Building a virtual B2B user community

* Jennifer Leggio is at RSA ConferenceGuest editorial by Joel LundgrenI was first introduced to Facebook in the summer of 2007. At that time most people in Sweden had yet to hear about this site, and the idea that it had anything to do with business was just absurd.
Written by Jennifer Leggio, Contributor

* Jennifer Leggio is at RSA Conference

Guest editorial by Joel Lundgren

I was first introduced to Facebook in the summer of 2007. At that time most people in Sweden had yet to hear about this site, and the idea that it had anything to do with business was just absurd. I took one good look at it and said to our CIO --"Imagine what an internal social site could do for us as a global independent ERP provider, to allow peers within the company to converse across regions, countries, offices, departments and cultures. And if we also invited customers, partners and other stakeholders to take part imagine how close we could get to our customers."

With corporate headquarters in Sweden, a CEO and executives in the UK, development facilities in Sri Lanka and regional subsidiaries and offices in 59 countries, we needed a central place for our staff to collaborate and communicate, and in Spring of 2008, we launched openIFS, inviting customers and partners to participate in this virtual community with blogs from our senior thought leaders plus user-generated forums and wikis. openIFS is  a collaborative community for everyone with an interest in IFS and IFS Applications, allowing our users to share their best practices and tips and tricks, increasing their return on investment. Meanwhile openIFS is strengthening brand loyalty and perception, and deepening the relationship with customers.

So far IFS' community has attracted over 11.000 users (customers, partners and employees) with 1.000 daily visits. Customers are sharing experiences and advice, employees feel they make a difference, partners are profiling their services and products and all parties are engaged in business related conversations.

We are only really starting our journey, but here are some tips we can offer others who are heading in this direction.

Cultural change openIFS required a cultural change within IFS and among our users and partners. Some people in a corporate setting might think keeping knowledge to themselves gives them power when in fact exposing and sharing it creates more value for themselves and the company. It can also be a big adjustment for some people to interact with customers or internal peers.

One cultural barrier can be a top-down approach to communication. When customers can speak to one another 24x7, your developers start conversations directly with end-users and your product specialist has a blog voice, it might frighten people who are used to maintaining tight control of external communication. But success depends on a certain relaxation of this control. You have to trust your people and company values.

Get top-level support You will need to outline the business objectives, define goals and develop a plan that is comprehensible to people with no or little understanding of online communities or social software. Otherwise you will probably not get past the executive team or board of your company. Start small and act fast. Show real results as quickly as possible. Measurable results early will help you maintain support necessary to grow the program over time.

Google-Age Thinking This is 21st-century communication, so avoid imposing 18th-century structures on it.  Avoid using pre-defined categories to structure content. We all think differently, and what seems logical to you may not be logical to me. The old one-size-fits all mentality does not work anymore. Allow the community to "structure" content by tagging, base relevance on networks and relations, and apply innovative and user-friendly filtering and search interfaces.

Promote openness Create a place where users are comfortable sharing ideas and looking for support, information and insight. One key element for us was to ensure that all users are using their real names and identities.

Business-to-business customers don't relate to a social application like they will with a consumer site. But we are finding that a multifaceted company like an independent software vendor does have "fans," and it is smart to help those fans form a community. Don't fear a loss of services revenue when your customers get "free" help from peers, or worry that employees spend time helping someone out when they should work on the next version of your product. Open, honest interaction creates passion, and the more passionate these people are about your products and brand, the better references and advocates they will become.

Joel Lundgren is a program manager for openIFS, the online community for IFS users and partners worldwide. He has held a variety of roles at IFS, including Technical Manager, R&D Project Manager, Services Manager for Europe, Middle East and Asia and Business Process Director. Prior to joining IFS, he was a Software Engineer for Ericsson Radio Systems. Lundgren holds a B.S. degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Software from Linköping University Sweden.

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