Communities around the world are overthrowing governments. They are releasing political prisoners. They are changing the global debate on important topics. And they are infiltrating big corporations. (Ask Bank of America about those check card fees.)
However, when people use the terms “corporation” and “community” in the same sentence, they are usually talking about community relations, (i.e. corporate philanthropy) where resources, information, knowledge and know-how travel in a one-way direction from the company to a non-profit. In traditional community relations, there’s (usually) no flow (of anything) back to the company and no on-going purpose beyond profits. In addition, traditionally a corporation’s relationship with its community has been a defensive move, more of a “let’s avoid being in a Michael Moore film” public relations strategy.
What we argue that a corporation’s thoughtfulness in engaging their customers, suppliers and other stakeholders can be an offense play: something that helps build the business, strengthen the brand and deepen competitive advantage. Through dynamic interactions—fueled by a common purpose and powered by technology—a flow of information between the company and its community can help to strengthen its value proposition and overall business.
Some companies have begun to experiment with this flow. Take Pepsi’s RefreshEverything. A massive social marketing campaign aimed at building Pepsi brand awareness, it has captured the imagination of hundreds of thousands of high-energy, activist-types and their personal networks.
Or Google Summer of Code, a global program building a community of future professional developers through stipends to write code for open source software projects. In its six-plus years of existence, GSoC has brought together 4,500+ students and their 4,000+ mentors from around the world. More accessible-to-all source code gets built, and students around the world are given new opportunities. Also good for Google? I’d say so.
These two examples combine corporate social responsibility with branding, social marketing and community-building. But there are other frontiers to explore. Consider the following:
What if you could ask thousands of your product’s “power users” about a design choice and get answers within minutes?
What if you could solve thorny distribution issues by engaging your suppliers in the problem-solving process?
What if your customers mobilized themselves to change legislation favorable to your product?
The list is endless.
The power of communities is on the rise. And technology is rapidly evolving to support and speed up its influence. Corporations face the decision to embrace the energy and empower the movement—or stick to “safe” business models that run the risk of being leapfrogged by those willing to experiment with new approaches.