How to Prove the ROI of Your Community Program, and Scale It with Limited Resources


It was earlier this year when we found out that Thoma Bravo, a private equity firm, would acquire us. While it was an exciting time and opened up a lot of possibilities for our company, it also came with a massive challenge for my department: Our marketing budget would be cut and everyone needed to justify their program spend. It was time to speak up for Influitive’s value; otherwise, our community was on the chopping block.

Since 2017, I have played a primary role in leading Ellie Mae’s advocacy efforts. As Senior Manager, Client and Advocacy Marketing I have sole responsibility for managing our Regional User Group program, all Advisory Boards, our customer awards program, and our online customer community utilizing Influitive’s platform.

A Community to Foster Advocacy and Relationships

Ellie Mae develops software that automates the mortgage loan origination process. Our customers are primarily banks, credit unions, and mortgage brokerages. If you’ve ever purchased or refinanced a home, you know there are a ton of moving parts involving a lot of paper and manual processes.

Our Encompass Digital Lending Platform helps our customers automate the entire loan origination process. That translates into loan officers closing more loans, reducing the time to close, and eliminating compliance issues. This positively impacts both the lender and the borrower.

The goal of our hub, Ellie Elite, is to foster advocacy behavior and relationship building with our customers in the mortgage industry. As I write this, Ellie Elite has 3,681 advocates from 1,300 companies. Most of our advocates, around 80%, are customers. The rest are industry partners and Ellie Mae employees.

In this story, I will highlight how we pitched the ROI of our program. In our case, we focused on evidence that would convince a private equity firm, but you can follow our model to pitch your community’s value to a new boss, or to ensure you’re focused on the right things for your hub.

Building a Business Case with Hard Numbers

Community platforms, by their nature, produce a lot of soft-ROI results. The platform helps us scale and drive our marketing efforts such as event awareness, product knowledge, social media shares, networking opportunities etc., but it’s hard to pin a dollar figure to those things. We knew we needed something more concrete.

Our business operations team analyzed the customer data from our hub to look for correlation between our customers who were on the platform vs. those who were not. We discovered that customers who were in Ellie Elite were our high-revenue customers.

These companies closed more 2018 loans than companies outside the hub: they saw 5% growth versus 1% for the rest. These same companies also offered us, on average, 5 sources of revenue, where the companies with no community advocates offered only 2. They also showed greater dollar-per-loan growth in 2018: an increase of a whopping 64% versus a measly 3%.

A community platform is one of the most effective ways to scale relationships with your most successful customers.

Our engagement activities on the platform allow us to foster meaningful connections with our best customers. These are exactly the customers who are likely to renew their contracts and increase their spend.

We use Influitive’s monetized view of advocate behaviors—whether it’s watching a webinar or attending a user conference—to show the value to someone not familiar with the platform. Using their rule of thumb, we say we have generated $1.16 million in acts of advocacy. Even if you discount that amount, it still shows a real return on investment, and we did all this at scale. But more on that in a moment.

For leadership that might not be hands-on in the hub, it’s imperative to show how these activities generate valuable customer behavior. The assumption is that the hub is all fun quizzes and rewards.

Showing the value of an advocacy program to leadership who are not hands-on in the hub is critical. They need to understand that the platform is not simply fun quizzes and rewards—it generates valuable customer behavior. That’s why it’s so important we justify ourselves with hard numbers, including the value of the concrete actions we ask of our advocate community.

Some Valuable Behaviors Are Harder to Quantify

I don’t want to lose sight of the valuable behaviors that are harder to quantify in a dollar sense. We use the hub as a means to hold our finger in the wind to get directional feedback on anything that is client-related.

This always-on community helps us mobilize our advocates and within a day or two, we can generate excitement for an event, push people to our webinars, or get product insights from customers. This happens within the community, so we spur the actions we need while cutting down on time and expenses that email and survey creation can incur.

For example, instead of soliciting this content via our client management team, which takes quite a bit of time, our demand-generation team uses the hub to curate customer quotes for attention-grabbing email campaigns.

In terms of the social aspect of the hub and the amplification of our message, I’m going to throw some numbers at you:

  • 70,692 acts of advocacy
  • 3,744 social shares since February 2017
  • 550 additional LinkedIn followers
  • 193 UX focus group volunteers (slots typically fill in 48 hours)

The mortgage industry is a tight-knit community, and the networking opportunity our hub offers has really resonated with our customers. Our hub connects people so well that our advocates even make plans to meet during our user conference each year.

A Sigh of Relief—and an Incentive to Keep Building

Ultimately, Ellie Mae management approved our proposal for renewing Influitive. There were several contributing factors to that decision.

First, we built a strong business case based on the metrics mentioned earlier. We could justify the expense with hard numbers from our OWN customers.

Second, we highlighted the ability to scale these marketing efforts. A single person using the platform can replace multiple email conversations across the organization.

Pitching the ROI of your community program? Some leaders want hard-number results, while others want a story. Know your audience.

Third, we compiled a list of best-in-class technology companies that use Influitive from Thoma Bravo’s portfolio. Knowing these organizations use Influitive reassured Ellie Mae management that others see value in the platform.

The final factor was that we worked with Influitive to find a renewal rate that worked for us. The fact that Influitive was willing to find a mutually agreeable cost structure further proved their level of partnership and long-term vision.

Given the value we proved, it might surprise you to learn that—even with these results—we don’t have a massive team running our hub. It’s largely been just me, with some supporting help from time to time. Next, I’ll dive into some best practices so you, too, can scale your program with minimal resources.

Four Strategies to Scale Yourself

When I talk about scaling with minimal resources, I’m largely talking about how I scale myself. I have to be realistic: I know there will be periods of time when I’m not able to work on the platform. But that doesn’t mean Ellie Elite can go dormant, so I have four strategies to get the most from a single resource.

1) Delegation

I create a sub-team of administrators to handle higher volume users. For example, our UX team uses Elite to recruit focus group participants, because it’s quick and easy on our hub, whereas it takes a lot of time and money outside the platform. So, I’ve recruited a UX team member to be the administrator. I review and provide guidance, but they are responsible for content production.

This frees me to prioritize content that benefits the overall health of the platform while I let other administrators drive the smaller communities.

When Ellie Mae community administrator Eileen Linn talks about scaling with minimal resources, she’s talking about scaling herself. She has four strategies for administrators in a similar boat.

Once the team knows they are 100% responsible for content, they can have an honest conversation about the sustainability of a channel.

2) Scheduling and unlocking

My second strategy for scale uses the scheduling and unlocking functionalities. The goal is to create as many challenges as possible that can be scheduled ahead of time.

Part of this is just planning. I set up 3 months’ worth of weekly Tips & Tricks. Or I prepare shells of challenges for our regular events, such as our user conference or golf tournament, while waiting for specifics. Additionally, using the seasons to inspire Fourth of July or Back-to-School challenges or finding a random holiday, like Talk Like a Pirate Day, fills in gaps in content. Getting these activities planned when I have downtime means I don’t have to stress when the work piles up elsewhere. 

On top of all that, challenge unlocking lets me to queue up additional challenges ahead of time, which a customer unlocks when they complete. This helps carry the momentum forward without being constantly on top of challenge creation.

I’ll also schedule hub health activities—our metrics are automatically emailed to me each month. And I’ll even use calendar reminders to make sure I send updates to the challenge requestor about what the advocates are saying.

3) Templates

The third way I scale myself is with templates. Using the ones provided by Influitive or ones I’ve created myself streamlines the process. I even use Workfront to have my colleagues package information for me. I look to streamline everything.

4) Get personal

Finally, I inject myself in the platform, where appropriate. If I do a fun poll about Memorial Day weekend, I might say, “I’m trying my grandmother’s potato salad recipe.” I make sure to use my name when responding on the discussion boards. It sounds counter-intuitive: How is making yourself more known—and therefore reachable—going to help you scale?

The more our customers know there’s a person behind this, the more likely they are to help out. As a single person managing the platform, the customers then become my eyes and ears. They let me know when there’s a problem on the hub because they know and trust me.

Final Advice: You’re Not All on Your Own

I’m the point person at Ellie Mae for our hub, but I actually feel like I’m not doing this alone, because I have my Influitive CSM, Leona Leong. I use Leona as my second brain since I don’t want to risk becoming insular on the project, losing creativity, or losing sight of what is possible on this platform.

I’ll call Leona to talk through my thinking. She’ll validate what I’m doing, and if I’m really stuck, she tells me how other Influitive customers are tackling the same issue. That usually helps me start generating ideas. Right now, we are collaborating on driving more engagement on the discussion boards.

I bring Leona up because relying on your CSM is a great way to scale yourself. You have an expert at your disposal who can help you with best practices, or to confirm you’re headed in the right direction. Even when it feels like it’s only you, you’re not alone.

Leona and the Influitive team were instrumental in proving the ROI of our community program. Running this program without a big team is tough at times. But when I see how far we’ve come, and when I hear the impact on our customers, it feels worthwhile. There are people—our customer—behind these numbers. Thanks to Ellie Elite, they’re getting more out of our product, advancing their careers, and making genuine connections. That’s the true ROI of a community.