A big part of my day job is to help organizations with their brand positioning and strategy.
So when I read the article in the New York Times this past Sunday about TEDx, the relatively new (and incredibly popular) offshoot of the legendary TED conference, I thought it might be a good opportunity to take a closer look. The issue?
Clearly TEDx has been a smart community-building strategy, but will it ultimately prove to be a smart brand strategy as well?
Let me take a few steps back. If you are not familiar with TED (seriously? have you been camping in Siberia?) you can learn more here.
The main TED conference is a place where smart people (with big $$ and a personal invite) go once a year to hear other smart people give short talks showcasing how smart they are. The rest of us poor, unconnected folks wait patiently for the nice TED people to release the TED talks one by one, teasing us like a painfully-slowly dripping faucet teases a man dying of thirst.
And that’s the way it worked. Until last year when, in June, TED announced a new program called TEDx that would allow anyone to organize their own TED conference anywhere in the world.
The New York Times article tells the story of what has happened with the TEDx program in a little over a year:
…there were 278 events last year in places as near as New Jersey and Florida, and as far as Estonia and China. There was TEDxKibera, held in one of Africa’s largest shantytowns in Nairobi, Kenya. And there was TEDxNASA, which had space-themed lectures.
Already this year there have been 531 TEDx events. Another nearly 750 are to take place this year and beyond.
Wow. Now that is community-driven innovation on a grand scale. From one event per year with a small number of people attending at a very high cost to almost two TED events per day, held around the world, and almost every event is free. All that in a little over a year.
I’d call that a smashing strategic success. A soon-to-be-classic community engagement story.
But if we look at the decision to create TEDx from a traditional brand or intellectual property point of view, would it also be viewed as a good strategy?
[Read the rest of this post on opensource.com]
Interesting article in Forbes the other day about the way Threadless, the awesome t-shirt company, thinks about community-building. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Threadless, they do about $30 million in revenues with a unique cultural/business model that merges a community of t-shirt creators and consumers into one happy family (you can read more about them in the Forbes article).
This quote from Cam Balzer, the Threadless VP of Marketing, in particular, caught my eye:
“Crowdsourcing is antithetical to what we’re doing. That’s because crowdsourcing involves random sets of people who suddenly have a say in how the business works, but that’s not how Threadless operates. We’ve got a close-knit group of loyal customers and have worked hard to build that. The people who submit ideas to us, vote and buy our products aren’t random people, and they aren’t producing random work. We work closely with our consumers and give them a place on our site, the Threadless forum, where they can exchange ideas with one another–ideas that go beyond designing T-shirts. We have consumers who have voted on 150,000 designs, which means they’ve spent hours interacting on our site. People who do that aren’t jumping into a random crowd. They’re part of the community we’ve cultivated.”
This really hit the nail on the head for me. I often see the word crowdsourcing being used in the same sentence with open source or community building. But the word crowdsourcing doesn’t describe the type of community I like to be involved in. Here’s why:
A few weeks ago I wrote a post called Tom Sawyer, whitewashing fences, and building communities online, where I outlined one of the biggest mistakes I see companies make when figuring out their community strategy– they expect a mythical “community” will paint their fence for them. But not everyone is Tom Sawyer.
If your community strategy starts with the question, “how can I make the community work for me?” you may still find success if there are a bunch of people out there willing to paint your fence for free, but you definitely are not taking advantage of all of the benefits you can get from participating in communities.
One of the most often used examples of customer/community-driven innovation (perhaps because it is simple to understand) is the My Starbucks Idea site. This is a place where customers can tell Starbucks what they want, people vote on each others’ ideas, and Starbucks takes the best ideas and uses them to make their products, services, and experience better.
A recent example of a service that was launched through the site is a mini Starbucks drink card that can fit on your key chain. Sweet. It looks like they’ve had at least 5-10 innovations like this that have come from customer ideas, maybe more. And Starbucks is not alone– many companies have built similar sites, as has The White House. You’ve seen them.
But this approach is still simple Tom Sawyer-style community-building. People just helping Starbucks paint their fence for free. So why is it working for Starbucks? Because there are people out there willing to spend their time and energy helping Starbucks make their products, services, and experience better. Not every brand can command this sort of attention and loyalty. Most can’t, in fact.
My view? I do think these sort of public idea generation efforts are smart 21st century thinking when they work. But why stop there?
I get excited when I see big companies focused not only on what they take from the table, but what they bring to the table. I love to see companies that aren’t afraid to be humble members of communities, rather than building the community around themselves.