Consumer Collaboration around the World: North-America [2/6]

Meet our Collaboration around the World series. Every article in this blog series overlooks the state of consumer collaboration in different parts of the world. This based on recent travels around the globe to speak at conferences, talks with moderators from our proprietary Global Community Moderator Network, experiences with client projects and fresh figures from a new global consumer survey. End of March we already discussed Europe, next up is North-America.

Time for a change

I started this month with a trip to the USA and Canada to talk about Consumer Collaboration at events and with clients. Most North American marketers and researchers are familiar with the idea of an Market Research Online Community (MROC). Not so surprising, considering that the concept of creating long-lasting private online communities for consumer research and co-creation was born in the area. But what struck me during all the chats I had with clients and conference attendees is that they all have the feeling that the method needs a little ‘shake-up’. Companies are still convinced that the method works in principle. They also see why a constant finger on the pulse with what consumers want is required and that a direct consumer line is of great value as it allows managers to make better decisions more rapidly. That being said, most of them start to realize that some of those ongoing communities could benefit from more qualitative depth. Richer insights would allow corporate researchers to make the communities more powerful internally in terms of having an impact on more strategic matters as well. Others have difficulties to keep the collaboration initiative fresh for both the participants and their internal stakeholders.
Over the weekend, I visited the Guggenheim in New York. The extensive collection of Picasso paintings, outlining the different phases of his career, reminded me of the following: one who has disrupted others, needs to dare disrupt his own creations to always stay ahead of the game. Picasso ‘reinvented’ himself several times during his career. We need to continue doing that as well and should never settle for the ‘good enough’ solution. Communities have to some extent changed the way qualitative research and consumer collaboration is done. But we need to dare admit that some things are not always working as we hoped. So, time to fix the things that are broken in ongoing communities!

The power is in the mix

Below is a short list of things I hear are broken. In order to understand how to fix them, I dived into the data of a recent survey we conducted among 763 members who participated in 11 of the structural/ongoing communities we have in the air for our clients here at InSites Consulting. This study teaches me that our teams are on the right path to establish a long-lasting and valuable relationship between consumers and brands in our always-on Consumer Consulting Boards. Here is an overview of what we did to fix each of the existing issues with the concept of long-term communities in general:
At the client’s side, community users say the qualitative depth is sometimes missing. Consumers on the other hand get a bit bored when they are slammed with the same type of questions week after week. We solve the issue of ‘depth’ by making communities a true ‘fusion’ of qualitative, observational and quantitative techniques. Next to that, variation in the type of questions/tasks and adding gamification techniques also make it more enjoyable for the members as well.
Clients feel that a community is too often only used as a time- and cost-efficient way to get answers to very tactical questions. We believe that it could be a great tool in more strategic pieces as well. In our long-term communities we use the principle of deep-dive weeks. During those weeks there is an intense level of collaboration/research. You could compare the activity during those periods as that of a large-scale ad hoc qualitative project. The weeks in between these ‘collaboration sprints’ are used to tackle urgent issues (so-called ’48-hour challenges’) or to continue working on insights gained in the deep-dive weeks, to push them further into the development process. And the whole year participants can bring things to the table themselves in the Community Lounge (their own space in the community, where they can discuss what they want or choose).

In order to make the participants’ impact more tangible, we ‘brand’ the deep-dive weeks towards participants and give these projects/missions a name (in our survey, 83% of our ongoing community members truly believes that having these ‘branded deep-dives’ are important for the long-term success of a community). When projects are completed, they receive feedback on a regular basis to keep them up-to-date about the progress; when the impact on the market is clear, we transfer their achievements to a so-called ‘Hall of Fame’ in the community, which is where we visualize everything the company could not have realized without the help of the community members.
Based on our experience and on a study we conducted with some 7,000 people of the online population in 17 countries around the world, we know that North Americans are very much driven by monetary incentives when it comes to community participation. It is time for a change on the matter as all research on the topic shows that ‘giving money’ is not the best way to obtain retention. We focus completely on the other aspects of the cocktail of motivations (learning new things about a category or brand, the community’s social aspect, having an impact on a brand’s or product’s future…).
Furthermore, it is all about seeing and treating participants as the company’s ‘part-time’ employees. The best employees are also the ones who show passion for their job. And the best employers are the ones who give their staff the chance to put things on the table, who create a fun atmosphere, who know that from time to time people need to relax and that once in a while it also takes a challenging project for the staff’s personal development. That’s exactly how we tackle it in our ongoing communities:

  • There are busy periods and more relaxing times. Our study on running ongoing communities teaches us that ideally a community has 36 intense weeks in which the members get daily tasks. The rest of the year they prefer receiving a maximum of 3 challenges a week.
  • We give participants a break (literally) from the community on a regular basis: members get a vacation (the community is closed) several times a year (e.g. during the Holiday season).
  • More experienced members get more complex or secret projects/missions.
  • Participants can apply to become a co-moderator and help the researcher to do an even better job.

Finally, some clients find themselves trapped in a long-term community, while they do not really need one for that specific target group. That is why we offer shorter-duration communities as well, as an alternative for more extensive (and strategic) ad hoc projects. That way, we do not waste our client’s money and the consumers’ time!

Differences that matter

After New York, I flew to Toronto to meet up with local clients and to talk at Merlien’s Qual360 Conference. During the panel discussion about the cultural differences between Canada and the USA and within both countries (Quebec vs. the rest of the country in Canada and culturally different populations such as the Hispanics in the USA) I realized how important it is – even in North America – to have a broad network of moderators who are part of the different cultures in a country. They will bring valuable nuances and real qualitative depth to the table.

The end of the beginning

At Qual360, I presented my new story, ‘The Chief Consumer Officer’. The story describes a 5-step plan to become a more consumer-centric-thinking company. A company that knows what consumers expect from them in these rapidly changing times. But also a company that can react quickly to what happens and that is ‘agile’ in taking relevant action. Now that we know how to fix things that are broken in ongoing communities, maybe the time has come to take the next steps and let companies move forward towards a new beginning: being a consumer-centric-thinking company. They can do this by:

  1. Continuously sharing relevant insights with management, in a more creative and impactful way so that management can make the best possible decisions as fast as possible and get a holistic view on their consumers’ behavior and wishes.
  2. Spreading relevant consumer insights throughout the whole organization, so that for example frontline employees also know what customers want. It will help them to do a better job and to have a larger impact on the company’s performance. It is about transforming the company into a consumer-centric-thinking one, an organization in which everyone acts upon the voice of the customer.
  3. Leveraging the newly created consumer-centric-thinking culture externally and feeling the impact on the company’s image.
  4. Measuring the impact the collaboration initiative has on the company’s culture, performance and image. Demonstrating return-on-research investments is important to keep the ball rolling!
  5. All of this needs to be lead and coordinated by a new member of the board: the Chief Consumer Officer, who is the ambassador of the consumer at the highest level of the organization.

I believe that companies – and in particular in North America – which traditionally have more experience with these types of research/collaboration initiatives, are ready to take these next steps and to integrate Consumer Collaboration even deeper in their company’s processes. The result would be to really make the consumer an integral part of everything they do…

Back to the future

I also gave a speech to the students and alumni of the Research Analyst Program of Georgian College in Barrie (Canada). It is the oldest program in the world which is fully designed to train our future researchers and consumer insights specialists. I was amazed at the passion of the young people in the room for understanding consumers and solving marketing and business problems. The whole idea of structural collaboration with consumers through communities and the fact that companies need to think more outside-in feels very naturel to this connected and empowered generation. I am sure that, one day, they will disrupt our practices and fix what by then will be broken (again). That is when I will feel honored to have been the one who urged them ‘to always be daring, to never settle for ‘good enough’ and to always keep on fighting against boring and unused pieces of research. To be honest, I am already looking forward to it!
Find out more about our community approach in the free e-version of our Consumer Consulting Board book on .

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