Embracing customers and looking to them as source for inspiration and new ideas is a smart way companies can reinvent themselves. Starbuck is enjoying a lot of media attention with My Starbucks Idea, a great place for coffee drinkers to share pet peeves with the company (my favorite, a cup lid that doesn't leak).
My Starbucks Idea impresses with its community features, like being able to post your idea, vote on favorites, discuss with others, and actually watch the best ideas gain traction and evolve into usable product ideas.
Of course, community driven content at Sun is nothing new, having launched the Sun Developer Network Share community last year (it's cool, go check it out).
Other companies have successfully launched similar "idea factories" -- notably, Dell Idea Storm, Salesforce Idea Exchange and on a smaller scale, IBM's Thinkplace.
With all the excitement around social media and participation, one would expect that many more companies would offer their own idea factories. I think part of the reason for this is the culture of control. I imagine that some CEOs are terrified by the prospect of opening up their companies to scrutiny in such a publicly visible way. What if customers gang and up and revolt?
What makes companies that embrace customers so admirable, is their courage and commitment. In Starbuck's case, this is a company that saw the writing on the wall — how many people can support a $5/day coffee habit, in the face of a recession, rising gas prices chewing away at disposable income, and new alternatives cropping up everywhere? They realized they needed to adjust the strategy, and the brilliant stroke of involving customers in their product and company strategy is right-on.
It shows that the leaders and decison-makers are willing to engage with customers, really listen to them, and follow-through. People love to feel they belong to something and others care about what they have to say — it's this self-esteem building and loyalty generating engagement that makes My Starbucks Idea so compelling (and sticky, a marketer's wet dream — forgive the imagery).
For those considering their own idea factories, don't waste your energy unless you have iron-clad commitment from your leaders — the people with decision-making authority who are putting their credibility and egos on the line by inviting customer scrutiny and their suggestions to improve products and experiences with a company or brand.
Be ready to staff this program — you'll need community managers to nurture and guide conversations, program managers to report and align the best ideas with company strategy, and a smart strategist / evangelist to pull everything together and keep it healthy and useful.
As far as platforms and technologies — build it yourself or look at any number of existing hosted solutions. If you want an integrated solution that ties into your existing identity and CRM systems, be prepared to spend some time, energy and money. Here are a few to start with: Salesforce Ideas, User Voice, dotherightthing.com.
Embracing your customers and inviting them in to your company and brand makes sense — the question is, does your company have the guts?
— Lou Ordorica