Using Twitter to harvest ideas:


California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger
Image by Thomas Hawk via Flickr

One powerful use of online communities is to help get new ideas into a business; taking advantage of the fact that many (if not most) of the best ideas for your business are likely to come from outside, from people who don’t work for you. There are some well know examples of businesses working with consumers on co-creation in this way: MyStarbucksIdea and Dell’s Ideastorm being among the most well known.

Most of these sites use a similar process: people can join the community and then suggest their own idea, comment on existing ideas or vote for the ideas that they think are best. The best, most commented on or most voted for ideas are then responded to by the brand. They are an effective way for businesses to get ideas into their business and, more importantly perhaps, of showing customers some of their internal decision making and letting people who buy the product understand more about, and even influence, the processes by which it is made.

Like any good online community, such ideas sites work best when they work with other social networks - interacting with people on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, in forums and blogs. Going to where relevant people are and harvesting their ideas, encouraging them to come to ideas site and add their thoughts. This hub-and-spoke model of social media engagement is a classic and successful way of engaging people online, and a recent ideas site has gone one step further and integrated this model into its functionality.

Last week, Californian Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, announced the launch of, an online community to harvest and evaluate ideas for the State of California. The site has much of the same functionality that we have seen elsewhere: the public can suggest, comment on and vote for an idea. The difference with this site is that the ideas are submitted in the first place not by signing up for the site, but by posting the idea on Twitter with the hashtag #myidea4ca. You can even sort your idea by adding an additional category hashtag; so if your idea is about education you use #myidea4ca #edu. The site then pulls in all of these tweets using search and allows you to sort, read, comment on and vote for them.

Using Twitter in this way is a great way to increase the number of initial ideas submitted to the site, lowering that initial barrier to engagement by using a place where people already are (Twitter) to bring them and their content to a new place ( If you want to comment on, or vote for, ideas you still need to do this on the main ideas site, but to submit an idea you do not.

This certainly will help California to get more initial ideas, removing that barrier and allowing people who want give an idea to use Twitter to do so. The danger, of course, is that people who are not on Twitter are excluded from taking part. Whilst the Twitter population continues to grow, it is still far from a mass market tool and so restricts, perhaps quite significantly, participation in this ideas forum.

Of course, that could be said of many online communities and other ways in which organisations engage customers, stakeholders and the public online. But by mandating that all ideas must be submitted via Twitter does exclude a large proportion of online users in California. Whilst the use of Twitter is a great and fantastic example of how and online community can work with social networks to maximise participation, it is better if there are multiple ways of allowing people to engage. Let some people submit ideas via Twitter but allow others to submit them on the site in other ways.

A cardinal rule when you are building and growing an online community is that technology should be invisible. You shouldn’t put technological barriers in the way of sharing ideas. Whilst the use of Twitter on is a fantastic example of how organisations can engage people through this site, as an online community it is missing out on the opportunity to engage more people in different ways.

  • How organisations can use Twitter - some ideas (
  • MyIdea4CA shows both the power and limitation of opening up to the crowd (
  • The Governator Live From Twitter HQ Today. Has His Twitter Service Already Gone To Pot? (
  • EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Schwarzenegger Launches Twitter Powered MyIdea4CA (
  • Crowdsourcing Ideas: Apparently Marijuana Is All California Needs (

SideTaker - crowdsource your private life


A couple of weeks ago we looked at some examples of co-creation including community product design. This approach often involves harnessing the ‘wisdom of crowds’ (or crowdsourcing as it’s know). We wrote about the case of t-shirt design and manufacturer, Threadless, which is often cited as an example of crowdsourcing. Today I came across a site that is also based on this wisdom of crowds philosophy, but one that uses it to solve more personal problems than business ones.

SideTaker presents two sides of a situation and then asks the ‘crowd’ to suggest what steps they should take or to vote on who they think is in the right. The case below is typical. She enjoys spending money and thinks it unfair that he doesn’t like her doing this; he thinks that she has no appreciation of the value of money. They then allow the unknown crowd of people to suggest how they might resolve this.

This is a great example of crowdsourcing in action. People have a problem they can’t solve themselves and so they look for a wider selection of people to make suggestions based on their experiences, expertise and knowledge. In the same way that Dell’s IdeaStorm and Starbuck’s MrStarbucksIdea make use of external expertise to solve business problems, so SideTaker does for personal problems.

The principal of crowdsourcing is sound. Online communities of people are able to come together to solve problems. They each bring their own expertise and experiences and their own opinions on a subject. The online environment enables them to collaborate, to make suggestions and to develop ideas and responses with each other over time.

The same reasons that people are able to cocreate and innovate online in this way mean that this is also a vibrant and powerful resource for research. Over the next few days we are going to be looking at how people can collaborate in online research communities to bring insights for brands and to solve problems.

  • Co-creation 5: Community product design
  • Name This: The Crowdsourced Naming Agency
  • Wisdom of crowds - a puzzle

Communities for customer service - the SNCF example


I love going abroad. You get to spend time learning about new things and also to get a different perspective or new examples for things you already know. This happened to me this week in Paris.

There is lots of talk about Dell’s Ideastorm and MyStarbucksIdea as examples of using communities as customer service vehicles. They are, infact, all based on a SalesForce platform and are all essentially front ends of CRM systems. In France, however, I came across an example that has much more elements of an online community.

SNCF, the French Railways, launched their site, Opinions et débats, initally for a six-week period. They were running a project where executives in the firm would answer questions from the public. The exercise was so successful that it is still running.

The Dell and Starbucks sites are simple. You can suggest an idea, comment on other ideas or vote for ideas. SNCF adds another layer which takes their site from a simple transactional process to a more community feel. The homepage of their site includes a list of employees (including their first name and a picture) and when you pose your question you need to decide if it should be posed, for example, to Clément (a station manager) or to Domonique who runs the TGV high-speed train network.

This is a simple difference, but it makes the site fundamentally different. Rather than posing a question into the ether, you choose an employee and get them to answer it for you. Traditional customer service will take a question into a general department who will then choose who should answer it. With SNCF you choose, and others can add to, expand or criticse and responses.

A great site and one I know I’ll be using as an example of a customer service community in the future.

If you don’t engage, they won’t respond


A short session from Fred Cavazza. For him, social means share. Online everybody has something to say, you cannot hide from it. The only question really is if you want to be inside or outside; to join the conversation or to let others talk about it without you.

In this environment, information is a commodity, everything is free and as a brand or a marketeer, if you don’t engage then people won’t respond.

Experimentation is key - Dell did this with their Ideastorm, and it paid off. Others do it and even if it doesn’t work, they’ve joined the conversation and are able to adjust and ammend their social media strategy. They firms that will fail are those who don’t engage at all.

The T5 Fiasco: some free advice on customer engagement for BA


By now we all know about the fiasco at Heathrow Terminal 5. We’re into the weekend, and BA is still having to cancel flights. The outlook is not good for the weekend; flights are being cancelled and the press is full of discussion about how the recent days is humiliating for the UK (see here). Yesterday Helen wrote about her expereinces of geting to Vancouver (see here) and in particular our views of how experiences like this can have a huge impact on a company’s Net Promoter Score. People are more likely to talk about bad experiences than good ones, but people are even more likely to talk about a situation where a bad experience is turned around or dealt with well. When things go wrong, how you act becomes critical to your business.

So what could BA have done better? At FreshNetworks we specialise in sustained customer engagement and growing advocacy. So here’s a bit of free consultancy for BA. In our experience, when things go wrong there are five steps that a company should take to make sure it engages with its customes in the most impactful way, and that it minimises any negative impact on advocacy.

Step 1: Hold the conversation

When things go wrong it is critical that the brand holds the conversation. They don’t want others to be setting the agenda, least of all those affected by whatever the problem is. To do this effectively, there needs to be a mechanism for them to do this and it can’t just be something they start when the problem occurs. They need an ongoing and constant means of informing and being the point of reference for customers.

In the UK Transport for London (TFL) start to get this right. The tube is plagued with delays and cancellations, more so as we are in the middle of a major upgrade programme. Not only do TFL have a realtime website detailing current and planned closures and problems (something BA do have but that seems to be less real time), but critically TFL engage the customers. If you register your daily journey and the time you take it, they’ll send you a text (for free!) to let you know of any problems. This is great if I need to know to leave that little bit earlier to get to work on time. With hundreds and thousands of BA customers affected last week, most of whom have mobile phones, BA could have used engagement like this to let them know what was happening and to keep them informed.

Step 2: Have a single point of contact

A big issue when problems strike is that the market is crowded with this information. In addition to holding the conversation, you also need to have a single point of contact. This could be online - a community, forum or group where people can comment on what’s happening and share their experiences as well as getting the information they need. Too many brands are concerned about harnessing negative comments and experiences. But these comments will always get out. Better to gather them on a site and in a format you can control and in a place where you can respond to them. As we saw over the last few days - the alternative is that the press will get hold of these comments and use them as the focus of their stories. This will have only one effect - spreading the negative comments further and adding more voices into the mix in a confusing situation.

Step 3: More information not less

A major criticism when things go wrong is that the brand hasn’t told you why. More information matters here - let customers know what the problem is so that they can understand and empathise. I’m reminded of a journey home when I lived in France. Two trains were delayed - a TGV from Marseille to Paris and a train from London home. On the TGV we sat at Marseille station and there were angry mutterings around me until the announcement came on “we are delayed at Marseille because a person has been fatally injured on the line ahead of us”. Suddenly the mutering stopped. The person in the seat next to me told the guard he was a doctor and asked if he could help. On the UK train we were not told anything either, the same muttering ensued. Finally we were told of “unforeseen incident”. The muttering only intensified.

People understand that problems happen, but when they’re angry and upset by a delay or incident it’s better to let them make up their own mind about whether it was justified. Give them all the information they need to make this decision. Bring them into your problem and make them understand you’re doing what you can.

Step 4: Close the feedback loop on criticism

When people are angry or critical, it’s important to close the feedback loop. And a photocopied letter such as the one Helen received from an anonymous department doesn’t help. Neither does the Chief Executive speaking on TV but not to those affected by the problem. You need to respond to each person’s complaint. Explain why this is happening and what you’re doing (or not doing) to solve the problem.

This isn’t easy to do. Responding to people individually just isn’t feasible so a two part solution is needed. An awful lot of discussion about a problem will quickly hit the web - twitter, blogs, forums and communities will be alive with conversation within minutes of anything happening. BA needed to be there, responding and commenting, give the reasons for the problems and responding to people as individuals. Even better, they could direct people to their own community, respond to people there and then be able to point similar queries to the same response. This is what Dell do with their Ideastorm, and it’s a huge success. Close the feedback loop online.

Of course this feedback loop needs to be closed offline - staff at the airport needed this level of information too so that they could respond in the same way. Display screens at T5 could display the most voted for or common comments from the online community to interface with offline complaints. The options are endless with your own community and data.

Step 5: Use existing advocates to your advantage

In a crisis your advocates are more important than ever. But you can’t grow these overnight. It takes ongoing and sustained activity to build and engage with your strongest advocates. Only once you have done this will they serve to your benefit in a crisis. What was surprising about the BA situation is that they should have strong advocates. They have a well networked group of employees and a strong loyalty scheme - both often indicators of a strong groundswell of advocates. Sadly it doesn’t appear either of these groups were helping BA this week. The former were actually critcising the company and adding to the negativity (see some commets on the pilot communtiy pprune), and whilst the BA loyalty scheme is strong, there is little community element to it. And this is essential for building sustained engagement and advocacy.

So BA got it wrong. Moreover they didn’t take advantage of the situation to turn things around. When disaster strikes you realise how engaged you actually are with your customers, how many of them are advocates. The essential step is to hold and control an ongoing and open conversation with dissaffected customers, something BA didn’t do this week.