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Who knows your product best? Most people believe that a company is the ultimate authority of its product(s) — as engineers, salespeople, marketers and others spend the majority of their week focused on meeting customers’ needs with a best-fit solution.
While this idea seems sensible, it’s the customers who make the final judgment on a product, as their capacity to successfully leverage the product to meet their needs will determine a company’s success or failure.
To ensure product success, many companies are now turning to customer communities as a mechanism to obtain critical feedback for product improvements, as well as establish champions who willingly act as promoters by creating a direct relationship with the company.
This concept took off in the early 2000s with companies like Lego, TED and Porsche strategically investing in opportunities for their passionate fans to engage directly to influence existing and new products. This was also to expose the company to a significantly increased customer base. For example, in 2018, LEGO launched the LEGO Ideas platform, where members submitted new product ideas that were voted on by the community leading to 28 new sets, including a Women of NASA set and playable LEGO piano.
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Five rules for building a successful community
1. Find the right platform
In the past, many organizations used email or newsletters. Some tried LinkedIn and other social platforms, but the reality is that there are so many new ways to collaborate today. Slack might be an option for your community, or a newer tool like Commsor, TalkBase or Common Room.
Selecting the right platform should be the foundation of your strategy because the engagement and collaboration requirements must match your vision. As you evaluate options, determine the features, tools and functionality you need to meet your objectives. Keep in mind that you will also need a platform that can integrate easily with your existing systems while helping to drive product improvements and innovation.
Also, evaluate how the platform you choose will scale as your membership grows. When you look at different platform options, prioritize your functionalities into two buckets: “need to have” and “not important.” Realize that any feature that falls in between a “nice to have” will be a bonus. Finally, select a platform vendor that aligns with your unique business goals.
2. Find internal champions
There are influencers in your organization hiding in plain sight, just waiting to be discovered and used as a resource. These individuals are passionate about what they do and love talking with others about ideas and projects in a conversational, non-corporate way.
Your internal champion understands your business, readily sees the value of your vision and projects, and knows how to communicate effectively with all stakeholders. Their ability to communicate well will find them instinctively cultivating buy-in and support from others inside and outside your organization. Lastly, these individuals will possess project management skills and understand the complexities of many moving parts. As you look around your company with these characteristics in mind, internal champions will become easier to identify.
Before you engage them in the community you’re building, make sure you map out expectations for the role you want them to play in your community. To minimize surprises while building credibility and trust, spend time walking them through their role to ensure they buy into what you’re asking them to do.
Consider finding ways to sell the role as a leadership development opportunity so that they volunteer to serve as an internal champion. Getting someone to volunteer will create long-lasting results due to their buy-in. The beautiful part is the right individuals will continue doing what comes naturally by enthusiastically adding value and sharing their expertise within the community. As you build things out, make sure you recognize all they do and celebrate your internal champions as the unsung heroes that do what it takes to make your community work.
3. Identify external champions
Like internal champions, external champions are easy to spot because they are customers who love your product and company. These individuals are MVPs because they advocate for your brand by recommending your products to everyone they know and attach their reputation to their recommendations.
They are excited about your company and love sharing success stories about the transformation your solutions provide. Not only do they voluntarily give online reviews, but they are eager to participate in case studies and speak in interactive formats, such as on webinars, at tradeshows and with media interviews.
Before asking a customer to participate in your community, ask sales, customer services and marketing to help you identify who they have encountered that unofficially stands out as a brand champion. Similar to what you do for internal champions, take time to map out examples of specific opportunities for them to use their voice and share their story. You may even consider offering incentives for participation. Once you get their buy-in, send specific “thank you’s” along the way to reward their participation and show appreciation.
4. Listen to your community
Communities don’t always follow a direct path and require constant monitoring and engagement to ensure that they don’t drift off into unrelated topics that hinder success. As the community leader, it is imperative that you adopt a “radical listening” habit to watch for unexpected and unwanted community activities that are not necessarily beneficial to your organization.
There are several techniques to listening that require significant effort, and the initial process is authentic engagement. The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation lists five principles of engagement:
- Pursue authentic engagement, not public input.
- Engage people as citizens, not consumers.
- Discover voices, not simply demographics.
- Seek common ground, not consensus.
- Provide knowledge, not more information.
5. Get lucky by creating serendipity
By some definitions, luck is the phenomenon that defines improbable events of success or failure. But creating a vibrant, engaged developer community will allow the flow of ideas to happen organically, with unexpected outcomes that spark new ideas and solve challenging problems. This description transforms the standard description of luck into serendipity. (Not to be confused with the serendipity principle used in some IT forums.)
When you provide your developer community with mutual respect and appreciation, your techie members will lean in closer and get more involved. Add the right internal and external champions into the mix, and without much effort, people will become more engaged and fired up.
Those who typically lurk as they learn will start contributing to the conversation and asking questions. When that happens, make sure your team is quick to respond. Doing these things will build relationships as people learn, stay up-to-date, share experiences, and meet with other like-minded people.
Douglas Brown is VP of community at ControlUp.
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