Co-creation for Scaredy Cats

A headshot of Leisa Northcott

by Leisa Northcott

Cartoon illustration of ghosts coming out of different electronic devices.

The spookiest day of the year is upon us, marking the culmination of a month or more of haunted houses, ghost stories and endless horror movie marathons. Frightening ourselves for fun is a given at this time of year and there are even hordes of year-round horror aficionados, but most people don’t have a fondness for fear when it comes to business matters. The ability to innovate is essential to sustaining competitive advantage, and yet, some companies still tremble at the thought of inviting customers into their inner sanctum.

Even though customer-driven innovation is currently being leveraged by many of the world’s most successful companies, embarking on your own co-creation journey can be daunting at first. Fear of the unknown is a powerful deterrent as we conjure up worst-case scenarios that could rival anything from Wes Craven’s dark imagination. Occasionally, a doomed attempt in the past has scared us into thinking we could never run a successful community.

But we ask you: how many times have you huddled through a scary flick, yelling at some witless cheerleader to stop running up the damn stairs when she should be running out the front door? It’s hard to find a more chronically inept group of people than the characters in horror movies who seem hell-bent on stumbling right into the demon’s claws.

Cartoon illustration of the grim reaper holding scythe in one hand and a lightbulb in the other.

In the interest of advancing a horror plot this makes perfect sense. I mean, if the group of cocky teenagers decides not to spend the weekend in a rundown cabin with no cell service built on an ancient burial ground with the creepy doll on the porch next to a lake five kids mysteriously drowned in…who’s watching that movie?

But we don’t have to approach our innovation and brand-engagement efforts with the naivete or reckless bravado of ‘B movie’ victims-to-be. We don’t have to run headlong into danger or investigate the mysterious noises coming from the cellar with a faulty flashlight. We can, in fact, learn a lot from the mistakes of those unlucky protagonists, conquer our fears and reap the rewards of a productive and thriving co-creative community.

Like Jesse Eisenberg’s character in Zombieland, we can offer some tried and true rules to live by. Here are our top 7 tips to help you and your community live to slay another day.

Don’t hide under the bed.

Secreting yourself away and innovating in a vacuum isn’t going to help your business survive today’s scarily fast-paced world. An IBM survey of over 500 CEOs revealed that the most successful organizations are those that co-create products and services with consumers and integrate customers into their core businesses processes such as marketing and product development. Research also shows that 65% of consumers feel misunderstood by the brands they regularly buy from. Why are we still avoiding the very customers who keep us in business?

If you’re going to survive a zombie apocalypse or the challenges of modern marketing, you’ve got to have a plan.

Co-creation is all about involving your customers in the ideation process and letting them have a voice in your products or services. Some businesses perceive this as risky because it involves exposing their goals and projects to the public, perhaps including competitors. However, the benefits of reaching new customers, understanding their expectations, evaluating new opportunities and accelerating the development process far outweigh the imagined risks of transparency. The best open innovation platforms flush out the most creative solutions from your biggest fans while protecting your ideas and processes from your competitors.

Come up with a killer idea.

If you’re going to survive a zombie apocalypse or the challenges of modern marketing, you’ve got to have a plan. A co-creative community is an ongoing creative and social process, based on collaboration between brands and their biggest fans, with the goal of generating joint value for both the brand and its customers.

Read More: Community First is What's Coming Next

The purpose of your community has to be rooted in something real. You can’t be all things to all people, so you’ll need to clearly define who the community is for, what unique experience it will provide and what both your company and the community members will get out of it. The best co-creative communities are a two-way street where members feel like they have as much to gain from being there as you do.

Stick together.

Whether you’re spending the night in a haunted house or embarking on a new brand engagement strategy, splitting up is always a terrible idea. If you’re the person responsible for leading the charge in building a co-creative community, don’t be the poor schmuck who heads off into the woods alone. Instead, rally the troops. If your company is open-minded about open innovation, get buy-in from executives and pull people in from various departments including marketing, strategy and product development so you have as much internal support, insight and perspective as possible.

Cartoon illustration of three jack-o'-lanterns with different facial expressions.

Many internal stakeholder groups stand to derive value from co-creative endeavours but without proper coordination, multiple customer-facing initiatives – all run by different departments – could become confusing for you and your customers. On the other hand, if your organization is not so customer-centric or has long relied on a traditional in-house innovation model, an open brand community can make a lot of people nervous. In these cases, it is important to tighten the scope of the community and establish clear guidelines so that concerned parties can rest assured that the community will not infringe on their processes or autonomy. As your community grows and begins to perform, make sure you are sharing data and celebrating successes. This will help the skeptics among you feel confident that they’re not part of some rogue sci-fi experiment with no tangible ROI.

Beware of strangers.

Okay, this one might be slightly overstated unless you’re in an actual horror flick. But when starting a community, it’s still wise to begin with your most loyal fans first. These are your superconsumers: the people who know and love your brand. Chances are they already follow you on social channels, frequent your website, advocate for you and write positive reviews. They are intimately familiar with your products or services and therefore are the most likely to share truly insightful and useful ideas and feedback. You can always open up your community as it becomes more established, but it makes sense to curate your early membership to set a high baseline for the level of quality, insight and enthusiasm you’re looking to encourage.

Know how to wield your weapon.

There’s nothing more eyeroll-worthy than those clumsy scenes when somebody manages to get hold of the gun, but doesn’t know how to turn the safety off, and ends up flinging it at the psycho killer in a fit of desperation. One of the reasons co-creative communities flail is because brands fail to properly employ the tools at their disposal. Often times, an online community ends up being treated like a digital suggestion box with one-way communication in the form of tedious surveys, polls or questionnaires. This does not contribute to a positive or memorable experience for members who are likely to feel used rather than validated and inspired when they visit your community.

Cartoon illustration of Jason from Friday the 13th.

When brand managers take the time to deliver consistently fresh and thought-provoking content and to craft questions, activities and challenges that engage members creatively they get much better outcomes. Effective innovation challenges and creative contests need to provide participants with opportunities to warm up their creative brain, build a shared understanding of the problem, suggest and improve on ideas, give feedback to others, discuss implementation opportunities and roadblocks, and reflect on the process. 

Find your Velma(s).

While Scooby and Shaggy were tripping over each other, Fred was stumbling straight into trouble and Daphne was wrestling with the age-old question of whether to be a supermodel or a detective, Velma was out there hunting down clues and getting to the bottom of things. When it comes to community management, you need a psychedelic hippie van full of Velmas. Or at least an office full. Whip-smart, analytical and always up for a challenge, she had the right combination of brains and human understanding.

Cartoon illustration of Velma from Scooby-Doo.

Community building is more art than science, but it also takes organization. Your community team should include people who can think creatively and translate business challenges into interesting and exciting activities, challenges, contests, discussions and polls, and who can think big picture in the short- and long-term. You’ll also want somebody who’s a stickler for consistency to ensure that newsletters get sent out regularly, new content is rolled out reliably and activities or contests are launched on schedule. Lastly, you need somebody who can engross themselves in the community and act as a cheerleader. Depending on the size and scope of your community this could be several people, or it might be one who can wear many hats. Just don’t underestimate the significant role of the management function. You can have a killer purpose and the best technology platform money can buy but it’s all for naught if you don’t invest in the human capital to pull it all off.

Don’t fall for instant gratification.

We all know the weirdly puritanical rules for surviving the most devilish movie plots. Don’t have sex, don’t get wasted and don’t shower in creepy motels with dead birds hanging on the office walls. It’s pretty straightforward and actually, it’s not terrible advice for the workplace either. Typically though, the hazards of instant gratification with respect to community building are a little different. The first word of warning is to recognize that community building takes time and if internal teams are expecting instant results, they could be disappointed. You have to give your community a fair chance to warm up, come together and develop some trust and rapport. Manage your internal expectations and start slow and small with one 60 to 90-day creative challenge aimed at solving a specific business problem by bringing the community in.

For your community members, smart gamification shouldn’t focus on just one lofty grand prize. That might yield a short-term burst of engagement, but it doesn’t lead to long-term success. There should be intrinsic as well as extrinsic motivations for community members to participate in the form of personal fulfillment, recognition, the chance to meet leaders or other fans, VIP access and other feelgood payoffs.

Nothing wicked this way comes.

When the credits roll and the lights come on, it’s easy to see that the biggest monsters are often the ones lurking in your own mind. If you’re one of the 40% of companies today who do not talk to customers during product development, it might be time to ask yourself why you’re choosing to hang out in the dark. Random surveys and sporadic feedback panels won’t build community or lead to insights that will set you apart from the rest. For meaningful results, you need to create a dedicated space for regular, thoughtful interactions. To make it sustainable, you need to commit to a long-term reciprocal arrangement where people regularly check in because they feel valued and want to be involved.

With our survival tips in mind, there’s no need to be fearful when the opportunity to embrace open innovation comes rap-tap-tapping at your chamber door. You’ll be well prepared to side-step the booby traps and harness the power of superfans and stakeholders coming together to learn, converse, co-create, and share. And if a zombie apocalypse were to happen, you’ll at least have had a lot of practice.

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