The idea guaranteed to fail in meetings with any client is a message board. Companies in general fear public dissent from real people. They say things like, “So if we ship the wrong thing, or our customer has a bad service experience – then everyone in the community is going to hear about it? That's bad.” No, that's good.
The reason they don't like the idea is that they spend so much money on advertising, telling people how awesome they are – they don't want to build a platform that will allow real people to compromise that illusion. But why? If you're doing nothing wrong, people won't have anything to complain about – and if you are doing something wrong then don't you want to know about it so you can fix it? In my opinion a community where your customers rule is a must for any business going for perfection. Communities are human business debuggers. Why not know the problems, address them and prove that they're fixed all in public? The idea is pure genius.
Okay let's not get carried away. Many people use the word 'community' when talking about websites, but let's define exactly what we're talking about here. On Dictionary.com the word 'community' has the following definition:
n. pl. com·mu·ni·ties
- A group of people living in the same locality and under the same government.
- The district or locality in which such a group lives.
- A group of people having common interests: the scientific community; the international business community.
- A group viewed as forming a distinct segment of society: the gay community; the community of color.
- Similarity or identity: a community of interests.
- Sharing, participation, and fellowship.
- Society as a whole; the public.
To be honest, there was more to the definition but it went on to cover ecology so until plants learn to type we'll leave it there.
From my point of view what defines community is interaction. Just being part of a society doesn't mean that you interact with the rest of the people in that group. For me it's the interaction that turns a group of people into a community.
Do you have a community or just a customer base?
Many site owners claim they have a community but all they have is a customer base. It's easy to see the difference between the two if you think of them in the following terms. Imagine that your brand is a planet with both satellites and asteroids orbiting around it. What the satellites and asteroids have in common is the orbit – a relationship with the brand. What's different is that the satellite can communicate with both the planet and other satellites. An asteroid just sits alone, only aware of the planet it orbits.
If your customers are like the asteroid they can float into your brand's orbit with minor disturbance – and float right back out again. That's a pretty weak relationship; don't you think?
Is your business 'community compatible'?
Let's get one thing straight, a community-based business model is not good for everyone. Some businesses are not in a position to apply the model, nor should they try.
I was recently speaking at MIT with Jake and Jacob of skinnyCorp on the topic of User Innovation. We were talking to a small group of people who represented some pretty big businesses. The Jakes and I were approached by a couple of representatives from a large food manufacturer. They were interested in picking our brains on how they could apply user innovation as part of a community to help them decide which foods should come out next and help brain-storm ideas for new foods. After speaking with them for a while, I was still unsure whether the community model would actually work for their company – regardless of intention.
I imagined them walking into a boardroom and telling their boss that they will no longer have the authority to make decisions without the participation and agreement of their customer base. I could almost see the fury on the boss's face from there.
Indeed most companies wouldn't trust their customers to make important decisions either. Yet in my opinion how can a company expect to have a relationship with their customers without truly trusting them? The missing link for the food company was trust. If you don't trust your customers then you won't be able to build a community. It's as simple as that.
A community is not just for Christmas…
It's very important that you determine whether your business is truly community compatible. Because once you start, stopping is not an option. Building a community and then withdrawing from it will compromise the trust that glues your community together. And that will cause irreparable damage.
While attending the CustomerMade Conference in Copenhagen recently, I listened to a presentation by Paul Gerhardt, Joint-Director of the BBC Creative Archive. His presentation was about a program the BBC has whereby they allow free access for non-commercial purposes to medium-resolution versions of all of their original video content for use by the public. Needless to say, this is a huge deal. The program was in response to the overwhelming (possibly illegal) use of their material by artists and VJs in the UK. (Read the press release about the BBC Creative Archive). Mr. Gerhardt referenced the loyal, trusting audience of adults in the UK who were happy that their children had access to this. Someone asked Mr. Gerhardt what would happen if there was an overwhelming use of the material in a fashion that wasn't inline with BBC's values. The response? Essentially that they would consider pulling the program. Whoa! Hold up. Pull the program? A move like that could seriously compromise the trust of the program's community who also happen to be the future loyal, trusting, adult BBC audience.
Granted, the BBC Creative Archive is still a hugely successful project and will most likely continue stay that way. It's an important example though, because once you make the decision to create a community extension to your business, be aware that if you remove it the potential for damage is extremely high.
Pros and cons of community
Communities are an amazing entity to revolve your business around. They help take the guesswork out of business and product development, because if you want to know what it is that your customers want – simply ask. Furthermore, not only do your customers tell you exactly what they want, they essentially create and perpetuate the market for you. Community building is not just about slapping a mesageboard on your site, there are all kinds of inventive ways to get your customers involved in your business. FedEx for example introduced the 'track your package' service which enables users to see where their package is at any given moment. The transparent nature of FedEx's shipping is a brilliant move that has been copied by others – it also makes the customer feel empowered.
There are downsides of course. It's all very nice to get cosy with your customers but they may have unfavorable things to say about you and your service. The success of your community is a matter of your flexibility and ultimately depends on whether your business is truly 'community compatible.' Communities aren't an 'add-on', like a plug-in for Photoshop. You can't expect that by simply adding community features to your site your success is guaranteed. You have to think about how your customers want to connect with you, or indeed if they want to at all.
It's also a scary ride. By allowing a community to be responsible for your development you're essentially putting yourself in the passenger seat of your own vehicle. You can suggest where you would like to go, but ultimately the direction you go is not up to you. This can lead to a potential issue if your business becomes something you didn't intend it to be. Or it can mean that you end up somewhere that is fantastic for your business – somewhere you would have never reached alone.
If you're interested in learning more about user innovation and customer co-creation, I recommend starting with the links below.
- User Innovation
- Customer Co-Creation
- Eric von Hippel is an expert on these subjects. His books are available for free online via Creative Commons license
Jeffrey's next article will delve deeper into the topic of community. He will talk about ideas for integrating simple community features into your business, and also how skinnyCorp built a successful community-based business. [Vitamin]