During Season 2 of the Cohere podcast, Dr. Lauren Vargas and I examined the role networks play in our lives – from the obvious to the subtle. In Season 3, Lauren and I are exploring the topic dominating the discussion of our collective digital future: the Metaverse.
Our intention is to have a discussion will go beyond the hyperbolic (and eye roll-inducing) to have a forward-looking yet practical discussion of what our connected future looks like in a world of ambiently available digital networks – and what this means for us as individuals, citizens, societies, and as part of globally connected humanity.
Topically, we are opening up the aperture to look at the interconnected components that make up a future Metaverse, including the technology trends, societal impact, and what the Metaverse means for future forms of community, collaboration and community leadership.
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Season 3 So Far
Ep 1. Exploring a Betterverse
The current Metaverse is a mirage. The pursuit of the Metaverse vision could lead us to a better Internet.
On the first episode of Season 3 of the Cohere podcast, we (Bill Johnston and Dr. Lauren Vargas) frame of this season’s topic: the Metaverse.
As they did with “community”, Facebook’s announcement of the company’s move to focus on the Metaverse, and rebranding to “Meta”, set off a frenzy of conversation, speculation, and investment. Made in a move remarkably similar to their 2017 announcement that Facebook was a “community” company, it remains to be seen if Meta follows through with creating their version of the Metaverse. It is interesting to note that Zuck’s “Community” announcement from 2017 appears to have been taken down at some point in the past year (archive.org version here).
But this season of Cohere isn’t about Meta. It’s also not (solely) about VR, AR, XR, or related Web3 technologies – it is about the combinatorial effects all of these technologies and trends interacting to shape the next generation of the Internet, and more importantly, how we create a better Internet that is safe, equitable, accessible and inspires the best of human nature instead of exploiting the worst.
Ep 2. What Role Might NFTs Play In Future Communities?
Moving beyond punks and bored apes, NFTs have the potential to play a transformational role in future communities.
On this episode of the Cohere podcast, we (Bill Johnston and Dr. Lauren Vargas) discuss one of the hottest, potentially most overhyped topics right now: NFTs.
For the uninitiated, NFT’s (Non Fungible Tokens) are unique, digital, verifiable (blockchain-based) digital asset that records an exchange of value. In turn, the NFT itself (which records an exchange) can be exchanged. Said another way, NFTs are a “deed of ownership to a digital item”.
Much of the discussion from the past 2 years has focused on NFTs related to digital art – Crypto Punks, Bored Ape Yacht Club and Beeple are notable examples, but just scratch the surface of the massive volume of activity. The NFT market represented a staggering $23 billion in 2021.
The core of our discussion in this episode focuses on moving beyond financial speculation, what role might NFTs play in future communities and digital networks?
Ep 3. Do DAOs Hold the Secret of Orchestrating Collaboration?
Can DAOs address the current fallibility and idiosyncrasies of human collaboration to create better organizations and communities?
On this episode of the Cohere podcast, we (Bill Johnston and Dr. Lauren Vargas) discuss the early promise (and obvious issues) with DAOs (Distributed Autonomous Organizations). Bill and Lauren have an in-depth discussion to try and separate the value and future utility of the DAO model vs. the current hype.
DAOs have been described as “digital flash mobs with money” by Raihan Anwar, manager of the Friends with Benefits DAO, and a blockchain-based “virtual entity that has a certain set of members or shareholders who have the right to spend the entity’s funds and modify its code” by Vitalik Buterin, Co-founder of Ethereum.
A recent article by Tarun Chitra on A16Z’s Future blog suggests that the key factors for forming a DAO vs a more “traditional” organization are curation, security and risk: “DAOs work best when the governance burden related to curation, security, and risk can be reduced faster than the natural increase in coordination costs that accompanies the need to have members involved in voting on every decision made.”
Metaverse Working Group
During the show, we mentioned convening a small workgroup for discussion, learning and sensemaking. If you would be interested in participating, please fill out the short form here to be considered.
As always, if you have comments, ideas, or want to suggest a guest or topic for the show, please feel free to send me a note.
Note: this is the fourth and final post in a series about community value. If you missed “A Perspective on Community Value“, “Understanding the Community Opportunity“, or “Developing Community Strategy, Goals & Measurements“ I’d recommend starting there.
In many organizations, community’s territory is often limited to an ill-defined middle ground between support and marketing functions. This can muddy the community value story, leading to a contributing – but not always reciprocal – relationship with other teams.
Further, community leaders struggle with a set of unique challenges when communicating community value:
1) they are required (more often than their peers) to demonstrate value for various invested stakeholders,
2) these stakeholder requests are often ad-hoc, contextual to a specific business function, and require specialized research, data manipulation and analyst skills that aren’t on the team or budgeted for, and
3) when the requested data and/or reports are delivered, they are often met with skepticism.
For example, we know that successful support communities can play an outsized role in deflecting inbound support cases, and therefore easing the burden on the support organization, saving the company money, and keeping customers satisfied. However, we routinely hear anecdotally that executives “don’t believe” the cost savings data, even when it is the statistically significant result of a sound, industry-blessed model.
Communicating Community Value to Stakeholders
With the reporting frameworks and examples in this series, you should be able to take a step toward establishing and reporting on your priority community measures that map to business value. The primary challenge remaining is how to best communicate your community’s impact to peers and executives, and advocate for additional resources and investment. Based on previous working sessions with our Cohere mastermind community, and firsthand experience in our practice, we suggest the following strategies:
- Arrive at a clear definition for community at your company and socialize it. You’ll never be able to communicate the value of community if there isn’t a shared understanding of what community means at your organization. You need to make clear how community is both distinct from and supports other functions. A starting point could be defining community as a group of people that share a focus (interest, intent or objective) and have the ability and motivation to work together on the shared focus, over time. Particularly with brand or business communities, the core activity is generally about “getting to the next level” – moving forward on a journey towards growth, development and mastery. Your definition should answer the following questions: Who are the members or prospective members of this community? What is their relationship to your brand? What is the shared purpose or set of goals that links member and host needs? And what is your intent for this community? This definition will ultimately factor heavily into your vision, which is an aspirational statement of the future state of your community.
Need additional help & guidance? Download our Community Strategy & Program planning templates here.
- Position your customer community as a critical part of a larger business or digital transformation initiative. We know from the ’19 Altimeter Digital Transformation Survey that executives are, with respect to digital transformation, most interested in providing a unified, frictionless experience across all customer touchpoints. Community touchpoints and content are critical aspects of the digital ecosystem, and therefore must be integrated across channels rather than existing as a siloed platform to store and source knowledge.
- Collaborate with other business units to reach a shared understanding of the value community can deliver for the entire company. As former Mars director Carlos Valdes-Dapena stated in a recent Harvard Business Review article “Quality collaboration does not begin with relationships and trust; it starts with a focus on individual motivation.” For community to break free from its silo and be integrated across the organization, it requires cooperation and collaboration with other teams. But first, these teams need to understand how supporting community programming will help them meet their own goals.
- Develop a draft value presentation and enlist a trusted stakeholder outside of your team to give critical feedback. Perhaps as important as finding willing collaborators is identifying someone senior within your organization who both wants you to succeed and can offer constructive criticism of your value narrative, methods, and measures. The right person, like a good editor, can help you refine your pitch and strategy to increase its efficacy with executives and in implementation.
- Deliver regular, timely reports for executives that clearly articulate the value of community. We recommend ensuring that community be part of a QBR (Quarterly Business Review) process, whereby you would pull together a community-specific quarterly review for interested senior stakeholders, and an annual review for C-suite. These presentations should:
- Use executives’ own language and priorities
- Include the voice of the customer
- Demonstrate the holistic value to the company
- Reveal a progressive community roadmap and plans to increase value over time
Integrating Community Into the Fabric of the Business
To further illustrate the concept of value exchange among community and other teams, we’ve documented the role each business unit can play with respect to community, what they can expect in return, and how to keep them in the loop on community initiatives.
Keeping Internal Stakeholders Engaged In (and enthusiastic about) Community
A Portfolio Approach: Balancing Investment and Performance
Two key themes in this series, as they relate to developing a new value story for Community, are:
a) it is valuable to look at the opportunity for community development in the widest possible sense and b) that community efforts must strike a balance of meeting customer needs while aligning with the purpose of the business – community goals, analytics and the community value story must ladder up to overall corporate objectives and business unit goals.
One advantage of this alignment is the ability to create a bigger picture with customer profile and account activity data, and understand community activity, contribution and value in relation to other customer touchpoints. For instance, understanding how a customer’s digital activity (corporate website, social media, self-paced learning and community activity) relate to product usage frequency and depth of feature use, as opposed to many current approaches where those touchpoints are looked at in isolation, by different business owners.
Although there currently aren’t “off the shelf” comprehensive models and tools for measuring the relative impact of community in the context of (and compared to) the range of other customer touchpoints, there are related models that offer valuable direction on potential paths forward. These methods take a portfolio approach – looking at individual touchpoints and activities as they relate to other, complementary touchpoints.
In particular, marketing mix modeling has been used to establish a econometrics model for community impact on sales size, velocity and amplitude (Dell, 2011). marketing mix models “are based on microeconomic models of product demand linking business outcomes to marketing investments. Once the appropriate demand structure is specified, the next step is the quantification of sales response to variation in each of the marketing mix investments. This is the focus of econometrics – a statistical regression-based procedure to estimate the parameters of the theoretical demand functions.” (“Econometrics in marketing mix modelling” 2013)
While extending Marketing Mix Modeling can give a comprehensive and precise view of the revenue impact of community, there are a few key challenges to be aware of:
- A thorough Marketing Mix Model development exercise requires a large amount of data from the full range of customer touchpoints to be measured, as well as an economist to build the model;
- Model development can also be cost-prohibitive, as projects can easily require 6-7 figure budgets;
- Models are snapshots in time and do become inaccurate over time
The question of correlation vs causality often surfaces when exploring the impact of community engagements on customer behavior. Marketing mix modeling is one of the few certain ways we know to get to a relative financial impact vs other marketing spend. Doing A/B testing is the best option for establishing causal effect, but is obviously problematic on a “live” community, for a number or reasons. Developing synthetic control groups via “look alike” cohorts of member / non members, or split testing beta features are potential workarounds.
The next few years will likely see greater coordination of data management, analysis and reporting across all customer-facing functions to develop the next generation of methods and tools needed to more easily quantify community impact and guide future investment. Holistic approaches that combine customer data from multiple sources & touchpoints, like marketing mix modeling, provide a solid methodological baseline from which to start.
Throughout this series, we’ve sought to document the current state and highlight future possibilities for better understanding, measuring, and communicating the value of brand communities. Through Structure3C’s work experience, a literature review of academic studies and business publications, and the collective wisdom and practices from our Cohere workgroup participants, we’ve provided recommendations for:
- Positioning community as a competitive differentiator and guard against the potential negative effects of disruption;
- Understanding the total addressable market and most relevant contexts for your community efforts;
- Developing a community strategy that is both forward-looking and aligned with the language and objectives of your unique business;
- Setting measurable goals for your community that ladder up to your community and corporate vision;
- Developing formulas for value metrics that extend beyond community health and map directly to business outcomes;
- Embracing a portfolio approach to achieve buy-in across business units and prioritize community investments;
- Communicating and reporting on community value to C-suite and other stakeholders across teams in a clear and timely manner.
As stated above, 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 guidance in this series should help you plot your journey toward the latter.
I hope you have found this series on Community Value helpful – if so (or if you would like to discuss your community strategy) please message me.
The best way to stay up to date when new posts come out? Subscribe to the Cohere newsletter.
Note: this is the third in a series of posts about community value. If you missed “A Perspective on Community Value“ or “Understanding the Community Opportunity“, I’d recommend starting there.
Co-Author: Brian Pagels
This post (part 3 of a 4 part series) builds on the concepts outlined in “A Perspective on Community Value“ and “Understanding the Community Opportunity” and illustrates a process for developing a community strategy, as well as how to think about goals, co-created value and analytics related to community strategy. I’ve also included many examples and tools from our work developing community strategies for large global organizations at my firm Structure.
Developing Community Strategy
The (mildly) unintuitive thing about developing community strategy is that it is both a collaborative process (that guides the overall effort) and a set of tools and methods (to develop the actual content of the strategy). The process model we (Structure) use is based on a set of methods that informed the development of what we now know as “design thinking” – in short: community strategy development as a creative design exercise.
In our experience, the specific framework and labels matter less than these essential components and attributes:
- An aspirational vision for the future state. You need to know what you are hoping to achieve with community and how both your customers and business will benefit from these efforts. (Generally developed in the Research and Definition phases listed above)
- A list of concrete methods for achieving that vision. Choose your preferred terminology, and decide which specific programs, strategies and tactics you will deploy to reach your goals. These methods should ideally be derived from customer research that reveals their needs and willingness to contribute to community content and activities. As illustrated in the shared value diagram (below), community value is created where member needs and offers overlap with those of the host.
- Key measures to track progress. You need to develop a series of indicators that are directly impacted by your priority methods and roll up to report on progress toward your vision. Specific guidance on developing these measures is included in the next section.
The community strategy development process should be participatory – including stakeholders from within the organization as well as external stakeholders (customers, partners, institutions). We (Structure) typically facilitate design working sessions to explore, interrogate and develop answers to the key questions raised in the development process.
I’ve included two MURAL templates below (think virtual whiteboard) that can help guide strategy working sessions, the first to explore the future vision for a community, and the second to guide initial definition and decision making:
Developing Community Goals & Measurements
Your community’s purpose should guide all decisions – it is your intention (and commitment) for hosting and participating. Your vision is an articulation of the desired state of your community 3-5 years out. Naturally, as markets and business strategies change, this vision should evolve over time. Methods and goals for your community should reflect the current and near-term scope of your community program, with an eye toward expansion and growth based on value produced and opportunities presented. The challenge in all of this is balancing organizational objectives and strengths with customer needs and behaviors.
[TOOL] You can find a Google Slide deck with an editable version of the diagram above here.
A Range of Community Initiatives
Community initiatives generally comprise one or more of the following types:
- Customer Support & Success. Forums and knowledge base content to answer customer questions, deflect support cases, and improve customer usage of the product.
- Partner Engagement. Arming partners and resellers with the tools and support they need to be successful.
- Advocacy. Identifying, empowering, and rewarding top customers who evangelize on behalf of you and your offerings.
- Product Innovation. Spaces for product feedback, ideas, and co-creation.
- Communities of Practice/Purpose. Connecting customers with shared roles and goals to improve practice and advance in their careers.
- Knowledge Management & Collaboration (Internal). Tools and processes for sharing and discovery of explicit and tacit knowledge, and facilitating team collaboration.
- Niche Social Networks (Corporate Alumni). Venues to encourage connections and sharing among contacts with a shared identity.
Goals for these different flavors of community can vary significantly, but regardless of the specific measures, they must clearly contribute to overall company success.
In Measure What Matters, John Doerr highlights this challenge:
Once top-line objectives are set, the real work begins. As they shift from planning to execution, managers and contributors alike tie their day-to-day activities to the organization’s vision. The term for this linkage is alignment, and its value cannot be overstated. According to the Harvard Business Review, companies with highly aligned employees are more than twice as likely to be top performers.
Unfortunately, alignment is rare. Studies suggest that only 7 percent of employees “fully understand their company’s business strategies and what’s expected of them in order to help achieve the common goals.” A lack of alignment, according to a poll of global CEOs, is the number-one obstacle between strategy and execution.Measure What Matters – John Doerr
Doerr goes on to recommend a “cascading” approach to solve the alignment challenge, whereby a Key Result at for achieving a corporate Objective becomes the Objective for a team or business unit with its own set of Key Results and so on.
A Community-based OKR Example
An example of implementing this in practice for a community program could be as follows:
Corporate Objective: Expand product usage among new demographic
- Identify key product needs and use cases for this demographic
- Improve brand awareness among this demographic by X%
- Convert Y% in demographic from trial to subscription
Customer Success Objective: Convert Y% in demographic from trial to subscription
- Trial version of product released
- Create/update user-centered product documentation inclusive of target demographic
- Respond to 100% of customer questions regarding trial product
Community Objective: Convert Z% in demographic from trial to subscription (via community)
- Trial version of product exclusive to community members released
- Community nurture campaign for trial customers in this demographic implemented
- (Significant #) of trials among this demographic initiated via community
Framing Goals: Reach, Participation and Impact
There are myriad ways to categorize goals and analytics – we’ve found in our practice that keeping these categories fairly simple is a helpful way to organize. Consider leveraging the model of Reach (performance to TAM/TOM), Participation (meaningful activity in the community), and Impact (valuable outcomes and externalities from community participation).
How Reach, Participation & Impact might show up in an Analytics dashboard – you can images click to enlarge.
Establishing SMART Goals
In establishing specific goals, we recommend adhering to the time-tested advice from George T. Doran, first published in the November 1981 issue of Management Review:
Ideally speaking, each corporate, department, and section objective should be:
* Specific – target a specific area for improvement.
* Measurable – quantify or at least suggest an indicator of progress.
* Assignable – specify who will do it.
* Realistic – state what results can realistically be achieved, given the available resources.
* Time-related – specify when the result(s) can be achieved.
Notice that these criteria don’t say that all objectives must be quantified on all levels of management. In certain situations, it is not realistic to attempt quantification, particularly in staff middle-management positions. Practicing managers and corporations can lose the benefit of a more abstract objective in order to gain quantification. It is the combination of the objective and its action plan that is really important. Therefore serious management should focus on these twins and not just the objective.“There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write managements’s goals and objectives” George T. Doran
From the Field: Measures & Business Impact
From Q4 of 2018 through Q1 of 2019, we (Structure) convened a small working group of Community & Digital business leaders to share their strategies for measuring and articulating community value. During the working sessions, several participants shared specific community measures that mapped to business impact. These are documented in the table below, along with the formulas used for calculation.
|Business Impact||Contributing Metrics||Sample Value & ROI Formulas|
|Contact Deflection||* # Solution Views|
* % of Questions Answered / Accepted
* Survey Success Rate
|* (Total Customer Visits to Content Pages) x (Survey Success Rate) x (Survey Contact Support Rate) = Estimated Cases Deflected|
* (# Deflections) x (Cost/Incident) = Cost Savings from Deflections
|Product Innovation||* # Ideas Contributed|
* # Votes
* # of Original/Valuable Ideas
* # of Ideas Implemented
* # of mentions in press / online / social
|* (Sample of Original Ideas Implemented) x (Revenue from Ideas) / (Total Contributed Ideas) = Average Value of an Idea|
* (Total Value of Ideas) / (Program Budget) = Innovation ROI
|Community-based Advocacy (MVP)||* # of Advocates|
* Advocate Productivity (e.g. # monthly posts)
* Advocate Quality (e.g.
* Accepted Solutions Rate)
* % of Questions Answered by Advocates
* # of acts of unpromtped advocacy
|* (Hourly Rate of Staff Contractor) * (Hours Contributed by Advocates) = Estimated $ Contributed|
* (Estimated $ Contributed) / (Program Budget) = Advocacy ROI
* NPS of (active) Community Members vs. Non Members
|Customer Loyalty & Revenue||* Customer cohorts |
* participating in community
* revenue participation
* revenue impact
|* Spend of (active) Community Members vs. Non Members|
* % of steps community is in purchase path / revenue (micro-econometrics)
* Q/Q or Y/Y comparators of behavior, by account, relative to community engagement
This post covered a lot of ground in describing an approach to the community strategy development process, how to think about the specific value co-created in communities, and how to measure and articulate that value.
In the next (and final) post in this series, I’ll cover how to communicate the value of community to your organizations, and how to ensure you sustain interest and investment in the community over time.
I hope you have found this post helpful – if so (or if you would like to discuss your community strategy) please message me.
The best way to stay up to date when new posts come out? Subscribe to the Cohere newsletter.
Note: this is the second in a series of posts about community value. If you missed “A Perspective on Community Value“, I’d recommend starting there.
In the last decade, many companies have come to understand how valuable (and critical) their direct relationships with customers are. The most strategic organizations understand that these relationships are part of a larger network – the hub and spoke model, with the company at the center – is very much a thing of the past.
These “networks of relationships” amongst customer, prospects, partner and employees are often largely unactivated – primarily because companies don’t understand the potential value and how to begin to explore the possible opportunities. They often have trouble envisioning a future state of their community because a) they can’t see beyond the “traditional” model of support-based communities or b) they lack the internal capability and skill to lead a comprehensive discussion. In our work at Structure3C, we’ve found that understanding and discussing the following three contexts is a helpful way to begin the conversation.
In the simplest terms, the three contexts are:
- Customer lifecycle journeys: Where in the journey is community valuable?
- Criticality of product / service engagement: Which community experiences are valuable, based on use of product or service?
- Total addressable community: How many people can you expect to participate in your communities?
1. Customer Lifecycle Journey – Career Journey (as an initial model)
Understanding your customer relationship lifecycle, by persona, will provide helpful context to envision where in the set of journeys community may play a valuable role. We will use a career arc as a specific example here, but one can envision other scenarios beyond enterprise software, like the lifetime relationship a customer might have with a technology brand like Apple.
Example: Think about the career arc of an Industrial Designer using Autodesk’s Fusion 360 design software. Throughout her career, the designer will progress from primarily designing, to leading a small team of designers, to “owning” the design function at a company (the Skilled Practitioner arc in the diagram below). This designer’s peer may start off in design but decide she would prefer to focus on leadership and progresses through to become the CTO or CMO of the company (the Executive arc in the diagram).
- Number of distinct Customer Profiles (~Personas)
- Entire career journey, length of career, and the stages in that career journey
- What role might community play in each career transition point?
- 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. Engagement with Product by Customer Profile, Over Time
Understanding the depth of 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 you offer (and what community investments you make). Consider the previous example of an Industrial Designer who would be using design software tools most of her day early in her career, but would likely manage tool users later in her career. Her relationship with the tools changes over her career, and her needs related to skills development and learning change as well.
- 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
Lastly, back to the point made at the beginning of this post: customer, prospect, partner and employee relationships are all part of a larger network. Understanding how big that network is creates your “denominator”, or gives you a sense of the largest possible size of your community. What if you were able to connect with 25% of your customers and prospects – what might that look like? How many customer types are represented in that percentage? Would they all naturally interact in one community experience, or might you need to support multiple experiences by customer type and / or stage in the relationship?
- 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?
Next Up: Strategy
I hope you found the ideas in this post useful, and to a certain degree novel. My intention with this series is to help open the aperture a bit on how community strategy is considered, developed and implemented. I hope it is now clear that I’m advising an approach that considers the entire lifespan of customer relationships, the complexity (and exponential value) of thinking about customer relationships in networks (vs 1:1), and considering the dynamic nature of a customers relationship with a brand and products (and therefor, any potential community) over time.
Next up in the series: My framework on community strategy + planning templates for your 2022 community initiatives.
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.
The Cohere podcast is in its second season. In season 1 covered a range of important topics related to communities and networks, including creating connection during the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of the next 3 billion people coming online and how to create a collaborative online future with AI.
We’re well underway with Season 2, and I say “we”, because I’m joined this season by Dr. Lauren Vargas (also a Season 1 guest). Together, we are exploring the role networks play in our lives, and the range of disciplines studying networks, and the most important research focused on the emerging field of network science.
The reason for the focus on networks? Complex networks are springing up everywhere, driven in large part by increasingly ubiquitous internet access. Imagine what will happen when three billion more people come online in the next five years! For organizations, a planet-wide network of logged-on human beings brings both limitless opportunities and unprecedented threats.
As we increasingly use networked technologies to augment human experiences, the Cohere podcast asks, what’s the best path forward? What do we need to learn and understand? How might science and existing research guide us towards optimal norms and conditions? How should we navigate, evaluate, and administrate a complex technological landscape so we can protect, promote, and empower our human networks? How will we ensure that digital communities deliver on the promise of enhancing our lives, both individually and collectively? And what steps must we take to ensure our approach to community development is sustainable, equitable, and morally sound?
The first four episodes of The Cohere Podcast – Season 2 are out now.
Ep. 1 – Why Community Leaders Need to Understand Networks – With Bill Johnston and Dr Lauren Vargas
Ep. 2 – The Golden Age of Online Communities & the WELL with Gail Ann Williams
Ep. 3 – Building Communities with Purpose and Integrity with Carrie Melissa Jones
Ep. 4 – The “Great Connecting” Continues with Jim Cashel
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 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.”
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.”
Scott 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.“
Aaron 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.
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.