Starting a customer community is kind of like building a birdhouse. It seems simple on paper but can prove challenging in practice. That was the big takeaway from a Deloitte study I wrote about last month that found many companies struggling to engage members of their online communities.
Deloitte singled out Dell's IdeaStorm and the My Starbucks Idea community as two examples of communities that successfully engage their members and actually put customer-generated ideas into practice. So what makes them so successful? I got some interesting insights when I interviewed Vida Killian, manager of IdeaStorm.
Probably the single most important factor is a willingness to let customers say what they want. Says Killian:
Dell has really embraced the fact that we don't control this. On our forums, which started out as support, there wasn't a lot of positive out there to begin with. So it's accepting the fact that people are going to talk about anything and everything. That, from a company culture perspective, makes us more successful in the online community.
Dell's long history of online conversations with its customers makes it a bit easier for Dell to cede control to them. As Killian points out in the interview, Dell has offered online forums, where customers help each other with support issues, since the early 1990s. It was also early on the corporate blog curve, launching the Direct to Dell blog in 2006.
It's important for all employees, including the senior management team, to be on board with this idea, says Killian. At Dell, CEO Michael Dell is one of the community's biggest proponents. Though Dell executives spent some time discussing the risks of creating a community, Killian says they concluded the benefits far outweighed the risks. What are the benefits? Company and customer collaboration on Dell's products and services is the biggest one, says Killian. The site has also generated plenty of positive PR for Dell.
Financial benefits are harder to pinpoint, a fact that may lead some companies to pass on the idea. Says Killian:
It's not your traditional ROI model. Back to the culture, it supports the fact that you don't need a hard number at the end of the day. It's the right thing to do, we want to listen to our customers, so let's do it.
Though the issue of control isn't a problem for Dell, the company is struggling a bit with how to internally manage all of the ideas, more than 9,600. It's a definite challenge for a large company with lots of business divisions. Says Killian:
... you get the whole funnel of ideas and it's a challenge as to how to disperse them. Everybody has full-time jobs. We make further strides every day in getting reporting and getting everything set up so people can get engaged, on the site and just with the information. To me, that's the hard part. And it goes back to making sure we're listening, making sure we're closing the feedback loop.
Killian says Dell has implemented or partially implemented 160 of these ideas so far. The number of ideas submitted is one metric that Dell looks at when evaluating the site's performance, along with number of comments, number of votes and, perhaps most important, response rate. Ideas are categorized as implemented, partially implemented, under review or reviewed.
Somewhat surprisingly, since the Deloitte report mentioned low member numbers as a problem in customer communities, Killian says she isn't as concerned with IdeaStorm's membership. While the total number of members may be large, says Killian, a smaller subset are active participants in a community. More than 6,ooo members of IdeaStorm have submitted ideas, and the site has generated nearly 75,000 comments on ideas and more than 660,000 votes.
Though the idea of allowing customers to vote for ideas online is becoming more common now, it wasn't when Dell launched IdeaStorm in February of 2007. But it is a key way for the company to engage its customers. Says Killian:
Their collaborative agreement on what's most important floats to the top for everyone to see. So you can easily see which are the most popular ideas and which ideas are new, should people want to jump on in and vote on those.
The Deloitte study also mentions the importance of having at least one employee whose primary responsibility is managing the community. At Dell, that's Killian, who drives the site's technology roadmap and also is its primary evangelist within the company. She's assisted by an employee whose full-time job is monitoring IdeaStorm. About 40 Dell employees, representing all areas of the company including customer support, engineering and marketing, participate on a team called Communities and Conversations.
In the interest of rolling out the site quickly, Dell launched IdeaStorm without a lot of technological bells and whistles, says Killian. It's seen a fair amount of tweaks, many prompted by user feedback. For instance, users can now vote ideas up or down, though initially only positive votes were allowed. Though Killian couldn't offer specifics, Dell is working closely on enhancements with technology provider Salesforce.com. She says:
We're absolutely looking at the technology to make it easier for our customers and for Dell employees to get engaged. Probably the biggest thing, we have more and more Dell employees joining in. I'm being contacted by a lot of areas within Dell. There's a big focus on innovation now. So everyone in product groups talking about innovation and collaboration is talking about IdeaStorm. They want to know how to get engaged, or if they were already, they want to know what more they can do with it. I think that's going to take us to new places.