Crowdsourcing can offer far more than just funding or flash-mobs. In fact, close-knit communities of dedicated individuals often provide the most insightful, agile, and relevant source of new ideas for any business.
But, unlike other customer engagement tactics – particularly those of the social media variety, crowdsourcing can’t be treated as a means to start a conversation. Its greatest value comes when brands use it to extend existing relationships with customers, offering them new opportunities to solve problems and improve on existing solutions.
In 2006, SolarWinds’ product managers began to monitor and respond to posts in the company’s basic support forum. We mainly develop software tools specifically targeted at IT engineers, so (unsurprisingly) many forum users wanted to suggest new features for our products and services. When we saw this, we introduced a basic “feature request” which allowed anyone on the forum to suggest a feature – or vote for one which had already been suggested.
Since then, the forum has grown organically and with SolarWinds’ investment to become a crowdsourcing platform and content exchange called Thwack, one that’s critical to product development and innovation at SolarWinds. In the last year, more than 40 new product features were developed or enhanced based on 5540 votes for almost a thousand unique ideas posted on Thwack. But it’s also a network for self-declared geeks to congregate, exchange thoughts, and swap “war stories” from the battlefield of the server room.
Thwack wouldn’t have succeeded were it not for the pre-existing relationships between product managers and their customers. By taking on a more transparent approach to processes – such as regularly updating users about the status of their Feature Request submissions – our product development team gave our forum users the confidence to engage SolarWinds in further dialogue, calling out where things were working and offering reasonable ideas where they weren’t. But we also needed to deliver on this dialogue, by using our customers’ feedback to visibly improve both our product lifecycles and internal processes.
How can brands court crowdsourcing success?
· Know your audience: Your crowdsourcing efforts should not only speak to members as users or decision-makers, but as an audience which has its own personal interests. There’s no “business benefit” from hosting pop-culture competitions and trivia on Thwack – except, perhaps, for a powerful sense of kinship amongst our customers that keeps them invested in, and always coming back to, the platform.
· Build a Sales-Free zone: Separate your community space from your sales activities. There are significant sales support and cross-selling opportunities that occur naturally when users discover more about the product range, through resources like product tips, training, and other resources which offer them clear value. Thwack users, for example, do not receive any marketing or sales emails to their address – just bulletins to let them know about events and competitions.
· Reward effort: Regular recognition and kudos within the community is a far stronger motivator for members than any monetary gain. If you reward moderators for muting the more outlandish suggestions in a discussion thread, or call out contributors for making suggestions, they’re more likely to repeat this behaviour, building up virtuous cycles within your crowd. Gamification and point/badge systems offer a powerful way to provide that recognition for maintaining the community as a cohesive, productive whole.
Chris LaPoint is vice president of product management at IT management and software company SolarWinds.