Building the Comunity Product

iPhone launch clearly showed in the few months that have passed, the power of the community in spreading the word and keeping the topic hot. Even mediocre blog entries, regardless of them being favorable to the product or not, got a lot of visits and social networking sites had days of “iPhone-related only” topics on their front page, and all that from “thunderlizards”, self-appointed evangelists and bloggers that looked for some traffic for their Ad-Sense supported pages.

On the other hand, buzz building does not generate awareness. So what made all these people get involved and build an open community? They found something worthy of building a community around it. It’s tough to impossible to build a community around mundane and mediocre products regardless of the amount of money or marketing minds you throw at it. If the product is worth a community it will get one no matter how hard you try to stop it from forming.
Is a great product enough though? Well, you may have the website that puts Flickr to shame but Google Analytics shows 0 visitors. What you need is a platoon of thunderlizards, right away. You need to be proactive about the community and stir the waters a bit and help form the nucleus and to do that, you need to decide to build Closed or Open communities. Nike owns a community; you may choose football players and have a virtual championship, as long as they’re Nike players. An open community is built on self-appointed evangelists though and if you can’t have such a community forming, it’s time to review the product.
You can build the product for the community and have the community be the product. That is an amazing concept so beautifully built by Treadless. Just check them out; they have built the perfect community product.
Social media is art about context, communication and collaboration so you have to recruit your evangelists right away and have them build the nucleus of a community around you and suggest and encourage people to further spread the word by blogging and commenting. Just asking your customers for help is so flattering that they will help you, much to your surprise.
All right, where to find these evangelists? All great deeds need a champion that inspires and shapes the world. All you need is to be or find and assign that champion, that original hero that gives the community identity and inspiration. What employee wakes up in the morning thinking: “Today I will carry the flag for my company on the virtual world”? Would they be thinking: “I might get fired for my comment yesterday on that blog post”?
The community has to welcome criticism as this is a long term relationship with ups and downs. Luckily, the criticism the community gives the product or the company is always a constructive one. You should fear no criticism as that means people are going away and they usually never return. Freaking out and trying to control the community as soon as something not-so-nice comes up, just kills it. Love letters from the community to the owner of the company are just a myth.
For your product to attract and foster a community on its own it needs flexibility, malleability, extensibility, it needs to be able to grow by having others build on it. It needs and SDK (Software Development Kit) that allows widgets, plug-ins, tuning. The community needs build on and that flatters the community as admits that you did not build the perfect product, but it can get there sure enough. Once someone builds a widget, a plug-in for your product just try to take your product away from that person. A community may as well start building around the plug-in. As long as tweaking is possible, someone will try it and make it great in a way you never thought of.
Participate in the exchange. The community does not run the company but it has a voice and it needs answers from within the company. The involvement of the CEO in the conversation is a bit extreme for a large company though. Participation in the conversation also means you make sure the community is easy to reach and included in your operations. Just search for forums, “user groups” or blogs at Apple, Microsoft, Netscape, Yahoo, Sun or Ford, Harley Davidson, Shell …
For all that happened, Apple deserves a Hight Five on building a community product.