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What is community and could it help my company?

April 29, 2013

The term ‘online community’ is widely used these days to cover all those who engage with a brand via social media channels. Interactions here are rarely more than casual conversation, and are generally between participants and the page administrator rather than between followers.  But there’s another sort of online community that predates social media, and could potentially offer much deeper levels of engagement. It’s the sort of online community that gets things done. And not just small things. Online communities have, for example, created all of today’s major open source web platforms.

Can the model work for businesses? Yes - sometimes. The starting point is usually a forum. But a forum does not equal a community. The trick is in how you use it. Virtualisation software company VMware has gone further than most. Where most technical forums are little more than support questions and answers between members, VMware took a different approach. They put in time and effort to create and manage an active community.
Using forums to actively listen to users, they picked up on ideas and used them to contribute to product development. They also took note of common issues to create useful content and online training events. They introduced a Vexpert award to encourage individual contributions. Members now get together independently offline, for both social Vbeers and helpful Vmug (user group) meetups and conferences. Today, VMware have a global community of strongly committed users and are able to make ongoing developments to their products that genuinely respond to customer demand.
A very different type of community is found at running shop chain, Sweatshop. No forums here, simply real running groups led by local shop staff to help people enjoy running. Groups are supported by emails and a blog. As with WMware, there are rewards for participation - this time, real physical rewards, from a free bottle of Lucozade Light for new participants right through to a Garmin Forerunner for anyone who manages 50 runs. It is, of course, no accident that runs start and end in Sweatshop stores.
Two very different approaches; two key common factors that seem critical to their success. First, individuals get clear benefits from joining in. Second, the businesses concerned are taking a long term view and dedicating resources to building the community. 

Posted by Paul Latham

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