Tapping into free labor with community ownership

Easily the most common type of community companies sponsor are groups of customers who help other customers get the most out of their products. You’ve probably seen these communities while searching for solutions for problems with products from:

In my experience, these communities function due to the desire of customers familiar with the product line to help other customers. It’s really not all that different from what drives programmers to answer questions on Stack Overflow. When people feel that helping someone else gives more value than the time and hassle helping costs, they might make that investment. It just feels good to use what you’ve learned to make a difference for other people.

Of course it’s a delicate balance. Companies gain considerable value from customers helping each other, but customers might feel slighted if they help each other without the company acknowledging their work. Instead of feeling the joy of altruism, they could begin to feel like a chump for doing free work. Human minds are highly attenuated to recognizing unfairness.

Now there are some psychological tricks to keep people contributing to a community and I explained a few of them in this talk:

Eventually people will tire of helping without some sort of intrinsic motivation. Fortunately human minds are also well adapted to creating relationships. Unlike various gamification and algorithmic techniques, human relationships sustain communities indefinitely. Even better, people form relationships organically if given a chance. Not only does this produce robust communities, it does so without using arguably manipulative tactics.

Building the appropriate culture requires expertise and isn’t easy to sum up in an article. A critical feature of robust communities (whether they support a product or have some other goal) is that members have a sense of shared ownership. Not ownership over the product itself, but ownership over the goal of the community. Whatever problem the product was designed to solve will be a shared concern of the customer and the company itself.