Client-developer-marketer: friend?

I’m leading a new business initiative for my company that has potential for huge and almost instant scale due to our massive installed base in education.

But only if we do it right.

And I’m wondering how/if we can do something like this: inviting our clients to be part of our product development department, marketing department: partners. The challenge that I’m facing is that we can only really do what we really are, and the reality is that we are a traditional company that makes stuff, markets stuff, and sells stuff.

We’re trying hard to bring customers into the product development loop, and that’s a good thing.

But my dream is to take that farther. Way farther.

The success of a Flickr, Delicious, Google Base, you name it, is that the company/service/product invites you to add to it, modify it, use it, adapt it. To make it yours.

Perhaps it’s the difference between making a platform and an application. An application is optimized for defined purposes. A platform is too, but to a much lesser degree. Rather, it’s optimized to enable all kinds of purposes, including, and perhaps especially, those that the developers haven’t even thought of yet.

Hence APIs. Hence customizable, flexible tools. Hence beta versions. Hence an adventurous, daring sense of what-the-heck, let’s try it.

That’s what I want. That would make our clients our developers. Our marketers. Our partners, in a sense.

But not in the sense that they would do our work for us, or that we would co-opt them, or somehow coerce their cooperation.

Rather, this would only happen if people in their own legitimate self-interest did things that benefited them however they wanted … and we provided tools, bases, platforms to enable that. But as individuals created value for themselves, they would contribute to the value of the ecosystem.

Which would build more value for them, more value for new clients, and more value for us.

OK. That’s the theory. Now … how to do that?

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Hugh at gapingvoid gets this. The people behind the cluetrain get this. Can somewhat traditional companies get it?