Co-creation networks: Jeremy Brown, Sense Worldwide

Forget social networks, brands that want a conversation with consumers are building their own co-creation networks. By Jeremy Brown

Jeremy Brown
Sense Worldwide
Chief executive

2000 Co-creates Sense Worldwide
1998 Managing partner, Museum
1997 Managing director, Visuali (GYRO Group)
1994 Communications planner, JWT
1992 Organisational development consultant

Co-creation networks

Forget social networks, brands that want a conversation with consumers are building their own co-creation networks. By Jeremy Brown

Sheer frustration with getting yet more uninspiring outputs from focus groups and putting up with the one-size-fits-all approach of online panel surveys has led a number of brand owners and marketers to experiment in the social networking space, believing it offers a new kind of opportunity to engage consumers in dialogue. However, as many of us have experienced, brand interventions on social networking sites are often unwelcome. Realising this, many brands are quietly turning to co-creation networks to help them make decisions by putting people at the heart of their research and development activities.

People-centred participation
Thanks to social media technology, the tools are now available to enter into a rich exchange of ideas, which can have transformative results. As broadband and 3G penetration rises, digital tools are increasingly accessible, useful and usable to people of all ages and backgrounds.

People are becoming more comfortable communicating and socialising with a variety of tools such as blogs, webcams and social networking services. This presents opportunities for brands to use intuitive and well-designed digital tools of their own to engage consumers in a collaborative relationship. This could transform the way we approach product and service innovation.

Inspiration, not validation
Marketing and innovation is becoming a twoway conversation. With the average person subjected to thousands of advertising messages a day, brand owners understand more than ever before that it takes more than tactical activities to engage consumers.

Recognising that loyalty and advocacy comes from meaningful product and service experiences, brand owners are embracing people-centred participation to develop brand expressions and product experiences in line with real human needs. Essentially, that should mean that all critical decisions are impartial, pragmatic, empathic and essentially decided by real people’s needs.

As part of this tectonic shift towards peoplecentred thinking, there is a growing feeling that disruptive new propositions, that shake up categories, do not tend to come out of the well-trodden path of focus groups and surveys. Those kind of tools do have a role – they are great for validation – but in the innovation business they will only deliver “me too” solutions. What clients need to propel their businesses forward is inspiration, not validation.

In the search for inspiration, the language of people-centred development and communitybased collaboration has found its way into boardrooms around the world. Terms like “participative design”, “open innovation” and “crowdsourcing” have entered the lexicon of progressive R&D decision-makers as they seek new ways to drive growth by looking outside the walls of the company for inspiration. Many large corporations are aligning themselves with global open networks of scientists and developers in a bid to embrace open innovation.

So far, these kinds of corporate communities are mainly confined to working on the “hard factors” side of R&D – things like components and chemicals – with the “fuzzy front end” activities like idea generation and concept development largely handled in-house or with consultancy support, and consumers typically brought in for validation and testing towards the end of the innovation process.

However, there is a growing sense that consumers should be involved in innovation activities early on so that mistakes are made when it is still inexpensive to put them right – the “fail fast, fail cheap” school of thought. That way, consumer engagement becomes an organic, ongoing and insight-rich conversation, free from the inhibitions and forced articulation of conventional research engagements. This is the principle behind co-creation networks.

So, what are co-creation networks exactly? Imagine if you could build and nurture a network of articulate individuals, representative of your target audience and motivated to respond to tasks and questions on a week-by-week basis: an intuitively designed browser-based interface that is aligned with your brand identity guides respondents through a range of collaborative, creative and analytical exercises – some set, others ad hoc. Every few weeks the media-rich outputs are aggregated, allowing you to respond rapidly to emerging consumer attitudes and behaviours.

As the strategic needs of the business evolve the tasks are developed accordingly. Co-creation networks operate like a hotline to your end user, allowing a rich exchange of ideas and insights, while at the same time allowing you to build a relationship with your respondents in a nonintrusive way. They can be engaged for development and testing of anything from new product and service propositions to marketing communications, without the lead-time of conventional techniques.

One of the first organisations to wholeheartedly embrace co-creation networks is Turner Entertainment. The Cartoon Network team asked us to give them a way to get an intimate and immediate insight into their audience to inform and inspire production, marketing and business strategy teams. We recruited a network of 14 six- to 13-year-olds, and created an online community for them called Kid Reporter. For the past 12 months, the kids have been posting text, photos, drawings and videos which are used in internal workshops and presentations Entertainment uses a co-creation network of kids to inform and inspire a range of internal teams and shown to advertisers to give them insights into the world of 21st century kids.

From the outset, Turner wanted to treat the kids like directors of the company, so as well as engaging them on a range of topics, creative tasks have handed kids the reins and asked them how they’d do it their way. Turner broadcasting research director Danny Cohen says: “the Kid Reporter project has been a source of inspirational and rich insights. Findings from the project have formed the nucleus of a number of new initiatives across multiple business areas.”

Asking the right questions
There are many considerations, decisions, pitfalls and opportunities along the road to getting co-creation networks right and producing great results that help clients make good decisions. Recruitment and study design are therefore crucial, as is building a good relationship with the network members and retaining them by incentivising and motivating them in the right way.

When managed effectively, co-creation networks prove that giving your end user a role in brand development ensures your ideas are grounded in consumer reality. It also creates advocacy without raising the ethical concerns associated with online marketing.

The key to getting it right is in concentrating on the people behind the tools, not glorifying the technology. It’s about the texture and contrast we can understand about consumers’ relationships with brands and the ways they evolve. All that comes from finding the right people and asking the right questions in the right way.

Jeremy Brown
68/70 Wardour Street, London W1F 0TB
T: 020 7025 6040
F: 020 7025 6041

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