Customer Competencies, Co-Creation, and Brand Communities

October 20, 2009
Courtesy of Wonderfully Complex's photostream on flickr.

Courtesy of Wonderfully Complex’s photostream on flickr.

Word of mouth communities and networks using social software are increasingly spread over regional, national, and international borders, making them much more important to those who market branded products and services, online and off. The recent buzz around the concept of social business points to the growing importance of social networks and communities to the evolution of business practice. Whether companies are in fact closing the community gap or the engagement gap remains an open question though.

As Rachael Happe of the Community Roundtable notes in commentary on the Community Maturity Model:

in the stages before a company becomes truly networked, metrics are isolated to supporting one business process vs. in a networked business the whole business becomes social and the communities are set up to support cross-functional goals.

In other words, customer communities approaching maturity produce value for the business, or organizational enterprise, rather than only a specific functional area — such as research and development, product management, customer support, or marketing. Rachel’s overall point receives validation in a recent article in the September (2009) issue of the Journal of Marketing that reports on long term ethnographic research on brand communities by Professors Hope Jensen Schau, Albert M. Muniz, Jr., and Eric J. Arnould, “How Brand Community Practices Create Value .”  The most interesting thought in the article for me is their point that customer competencies are a valuable resource for building co-creation opportunities in brand communities.

Unlike earlier discussions of customer competence, Schau, Muniz, and Arnould contend trying to co-opt customer competencies is the wrong strategy. Rather, their research findings suggest community management benefits from developing opportunities for customers to grow their competencies with the brand. They make it clear that their research indicates,

Companies wishing to encourage co-creation should foster a broad array of practices, not merely customization.” In other words, don’t try to keep the community focus only on what benefits the brand as you define it. The important point to keep in mind when discussing value in brand communities is that members create value for themselves through producing cultural capital distinguishing their status relative to the community, aside from the ROI and business value gained by the company owning the brand. Making sure members are provided opportunities to grow their competencies encourages them to reinvest their cultural capital in the brand community.

I discussed co-creation in several posts this past year in relation to eLearning 2.0 generally as well as Nokia and, back in 2005, its overall importance to the challenge of creating successful innovation, including the relevance of customer communities to innovation outcomes. The concept of customer competencies captures the overall significance of co-creation for efforts to produce value through engaging customers. However, Schau, Muniz, and Arnould offer the additional insight that the competencies critical to brand communities are developed through community practices. By practice they mean the linked, implicit way people understand, say, and do things. The term is further used to refer to the activities, performances, and representations (video, graphics, etc.) or talk of community members.  

Experience designers can use the concept of customer competencies  to inform choices about how to manage practices in customer communities.
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