Image © Leigh Prather
The last few years have seen big brands make extraordinary investments in developing massive “digital transformation” and social media programs. On one hand, these programs have yielded moments of customer connection, advocacy and insight. Unfortunately, for the majority of programs reliant on mass social platforms like facebook and twitter, organic reach has dropped effectively to 0 and companies are now forced to pay to engage sporadically with the “audiences” they worked so hard to build. Companies now realize they have been renting their customer communities on social platforms.
The alternative to social media campaigns and digital transformation theatrics? Developing Customer communities. Specifically, online Customer communities that companies build, host and manage. Customer communities hold the key to Customer acquisition, retention and growth. Further, communities can be a catalyst for development and innovation, and will be critical to future business models. Below I explore the opportunity for Customer community in three key Corporate areas: Brand, Product and Strategy.
Community is the Fabric of Brand
What is the nature and value of brand in a hyper-connected world? A recent HBR article asserts that the collective value of Customer relationships is outstripping the value of “brand. The authors of the article nail the point that Customer relationships are incredibly valuable, but may have missed an opportunity to explore the effect of the customer community as a brand asset & catalyst — the line between brand and relationship isn’t as crisp as the authors imply. Further, I would assert that the “network” of relationships represented by the collective customer base of a company is a manifestation of brand, every bit as important and as valuable as the components of brand identity. My primary research and experience has shown connected customers (via community and social) are more valuable than those that aren’t. Third party research by Deloitte has shown that Networked companies (“Network Operators”) perform better, live longer, and are more valuable. All of these points are are vectoring towards a new opportunity and a new frontier in business: Community-Centric Customer Experience — an approach to customer experience design and business strategy that not only strengthens the Company to Customer relationship (1:1), but also strengthens and develops the Customer to Customers & Company relationship (1:Many, a.k.a. the “Community”). and considers development of the Community the primary .
Communities Will Infuse Product
Customer communities are an essential part of most technology products now. At the very least, online support forums are expected as part of the offering (more on that in a bit). Many companies are experimenting with customer communities as a means to raise product awareness, convert trial customers and retain existing customers. A radical new business opportunity is emerging where the community (both the people and the platform) are the actual product. Purchases are artifacts or a gateway into the community experience, and the real “product” is the collective experience, knowledge, content and means of collaboration with the community. There are many early examples in the gaming world, from MMOG’s like World of Warcraft to the new “build and explore” virtual worlds like Roblox. Software companies are attempting to build communities that address the “whole customer”, and focus on experiences well outside of product support. Adobe (Behance), Autodesk (Instructables, Fusion360, AREA), Intuit (OWN It) and Sephora (Beauty Talk) are actively investing in the community space.
Opening the Aperture on Strategy
There is an unfortunate tendency to view Customer communities as “cost saving” vs “value producing”. This thinking leads to strategies and outcomes that fail to realize the full value of customer communities, and is rooted in a long standing dependence by some companies on customer support communities. In extreme examples, this sort of strategy breeds resentment with valuable customers and leads to a dangerous dependence on an unsustainable resource. When the Corporate mindset shifts to “value producing”, the aperture of community strategy widens to a rich set of possibilities: community advocacy programs, open innovation, peer to peer mentoring, complex content sharing, customer co-design and much more.
Moving forward, Customer communities will be the medium by which value is co-created and exchanged between Companies and customers. To have any chance of long term success with Customer communities, mindsets have to evolve beyond a fixation on cost savings to a more enlightened view of communities as a valuable catalyst for innovation and growth.
The Bottom Line:
Customer communities are the “fabric of brand”, the medium in which the network of customer & company relationships develops and thrives. Companies that create modern communities with their customers will be more innovative, realize more value and have more resilient businesses than their competitors who don’t.
The concept of engaging “the Crowd” through digital platforms has been around for some time. Howard Rheingold coined the term “Smart Mob” in 2002 to describe the phenomenon of people acting in concert “because they carry devices that possess both communication and computing capabilities”. The concept was carried forward in 2005 by the editors of Wired to coin the term “Crowdsourcing” (crowd + outsourcing) to describe production with the a digitally connected marketplace. In the 15 years since the concept of Crowdsourcing was introduced, we have seen a wide range of crowd-based business models emerge: Wikipedia (collective knowledge), Lego Ideas (design your own kit), Kickstarter (crowd funding), Local Motors (crowdsourced vehicles), and Dell’s Ideastorm (the original social suggestion box).
With the wide range of crowdsourcing experimentation, we’ve also seen the limits of what the current platforms and practices can produce, and it isn’t pretty. Consider:
- On average, less than 30% of Crowdfunding campaigns reach their goals. On some platforms it can be closer to 10%.
- Quirky, once the darling of crowdsourced consumer goods, filed for bankruptcy in 2015.
- Dell, an early pioneer in crowdsourcing, has been able to implement only 2% of the ideas submitted on IdeaStorm.
- Independent crowdsourcing research, including a recent study by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, discovered that social influence can cause “herding towards a relatively arbitrary position.”
What are the key challenges?
The most common limiting factors to Crowdsourcing initiatives are one, or a combination, of the following:
- Engaging the right crowd: Perhaps the most critical challenge in crowdsourcing is finding, and then engaging, the members of the crowd with the knowledge, skill and motivation to participate. Without domain knowledge and skill crowdsourcing produces only low quality results. Without motivation, you have unrealized potential.
- Creating an iterative development process: One of the early corporate adopters of crowdsourcing, Dell’s Ideastorm, learned early on that creating an experience that solicits ideas without giving the community the ability to refine and evolve the ideas is a waste of time. After collecting over 10,000 ideas in the first 2 years of IdeaStorm, Dell was left with 9,750 that couldn’t be implemented, causing frustration for the company and their crowd. By introducing multi-staged challenges dubbed “Storm Sessions”, Dell was able to source and develop products with their crowd, most notably Project Sputnik, the first Linux-based laptop for developers.
- Developing short and long-term feedback loops: The process and infrastructure required to support short-term feedback loops is difficult and labor intensive, requiring personal interactions and manual data management. Longer term feedback loops that include market data are currently next to impossible.
- Creating intelligence from crowd data: The amount of data a typical crowdsourcing initiative produces is overwhelming, and managing this data to create knowledge and insight, even moreso. Consider the amount of manual processing and scoring overhead associated with the 25,000+ ideas in the previously mentioned Dell IdeaStorm example.
How A New Take on Collective Intelligence Can Help
Collective Intelligence, a disciplined approach to the “wisdom of the crowd”, is defined as the “science of scaling insight from multiple knowledgeable perspectives and experiences into predictions”. We’ve traditionally thought of “The Crowd” as exclusively human, but what if we expanded the collective “we” to include the rapidly evolving domain of Artificial Intelligence? The combination of expert communities and artificial intelligence is the core of a new approach to Collective Intelligence being developed by a new startup named CrowdSmart. Specifically, CrowdSmart technology creates a means to predict startup success factors by engaging an expert community of investors to score and provide critical feedback to early stage startups. Investors save time on research and improve the quality of their deal flow, and Startups get critical and timely feedback to help increase their odds for successful outcomes.
What is uniquely valuable about the CrowdSmart approach is leveraging Artificial Intelligence to detect the statistically significant ranked comments behind any given score. These ranked comments are the “drivers” that produce a specific score. The qualitative “wisdom of the crowd” becomes quantitative intelligence that grows in value over time.
According to Tom Kehler, Chief Data Scientist at CrowdSmart, “Collective Intelligence significantly outperforms individual expert intelligence at predicting the success of a new products, services and startups.” If Tom is correct, the application of Collective Intelligence will have far-reaching effects on the future of Crowdsourcing, paving the way for a more disciplined approach and more successful outcomes.
Disclosure: CrowdSmart is a Structure3C client.
Open Innovation Communities – where companies and customers collaborate on ideas for new products and services – can be one of the most valuable ways to invest in community engagement. Unfortunately, this type of community is also one of the most difficult to get right. Many companies have experimented with this type of Open Innovation – Lego Ideas, Dell’s IdeaStorm, Starbucks’ My Starbucks Idea – and each of these companies have seen value from the communities. The bad news is that most companies fail because they lack the vision and commitment to see beyond the initial tactic of soliciting customer ideas.
In my community practice, I’ve seen 4 stages that are typical in the maturation of an Open Innovation Community.
- The Social Suggestion Box – Launch an open space for customers to give feedback or make suggestions
- Overwhelming Backlog – Period where the company can no longer process the backlog and may abandon the community
- Managed Sprints – Develop a strategy to shape feedback and ideas by introducing a more formal process and constraining topics & time
- Collaborative Innovation – A significant evolution of programs and platforms that layer ongoing ideation into all design and decision making
The Four Stages of Open Innovation Communities
Stage 1. The Social Suggestion Box
Most companies start their Open Innovation Community with an open-ended call for ideas and feedback. Community members are welcome to submit any idea, and the broader community (hopefully) comments on the idea and rates the idea using a simple scale or upvote. Community managers take the most highly rated ideas to the product team for discussion, and eventually some ideas are chosen for production.
The Social Suggestion Box phase is valuable in the short term, as customers will likely have suggestions they have been holding on to since they began their relationship with the company – essentially a communal backlog, if you will. Companies become stuck in this phase when they are unable to process the backlog of ideas, manage the growing community and deliver quality ideas to internal teams (typically product) in a format and within a timeline that aligns with product roadmaps. This break between the promise of a constant stream of new ideas, and the lack of a process and the ability to shape ideas into a usable format is the key challenge.
Stage 2. Overwhelming Backlog
The equivalent of the “trough of disillusionment” from the Gartner Hype Cycle, companies in the Overwhelming Backlog phase can often find themselves with a large pile of unread ideas, a community platform in need of a serious overhaul, an innovation program that no one really values and a community in revolt.
This situation may sound extreme, but it was exactly the one I walked in to when I joined Dell in 2010. IdeaStorm, Dell’s Open Innovation Community, had launched in 2007. After enjoying 2 years of valuable idea contributions, positive PR and internal support, year 3 found IdeaStorm as a “ghost ship” community, with no leadership, vision or community management. Things became so bad that a community member posted the idea that Dell should shut IdeaStorm down. The community quickly upvoted that idea, it caught the attention of Michael Dell and my team was given the task of “making it better, fast”. I eventually hired the community member who posted the “take it down” idea to become the new community manager for IdeaStorm.
To navigate out of the mess we were in, the team immediately began research to inform our new strategy. I wanted to know the financial impact of IdeaStorm to date, understand why ideas weren’t being responded to, and to understand what the barriers were in getting ideas from the Community into the the product teams at Dell. We found that the financial impact from IdeaStorm was really high ($100s of Millions), that we lacked an agreed upon internal process for scoring and prioritizing ideas, and that we needed to create a new type of community management role to help facilitate the new process – an Idea partner that lived on the product team. The final piece of the puzzle was implementing an archiving policy for ideas that didn’t score well in the community. Within a few months we had processed the ideas backlog, started design on a new platform (with the community), and had reengaged most internal product teams.
Stage 3. Managed Sprints
Companies come out of the Overwhelming Backlog phase with the key insight that shaping the topic, type and form of ideas they would like to receive is critical to realizing value and long term success. Many companies will implement a sprint-like approach to ideation, using phased ideation and design sessions to focus on a single topic or product.
This approach involves developing a clear business or design problem, and then breaking solution development in to smaller ideation projects that are facilitated, in sequence, over a number of weeks. The output of each sub-project helps shape the proceeding sub-project. Ideas and design concepts are generally of higher quality because the problem definition is clear, product teams participate, and community members get real-time feedback from the product team.
Dell did this successfully on IdeaStorm with Project Sputnik, co-creating a Linux-based laptop with and for developers. Other examples of the Managed Sprint stage include Unilever and General Mills. Jovoto (client), an “On Demand Creative Community”, has on of the best Managed Sprint approaches I have seen – you can find more information on their site, and in the book their CEO Bastian Unterberg coauthored, “Crowdstorm“.
Stage 4. Collaborative Innovation
In many ways, moving through Stages 1-3 are a necessary process for companies to undertake in order to develop the strategy, process, alignment, platforms and business models to move beyond what are essentially sporadic innovation campaigns.
Collaborative Innovation is an ideal state where an organization and its community of customer, partners and employees are engaged in an ongoing process to perfect existing products & services and to bring new products and services to market. We’ve talked for years about the boundaries between companies and customers disappearing – in the Collaborative Innovation stage, the boundary is permeable – customers create new products & services with the companies assets, and receive value in return (use, compensation, reputation, etc.).
There are examples of large companies partially engaged in the Collaborative Innovation stage, but none that have extended this to every part of their business.
Some examples include:
- IP Sharing: Tesla & Mozilla opening their patents
- Product Co-Development: Lego Ideas, Firstbuild
- Pretailing: Kickstarter, Barnraiser (client), CrowdSupply
- Customer Lab: Autodesk’s Pier 9, Firstbuild’s Microfactory
- XIR (X in Residence): Autodesk’s Artist in Residence, MAKE’s Maker in Residence
Opportunity While Other Stall
The truth is, most companies never make it beyond stage 2, “Overwhelming Backlog”. Dell, an early pioneer in the space (and my former employer) has been regressing back from Stage 3 for a few years (unfortunately). The other notable pioneer, Starbucks, has optimized My Starbucks Idea to be a very well run & designed Stage 1 community. While Communities at each stage offers some dimension of value, companies progressing through to Stages 3 & 4 will discover the most value and innovation.
The potential opportunity for the next wave of Open Innovation Communities is incredible. Why?
- Customers have shown they are willing to collaborate & create
- Customers are willing to buy products still in the conceptual phase (millions of examples of crowdfunding)
- The tools to create & share complex designs are free and relatively easy to use – see Fusion 360 & OnShape
- Innovation platform companies have an opportunity to move beyond text / pictures / video into immersive & real-time 2d & 3d collaboration. PS – Platform companies – I would LOVE to work on this and have a ton of ideas.
Many companies could realize tremendous value from Open Innovation Communities. Most don’t because they don’t experiment, or do a poor job of planning their initiatives. Companies that commit, support and evolve their Communities see value. Beyond the current practice examples of Open Innovation Communities, the next wave will feature immersive and real-time design as a key feature. Those who wish to innovate need to be evolving their platform, programs and internal process now.
I’m offering a session on Jolt that expands on the concepts in this post, and goes in to more strategic detail about how to build the best Open Innovation Community for your business. Feel free to book a session and chat with me about tailoring to your organization’s needs.
Last week my friends and colleagues at The Community Roundtable released their annual “State of Community Management” report. This is the fifth year for the report, and the Roundtable team surveyed over 200 global organizations.
Key Points & Findings include:
- An overview of the excellent Community Maturity model, as well as case studies on ho Microsoft and Johnson Controls have extended the model for internal use.
- Organizations are still struggling to show ROI (less than 50% in Best In Class organizations).
- Community Management, as a role and discipline, needs more internal investment and support.
- Advocacy program need to mature beyond the “MVP Model”.
- Findings on programming to boost community engagement.
You can view the executive summary here:
I recommend taking the time to download and read the full report.
While at Forum One, I published a similar report in 2008. It’s interesting to note the places where the understanding of the practices and discipline of Community Management have advanced, and where progress seems slower (ROI, Organizational Structure).
I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments! What is your take on the State of Community Management?
I got my start building online communities in 1999 with the launch of TechRepublic.com. We grew from a cold start of 0 to 2 Million members in less than 2 years before being acquired by Gartner – it was an insane ride.
I was first asked the question of (more or less) “What makes a thriving community” during the first few months of our growth, and frankly, I didn’t have a good answer at the time. I was primarily focused on designing the site, rolling out new features (like one of the first peer networks in the space), and tweaking architecture. One night when we were working on what was essentially a Social Q&A feature, I checked into our forums to look for inspiration and ideas around how people typically ask technical questions. What I stumbled into was an exchange in the forums about configuring Windows NT for a very specific enterprise environment. Probably 100 in the entire world were capable of having a meaningful conversation about this topic, and we had attracted 10 of this. For TechRepublic at that time, a thriving community meant attracting the most knowledgeable IT Pros in the world, and incentivizing them to share and participate.
I’ve asked myself the “what makes a thriving community” a lot over the years, especially when my practice takes me into a new domain. What worked at TechRepublic in ’99 and Autodesk in 2001 wasn’t necessarily the same criteria for the large NPO communities and collaboration spaces we did at Forum One, or even the range of communities we built and nurtured at Dell.
I was asked to think about the question again last week, and I put together the following list. Given where brands generally are with their social and community efforts, I feel like this is a good and succinct list – by no means comprehensive – but directionally correct.
Attributes of Thriving Communities
|Attribute||What it looks like to host:||What it looks like to member:|
|Shared Value||Business value in the form of answers, content, connection, expertise, & advocacy.||Value in the form of answers, content, connection, expertise & access.|
|Shared Identity||Members rally around, inhabit, and shape community brand.||Helps birth and shape community brand.|
|Vibrant Participation||Visible, regular and quality member participation and contribution.||Regular Host presence, contribution and facilitation.|
|Community Leadership||Defined rank and reputation model; extending management to members.||Meaningful ranks and status; clear paths to achievement and privileges.|
|Quality Content||Content base growing and evolving to most valuable state.||Contribution, curation and feedback to evolve content quality.|
|Expertise||Community attracts and develops SMEs.||SMEs from host are regular community participants; opportunity to learn & develop.|
|Culture of Trust||Culture of openness and civility. Members air grievances respectfully.||Feel connected to host, part of governance & free to provide critical feedback.|
|Elegant Experience||Mature community & social tools, fantastic UX, committed roadmap.||Easy to participate and contribute, needs-driven features.|
|Growth & Responsiveness||Base follows growth curve of brand / product. Base guides features & policy.||Steady influx of new & quality members, participation in community governance.|
What would you add?
First established in January of 2010, Community Manager Appreciation Day (#CMAD) is held on the 4th Monday of January to celebrate the role of Community Manager. The celebrations range from small acts of gratitude, like thanking a staff community manager with a note, to major events and meetups all over the world.
Jeremiah Owyang, the event’s creator, is tracking all of the activity on his blog here:
4th Annual Community Manager Appreciation Day: Jan 28, 2013
San Francisco Happy Hour on 1/28
I am helping organize a San Francisco happy hour on the evening of the 28th at District Wine Bar. The event is free, but you must register and RSVP here:
Community Manager Appreciation Happy Hour – San Francisco
Google Hangout from the folks at My Community Manager
Tim McDonald and the team at My Community Manager are hosting a hangout on Google + all day on the 28th – more info at:
My Community Manager G+ #CMAD Hangout
Again, Jeremiah is doing a great job of tracking all of the activity across the globe via this blog post.
Find YOUR own “A” in CMAD
I originally chose to support #CMAD because I believe that most organizations are underinvesting in and not properly prioritizing the role online communities can play in their marketing, sales and support strategies. I see #CMAD as a way to raise the visibility of the role of Community Management in addition to a whole lot of gratitude for Community Managers being passed around. With that being said, I have a couple of suggestions for celebrating #CMAD:
- As a baseline, acknowledge the community managers on your staff with thanks and perhaps a small gift
- Thank a community manager in one of your passion or hobby communities
- Thank those you have learned from in the space – I threw a shout out to Amy Jo Kim, Howard Rheingold and Joe Cothrel… and I will continue to add to that list on the run up to the 28th
- Think about how we go beyond “appreciation” for the CM role next year – should it be Advancement? Acceleration? Let’s ave this discussion during the year!
As I look back on my 14 years in the space, I am encouraged by the progress in tools, practices, programs and professional network… but we still have a long way to go! I look forward to seeing Bay Area Community Managers at the Happy Hour on 1/28.
Today was the third annual Community Manager’s Appreciation Day, or #CMAD. The intention of #CMAD is to raise awareness about the role of the Community Manager, and to recognize the hard working women and men who support this role for their organizations. Jeremiah Owyang originally proposed the idea for #CMAD, and has been very active in evangelizing and supporting it since launching 3 years ago.
I was had the privilege of joining Connie Bensen, a colleague on the Dell Community team, for a fantastic Google+ hangout today to talk about the evolving role of the Community Managers. the following folks participated and the video follows below:
+Bill Johnston, Director of Global Online Community, Dell; <that’s me 🙂
+Jeremiah Owyang, Partner, Altimeter;
+Connie Bensen, Sr. Manager Community, Dell;
+Lionel Menchaca, Chief Blogger, Dell;
+Amy Muller, Chief Community Officer & Co-Founder, Get Satisfaction;
+Mark Harrison, Community Manager, Google Earth & SketchUp;
+Patrick O’Keefe, Author of Managing Online Forums / iFroggy Networks;
+Jim Storer, Principal/Founder of The Community Roundtable; and
+Vanessa DiMauro, CEO, Leader Networks.
Based on the G+ hangout, and subsequent conversations, I was encouraged by a number of things today:
- The global community of community managers is alive and well. I saw hundreds of CM’s participating in the #CMAD hashtag via twitter and on Google+, and had Community Managers from all over the world reach out today.
- The spirit of the day was generous and inclusive, with lots of shouts out to CMs all over the world.
- The day surfaced a lot of great questions that the industry is struggling with, including where and how the Community Manager role (and related team roles) should evolve, how community management changes by online touchpoint, and how to deal with burnout in a very high-touch and sometimes emotional role.
My key hopes for next year (#CMAD 2013):
- That there is a more integrated approach to Community-building, as part of most organization’s social business efforts. Specifically, I hope that Community Management is seen as a role, as well as an intention (to form and nurture a network of relationships).
- That we (as a community) will have developed mature social team structures, with specific roles and resources, robust enough to support a range organization types.
- That we will see rich and diverse educational opportunities for Community Managers (and other social team members), coupled with mentoring opportunities.
As someone who has championed the value of Online Community building for most of my career (at least the last 12 years of it), I am very proud of where we are as an industry… but I also feel that we have much work ahead to fully realize the opportunities that online communities present to our respective organizations and stakeholders. I look forward to continuing the conversation with you all every day, including Community Managers Appreciate Day 2013.