How could businesses improve the way they use the crowd?

Many businesses have ventured into crowdsourcing, with varying levels of success. So how could they have made better use of the crowd? We caught up with Bill Johnston, founder of Structure3C, to find out more.

Before starting his own business, Johnston worked for Dell on their crowdsourcing platform, IdeaStorm and has built and advised crowd and community initiatives for many organisations, including Autodesk and The Global Fund.

"IdeaStorm had launched with a lot of fanfare in 2007 and I arrived at Dell in 2010," he explains. "After a lot of promotion and engagement, Dell had essentially walked away from IdeaStorm for two years. So when I got there I saw all this potential, I was really interested in crowdsourcing, especially with a large global brand like Dell but the site had atrophied and the community was actually in open rebellion because no-one from Dell was paying attention. It was a worst-case scenario on crowdsourcing really, you had all these people, mostly from an altruistic perspective giving you ideas on how to improve your products, service or even brand new product offerings but no-one at Dell was really paying attention.

"I took over because someone posted a thread that essentially said, 'If Dell's not going to engage, you should just shut this down.' It caught the attention of Michael Dell, the CEO, and one Saturday morning I get a call from my boss saying, 'Michael's really pissed that IdeaStorm is essentially wandering in the desert, you now own it Bill, go fix it.' That was my introduction to IdeaStorm."

So now that you were in charge of this huge platform, where did you start?

I did a quick research project to establish the value that IdeaStorm was providing to the company. It was really amazing, the community members on IdeaStorm were way more valuable than non-members. They were spending more and the ideas from IdeaStorm brought in a lot of money for the company. We looked at five ideas on the site that had become products that we could say with a straight face that were absolutely sourced just from IdeaStorm, there were no outside influences. Those products accounted for hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue.

And that's just five ideas, of around 500 that were sourced from IdeaStorm and became a reality, so that amount was very conservative. We just took the time to establish five, but there likely would have been around 100 that were solely net new ideas on IdeaStorm, they weren't extensions of products or anything like that. So we established the fact that this community had a very positive effect on revenue, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, and the community members were actually very valuable. 

We wound up working with the community to redesign the site to implement new features and actually learn from the mistakes of the past so we knew that just having an open suggestion box for the community was sort of valuable but if we could time and topic bound the innovation challenges, so to be very specific about what we were really ready to innovate on, from a product category perspective, then everybody won. 

For example, say the Alienware team was looking to get feedback on a new cooling system, they could set up an innovation challenge called a Storm Session and over a period of a few weeks get very specific and innovative feedback and ideas on this cooling system. Whereas if something complex just spun out of the community it's much harder to open an opportunity inside the organisation to make it happen because the hardware product cycles are years in the making. 

The coolest thing of all was that the guy who had posted the original message that caught Michael's attention, I actually wounded up hiring him as the community manager for IdeaStorm. 

Find the pockets of your community that exist.

What more do you think could be done with crowdsourcing platforms?

There's so much more that can be done in the crowdsourcing area. The state of the art now with online design tools is such that, with CAD tools (check out Fusion360 & OnShape, just to name just two), you could literally have a browser based immersive 3D experience for product design.

So say you wanted to ideate with a bike company on a frame design, or you wanted to ideate with a mobile device manufacturer on a new type of wrist based phone. You could readily do that with the tools that are available, so that instead of having people describe the static picture, even video, or rendering, you could literally provide an immersive and collaborative environment for people to work on design problems in real time and no-one has done it yet. There's a huge opportunity with making the ideation experience a lot more immersive and fun. 

Do you think there are crowdsourcing opportunities for all kinds of businesses?

Definitely, if they want to! You get questions like should a toothpaste company start a community? But I think absolutely. Maybe if you're a toothpaste company, you don't host a community but there are a willing ecosystem of partners in the health and lifestyle space that you could be a contributing host to that type of community. 

And the idea of “community” needs to evolve for brands beyond the tyipical one-dimensional marketing engagements you see on social media. The “community opportunity”, if you will, is to establish a lifelong connection with customers AND to help build connections between customers. This network, if done correctly, is a resilient network with real business value. From the network you can engage in crowdsourcing ideas, sharing knowledge and best practices, even creating new businesses! Take a look at what GE is doing with FirstBuild, how LocalMotors business is evolving, or even the community of health and sustainable food connoisseurs that Barnrainser (client) is building.

Maybe it's not called customer community moving forward but I see all forms of customer experience, support marketing, retention-based marketing, even in some cases the product experience and what we know as social, all vectoring towards one place in the organisation that looks holistically at customer experience across the board and looks holistically at customer engagement across the board because it's very fractured.

If you think about all the money that's been spent on CRM systems over the past five to 10 years and the promise that was made there, that's largely still transactional and email based. The customer relationship is much bigger than any of those platforms ever thought of or intended. I really think that all of this stuff - including community, including crowdsourcing, at least from the brand side - will find a home under some sort of customer experience officer and I'm convinced that for organisations that will stay healthy, relevant and in a growth mode over time, that will happen.

How should businesses go about setting up a customer community?

I guess the first thing is, before you set up anything, do your research. Find the pockets of your community that exist, because I promise they do.

The first step is simply one of discovery, the second is one of definition of your goals and objectives for setting up a community over time, the flipside of that coin is really understanding from a customer's perspective what they need from you as a community host and brand and secondly what they need from each other. And the more complex the product the more they will need.

Then once you have those answers, then you start to design and build platforms and approaches. The mistakes made in the past were siloing social, siloing support communities, siloing any sort of "marketing" community. You really have to take an ecosystem approach where the social channels work in concert with any digital properties, which work in concert with any hosted branded communities, which have to work in concert with any third party affinity communities. 

For brands I think it's really important to think about how to integrate the crowdsourcing throughout your digital ecosystem and not just rely on a destination property. With IdeaStorm, one of the things that we started to push on is this idea of actually to push out idea cards out into our other communities and social channels, where we were either soliciting feedback on a specific idea or soliciting ideas for a certain topic. 

We did some promotion for that but we didn't really get to an elegant solution for contextually featuring an idea and placing it throughout the digital ecosystem as an engagement tactic. Really the net of it is not relying on a destination and they will come strategy. The crowd is essentially a less intimate experience with your community at large and so integrating any sort of crowdsourcing or ideation strategy in is dependent on harmonising with your online community on social.

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