Trouble Building Community or Custom Products and Services? Try the Lead User Method

27 08 2007

As we have featured from InnoCentive to NikePlus, companies are innovating by involving their customers in product/service design and delivery through the integration of product development methodology with peer production, crowdsourcing or crowdfunding customer engagement strategies.

The byproduct is robust online community, customer evangelists, and more open innovation models. But it doesn’t happen on its own.

So how can associations catch up? How can we tap our brand power to create online relationships built on the trust we have carefully built and promote customer-focused product/service development?

Stop Treating Everyone the Same

For starters, we need to apply what we already know about how people learn. We know that how I like to learn may be different than your own preference. So we devised various means for delivering messages and learning experiences via face-to-face or online programs.

Why shouldn’t this rule be the same for building online community or product development?

One often hears executives exclaim that they have too many “lurkers” and not enough “seekers” who aren’t afraid to interact and build content. But often you find they don’t have any core strategy for fostering community. Like for instance, how online community will specifically support existing products and services or how online interactivity of end user members will achieve a specific outcome they need filled.

You have “seekers” but they are smart, engaged, and don’t have time for activity that has no purpose. In product development, they refer to these folks as “lead users.”

Imagine you are a baseball owner and you just finished building the next state of the art ballpark. Would you open your doors to the public without a team of ball players? People who know their positions, roles, and responsibilities? People who can play to objectives and change as you need?

Sadly, we have built “ballparks” everywhere in the form of discussion boards, listservs, project spaces like Sharepoint or Groove, and full blown community applications. But many of us have not addressed the questions above. We field teams (more like mass chaos) where the “Friday topic of the week” or “copy fests” (e.g. one person asks for a copy of something and you get ten me too’s) become rampant.

How does this help people learn, apply new ideas, and (shutter to think) help you create new revenue opportunities that promote member evangelism? Remember Jacki Hubba…”assume member retention… you need owners who promote you.”

The Alternative

My own experience with lurkers reminds me of my days at MPI (91-94) when we launched MPINet- a community within the old CompuServe system. Remember them?

The web was in its infancy and lots of folks were timid then too (the Mosaic browser didnt arrive until 1993), but we were able to develop a plan that got us to 750 registered users online in 12 months. Most of these folks were lurkers but we concentrated organizing the top ten percent (about 100 ppl) to serve specific roles with specific duties from chapter leadership mgmt to topic focused discussions. This encouraged healthy interchanges and encouraged lurkers to chime in. Sort of like creating an editorial calendar for online discussion. Ultimately, we found the more activity and content created was due to how well that content satisfied the “user outcomes/needs” of the early adopters which made lurkers less timid to engage.

Deep Diving on Lead User Method

MIT Sloan Professor Eric von Hipple has written and spoken a great deal on the “lead user method” for product development. Read my first post on him here.

Hipple explains the lead user method this way:

“Lead users are users whose strong needs will become general in a marketplace months or years in the future. Since lead users are familiar with conditions which lie in the future for most others, they can serve as a need-forecasting laboratory for marketing research. Moreover, since lead users often attempt to fill the need they experience, they can provide new product concept and design data as well.”

If this interests you, read his 1986 paper on Lead User Method here.

If you think about it, communities are as much a product experience as a meeting or magazine, only it’s organic in construction. It lives 24/7. So it takes a different POV to keep it going.

All you need is to create community around a product that lead users want to make better and the lurkers will feed from them and grow in confidence.

Think back to the adoption curve above and work along the curve from left to right with your innovators and early adopters. Make sure you are designing for their needs and
the lurkers (pragmatists and skeptics) will come along.

So if you plan meetings and education programs toward specific objectives why do you approach the online world any differently? Would you have a meeting without an agenda or a course without a syllabus?

Study InnoCentive and NikePlus to see how they create product or service-oriented community that creates new value, better product or service experiences, and grows revenues.

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