Many firms believe they have a community. Perhaps they recognize that they address various market segments. But cutting across multiple segments may also be multiple communities. Realizing the differences between these communities is the key to increasing the value of an organization's offering.
The user community is most easily identified by organizations. A complete roster of buyers or licensees is easily assembled. Statistics and metrics can be formed to demonstrate the cost and revenue of each member, if desired. Within this community exists several sub-communities, some of which are important in growing the firm's business.
Within the user community is a smaller population of itch scratchers. These are the individuals who are typically described in literature about opensource culture. They find an itch (a need), and they scratch it (they build something to satisfy the need). In the realm of opensource, many times the itch being scratched is simply the individual's own curiosity or personal desire for some functionality. Within a user community, the itches typically demonstrate some form of weakness in the vendor's product.
Some portions of the market will not view these weaknesses as reasons not to purchase the product. Others will. As a vendor, it can be difficult to truly know the reasons a prospect did not become a customer. Even with perfect knowledge of the prospects needs, no firm can expend the resources to meet them all. This is where the itch-scratching part of the user community is valuable.
The users who are capable of attacking a product with a shoehorn, duct tape and a piece of tinfoil with the enthusiasm of MacGyver are finding solutions to the real-world high-priority weaknesses of a product. Through workarounds, extensions or techniques, these users enable a product to do more than envisioned by the product manager.
If the itch-scratchers are motivated enough to extend a product, chances are there are other non-scratchers just waiting for that particular feature before they buy.
As an example, IBM has created IDE4Laszlo, which builds upon Eclipse to support development on the OpenLaszlo platform. Both Eclipse and OpenLaszlo have user communities. There are individuals who previously did not use Eclipse because it did not support development on OpenLaszlo. There are individuals who did not use OpenLaszlo because it had no free IDE.
The creators of IDE4Laszlo are users of both Eclipse and Laszlo. They had an itch in the form of desiring an Eclipse-based IDE for Laszlo. So they scratched it and IDE4Laszlo was birthed.
Those uses who were waiting for Laszlo support for Eclipse may now become Eclipse users. Those waiting for an IDE of any sort may now become Laszlo users.
It is easy for an organization to support the itch-scratchers within their user community. If a group approaches a firm and says they are going to develop some extension for a product, it is obvious that they should be supported. The problem lies with those potential scratchers who work silently.
Every product has users who are doing wild and wonderful things with it. Many times the vendor is completely unaware and cannot harness this user-provided value. Users create things behind their corporate firewall and have many hurdles to overcome in order to release them into the wild. Vendors should provide the necessary support to create a culture of sharing this value outside of the firewall.
Firms need to provide, from the start, an open place for their scratchers to work and play. It is far easier for a corporate developer to work on a project that began life as opensource than it is for them to convince management to free intellectual property that originated behind the firewall.
Users can certainly work on their projects on 'common-carrier' types of communities, such as SourceForge. When a vendor allows this to occur, they have lost much of the marketing value of cohesive community under their own brand umbrella. It is far easier for a salesperson to point to a single vendor-sponsored community as a one-stop-shop for additional value than to assure prospective customers that extra value exists scattered around the internet.
By bringing the itch-scratchers into the fold and providing additional value to them, in the form of development and community infrastructure, they are elevating these individuals from mere users to valued partners. The effect this has on the user's ego should not be underestimated. In the end, the firm will have created allies who not only materially increase the value of the product but also act as marketing bullhorns.