I participated on a panel at Webvisions about encouraging companies to engage customers online. I wanted to put down what I said in a coherent manner for those who weren’t there.
First off, there is a tendency to think that participation means either blogging or forums, that these are the only ways to create “community.” Hogwash. As Ross Mayfield’s great diagram The Power Law of Participation notes, there are lots of different ways for users to engage with a company online: everything from simply reading (yes, that’s participation–more in a moment), to contributing content.
From a design perspective, different types of users will display different types of participation behavior on your site. Some are going to just read it, some will comment, some will be heavy contributors. You can (partially) find out what participation methods your users will be interested in via user research. Asking them or (better yet) observing their behavior will give you clues as to how they might participate. And then, you can design tools for that type of participation.
For example, let’s say you find a majority of your users aren’t going to do much besides read your site and perhaps subscribe to its blog–a likely scenario. Simply by doing what they would do anyway, users can contribute to “Most Popular Pages” or “Most Read Articles” on your site. This of course means more work for the company, to set up this sort of system, but the end result is a site where even reading makes a difference to it. It builds community. In a sense, it allows customers (users) to hack (personalize) the product (the organization).
The purpose of building in participation channels is illustrated in Jean Burgess’ adaptation of the Power Law graph: at a low level, it can cause customers to talk about the company. At it’s highest level, a customer can actually change the company, and that’s a pretty thrilling (and terrifying) notion. Participation removes the barrier between customers and employees.
One other idea that came to me during the panel discussion: A concern of many companies about having more participation with their customers online is the time and human resources it takes to monitor and manage those efforts. One way to help ameliorate this concern is to give the tools of moderation over to the users themselves, such as Wikipedia and Slashdot and (to a lesser extent) Digg and Amazon have done. Users will police themselves, given these tools. It’s definitely something companies should explore.