This is the first of a five-part series on the topic of community value. The series is based in large part, on the output of a series of small-group working sessions and primary research that began in 2018, as well as learnings and observations from my career.
A Personal Perspective
I’ve worked with some form of community for the majority of my career. In 1999 I took a job with TechRepublic.com as “UX Program Manager” and spent 9 months helping design, build, launch and grow what would become one of the largest online communities of global IT Professionals. Community platforms, as we know them now, didn’t exist. We had to build everything from the ground up. A design for threaded discussions went from whiteboard to production over a weekend. Content editors played the roles of community managers and moderators – “community management” wasn’t a term of art yet. It seems quaint that for the first two years of TechRepublic we only cared about two numbers: uptime and membership.
My first taste of what might be possible with communities beyond answering technical questions was volunteering to be one of the first Fast Company Company of Friends organizers in Louisville KY in 2000. The FastCo mothership gave me a list of local subscribers, a discussion guide, some facilitation guidelines and an organizer’s button. We held the first meeting in a local business conference room, and frankly, I was amazed that anyone showed up (we had 15 people at the first meeting) and also impressed that we all had so much to discuss. The central topic was about how technology -especially the Internet- was changing business.
In 2001 I was offered the chance to move to California and work on an in-product community with Autodesk. The focus of the community was to support customer onboarding and product usage. Autodesk was the beginning of a personal journey to study the implicit and explicit value of communities to companies. That journey continued with Forum One, Dell, and now continues with Structure3C. Along the way I’ve studied and helped develop different methods and measurements for community value: the impact of forums on the support burden, the effect of community on NPS and LTV, the effect of community on purchase frequency and size, and much more.
In my opinion, ground zero for community analytics has been measuring the value of knowledge generated in online communities, particularly in the context of customer support. Over the years different approaches have been fielded for measuring this value in support communities, including the cost savings of customer labor vs staff, the value of a call deflection, the long-term value of a qualified or accepted answer, and possible causal effects of participation on customer behavior. Several thoughtful methods have been formalized and documented by platform vendors and industry experts. This “ground zero” problem seems to have been solved, and cyclically re-solved and re-quantified to the point of diminishing returns, like a community version of the Bill Murray film Groundhog Day, we still have executives pushing back on the validity of the calculus, and the corresponding results. This is perplexing to me.
Keep in mind, the customer support scenario I describe above is arguably the most tested, proven and accepted (by community professionals) example of community value. Yet organizations continue to regularly debate this. When the conversation moves towards the value of community across customer lifecycle, and the potential value across business units our current methods, measurements and metaphors fail us.
It seems we missed something along the way in developing best practices for communities. Admittedly, it’s not a simple problem to solve, but the key problem areas seem fairly clear:
- Community as a concept is still largely misunderstood by the extended organization;
- Investments in social media activities have claimed large portions of budgets and resources and have been mistakenly viewed as the primary focus for community, as opposed to a component of the community ecosystem;
- Community strategies are often independent of, and so therefore misaligned with, corporate strategy and have no clear connection to corporate goals;
- Community as a function is separated from other customer-facing functions;
- Well intentioned, but misguided community leaders sometimes intentionally try to keep their teams and the overall community at arms-length from the organization;
- Community analytics and activities often don’t communicate value in the context and language of the business;
- Because the community function is separated from the business, it is often viewed as a cost center, as extra overhead for extended teams, and is asked to quantify value and impact in unusual or extraordinary ways – often in an ongoing, and sometimes ad hoc fashion;
- Hampered by the aforementioned factors, the final straw is that community analytics and data aren’t integrated technically or programmatically into enterprise analytics, data and reporting – a critical dimension of individual customer profiles and the ability to gain insight into entire market segments is wholly missing.
In Short: Many organizations are missing the community opportunity because of a short sighted focus on transactional value in the context of specific use cases. Growth-minded companies are fully embracing community as a concept and integrating community-building practices into the fabric of their business with great success.
The Value of Networked Businesses & Connected Customer Experiences
Organizations have engaged in various forms of online community development for well over 20 years, but questions central to the issues of strategy, investment priorities, performance analytics and business impact remain largely unanswered. The good news? An emerging body of research suggests that businesses that embrace community-building are more resilient and innovative, and that customers connected to a company’s community are more valuable customers. In the face of market disruption being driven primarily by exponential technologies, and in the midst of a range of business and digital transformation models intended to navigate market disruption, communities aren’t just a way to save a few million dollars in support costs – communities and networks are critical for future business success.
Connected Customers Are More Valuable
The 1:1 relationship between a company and a customer is increasingly perishable. The customer is blessed by an abundance of choice in the market, and increasingly (especially for technology) the lifespan of a company to customer relationship can last only days, weeks or months — not years. As an example: most software companies are moving from a perpetual license to term-based licensing that can be as short as 24 hours. Creating a great customer experience and minimizing churn are key.
One key strategy is to develop customer communities where customers connect to people in the business (as hosts) as well as other customers and prospects (as peers). This creates a network of many:many connections, where bonds strengthen over time and value is exchanged in the form of knowledge, content, advice and help.
These communities translate into real value for the customer and for the host business. Companies like Autodesk have found that community members were more loyal and more likely to recommend than non-members. Autodesk was also able to quantify cost savings from their support community to be several million dollars. Similar research at Dell, uncovered the fact that IdeaStorm community members spent 50% more than non-members, and members’ purchase frequency was 33% higher than non-members. Community member ideas from IdeaStorm created $100’s of millions of dollars in revenue in the period between 2007–2011. Further, taking an account-based marketing approach, Dell was able to correlate patterns of community participation with increased purchase size and frequency on their TechCenter community for Large Enterprise customers.
“Engaged consumers exhibit enhanced consumer loyalty, satisfaction, empowerment, connection, emotional bonding, trust and commitment.”Brodie, Ilic, Juric, Hollebeek (2016) Consumer engagement in a virtual brand community: An exploratory analysis
Networked Companies Create More Value (and are more resilient)
In a 2014 article from Harvard Business Review, a study between Deloitte and a team of independent researchers examined 40 years of S&P 500 data to examine how business models have evolved with emerging technologies. The study had 3 key findings, including the emergence of a distinct new business model of “Network Orchestrator”. As defined by the study:
Network Orchestrators. These companies create a network of peers in which the participants interact and share in the value creation. They may sell products or services, build relationships, share advice, give reviews, collaborate, co-create and more. Examples include eBay, Red Hat, Visa, Uber, Tripadvisor, and Alibaba.
The study also determined that fewer than 5% of the S&P 500 qualified as a Network Orchestrator. This signals both an opportunity and underscores the urgent need for transformation, as the average lifespan of the S&P 500 has sharply declined from 90 years (in 1935) to just 18 years.
Another study by NFX found that in the last 25 years (since the launch of the commercial Internet) 70% of value in tech is driven by network effects.
“In other words, companies that leverage network effects have asymmetric upside. They punch above their weight. They are the Davids that beat the Goliaths, and then become the Goliaths.”NFX: 70 Percent of Value in Tech is Driven by Network Effects
What both the ’14 Deloitte study and the NFX study point to is the opportunity for businesses to accept the network contexts they are already operating in, and to evolve their businesses to cooperative models that look more like communities than the hierarchical company / customer models of the industrial age.
Value to Members
One aspect of value creation that is surprisingly overlooked is the value created for community members. At its most basic, value can take the form of questions answered in a technical community – and this is where many organizations primarily focus. This unfortunate limiting belief is holding many community programs back and preventing the community from reaching its full potential.
Leading organizations have taken a more sophisticated approach, with a focus on the “whole” customer and the potential for a career-long relationships being developed and strengthened through the community. Although more difficult to quantify, these more sophisticated approaches yield value to the members in the form of career advancement, skills development and mastery, and in the very best cases, the ability for members to discover and actualize their 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.Purpose Will Power Future Online Communities – Bill Johnston
An Executive Mindset Shift
When most Executives think about customer communities, there is an unfortunate tendency to view them as “cost saving” vs “value producing”. This misguided thinking leads to strategies and outcomes that fail to realize the full value of customer communities. This typically manifests in the form of a myopic focus on customer support communities and an overburdening of customers taking on the role of customer support agent. In extreme examples, this sort of strategy breeds resentment with valuable customers, and leads to a dangerous dependence on an unsustainable resource. When the Executive 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, co-design of products and much more.
As we enter into an increasingly digital & connected era, future-state communities will be key locations where 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 growth.
In order for businesses to begin defining a future state community model, they should:
- View community building as a capability and view their extended community ecosystem as a strategic asset;
- Explore and define what “community” means in the context of 1) the brand and 2) the customer experience;
- Understand how community can play a meaningful role during the entire lifespan of the customer relationship;
- Develop a community strategy that aligns with, and complements, corporate strategy as well as customer needs;
- Understand how the community ecosystem creates value for all business functions;
- Develop a community ecosystem – a portfolio approach versus investing only in a destination community or a social media outpost;
- Develop community programs, goals and KPIs that tie to Business Unit goals and objectives and are translated into team, manager and individual performance goals
- Prepare to integrate community ecosystem data, analytics and insights into enterprise analytics, communications and annual & quarterly business reviews;
- Most importantly: Be open to the possibility that as the community develops and becomes embedded in the fabric of the organization, the community can catalyze organizational transformation.
Upcoming posts in this series will explore:
- methods for framing and sizing your community opportunity;
- how to develop a value-focused strategy;
- guidance on developing goals and measurements;
- how to evangelize community, secure funding and sustain engagement in community investments.
The best way to stay up to date when new posts come out? Subscribe to the Cohere newsletter.
Leaders often use the word “transformation” to describe a small or incremental change, but the definition is “a thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance”. When using the phrase “Transformational Communities”, my intention is to define these communities as having a profound and thorough change effect on participating stakeholders.
One of the most interesting examples I’ve encountered is the hybrid online & real-world community development model that Family Independence Initiative uses for its UpTogether program. To date, families participating in FII’s community-powered program have experienced a 27% lift in income, have established an average of $1,000 in personal savings, and have collectively established $2.5 million in home equity.
Jorge Blandón, Executive Vice President at FII, joins me on the Cohere Podcast to talk about the mission of FII, to discuss their community model in detail, and to talk about the stories of some of the families who have collectively walked out of poverty together.
Key Quotes From the Episode:
“FII really is aiming for all people in the United States to be seen and invested in for their strengths and that they’re able to build their social and financial assets. I think until today, there are systemic barriers that prevent a lot of low-income families from leveraging their assets, their strengths, and even community. FII wants to remove those barriers and really create a new environment where families are trusted as change agents and communities are collectively addressing the challenges that prevent them from pursuing their wellbeing.”
“FII’s approach is really anchored in historic models of just how communities and families would come together to support each other from barn raisings to examples of the Chinatowns throughout the country, the Black wall street and in Tulsa, or the fact that there are over 1500 donut shops owned and run by Cambodians. These are people, that are coming together, leading the way, showing a path forward. This country has a rich history of, of people just pooling their resources, their money, their time, and collective strength and, and, and wisdom.”
“So UpTogether is an online community-building platform. It’s a place where low-income families can take their offline conversations and bring them online to connect with other UpTogether members. They may live in their same neighborhood, in the same city, or connect with other families, experiencing similar challenges across, across the country. It’s really the place where social and financial capital is exchanged and ultimately accelerated. On UpTogether families can, can share news around accomplishments, like paying off debt, buying a home, sending their kids to college, eating healthier. They can curate groups to share ideas around parenting, children with special needs, starting a business, or even being civically engaged. It’s really a platform that recognizes that we all bring something to the table.”
Key Resources From This Episode
Jorge Blandon on LinkedIn
Family Independence Initiative
FII’s UpTogether Platform
Analytics – Learning From Families
Stories from UpTogether Member’s
Help if you can:
Lastly, low-income families have been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Please consider making a donation to #GiveTogetherNow, a campaign that FII families benefit directly from.
Do you know someone who would be an interesting guest for the Cohere Podcast? Someone who has built an extraordinary community, is nurturing an novel human network, or has an extraordinary vision for the future of human networks? If so, please send me a note – I’d love to talk to them.
Too often the deployment of digital strategies and tools begins humans conforming to technology limitations instead of technology being deployed intentionally in the service of human needs and opportunities – a human-centered approach.
Dr. Lauren Vargas joins me on the Cohere podcast to discuss bringing humans back into the center of the “digital transformation” conversation and provides the CALM framework and specific examples for leaders to draw from.
Lauren is particularly well suited to give guidance here, as she is one of the most experienced and widely practiced digital strategists I know. She’s had an impressive range of experiences in both the public and private sectors, including senior roles at Radian6, Aetna, and Fidelity. In private practice now, she’s most recently been focused on helping museums around the globe with digital transformation. We recently reconnected in London where I also got to walk through the AMAZING Clash exhibit at the Museum of London with her to see some of her work first hand.
Key Quotes from the episode:
On Infusing Technology with Humanity
“it’s talking like technology with heart, right. So it’s, it’s when we talk about it being embedded in, in an organization, and we talk about being embedded in an ecosystem, in the DNA, it’s how do we have technology with a pulse? How do, how are we having conversations and using and understanding, managing and creating digital, and technology in a way that is, is human-centered.”
On Culture as Terroir
“I think culture is having a common language. It’s having a shared belief and value system, implicit and explicit practices.
You know, those conditions, those contexts are different for every single organization. Every organization has its own terrior. Each, each organization has its own unique fingerprint, contextual characteristics unique to that certain place that can influence and shape its character.
So when we think about terroir, an agricultural and an ecological term, it’s the soil. It’s the topography. It’s the climate that collectively gives and produces a particular characteristic. For organizations, terroir might be attributed to the type and size of the organization and the industry it is anchored in, it’s visitor or customer demographics. It’s physical locations and all forms of media that terroir, it’s complex and it is comprised of internal and external forces that are unique to the organization. And, those forces ebb and flow. They adapt and adopt over time.”
The CALM Approach to Digital Leadership
“Taking a CALM approach to digital leadership, to digital transformation, is incredibly powerful. And when I say calm, it’s an acronym.
C — Collaborative
A — Anticipatory
L — Letting go of Command and Control Leadership and Embracing Collective Leadership
M — Mindful
How do we, how do we think about a collaborative first environment? How do we embed, an anticipatory rhythm of practice and ritual? How do we let go of command and control leadership and how do we create the space to reflect?”
Resources From This Episode
Find Lauren online:
Articles mentioned in this episode:
- Keep ‘CALM’- not just carry on business as usual
- Take ‘CARE’ to be ‘CALM’: Emotional intelligence is key to achieving digital maturity
Books Lauren mentioned in this episode:
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.
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
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.
- Australian Community Managers Network
- SWARM Conference
- A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace and other works by John Perry Barlow
- Agency by William Gibson
- The Age of Surveillance Capitalism – The Fight for the Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff
- Artificial Unintelligence – How Computers Misunderstand the World by Meredith Broussard
- Algorithms of Oppression – How Search Engines Reinforce Racism by Safiya Umoja Noble
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.
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.
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
Main resource mentioned in this episode:
Books mentioned in this episode:
- Exponential Organizations by Salim Ismail
- More Than Human, The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet, and The Nexus Trilogy by Ramez Naam
- AI Superpowers: The Course and My Journey Into AI by Kai Fu Lee
- The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson’s
Software mentioned in this episode:
- Ava Music Group
- Microsoft Azure Free Trial
- Amazon Web Services Free Tier
- IBM Tutorials
- Google Colab
- NVIDIA & VMware Test Drive
Other resources mentioned in this episode:
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.
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:
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:
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:
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!
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.
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.
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 Innovation.
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 & Enhance Product Experience
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), Salesforce (Trailblazer Community), and Sephora (Beauty Talk) are actively investing in the community space.
Communities Drive Innovation & Long-Term Value
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.
Use these three contexts to help create long-term value with your company’s community.
When developing or refining a community strategy, it is critical to understand the larger market and business contexts the community will exist in. This sounds obvious and straightforward, right? Yet the needed research, discussion and development of shared understanding of these contexts rarely happens. As a side note, this concept was literally hammered into my brain by a former boss at Autodesk, Moonhie Chin, who was the SVP of Digital Platform and Experience. She always had a simple question for any data she saw: “What is the denominator?” – meaning, what is the whole, or what is the largest meaningful context.
I’ve been primarily focused on developing Business to Business communities during my career, and I’ve come up with three key contexts that I think are critical to understand the opportunity for community development.
1. Customer Career Journey
Understanding your customer’s career journey, the number of distinct journeys, and how your product / service plays a role can help determine where in the journey community may play a valuable role.
- Number of distinct Customer Profiles (~Personas)
- Stages in Career Journey
- Centrality of products / services to productivity & advancement at each stage
- Is product or service critical throughout career, or only at certain points?
- How does / could the community support development and transition?
- Can your organization support the full Customer Career Journey, or does it make sense to partner with complimentary organizations?
2. Criticality of Product / Service
Understanding the criticality of your product / service engagement by customer profile, can give insight into the level of effort, the specific motivations, and the needed resources customers need to master your product, and by extension, advance in their career. This understanding can guide what community experiences your offer (and what community investments you make).
- Complexity of product / services
- Effort required to attain skills / mastery
- Amount of time spent using product / service
- Amount of time spent in surrounding ecosystem – courses, conferences, meetups, online content, expert communities, etc.
- How much time will the customer spend mastering product / services and necessary skills?
- How much time will the customer use the product in their work?
- How much time is it reasonable to expect a Customer to spend participating in your community weekly?
- What form factor and level of effort is required for quality participation?
3. Total Addressable Community & Crowd
Taking insights uncovered from the discussions in the customer career journeys and the depth of engagement categories, what do the opportunities and required investments look like at scale?
- Overall Market Size
- Current Customer Base
- Projected growth (ideally segmented by Customer Profile)
- Target vs Current Community Membership (again, segmented by Customer Profile)
- How big is the total addressable market?
- What % of active customers are targeted for community engagement?
- What business value can be realized at scale?
- How can the community business case be optimized by extrapolating investment vs return at scale? At what point does the investment vs return reach equilibrium? Go negative?
- How does the Customer value proposition change at scale? Is there a true Network benefit, or flat / diminishing return at a certain point in the growth arc?
In the simplest terms, the three contexts give you:
- Customer career journeys: Where in the journey is community valuable?
- Depth of product / service engagement: What community experiences are valuable?
- Total addressable community & crowd: How many people can you expect to participate in your communities?
These contexts are for considering an Enterprise strategy, and you can imagine similar contexts for Medium & Small Business and Consumer. This approach doesn’t replace a comprehensive strategy development exercise, but is intended to sketch out a future state and give relative sizing for future planning or assessing current efforts.
If you would like to discuss this sizing approach, or other advanced ideas for creating a bigger and better future for you community, please reach out.