognize, at least not right away. 

Another benefit? When I build a community, I make sure that the product team is really integrated and invested in it. For user research or product testing, these are the pool of people that you want. These are the people who are really invested in your product. They care, and probably know the ins and outs of it better than some of the people building the tool. So a nice benefit of building a community is you have this pool of people ready and willing to test out new things, to give you opinions and ideas about what could make the product better for real-world users, and in an authentic voice — not a canned “we put you in a room and we test this with you” voice. 

Has the conversation with your community changed or shifted at all in the past couple of years? 

In the last five years, the notion of having a community for your business, your B2B product — especially in the SaaS world — has finally become accepted. I think there’s more of a recognition that the businesses that are making a difference have communities because they built something that people actually care about. They’ve earned their way to having a community centered around their product or service. 

Asana has a strong partner ecosystem. How can partners play a role in your community? 

It relates to how well the partner invests themselves in understanding or listening to the community. A good partner will take some time to look at what people are talking about in different threads on the community forum. They might attend events as well. 

Ask what makes this community unique? What are users’ concerns and what are they talking about? What sort of demographics and psychographics are the people in this community by and large? And where does the partner’s tool or offering fit in?” If a partner asks these questions, they’ll find a way to participate in the conversation that won’t cause people to shut down and say, “They’re obviously trying to sell me something. Red flag. Guard up.” They earn their spot within the community and it feels like a much more natural conversation. 

I assume you rely on technology to manage your day. What’s your personal tech stack? What are the tools you can’t live without? 

I rely very heavily on Asana itself for coordinating and managing my team’s work. At Asana, we use Asana for everything. Especially for work that is project-based or event-based, Asana is really great for me to organize each body of work into specific projects that my team and I can collaborate very easily on. So a centralized work management tool like Asana is critical for my tech stack.

Then there’s the communication layer. We use Slack for quick questions or conversations, as well as tools like Google Hangouts and Zoom for live communication. Since my role is global I spend a lot of my time working with people who are not sitting next to me. Having that level of face-to-face communication is critical. 

The other piece in my tech stack is a collaboration layer for content specifically. We use Google docs for project briefs, webinar ideas, and scripts. We’ll connect those to related projects and tasks in Asana, but the actual work happens directly in the doc. 

The combination of tools for coordination, communication, and content is what I need to get my day-to-day work done. 

Thank you Joshua for sharing your community insights with us!

The Asana community is open to everyone. You can find out more on the Asana community website. Joshua would love to see people at Asana events as well. Everyone is welcome; you don’t have to be a member of the community to attend. Just go to asana.com/events to find online (and again in the future, offline) events at a day and time that works for you. 

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