For years, companies kept their innovation processes hidden, averse to the risk of intellectual property theft and marketplace copycats. But times have changed. The internet, collaboration tools and web 2.0 have shown that we have much to gain through sharing.

I believe that online communities offer a compelling option for companies seeking deeper interaction with customers. By drawing consumers into the centre of the enterprise, these communities provide a pool of knowledge that can be tapped for feedback when building new products, refining existing products, reinventing a business model or rethinking processes.

However, such communities do not succeed automatically. They require extensive planning to encourage participation and genuine engagement. The planning can be challenging because it requires a new way of thinking about customers and our role in the enterprise. In my opinion, development of the community requires definition and coordination of a multitude of factors, including:

  • Community structure and design
  • Customer participation
  • Community and corporate culture
  • Community management and moderation, and
  • Future growth and direction.

The crux of the challenge lies in funnelling these factors into a finely honed process that caters to the company’s goals and target customers, and then assembling the organisational and technological structure to support it.

Here are my top five best practices gleaned from communities that are successfully using crowdsourcing, co-creation and other engagement strategies.

1. Have Clear Goals in Mind

A community needs a clear purpose – not only for business justification but also for designing the best platform for the job. Start with a tightly defined scope – such as generating ideas for a specific product – and then design the structure accordingly. Once you have a limited-scope structure in place, be prepared to let the community evolve.

Just as your organisation needs to focus on the community’s goals, you need to make those goals obvious to your customers. A focused community provides a rallying point for members, motivating them to contribute.

2. Motivate Your Members

If you want to encourage an active community, you will need to understand your customers.

In most communities members fall into three categories: power users, participants, and spectators. Find out how the users in each category think, what interests them and why they identify with your brand. It is particularly important to understand the power users because these are the people who will provide a constant stream of content – which in turn will drive other members to become more active.

Consider ways of rewarding users for their input. Internet users often respond to such simple things as recognition, being awarded insider status or the satisfaction of helping others.

3. Use Design Thinking Principles

Design thinking offers a method for solving problems with an emphasis on need identification, visualisation, prototyping, iteration and creativity. Such an approach can foster a culture of innovation by establishing the ground rules, providing a clear and inclusive methodology, and setting the right tone for genuine dialogue. The methodology involves three phases and should be applied as a repeating cycle:

  • Understand and observe: this is the time to gather information and create empathy within the group. It involves such activities as members posting stories and sharing resources.
  • Generate and prototype: this phase brings all the options to the table and generates the first working models. Members post, vote for and comment on ideas, making the best concepts rise to the top.
  • Test and learn: Viable concepts are validated. Members rate the value and workability of new products and features, making incremental fixes.

4. Build a Culture of Openness

Successful communities are built on trust and personal relationships so forget mass marketing and intrusive sales techniques. Instead, try direct engagement. Answer questions candidly. Address negative comments with grace. Bring customers into the loop, establishing direct links between them and product managers.

5. Remain Dedicated to Continuous Improvement


A good online community is primarily a human experience – one that continues to unfold. You should not view your community as a technology initiative with a defined endpoint. If you want your community to produce an ongoing supply of insights you must commit to a posture of cultivation – paying constant attention to activity levels, strategic alignment with business goals, and return on investment.

There are many ways of ensuring that your organisation stays focused on its community. Two of the most important steps are :

  • Assign a community manager who will be responsible for overseeing the program from initial design to ongoing member relations, and 

  • Measure the results as you go. Track the number of concepts that emerge and monitor the success of those concepts in the marketplace.

In the coming years, companies will increasingly look beyond their four walls to drive innovation, working collaboratively with customers, partners, and even competitors to generate ideas. We as customers are clamouring to be heard – we want to get our questions answered, to voice opinions, to contribute. We are already participating in a wide range of conversations online. Now is the time for companies to tap into this energy. The rewards promise to be rich: engaged customers, credibility in the marketplace, and a thriving culture of innovation.