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Insider information: Embracing user generated content

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13th Oct 2008
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We’re told it’s good to talk and the advent of Web 2.0 means we’re doing it a whole lot more. So why not use it to get to the heart of your company, not just your customers? Louise Druce explores how firms are using user generated content to their benefit.

By Louise Druce, features editor

Web 2.0 has got everyone talking - in more ways than one. Pick a brand and somewhere customers will be talking about it – for better or worse - which is why many companies are now providing their own platforms for user generated content (UGC). After all, if there's a gap in your offerings, you want customers to be telling you about it - not all and sundry on the internet.

Dell’s IdeaStorm, for example, invited customers to submit ideas for new products and it quickly discovered a need for pre-installed Linux on PCs without having to spend money and time carrying out extensive surveys and tests. And it isn’t alone.

"The real benefit of UGC for brand insights is that you will uncover things you didn’t know you needed to know and consumers will ask and answer questions that you would never have thought to ask."

Matt Rhodes, FreshNetworks

“The real benefit of UGC for brand insight is that you will uncover things you didn’t know you needed to know and consumers will ask and answer questions that you would never have thought to ask,” says Matt Rhodes, head of client services at FreshNetworks, a division of research agency FreshMinds.

In one of its recent online communities for a global telecommunications firm, a few hundred director-level members across Europe were drafted in to help the client with some specific research. But the discussions also took them in a new direction. “In addition to getting over 100 hours of qualitative insight in the first three months, they also found out some things they didn’t expect,” explains Rhodes.

“Nobody talked about the product in the way they did. Their marketing approach was not quite in line with the way customers thought about things. They could see the language customers used and the problems they said their services solved and then refine their messaging based on this.”

Members only

A key decision for firms wanting to embrace UGC, however, is how visible they want discussions to be in the first instance. Communispace has created and managed more than 300 private online customer communities for clients such as Hasbro, Heinz, PepsiCo, Hewlett-Packared and Hilton Hotels. “Public and private communities serve a different purpose,” says senior vice president of innovation and design Julie Wittes Schlack.

“Public forums are growing because either companies are initiating them or because people who are particularly passionate about a brand are doing it themselves. Private communities give the company a human face and people have a more complete sense of relationship between themselves and the brand. But because they are private, it gives the company a chance to try out very early ideas and concepts they might not feel ready to post on a website for people to vote on.”

"The benefit of engaging with your customers is that you decrease your time to market, you kill bad ideas sooner, you develop tremendous loyalty and authentic advocacy within your customer base – and you do all of those things simply as a function of actively listening."

Julie Wittes Schlack, Communispace

A typical community has 300-500 members recruited by Communispace according to client demographic specifications, which varies between communities. “In some cases, companies are looking to better connect with customers, in others they may be trying to understand a whole new, emerging market with potential customers, influencers or competitors they don’t know well at all,” explains Wittes Schlack.

Participants undertake a variety of activities on both a tactical level (to elicit feedback on specific concepts, ads or products) and on an exploratory level (to understand their lives and their unmet needs to discovery new opportunities). In return for contributing at least once a week, the company shares what they have learnt in return. The client can also log on whenever it chooses.

According to Wittes Schlack, Communispace undertakes 3,000ft analysis – a weekly snapshot of interesting things under discussion – as well as more honing in on specific themes and topics, using text analytics, it wishes to track over time.

“Our communities are no replacement for CRM tools that track customers but it certainly informs how those tools are used,” she adds. “The insight you derive from the community might tell you about a particularly keen area of need for this target audience or that they’re frankly disinterested and want something else. You refine your CRM strategy and have genuine relationships, not just relationship management.

“The benefit of engaging with your customers on a routine basis and hardwiring their voice into your business, across functions, is that you decrease your time to market, you kill bad ideas sooner, you develop tremendous loyalty and authentic advocacy within your customer base – and you do all of those things simply as a function of actively listening.”

Join the club

And it doesn’t have to be behind completely closed doors. Sales performance management company Callidus Software recently launched social network TrueConnect to shape its product development and how it works with its clients. The forum already has more than 300 members from over 85 companies (its clients include Vodafone, Standard Life and Nokia) and the firm believes the obvious risks in opening up its customer community to exchange ideas are far outweighed by the benefits.

“We are interested to hear what our customers are talking about, what they think about our products, if we’re heading in the right direction and run product ideas past them before we move forward,” says Allison Solin, director of customer marketing at Callidus Software.

"Customers have a connection with each other, can get ideas from each other and also know we are looking at these ideas."

Allison Solin, Callidus Software

In a matter of weeks, it has already potentially spawned a new insurance-related product through ideas from the online community, whereas in the days before its existence, Solin says it would have taken months. “The product marketing team would reach out to our team to find out which customer we would talk to and then you had to convince people to talk to us and fit in with peoples’ schedules,” she says. “It could take up to six months to collect all the necessary information and then it would go through the internal process.”

Also, whereas before the company would talk to key customers, any customer logged on to TrueConnect can share their ideas. Even the CEO is in on the forum action. “Customers have a connection with each other, can get ideas from each other and also know we are looking at these ideas,” she adds.

Of course, not all feedback is going to be positive. But the argument for embracing UGC – the good, the bad and the ugly – is at least you can make positive internal changes, rather than turning a blind eye and letting negative forums dominate your brand.

“The bottom line is, customers are talking about you whether you are there to witness it or not,” says Wittes Schlack. “You’re much better served by paying attention to those conversations and even better served by hosting them and participating in those conversations."

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