Contrary to that Groucho Marx line, “I wouldn’t join any club that would have me as a member,” smart companies are creating online “clubs” or communities where most anyone want to join and can. Take AARP, for example. Before hitting 50, practically everybody gets a mailed invitation. On their site you find considerable free information while seeing many member benefits, and it costs just $16 to join.
The key to success, however, is in designing communities that reward relevant and progressively more valuable member sharing. AARP, for example, has an impressive track record of partnering with other organizations to offer member benefits. It also offers helpful tools like the recently launched Spanish-Language Retirement Calculator. Also, it allows members to recommend and comment on articles. Yet it does not enable its 37 million members to share and compare ideas, or collectively prioritize the current and possible services they want. With that member interaction in place, AARP might have taken a clearer stand on proposed cutbacks in Social Security
Making a community interactive — where members can directly engage with each other, turns it from static to dynamic where the network efforts of unlimited grow and exponential value can come into play — for members and for the host organization. That untapped crowd intelligence could boost AARP’s membership and clout.
In this column we make specific suggestions on how to attract and involve more customers and complementary vendors, often while spending less.
Many of the early creators of these ecosystems do encourage members to chat with each other. Besides offering coupons, experts’ answers and the chance to comment on blogs, Johnson & Johnson’s BabyCenter, for example, does encourage members to share ideas and photos in online groups, make journals and mark milestones such as baby’s birthday. While this creates camaraderie in different part of the site, it does not capture the collective intelligence of members. They are not offered increasingly valuable ways to collaborate. They do not have a role, for example, in how products are created, nor is there a way for members to self-organize into groups for more intensive and valuable activities and thus to accelerate their own learning with each other and for the community and for Johnson & Johnson.
What if, for example, members were recognized and rewarded for new product or service ideas that the community collectively voted as most wanted? What if members could recommend and vote on complementary companies and other organizations and experts that they want in the community, and why and how? For example, some members might want the American Academy of Pediatrics to volunteer member experts to answer the top 50 questions that BabyCenter members want answered.
What if BabyCenter simply asked members, “What are your five favorite mom-serving businesses and why?” Those answers would spur mutually- beneficial member conversations, identify most valuable partners to add to the ecosystem and spark media coverage.
As well, some members may want to meet in-person at local gatherings they collectively design in advance at the community. What experts do they want to hear speak or answer questions? What products do they want to sample, then give feedback and expect to see the firms’ follow-up to that feedback later at BabyCenter? What roundtable discussions do they want to have to explore ongoing, shared activities such a babysitting exchanges or walking groups?
Such member crowdsourcing capacity could be provided by a partnering firm such as BrightIdea or Spigit. Then BabyCenter could spotlight the most valuable contributors and their ideas. SheSpeaks built a business around enabling women to provide self-profiles so they could be offered free samples of the kinds of products they used in exchange for their member reviews. Product providers pay to play for this market research. Members initiate conversation and comparisons in online forums and meet at online Twitter parties and at gatherings to try products together. From that participation SheSpeaks creates case studies that benefit members and participating companies.
Most any consumer serving business or member-based organization can stand out from the competition and grow when it increases the ways those it serves can directly interact to learn faster, co-create or otherwise generate more value with and for each other. Yet this sustainable, scalable value of the community can only happen when interactions become increasingly important for members. This is a huge missed opportunity for companies to provide more value and to innovate sooner as they see, in real time, what their customers are saying they want.
At their most valuable, these online communities reward members for suggesting new products or product modifications, ways to sell to and serve them, and how they want to tout the company and to refer others to it.
The greater the number of interactions and the more valuable the interactions that happen between members, the greater the chance that everybody will feel closer and get smarter about the core topic of the community. Consequently the host organization becomes an integral part of its members’ lives. That is priceless.
Your key goal is to ride the wave of your members’ brightest insights to enjoy the network effects of scaling the growth of your online community. Where to start? On the home page, provide one obvious, enticing and probably visual first reason to join. Then make it easy, fast, and even fun to do so.
Offer several simple ways for them to contribute and to immediately see their contribution, and easily hear about other’s reactions to it.
Enable them to easily learn from each other and from credible experts about the situations in which they use your product or service.
Provide increasingly complex and engaging ways they can share, collaborate and brag about their participation.
Be sure that the most popular content and members are the most visible. Encourage members to actually change how the community operates — if many members support those changes.
By growing your dynamic community, not only is your business more likely to stay relevant and sought-after it may actually reshape the sector in which you operate.