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How to Attract Customers to Innovate in an Online Community Maintained by a Company


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EBRF 2007. Jyväskylä, 26 - 27 Sept. 2007. Proc. of EBRF 2007 Online communities and Web 2.0 are hot topics today in media as well as in consumers' discussions. The challenge of company online communities is to support the creativity of its members. These online communities aimed for customer innovation are called innovation communities. To be able to build and manage innovation communities companies need more knowledge about the motivational factors of customers. This study focuses on how to attract customers to participate in an innovation community. Case study conducted in Owela innovation community showed that interesting objectives of innovation, creating open and trustworthy atmosphere as well as supporting community with appropriate tools are important factors in attracting customer to participate in the activities.
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How to Attract Customers to Innovate in an Online
Community Maintained by a Company?
Maria Antikainen1; Mikko Ahonen2
1Research Scientist, VTT,
2 Researcher, University of Tampere, Hypermedia Laboratory,
Online communities and Web 2.0 are hot topics today in media as well as in consumers’
discussions. The challenge of company online communities is to support the creativity of its
members. These online communities aimed for customer innovation are called innovation
communities. To be able to build and manage innovation communities companies need more
knowledge about the motivational factors of customers. This study focuses on how to attract
customers to participate in an innovation community. Case study conducted in Owela
innovation community showed that interesting objectives of innovation, creating open and
trustworthy atmosphere as well as supporting community with appropriate tools are important
factors in attracting customer to participate in the activities.
Online communities, open innovation, crowdsourcing, attraction, broker, creativity
During the last years online communities have become an essential and natural part of many
people’s lives. If we look at the possibilities they offer – meeting people all over the world
without the limitations of time and geographical location – this is not surprising.
The latest news and discussion about online communities and their business possibilities have
also raised interest among companies. To companies these online communities may offer
many kind of benefits and new possibilities. Companies may either create new business
models or develop their existing business with online communities.
One interesting value of company online communities is to support the creativity of members.
Several existing business cases, for example Lego and Threadless, show that this kind of
concept can be a great possibility to be able to develop products customer-centrically, to
motivate group of customers already in the development process and make them loyal as well
as to enhance efficiency in R&D processes. In another words, in addition to socialising and
participation, these communities may act as innovation communities. The members can
participate in problem-finding, problem-solving and product development processes.
However, to be able to build and manage online communities companies need knowledge
about these processes. Basically, in order to utilise innovation communities, companies have
two options. The first option and focus of this study, is to build an own community. However,
companies can also utilise existing innovation communities, for example Innocentive
( or FellowForce (
When building an own online community the first task is to attract customers into the
community and to be able to form a relationship with them to make sure that they will visit
again. In this area there are studies concerning the attraction of company online communities,
customers’ motivations and reasons to visit them (e.g Antikainen 2007; Dholakia, Bagozzi &
Pearo 2004; Wasko and Faraj 2000). Since many companies wish to integrate their customer
in the innovation processes, we focus on this area.
Therefore, our purpose of this paper is to focus on factors that attract customers to participate
in an innovation process in company online communities. Also different kind of customers’
and online community members’ roles are discussed to increase knowledge about what kind
of customers and online community members are the most potential innovators. Based on the
results, practical tools and methods to companies are constructed.
In the literature review the existing literature on open innovation (e.g. Chesbrough 2003,
2006), toolkits (Piller et al. 2004, Hippel 2005), the attraction of company online communities
(e.g. Antikainen 2007), customer’s motivations to participate (e.g. Dholakia et al. 2004) and
customers’ different roles in online communities (e.g. Franz and Wolkinger 2003) is utilised.
To reach the purpose of the study one case is taken as an example of illustrating how they
have been successful in attracting customers to innovate. Owela is a recently established
online community. Owela is aimed to consumers who are interested in creating and
developing technology innovations with others both in public and privately for companies’
Since one of the authors is Owela’s maintainer, the knowledge is gathered flexibly by
utilising Owela’s user surveys, maintainer interviews and material on gathered on its web
services, especially in IdeaTube, which is a service aimed for problem-finding and problem-
solving. As an empirical data we concentrate on utilising the studies conducted during year
2007 on the Owela - Open web laboratory ( These three studies include both
qualitative and quantitative material. Also three expert interviews are used as an empirical
The remainder of the paper is structured as follows. After the introduction we take a look at
the multidisciplinary literature. Then, the methodology of the study as well as the case is
presented and analysed. After that, the results are discussed and practical implications for
companies are given. Finally, the conclusions are drawn and future research paths discussed.
Online communities - A brief preview
The concept of an online community
The concept and reality of online communities attracted global attention due to the
publication of Howard Rheingold’s book “The Well” in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1993.
Rheingold (2000) was the first who defined the term virtual community as follows:
Virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the net when enough people carry on
those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal
relationships in cyberspace.”
Rheingold emphasised in his definition the importance of meaningful relationships.
However, there is no generally accepted definition for online communities, and in defining an
online community it should be noticed that in a multidisciplinary field such as this, some
definitions reflect a disciplinary perspective as sociology, technology or business etc. (e.g.
Preece 2000).
Although the term “virtual community” is used popularly (Rheingold 2000), the term
“virtual” might misleadingly imply that these communities are less “real” than physical
communities. Yet, as Kozinets (1998, 366) pointed out,
“these social groups have a ‘real’ existence for their participants, and thus have consequential effects
on many aspects of behaviour, including consumer behaviour” (Muniz & O'Guinn 2001).
To maintain the useful distinction of computer-mediated social gathering, we therefore use
the term "online communities" to refer to these web forums.
When defining online communities Preece (2000) listed the elements of which online
communities are constructed, namely people who interact socially as they strive to satisfy
their own needs or perform special roles, such as leading or moderating; a shared purpose,
such as interest, need, information exchange, or service that provides a reason for the
community; policies, in the form of tacit assumptions, rituals, protocols, rules, and laws that
guide people’s interactions and finally, there are computer systems to support and mediate
social interaction and facilitate a sense of togetherness. Figure 5 illustrates the elements of an
online community which are based on Preece’s elements.
In this paper we use the following definition for online communities “An online community
shares a common interest and interacts via information and communications technologies”
(e.g. Antikainen 2007). In this context, a common interest refers to all kind of interests, for
example a hobby or similar life situation.
Classifying online communities
Because of the multitude of different elements in online communities, the variety of different
kind of online communities is wide as well. To be able to understand the variety of online
communities, it is necessary to classify them at some level. Researchers have made
classifications based on many different criteria, but still no typology has been considered
beyond others. After reviewing several proposed typologies, Li (2004) concluded that none of
the classifications or definitions of online community covers every aspect, or fit under every
circumstance. However, establishing a common ground classification scheme would support
the goal of facilitating interdisciplinary research agendas. Lately, an online community
definition is challenged by blogs. Blogging has become the newest communication medium
for creating an online community, a set of blogs linking back and forth to one another’s
postings, while discussing common topics (Chin & Chignell, 2007).
A well known online community classification was made by Schubert and Ginsburg (2000).
They speak of communities of interest (CoI) and divide them further into leisure time
communities, research communities and business communities. Business communities may
appear in the form of communities of commerce, communities of transaction and electronic
malls. Leisure time communities may be oriented on gaming, binding relationships or
fantasies. However, communities do not necessarily belong in only one category but they can
be hybrids including elements from many categories as the cases in this study. Also
companies may, of course, maintain CoI’s and therefore, online communities maintained by
companies can be called as company online communities (Antikainen, 2007).
Creativity and innovation in online communities
Creativity is the ability to produce work that is both novel (i.e. original, unexpected) and
appropriate (i.e. useful, adaptive concerning task constraints) (Sternberg and Lubart, 1999).
However, research on creativity and cognition has focused mostly on the moments of
individual insight and has not adequately addressed the phenomenon at the collective level
(Sternberg, 1999, Gentner and Markman, 1997). According to Kurtzberg and Amabile (2001,
285): although researchers have addressed brainstorming in groups with mixed findings, little
is known about how creative minds interact in group processes. For this reason innovation in
online communities is largely an unknown territory.
How can a company initiate a community for innovation purposes? To understand this, it is
worthwhile to look at information outside the company. Companies have different practices in
utilising external information. Table 1. illustrates these opportunities.
Table 1. Practices of sourcing external input for innovation (Törrö, 2007), modified.
Practice Description
Outsourcing the innovation
function Certain parts of innovation activity can be outsourced by a
company, for example market studies and law guidance.
Both Cohen and Levinthal (2000) and Chesbrough (2006)
warn about outsourcing the whole innovation function.
Investing in external sources
of innovation In large scale this means buying an external company,
even buying a competitor. In small scale this means
investing in external companies and possibly being a
board member.
Partnering for innovation Alliances are can be a source of new competencies. The
challenge is to internalise the information acquired
through the partnership.
Open source. innovation
through peer production According to Fitzgerald (2006) the open source software
(OSS) will become mainstream and these communities are
initiated and supported by companies. Additionally, the
OSS model spreads to other business areas as well.
User innovation Lead users are often the first to develop and use prototype
tools which later become commercial products. With the
Web 2.0 phenomenon web communities have grown and
their political has importance is increased. Lead users are
provided toolkits by companies.
Crowdsourcing. capitalising
on the common people According to Wikipedia (2007) crowdsourcing is enabled
by amateurs or volunteers working in their spare time to
solve problems or provide their viewpoints. Still,
crowdsourcing can be systematic activity, initiated by
When establishing presence in an online community, companies can utilise almost all of the
practices mentioned by Törrö.
What is still unknown is the knowledge creation process. How ideas are elaborated to the
level of innovation. For this purpose, we suggest utilising Hargadon and Sutton’s (2000)
following knowledge brokering cycle (Table 2).
Table 2. Knowledge brokering cycle (Hargadon and Sutton, 2000)
Brokering process Description
1. Capture good ideas Knowledge brokers scavenge constantly for promising ideas,
sometimes in the likeliest places. They see old ideas as their primary
raw material.
2. Keep ideas alive To remain useful ideas must be passed around and toyed with. Effective
rokers also keep ideas alive by spreading information on who knows
what within the organisation.
3. Imagine new uses
for old ideas This is where the innovations arise, where old ideas that have been
captured and remembered are plugged into new contexts.
4. Put promising
concepts to the test Testing shows whether an innovation has commercial potential. It also
teaches brokers valuable lessons, even when an idea is a complete flop.
The challenge for companies establishing online communities to support processes 2, 3 and 4.
This support activity should also make working with these processes interesting and lucrative
for members. Therefore our next focus are the attraction factors.
The attraction factors of online communities
The attraction of online communities
Attraction has been regarded as a phenomenon between people and it has been the object of
interest especially in social exchange studies (Homans 1961; Thibaut and Kelley 1959). Also
other disciplines such as social psychology and marketing have explored attraction. In this
study, we base on the viewpoint used in relationship marketing, which stresses the importance
of attraction in maintaining and enhancing relationships.
Approaching the phenomenon from the same point of view, Mäntymäki and Mittilä (2005)
and Antikainen (2007) studied attraction in company online communities. Antikainen (2007)
introduced an attraction model presented in Table 3. The attraction model includes three
elements: different community relations, i.e. attraction relationships; the type of attraction, i.e.
whether attraction is related to a member as an individual or as a social entity; and the
attraction factors. Since entertainment and benefit are a sum of many factors, they are not
considered as separate attraction factors in Antikainen’s model (2007).
Table 3. Attraction model (Antikainen 2007)
member Self-related /
social related Knowledge
exchange with
Social related Discussions
Social related Commercial
Social related Dating
Social related Diversity of people
Social related Friendships
Social related Playing
Social related Roles
Social related Similarity
maintainer Self-related /
social related Knowledge
exchange with
service Self-related Maintainers’ content
Self-related Members’ content
Self-related Awareness
Self-related Service variety
Self-related Usability
brand Self-related Reputation
Antikainen (2007) studied which factors attract members to online communities taking the
online communities’ viewpoint. She divided the factors in different relationships called
member-to-member, maintainer-to-member, service-to-member and brand-to-member. She
found that in informational communities maintained by companies also the maintainer-
member relationship is important. In other words, in communities of creation the dialogue
between members and maintainers is an attraction factor. Furthermore, Antikainen (2007)
proposes that online community’s brand may be an attraction factor
What attracts customers to participate?
When trying to attract customers to participate in online communities it is important to
consider their motivational factors. Researchers in the online community research field have
considered reasons why people join and visit online communities and what are the attraction
factors of online communities. Some of the studies that are the most interesting from the
viewpoint of this study are discussed next as well as gathered in Table 4.
Wasko and Faraj (2000) explored reasons why people participate and help each others in
online communities. They concentrated on knowledge exchange and therefore, they
empirically explored three technical communities in their study. They asked participants an
open-ended question by email, about why they participate and help others and got 342
answers. In analysing data they utilised content analysis and divided the results into three
general categories: tangible returns, intangible returns, and community interest. Firstly, by
tangible returns they meant access to useful information and expertise, answers to specific
questions, and personal gain. Secondly, intangible returns refer to intrinsic satisfaction and
self-actualisation. Thirdly, they said that the majority of comments received (41.9%) reflect a
strong desire to have an access to a community of practice. According them, these comments
indicate that people are participating in order to exchange knowledge pertaining to practice,
and they value the exchange of practice related knowledge within a community of like
minded members. In addition, Wasko and Faraj (2000) stated that these comments indicate
that people do not use the forum to socialise, nor to develop personal relationships. According
to their study giving back to the community in return for help was by far the most cited reason
for why people participate.
Furthermore, Bandura (1995) proposed that online community members may contribute
valuable information because the act results in a sense of efficacy, that is, a sense that they
have had some effect on this environment. There is well-developed research literature that has
shown how important a sense of efficacy is (e.g. Bandura 1995), and making regular and
quality contributions to the group can help individuals believe that they have an impact on the
group and support their own self-image as an efficacious person. Wikipedia
( is a prime example of an online community that gives contributors a
sense of efficacy.
One considerable motivation factor to innovate is undoubtedly reputation. Profiles and
reputation are clearly evident in online communities today. is a case in point, as
all contributors are allowed to create profiles about themselves and as their contributions are
measured by the community, their reputation increases. Recognition in firm-hosted
communities was also found one of the important elements in innovation communities
(Jeppessen & Frederiksen 2006)
Some online communities, especially intermediaries (for example as Crowdspirit and
FellowForce) are giving monetary rewards to innovators. However, there are some
conflicting results concerning motivation and monetary rewards. In fact, classic research in
social psychology suggests that incentives might actually have a negative effect on ideation
(e.g. Toubia, 2006). Amabile, Hennessey & Grossman (1986) concluded that explicitly
contracting to do an activity in order to receive a reward will have negative effects on
creativity, but receiving no reward or only a noncontracted-for reward will have no such
negative effects. Therefore, it is called into a question, whether members see monetary
rewards as motivation factors.
Concentrating on innovation communities von Hippel 1986 have studied different roles in
online communities suggesting that lead users are the ones who are most motivated to
innovate. Lead users bring their professional expertise to their hobby fields, and therefore,
they are competent in creating new innovations (Jeppessen and Frederiksen 2006). Yet, these
lead users more probably generate incremental-type innovations based on existing products
rather than totally new Jeppessen and Frederiksen 2006; Morrison et al. 2000). It is also said
that unexperienced users are most creative ones. On the other hand, one reason why the most
innovators are lead users is their willingness to share information. Since they are hobbyists,
they have nothing to loose. To increase and support creativity, culture and particularly open
atmosphere is needed (Preece 2000).
Especially in the open source software communities, the fact that users enjoy from
participating is also relevant motivation factor in innovation communities. In both kind of
communities; open source software communities and innovation communities also learning
can be considered as an motivation factor. (von Hippel and von Krogh 2003)
One important consumers’ motivation factor to innovate is to get better products and services
for themselves. By participating in the innovation process, they can influence on the product
development process (Jeppessen and Frederiksen 2006).
Table 4. Summary of the earlier studies about reasons why people innovate and participate in
online communities
Authors Reasons/ motivations to innovate in online
Franke and von Hippel 2003; Hagel and
Armstrong 1997; Jeppessen and
Frederiksen 2006, von Hippel 1086,
Preece 2000; Ridings and Gefen 2004
Innovation attractiveness, common purpose, interest
Kollock 1999, Jeppessen and Frederiksen
2006 Recognition from a company and a community,
von Hippel and von Krogh (2003) Enjoyment
Kollock 1999 Sharing
Bandura (1995); Kollock 1999; Wasko
and Faraj (2000) Anticipated reciprocity
von Hippel and von Krogh (2003) Learning
Kollock 1999 Sense of efficacy
Jeppessen and Frederiksen 2006 Getting better products and services, influencing
Research Design
In this study we use multiple studies conducted in Owela after its launch, April 2007. These
studies are Owela’s user study (N=88), Owela’s development study (N=38) and a study
conducted among Owela’s members concerning users’ motivation towards collective
innovation (N=11). This way data methodological triangulation is achieved to increase and
ensure the quality of the study.
In addition to these also three expert interviews on members motivation towards collective
innovation and tools that can be offered to them are utilised. Studies included both qualitative
and quantitative parts and interviews were qualitative. All the studies included questions
concerning Owela’s members’ profiles, members’ motivation factors, and tools to support
open innovation process among other factors.
In this research the phenomenon of attracting members to participate in innovation online
communities has been made visible. However the frameworks and theories that are used in
this research are only some possible theories that can be used. Many other perspectives can
also be considered to explore the concerned phenomenon.
This paper is made based on multiple earlier studies. Part of the quantitative results can not be
generalised because of the low response rate. The small amount of answers creates dispersion
to the answers although only small amount of answers are diverging. Moreover, the lack of
experience of using Owela has a major impact on the capability of the respondents to answer
the questions. However, since this is an exploratory qualitative study, these problems are not
major issue in this context.
Owela – open web laboratory
Owela ( is a participatory web laboratory for designing digital media
products and services. It aims to be a conversational web community that connects members
with developers and researchers and promotes open innovation. Owela offers social media
tools for gathering member needs and development ideas as well as collecting feedback for
scenarios and prototypes.
Owela is developed at VTT in Finland as part of the project called “Social media in the
crossroads of physical, digital and virtual worlds” (SOMED, 2006-2008). Owela is being used
as a test environment for the concepts and applications developed in the project.
At the moment Owela consists of IdeaTube and TestLab, as well as blog, chat and
recommended bookmarks. In IdeaTube members may participate by commenting the
descriptions and visualisations of different situations, needs, ideas, scenarios and prototypes.
In TestLab the prototypes of future products and services can be tested in beta phase, and the
users are expected to give feedback and development ideas. In future, there will be a
confidential area of Owela, where users are invited to develop companies’ products and
services confidentially.
According to the maintainers one of the major challenges of Owela is to create a user
community that is large enough to generate adequate amount of postings and comments to
keep the community active. To be able to reach the objectives, enhancing community services
and also marketing will be focused in Owela’s development. Creating different community
tools and services, for example the list of the most active users and different kind of
competitions, may enhance the sense of community in Owela. Also the rewarding system is
still under construction.
Who are the innovators in Owela?
According to the earlier studies conducted in Owela the participants represent an innovator
cognitive style. This means that they are rather extrovert, less dogmatic, more tolerant to
ambiguity, radical, flexible, assertive, expedient, undisciplined and sensation seeking. They
are ready to accept new ideas even before others accept them. They do not feel reluctant to do
things in a new way. They are stimulated by thinking and acting original. They are challenged
by ambiguities and unsolved problems and interested in unanswered questions. Over 50
percentages of respondents were under 35 years old and there were no significant differences
between amount of men and women. (Jäkälä 2007)
Based on the studies conducted the participants in Owela have a strong feeling of trust
towards humanity and people in general and also towards other participants in Owela. They
believe that others have knowledge and skills required to developed ideas together. The
participants also believe strongly that others try to be as fair as possible towards each other.
They believe that others will react on each others thoughts and ideas. However, they do not
trust their personal information readily to other participants. (Jäkälä 2007)
How to attract members to participate in Owela?
What kind of methods could be used?
Earlier studies in Owela showed that people should be assured that they are innovative with
rewarding and creating an open atmosphere. Naturally, the objective of the innovation should
be interesting and it should be fun to innovate.
In order to create a sense of community, members should also feel that they have something
common. By emphasising the idea of collective collaborativity, like sitting around a table
together members can be attracted with new viewpoints they gain. Seeing own ideas to be
developed is also important as well as a feeling of efficiency. Thus, in aim to attract
participators to an open innovation communities it should be explicitly shown that the ideas
are developed further into products ideas and products, for example.
Furthermore, earlier studies in Owela stressed the importance of giving the feel of influencing
to members. They can be attracted by the idea that they can get also better products and
services as an output. Rewarding as an attraction factor has been spoken a lot in this context
and also results of Owela take into account this factor. Thus, there are different kind of
reputation models, which should be considered a more detailed way.
In addition, members may be also attracted with reputation factor that can be useful in
creating career, for example. In open source software communities it is already reality that
coders are hired basis on their reputation in OSS communities. Other attraction factor that was
considered important in Owela is that maintainers take apart in discussions.
What kind of tools are needed?
Earlier studies in Owela showed that the member information from the participants should be
handled with care and members should feel that they can trust on the service. The technical
workability was regarded the second most important feature in Owela. That includes a good
usability of the system, as few technical problems as possible and short loading time of the
Important is also offering possible background information of the products and services. Also
important is to offer possibilities for discussion of free form, that there would be rules how to
operate in Owela. Members should also be offered a possibility to add their own ideas with
pictures as well as to create innovative environments for friends and other acquaintances. It
was also regarded as rather important feature that the old members can assist and support new
Discussion and practical implications
Owela is an online community that is in the phase of its development. The studies conducted
focused on the wishes and opinions based on images and prior experiences of the respondents
that they have of the innovation online community. The innovativeness of the members is
something that can be expected in such community. People who are interested in product and
service development can be expected to be interested in new things in general. Therefore,
when conducting studies in innovation communities it should be noticed these features of the
respondents that may influence on the results.
In Owela, it seems that interesting objectives of innovation are important. Also good
opportunities to learn and get benefit for one’s career were important. This is something that
must be beard in mind when an innovation community is advertised to possible new
participants. The good feeling of getting new ideas is something that is a strong motivator for
people who are interested in doing things on their own way and interested on solving
The strong trust and its clear connection to innovativeness imply that the more trust an
innovation community and its participants awake the more innovative the participants will be.
This can be explained by the fact that trust stimulates discussion and openness of the
participants. Based on the results and first experiences, one of the major challenges of the
innovation community is to create a user community that is large enough to generate adequate
amount of postings and comments to keep the community active. To be able to reach the
objectives, enhancing community services and marketing should be the focus in innovation
community’s development. Supporting innovation community with appropriate tools, for
example ability to see the most active members and get the background information about the
products and services that are developed, may enhance the sense of community. In addition,
active marketing on the Web is needed to be able to attract people who are interested in
creating tomorrows’ new innovations.
Although, the results of the earlier studies did not directly stress the easiness and
compatibility with mobile devices, we consider these features important. Therefore, we
suggest that it should be easy to use the service with PC and mobile device, for example
sending a SMS.
Yet, although we focused here to attract members to innovate in companies’ own online
communities, instead of building own communities, companies may utilise existing
innovation communities. However, in this case also knowing the background information of
members as well as the dynamics of those communities is important in utilising them. Since
companies’ innovation communities on the Web are a new area, more research is needed.
Getting more quantitative and qualitative data from both members and the maintainers of
open innovation communities is essential in aim to gain knowledge for academy as well as for
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