The value of online communities could not have been witnessed better than in the year that went by. Stuck at homes under stringent lockdowns, the world relied on online micro-communities to simulate their offline experiences. Everything from water-cooler talks in office to family chit-chatting migrated online. Hell yeah, even classrooms and public meetings shifted to community-based platforms. One of the most important sections of the society who used the community feature the best were small-scale businesses & start-ups.
But even though a major section of the world in growing economies learned about the power of communities recently, the actual story of community revolution transcends way back and has multiple variants.
The world famous Danish toy company LEGO found itself on the brink of bankruptcy in the early 2000s – impacted by the massive surge of online games. The company that had started out as a carpenter’s dream project in the 1950s was witnessing an onslaught from digital companies that had already led to the closure of many retail giants and traditional merchandise firms. But Lego made a turn-around and overtook Mattel to become the largest toy-maker in terms of revenue – a feat no one really expected from them. So how did they do it? By building a fan community. You heard it right. A simple humanistic solution to a grave technological challenge. For over 7 decades, LEGO indulged in a closed innovation process while manufacturing toys. But over the last decade, LEGO involved their fans and customers in the ideation and building phase.
In 2008 the LEGO Ideas platform was launched where fans were invited to submit new concepts for LEGO sets. Proposals were voted by other fans and top vote-getters were reviewed Chosen ideas were then turned into sets for sale with 1% of the royalties reserved for the proposer. With over a million users, thousands of submitted ideas, and dozens of sets produced, this fan community continues to remain at the heart of some of LEGO’s best-selling sets. This is a perfect case study of how a business transitioned from simply building for customers to building with an engaged community.
When users become part of the process, they attach more value to a product. A fact that the world knows better as the IKEA Effect, after the famous Swedish company. Most brands and companies have figured this out. As a result, for all consumer-facing businesses, a prevalent, engaged brand community is considered an ultimate asset where multiple users became stakeholders in the building or ideation process of the company’s products. Such communities not only drive greater reach but also add value at the other points of the user journey, such as encouraging conversions or improving existing customer relationships.
For instance, take a look at My Starbucks Idea. Launched in 2008 by Howard Schulz, this huge community seeks to emulate the coffee shop barista experience online by engaging with customers and fostering relationship-building. On My Starbucks Idea community, customers can submit a new idea, view ideas given by others, and see ideas in action. Once an idea is submitted, and the company’s Idea Partners have gone through it, it is judged on the basis of votes and innovative appeal. By actually implementing the ideas no matter how big or small, Starbucks incentivizes customers to submit ideas and engage with the website that leads to organic value-addition. In fact, Starbucks ‘ Idea community serves as a catalyzing factor to its marketing activities.
In a similar vein, Sony’s Playstation Community has been phenomenal in connecting online gamers. It allows users to bond over specific interests, the type of support they need, and gaming hacks – underlining the tenets of feedback, advocacy, and support. Considering that the community is closely tied to Sony’s social media handles, one can only guestimate the amount of user-generated-content that Sony may be enjoying.
And it is not simply about the users. Communities have a big role to play in the overall cultural output that a business or an organization delivers – even in terms of employees. The then-president of Pixar, Ed Catmull, attributed the studio’s success to communities. He said that in Pixar’s “vibrant community where talented people are loyal to one another and their collective work, everyone feels that they are part of something extraordinary, and their passion and accomplishments make the community a magnet for talented people coming out of schools or working at other places.”
In fact, the aspirational egos and individualist goals of the corporate world have belittled the sense of community in many companies and organizations. Therefore the onus in the modern era is beyond leadership. It is about ‘communityship’. Communityship makes use of leadership, but not the bossy idiocy we have become accustomed to so often these days. While we deliberate on the evils of micromanaging—frequent interferences by managers, the problem of “macro leading”: the exercise of top-down authority by out-of-touch leaders is far-more problematic. Communityship is about humble leadership with both the customer and the employees at the helm – an engaged and distributed