Notion - Move Fast and (Don’t) Break Things
This week’s focus is on the project management collaboration tool Notion. Our original intention was to focus primarily on their Ambassador programme, but the more we studied their business model, the more we reckoned they merited a wider look.
Notion is a productivity software platform. Launched in 2016, it quickly began to gain traction among a core group of enthusiasts, but it only really started taking flight when in 2018 they relaunched the platform in its current sleeker, simpler form. By 2019 it had attracted 1M users and then it went truly ballistic. It now has an estimated user pool of close to 30M. In addition to individuals, they have an impressive, and rapidly-growing, corporate client base – from the likes of Typeform to Pixar and Headspace. Their last raise valued them at a cool $10Bn. So how did a company that spent precious little on marketing manage to grow like smoke in such super-fast time?
Surprise, surprise - it was their community.
In the words of their Head of Marketing, Camille Ricketts,
“In the early days, we saw people on Twitter and Reddit sharing tips and providing support to other users. With a small marketing team, it was clear that this would be a way for us to amplify Notion.”*
Camille focused on harnessing this enthusiasm and advocacy, and talent-spotted one early-adopting high user of Notion, Ben Lang, to join the in-house team and lead the community.
Take away 1 – consider hiring from your customer base. They know your product, are enthusiastic and might have a ready-made following through which you immediately reach a wider audience.
Camille and Ben quickly introduced a number of superfan channels. These encouraged users to become any one of “Ambassadors” (for individual users and smaller teams), “Champions” (for their corporate clients to embed usage within companies), “Campus Leaders” (for their student populace) or individually accredited Notion “Consultants”. In other words, they didn’t just attract an audience - they segmented them in a way which maximised the focus, effectiveness and growth potential.
Take away 2 – be clear who your target market is and how you can best harness their enthusiasm for your product. If you don’t feel you have groups of enthusiasts yet, work out how you can get them by answering a specific need they might have.
Notion still keep their in-house team pretty lean and let the people on the ground (meaning their users) spread the word for them. No money changes hands; these users are happy to play their part, supporting new customers and sharing their knowledge, literally for the love of it (and occasionally a bit of swag, but that’s not the main driver here.)
Take away 3 - just as wise bosses know that a judiciously chosen word of praise can sometimes be more valued than a few dollars more, getting customers to help you doesn’t have to be about paying them. If they love the product and feel part of the process, they will willing and consciously lend a hand.
Users don’t have to be ambassadors or champions to get involved, either. Anyone can host an event centred on some element of Notion - hundreds of these events are taking place around the world at any given time - and if they submit basic information on what they are going to be covering, Notion will promote it on their platforms, lending it credibility and profile.
Take away 4 – consider letting your community drive your event programme. They know what they want to cover or learn about and it frees up your team to focus on other things.
Worldwide, there are now over thirty community-led groups addressing the differing interests of “Notioners” (as they like to be called.) From geographic location, to language, to need (student, marketing, business, family etc) you will almost certainly find a group that covers your focus, and we estimate about one million people around the world are now actively engaged in one or more of these customer-led communities. And their communities can be found on vast numbers of platforms, including Reddit, LinkedIn, Facebook, Discord, Twitter and ClubHouse.
Take away 5 – build where your customers are. Be “findable”.
For us, though, the biggest differentiator from other advocacy programmes or brand communities is not the sheer scale and breadth, it’s how light touch Notion seems to be. They describe their community team as “still tiny and scrappy”, but they show a huge level of trust in their users, and in return their users place great confidence in what they are doing. Notion don’t seem to want or need to “control” what is being said about them or being done with the product - they give their customers very free rein. This is not only hugely empowering for those who decide to get involved, it also clearly comes from a place of authentic commitment by Notion to build with and for their customers. They don’t want to pose as the “experts”; they know their community owns a vast repository of knowledge and they are all ears.
Take away 6 – your customers will have clear ideas on what’s working and what’s not. Listen to them as you develop your product offering. One of the few indisputable universal truths is that people like being asked for their advice. Benefit from that.
Their Ambassador programme has been so successful, and so many people are queuing up that Notion has now had to limit the number they take on to ensure the experience is a good one (“my every expectation has been exceeded” Mariano Morera) - they’ve gone for quality over quantity.
Take away 7 - move fast, but not so fast that you break things.
What do Notion Ambassadors themselves say about their involvement? We interviewed a number of them for this piece. Not only could we find no-one rating their experience less than 10/10, they all had a real sense of belonging. Feedback included “I get a real sense of being involved with something” and “I have been part of a decent amount of Ambassador programs and I have never felt so heard and appreciated.” (Thor Schroeder). Mariano Morera added “it has been such a enriching journey!”
Often people talk about the “fly-wheel” of community-led growth. Well, in our opinion Notion is a perfect case study of this in action, with the momentum of the community generating self-propelling growth. We avidly look forward to watching what happens there next. They’re certainly on a (community-led) roll.
*quote taken from an article written by Decibel VC.
We would like to thank the various ambassadors and Notion users who shared their thoughts and feedback for this piece, particularly Thor Schroder and Mariano Morera.