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Some people say we’re just at the beginning of this vast business transformation caused by the web.  Others say we’re almost at the end.  

The truth is, we’re almost exactly in the middle.  

Let me explain.

A major driver of business transformation is the enablement of a real-time conversation between: a) customers individually and en masse, and b) the companies that serve them.

Actually, a better word is 'among', rather than 'between', since the conversation is really three-way: customer to customer; customer to company; and company to customer.  

No news here, right?

OK. To exploit the full potential of these real-time conversations, companies have to develop three capabilities:

  • Interact. Learning how to foster and participate in the conversation.
  • Listen. Learning how to harvest information and insights and get it to the people inside the company who need them most.
  • Respond. Learning to respond as an organization; not just a reply, but changing your products and processes in real-time to better respond to the needs of the marketplace. 

How long will it take before every company has these capabilities? It’s a fair guess that any transformation this big will take about a generation to complete.

Some people and companies will learn and adapt, others will cycle out of the workforce or industry to be replaced by other people who will learn and adapt.

Date the start of the transformation at, say, 1995 – the birth of the commercial internet – add 30 years, which is roughly the length of a generation in developed nations, and you have a time frame from 1995 to 2025.

I know, 30 years is a long time. But remember, we’re talking not about how long it takes one company to change, but about entire industries  – from early experiments through universal adoption.

Technologies change quickly. Individuals change quickly too, though not as quickly as technologies do, and institutions like companies (those bundles of culture, policy, process, and physical and digital infrastructure) change very, very slowly.

Some companies will move faster, others slower, but this is how long to take everybody to get there. 

Let’s also assume that companies acquire these capabilities roughly in that sequence – interact, listen and learn.  Because, logically, you can’t listen until there’s interaction and so on. 

Finally, just for neatness sake, let’s say each phase of learning takes about a decade to complete: interact runs 1995-2005, listen from 2005-2015, and respond from 2015-2025.  

So how does this comport with what we’ve seen in real life? Pretty close, as it turns out. In the early years of the commercial web, companies focused on building communities – essentially, they were trying to make that interaction happen.

There was a lot of failure in those days, because companies lacked the knowledge and experience.   

Today results are better, for two reasons: first, a base of knowledge developed over the first decade in how to make communities work. I always say that when I started community building in 1999, it was really a big guess – companies just hadn’t done a lot of this work before.  

Today, by contrast, if the numbers work – that is, if your target audience is large enough – and you do ten things right, it’s difficult to fail (which isn’t to say that it’s impossible, in part because those ten things can be devilishly difficult for some companies to do right).

Second, with advent of social networks like Facebook and Twitter, interaction around brands is already happening in ways it wasn’t ten years ago. Although anyone trying to drive the right kind of interactions, on Facebook or elsewhere, know the battle isn’t over.  

So the lessons around interact are largely in the books but where are we with listening? I don’t think anyone has been immune to all the buzz around social media monitoring over the past few years.

Companies are focused on aggregating all the conversation happening out there on the web – “full firehose,” anyone? – but aggregation in fact is just the first step in listening. Next, you have to filter all that content in order to get the content you’re actually seeking.

Then you have to get that filtered content into the hands of the people who need it. Sometimes that means piping the content into social dashboards, hubs, or reporting interfaces. Increasingly, it will mean piping it into workflows, reporting interfaces, and data stores that people already use today to get their work done.  

So what about respond?

As with listening, everyone today is focused on just the first step; replying to customer service and support requests. But eventually, responses need to move from individual to organizational.

Business processes will need to change to factor in this new, real-time source of information and insights, which in turn will change business decisions and even the processes themselves. People in support will do their job differently because you have a social effort.

People who design products will do their jobs differently, too. People in market research, communications, quality assurance, channel management – every process will be touched by this stuff. The end state is one in which products and processes are dynamically created and refined every day in an ongoing conversation with customers.   

We see a glimmer of that future end state with the customer ideation efforts run by companies like Dell, Starbucks, and Verizon in the US, and BT and giffgaff in the UK.

These companies are saying: “Tell us how you would change our products and services. Show us that it matters, by voting up the best ideas. And if you do those two things, we’ll do our best to make your changes happen".

It’s a pretty gutsy move, and only strong leadership and good cross-functional coordination makes it possible. Frankly, that’s why you don’t see more of it today.

A decade from now, we’ll wonder how any company did without it.

Joe Cothrel

Published 2 April, 2012 by Joe Cothrel

Joe Cothrel is Chief Community Officer at Lithium and a contributor to Econsultancy. 

2 more posts from this author

Comments (5)

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Joe,

Thanks for the blog. I'm with you on the progression of business transformation via the web but I'm not convinced that we'll ever reach the point where we wonder how any company did without what you refer to as customer ideation.

I think you're right for the big consumer brands and niche/local brands where customer connections are really important but for a large number of businesses, I really don't see that level of customer interaction, for a few reasons:

1) Many companies won't grasp the nettle and consider that to be the right way to grow
2) Not all people running companies want that level of customer interaction
3) Embracing change and transformation is not a universal passion
4) Not everyone wants to interact with companies and be part of their future and "engage"
5) There are only so many brands that one person can interact with meaningfully.

I think you're right that the way some people do their jobs is changing and will change even further; product design is a good example and big brands have used social and crowd sourcing already in this area.

However, I think it applies only to a % and not to the whole. That % is likely to increase gradually but I can't ever see it being the majority, mainly because a lot of people go to work to get paid, not to wonder how they can fuel transformation. How many people really care about connecting and building a brighter future based on community, interaction and involvement?

Perhaps I'm wrong but I'm not yet convinced.

Martin Weigel has written a thought provoking article about the redundancy of the term "engagement": http://ht.ly/9YJDv. In his 9 point argument, there are two points worth reading in relation to this:
5. Assuming that more 'engagement' is the route to more loyalty
6. Overestimating people’s appetite for participation


over 4 years ago


Joe Cothrel

Thanks, James! I agree with you on many counts, and I'd say a few things in connection with where we seem to differ ...

I do think companies and executives that don't "grasp the nettle" eventually will go away. I'm sure there were many companies that didn't want a telephone and perhaps some still (somewhere) who don't believe they need to be online. I think (my opinion): same deal here.

I think it's a mistake to think that this transformation depends on every customer or every employee participating - or even the majority of either group. Part of the value of social channels is that they make it easy to find customers who want to participate. To Martin's point, there have always been customers who want to engage with us, that's not new. The ease of doing it is new.

Most customers will participate without doing anything other than using the product or service they purchased, and availing themselves of service channels, social and otherwise. For some customers, we'll have opinions and ideas. From others we'll have only votes or ratings. Some will simply give us data in the form of "1,000 customers read about this feature in the first hour we posted about it." In other words, not all input we get from social or web channels rely on a customer's intention to participate or help.

And oh yeah - the quiet ones today may be the noisy ones tomorrow, and vice versa.

I thought Martin's piece was interesting and well reasoned, too. Note that I avoided the "e" word - kudos to me on that.:) However, I don't think the term is *always* used carelessly. And when a concept is truly bankrupt, it doesn't take 8,000 words to prove it.

over 4 years ago


Sarah Alder

Thanks Joe for that thoughtful and thought provoking post. I can see the progress that you are highlighting and I am reasonably confident that progress will continue. However I think with corporate change you can never predict anything. Corporations do seem to be like organisms, they evolve, but it's not always the evolution you wanted or expected. I think that is maybe where James is coming from, people are interested in participating or engaging now but it may be a fad. Or perhaps we will see that just as some consumers now are tending to focus on half a dozen information sites for their research and information needs, so they will limit themselves to half a dozen brands or causes or organisations that they will be committed to. If that is the case then there are probably enough people around to sustain your full engagement model for most companies. Let's hope so.

over 4 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Joe,

Yes I take your point that you don't need every customer to participate (let's face it the % of total audience active in social channels is relatively low and double digits is good going for many brands but that doesn't mean social channels can't add value).

I'm certainly for greater participation where it's desired and it's true that companies need to find a way to embrace the customers who want more. The question is where does it sit in the priority list? If only 5% of your audience want more love and you're running a tight ship with limited resource and lots of other issues to address, will that 5% really get the extra attention? In some cases yes, in others no.

I think that there are several barriers that will prevent some companies from taking the Interact/Listen/Respond model seriously: inertia, stubbornness etc. Perhaps most importantly a lack of understanding of how to plan, implement and measure the process of transformation often hold people back. The same applies to use of web analytics to drive business improvements via insight - still so many companies don't do this effectively. It can be a daunting task and that may put some off from even trying.

I think Martin's point was that 'engagement' is mis-used and as such its meaning is becoming diluted and often lost. I hear that word so often yet nobody ever explains what they mean and what it is meant to achieve. I don't think the concept is bankrupt, just that people need to think carefully about that it means and how they are going to measure it.


over 4 years ago


Joe Cothrel

Hi Sarah:

Thanks for the comment! I agree that changing a large enterprise is hard - that may be the point on which most technologists err. They think because the technology has changed, organizations will naturally evolve around it. But one word on the difficult of change: people sometimes resort to words like "culture" and "motivation" to explain why their projects failed. When you look closely, though, you can see that the failures often have a simpler cause. For example, companies often call me and say, "Please take a look at my community - my customers don't want to participate." But when I look at the numbers, it's clear that they haven't created enough awareness to even give themselves the chance to succeed. It's a promotion problem - the numbers don't work. Likewise, I often hear people complain that their community hasn't had the expected impact on innovation. But when I ask, how do you measure innovation? What's your process for harvesting insights? How do you make sure the people who own the products or processes you want to change are actually getting those insights? The answers, frankly, are not very satisfactory, but that's ok - now we're talking about how we solve the problem, rather than just hand-wringing.

James, you're hitting one big challenge right on the head: companies ask, why should we listen to this small, vocal minority in our community? Companies are used to listening to their biggest customers, or their oldest customers, or customers who can become their biggest and oldest customers. But often struggle to understand this new constituency. Part of the answer is understanding the new dynamics of online influence and word of mouth. We've never been able to see it and measure it so clearly before; we're beginning to understand how we might manage it, by cultivating our advocates and fans. Work in process of course, but we have very customers today who don't see that this as important.

The other part of the answer is that this is one channel for customer insight among many, and has strengths and weaknesses that complement your other channels (it's real-time, it's customer-driven, it's in-context, etc.) - it doesn't replace all the other stuff you're doing, although it does replace some.

Finally re Martin, I'll confess that I've had the same frustrations with the debates around "how do we measure engagement." You don't see it in our dashboards today, and the reason is that we don't think a generic measure of engagement holds a lot of meaning for our customers, whose social efforts span a dozen different industries across six major audience types and at least half a dozen unique use cases.

Hopefully I'm also conveying here how fun and exciting it is to be working with companies as they try to navigate these new waters ...


over 4 years ago

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