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Building a model for customer co-creation

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26th Jul 2010
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Saul Parker discusses why there is growing interest in customer co-creation - and proposes a model of collaboration.  

Co-creation is about collaboration. It’s about working together to solve problems, uniting a range of perspectives and approaches to an issue. Very often this collaboration involves consumers working directly with professionals from inside and outside a client organisation, to define and create a range of outputs, from strategy to communications, from products to experiences.
From our perspective, we consider the consumers we work with as experts in their own right, whether they are technology addicts helping us generate new mobile applications, or housewives working on repositioning a globally reknowned air freshener. Whatever their background or particular expert perspective on life, we approach them as equals and partners in the process.
The notion of collaboration is central to the way that co-creation works. It isn’t about handing over control to ‘the crowd’, although often crowdsourcing and harnessing crowd wisdom is a useful input or stage within a wider model of open innovation. In co-creation we work in teams that span disciplines and backgrounds, so that ideas are generated and validated by producers and consumers together.
As a client, when you work co-creatively you are really interacting in a constructive way with your audience. Rather than merely listening to their opinions, in the classic ‘stimulus/response’ model that dominates the market research industry, mediated by a third party while you keep your distance behind the anonymity of the viewing facility mirror or the quantitative survey, in co-creation sessions members of your target audience are sat beside you, contributing ideas, translating business language into everyday words, helping to evolve concepts into more lifelike entities.
Why co-create?
Much of the growth of interest in co-creation as an approach and philosophy comes against a backdrop of dramatic changes in the communications landscape in recent years. The evolution of the internet has had an enormous impact on the way that businesses interact with their audiences, and vice versa. It is near-impossible to underestimate the extent to which social media has empowered consumers to voice their opinions, create and distribute their own content, and, as active stakeholders in the brands they consume, to set a new agenda for producer-consumer relationships, and in many ways the advent of co-creation is a corollary of these developments.
Today we have quick, easy, cheap ways for voicing our opinion, we are organically connected and always on. Social media has created a real-time collective mind where people are becoming used to ongoing interactions (not campaigns), immediacy (not asynchronous responses) and closeness (not ivory tower distance) to the brands they admire.
This is a step change that's forcing businesses to switch to open and collaborative approaches where they have to listen, engage and collaborate with their audiences in shaping what they do in order to stay relevant. Brands have always placed great store in listening to their customers, but in the current economic climate staying close and staying constantly close has become more important than ever.
How?
There are, of course, different approaches to co-creation. The heart of the co-creation process we have adopted is typically a face-to-face workshop, but the ideal model involves a multi-staged approach to insight generation/opportunity shaping, ideation, validation and refinement. We often talk about reversing the research funnel, starting by consulting the crowd, moving on to work with defined online communities, then collaborating with an intimate group of co-creators. Here is a model for our approach:
 
Exploration and crowdsourcing phases
Using social media monitoring, we scan the public social internet to derive insight around a particular brand, category, occasion, need state or demographic. We then analyse this content and use the insights uncovered to define a research agenda to take into a crowdsourcing phase.
Harnessing the wisdom of the crowd explores insight further. Crowdsourcing can be used to uncover problems and divine topline solutions to a particular issue. This phase can also be a really useful way to try and quantify opinions and issues. Think of crowdsourcing as a way to ask qualitative questions of a quantitative sample.
A second phase of this stage typically involves convening a bespoke online project community to explore any hunches, hypotheses or issues in more depth. In online communities, members can have a whole range of social media tools available to them, from multimedia uploading facilities to an instant status update tool, in order to express themselves and demonstrate in their own words, pictures and actions how a particular issue plays out in their lives and minds.
Co-creation phase
Typically a face-to-face workshop, the co-creation phase is, as we have outlined above, a session designed to bring professionals and consumers together to problem solve. Capitalising on the insight, understanding and potentially initial solutions that have been derived through social media analysis, crowdsourcing and online community work, the co-creation workshop is an opportunity to really build on these learnings and develop worked up solutions.
The art of evoking creative thinking and ideas from people who might not automatically consider themselves as ‘creative thinkers’ is part of the skill of structuring and facilitating our broad process and the workshop more specifically. All of the prior stages are designed to make this as successful as possible within the face to face context.
Validation phase
If time and budget allow, we would advocate taking workshop outputs back online for further refinement and validation. One invaluable aspect of co-creation outputs is their articulation in consumer language rather than marketing speak, and by taking concepts back online into a community of fresh, critical and unbiased target consumers we have the opportunity to expose concepts to a relevant and constructively critical audience. Community members will pick ideas apart on the level of individual words and phrases, as well as comment on visualisation and other aspects of articulation, to help ensure that the ideas are expressed as clearly and relevantly as possible.
One of the most high profile examples to date of a successful co-creation project involved Lynx/Axe Twist. With this project, Unilever wanted to co-create the new 2010 variant for Lynx/Axe deodorant, based solely around a one-word idea – ‘FRESH’. 16 Axe target audience young guys from the US, UK and Germany were brought together at a workshop in New York, with co-creators collaborating with the Axe team, specialists from their advertising agency and perfume experts to develop a range of concepts around the idea of ‘freshness’. In this case, the most loved and successful concept from the workshop featured the scent, name, packaging design and advertising end line that went on to form the final Unilever product; truly a case of consumer collaboration from the outset to output, Unilever’s first co-created product.
Nokia also works in the area of co-creation, looking at concepting and future usage and functionalities. Nokia worked on a recent project aimed at securing relevance for the brand within the upper end of the marketplace, that saw it engaging a crowdsourcing community of tech leaders to explore problems and shortcomings within the smartphone category. Armed with the most highly ranked and rated problems as identified by the crowdsourcing community, a two-day concepting co-creation workshop was held that united highly engaged and tech savvy consumers with Nokia designers and design researchers. This was co-creation at a very high level, with collaboration between what might be considered super users, and producers. The output saw a range of relevance visions being taken into Nokia’s concepting and design agenda for 2012.
Why is co-creation so valuable?
If you are immersed in narratives and developments around the evolving communications and media landscape and changing brand-consumer relationships, it is easy to see the importance of co-creation as a philosophy and approach to consumer engagement. There are however some really clear and tangible benefits to working this way that businesses are increasinly appreciating.
Co-creation can help break the yo-yo effect of research and development, where clients go back and forward between creative agencies, research agencies and their audience. By working with your consumers, rather than directing stuff at them in the hope that it will stick, clients get a real sense of what works and what doesn’t as the ideation takes place. Ideas emerge, develop, are refined and validated in collaboration with your audience, in real time. No need to wait around for endless tests.
The proof is really in the pudding in so many cases with co-creation. Time and again we find that co-created concepts outperform siloed concepts in quant tests and across all manner of benchmarks. Consumer articulation and validation at the point of idea generation means outputs are richer and more complete, and ultimately ideas move to realisation (and to market) more quickly and cost-effectively.

Saul Parker is research director at research and co-creation agency Face.

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