My friends over at ruralnet|online are making tremendous progress in their quest to re-invent their business in the open. As I reported the other day, they face the challenge of moving from a "walled garden" set of online services which they charged for, towards a more distributed system using a mix of tools to provide people engaged in social enterprises and nonprofits with information, communication and collaboration systems.
The challenge - as many commercial online providers have found - is that these days people are getting smart at searching for their own information, setting up blogs, wikis and other tools, using Flickr, YouTube and so ... all for free. They often learn the tools at home (or their children do). Why pay when they get to work, particularly if work is in a charity or small voluntary group? There's lots of issues, of course, about training, support etc for those less confident - but even the technophobes have figured you don't pay much for information and tools these days.
The key issue is finding the additional value you can offer users. How do you find out what they want? Ask them to help you redesign the business. Chief Executive Simon Berry and a team led by Paul Henderson are doing that on a multi-user blog site and and through events including a focus group which I helped run last week.
As I reported on the site, we played through a co-design game in which groups invented two scenarios (a small village fighting for sustainability, and a large network of parish and town councils), then used a set of cards representing tools and activities to develop an action plan. Some of the cards offered high-value ruralnet|online services.
It went rather well ... except the groups didn't choose the ruralnet|online cards until well down their development plan. Oh dear - end of business? Absolutely not. Paul has come back with a set of ideas about how ruralnet|online can add some value to free tools, give some away, charge for some, and also offer personalised services. So far they aren't even looking at additional ads.
One of the key principles is, if the good stuff is happening elsewhere, don't try and compete, send people across and do some remixing. On that basis, I won't go on about this any more but suggest you pop across to my|ruralnet - first shot at what ruralnet|online might be and add to Paul's rich mix.
By the way, it won't be only rural - important though these services are for hard-pressed, often isolated, communities. There'll be Networksonline services for the rest of us urbanites.