Creating customer communities

Recently at my daughter’s school Christmas fair I spotted the age old classic game: guess how many sweets in the jar. The winning guess and the actual number of sweets were miles out, but the school kept a running average. I noticed the average guess was closer to the final figure than the winning guess.This is no coincidence, in 1904 a prominent British scientist, Sir Francis Galton, coined the phrase “the wisdom of crowds”, the theory is the collective minds of crowds and communities are greater than the individual.We can take this thinking and apply it successfully to business.A great first step to judge the wisdom of your own crowd is to establish an online community or social presence. A platform for you to talk to the people drawn together by a product or service you are offering, and for them to talk back.At the very core a community is an amplifier; it allows you an unparalleled level of access to your user base and empowers the consumer to get involved in the intricacies of your business. At its best the community provides you with an amazing insight into customers’ views on your products and services, whilst highlighting both your strengths and weaknesses. It’s a priceless resource.We have a long running community of designers, developers, implementers and retailers that was established in 2002 and has now over 10,000 members. However, setting up and running a community isn’t easy.Before you rush out and start setting up your own community, first define a mission statement: Why you are doing this, what’s the objective and what do you want to get out of it?Think of an online community as a little like a building project, you provide the bricks and mortar to create the environment where your followers will gather to talk.There are some risks in running a community – after all, you cannot control what customers say about you. This risk needs to be assessed in the new world where your customers already have many platforms where they can criticise you, like Twitter or Facebook. The advantages of running your own community in these circumstances is that you are aware of issues and can post replies. And if people are totally unreasonable, you can censor them -- your other customers will often leap to your defence.However the very point of a community is about empowering your customers to talk. Don’t stifle conversation just because it’s going against you, or exposing a potential weakness with your offering.If you empower your customers to work with you, you all get part of the prize.