How Online Communities Can Help Your Business

Let’s look at how online communities (OCs) can have a positive impact on—and support—your business’ strategic development and initiatives. The cultural impact of OCs on the future of manufacturing can’t be overemphasized. As young students, engineers and manufacturers enter and move up the ranks of manufacturing companies (including yours) they’ll be bringing with them expectations to communicate in the ways they are most comfortable.

Open social networks like Facebook and the numerous private OCs that permeate modern academic life are shaping those preferences. They are altering how information is found and digested, and how individuals—and companies—collaborate among themselves and with customers.

Consider:

  • More and more, engineers, designers and buyers are using OC features and elements in their daily tasks. Collaborative online conferencing, networking (a la LinkedIn), Wikis and even blogs are spreading into corporate manufacturing at faster rates each year. Companies like Eli Lilly, General Electric and Procter & Gamble (see High-Precision Molds Pay Off for P&G) have embraced OCs to drive efficiencies into their organizations, and develop new products and revenue streams.
  • Many manufacturers are using OCs to engage their customer base to refine existing products and sometimes create new products and revenue streams.
  • The emergence and evolution of Second Life (www.secondlife.com), the online “metaverse” that lets individuals—and companies—create virtual entities that interact and function in a 3-D, virtual world created by its residents. Today, there are more than 50,000 profitable businesses on Second Life—businesses that range from a virtual jeans manufacturer that is helping to redefine the supply chain and customer interaction (www.doublehappinessjeans.com) to certified public accountants (check out CPA Island www.cpaisland.com). Many manufacturing enterprises have established islands of their own, which allow them to organize virtual conferences and collaboration that transcend borders.
  • Flickr (www.flickr.com), an OC dedicated to networking and sharing files and photos with friends and family. As I’m writing this, the Flickr home page shows that there are 4,185 uploads … in the last minute.

Whether your company intends to move into new markets, technologies or industries, your own Web strategies can and should adopt these tactics to engage your audience, attract new business and market your business in a voice that makes sense to this emerging audience.

As adoption gives way to acceptance, and these techniques and methods of collaboration enter the corporate mainstream, we will find OCs to be the norm in engaging markets.

There are two books that I highly recommend that define the impact and potential of OCs on your manufacturing business strategies:

  1. Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikinomics). This highly popular book is seen as a bit of a bellwether of the open community model’s direct value to business. There are very good examples of manufacturers using OCs (and offline examples, too) to redefine their strategies.
  2. We Are Smarter Than Me. Published by the Wharton School of Business Press, this work explains the power of groups to innovate, create and influence businesses, and how to engage communities online. Unlike Wikinomics, this book is a short read. But the information can be very useful to manufacturers for inspiration alone.

To many of us, the changes taking place from the influence of OCs aren’t very obvious. But they are real, and manufacturers of all sizes can use the features to capitalize now and set themselves up for the future.

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