How to create a company culture that embraces customer participation

A headshot of Sharon McIntyre

by Sharon McIntyre

An illustration displaying a vespa on one side and a motorcycle on the other with a purple divider in the centre.

In part 3 of our customer participation series, we share tips for cultivating the right company culture to support co-creation and participation marketing.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast."This popular business adage, (often misattributed to Peter Drucker), says almost everything you need to know about how much participation marketing relies on corporate culture. Building and supporting the right organizational culture to meet your goals is the most important step in achieving success.

Participation needs to be embraced at all levels, especially at the top. And the quickest way to gauge whether you’re on the right track is to ask:

Are we treating participation marketing as a focused marketing strategy or a broader business strategy?

If you answered, “marketing strategy”, then your organization still has some work to do. Remember, as we said in our earlier articleparticipation marketing is an all-encompassing approach to rethinking how you understand your customers, organize your company, and co-create to innovate your products, services, customer experience, and, essentially, your brand.

While there are several key steps to take in becoming a participatory brand, here are four pieces of sound advice for how to develop a corporate culture that embraces customer (and employee) participation.

Embrace participation marketing as a business strategy, not a marketing strategy

In fairness, this can be a bit confusing. It’s called participation marketing after all. We use the term “participation marketing” because, as Daniel Newman explains, “[We need to make] customer-centricity the responsibility of the entire organization and not just a few departments. Customer-centricity can’t be captured in a solo marketing environment, and a company should concentrate on building a marketing ecosystem to emerge as a fully functioning customer-centric entity.” 

Participation marketing isn’t just one particular approach you use at a given time to get more sales. It’s a holistic shift in how an organization carries out research, product development, service improvement, promotions, and more. Participation applies to every nook and cranny of an organization.

Developing a new product. Generating new ideas to improve a process. Updating a website. Producing a user-generated ad campaign. Participation tackles all of this.

When it’s done right, the advocacy and promotion occurs naturally as a result of inviting lead users and brand superfans behind the scenes to collaborate. They inevitably go on to speak passionately about your brand, and in many cases, are the first buyers of the new product.

Provide tools that make it easy for employees to collect and leverage customer insights

An employee who enthusiastically dives into participation marketing can’t do much without the right support. Wanting to collaborate with customers is all well and good, but how can they do so if there’s no way to effectively engage, gather insights and concepts, and do something meaningful with them?

A community spread around the country or the globe needs a place to congregate and once they’ve congregated, they need work to do. An online platform or digital ecosystem with creative workflows, activities, and engagement tools allows not just co-creation, but meaningful, sustained co-creation.

Encourage regular engagement and interaction with customers

Your employees can’t design co-creation experiences that meet the emotional needs of their customers if they don’t know your customers. Interacting with brand superfans shouldn’t be a job relegated to a community manager and a handful of customer success associates.

Ideally, employees representing many areas of the organization, from product development and sales, to customer service and finance, will regularly interact with its most enthusiastic users in the community.

This way, they get a feel for their needs and preferences at all levels.

Launch a co-creation community among employees to foster engagement and open innovation

Don’t limit your participation strategy to a collaboration exclusively between employees and customers. Apply this approach to internal projects as well. Give employees the freedom and tools to pursue solutions with their colleagues. In this fashion, employees contribute to the success of the brand without the constraints of hierarchy, current job descriptions, or corporate politics.

It’s important that the right tools support employee co-creation communities, too. Enterprise chat tools and shared databases quickly become unmanageable when organizations attempt to use them for innovation programs.

A torrent of unconstrained ideas and discussions overwhelm program coordinators, real ideation is impossible or takes place offline, and employees usually leave the process frustrated and discouraged. Co-creation needs to be an engaging, collaborative experience for employees, too.

'Chopper Bike Culture' = bold rebellious attitude

Harley-Davidson is a powerful example of a brand taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to participation. The iconic motorcycle company transformed everything from its culture to its organizational structure to focus on community.

It worked. When customers think of Harley-Davidson today, they don’t think of it as a choice among many other motorcycle brands. Rather, they think of Harley-Davidson as synonymous with motorcycle culture.

Gif of three carefree men riding on two motorcycles down the highway.

This association is no accident. Harley-Davidson intentionally put the structures in place to develop the strong community or “brotherhood” it proudly boasts today.

For starters, Harley-Davidson embraced community as a business strategy instead of a marketing strategy by completely redesigning their corporate structure. They eliminated previously restrictive silos and spread decision making across three company goals: Create Demand, Produce Product, Provide Support.

Harley-Davidson’s president received direct reports about the ongoing community initiatives, and the C-level treated investments into the Harley-Davidson community as an organizational priority.

Similarly, the company stopped hiring external staff to run community-building events and called for volunteers from within Harley-Davidson instead. This encouraged regular interaction and engagement between customers and employees. Employees become riders and riders themselves joined the organization.

And since the brand mandated that employees as well as executives spend time with the riders and report back with insights, there was a process in place for employees to collect and leverage customer insights, and then use these insights to further enhance the ‘Brotherhood’ experience of Harley-Davidson fanatics.

What's the right culture for your company may not be the rebellious nature or edge of Harley-Davidson riders. That's not the point. The important thing is placing the right measures in place to continuously engage and learn from your customers. Their unique preferences, attitudes and collective experiences should become fuel for what may be missing in your existing company culture... Then and only then, can you begin integrating these learnings, shared values and stronger sense of community (read: Voice of Consumer) into your company as a whole. 

Next Up: What you need for successful customer co-creation 

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