Practical business reasons to support open source communities

How community building can help an organization's bottom line

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Recently I've had several conversations with open source friends and colleagues, each discussion touching upon—but not directly focused on—the subject of why a company would/should/could support a community around a project it has released as free/open source, or more generally to support the communities of F/LOSS projects on which they rely. After the third one of these conversations I'd had in nearly as many weeks, I dusted off my freelance business consulting hat and started mapping out some of the business reasons why an organization might consider supporting communities.

In this article, I'll look at community from a business perspective, including the effect community can have on an organization's bottom line. Although there are communities everywhere, I'll approach the topic—meaning, communities, their members, and their contributors—from a free/open source perspective. So please stick around, and maybe you'll learn ways to communicate the importance of community to your organization.

(Also, be sure to check out my list of 16 resources for measuring open source community ROI.)

What we mean when we talk about community

First, let me explain what I mean by community. A community is a self-organized collection of people sharing a concern or interest. Although it's possible to build, grow, and manage a community, this concept of self-organization is important for providing and maintaining the vibrancy that comes with a strong community. Strong communities are composed of people who self-identify as members of the community, not those who are assigned or forced into it. Members may join or leave the community at will. The members of a community retain complete agency as to their initial and continued membership.

Why would a person become a member of a community? Some will drop in to acquire help for a problem they're having, but merely dropping in does not necessarily mean a person identifies as a member of the community. Those who return, however, have at least started this self-identification process. Something they experienced on their initial visit convinced them that this is a group with which they'd like to continue to associate. Perhaps they return because of the social dynamics. Perhaps it's for the shared affinities and inspiring conversations. Perhaps it's for the friendships they are building. Whatever the reason, a community is similar to so many other things in life: First impressions matter. A community environment in which people do not feel heard, do not feel appreciated, and do not feel comfortable leads to the erosion of the trust and bonds that allow a community to thrive, in addition to increased ill-will toward those who ostensibly claim management over the community.

Communities, fundamentally, are people. Typically the community "personality" is an amalgam of the personalities of the most prominent members. Thus, if the personality skews too far toward the negative, the community will develop a reputation as being negative and unhealthy. One role community manager(s) play is to help shape and guide the community's personality to build an environment that helps the community members meet their goals, and that benefits organizations that support it.

Business benefits

Why, though, would an organization invest resources in supporting and guiding a community? How does community-building help the bottom line?

Measuring the ROI of community is tricky, but really no trickier than any other outbound communication effort your organization attempts. If you've ever tried measuring the impact of your organization's PR, outreach, branding, and advertising efforts, you know how difficult a task this can be. However, just because something is difficult doesn't mean it's not worth doing. Although measuring community support success is challenging, supporting a vibrant community can provide many benefits, both quantifiably and otherwise.

A strong, engaged community gains your organization the holy grail of marketers everywhere: word of mouth marketing. The community you support will become your street team, spreading word of your organization and its projects to anyone who will listen. Additionally, an engaged community will provide the most on-time and in-depth market and competitive research. Community members become not only your staunchest defenders, but also a ready, willing, forthright, and cost-effective focus group when the organization needs to try out new ideas. When you're out of new ideas, your community will be there as a resource to provide you with the inspiration and experience necessary to spark and potentially implement well-targeted and brilliant innovation, while also pointing you to new tools and best practices to bring that innovation to life more quickly. When that innovation does take off and your organization is looking to expand, the community it has supported provides a rich and passionate pool from which to recruit new team members, dramatically reducing the time and resources required not only to fill open positions, but also for onboarding once hired.

If word of mouth marketing, market research, product focus groups, and a technical talent pool aren't enough for your organization, there are myriad other business benefits to supporting a vibrant community. For example, community members, having been involved in technical development, will likely be early adopters of your latest technology or solutions. The support community members provide each other not only leads to lower support costs for your organization, it can also lead to lower cost of ownership for the community and those who rely upon it for assistance. And if something does go wrong with your product, for example, an engaged community can provide higher goodwill, tolerance of errors, and public support and PR in times of crisis. Of course, this community support for your organization only lasts as long as your organization remains supportive of the community. The moment members of your community sense your organization is being disingenuous—and they will sense it, on that you can rely—they will rightfully drop support for your organization, and possibly expose it and all of its flaws.

When considering the benefits of supporting a community, and the metrics for determining success, it's important to remember that most of these benefits require playing the long game. Trust is not earned overnight, and without the trust of the community, your organization is unlikely to reap the benefits of supporting and being a part of that community. Most discussions about metrics should be phrased in the context of months and years, rather than days and weeks. Give your program adequate time to get off the ground and start showing results before using those metrics to determine whether the effort is successful.

Thanks

Immense thanks to Stephen Walli and Josh Simmons for reviewing early drafts of these articles. Their feedback was invaluable. Any shortcomings in the articles are entirely of my own creation.

Resources

16 resources for measuring open source community ROI