Note: I had previously posted this on the Point2Share blog, it was a popular post, and with it being no longer available I thought it best to post it up here too. Its also particularly relevant given my recent posts about blogging.
This is a question we have spent a lot of time thinking about over the last 6 months. It comes from watching community building at Microsoft (some of us from the inside), largely in the form of a Robert Scoble inspired Blogging Revolution. It was a revolution that left behind a permanent shift in corporate culture benefiting not just the company, but its employees and customers as well.
The question in this posts title is one of the most important an organisation can ask itself today. Why? Because the Internet has become social. It's made each of us a movie director, a writer, a critic, a musician, a publisher and radio show host. We are free to express our views and publish our creativity, instantly, via a global and democratic platform of online services. In the process we make rich connections with others who share our interests, regardless of how specialised, and regardless of our geographic distance.
To summarise the Internet today, is to reduce it to people, their creativity and the connections between them. This is what we believe defines community. This is what makes it important that every organisation, regardless of size, engage its customers on a social level, by establishing meaningful relationships with them.
The unprecedented audience of the Internet, and its infinite diversity, means that there are people out there who are truly passionate about the product or service your organisation provides. They have strong opinions, have great ideas, and they want to see you succeed. Finding them can be difficult, but it's not impossible, in fact they are probably looking for a way to connect to you already. Do you know who they are? Have you established a connection with them already? Are you helping them find each other? Are you helping them connect with others who share the same interest? Have they already done all this themselves?
The answer to these questions is where community building begins, it's about gathering together those who love your product or service and providing them with a way to connect. To connect to you, and to connect to each other. It's about providing them with an open forum where they can express their views, share their ideas, and as a natural consequence contribute to the development of your product or service. This offers your organisation the opportunity to build the most effective feedback loop imaginable by harnessing the collective creativity and intelligence of your most passionate customers and your smart employees.
Have you plugged your brightest customers into your research and development teams? Have you engaged your most vocal and opinionated customers in long running and open conversation? How do you provide your most enthusiastic ambassadors with the information they need to help others benefit from your products or services?
These simple sounding questions are just the beginning, and while the emergence of a number of new technologies has taken online collaboration to a new level, it has also resulted in a bewildering array of technologies and buzzwords. Developing a strategy that ensures the effective deployment of everything from Wikis, Podcasts and Blogs to Social Networking and Twitter is a daunting task. More important than the technology of course is developing an understanding and appreciation for online culture.
As we look back over the last couple of years, it's clear that the most difficult part of building community is understanding the culture you're entering. In many ways it's like starting a business in a new country, with local customs and traditions that need to be respected. Before you arrive you need to make sure you have an experienced guide. Someone who understands the open and direct mode of communication, knows that people don't want to talk to "the organisation" but instead directly to those responsible for the decisions they care about. Its a culture that demands involvement from everyone, from the very top to the very bottom of an organisational chart.
SharePoint is a great platform for community, providing the key pieces that can be tuned and matched to the unique audience of people that your organisation serves. All the buzzwords have checks in their boxes, so now is a great time to take the first in a series of small steps to improving your product or service, creating more loyal customers and happier employees along the way.