6 benefits of building community

6 ways a thriving community will help your project succeed

Innovation, research, marketing, support—a community can provide all these things, if you take care of it.

Open community, gardeners and food co-op
Image credits : 

Original photo by Gabriel Kamener, Sown Together, Modified by Jen Wike Huger

x

Get the newsletter

Join the 85,000 open source advocates who receive our giveaway alerts and article roundups.

NethServer is an open source product that my company, Nethesis, launched just a few years ago. The product wouldn't be what it is today without the vibrant community that surrounds and supports it.

In my previous article, I discussed what organizations should expect to give if they want to experience the benefits of thriving communities. In this article, I'll describe what organizations should expect to receive in return for their investments in the passionate people that make up their communities.

Let's review six benefits.

1. Innovation

"Open innovation" occurs when a company sharing information also listens to the feedback and suggestions from outside the company. As a company, we don't just look at the crowd for ideas. We innovate in, with, and through communities.

You may know that "the best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas." You can't always expect to have the right idea on your own, so having different point of views on your product is essential. How many truly disruptive ideas can a small company (like Nethesis) create? We're all young, caucasian, and European—while in our community, we can pick up a set of inspirations from a variety of people, with different genders, backgrounds, skills, and ethnicities.

So the ability to invite the entire world to continuously improve the product is now no longer a dream; it's happening before our eyes. Your community could be the idea factory for innovation. With the community, you can really leverage the power of the collective.

No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else. And community is the way to reach those smart people and work with them.

2. Research

A community can be your strongest source of valuable product research.

First, it can help you avoid "ivory tower development." As Stack Exchange co-founder Jeff Atwood has said, creating an environment where developers have no idea who the users are is dangerous. Isolated developers, who have worked for years in their high towers, often encounter bad results because they don't have any clue about how users actually use their software. Developing in an Ivory tower keeps you away from your users and can only lead to bad decisions. A community brings developers back to reality and helps them stay grounded. Gone are the days of developers working in isolation with limited resources. In this day and age, thanks to the advent of open source communities research department is opening up to the entire world.

No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else. And community is the way to reach those smart people and work with them.

Second, a community can be an obvious source of product feedback—always necessary as you're researching potential paths forward. If someone gives you feedback, it means that person cares about you. It's a big gift. The community is a good place to acquire such invaluable feedback. Receiving early feedback is super important, because it reduces the cost of developing something that doesn't work in your target market. You can safely fail early, fail fast, and fail often.

And third, communities help you generate comparisons with other projects. You can't know all the features, pros, and cons of your competitors' offerings. The community, however, can. Ask your community.

3. Perspective

Communities enable companies to look at themselves and their products from the outside, letting them catch strengths and weaknesses, and mostly realize who their products' audiences really are.

Let me offer an example. When we launched the NethServer, we chose a catchy tagline for it. We were all convinced the following sentence was perfect:

NethServer is an operating system for Linux enthusiasts, designed for small offices and medium enterprises.

Two years have passed since then. And we've learned that sentence was an epic fail.

We failed to realize who our audience was. Now we know: NethServer is not just for Linux enthusiasts; actually, Windows users are the majority. It's not just for small offices and medium enterprises; actually, several home users install NethServer for personal use. Our community helps us to fully understand our product and look at it from our users' eyes.

4. Development

In open source communities especially, communities can be a welcome source of product development.

They can, first of all, provide testing and bug reporting. In fact, if I ask my developers about the most important community benefit, they'd answer "testing and bug reporting." Definitely. But because your code is freely available to the whole world, practically anyone with a good working knowledge of it (even hobbyists and other companies) has the opportunity to play with it, tweak it, and constantly improve it (even develop additional modules, as in our case). People can do more than just report bugs; they can fix those bugs, too, if they have the time and knowledge.

But the community doesn't just create code. It can also generate resources like how-to guides, FAQs, support documents, and case studies. How much would it cost to fully translate your product in seven different languages? At NethServer, we got that for free—thanks to our community members.

5. Marketing

Communities can help your company go global. Our small Italian company, for example, wasn't prepared for a global market. The community got us prepared. For example, we needed to study and improve our English so we could read and write correctly or speak in public without looking foolish for an audience. The community gently forced us to organize our first NethServer Conference, too—only in English.

A strong community can also help your organization attain the holy grail of marketers everywhere: word of mouth marketing (or what Seth Godin calls "tribal marketing").

Communities ensure that your company's messaging travels not only from company to tribe but also "sideways," from tribe member to potential tribe member. The community will become your street team, spreading word of your organization and its projects to anyone who will listen.

In addition, communities help organizations satisfy one of the most fundamental members needs: the desire to belong, to be involved in something bigger than themselves, and to change the world together.

Never forget that working with communities is always a matter of giving and taking—striking a delicate balance between the company and the community.

6. Loyalty

Attracting new users costs a business five times as much as keeping an existing one. So loyalty can have a huge impact on your bottom line. Quite simply, community helps us build brand loyalty. It's much more difficult to leave a group of people you're connected to than a faceless product or company. In a community, you're building connections with people, which is way more powerful than features or money (trust me!).

Conclusion

Never forget that working with communities is always a matter of giving and taking—striking a delicate balance between the company and the community.

And I wouldn't be honest with you if I didn't admit that the approach has some drawbacks. Doing everything in the open means moderating, evaluating, and processing of all the data you're receiving. Supporting your members and leading the discussions definitely takes time and resources. But, if you look at what a community enables, you'll see that all this is totally worth the effort.

As my friend and mentor David Spinks keeps saying over and over again, "Companies fail their communities when when they treat community as a tactic instead of making it a core part of their business philosophy." And as I've said: Communities aren't simply extensions of your marketing teams; "community" isn't an efficient short-term strategy. When community is a core part of your business philosophy, it can do so much more than give you short-term returns.

At Nethesis we experience that every single day. As a small company, we could never have achieved the results we have without our community. Never.

Community can completely set your business apart from every other company in the field. It can redefine markets. It can inspire millions of people, give them a sense of belonging, and make them feel an incredible bond with your company.

And it can make you a whole lot of money.

Community-driven companies will always win. Remember that.

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter to learn more about open organizations.

About the author

Alessio Fattorini - Particularly attracted to everything helps and encourages people to work together and cooperate I love to build welcoming communities, connect people and work with Open Source. Certified Community Strategist mainly focused on product-based communities, working closely with developers and users where I leverage my strong technical background as Linux Sysadmin and Support Specialist Evangelist and international public speaker focused on Community Management and Open Source. I have been in...