'Contribution Revolution' More Important Than You May Think

How Intuit, Others Let Users Grow Their Business

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Pete Blackshaw
Pete Blackshaw
Scott Cook, founder-chairman of Intuit, just published a very important cover article in the October issue of the Harvard Business Review. It's worth reading -- maybe a couple of times.

In the article, titled "The Contribution Revolution: Letting Volunteers Build Your Business," he puts real backbone -- sans Web 2.0 buzzwords or social-media hype -- on the argument that customer participation drives tangible enterprise value.

"Every day, millions of people make all kinds of voluntary contributions to companies -- from informed opinions to computing resources -- that create tremendous value for this firm's customers and, consequently, for their shareholders," he writes.

He then proceeds to define what he refers to as a "user-contribution system" -- essentially methods for "aggregating and leveraging people's contribution or behaviors in ways that are useful to other people." Users can come from any number of stakeholder groups -- customers, employees, lead prospects and beyond -- and firms benefit from their participation on a number of important levels: operating costs, marketing efficiency, HR/employee training, and product development, to name just a few.

From Google to P&G
Examples of user-contribution systems include everything from Google's algorithmic link-love model and the obvious Wikipedia group-editing to the more review-focused Zagat guides and BestBuy's employee-intranet, known as BlueShirtNation. Cook even generously credits Unilever's "In the Motherhood" user forum and Procter & Gamble's BeingGirl online community for teenage girls as examples of user-contribution systems.

He isn't the first person to make this argument, but his credibility elevates it to a new rigor and persuasiveness. Intuit is one of the more successful and disciplined practitioners of user-generated systems, its hugely popular TurboTax, Quicken and QuickBooks user forums being a few examples of ideas put into action.

But it's worth noting that Intuit's success in this arena didn't happen overnight, as Cook notes. The firm spent several years testing different user-participation models before converging on the sticky concept of "embedding a Q&A community into a product itself -- that is, creating a user forum on every page of TurboTax, with questions and answers relevant to the topic of the particular page." Branded "Live Community," the forum has now been rolled out to QuickBooks Desktop products.

Today, user-contributions systems are so baked into Intuit's operating DNA that the company has general manager-level positions overseeing online communities. One of those managers, Scott Wilder, recently sat down with me over lunch to talk about Cook's article, word-of-mouth ethics (we're former board colleagues on the Word-of-Mouth Marketing Association) and other topics.

Laying down the pipes
"My job is simply to lay down the pipes and to enable the flow of meaningful contribution by passionate users," he said. One of his biggest "aha" moments came when he realized that the vast majority of questions asked by consumers are answered by members of the forums. Wilder underscored the unique "nuggets of insights" he finds in these user forums. He recalled, for instance, his discovery of QuickBooks forum threads of a bunch of questions and dialogue in Spanish. By organizing and nurturing key influential users with Spanish skills, he was able to satisfy an important unmet need among a growing number of customers.
Pete Blackshaw is exec VP of Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services and author of 'Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000' (DoubleDay). His biweekly column looks at the relationship between marketing and customer service in the age of consumer control.

"QuickBooks presently doesn't have a Spanish-language manual, but we were able to successfully organize these passionate contributors to address this need. Now some of our most passionate Spanish-language users are really dialing up their contributions, from contributing mini-manuals to 'how-to' podcasts in Spanish," he said.

This is powerful. Cook's article is important because he's taking our current debate over social media to a more meaningful and substantial level. Indeed, there's yet another layer of operational and ROI value in this Web 2.0 world than meets the typical marketing eye.

And it's timely. Social-media exuberance is at an all-time high, and I worry we may be chasing the wrong prize. Events and campaigns and buzz tricks with unrealistic payout hurdles dominate the social-media landscape, often distracting us from bigger, more sustaining opportunities like the ones Cook outlines. Moreover, we risk cheapening the macro user-contribution ecosystem with short-term success criteria and our sometimes irrepressible desire to bend the message or "influence the influencers."

The next level
Cook wisely provides counsel and guidance on how firms can get started, and I would add to his list a few other obvious starting points. First, we must get more disciplined in listening to the consumers who are already reaching out to us, whether via 800-numbers or feedback gateways. These are, after all, the original "contributors."

We also need to be realistic about compensation and reward models. Yes, much of this amounts to a free, de facto workforce, as Cook notes, but it's not resource-free to implement, and we should consider that more consumers today are taking real pride in the fruits of their content creation. Right now, the fine-print disclaimers on most brand websites -- even on many of the brands Cook cites -- are outright hostile to the concept of a consumers sharing ideas or volunteering product improvements. At minimum, we need to meet the consumer halfway. But small things aside, Cook's article takes our collective conversation to the next level. Listen to him, and join his own conversation on the topic.
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