The Power of Community to Drive Innovation

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Many organizations have begun to recognize the value of communities — whether to help them better reach out to customers, to gain insight from partners and industry experts into new or changing trends, or as a way to demonstrate thought leadership. I’d like to think that I understand the benefits of community, and I am always looking for ways to work more closely with, and listen more intently to feedback from, partners and customers. As I hosted this morning’s monthly community “tweetjam” via the #CollabTalk hash tag on Twitter, I was thinking about the idea of growing and engaging customer communities, and how this might help organizations better innovate.

Within each monthly Tweet Jam, the panelists are asked a series of questions on a specified topic, and the answers are tweeted back in real-time — sometimes leading to sidebar conversations on related topics, all of which make each hour-long event fly by rather quickly. Today we explored the topic of making the SharePoint user experience more “sticky.” I’ll have a summary post up in a day or two, but I am always amazed at how these events take off in one direction – or several, with fantastic input from beginners and experts alike. You truly get a snapshot of the community through this kind of “raw” feedback, where anyone can participate.

While the creation of communities around specific technologies or industries is nothing new, we live in an era of rapidly expanding collaboration and social networking solutions. In fact, social is quickly becoming the primary method through which we connect our many disparate systems, tools, and processes. I don’t think I’m overstating things when I say that the role of social is becoming more and more prevalent, expanding our ability to create and connect to various community efforts on the fly. Compared to even 10 years ago where I was attending or organizing face-to-face networking sessions in the San Francisco Bay Area to help my startup connect with investors and prospective employees alike, I can now "plug in" to various online social communities and connect with people anywhere in the world. To be fair, we talked about doing this kind of stuff 10 years ago, but today it just feels natural — it’s how we connect.

As quickly as communities come to life — whether online or offline — the rules on how to make them successful remain largely unchanged: they require leadership to take action, they need people with passion to keep things moving forward, and while there should be guidelines for operation (rules of engagement, or a simple method for solving conflicts) the most successful communities are grown and managed organically. The community itself manages the community. Command-and-control just doesn’t work.

Of course, that model may not work for most enterprises. A community created in support of your products or services, while maintaining some level of independence, will need some degree of visibility and administration.

A key question every enterprise must ask: How do we measure the value of community? Some companies are better than others at tracking their community activities, such as through their CRM platforms where every customer interaction is tracked as a separate activity. Organizations need to improve their ability to mine this data, looking for trends, better interpreting and taking action on customer feedback. Community is viewed by and large as a qualitative activity — a way of reaching out to customers and partners to improve relationships, and to build trust — but organizations still need to be able to quantify the value of their qualitative activities.

As you create or participate in community activities, think about the following questions:

  • Are we properly tracking our community activities?
    How are you defining your community activities, and how are you capturing them within your CRM or other systems? Maybe it was a user group, or maybe you connected with a prospective partner while participating in a job fair. You might track two activities differently if one is an online activity, and the other required someone to jump on an airplane to participate. Both may drive value, but without proper tracking and measurements, you won’t have an accurate view of the cost of participating.
  • How are we measuring community-influenced activities?
    Assuming you have defined the types of community activities, you also need to measure the weight (value) of each outcome, such as whether the activity drove downloads, sales, or some other important KPI. Flying someone around the globe may result in wonderful feedback from dozens of customers, but may not provide the ROI that an enterprise hopes to get out of every community activity. Sometimes the benefit is improved relations, or good will. But for most organizations, it is also about decreasing costs (such as support) and increasing revenue. Understand your organizational goals for each community activity so that you can track which ones are the most successful.
  • Are we investing in tools that encourage deeper community involvement?
    All of this tracking can mean a lot of overheard. Some companies employ full-time operations personnel to keep things organized, while others seek to build or buy tools to automate. How much visibility do you have into your social activities? How quickly are you able to adjust your systems and processes based on what you learn? And what kinds of tools are you making available to your own teams — as well as your customers and partners — to enable more accurate metrics and reporting?

In the very near future, participating in relevant communities will not be considered optional — it will become the primary method for identifying prospective customers and partners. You may not go looking for product roadmap guidance through a public channel like Twitter, but you could just as easily make feature prioritization based on internal social feedback a key part of how you plan for your roadmap, ensuring all employee roles and geographies are represented in your plans. Are you ready for this (possible) change to your business? Do you have the right level of visibility, and the right tools and processes to track and measure your community activities? Time to start planning.

Christian Buckley

Christian is a Microsoft Regional Director and Office Servers and Services MVP, the Founder & CEO of CollabTalk LLC, an independent research and technical marketing services firm based in Salt Lake City, Utah, and CMO of revealit.io, a blockchain-based video technology company.