Don't Build Alone! How Community Improves Product Development

Community manager Dawn Lacallade of Solarwinds is not an ordinary social enthusiast. Her talk this afternoon was less a vague preachfest about the value of transparency than a practical application of the social gene in the production process.

The talk was called "Outsourcing Product Development to Your Community." She started by observing, "We're in an industry with high-tech people that make [building community] particularly easier to do."

Communities, properly cultivated, can be integral to product ideation and development. You can literally change what you hope to accomplish, just by listening, down to the core of what your brand's supposed to represent:

"When you start actually listening to your community, you actually find out what your brand is."

Community members don't just give input; they bug fix, provide free development, and make contributions across nearly all stages in a product or service's birth.

Lacallade illustrated this by showing how Solarwinds took the typical product development cycle and souped it up with select elements of user contributions. All elements of the cycle are affected, with the exception of the release phase:

These are Solarwinds' users, and the value each level brings:

  • 80% Watchers - validate directional feedback

  • 9 Contributors - solicit for direct feedback

  • 1% Power Users - partner for deeper engagement

The 1% of Power Users tend to be the primary focus of people seeking to build a community (in lay terms, this group is often labeled "influencers"). The thing is, Watchers are not just impassive lurkers; they have a different sort of worth.

A number of hardcore users are given an NDA and invited to early reviews/product strategy discussions. They can beta test prototypes, and are invited to work hard to find what's broken - something they often succeed in doing before the product ships.

While Power Users help define what features to prioritise, and while they may be most vocal about problems or solutions for your business, it is the regular activity of the Watchers that determines whether the implementation has staying power.

In toto, Solarwinds' community efforts are composed of 90,000 content items, circulated among 40,000 members that hit an average of 8-9 pages before leaving the site. Content includes forums, blogs, content exchange and product feature discussions.

In terms of R&D spend, the difference this has made is significant.

Lacallade added that it wouldn't be possible to maintain an R&D cap of 9% if not for quick release cycles: the system has to be as responsive and quick-moving as the feedback it receives.

How do you start implementing a similar process? To start with, forget the "Field of Dreams" style community: this idea you can build a place, then get people there. "It doesn't really work," Lacallade says.

Don't get caught up in the bells and whistles of the moment; what is the tool your users will be most comfortable with? Advance them at a pace that makes sense.

Finally, make sure your measurement metrics are relevant and clear to those that need to use that data.

The full presentation above has way more useful information than this. You can also follow Lacallade at @dawnl.

Angela Natividad

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