How co-creation impacts the customer experience

A headshot of David Garnder.

by David Gardner

A cartoon illustration of a hand gesturing rock-on in the centre of a red shape with many points.

No one else was in the room where it happened

The room where it happened

The room where it happened

No one really knows how the game is played

The art of the trade

How the sausage gets made

“The Room Where It Happens,” a song in the Broadway hit musical Hamiltonrecounts Aaron Burr’s frustration about the “dinner-table bargain” between Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison that excludes him and the rest of the country.

Everybody, whether they are dutiful citizens or passionate consumers, wants to be in “the room where it happens.”

Nowadays, consumers will create their own rooms if they aren’t invited to yours.

Don’t believe that’s possible? Reflect for a moment on technology’s impact. By connecting people over large distances, the internet shrunk the world. Swapping notes with someone on the other side of the globe is as easy as swapping notes with someone on the other side of town. A sociologist in Chicago picks the brain of a scientist in Cape Town simply by picking up the phone.

As technology improves, innovation grows cheaper. Geography limits collaboration no longer. It doesn’t limit community building either. Gone are the days when an outcast in an American suburb has to wait for adulthood to go forth and find like-minded people. Today, he or she goes online and connects with other smart misfits in France, Thailand, Botswana, or Chile to build a virtual community around video games, biochemistry, or BASE jumping.

Like any community, the success of these virtual hubs relies on cohesiveness, the ability to mediate conflict, and the establishment of an outgroup.

Notice something interesting: Money is not vital for the creation of these communities or “rooms” where things happen. Participants join with very little expectation of compensation. They profit emotionally and psychologically because they feel included, challenged, and respected. Any material benefit is usually gained through the collective improvement of a product or solution of a problem.

This presents a compelling opportunity for brands. With the right support,superfans congregate around a brand’s values and resources. This has a doubly-positive effect. Superfans assist with a brand’s problem-solving and these superfans leave with a positive impression of the brand because it made an effort to include them.

Furthermore, this approach to the customer experience is a marketer’s dream. This feeling of sincere inclusion fosters brand loyalty which manifests itself as advocacy. Customers who evangelize about a brand or product provide the best kind of marketing because they meet the desire for trusted, peer-to-peer reviews.

The good news for marketers, innovation and research professionals is that co-creation isn’t limited to product development. They can take advantage of this process for their own objectives. Marketers can use the process of co-creation itself to figure out which campaigns speak to consumers the most and which promotional activities are worth the investment. This kind of collaboration with superfans allows marketers to know what sort of content has the most impact on the intended audience and which activities initiate a powerful emotional connection between the brand and the consumer.

Likewise, the Chief Innovation Officer can tap into a co-creative community to better understand the media, devices and communications preferences of its most loyal customers. The innovation team can then begin to explore new options to improve the customer experience and essentially co-create a better customer experience with the help of actual customers. Not to mention the valuable insights collected along this journey to support future digital transformation initiatives. 

User-centred innovation vs. manufacturer-centred innovation

Co-creation heavily impacts the customer experience in a positive way. To truly grasp this, one needs to understand the difference between user-centred innovation and manufacturer centred innovation.

Eric von Hippel outlines the difference between the two. With manufacturer-centred innovation, manufacturers drive the innovation process. Manufacturers only look to users for needs identification via market research. Once they identify needs, the brand aggressively develops the best solution for the most number of people.

User-centred innovation, on the other hand, democratizes innovation and gives lead users - those who identify user needs before they’re generalized in the marketplace - the information they need to assist with development,

It’s important to note, however, that user-centred innovation is not user-exclusive innovation. Rather, initiatives are supported by the company. They provide innovation toolkits and channels for users to coordinate their innovation efforts.

For users, there are specific emotional benefits that arise from participating in this open innovation process. Brands get the best results when they treat participation as vital as opposed to a side project. They do this by openly providing the information and tools leads users need to succeed.

Specific benefits user-innovators derive from the process include:

  • The satisfaction of a completed product: Users witness their ideas move from conception to development to production to market.
  • Royalties and contest prizes: Those with the most useful ideas receive financial and material prizes, and in some cases long-term wealth (i.e. royalties) from a successful product.
  • Advancement and status: Co-creators gain recognition and prestige for their contributions with the professional advantage of adding their successful participation to their resume.
  • Meeting like-minded individuals: Participating with equally skilled and creative individuals allows co-creators to build a community of people with similar interests, something they may not have in their everyday life.
  • Access to personal heroes or brand gurus: Beyond financial benefits, participating in projects with high-profile brands gives the most innovative participants access to personal heroes in the realms of design, business, tech, and more.

Learning from LEGO

LEGO is a marvelous demonstration of the power of community. As the company faced waning interest and creeping competitors in the 1990s, it noticed the evolving building ambitions of its fans. LEGO fans wanted to build more than the company-produced designs. They were building designs and kits of their own.

Recognition of this led to the LEGO Ideas online community (powered by Chaordix). In LEGO Ideas, super-fans submit new LEGO kit designs and receive feedback from the community. Once a design receives 10,000 votes LEGO reviews it, decides whether it will be developed, and produces the design for worldwide sales. The designer receives both credit and a cut of the sales. Winners enjoy both creative satisfaction, financial gain, and recognition.

The story of Kevin Szeto captures how much well-executed co-creation impacts the customer experience and also meets an organization’s business goals. An aerospace engineer by day, Szeto was a LEGO lover and musician who combined his many talents to design a Yellow Submarine LEGO project inspired by The Beatles. His design got the needed 10,000 supporters and was greenlit for development.

But what’s even cooler is the amount of attention both Szeto and LEGO received. At a signing event in Liverpool, Szeto was greeted by a huge line-up of people eager for him to sign their Yellow Submarine LEGO boxes in Liverpool, the city where the Beatles were from. Kids and adults alike were thrilled by the model and anxiously waited to meet the hitherto unknown man responsible for designing it. As Szeto put it:

“I’m just an ordinary guy who came up with an idea and here I am, people wanting my autograph. It was a very positive and memorable experience.”

The project also had an impact beyond Szeto. Before his design was even selected, Szeto put in time and effort promoting it on social media and in various online communities which wound up promoting LEGO itself. And once the design was selected, the personal and creative element of the story drew organic press attention from media outlets like The Guardian and The Telegraph.

It goes even further. LEGO benefited from what was essentially a win-win product development. They’d already validated the idea of a Yellow Submarine LEGO design without going through the expensive process of marketing and developing it.

Through effective co-creation, they managed to make a superfan feel like a superstar, capture the imagination of children and the nostalgia of adults, and bring a successful product to market.

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