Web 2.0 is known for facilitating the use of collective intelligence. Social networks and consumer-generated sites like wikis are built upon proactive participation, and they deliver something in return: collaborative content that can inform, entertain, and improve the online experience.
For some time now, marketers have been harnessing this collective intelligence. We use social sites to connect with existing and potential customers and to boost affinity for our products and those belonging to our clients. The opportunity is certainly there: Nearly half of Americans (48 percent) over the age of 12 now have at least one social networking profile, according to a recent national survey. Meanwhile, another report finds that 50 percent of U.S. women are fans or followers of grocery, health, beauty, or household product brands and the stores in which they're sold.
An alternative to ads?
Naturally, brands are eager to provide these consumers with content and coupons. But that isn't where the relationship between them ends. Countless brands have leveraged this connection by incorporating user-generated content, ideas, and testimonials into their ad campaigns.
As an article in Advertising Age recently pointed out, this approach can have mixed results. The quality of content developed by the average consumer can be questionable, and the novelty that was once associated with trading an agency perspective for one derived from a loyal -- if inexperienced -- fan is at risk of fading. It isn't the value of what the consumer has to say that's on the decline -- that's still as useful as ever. It's the way in which it's presented that's getting old.
Some brands have discovered an alternative way to harness consumer intelligence on the web -- one that promises to deliver even more useful results. They're placing an open call for innovation.
The concept draws from numerous elements of the participatory web. Brands use custom sites to solicit ideas for innovation online, from incremental improvements and new programs to ideas the brand might not have thought of before. These are attained by incorporating such social site mainstays as user registration, online voting, comment sections, and status bars. Internet users are invited to propose everything from new products and technologies to improved packaging, in-store atmosphere, and payment options.
Consumer brands count on user feedback
Among those participating in the idea of generating ideas is Pepsi, which recently made headlines when it announced its online search for the best new ideas in social media and emerging technology. Through its new site, PepsiCo10.com, the company is openly seeking innovations in everything from mobile and retail experiential marketing to digital video and gaming, the best of which will be presented at a summit in the months to come.
A more traditional approach, however, is perhaps best demonstrated by a brand like Starbucks with its My Starbucks Idea (MSI), a site that incorporates social technology instead of soliciting ideas relating to it. With all the trappings of an online community, MSI requires registration and publicly displays and time-stamps submissions, which are prioritized based on user feedback -- a combination of comments and a Digg-style thumbs up (and thumbs down) voting system. In the "Ideas in Action" section, users can see the status of past and recent ideas, each of which is marked as being Under Review, Reviewed, In the Works, or Launched. Using a clever turn of phrase that's sure to resonate with digital marketers, a leaderboard recognizes the site's most active members.
It's been three years since Dell launched its own open innovation site, called IdeaStorm, and since then the company has received more than 10,000 ideas and implemented about 400 of them. About six months ago, Dell launched a new aspect to the program called Storm Sessions, which in essence is an online brainstorming session among the IdeaStorm community surrounding a particular subject on which Dell needs feedback. Once the company has reviewed the ensuing commentary, it responds to the community with an update on how Dell intends to implement an idea.
In addition to this feature, the site also uses online voting and comments to rank the popularity and value of its consumer-generated ideas. To keep its members in the loop and demonstrate its dedication to its open innovation program, Dell provides status reports like Acknowledged, Partially Implemented, or Under Review.
Dialing up innovation from the pros
The concept of open innovation isn't limited to business-to-consumer applications. With its G-WIN (General Mills Worldwide Innovation Network), which relaunched with technology from inno360 last year, CPG company General Mills is endeavoring to improve its products by connecting with innovators (scientists, researchers, engineers, and the like) outside of the company.
On its site ideas aren't left to the discretion of the community; the company provides a list of innovation opportunities, or "challenges," for which it is currently seeking solutions; these might take the form of "dairy ingredients for consumer weight loss" or "functional alternatives to corn syrup." Site users can share opportunities with colleagues through a pre-filled email form or create a proposal online that includes information about the commercial readiness of one's idea and any patents that already exist.
In its first year, G-WIN generated more than 200 concept submissions. Since the original launch of the site in 2007, innovations sourced through the site have been incorporated into more than 40 General Mills products.
The act of asking something of one's customers or potential business partners can make them feel empowered and demonstrate the value a brand places on all those who consume its products. It can also generate valuable insight into how one's products and services are perceived by the public. Such benefits are responsible for luring so many marketers into experimenting with consumer-generated ads. With a call for innovation that incorporates social media, however, companies can maintain complete control over how the ideas they receive are managed and implemented -- all while maintaining ties with those who submit them.
Nobody knows one's products better than the businesses responsible for developing and promoting them. Consumer feedback attained through open innovation might not, therefore, be so radical as to lead to the development of the next iPhone. But a call for innovation and an invitation to loyal customers and creative users to positively influence the consumer market is undoubtedly one that marketers would be wise to place.
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