My friend, Beth Kanter* pointed recently to a Forbes.com piece by Laurie Burkitt about Threadless.com, the Chicago-based tee-shirt company. The author says that the dotcom, consumer retailer sprang to life from the idea that "employees and customers don't have to be two distinct groups."
It's a good thought, one that I think captures one of the fundamental changes being brought on by social media's emerging role in business.
SAP is no consumer marketing company. It is big, technical and it's customers are big and the people they talk with are most often technical.
Yet the thought that customers and companies and the third-party consultants that are involved are all part of the same community. If one party benefits, so do the others. If one becomes unhealthy so do the others.
Now the Threadless concept is about the customer doing the design work and being rewarded accordingly. That's not how it works exactly at SAP. But SAP does let its customers mess around with SAP product source code to customize software to their respective needs.
It also has inserted a several online communities into its company infrastructure, where customers, partners and SAP share ideas and information. There are two million unique visits to these social networks each month; 6,000 posts-per-day. In the course of 2008, 70,000 individuals in over 200 countries contributed to more than a million topics.
Because these conversations are in blogs, forums and wikis, the answers to questions are easy and fast to find. A developer can usually get the answer to a question in less than 20 minutes. All sorts of SAP people, from its myriad locations, workgroups and perspectives participate
At the end of the day, it can be hard to determine whether an idea or suggestions, or useful tidbit was generated by a customer, a partner or SAP itself.
It is far more complex than Threadless. But the concept is the same. There is a shared interest and a common need.
In the Conversation Age, employees and customers are no longer two distinct groups. They have a common need. They swim in the same waters. They flourish or flounder together.
This has probably always been true for marketplaces. But it has become a lot more clear to a lot more businesses since social media opened up businesses, than it ever was before.
*Today is Beth's 53rd birthday. You should go wish her the happiness she deserves.
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