Expert Interviews From the Customer Community 1.0 Era (’07-’09)

It’s clear that the Corvid-19 Pandemic will drive the global economy into a recession. Periods of economic turbulence tend to have a catalytic effect on the role of online communities and related social and network-based experiences. In particular, it seems public participation increases, followed by corporate investment. We saw this play out with the investment in brand-hosted communities following the 2001 dot com crash, and with the heavy investment in brand social media following the 2008-09 recession. As it seems we are on the cusp of another wave of change, I thought it would be helpful to look back at what some of the brightest minds were thinking as we made the last transition, from what I call the “Customer Community 1.0” era, to the rise of corporate social media, which more or less started in 2010.

I helped write and edit the Online Community Report blog and newsletter while I was Chief Community Officer at Forum One. We had a great run from 2007-2010. Although the OC Report’s publication was suspended, thanks to the magic of the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, I was able to find an archived copy of the site. I’ve linked to several of the interview archives below, as well as added key quotes from the interviews. The pictures are from the original interview posts, which is why they are so small in many cases.


Shawn Morton (TechRepublic / Cnet)
I interviewed Shawn when he was still Community lead at TechRepublic / Cnet. I had the good fortune of working with Shawn to help launch and grow TechRepublic. TechRepublic was a very creative environment, and we develop and test new features on the site constantly. Shawn’s shared his point of view with me on balancing new feature development with member’s needs:

“I think I’ve seen just about all of trends at some point over the past 8 years – from collaborative desktop apps, to discussion boards, to blogs, to wikis to social news.

In fact, a couple of years ago, TechRepublic pushed out a lot of new features like social bookmarking, member blogs and wikis with the goal of driving increased usage within the community.

In the end, we found that what our members really wanted was for us to focus on improving the features they used the most discussion and technical Q&A. The big lesson from that exercise was to follow the needs of the community first, not the latest new thing that analysts, journalists or bloggers are raving about: unless your community is geared toward analysts, journalists or bloggers.

We also learned that it’s OK to phase out features if they’re not working. In my experience, you need to continuously justify every feature on the site. If something isn’t getting used, it is noise and the more noise you have, the harder it is to clearly articulate your value proposition.”


I’d also like to add that Shawn passed away in 2018. He was a bright and creative spark in the industry and is sorely missed.


Lee LeFever (CommonCraft)
Lee’s interview from April 2007 featured this great response to my question asking him what trends he saw emerging:

“Two big things come to mind:
1) In terms of overall trends, community is a big focus in the business world – and it feels real this time. When I started working with customer communities in 1999 I spent a lot of time describing the concept and evangelizing. There was a lot of misunderstanding, doubt and nay saying. When the bubble burst it added fuel to the fire. In the last couple of years, the tools have improved, there are many exciting new models and success stories and your average Internet user has a renewed, more positive perception of community. While there is still misunderstanding, it’s exciting to see renewed focus and attention in the community space. Already this year there were two well-attended conferences focusing on community (CommunityNext and Community 2.0).
2) In my experience, there is a much needed focus on the role of the community manager. Companies are starting to understand that community isn’t a technology that you plug in and leave alone – it’s a way of doing business that takes time and hard work. In the best success stories, there is almost always a person or small group that understands community processes, sets expectations, and balances the needs of the community and the organization. Community management is an important skill we need to develop more in the future.”


Jake McKee (Ant’s Eye View)
In his August 2007 interview, Jake offered guidance on the ramp up of interest in community and social media that his firm was seeing at the time:

“The last 12 months or so has been an interesting time to do what I do. 12 months ago, I was having lots of conversations with clients and potential clients where they were asking us to first explain what all this social media and community stuff was about. In many cases, we were helping to support our client contacts within an organization to pitch it or explain it to their colleagues and managers.

Lately, it seems like that they know they want to do something, their bosses expect them to do something, they’re just not really sure what to do or how to get started. I talk to a lot more business professionals with their own Facebook profiles, and who joke about playing with Twitter, posting Amazon reviews, and any number of other online social activities. These same types of people a year ago were brushing off social concepts because “MySpace is ugly and meant for teens”.


Joi Podgorny (Ludorum)
I this interview from September 2007, Joi had a lot of thoughtful things to say about kids / tweens / teens and social media and community use:

“I like the question regarding whether kids’ needs are different than adults’ needs online. My answer is yes and no. Adults are usually more aware of their multiple identities, both on and offline. They have their work personality, their friends’ personality, their (seemingly) anonymous online personalities, etc and they are more able to see the lines of distinction between these identities. Kids also have multiple identities but they are less paranoid about separating them. Many kids, teens and young adults are comfortable with living aspects of their lives very publicly, online. I see pros and cons to both ways of identity juggling. Adults seem to have a better grasp (again, usually) on the ramifications of their actions and will/should act accordingly. Kids/Teens are freer in their identity exploration and therefore, they are able to learn so much more than if they were in a more protected stance.

One aspect that I think hasn’t been looked at as thoroughly as it could have been, is how to deal with late tween/early teen audiences specifically. We have reached a point in our industry where there are handful of people with experience in managing youth communities. We know about moderation, COPPA compliance, filters and the like. Communities/Virtual Worlds like Club Penguin and Webkinz cater to younger children and their parents and have very strict parameters regarding how communication happens between users. But the population that I think needs more attention is that of kids between 11-15 (and the outliers). These young adults are huge communicators online, but are sometimes held back from their true potential due to the strict and rather archaic ideologies as to how they are allowed to interact online. Don’t get me wrong, I am a youth online privacy advocate from the old school, but I think we need to look at the legislation and rules we put in place years ago, and see if any updates need to be made to accommodate where our communities have evolved. If we don’t, I think we could miss out on some great opportunities for everyone online, not just kids and teens.”


Ross MayField (Socialtext)
I was fortunate enough to interview Ross in the run up to the 2008 recession. Ross offered his observations on the effect of the dot com bust (2001) on online communities and gave forward-looking advice on what the post-recession environment might look like for social software:

“We started Socialtext in the last recession, back in 2002. Its interesting that Social Software took hold then, perhaps people took to blogging when they were unemployed. But seriously, there are some key trends that will continue regardless of the hype cycle and macroeconomic conditions:
* NetGens, the first generation to grow up with the internet throughout their lives, are in their second year of employment after college. This is the largest demographic shift, at the same time when the Baby Boom generation is retiring, and will have a profound impact on adoption of social software, organizational culture and work preferences and styles.
* The Consumerization of IT, where innovation happens first in consumer markets, is adapted for the enterprise or driven by individuals serving themselves with SaaS and Open Source alternatives without IT
– Individuals trust peers more than institutions to inform their decisions. This not only impacts consumer marketing, but politics and management.
* Its become common for people to express a facet of their identity publicly on the net, and values of transparency over privacy are changing
* The cost of personal publishing and forming groups that can take action is falling to zero
* Enterprise Social Software is being treated as a serious category of enterprise software by executives and IT, especially as more case studies demonstrate business value.

As we enter into a recession, enterprise budgets will tighten, but it remains to be seen if the relative low cost of Social Software solutions are impacted. We have seen a change in Financial Services, but so far its fairly contained. However, the US isn’t the only market where companies have difficulties collaborating.”


undefined Allen Blue (LinkedIn)
Allen was kind enough to spend some time with me discussing communities from the perspective of product development. In particular, I found his perspective on balancing product vision with customer feedback very compelling:

“When I think about Vision, I think about a statement of what we’re going to be when we grow up and take our place in the market. And it’s a promise to our customers — an implicit contract describing what we’re going to provide them, what the ground rules are for our relationship with them. We may not share the entire vision with our customers, but the spirit of that vision is part of all the products we produce. This is one of the reasons that Visions have ethical overtones.

It’s important not to confuse a Vision with a product design, or even a strategy. I think people frequently say “Vision” when they mean “the product I’m building.” The product you’re building should always be open to substantial modification and change: you either got it right, or you didn’t, but what matters is how you react and make it successful.

If a Vision is formulated correctly, then it is lofty, generally applicable to many situations, and axiomatic. Take “Access to all of the world’s information” as an example. There are many ways to get to that kind of vision — many products and strategies that will get you there. If a Vision is tied to a specific product and strategy, it’s unlikely to succeed.

And even Visions are really hypotheses at first — they are insightful observations of the market. But they should be shaped by realities in the market in the early days, and made higher, less detailed, more like magnetic north and less like a plan to get there.”


undefinedScott Wilder (Intuit)
Scott is one of the true pioneers in developing customer communities. I was fortunate enough to participate in early best practice sessions at Intuit with Scott while I was at Autodesk. In particular, Scott’s perspective on community’s role in creating brand equity, and community’s effect on customer experience have always stuck with me.

At Intuit, we look at our online community team as a Center of Excellence because it impacts all areas of the business.

The product development group, for example, learns a great deal by reading what customers are saying in the community and even more importantly by interacting with those customers online. Our product managers aim to ‘close the loop’ with our users by sharing how they actually incorporate their customer learnings into our product offerings. For example, you can see how customer input has a direct impact on our products if you go to the We Hear You section of the community website. Then there’s customer service. Many of our users questions are answered by other users, by members of an ecosystem that likes to share learnings, knowledge and experiences. This is especially important with our products because people in various industries use our products differently. For example, we might both be using QuickBooks, but you sell widgets and I provide consulting services, which are two very different types of business. There’s also marketing. The community provides a great way to reinforce our brand attributes, which are being knowledgeable and approachable. And lastly, to meet our company’s big goal of helping empower Small Businesses in any way we can.


undefinedAaron Strout (Powered)
In addition to being the lead organizer of the Community 2.0 conference, Aaron Strout saw the value for brands of augmenting hosted communities with social media outposts early on, as we fully transitioned into an era of heavy corporate investments in social media (2009-2010). Aaron’s take on the thinking about the right mix of community and social media from our January 2009 interview:

“I like how you worded your question. It implies that social media SHOULD be in a company’s marketing mix vs. being a standalone solution. At the end of the day, companies will enjoy the greatest success when they are coordinating all of their efforts and driving their customers to their online communities and/or social outposts on places like LinkedIn and Facebook. In those places, customers and prospects alike can interact with a company’s employees, talk to one another, interact with content that company has created to provide a learning experience and ultimately, feel more a part of the company’s brand.”


I hope you’ve found this trip into the archives valuable and interesting. I found it helpful to look back on the last major period of transition in the community space – both to be reminded that we go through regular cycles of opportunity and investment with communities, but also to be reminded that it seems value, participation and the importance of communities (and all related experiences) increases with each cycle.

The Connected Future of Design with Patrick Newbery

During the COVID19 crisis, digital networks have played a critical part in keep humanity connected and informed. The adoption of networked experiences has scaled exponentially, seemingly overnight. In most cases, these designed experiences were crafted for very different contexts than what they are being used for. In our new, digitally connected yet physically isolated future, we will need new design mindsets and methods to account for hyper-connectivity, data-enriched experiences, and participation by non-human actors in the network. 

Patrick Newbery joins me on this episode of the Cohere podcast to discuss the history of experience design, the opportunities for a more holistic method of design, and what the near-term future of our designed world might look like. Patrick is an expert on design methodologies and implementation, the Co-Founder of Method, and the author of the book “Experience Design: A Framework for Integrating Brand, Experience, and Value“.  

The Cohere Podcast: Episode 5 – Patrick Newbery


Key quotes from the episode:

Patrick on Design Education
“I think in design, a lot of times the education focuses more on what I call kind of the formal aspects of design. So it is more of the components and the aesthetics and the way in which design can communicate and evoke a kind of emotion and response.  One of the things that I read early on in my research into what design was about was the history of the Bauhaus. (I) was really struck by two things:  number one, the general sense of removing the artifice and the subjectivity of design as a goal of the movement;  the other was thinking about people like Jan Tschichold and the approach to book design which was really predicated on both economic efficiency as well as aesthetic value

Patrick on Design Perspectives
“As I practice today, I look at design from three different different perspectives:
1. Pragmatic Design: What are the requirements of kind of the product or the service definition? What are the, what are the goals that the designer is being asked to solve for? What are the kinds of formal aspects of design that you play with? What is the strategy around how to do this efficiently?
2. System / Reference Design: Design for the business has to address a lot of things that may not be product or services. Any single product or service is probably part of an overall ecosystem of value that is being delivered to the customer. So you take a different view on the stages of relationships, the touchpoints that are used, how they cohere together, where those flexibility needed in thinking about how you’re really trying to help design.
3. Strategic Design: Which is really looking at what is changing for a business. Why will tomorrow be different? How do, trends in emerging technology and trends in economics or social-cultural context.
Change the kinds of products and services or even business models that the business will need to have in the future.”

Patrick on the Future of Design
“I think we should realize that everything that we’re doing right now and everything that we’re thinking about right now is really very early-stage and naive in terms of thinking about what is possible with designing technology. There’s been so much change in the past two decades that it’s really difficult to kind of keep in mind that there’s not enough history yet for us to understand what really are best practices and what makes the most sense in terms of design in business, and that as we look at the arc of technology things are going to continue to change and whatever we think now next decade, we’re going to look back and say, “Oh, that was a little naive. We didn’t anticipate this coming.” What excites me about things in general though is I think the ability for us to actually begin to think more in terms of data and information, because I think data and information are key to the design process. If we begin to think “where can we create value or, better resiliency, better ability to have things be regenerative in terms of value creation, specifically around things like climate change or, or health care?” To date, we’ve largely looked at a lot of these solutions or approach these problems from an economic perspective as opposed to a systems perspective.”

Resources:
Patrick’s LinkedIn Profile
Graphical Thinking Tools: Time for Design
Graphical Thinking Tools: Boxing Day
Graphical Thinking Tools: You’re Out of Line!
Graphical Thinking Tools: A Path is not a Map is not the Territory
Experience Design: A Framework for Integrating Brand, Experience, and Value

Realizing Power of Your “Onlyness” Through Networks with Nilofer Merchant

The primary purpose of the Cohere Project (and podcast) is to explore the future of human networks, especially tools that increase human and group agency in a network. I believe Nilofer Merchant’s concept of “Onlyness’ is one such tool. We discuss Onlyness, and much more, in one of the most fun, informative and unfiltered conversations we’ve had on the Cohere podcast.


Nilofer Merchant is a pioneer in the use of social technologies and has written extensively about how businesses can leverage social networks and communities to shape strategy, improve performance and become more purposeful. In her new book “The Power of Onlyness”, Nilofer brings forward the idea of Onlyness as a means of claiming your distinct place in the world and using networks as a catalyst for actualizing your purpose.  

The Cohere Podcast: Episode 4 – Nilofer Merchant

Quotes From This Episode

Nilofer On Innovation
“Innovation is like air. It’s in circulation, right? That everything happens. So it’s more about watching the flow of interconnections, not about containing it in one spot.”

Nilofer on Cocreation
“All ideas are manifest in a social construct. I’m watching this and thinking ‘ we’re totally missing the point’, but social can actually allow us to shape every part of the value chain. I didn’t feel like anyone else was saying that. And so in fact, I wrote a piece that I got death threats over. The simple notion was, we’ve been conditioned to think about work as being the thing that happens internal to the company, that it’s our ideas. Then here’s this little dotted line of how these ideas link up. Then there’s the world out there. We create, you buy. I was like, well, actually you could have customers give you demand signals. You could have the whole interactivity of every part of the value cycle could happen from creation to demand to customer service, cocreation of work.”

Nilofer On “Onlyness
“Each of us stands in a spot in the world. From that singular distinct spot is how you add value to the world. So it’s your source of ideas. It’s the way in which you cocreate. It’s the insight you have based on what you see as wrong or needed. It’s centering correctly on the source of ideas. Based on that history and experience, visions and hopes that only one has.

There’s a beautiful source of ideas that all of us have, but we largely ignore. Because we’re not saying that 7 billion people can contribute. We’re saying usually in any room, 30% can contribute. “

In this episode of the Cohere Podcast, Nilofer and I touch on the topics above and discuss:

  • The evolution of social media
  • Managing corporate innovation and the role of communities
  • The concept of Onlyness, as it relates to “you, us and together”
  • How your network shapes your self-image, role, and personal agency
  • The natural reaction of hierarchies to resist networks
  • The benefits of taking a radically different path

Resources mentioned on the podcast:

The Cohere Podcast: Bonus Episode – Creating Connection in the Time of COVID-19 with Nancy White

In this short (~15 min) bonus episode, we speak with facilitator and community builder extraordinaire Nancy White of Full Circle Associates about creating and maintaining connections online during a crisis. 

Specifically, we talk through:

  • Advice for taking offline events online (and if you should)
  • Planning for a near-term future of limited face to face gatherings
  • Drawing from pre-social media community building techniques to create connections
  • How facilitators and community builders can practice self-care and help others during this challenging time

And, Nancy’s parting advice:

“Stay happy. Do something positive. Wash your damn hands.”

Bonus Episode – Creating Connection in the Time of COVID-19 with Nancy White

Links / sources mentioned in the episode:

The Ecocycle Diagram that Nancy mentions in the episode:

The Cohere Podcast: Episode 3 – The Role of AI in Online Communities and Networks with Venessa Paech

It’s human nature to seek connection, meaning, and knowledge through community. Thanks to the smartphones in our pockets (and the near-global access to broadband – see our previous episode), “community” now is very much a digital construct, and the way we find and participate in such gathering places is radically changing. 

As online communities and human networks have evolved, algorithms have played an increasingly prominent role in the experience, from offering rudimentary personalization to shaping and segmenting entire communities. In the future, AI and related technologies will become central to our shared digital and real-world experiences. 

In this episode of the Cohere Podcast, Venessa Paech and I discuss the future role of AI in online communities – both the tremendous opportunities and potential threats AI & related technologies pose.

The Cohere Podcast: Episode 3 – Venessa Paech

In this episode, Venessa and I discuss:

  • AI in the context of the digital community experience – 21:15
  • The specific ways AI can enhance community experience – 33:54
  • Potential risks of emerging technologies – 39:37
  • Machine culture – 43:30
  • Advice for organizations as they began to prepare for the changes that out AI will bring to community experiences – 46:59

Guest Bio

Venessa is a co-founder of the Australian Community Managers Network, a PhD candidate studying the intersection of AI and community, and a global authority on communities and community management. She has led Community for realestate.com.au, Lonely Planet, Envato and Australia Post among others.

She founded the Australian Community Manager Roundtables (ACM) in 2009, and created Swarm in 2011 with Alison Michalk.

She also runs the annual Australian Community Manager Career Survey and with ACM, authored the first code of ethics for the region. 

Find Venessa on the web at Australian Community Managers Network, her website VanessaPaech.com, and on Twitter @VenessaPaech.

Sources Discussed

The Cohere Podcast is part of the Cohere Project. If you know someone that you think would be a great guest, or if you are interested in learning more about the Cohere Project, please send me a message.

The Cohere Podcast: Episode 2 – Navigating the Global Broadband Internet’s Opportunities & Vulnerabilities with Jim Cashel

Over the past 25 years, the Internet has become a central part of our everyday lives. Even so, there are still over three billion people in the world who don’t have access to broadband internet. Thanks to a combination of new technologies, this will change rapidly over the next 5 years. This change will open a wide range of potential opportunities and vulnerabilities as the Internet experiences its largest, and final, population boom. In this episode, Jim and I discuss key aspects of the Great Connecting, including ways to prepare for, and participate in, this transformative event.

The Cohere Podcast: Episode 2 – Jim Cashel
  • The technologies that will allow the parts of the world who don’t have internet currently to have it in the next two to three years – 5:59
  • What potential benefits and vulnerabilities the internet will bring to areas that previously didn’t have it – 10:33
  • Why the benefits of the internet and social platforms outweigh the negatives – 20:53
  • How companies can prepare for and participate in this great connection – 25:01
  • What roles AI will play in this future state of connectivity – 30:02

Guest Bio

Jim Cashel is the co-founder and chairman of Forum One Communications. As Forum One’s Chairman, he works with the senior management team on strategic and leadership issues, helping to support a continuing mission of applying new and promising technologies to address societal problems of importance. He has a bachelor’s degree in human biology from Stanford, a master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School, and a medical degree from Harvard Medical.  In 2018-2019 Jim was a Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. He also recently published the book The Great Connecting: The Emergence of Global Broadband and How That Changes Everything.

Find Jim on Twitter @cashel as well as at ForumOne.com.

Sources
The Great Connecting: The Emergence of Global Broadband and How That Changes Everything by Jim Cashel

The Cohere Podcast: Episode 1 – Exponential Technologies and Online Communities with Kent Langley, CSO of OpenExO

Welcome to the inaugural episode of the Cohere Podcast! I’m very excited to bring you this discussion about the effects of exponential technologies with my good friend Kent Langley, CSO of OpenExO.

Broadband and wireless Internet connectivity are now commonplace in the developed world, but this wasn’t always the case. At the beginning of the 21st century, just over 300 million people (roughly 5% of the globe )had Internet access. The number of participants, and the type of participation has evolved rapidly over the last 20 years.

In today’s episode, OpenExO’s Chief Science Officer Kent Langley and I discuss this evolution in three eras:
1. The Dawn of the Internet & PCs,
2. The Introduction of the Web 2.0 & Mobile,
3. The Rise of Exponential Technologies – the Exponential Now.

We explore what each of previous eras looked like, and what we can expect from the global human network as we move forward.

The Cohere Podcast: Episode 1 – Kent Langley

Overview
In this episode, Kent Langley and I discuss:

  • When the commercial internet gained mass adoption- 7:00
  • Evolution of web technology and community platforms – 14:52
  • Understanding exponential technologies and the concept of exponential organizations – 18:53
  • The role AI (and related technologies) will play in the global human network – 26:19

Sources

Main resource mentioned in this episode:

Books mentioned in this episode:

Software mentioned in this episode: 

Other resources mentioned in this episode:

Guest Bio
Kent Langley is a leader and technology visionary with a background in Technology Operations, Cloud Computing, AI, Exponential Organizations, Data Science, and Blockchain. He works on projects that educate, feed, clothe, and empower people as the co-founder of OpenExO Inc., and as a six-year faculty member at Singularity University. 

To find Kent on the web, visit his website KentLangley.com and follow him on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.

2020 AI & Communities Research Project – Survey Now Open

I’m excited to announce the second round of Structure3C’s AI & Communities research. This research builds on our foundational project in 2018 (more on this below) and comes at a critical time when global internet connectivity races towards 100% coverage, and algorithms and non-human actors play an increasingly central role in this global human network.

If your role involves developing communities or networks for your organization, I’d like to invite you to participate (if you haven’t) in a short survey focused on the intersection of AI and Community. 

You can take the survey here:
https://structure3c.typeform.com/to/j3pgTB

Your ideas and expert opinions are critically important in shaping a human response to the impact of exponential technologies. The survey will take approximately 15 minutes, will only involve participants on the enterprise & brand side (no agencies or consultants), and all participants will get a copy of the final report and receive an invite to one of our mastermind-style debrief sessions in early 2020.

We ask that you complete the survey on, or before January 10.

Results From Wave 1 – 2018
Our 2020 project builds on the first round of research we conducted on AI, Automation and Agents in 2018. The respondents from the first wave generally considered the value of AI is threefold for Community Professionals:

  • AI will allow for the automation of routine community tasks and processes so that focus can be put on more valuable activities;
  • AI will provide real-time analytics, insight, and specific and contextual suggestions;
  • AI will shape the community experience for all stakeholders, including members (onsite), prospective members (externally), Community Managers and Executive Stakeholders.

You can find a recap of the 2018 project here:
https://billjohnston.io/2018/07/26/ai-use-cases-for-communities-networks/

You can find the summary deck with findings from the 2018 research here:

Why AI & Communities is a critically important topic for 2020
When we (Structure3C) did the first primary research on AI and Communities, it was clear that AI, as a topic, had was being discussed but there weren’t many practice examples in the field beyond rudimentary personalization and early experiments with RPA (robotic process automation). We expect the results from this wave of research to yield a broad swath of new ideas and case examples of actual programs and technology deployments.

We hope to wrap up the online survey by the second week of January and then begin interviews with technology providers (including community platform companies) and practitioners that have deployed AI, Automation and Agent technologies in their communities.

Again, please participate as soon as you can:
https://structure3c.typeform.com/to/j3pgTB

I would also appreciate any recommendations for additional people to include in the survey and platform providers to interview.

As always, feel free to reach out with feedback, questions or ideas!

Beyond Ideas: Building Collaborative Innovation Communities

Screen Shot 2018-05-09 at 6.22.33 AMOpen 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.

  1. The Social Suggestion Box – Launch an open space for customers to give feedback or make suggestions
  2. Overwhelming Backlog – Period where the company can no longer process the backlog and may abandon the community
  3. Managed Sprints – Develop a strategy to shape feedback and ideas by introducing a more formal process and constraining topics & time
  4. Collaborative Innovation – A significant evolution of programs and platforms that layer ongoing ideation into all design and decision making

screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-5-08-14-am

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.

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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:

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.

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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.

Summary

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.

Influencer Apocalypse? No, But There Is a Community Opportunity

To say current conversations about influencer marketing are heated would be an understatement. With estimates of influencer marketing industry size ranging well into the billions of dollars, “influencers” certainly seem to be on the minds (and in the budgets) of marketers.

Let’s be honest – influencer marketing currently seems to be a bit of a mess. Issues with performance, lack of disclosure, authenticity, analytics, ethics, and even debate on what constitutes an “influencer”.

I’ll admit I’ve personally struggled with the concept of influencer marketing programs. I’ve focused on developing customer communities throughout my career, and it was always galling to see budgets dedicated to what I perceived as shallow and short term investments with influencers and opinion leaders competing for budget with community programs.

Now I see an opportunity to align influencer marketing programs with community development – or, said another way, I see an opportunity to identify and develop an evolved form of “influencer” from your community ecosystem. Specifically, I see an opportunity for many brands to see “influencer” development through the lens of community ecosystem development, and to align influencer investment with community-based champion and mvp programs.

To take advantage of this opportunity, three key transformations are needed:

  • Community Ecosystem Development: A shift from community development, slio’d by business function and digital touchpoint, to a comprehensive approach that includes all customer-facing programs, (on and offline) brand-hosted communities, social media touchpoints and partner / industry communities.
  • Community Advocacy Programs: Evolving community advocacy (MVP) programs (rooted in the dated Microsoft MVP model) to a model that identifies, celebrates and enables exceptional community stakeholders of all types (customers, prospects, fans, experts, employees and partners). This evolution would also involve an equitable value exchange between the community hosts and advocates.
  • Community Leadership Models: Evolve community leadership models to: 1) involve (enlist) more brand-side participants, 2) account for a broader range of community & ecosystem leadership activities (on and offline), and 3) ground community activity in purposeful transformation for all community members (a.k.a. ongoing personal improvement)

In short: most current “influencer” strategies are essentially paid media masquerading as social media. Grow influence through, and for, your customer community.