Best Buy’s IdeaX: open ideas and open source

by Mike Bollinger

Over the past few years, the Emerging Platforms team inside Best Buy has been taking it upon themselves to use social web technology to make Best Buy a better company.

Among the first of their projects was Blue Shirt Nation, an internal social network for Best Buy employees. Shortly thereafter, the team decided to make a more public-facing play.  They called it IdeaX.

IdeaX is a public forum for Best Buy customers to share, vote on, and discuss ideas about ways the company can improve customer experiences. The site was built in an attempt to better connect with consumers, listen to their needs, and experiment with crowd-sourcing ideas. When the team took on this idea, it wasn’t a new one—a few other large companies had experimented with engaging their customers in the same way. Starbucks had already launched MyStarbucksIdea and Dell had IdeaStorm; both were relatively well-known and well-received.

Originally, the Best Buy team looked at a number of off the shelf crowd-sourcing platforms, including those run by Starbucks and Dell, but those options proved to too expensive and too inflexible for what they had in mind. So the team decided to hire Bust Out Solutions, a local web development shop, the help create a custom application for IdeaX.

The IdeaX site launched rather quietly in May of 2009. There was no large marketing push, just a few blog posts and a few tweets—but by May 16th over 100 ideas had been submitted. By the end of July over 1,000 ideas had been submitted. Since launch, the site has seen over 7,000 ideas and has had over 150,000 visitors. To date, a few ideas have actually been taken from the site are in some form of testing or implementation.

“This project is an ongoing experiment for Best Buy “, said Jeff Lin, CEO of Bust Out Solutions . “We love the idea of people submitting ideas, Best Buy responding, and all of us working together to make them a better company.”

In February of this year Best Buy took this project one step further by making the underlying software that runs IdeaX an open source project.

“Given that IdeaX is about innovation and ideas, and open source is about allowing the community to modify your creation, which leads to implemented innovation, it made sense to go open source,” said Joshua Kahn, Community Engagement Manager for Best Buy. “Open source is interesting because the nature of it allows other people to look at what you’ve made through their eyes. Their fresh perspective ensures that the project doesn’t get stale…plus, as communities develop around an open source project you gain connections with interesting people, organizations and ideas. All of it for free.”

The open source version of the platform is known as BBYIDX. The platform is written in Ruby and distributed under the GNU Affero General Public License. This very same platform powers the current Best Buy IdeaX site, and features the ability for users to simply post, tag, comment and vote on ideas.

There has yet to be another major site built off the open-source platform since its release in March, but Best Buy is already planning for “phase 2” of the IdeaX site and platform. “[We need] to make sure that the insights our customers and employees have every day are getting expressed in the way we direct our business. This requires the internal machinery that connects the ideas from the community to our business leaders. More efficient social engineering within the company if you like,” said Joshua on a recent post from the official IdeaX blog.

In the meantime, Best Buy has made it easier for more companies to better and more actively engage with their customers. The challenge now is to see how, or if, those companies connect the dots between ideas and implementation.