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 just 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 (previous client),
- 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) had been regressing back from Stage 3 for a few years (unfortunately) and the IdeaStorm site now appears to be offline. The other notable pioneer, Starbucks, has essentially taken My Starbucks Idea offline as well. 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.
Are you “Member Shy”?
In its most basic form, a community strategy is a balance of an organization’s goals and its member’s (a.k.a customer’s) needs. Organizations have methodologies for developing goals and objectives, yet I continue to be surprised at how many organizations are missing research as a core part of their online community development process. Even for organizations that are highlighted as examples of “getting it”, there are still cases where the community wasn’t engaged in research about a major platform change, feature enhancement or policy shift (the historical / hysterical facebook privacy anyone?). In many cases there seems to be a real fear (or at least discomfort) in connecting 1 to 1 with customers. That fear could be rooted in the inability to have meaningful interaction at scale, the overhead associated with regular contact, or the lack of an evolved organizational culture that encourages this type of interaction. Any community development (or refinement) initiative *requires* the input and direction of the members.
Note: I will be using the terms “member” and “customer” interchangeably in this post. I will also use the term “member” as a placeholder for current and potential members of a community.
Why Conduct Member Research?
Conducting member needs research as part of the strategy development process brings the voice of customer to the center of the strategy, and helps create a lens through which to focus your community building activities. As I mentioned in my kickoff post to “Network Thinking“, there are really five core questions to frame your community strategy:
- WHO are your customers?
- WHY are they motivated to build relationships with each other?
- WHERE do they want to build relationships with each other?
- HOW do they want to build relationships with each other?
- WHAT value can you provide as a HOST to strengthen and deepen these relationships over time?
Member research can also help answer more tactical questions like:
- What role should you play as host, and what community activities should you facilitate?
- What types of content and features should be present in the community?
- Should the community be an “on domain” destination, or should the community presence extend on to other sites, like Facebook?
- What types of members does the community want to include?
- What type of culture does the community need to thrive?
- What activities are members prepared to participate in that will directly or indirectly benefit the host?
- What types of marketing and advertising would members find acceptable?
Techniques for Conducting Member Research
The process for conducting member research is straightforward: decide on the appropriate techniques given your budget, recruit subjects, conduct the research and analyze the results. Great places to recruit research subjects:
- Your existing community
- Your blog
- Your corporate web site
- Newsletter mailing lists
- Customer Conferences
- Independent communities about your product or in your market or topic area
- Facebook or Linkedin groups about your product or in your market or topic area
- Using social network analysis tools like LittleBird or NodeXL to analyze open networks like Twitter.
One on One Interviews
One on one interviews can be conducted either in-person or over the phone. The key ingredients are a customer, an interviewer, a notetaker and a simple interview script (a sample can be found below). Interviews can be as short as 30 minutes, and generally should last no more than an hour. In my experience, a minimum of 5-6 interviews will yield useful themes and give good data for strategy direction. If your community will serve many different products, market segments, or customer types a good rule of thumb is to try and do interviews with at least 3 people from each segment. One on One interviews can also be augmented nicely by a follow up online survey to a larger group, in order to drill down further on issues uncovered in the initial round of interviews. Interviews can be conducted in person, via a hangout (or other video chat service), or over the phone.
Another great way to get feedback, and to get a lot of feedback at once is to conduct a group feedback session. This is similar to the one on one interviews, except you are guiding a group of members through the script, as opposed to just one. Involving multiple subjects at once increases the complexity of the process, so be sure to have someone skilled at facilitation leading the session to keep the conversation on track (per the script), as well as to ensure that all participants have equal air time to give their opinions and feedback.
The fastest, and often lowest overhead way to get member feedback is to create a short online survey to send to research participants. Online surveys are really great at getting quick quantitative feedback, and the results (depending on the tool) are fairly easily to analyze and study. A few issues with online surveys are that the quality of the results depends on the quality of the questions, and in particular, thinking through appropriate choices for multiple choice questions, and also creating effect write in questions that will yield helpful qualitative feedback.
In most cases for the community and social media strategy work I do at Structure3C, I will generally start with an online survey to at least 100 community members,and follow up by conducting a set of 7-10 one on one interviews with community members.
Questions to Ask During Research
There are essentially 5 overarching questions for your community strategy, 4 of which you want to answer as an output of member research:
- Why do community members want to build relationships with each other? What do community members need from each other? Explore what community members might desire from interactions with other community members, and try to understand why they are motivated to sustain this activity over time. Answers could range from knowledge sharing, to providing mentoring, to ongoing professional or personal support.
- Where do you customers want to build relationships with each other? This question is particularly important to avoid duplicating community features and value that exist elsewhere. The key insight to uncover in this line of questioning is what unique value you can provide in your hosted community AND which external communities and social media sites you need to participate in in order to create a holistic community presence. Increasingly, mobile presents a unique opportunity to host your customer network in fundamentally new ways.
- How do members want to build relationships with each other? What value can community members contribute / exchange? It is important to understand what ways community members are capable of, prepared to and willing to participate. Participation could include sharing domain expertise, offering content samples, answering support questions, or even just participating in casual online conversation.
- What do community members need from you as the host? Ask questions that explore member expectations of your organization in the role of host. What are the member expectations around your level of participation, your effort in developing content, in fostering participation and your commitment to hosting the community long-term?
In order to answer the key questions, you will need to ask a series of baseline demographics questions (for context), as well as exploring each of the four key questions in a more granular way. A sampling of questions that can be used to create a script or facilitation guide are included below.
A simple list of survey or interview questions might include:
- Name, organization, title, a brief role description
- Browser and mobile preferences: Chrome vs Safari, iOS vs Andriod, etc.
- What information sources do you rely on (relating to the topic of the community)?
- What groups (on/offline) are you a member of (relating to the topic of the community)?
- What products / services do you use (relating to the topic of the community)?
- What is the biggest challenge you face in your day to day work (assuming this relates to the topic of the community)?
- How satisfied are you with the level and type of communication you have with organization x?
- Do you currently participate in any of the following social media activities: blogging, discussion forums, facebook, twitter, youtube etc (shape the list based on your market)
- What information, insight or content do you want to share with other customers?
- What kinds of information would be helpful for other customers to share with you?
- If organization x were to offer the following content or features, please rate how useful each would be to you: discussion forums, expert Q&A, tutorials & tips, video previews, customer blogs, etc.
- Would you be interested in connecting with other members at local, in-person events?
- Exploring usability issues around current experiences and apps
I’ve seen investment in member research pay off consistently, just as I’ve seen the severe cost of not conducting member research hamper or sink many community initiatives. In short: Want to know what your members want from their online community? Just ask.
Customer & member research is a core part of my community development practice at Structure3C. If you are starting a new community or crowd initiative, my team can plan and deliver community research to build a strong foundation for your program. You can book time with my through my assistant Karelyn.