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.
“…people’s identification of, and intention to pursue, particular highly valued, overarching life goals.” (Steger & Dik, 2010).
a.k.a. “Your reason for getting up in the morning.”
Bryan Dik PhD – Professor of Psychology at Colorado State & Cofounder of Jobzology
The Fine Line Between Engagement & Manipulation
Growthhacking, gamification, content snacks and personalization. Your feed is overflowing with tricks, hacks and best practices to “drive engagement”. The best of these techniques tap into a member’s intrinsic motivation to trigger participation, the worst rely on psychological tricks and negative emotional responses.
What if there was a way to create sustained engagement in communities and collaborative experiences that harnessed genuine motivation and strove for positive outcomes for participants? Through my work as a Fellow with Life Reimagined, I have (with my team of Fellows) developed an approach that taps into the power of purpose to drive community engagement.
As Community Architects (and Builders, Managers, Hosts, etc), we’ve always known that we needed to define a community’s purpose as part of strategic development, but we generally haven’t paid much attention to the role of purpose for community participants. Tactical goals in the context of a community experience, yes. Thinking about the community member as a “whole person” with a life beyond your community? Let’s be honest – rarely.
Our community experiences today are largely designed around the limitations of the platform we choose to grow our communities on. Content (posts and messages) is typically the most dynamic element, followed by algorithmically-driven “streams”. Reputation elements develop over time and are helpful to make judgements about the value of content and contributors, but it is hard to say any given community experience truly evolves. On the whole, the Community experiences are surprisingly static.
There is opportunity for improvement here. Looking at Communities through the lens of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, you can make a case that online communities support many of the needs that Abraham Maslow describes in his model, especially 1.) Belonging (through social connections), and 2.) Esteem (through participation and the advancement through reputation system). The missing ingredient has been the proverbial top of the pyramid: Self-Actualization.
What might happen if the community and collaborative experiences we designed supported the discovery, refinement and actualization of a person’s purpose?
Next, think about what a community might look like if the host organization was actively refining and expressing its purpose through community interactions. As an example: If a software company’s purpose is to empower the world through digital design software, you could imagine community activities going well beyond break/ fix support forums and into eduction, skills mentoring and specific efforts to reach people in the developing world and the associated technological challenges. The host organization evolves from an authoritarian role to become a responsive partner in co-development.
Early Development of the Purpose Model – In Flight Now
In November of 2015, I was honored to be chosen as part of the inaugural Rand Fellows with the Life Reimagined Institute. I was asked to be team leader and had the opportunity to work with Bryan Dik, Brooke Erol and Roberta Taylor on my team. Our team was mentored by an amazing group of thought leaders, including Richard Leider, Alan Weber (co-founder of Fast Company) and Dr. Janet Taylor. The goal of my team was to create community-based programs that help people discover, refine and express their purpose. My team of fellows is in the middle of a pilot and research project that lasts through the end of July to study the best ways to help our community of participants discover, refine and express purpose through their work. Our team took the Life Reimagined process (shown in the graphic below) and mapped community activities to each stage to come up with the needed content and features for our pilot community program.
Meaningful Results Beyond Engagement
One of the most incredible outcomes of our pilot program was that we saw significant improvement in 12 of 20 psychosocial variables that we measured in our participants. Specifically, we saw large gains in feelings of Happiness, Resilience, Presence of Meaning, and Career Decision Self-Efficacy. We also saw reductions in feelings of Loneliness and Depression in participants.
We are in the early days of developing a model for Purpose-Driven Communities but we are already seeing impactful results from our studies. The Purpose-based model I’ve described doesn’t exist in the wild (yet), but the time to consider the implications and possibilities is now if you want your organization’s community to evolve beyond static growth, low engagement and specious results & impact . There are many positive and disruptive implications of the model – I’ve highlighted a few below.
- Shared Purpose of Community
- Hosts will have to clearly state the purpose of their community, as well as help individual community members define, refine and express their purpose in the community experience. The development of a “Purpose Model” is required.
- Purpose Expressed in Community Leadership and Actions (Member)
- Once the “Purpose Model” is created, more effective Member journeys, reputation and roles can be developed that align near term activities with longer-term accomplishments.
- Evolving Role of Community Manager
- Once the language of Purpose is understood in a community, and once members and hosts can share their purpose (via statements / profile), the Community Manager can play a critical role of connecting members with the content, people and activities they need to actualize the member’s purpose.
- A New System of Context & Feedback Loops (Platform)
- New tools will need to be developed to facilitate purpose discovery, and to drive the community experience through context (activity streams, member matching & networking, journey models) and feedback loops (based on activity).
- Federated Communities
- The expression of an individual’s purpose is a large and complex topic. It is unlikely that any one community or organization can fully support the breadth of an individual’s need. Complimentary communities have an opportunity to partner around customer types and segments to offer experiences that support purpose. We will begin to see examples of Federated Communities as an alternative to mass social networks in the next 12-24. Powering these Community Federations with Purpose will be a game changer.
Creating a Purpose-driven model for communities will be a break through in performance, engagement and impact for many organizations. This new model will create the canvas for life-long relationships that are based on mutually beneficial outcomes for the host and member. Community platforms, programs and roles will need to evolve to realize the full value of the model.
I will continue to research and write about the Purpose-driven Community Model as part of my ongoing #NetworkThinking series. To stay up to date, subscribe to my newsletter here.
I’m currently working a select list of clients to build amazing communities. If you would like to schedule some time to talk about how I can help, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Honestly, I wasn’t going to do this. I’m already rolling eyes at all the “prediction” posts. And there are way too many 2015 retrospectives to look back on… but I’m feeling optimistic and inspired! You are taking the time to read this – THANK YOU! I have had an incredible amount of support for my first year of Structure3C. Thank you for being part of it.
This is a long-ish post – the short version is a list of personal highlights from 2015, and a look ahead to 3 big ideas and aspirations for 2016.
A Look back at the first year of Structure3C
Thank you for letting me take a moment to reflect on a few key accomplishments from this year.
- Launching Structure3C on February 4, 2015 to help brands create successful customer communities and crowdsourcing initiatives
- Chairing the inaugural Collaborative Economy conference in San Francisco in March
- Conducting the first research study on Brands & The Collaborative Economy – exploring a range of organizations level of knowledge, interest, priority and current activities in the Collaborative Economy
- Having a number of prominent speaking engagements, including SxSWi, Social Business Forum 2015 (Milan), The Silicon Valley Boomer Business Summit and Crowdsourcing Week Europe (Brussels)
- Helping a growing portfolio of brand and startup clients with briefings, crowdsourcing strategy, online community development and product design
- Being interviewed by Virgin Entrepreneur on Crowdsourcing
- Holding the closing workshop at the Crowd Companies 2015 Main Event in SF – (you can download my custom workbook from the event)
- Being honored as one of the inaugural A. Barry Rand Fellows for the Life Reimagined Institute
- And on a personal note: I made a commitment to my family to be present more throughout the year – one lagging indicator of success is the number of pancakes and pieces of french toast made in 2015 numbers just shy of 1,000! (disclaimer: back of the napkin calculation)
3 Big Ideas for 2016:
1.) Beyond “Digital Transformation”
In 2015, it seemed like Digital Transformation ate the business world. Almost overnight, the big consultancies dropped “Social Business” and began to sell Digital Transformation strategies. Thought leaders and former champions of social published articles and books about establishing, then disrupting “Digital Business”. Former Social Centers of Excellence were abandoned or repurposed for the “new” digital business journey.
In some ways, this is completely logical. Big consultancies need to keep clients anxious and their armies of consultants employed. Thought leaders need a constant stream of new terms, concepts and frames to stay relevant and top of mind. Executives need to frame annual objectives in ways that are novel and show progress year over year.
And, let’s face it: Social, Community, Customer Collaboration are all hard. Really hard.
Obviously, technology plays a critical role in modern business. The problem with many Digital Transformation efforts is a hyperfocus on the technology at the cost strategy and customer relationships.
Further, the definition of “Social Business” was always somewhat nebulous, and the internal culture shift and alignment needed to be successful was an arduous task. Pursuing a primarily technology-driven agenda likely seems more attainable, and “Digital” is an easier sell – both the perceived value and anticipated results.
What is lost in the shift from social to digital is the opportunity to fully realize the business value of connected customer relationships at scale. Realized specifically through strategies based on networks, communities and deep collaboration. Sound nebulous? I’ve shaped and seen first hand the value of social and community in the form of increased direct revenue, increased loyalty, crowd driven products and early market dominance based on building communities in parallel with products. Examples: The quantified value of Dell’s IdeaStorm was in the hundred’s of millions of dollars, Dell’s TechCenter community had billions of dollars in impact on Large Enterprise sales, Autodesk’s support community saves the company millions of dollars a year… I could go on.
2.) Digital / Social Business reframed as Business, Networked
Based on my experience building online communities and collaborative experiences, as well as research I’ve conducted, I’m convinced that a new and comprehensive approach to online communities is the way forward.
An approach where:
- What we thought of as “social” is really the networked marketplace
- Your market is synonymous with your crowd
- Online communities build lasting relationships amongst your customers, prospects, employees and partners and
- Collaboration looks like a true partnership with customers, not an internal social network no one really uses.
In order to begin exploring business opportunities in the networked economy, businesses need to shift their mindset to think about markets as networks. Their total addressable market(s), connected via platforms & social networks.
There are three important contexts to think about in the Network Marketplace:
- Crowd: A group within a Market Network that has:
- A shared interest or goal
- The ability and assets to participate in a shared marketplace, task or activity via common platforms
- Community A connected & hosted group within a Market Network that has:
- 1 or more shared interests or goals, leading to shared identity & purpose
- The ability, motivation and assets to work towards a common purpose over time
- A host with intention to support & manage community over time
- Collaborative Organization Collaboration amongst organizations, partners and customers essentially functioning as one organization:
- Shared IP & Common resources
- Shared vision of activities and outcomes
- Shared risks and equitable outcomes
3.) Radical New Leadership
To truly make progress in the evolving online community strategy we need new leadership, and evolved (not incremental) vision. This requires a shift from quarterly-driven decision making by businesses and a “sell what we have” mentality from our collective social vendors. Specifically:
- A new function that owns customer experience across every touchpoint – and further – owns developing the 1:Many relationships in the market network, not just 1:1
- A new Executive to lead this function
- Integration of platforms, systems and customer data that create internal efficiencies, better customer experiences, and put the customer in control of their experience, relationships and data
- A new point of view on value, and specifically, the value of customer engagement and participation. The days of customers supporting other customers without compensation are coming to an end.
- We need a bolder vision for online community platforms and social media & network tools. Platforms now are: 1) optimized around specific functions, like peer to peer support 2) are incredibly hard to customize and 3) are incredibly hard to integrate. We need better from you.
- Reign in sales-driven organizations that over-promise and under-deliver on community quality and outcomes.
- We need vendors to come together on feature & data standards and interoperability. Just to pick a specific example: The current disconnect between CRM, Marketing Automation and Community Platforms (even from the SAME vendor) is unbelievable. Invest in fixing it.
- You need something new to talk about and sell. I get it. I humbly ask:
- Connect the dots between your concepts, especially when retiring an old concept for a new one.
- Talk to your peers in the industry when selling new ideas so clients aren’t dealing with 10 flavors of the same burning platform concept.
- Show your source data when you have it.
- Attribution is appreciated. Especially for concepts you are essentially recycling.
- Show you really care about the future of the industry by cooperating on standard definitions, benchmarks and training
- Try to coordinate conference data and overarching themes
- When collecting practice data you intend to use for consulting or products, please provide a disclaimer at point of collection.
Do you agree? What would you add to this list?
With that said, 2016 is shaping up to be even more fun.
A preview includes:
- An upcoming announcement for a series of Crowd Economy “Rapid Orientation Workshops”
- Select speaking engagements focused on describing a Modern Approach to Online Community Building by developing Market Networks
- Ongoing research into how Brands continue to evolve their Crowd and Community business strategies
- An expanded set of consulting offerings, including modules for leadership & team development, value / ROI analysis and scorecard development.
Should we talk? I’m offering a limited number of free introductory consultations (via phone). I’d love to learn more about your community & crowd plans for 2016, and I promise your will take away new ideas from our call.
In the spirit of the New Year, I wish you a peaceful and epic 2016. Thank you for helping make Structure3C ‘s first year a success!
I created the Collaborative Economy Kickstart as a companion to our longer-form workshops. In 2.5 hours, participants will get a briefing on the Collaborative Economy, a facilitated exercise to guide ideation and action planning and 30 minutes of group coaching to begin their journey in the Collaborative Economy.
In the first hour Participants will be given an overview of the Collaborative Economy, including:
- The key elements of the Collaborative Economy;
- The three C’s of a Crowd-powered business: Crowd, Community and Collaborative Organization;
- Case studies and examples of Crowd-powered businesses;
- A method for identifying opportunities for, and threats to, a Participant’s business;
- A framework for developing a Crowd-powered business model.
During the second hour Participants will then be guided through an Ideation & Action Planning exercise that helps them:
- Explore the dimensions of the Collaborative Economy that are relevant to their business and market;
- Assess the biggest threats and opportunities;
- Learn to do an asset inventory;
- Explore opportunities via the Ideation Canvas tool;
- Create an action plan to more forward immediately after the session.
The workshop will end with 30 minutes of group coaching to explore topics that have surfaced during the overview and action planning sessions.
Participants will leave the session with a better understanding of the Collaborative Economy, an action plan draft and exclusive templates to use within their organization to kickstart their Collaborative Economy journey.
Community has been part of the fabric of Autodesk since the beginning, and as early as 1986 the company was engaging customers in the nascent virtual communities forming around BBS, Compuserve and the like. I came on at the beginning of 2001 to help with a new online community initiative called Point A,one of the first online communities that was also contextually embedded in the product. After the bust of 2001 Point A was retired, but out of the ashes came a thriving online discussion forum community, a robust blogging community, and vertical online communities like AREA, a community for 3D artists and designers. I left Autodesk in 2007, and came back in 2011 to help restart Autodesk’s business community and community-based service initiatives.
As with many corporate initiatives and functions, attention and focus ebbs and flows – at Autodesk, the fabric of the customer community tended to tear and mend over time. But with every mend, the fabric grew bigger and stronger – and at this point, the community continues to grow stronger every day thanks to a solid strategy, strong community leadership and executive support.
Some highlights of the Community strategy are called out in the Groundswell submission post on the Lithium blog:
I’m currently building a select list of clients to work with to build amazing communities. If you would like to schedule some time to talk about how I can help, please drop me a note.
It’s no secret that many Brands realize tremendous value from their social media and online community efforts. Value in the form of cost-reduction for support and service, ideas for and feedback on products, product and brand advocacy… the list goes on and on. Most organizations have analytics in place and some form of dashboard that tracks performance, and in many cases, actual financial impact of social and community efforts.
Unfortunately, there is also a problem with the current approach Brands take: it’s unsustainable – unsustainable because it is predicated on Customers doing valuable work for free.
Stay with me here. In the early days of community, all brands really had to do was show up. Hosting a discussion forum met pent-up need for customers to connect, share and help each other. The motivation for participation was generally either purely altruistic and/or driven by the desire for enhanced reputation and recognition.
More recently Community Advocacy programs, elaborate reputation systems and game mechanics were introduced to drive contribution to communities. On the one hand, these programs and technologies enhance the Brand community experience. On the other (and more cynical) hand, they could be perceived as an inequitable attempt to squeeze more value from community members.
Further, there is currently an explosion of expertise and talent marketplaces like Maven, PopExpert, Odesk, Google Helpouts and 100s of others, Community experts now have myriad marketplace options and some are starting to charge for their talent and expertise.
To net it out:
1. Brands generally view Communities as cost-saving vs. value producing, and consequently:
2. Brands haven’t truly considered what an equitable value exchange might look like between the organization and the community;
3. Compensation to the community contributors comes in the form of either reputation and / or fulfilling on an altruistic need, with a very small percentage of member getting “MVP” benefits;
4. There is an explosion of knowledge and service marketplaces that allow experts to place financial value for knowledge and expertise.
In short: Brands have to rethink their social and community strategies from an exchanged-value perspective, or risk losing their community.
What to do?
The most critical thing is to rethink the Social & Community value equation, and to move beyond the myopic view of Customer Communities as solely a means to reduce cost. Instead of asking what the benefit is to the organization, real research and critical thinking needs to be applied to the needs, expectations and values of customers who might participate in a community. The range of value received from the the community by participants needs to be broadened – access to communal knowledge and connections are an expected part of the digital experience now. Compensation for Community participation and contribution must evolve beyond reputation and become more tangible, possibly in the form of products, services or even financial compensation.
A few key questions to explore:
What if community members knew the explicit value of their attention and contribution to a community?
- What impact would this knowledge of value have on the current community?
How might we enhance the community experience by surfacing and rewarding contribution beyond rank and reputation?
What are the emerging knowledge and service marketplaces that might attract our current key contributors?
How might our competition attract our customers with a more valuable community experience?
I’d love to hear other’s perspective on the issue of sustainable participation. Please chime in via the comments below.
The latest version of the Collaborative Economy Honeycomb – visualizing the industries showing meaningful growth and / or activity – has been released on Jeremiah Owyang’s blog.
The new version adds 6 new industries:
- Health & Wellness
- Corporate (Platforms)
You can get multiple versions of the Honeycomb file, a directory of all the businesses in the Honeycomb, and a deeper overview on Jeremiah’s blog post.
Digital Content & Tools?
One cell that I was hoping to see added this time around was Digital Content – maybe “Digital Things”. There are a growing number of communities and networks of people exchanging the digital files, knowledge and expertise needed to make physical goods. Expect these networks and communities of makers, tinkerers, hackers and artists go more mainstream as more people become inspired by the Maker movement and the ease of use for the software and hardware tools becomes better.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I do think the Collaborative Economy is a real and emerging force, poised to disrupt existing brands and create many new ones. Tools like the Honeycomb help capture a snapshot of the current state of a complex system – Thanks to Jeremiah for continuing to analyze, capture and help make meaning from all the activity in the space.