Two Kinds of Community

I have been writing about communities for many years, and it seems like a particularly good topic for the interesting times we live in, to borrow a Chinese phrase. A couple of weeks ago I wrote that this is a perfect time to engage in community building, but there is a lot of ambiguity built into that statement, so today I will attempt to clarify.

First, kudos to Mary Beth Kemp at Forrester for her insightful report last year on communities and a special shout out to my friends at Communispace for their contributions as well.

As it turns out, there are really two basic types of community, though for most purposes the general press tends to glom it all together. The types are described as either Feedback or Discovery, which also describes the primary jobs of each.

The Value of Preaching to the Choir

Feedback is by far the most common kind of community, and it is the more loosely constructed of the two. In a feedback community, the focus is on what already exists. This might sound obvious, but not in relation to its opposite. A feedback community seeks rational opinions from customers about existing products and services so that the company can tweak them.

In a feedback community, members might be surveyed either overtly or through voting and tagging — activities that serve to bubble up good ideas. For example, offers IdeaExchange as a product that automates the process of gathering customer feedback, and it has been successful for large companies like Dell and Starbucks.

The Starbucks story is especially interesting. The company recently introduced a little stopper for the drinking hole in its plastic covers. The stopper prevents coffee from splashing out when the customer is in a motion that does not include drinking. It might not seem like much, but that stopper tells customers that the company is engaged and listening to their ideas and doing something about their requests.

Marc Benioff and other Salesforce executives have mentioned this in their presentations as a benefit of their technology, and rightly so. However, as beneficial as it is, a feedback community is primarily focused on preaching to the choir. It is doubtful that many non-Starbucks customers suddenly began patronizing the caf simply because it now has stoppers. Starbucks’ benefit from all this activity is to increase the loyalty of the people already engaged with it and perhaps increase its sales to the converted.

The Discovery Process

If a feedback community is about the company, then the other type — the discovery community — is all about the customer. The discovery community is more like what I was talking about a couple of weeks ago. As the name suggests, discovery communities look for what doesn’t exist yet, and they are a mechanism for getting customers to fill up a white board and share their ideas and even their emotions.

Discovery communities need to be a bit more organized if you expect them to yield good results. These communities use a variety of interactive techniques to elicit ideas from customers, and most importantly, the best enable free dialogue between members. The dialogue part is the most interesting and hardest to pull off. In a feedback community, people might simply vote on an idea and the best ideas bubble to the top, but in a discovery community, an idea needs to mature.

The classic discovery community idea, one that I have alluded to before, is the Nabisco 100 calorie pack. When Kraft (which owns Nabisco these days) started out with a community of dieters, they were not asking questions that you might expect in a feedback community like, What can we make for you? Or What do you like best about our products? Instead they asked a community of dieters open-ended questions about dieting — What’s hard, how do you deal with cravings, and things like that.

The community tossed around a lot of ideas before it came up with the fact that portion control is a big issue, and pre-packaged known quantities of snacks would be seen as a good thing. Armed with that basic information, Kraft/Nabisco still had to do some conventional research into things like which products and what quantities were most appealing. The community got the process started in the right direction and eliminated at the outset a lot of dead-end experiments.

It is the discovery process that can best lead to new products and services, and it is what I really mean when I advocate community building, especially now, when markets could benefit from having something new to sell. Feedback is important, and it always will be and in this economy a feedback community can do a lot to help a vendor keep its customers engaged when they might not otherwise. Both kinds of communities are important, but understand the limitations and uses of each before you get started.

Denis Pombriant is the managing principal of the Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant’s research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and Web site. He is working on a book and can be reached at [email protected].

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