How to build a vibrant cloud community

For businesses the perceived risk of putting sensitive information into the ether and inviting critique can seem greater than the benefits of collaboration.
Written by Rick Nucci, Dell Boomi, Contributor
Commentary -We all agree about the power of online communities for individuals, but when it comes to businesses, we’re hesitant. The perceived risk of putting sensitive information into the ether and inviting critique can seem greater than the benefits of collaboration between companies and their customers. But the opportunity for a service or solution to grow and prosper as the result of open conversations between providers and customers in the cloud is well worth confronting the attendant hazards.

One of the cloud’s advantages is that it can provide objective measures of community success. You know with certainty how big and engaged your community is because they use your service directly, rather than being sent software that they may or may not install.

The cloud can also help companies enhance their products with less effort. With a cloud-based solution, for example, you can embed the feedback mechanism into the product itself. Users contribute to the improvement of the solution simply by using it.

So what makes enterprises hold back on launching cloud communities or allowing staffers to contribute to them? Is it a fear that employees reveal company IP, disclose secrets or weaknesses? Or could employees offer ideas that will contribute to the health of a competitor? Then there’s the question of measurement. How do you determine whether your investment in a cloud community makes sense?

Addressing the issues, determining the results
The obvious remedy for concerns about oversharing is guidance. Just as with social media, you can train your employees to interact properly with users in your community and in the communities of other businesses where their participation can enhance their work. Employees can easily learn not to tip the company’s hand during any interaction while drastically increasing engagement.

How drastically? It may surprise you to hear that levels of community engagement can be measured – by something called the Sense of Community Index, or SOCI. The index was developed in 1986 by psychologists McMillan and Chavis. They defined a sense of community as “a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members' needs will be met through their commitment to be together." According to the SOCI index, as the level of engagement rises, the value of the community increases without stagnation.

These same principles associated with the SOCI also apply to the cloud computing community. At Boomi, we’ve created a Cloud Community Index (CCI), directly relating the SOCI principles to communities like ours. You can see in the image below that as we move up the scale, our connection or engagement level gets deeper. The Y axis below indicates ongoing value potential, with the notion that a powerful community continues to add value over time with no stagnation.


Here’s what happens at every level of the Cloud Community Index:

First level: Usage collaboration
Solving issues common to the group is a prime contributor to this sense of belonging and sharing that McMillan and Chavis describe, and it’s also the first level of connection on the SOCI scale. Customers provide feedback on a product or service and assist each other. Let’s say you’re using Salesforce.com (along with about 110,000 businesses). How do you forecast for your pipeline? There is an enormous amount of information available in their forums to assist you.

Before the cloud, this kind of information had to be elicited from customers by product managers over the phone. Now enterprises can use products like UserVoice to embed voting mechanisms into their offerings. At Boomi, we give users 10 points to apportion to ideas as they wish during the voting process; they can spread the points around or give them all to a single favored idea. The best ideas bubble up through the community and end up as features in future iterations of the product. Once the idea is implemented, users get their points back to vote on other ideas.

Any given customer might not hold the key to your company’s best path for growth, but as a whole, your community is smarter than you are. The collective intelligence of your community will yield ideas you might not have thought of yourself.

Second level: New development
A higher level of collaboration happens when the community actually builds IP onto a product or service and adds value. Organizations can then keep the resulting application to themselves, offering it only to their own user sub-community. Or they can expose the application to the entire audience. Examples include Heroku, Force and Twilio – cloud applications that allow you to add functionality to their existing programs easily.

Third Level: Monetization
The point at which new IP generates profits is the third level of engagement in cloud communities. It’s your responsibility to provide ways for you and the users of your community to monetize their creations. One of the most straightforward examples is Google Marketplace, in which users develop applications and sell them to the audience. Google takes a cut of the revenues and the rest flows back to the developer.

Community members who add functionality to existing applications can offer the products to the public for a fee or to their own user communities, either for a fee or as a free feature. The benefit to anyone involved in this cloud scenario is obvious, and the freedom to choose whether and how to monetize product enhancements is empowering.

Fourth level: Collective intelligence, or the network effect
The highest level of engagement and value a cloud community can provide is when usage data transforms both the product and the community itself. The results can be powerful.

Evoz is a baby monitor with unlimited range; it allows parents to hear their baby’s sounds from anywhere in the world. What is astonishing is that the company aggregated usage data generated by its community to identify distinctive crying patterns that signal particular issues, like colic. Think of how helpful that information can be, especially to first-time parents. In our product, Boomi AtomSphere, a cloud solution that addresses companies’ application integration needs, a data mapping suggestion feature allows customers to tap into the knowledge of the entire user community to evaluate and implement proven best practices in data mapping. The feature leverages previously built maps to recommend and automatically generate mappings for new integrations that have worked for other customers with similar application integrations.

Product improvement suggestions and increased sales are just two indications of the success of your cloud community. Others include your community’s growth rate, along with the type of member and breadth of contributed content. You can also monitor your company’s NetPromoter Score, which is a customer loyalty metric that measures the likelihood of customers to talk positively about your solution. Because they demonstrate by objective means that a company is listening to its customers, communities have an enormous impact on a company’s NPS, often kicking it into positive territory.

All of the above might make it seem as if a vibrant community is as easy as writing some code and pushing a button, but the truth is you can’t just assemble the ingredients of a community and stir. A successful community can’t be bought or forced or faked, and it takes time to grow. But when it’s nurtured and supported in the spirit of finding answers for everyone involved, it continues to add value over time.

Rick Nucci is General Manager of Dell Boomi.

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