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Applying lean start-up principles and practice to building corporate communities

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On Monday evening I took the bull by the horns and jumped into the debate over how best to deal with building a successful corporate community at Cass Business School, organised by BrightLemon. And to give it some zip, some urgency, I based the story that was narrated with the help of some simple PowerPoint slides on my failure to create a successful online community at Shopping.com.

A confession first, being let’s say not one of the best public speakers (great to see that Cass was holding a Toastmasters event that same evening) I did my talk sitting down, and using a microphone, which was more fun and conversational in style. Anyhow in similar laid back fashion I have decided to publish my slides in text format, to add some reflective value (and pop in the occasion image now and then)..though I do relent at the end to include the clutch of slides with a lean start-up example.

My second slide was about the real subject of the talk, which is learning from setting up community to deliver to the Shopping.com mission, and how I might do it again differently with the benefit of lean start-up tools.

I also mentioned that my desire to talk about the value of start-up tools for building communities is based on discussions with community managers and entrepreneurs on the LinkedIn Community Roundtable Group and e-mint, who’ve shown support for the concept:

“I can’t say that I have really applied them directly to community building, but I certainly think that the approach makes sense. Since the fundamental tenet of the lean start-up is to be customer-focused and to continually seek actual customer validation for what you are creating, it seems to intuitively fit as a model for community development, agreed Terry Coatta.

“The biggest challenge I would foresee is critical mass. As a lean startup with a specific product/service you can engage in customer validation with a small number of customers — sometimes even just a single one. But in a community, you need to have interaction amongst the community members. So you clearly need to have more than one :-) The actual numbers are going to depend on how willing people are to contribute, but given the 90/9/1 rule of thumb, it would seem like you might need at least some tens of people involved in order to have even a minimal level of interaction.”

A little about my background experience in social media and community starting at Headshift at the end of 2005 (now part of the Dachis Group) and most recently working for eBay Inc’s Shopping.com.

Kilimanjaro

And as way of a sneaky-peeky into what I was up to at Shopping.com check out this quick overview of one successful social media campaign activity at the top price comparison site:

The original aim of Shopping.com mission was to be ‘best place to buy online when don’t know what to buy’ which was supported by a NPS led user value proposition (UVP) piloted in our German (DE) site with improvements to search, data, product selection, and community itself as the means to improve guidance for customers.

And by the 3rd quarter of 2010 our community strategy was starting to pay dividends in DE, with good quality customer conversations, leading to successful offline top contributor meet-ups.

While in the UK we did not take part in the UVP I did get chance to look ahead for 2011 and put together a top level plan which in retrospect had its simple merits as strategy for content and community optimization:

{1} SEO:
Better SEO content => new visitors; better member content => better SEO content (revenue)

{2} Community:
Better incentives/feedback => better community (cost)

{3} Conversions:
Loyal community members => increased conversions (revenue)

The obvious weakness was in failing to understand how to get a community contribute to revenue, except in terms of creating reviews and guides which would rank highly for SEO. But I only got to try that out with a social SEO approach with a test with user-generated 40 guides created at the end of my tenure.

What I did learn was the value of using social media channels to listen and learn from the customer, as with Google’s ZMOT’s observation that people will search for reviews on small purchases like Scotch tape, understanding that for the customer that the smallest issues had significance [Dec 2012: what I now term #thinslicing – the power of bringing together an understanding of how customers make purchasing decisions with little info, together with how to listen and help customers using your social & community manager supported with social tools & data].

But the strategy ultimately did not deliver the expected positive results, and community while remaining in place on the site was called off as a ‘key business driver’ for Shopping.com.

So with the benefit of this experience what would I do differently? And thinking about previous community building experience at ICAEW when we considered surveying members on the first iteration of IT Counts, maybe the answer is as simple as asking potential community members if it’s what they want.

In other words testing the assumptions with a basic ‘mvp’ which we could quickly validate and pivot from if necessary. To illustrate this I used the nice example from the Lean Startup Machine London event I attended recently, with an idea for a per-to-peer mobile dating app called appropriately ‘You Never Know’. There’s a full list of startup entries here.

But of course there’s plenty to consider overall to make sure your community is a success, as this expert blog post from Dachis which I used in one of my slides highlights 13 high-level points to consider, including those which relate to testing with your customers/community. Clearly lean tools apply to tasks such as building to solve both a customer and brand problem, but don’t forget the value of applying a metrics led approach to validation, as outlined in the concluding slideshare below from one of the Lean Startup Machine London presenters.

I hope that’s inspired some interest in the use of lean start-up tools to validate your community proposition. But it’s also worth adding the point made to me by Rosie Sherry, that these tools aren’t just for pre-launch validation – but can add value throughout the business cycle when used with an existing community of customers:

“Another angle to look at it is how lean startup methods + communities can help build a product/business.

“In my situation, for example, I started an online community that has grown to be something special. As a consequence, it takes much more effort than an odd hour here or there to maintain. As a result, we are trying to figure out ways to create it into a sustainable business – in a lean startup kind of way. We hadn’t, when we started it, thought it would turn into what it has today. But in order to maintain it, we do need to figure out how to make it work financially.

“One advantage, is that we can reach out quite easily to people to get feedback. The community members are also not shy in saying if they think what we are doing sucks!”

Lean startup metrics