Product-Led Sales (PLS) AMA: Ben Lang

Community-Led Growth expert and current Head of Community at Notion

Ben Lang
April 19, 2022
Product-Led Sales (PLS) AMA: Ben Lang

Alexa, CEO of Pocus, hosts Product-Led Sales (PLS) AMAs with PLS experts to share best practices, frameworks, and insights on this emerging category. These AMAs are an opportunity to ask PLS leaders any question — ranging from hiring to sales compensation to tech stack — in a low-key, casual environment.

The PLS AMAs are for members of the Product-Led Sales community, the go-to-place to learn, discuss, and connect with go-to-market (GTM) leaders at product-led companies. The goal of the community is to bring together the most thoughtful and innovative GTM leaders to build the next generation of sales together.

Interested in joining? Request an invite here.

Now keep reading for a recap of what we discussed in this week’s AMA chat.

Introducing Ben, Head of Community at Notion 👋

Ben Lang was the first person we consulted before starting the Pocus community. Clearly, he didn’t steer us wrong, considering we just surpassed 1,000 members in less than a year! 

Why Ben?

Because, as Head of Community at Notion, he knows a thing or two about connecting people. 

Community has always been a passion of Ben’s. Ben has hosted On Deck dinners and Product Hunt events — in addition to being a co-founder, growth marketer, and in the Israeli military. In fact, it was on Product Hunt where he stumbled upon Notion. 

Ben joined Notion about three years ago when the team only consisted of about ten people. Since then, Notion has acquired millions of community members and users, including the Pocus team! 

In this AMA recap, we’ll cover several highlights of our discussion with Ben: 

  • The process Ben used to identify super fans and build Notion’s robust community from scratch 
  • What the head of community role entails, and what the rest of the team looks like
  • Where to strike the balance between sales and organic growth when it comes to brand communities 
  • Three different ways to capture usable community feedback
  • Tactics: measuring community health, enforcing conduct rules, onboarding community leaders 

The Notion Community’s Origin Story

Back before Notion had templates for project planning, personal organization, startup workflows, and pretty much everything else you can think of, there was Ben and a handful of other “super fans” who were building websites (Ben’s was, setting up Facebook groups, and even writing books to share all the cool ways to use Notion. 

This is actually where Ben’s journey with Notion started. Originally, he worked alongside Camille Ricketts, Head of Marketing at Notion, to help build out their own template gallery.

Not long after, Ben’s focus shifted to community building — where he continues to partner with Camille and his team to foster and support various community efforts today. 

Here are the steps Ben and his team took to build the community that exists around Notion today:

  • Identify and bring together superusers 
  • Support what gets your community members most excited
  • Make community membership feel special
  • Embrace organic, bottom-up community spread

Uniting and Supporting Notion Power Users

Right out of the gate, the first step Ben took as Head of Community was bringing together all the “super fans” like himself in one place. Then, it was all about leaning into what they were most passionate about

Ben: “Very early on, even though it was very small numbers, we were able to gather some of these passionate folks together and say ‘What can we do to support you in what you're doing?’ 

“We were trying to understand what they were excited about, and what would make them even more excited. Before COVID, one of the things we were really excited about was events, because we saw people were really happy to meet each other in person and talk about Notion.

“So we started providing funding for these folks to go out and organize events. We knew that a lot of them wanted to be close to the Notion team, so we also started hosting events similar to this AMA where folks could meet the Notion team.”

Making the Community Special

Ben and his team eventually found that part of the community engagement came from making members feel like they were part of something special

Ben: “We tried to design this program in a way that people would feel very special when they joined.There was an application process and only a limited number of folks could join every month. We were always coming up with benefits and ways for everyone to feel really engaged and appreciated by the team.” 

Growing the Community Bottom-Up

As the community around Notion grew, they saw members start spinning off their own smaller communities. So they created their Notion Ambassador program to organize and empower specialized spin-off communities

Ben: “What I think is a little different from many other companies is that we saw some community members creating their own Notion communities. For example, someone created a Facebook group called Notion Korea where people could talk about how to use Notion in Korean. Someone created a subreddit called r/Notion. Someone created a Discord server for Notion users in the Philippines. There were only a couple of these early on but, over time, more and more grew out of what we now call our Ambassador community.

“I think there are 100+ of these smaller groups today and they're all run and moderated by folks in our Ambassador community, we don't run them ourselves. They're reaching hundreds of thousands of users, all speaking their own languages and using whatever platform they want to use.”

“Our intention was to make this bottoms-up driven and give it an authentic feel. People are able to build communities exactly in the places where they want to build communities.” 

How to Identify Your Early Super Fans ☝️

Let’s talk about that first step a little more — identifying your biggest fans. 

Unfortunately, there’s no secret sauce. In the early days at Notion, it was all manual outreach. Ben spent the majority of his time searching Google, YouTube, Twitter, and other channels for Notion fans.

Who was it that Ben was searching for? Mostly, he was looking for the big time users who had already developed a following.

Ben: “Oftentimes, I would try to find people in those places who were already power users. Who were community builders and had already started something. I would reach out to them and see if we could pull them into the universe we were building.”

Now that Notion’s community has name recognition and the majority of their most passionate community members actually approach them about volunteering, they’ve created robust Community documentation to centralize all the details about getting involved. 

What About Notion Inspired Such a Vibrant Community? 

It can be really hard to nail down why some products hit home while others just don’t seem to connect with their audience. 

Ben doesn’t necessarily think he has all the answers when it comes to why the Notion community is so passionate, but he’s sure about a few things: it’s creative, it’s easy enough for anyone to get involved, and the brand has designed a unique story since day one. 

Ben: “In some ways I get it, but in some ways it really is mind-boggling. I think it’s a combination of things. The creativity and LEGO block-style builder lets you build anything you want. It's very broad and creative and anyone can use it. 

“And, Notion is a very unique brand and people really connect with Roman Muradov’s illustrations. Having an artist at Notion since day one creating this whole brand has been a unique approach, and people want to be a part of it.” 

The Community Leader’s Role: All Things Scale

Ben says it’s been a fun ride growing with Notion over the past few years because it’s given him the chance to launch a lot of different community-building programs. 

Some of the programs launched include:

  • Influencer program for YouTube and TikTok 
  • Certification program for consultants who are building their businesses around Notion
  • Last year, they kicked off their first-ever user conference, Block by Block  

Today, Ben’s primary job day-to-day is all about scaling the community further while finding a way to still keep all of their various community programs running and growing. Much of community building is actually rooted in one-on-one relationship building. To scale this kind of approach, one person wasn’t going to cut it. 

So for Ben, adding resources to the community team has been one of his best tools to accelerate community growth. 

And like they do many things at Notion, they often turn to their community first when thinking about who to bring on board. 

Ben: “One example is our certification program. About two years ago, we saw that people were starting to work with companies as Notion consultants. We realized that if we could get more people to do that, that could be something beneficial for both parties. So we built out a certification program where folks could apply to become certified. Building out that process and assessing people is a lot of work, so we hired someone exceptional from the community who was already doing it. We went from having three people who were certified to about 40 who have completed this really intense certification process.”

Where to Find Ideas for Scaling

As for ideas on where to scale, this is another area where Notion has also turned to the community to see what’s trending.

Ben: “What's been interesting is a lot of our programs have bubbled up organically from the community. When we see someone doing something awesome, we’ve found ways to support them and to help them get more people involved.

“Creating this certification program validated people in the community who were already doing consulting. Now, we’ve built a directory where we can funnel traffic to their services. Some of our best community programs have resulted from putting resources behind things we're already seeing happening.” 

What Does the Rest of Notion’s Community Team Look Like? 

Notion’s Community team looks like:

  • Ben as the Head of Community
  • Francisco Mendoza, an experienced community manager, who is especially engaged with the Ambassadors community and has been a key driver in scaling Notion’s community programs
  • Contractors for other community efforts like the certification program, influencer programs, and events like Block by Block

How does this often-shifting team complete the feedback loop to make sure marketing, product, customer success, and sales all get access to the community insights they’re gathering? 

Not only are they heavily active in Slack, they also share status updates during team meetings and provide guides and best practices on how the rest of the team can get involved with the community. 

To keep Notion’s decision-makers in touch with users, the community team also plans AMAs similar to this one where leaders have a chance to engage with the community and see what they’re working on, developments they’re excited about, and more.

These initiatives create a constant flow of feedback from the community to all the places it needs to go.

How *Not* to Alienate Your Community 👽

As far as how Notion leverages their community to sell or expand, the answer is that they don’t — at least, not in a tradition sense. 

Instead, they launched the Champions community, which is a place where Notion power users inside of companies can connect to share best practices, transition to Notion from other tools, and get real, high-quality information and answers from one another. This is a channel where Notion’s customer support team is active, because it makes sense in that context. 

Where sales doesn’t make sense, at least not right now according to Ben, is in the wider community. Notion hasn’t created a pipeline from community to sales yet because it doesn’t fit where their brand is or their current goal of building an authentic community. 

Ben: “There's definitely this delicate balance between trying to sell too much versus providing a place where people can learn from each in an authentic way, and be excited to be there.

“I think if people feel like they're always being sold to, it will feel less compelling to participate and be excited about spreading the word and continuing to be evangelists.” 

“There's definitely this delicate balance between trying to sell too much versus providing a place where people can learn from each in an authentic way.” 

The Big Community Benefit: Product Feedback, 3 Ways 💬 

While the Notion community might not be the biggest lever for sales in a direct sense, what it does provide is a powerful feedback machine that helps Notion make their product more and more appealing. 

There are three different methods Notion deploys to gather feedback from their community:

  • Giving Ambassadors early access
  • Community listening 
  • Organizing feature requests in a tagging database

Ben: “One thing we've done that I think has been really great is give early access features to our Ambassador community. We're trying to do that with our Champion community as well. We get a lot of really insightful feedback from them before releasing new features.

“We also have a lot of folks on our team who are checking out what people are saying in different communities. The moderators in our Ambassador community will flag interesting things or insightful posts so that we're able to have a constant view of what people are sharing. It gives us a very good view of what's going on for our product team.

“And our CX team for the past couple of years has tagged every conversation that we get from users with a feature request. They have this whole tagging database, so we’re able to get insight from tens of thousands of conversations at scale. These conversations come from chats, sales conversations, and from our community. All of that comes together to impact our product and engineering roadmap.” 

How Notion Onboards Community Members and Leaders

Since there are several types of community groups at Notion, they take a few different approaches to onboarding. 

Ambassador Community

The Ambassador community is made up of power users who volunteer their time to run their own specialized Notion communities, so they’re very intentional about making people feel special when they join.

Here’s how Notion facilitates onboarding for this group:

  • Notion’s community manager, Francisco, sets up a few different video calls in various time zones
  • Potential Ambassadors attend these calls to connect with each other, meet the Notion team, and learn about the goals for the Ambassador community
  • Attending one of these group onboarding calls is required — then Ambassadors are added to the shared Notion workspace and Slack group

For all the independent groups Ambassadors run around the world, Notion empowers group moderators to handle onboarding in whatever way works best for them.

Champion Community

The onboarding process for the Champion community is lower-touch for the notion team: 

  • Potential Champions fill out an application to join the community 
  • The Notion team reviews these applications and accepts Champions who are a good fit

The flow here is very much like how Pocus and many other companies run similar communities. 

Key Takeaways From Ben’s AMA

  • Building a community can be a manual effort to start. Once you’ve connected with some key super users (via Google, YouTube, and other channels where they hang out), the secret is to give them a channel where they can all connect (like Slack), make membership feel special, and support the projects this community is excited about. This is how Notion organically grew their own moderated community as well as over 100 spinoff groups led by members of this community.  
  • A community leader’s focus should be scaling. Once a community becomes big enough, consider hiring community managers that keep each program running. Don’t hesitate to look into your community itself to find potential managers who you already know are passionate about your project. 
  • If authenticity is a core goal for your community, introducing a sales motion may alienate its members. What Notion did instead was create a secondary community where customer support and sales assistance made sense because its members were actively looking for best practices and tips on transitioning their companies over to Notion.  
  • One key benefit of creating a community is gaining honest product feedback. By giving their Ambassadors community early access to new features, implementing a listening strategy throughout their community, and creating a database where all community feature requests are carefully organized, Notion has been able to build an informed roadmap and a product their users are obsessed with.  

Join Pocus’ Community and Participate in Our Next PLS AMA 🪄

To participate in AMAs just like this one with Ben all you have to do is, you guessed it, join a community! 

Just send a request to join our invite-only Slack-based community and in no time you’ll be chatting with today’s brightest PLG experts and attending the most high-value PLS AMAs.

About the author
Ben Lang
Ben Lang, Head of Community at Notion
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