Customer Innovation Guide: Core Competency 2

Mastering the Second Core Competency: Effective Community Building

April 12, 2007

Customer communities are a bountiful source of innovative ideas and an excellent opportunity to create lasting relationships with your most loyal customers. But you have to do more than just set up a community and say “go.” You have to employ best practices in facilitating and managing the information flowing to and from your community members. This self-assessment guide will tell you how far along your company is on the road to leveraging the value of your customer communities.


In my book, "Outside Innovation: How Your Customers Will Co-Design Your Company’s Future," we specify the five core competencies to master:

  • Story-Telling
  • Community Building
  • Customer Co-Design
  • Open Development
  • Peer Production and Peer Promotion

For each competency, we provide context and a list of activities (methods/behaviors/programs) you should be implementing to reinvent your organizational culture around customer-led innovation. We also provide you with space to complete your self assessment: how well is your organization/division/department/group doing on fulfilling these requirements? We recommend that you identify those activities broken down into three categories (which mirror our Customer Scenario® Mapping methodology):

  • Things “We Can” Do —you already do this activity well.
  • Things “We Will” Do —you have already identified this activity as strategic to your organization, and you have a plan for implementation in place, complete with a budget and delivery date.
  • Things “We Should” Do —you aren’t currently committed to this activity, but you understand that you should investigate it and prioritize its value to your customers and to your organization.

Finally, we provide a place for you to make note of your next steps for each activity. We recommend that you include the name of a person who is to take responsibility for the next action as well as a target deadline for completion of that action.

COMPETENCY 2: Community Building

We talk a lot about the importance of community. Indeed, we consider nurturing customer communities to be one of the key steps towards success in fostering outside innovation (See “Customer Innovation Guide: Taking the Third Step” Our focus on the importance of community isn’t new; in, our best-selling book published in 1998, fostering community was one of the eight critical success factors towards making it easy for your customers to do business with you. (See “Foster Community”

But you need to do more than just create a customer community and then say “go.” Facilitating healthy communities is not a part-time job. Take it from eBay. EBay has long invested in having employees who are dedicated to each customer segment (e.g., coin collectors, stamp collectors, Disney collectors, etc.) as well as employees in charge of each type of discussion board (Q&A versus eBay Café). You can learn a lot by watching how eBay runs its communities. Every time in the company’s history that it has changed a policy without first involving the community members in discussing and debating it, eBay has rued the day. Of course some of the decisions you’ll need to make--like raising prices or “end-of-life’ing” a product, or changing a policy that impacts a group of customers--aren’t always popular with community members. But it’s important for community members to know what’s coming, to voice their opinions, for their concerns and objections to be acknowledged. Then you do what’s right for the business. They’ll complain but accept it because you kept them in the loop.

Remember, too, that customer communities are not exclusively virtual--face-to-face events and phone-based community conversations are equally valuable and actually enhance the value of a thriving online community.

In this self-assessment guide, you get to evaluate how well you are doing in actually running a customer community once you’ve made the wise decision to invest in these communities.

You should engage in best practices in facilitating your customer community in order to keep participants engaged and active. By doing this, you can reap the rewards or customer innovation and insights on a continuing basis.

COMPETENCE IN COMMUNITY BUILDING Please download the PDF to view the table.

Where to go from here?

If you already have a thriving virtual community, you should now think about expanding beyond the online world and making the relationships among the members and your own stakeholders even stronger. Look into hosting face-to-face community meetings. Plan something simple initially: a good way to begin is to co-opt a few hours at a customer/user conference and create a social gathering for active community members. Invite one or two high-level internal execs or your own internal thought leaders/subject-matter experts. You can also provide an engaging “celebrity” guest speaker, which can be a great incentive for invited community members to attend.

Remember that face-to-face isn’t the only offline interaction method. Just reach out and touch someone! In the next 30 days, pick up the telephone and call your top community participants to thank them for participation, bounce some new ideas around, and generally deepen your relationship.

If you don’t already have a formal and regular method for sharing the ideas generated by the community and the ideas that you have that are sparked by community members’ comments and feedback, you’re losing out on a bountiful source of innovation. Capture the innovations from the community in a regular report that is circulated throughout the organization. Trisha Brandon, director/editor-in-chief of, describes the importance of keeping these ideas circulated. “We do a weekly report (on community activity and ideas) that goes up to the very top of the company, to our R&D team…and everywhere else. There’s a lot of cross-company interest. When someone on the team left and people didn’t have it for a few months, they got up in arms!” Feedback from customers who have committed to your company by their community membership can become addictive and feeds your internal innovation engine.

If you are just starting with your customer communities, be sure to have a realistic business plan in place. Factors to consider include ...


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