Social and digital media have driven many brands to try their hand at co-creating products and services with consumers and customers. A major financial services client has set up a community of young adults to get their input for a new offering. Ford (cl) has a "your ideas" feature that collects suggestions from the crowd. Intel (cl) maintains a group of advisers known as the Intel Insiders who constantly offer input to the company specifically about social media, digital and how it impacts marketing and product use. These particular examples show brands with a decent commitment to listening and soliciting thinking from customers in a new way.
Too many brands look at co-creating either as a gimmick, something to try once or twice, or as a fancy name for the type of research they have always done (i.e. focus groups) to ensure an investment in a product or service (or marketing campaign) will have its desired effect.
What is the difference between focus groups (qualitative research) and co-creation? Both solicit the opinions of customers. The image of focus groups includes one-way glass, moderators, and bowls of M&Ms in the client viewing gallery. Reports are written and summarized. 2-page executive summaries get circulated inside the company. Co-creation is more direct. It brings customers into a more collaborative process with actual product managers. The intention is not simply to learn what they want. It is to have their POV help make a better, more useful product. It's less about discovering one or two useful insights (although insights abound in co-creation), than building products based upon fundamental input from those who use the service.
Is it New?
Since co-creation looks and smells liek customer research, is it really new? Jenna Wortham covered co-creation at online shopping site, Plum Willow in her NYTimes article. Here's what I think is new or noteworthy in the best approaches to co-creation:
1. Collaboration sessions: even the image that accompanies the article - 3 interns sitting around a company conference room, laptops open and talking to a Plum Willow product person. This is not your usual focus group interaction. It is more collaborative.
2. Commitment: they may not have walked into the process knowing that they would make co-creation a part fo their product/service development but thats what it became.
"“It went from us talking to them to us listening to them,” says Scott Stone, co-founder and head of business development at PlumWillow. “We decided we might as well institutionalize it and make it part of our culture.”
...Nearly 20 girls have cycled through the company since early this year, PlumWillow says."
3. Strategy to Remain Agile: "Agility" is clearly a term borrowed from physical characteristics denoting speed, responsiveness and the muscles and instincts to support that speed. The term has since been applied to a type of software development that is quicker and less burdened by unnecessary process. Now we are applying it to business and marketing. Many companies make a fatal error in interpreting what it takes to be agile. They see it as a more heuristic approach and therefore more based upon smart "hunches" and instinct. That seems to exclude customer input. Not so. What agility really calls for is institutionalizing customer input so well that it becomes an accepted and efficient part of the process.
PlumWillow puts it this way, "They (interns) help keep the company nimble enough to catch and fix mistakes before they are pushed out to broader audiences, executives say..."
Does ROI Get in the Way?
I had a great conversation with Judy Walklet from Communispace when I spoke at CTAM last week. We talked about the challenges of reporting the business value (ROI) of their great communities. Their whole business is about helping organizations maintain a direct channel with a group of customers and constantly learn from that exchange. The value in higher adoption of relevant services and "failure-avoidance" may be intuitively clear yet it remains hard to measure for ROI purposes. The benefits of this type of co-creation are woven into better products, faster development times, fewer false starts or bad product implementations. How do you measure this complexity?
While it can be done, I would argue that if business wants to embrace a more agile product development process, today they need leadership within their company to make it the priority even while the ROI dashboard struggles to fully report the impact.