What you need for successful customer co-creation

A headshot of Sharon McIntyre

by Sharon McIntyre

Cartoon electric mixer.

Imagine walking into a bakery and asking for a cake. You’re presented with the best eggs, quality sugar, the freshest milk, an industrial kitchen with top of the line appliances…and zero instructions for how to actually make a cake.

If you simply throw these high-end ingredients in a bowl, all you’re left with is a mess. In fact, you’ll likely ask for your money back, walk around the corner to another bakery that actually sells you a cake, even if it’s made with “cheaper” ingredients.

It’s the difference between purchasing or adopting some technology and being able to do something meaningful with it.

Any participatory research or engagement initiative must use a proven methodology (the recipe) in order to produce meaningful results (the cake).

The Eggs, Milk, and Sugar of Co-creation

Without question, you need ingredients like eggs, milk, and sugar to bake a cake. Similarly, you need certain pieces of technology to conduct market research and collect consumer insights. There are a number of basic tools on the market for customer engagement and feedback collection, for example:

  • Open discussions
  • Quizzes
  • Idea challenges
  • Surveys
  • Photo collages
  • Prioritization and ranking
  • Storytelling
  • Polls
  • Panels
  • Ranking tools like scorecards
  • Digital workspaces

But without a proper participation framework, every combination of these tools will fail on the following counts:

  1. Lack of Community Building: Random surveys and sporadic feedback panels won’t build community. You need community to cultivate shared purpose, trust, and collective problem-solving.
  2. Superficial Engagement: If a participant considers an engagement activity a chore, or doubts their input will see the light of day, they’ll ignore it or quickly complete it without giving the exercise much thought.
  3. Transience: For meaningful results, you need to create the space for regular, thoughtful interactions. To build a sustainable community, you need a long-term reciprocal commitment where people regularly check in because they feel valued and want to be involved.

So, what exactly does this participation framework look like?

Taking a Page Out of the Publishing Industry’s Playbook

When’s the last time you read an entire magazine from cover to cover? First off, there often isn’t enough time to absorb everything, and secondly, many people only care to read a handful of articles or their favorite sections of the magazine.

Despite this selective reading, we still keep our subscription, check out our preferred online publications, or pick up the same magazine every month. Why is this?

It’s because successful editors understand three things:

  1. The ethos or purpose of their community (their readership)
  2. The diverse interests that exist within even the most like-minded community
  3. The need to attract sustained engagement with fresh cover stories, enticing graphics, and special features

For example, TIME is a news magazine, but each issue includes news about national politics, international affairs, entertainment, and business. VOGUE is a fashion magazine, but its pages include travel, health and beauty, and lifestyle features in addition to spreads of the latest trends.

Magazines offer a textual and visual buffet for their readers within a specific genre. With each issue, readers know that if they aren’t interested in everything, they’ll be interested in many things. If a series is popular, the editor continues it. If it fails to attract interest, it’s replaced with a new one.

This is what successful co-creation experiences supply: A vibrant digital ecosystem where superfans and stakeholders learn, converse, co-create, and share. It’s an innovation and creativity gym where participants move from one area to another. When they want to take a break, they may just hang out in the community café with other brand superfans. They may pop out with the intention of returning once they have the time, a new activity piques their interest, or they want to answer the daily quiz.

Note that the goal isn’t to get participants to engage in every single instance of co-creation. The goal is to get them to care enough to want to engage as often as possible to find projects where they can participate in a meaningful way.

Above all, a co-creation community becomes a “third place” for superfans where they can congregate and collaborate outside of the home (first place) or work (second place).

The Power of a Proven Methodology

Chaordix designs digital ecosystems for co-creativity and open innovation that feel like a digital magazine. Participants can choose from a range of activities. Similar to a magazine, a regularly refreshed theme brings together a well-designed program of featured content, which can include innovation challenges and creative contests as well as fun quizzes, reflective discussions, concept feedback opportunities, brand interactions, product education, special guests, community café chats, prize announcements, and so forth.

Co-creation is a process, not a digital suggestion box. So, 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.

With this in mind, the popular contests and challenges that are at the heart of the Chaordix co-creation methodology are inspired by globally-recognized creativity and innovation workflows including Creative Problem Solving (CPS), LEGO® Serious PlayIDEO® Design Thinking, and other proprietary Chaordix processes.

What the Chaordix solution offers is a “best in suite” participatory experience as opposed to a “best in class” catalogue of tools and tactics. We facilitate long-term, purposeful engagement instead of isolated high-tech interactions.

Before building a new co-creation program, Chaordix works with its clients to understand what the specific co-creation purpose, and hence, the business objective, is. The purpose may change from program to program, (just like a magazine’s front cover focus changes between issues) but it typically fits in one of the following categories:

  • New concept or product development
  • Product/service improvement
  • Customer experience and/or Process improvement
  • Implementation/Launch strategy
  • Marketing campaigns and content
  • Brand engagement

After determining the program’s purpose, one of Chaordix’s purpose-built activity bundles is selected. (Each of these programs typically lasts for 6-12 weeks, depending on the community and purpose.)

These bundles include a curated set of complementary engagement activities, such as the aforementioned quizzes, guided discussions, special guest blogs, photo activities, feedback surveys and more as well as a multi-week “main event” activity that is either an innovation challenge or creative contest.

The workflow for each of these innovation challenges and creative contests invites participants to complete activities that are organized in the following phases:

  1. Clarification: framing, setting context, creative warm-up
  2. Creation: inspiring broad idea generation with emotional impact
  3. Optimization: feedback, refinement, selection
  4. Implementation: exploring opportunities and barriers
  5. Reflection: thoughtful consideration of participation and ideas

While each phase of the workflows performs the same role, the content and design of the specific activities within these phases differs depending on the program’s purpose. For example:

  • The Clarification phase for a New Product Development Innovation Challenge will help participants feel empathy for the user and understand the industry challenges whereas the Clarification stage for the Process Improvement Challenge will help participants express current process issues through metaphor as well as prioritize pain points.
  • The Creation phase for a Product Improvement Challenge will help participants express the new desired experience with the product and communicate the emotional needs of the user whereas the Creation phase for a Marketing Content Creative Contest will help participants tap into a favourite product memory and submit creative content based on a specific creative scenario or constraint.
  • The Implementation phase for a Process Improvement Challenge in an employee co-creation community helps participants highlight any opportunities, needs, or potential roadblocks whereas the Implementation phase for a consumer community co-creating a marketing launch campaign for a new product may ask participants to suggest new media channels and give feedback on advertising prototypes.

Each program feels fresh and inviting. Co-creators choose which projects they’re interested in, but all activities are in a centralized location. Participants form bonds with each other through open discussions in a digital community café and direct messaging. They can collaborate in private digital workspaces to discuss, debate, and improve on their ideas.

In public communities, they can invite friends to participate and share to their social channels. In private or semi-private communities and activities, participants can express themselves on sensitive topics.

It’s important to note here that continuous community building is an important part of the overall process. For communities to succeed in the long-run, you can't just bring a group of people together and expect them to co-create with you, even if a good framework is in place. This is where complementary engagement activities come into play, and include regular blog articles that share a behind-the-scenes look into new products or marketing programs.

Fresh content that shares recent community highlights and submissions and features members and experts alike is a great strategy. Other complementary activities may include photo/video sharing contests, quick questions and polls, or quizzes.

For each community, the design of incentive frameworks, challenge and contest rewards, and helpful gamification features is well considered to match the brand, the community’s demography and personality, and each program’s purpose. Participants can earn points, reach levels, and earn badges for completing activities and reaching new milestones. These virtual rewards can be branded and redeemed for company gift cards, schwag, brand experiences, and products.

What emerges is shared brand affinity, a strong community culture, and an always-on resource for new ideas, meaningful insights, and fresh content. Brands receive the participant contributions as well as structured data emerging from each activity and on overall community engagement.

Not only do participants walk away with that cake we mentioned, they also leave with a memorable and positive experience. They produce a product, service, or content (the cake), with the right tools (the ingredients), using a proven methodology (the recipe) within a purpose-built co-creation space (the kitchen).

Talk about having your cake and eating it, too.

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