For most of online community history in business, discussion has been the goal.
The assumption has been that by having discussions on a web site, people will connect, a community may form and when it does OH BOY! money will fall from the sky. Or so it seemed.
For businesses interested in online communities, online discussion and even "community" is only half the equation. Like a web site, an online community is not an "end", it is a means to an end and ultimate success depends on how a community is activated and mobilized.
In the best situations, businesses are able to create an online home for their customers to feel connected to one another and the company. Often, this might include product support discussions, user-to-user discussion, polls, etc. These communities can and do yield significant value. But, there is often value that is not realized because the community is separated from the business.
The unrealized value involves mobilizing the community -- working with the community to accomplish goals. By making community involvement a priority, an organization can be clear about their objectives with customers and involve them in the process.
If a company has a solid customer community, the question the business should ask themselves is: How can we work with the community to help us accomplish our goals?
In the example below, a company's goals are shared with the community, who generate innovative ways to accomplish those goals and translate them into products that serve the mission.
Below are examples of the types of goals that can benefit from community participation:
- Identifying solutions to common problems
- Identifying innovative ideas
- Reducing bugs in software or products
- Counteracting negative or inaccurate PR
- Reducing support costs
- Increasing non-community participation in events
Here are three major ingredients that can enable community mobilization to work:
- A connected group of dedicated customers interacting on a company's web site
- An organizational commitment to be involved in the online community and act on the community's input
- Incentives -- a way to recognize and reward those members that contribute meaningfully to the goal.
Consider these examples of organizations who have achieved results by mobilizing their communities:
The Howard Dean for President campaign activated their community using resources like blogs, MoveOn and Meetup to raise record breaking amounts of money and increase awareness. The community still thrives on through Democracy for America.
The March of Dimes mobilized their community to create a record breaking number of Family Teams for Walk America.
Flickr uses their community a primary source for new product ideas.
Drupal.org mobilized their community to raise money for a dedicated server.
Speaking of open source products, you might say that this is related to Paul Graham's essay on What Businesses can Learn from Open Source. Or, consider the major points of the Wired article We Are The Web, as pointed out by Will Pate.
In some form or another, businesses have always relied on their customers for input and direction. What's happening today is that there are new tools that make it faster, easier and cheaper to listen.
I believe that business success in the future will be predicated upon the degree to which a business can mobilize, activate and involve their community of customers in the process of accomplishing their goals.