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Posts Tagged ‘Engagement’

Ever so often, in many and different places, people take photos. The immediacy of access to cameras on smartphone devices has made photography a ubiquitous and more casual activity. The awareness and sensitivity of people to visual scenes and materials has increased, and photo images especially play a greater role in our lives. When people take their own photos to capture their experiences, this activity may become an integral part of the experience. It raises therefore an interesting question, how an experience could be subjectively affected by the act of taking photos whilst the experience is happening.

Almost obviously, our tendency to take photos is stronger during touristic experiencesAscona: Promenade on Lago Maggiore away from home while travelling in our own country and furthermore on visits to foreign countries. The experience could take place on holiday in a major city when touring its main streets and famous sites, or on vacation in a holiday resort in nature, going on a trip to the top of mountains, near a lake or along the sea-shore. However, we may take photos during more ordinary experiences such as dining in a restaurant (e.g., photo-taking of appetizing food dishes); in a party or family gathering; while playing (e.g., creative games like Lego); watching parades, sports events or other festivities; and even during a shopping tour. In those experiences we could be more passive observers or more active players, which may influence any additional involvement in photo-taking and its effect on the overall experience.

Kristin Diehl, Gal Zauberman and Alixandra Barasch (2016) investigated in-depth the effect that taking photos by consumers during an experience may have on their enjoyment from the experience: whether it amplifies enjoyment, or instead dampens it, and how the level of enjoyment varies in different conditions. Furthermore, they examined a proposed mechanism where engagement in an experience mediates enjoyment: in positive experiences, when individuals are more intensively engaged or immersed in the experience, it may elevate their enjoyment; thereby, to the extent that taking photos increases engagement, it would also heighten enjoyment. The researchers consider two routes of influence: (a) photo-taking competes with the ‘source’ experience by causing attention shifts, thus reducing engagement and enjoyment from the experience; (b) photo-taking helps in directing and focusing more attention on visual aspects of the ‘source’ experience, leading to increased engagement and consequently heighten enjoyment.

The photos taken may have subsequent benefits to individuals such as in aiding with memory of experienced events at a later time (i.e., serving as memory cues) and in showing photos of their experiences to relatives and friends (i.e., social benefit), but the researchers focus specifically on effect of the act of taking a photo at the time of the experience. Their research entailed nine studies (3 field studies & 6 lab experiments), using a range of methodologies and experience-contexts.

A most typical touristic experience is a city bus tour — consider riding a double-decker bus on an open-air top floor. Diehl and her colleagues organised actual bus tours in Philadelphia for photo takers and non-photo takers. They succeeded in showing in this setting that photo takers enjoyed their touristic experience more than those who did not take photos. They also obtained some evidence that the photo takers may have felt more engaged during the experience though the effect was statistically too weak. (Note: In order to exclude any benefits from using photos after the bus tour all participants were disallowed to take their personal cameras or smartphones with them and the assigned  ‘photo-takers’ were given instead a digital camera with a new memory card, yet they could not keep the card afterwards).

The researchers conducted a second field study, this time in the context of a casual lunch (i.e., it was not suggested the food was especially attractive to photograph). In this study the results were already stronger. Consistent with the bus tour study, photo-takers enjoyed the lunch experience more than those not taking photos, but in addition the photo-takers were found significantly more engaged. The setting was sufficient to support just in part that greater engagement mediates the higher enjoyment felt by those taking photos. (Note: In this study no physical restrictions were imposed — those instructed to take photos could use their own cameras or smartphones).

Lab experiments create less realistic experiences since they are only simulated, and the act of taking a photo is also simulated (i.e., a camera icon and a mouse click). However, a controlled experiment can facilitate surfacing the effects of interest while testing for the influence of additional factors. It is acknowledged that the researchers have already shown there is ground to their expected effects on enjoyment in real-life settings.

A lab experiment of simulated bus tours (using videos of tours in Hollywood, California, and London, UK), found support that photo-takers enjoyed their bus tour experiences significantly more, as well as felt significantly more engaged in them, than those not taking photos. Furthermore, there also was support that engagement fully mediates or connects positively between taking photos and enjoyment. Moreover, memory of the greater enjoyment of those taking photos persists as long as a week after the experience. (Note: Remembered enjoyment is to be distinguished from remembered content of the experience).

So, does taking photos indeed work to focus greater attention on what people experience and thus enhances their engagement and increases their enjoyment? The researchers provide important evidence with the help of eye-tracking (field study, museum exhibit) that taking a photo channels more attention to the objects of interest in the experience. In particular, it directs more attention to relevant visual aspects of the experience, that is, to the exhibit artifacts vis-à-vis other objects (e.g., information displays) in the exhibit hall. First, significant effects of greater enjoyment and engagement by photo-takers, and the mediation function of engagement, are replicated. Second, taking photos leads to spending a relatively greater time fixating on the artifacts (as proportion of total duration of fixations) compared to visiting without taking photos. Visitors taking a photo of an artifact fixate for a longer duration on it compared with those who only watch it; no such differences were found for other objects. Third, it is not only the duration of fixations but also the number of fixations dedicated to artifacts that are relatively higher among those taking photos compared to those who do not. (It should be noted, however, that measures were aggregated across ‘exhibit artifacts’ versus ‘other objects’, and not verified for every single artifact being photographed or not.)

Scenes for photography can be very different, some are rich with detail, light and colour (e.g., a lakeside landscape), others being more monotonic or homogenous (e.g., a vase or a person against a dark uniform background). This difference in experience seems to matter little with regard to enjoyment or engagement when taking photos. Comparing between bus tours (Hollywood/London) and pop/rock concerts (performing against a plain and non-changing background), it is found that similarly in those experiences those taking photos enjoy the experience more and feel more engaged than non-photo takers, regardless of the type of experience (full mediation was also supported).

Any indication that participants in the experiment have enjoyed the concert somewhat more than bus tours did not lead to any consistent conclusions; it may be due more to a music concert being more energizing than a city bus tour at least in idea, especially if we take into account also the experience of the music not captured in a photograph. But in real-life concerts of performing artists the viewers more usually today record video clips, not still photographs, by simply raising the smartphone above the head and filming. It is hard to say in these circumstances how much they may lose of the experience at all if they watch it through the screen and how it may affect their attention and enjoyment. Dealing with the smartphone or tablet to check the videos during the performance may distract them somewhat more. Yet, it could be that viewers recording videos on their devices may be disturbing more to other people in the audience than their own enjoyment of the experience.

Expo Milano 2015: Dining Bar (Argentina)

EXPO Milano 2015: For illustration of experience

We may find ourselves in different positions in experiences: Imagine taking a boat cruise on a lake, standing on the deck viewing the landscape around, or watching a parade on a maid road, looking from the side of the road — in these events one is primarily a passive observer. However, one becomes an active participant in the event, for example, of playing a creative game such as building Lego models or possibly visiting a museum exhibit that allows learning by using interactive displays and tools. As Diehl and colleagues suggest, it may have two implications: (a) the ‘active’ experience is in origin more entertaining and enjoyable so there is less to gain by additionally taking photos; (b) engaging in the task of taking photos interferes with participation in the main activity. The researchers applied creative arts-and-crafts projects (e.g., building an Eiffel Tower from wafers and icing): to make conditions comparable, they assigned participants to either actively building the tower model or to passively observing someone else building the same kind of model.

Indeed, taking photos during the experience makes a difference in increasing engagement and enjoyment only for those observing the project and not for those who are actively building the model. Photo takers who actively built the model were also more inclined to report that taking photos during the experience interfered with their project compared to those who only observed and took photos. On the other hand, the latter took more photos (about ten on average) compared with those who tried to build the project and take photos simultaneously (5.5 on average). Reasonably observers were more free to take photos and enjoy it as well. While taking photos did not increase enjoyment of the ‘builders’, there is also no evidence that it decreased it. It could be a little disappointing as we may expect that taking photos as we progress may enhance our sense of pride and satisfaction with our creation taking form — a sort of ‘I Built It Myself’ effect (following an “I Designed It Myself” effect by Franke, Schreier and Kaiser, 2010). Two requirements may be needed: first, that the ‘builder’ is of course successful during his or her task, and second, that by intermittently advancing with the project and stopping for a minute when progress is made to take a photo, it helps to minimise interference or distraction.

This topic brings to mind a particular concern, when the task of photography intervenes in the ‘source’ experience, and potentially disrupts it. Diehl and her colleagues cleverly distinguish between the functional-physical act of taking photos (i.e., operating a camera) and the mental process driving behind it (i.e., planning  the photos). It may be argued in this regard that the impact may be different on people taking photos with a smartphone or tablet device, a compact camera, or a more complex single-lens-reflex (SLR) camera. Also, more dedicated amateur photographers, with greater interest and photographic skills, may approach taking photos during an experience differently from others. This issue unfortunately does not receive an adequate answer in the research.

The researchers test two kinds of suspected interferences that may disrupt or distract photo takers from the main experience they engage in: (1) physical — by assuming one would have to carry and hold a bulky digital SLR camera (represented in the experiment just by a larger camera icon); and (2) functional — by enabling the photographer also to delete unsatisfactory photos right after taking them. The results have shown that with medium-interference (‘holding SLR’) the enjoyment of these photo-takers was in-between those taking photos as above and those not taking photos, not significantly different from either. Yet, with high-interference (‘SLR + deletion’) enjoyment was close and not statistically different from non-photo takers and lower compared with ‘regular’ photo-takers. Corresponding findings were obtained for engagement. Attending to delete photos is the task that appears to truly distract photo takers from the main experience (like checking one’s video during a concert). Holding an SLR camera should not disturb so much dedicated amateur photographers (with some exceptions of extra equipment) but certain operations in taking photos may demand additional attention that could indeed compete with the subject experience.

Nevertheless, the researchers demonstrate in another experiment that the mental process of thinking about taking photos and planning them is more crucial than the functional act of taking the photos. Planning to take photos alone increased enjoyment just as for those actually taking photos, compared with those not involved in any way in taking photos. In other words, planning to taking photos “led to similar levels of enjoyment as actually taking photos”. Reported engagement was similarly heightened when planning to take photos. For more dedicated amateur photographers planning the photos to be taken is a key part of the activity and may not be easy to separate from some functions (e.g., choices of composition, focal object, exposure and speed). Yet the photography-related activity may not be viewed as an interference but as an integral part of the whole experience, a way of living the experience more deeply and vividly.

When the experience is perceived as negative, taking photos would also increase engagement, but in this case it will result in lower enjoyment compared to those not taking photos. The increased engagement means more attention of the photo takers becomes focused on negative aspects of the experience.

The researchers study a specific mechanism of mediation by engagement between taking photos and enjoyment. But many consumers may receive their satisfaction and joy from recording their experience to refresh their memories later through the photos, perhaps more so if they are less interested in photography per se. Moreover, consumers increasingly take photos with the intention of uploading them to social media networks (e.g., Facebook, Instagram) for sharing with their acquaintances, close and far. Diehl and colleagues are not convinced, based on an initial survey, that people anticipate such benefits while taking the photos. Nevertheless, they do not exclude this possibility: they note that “individuals presumably take photos in part because they expect that reviewing those photos in the future will provide them with additional enjoyment” and such forward-looking behaviour may enhance their immediate enjoyment from the experience. In their judgement many consumers do not anticipate such an effect. They do note, however, that many marketers also forbid taking photos on their premises because they seem to believe that taking photos ruins individuals’ experiences.

The research of Diehl, Zauberman and Barasch is interesting and refreshing on a topic not studied often. It shows from different angles how taking photos enhances the enjoyment of consumers in positive experiences through increased engagement (i.e., focus more attention, feeling more deeply immersed in the experience). Taking photos could plausibly be seen as less interfering or disrupting to people the closer they perceive this activity as complementary to the experience itself, and especially so for those more interested in photography. Marketers should be less reluctant to let consumers taking photos since it is more likely to make them enjoy the experience better. Consumers have to learn when is the best timing to turn to taking photos so as to enjoy it the most as part of the whole experience.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Reference:

How Taking Photos Increases Enjoyment of Experiences; Kristin Diehl, Gal Zauberman, and Alixandra Barasch, 2016; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 111 (2), pp. 119-140.

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Companies are increasingly concerned with the “customer journey“, covering any dealings customers have with their brands, products and services; it has become one of the key concepts associated with customer experience in recent years.  Companies are advised to map typical journeys of their customers, then analyse and discuss their implications and consequences with aim to ameliorate their customers’ experiences.

At the foundation of the customer journey underlies a purchase decision process, but the developed concept of a “journey” now expands beyond purchase decisions to a variety of activities and interactions customers (consumers) may engage, relating to marketing, sales, and service. This broad spectrum of reference as to what a journey may encompass could be either the concept’s strength (establishing a very general framework) or a weakness (too generalised, weak-defined). Another important emphasis accepted with respect to contemporary customer journeys accentuates consumers’ tendency to utilise multiple channels and touch-points available to them, especially technology-supported channels, in their pathway to accomplish any task. Furthermore, interactions in different channels are inter-related in consumers’ minds and actions (i.e., a cross-channel journey). This post-article reviews propositions, approaches and solutions in this area offered by selected consultancy, technology and analytics companies (based on content in their webpages, white papers, brochures and blogs).

Multi-channel, omnichannel, cross-channel — These terms are used repeatedly and most frequently in association with the customer journey. Oracle, for instance, positions the customer journey squarely in the territory of cross-channel marketing. But companies not always make it sufficiently clear whether these terms are synonymous or have distinct meanings. All above descriptive terms agree that consumers more frequently utilise multiple channels and touch-points to accomplish their tasks yet “cross-channel” more explicitly refers to the flow of the journey across channels, the connectivity and inter-relations between interactions or activities customers engage.

Writing for the blog of Nice “Perfecting Customer Experience”, Natalia Piaggio (5 Feb. 2015) stresses that for better understanding the end-to-end customer experience through customer journey maps (CJMs), focus should be directed to the flow of interactions between touch-points and not to any single touch-point. She explains that customers encounter problems usually during transitions between touch-points (e.g., inconsistency of information, company is unable to deliver on a promise, the next channel transferred to cannot resolve the customer’s problem) and therefore touch-points must be considered connectedly. Oracle notes in its introduction to cross-channel marketing that companies should see the big picture and consider how devices (i.e., laptops, smartphones and tablets) are being used in tandem at different points or stages in the customer journey (whether customers use their email inbox, the Web or social media). Paul Barrett (22 Feb. 2010), an industry expert contributing to a blog of Teradata, adds a nice clarification: when talking about (multiple) channels, moments-of-truth relate to individual and separate channels; yet in a cross-channel environment those moments-of-truth are connected into a customer journey. In other words, the customer journey puts moments-of-truth in context.  Therefore, cross-channel customer journeys refer to the flow as well as inter-dependencies of channels and their touch-points engaged by a customer.

TeleTech enhances the salience of the multi-channel and cross-channel aspects of the customer journey but further adds some valuable observations (TeleTech is parent company of Peppers & Rogers Group as its consultancy arm). First, they propose an association between all three terms above when defining a customer ‘path’ or ‘journey’:

Multichannel signifies the digital and physical channels that customers use in their path to purchase or when seeking support for a product or service. Omnichannel represents the cross-channel path that customers take for product research, support and purchasing.

Notably in the view of TeleTech, “omnichannel” is more directly associated with “cross-channel”. Also noteworthy is the inclusion by TeleTech of physical and digital channels. TeleTech emphasise the need to characterise different customer personas, and construct a map for each persona of her typical journey through channels and touch-points; thereafter a company should be ready to notice changes in customer behaviour and modify the map accordingly (“Connecting the Dots on the Omnichannel Customer Journey“, 2015 [PDF]). Nevertheless, Jody Gilliam contends in a blog of TeleTech that companies should attend not only to the inter-relations between touch-points but also to the (reported) mood of customers during their interactions. It is important to describe and map the whole experience ecosystem (The Relationship Dynamic, Blog: How We Think, 19 July 2013).

  • Teradata addresses the complexity introduced by the use of multiple channels through a customer journey from an analytic viewpoint. They propose a multi-touch approach to attribution modelling   (i.e., evaluating to what extent each touch-point contributed to a final desired action by the customer). Three model types for assigning weights are suggested: unified (equal) weighting, decay-driven attribution (exponential: the later an interaction, the higher its weight), and precision (customised) weighting.

The scope of the customer journey — Consensus is not easy to find on what a customer journey encompasses. On one hand, professional services providers focus on particular components of a journey (e.g., interactions, digital touch-points, purchase or service), on the other hand there are attempts to present at least an all-inclusive approach (e.g., reference to a “customer lifecycle”). It may also be said that a gap currently exists between aims to cover and link all channels and the ability to implement — some of those companies talk more openly about their challenges, particularly of including both digital (e.g., web, social media) and physical (in-store) channels, and linking all types of channels during a journey of a given customer.  Orcale relates specifically to the problem of identity multiplicity, that is, the difficulty to establish the identity of actually the same customer across all channels or touch-points he or she uses, since overcoming this challenge is essential to unfolding the whole journey (“Modern Marketing Essentials Guide: Cross-Channel Marketing“, 2014 [PDF]). This challenge is also echoed by Nice, termed as identity association (Customer Journey Optimization [webpage]).

Another key issue that needs to be addressed is whether a customer journey includes only direct interactions between a customer and a focal company through channels where it operates (e.g., call centre, website, social media) or are there other activities consumers perform towards accomplishing their goal to be accounted for (e.g., searching other websites, consulting a friend, visiting brick-and-mortar stores).

  • In a blog of Verint (In Touch), Koren Stucki refers to a definition of the customer journey as a series of interactions performed by the customer in order to complete the task. Stucki thereafter points out a gap between the straightforward definition and the complexity of the journey itself in the real world. It may not be too difficult to understand the concept and its importance for customer engagement and experience, but capturing customer journeys in practice, identify and link all channels the customer uses for a given type and purpose of a journey (e.g., product purchase, technical support) can be far more complicated. Understanding these processes is truly imperative for being able to enhance them and optimise customer engagement (“Why Customer Journeys?“, 16 Sept. 2014).
  • Piaggio (Nice) also related to the frustration of companies with difficulties in mapping customer journeys. She identifies possible causes as complexity, technical and organizational obstacles to gathering and integrating data, and the dynamic nature of consumer behaviour. She then suggests seven reasons to using CJMs. In accordance, in their brochure on customer journey optimization, Nice see their greater challenge in gathering data from various sources-channels and of different types, and integrating the data, generating complete sequences of customer journeys; three main analytic capabilities they offer in their solution are event-sequencing and visualisation in real-time, contact reasoning (predictive tool), and real-time optimization and guidance (identifying opportunities for improvement).
  • In their first out of four steps to a customer journey strategy — namely map the current customer journey — IBM state that the customer journey “signifies the series of interactions a customer has” with a brand (IBM refers specifically to digital channels). Importantly, they suggest that customer journeys should be mapped around personas representing target segments. The CJMs should help managers put themselves in their customers’ shoes (“Map and Optimize Your Customer Journey“, 2014 [PDF])..
  • In the blog of TeleTech (How We Think), Niren Sirohi writes about the importance of defining target segments and mapping typical customer journeys for each one. Sirohi emphasises that all stages and modes engaged and all activities involved should be included, not only those in which the company plays a role. Next, companies should identify and understand who are the potential influencers at every stage of the journey (e.g., self, retailer, friend). Then ideas may be activated as to how to improve on customer experiences where the company can influence (“A Framework for Influencing Customer Experience“, 16 Oct. 2014).

Customer engagement — This is another prominent viewpoint from which companies approach the customer journey. Nice direct to Customer Journey Optimization via Multi-Channels and Customer Engagement. Verint also present customer journey analysis as part of their suite of Customer Engagement Analytics (also see their datasheet). The analytic process includes “capturing, analysing, and correlating customer interactions, behaviours and journeys across all channels”.  For IBM, the topic of customer journey strategy belongs in a broader context of Continuous Customer Engagement. The next steps for a strategy following mapping (see above) are to pinpoint areas of struggle for customers, determine gaps to fill wherein customer needs and preferences are unmet by current channels and functionalities they offer, and finally strategize to improve customer experiences.

  • Attention should be paid not only to the sequence of interactions but also to what happens during an interaction and how customers react or feel about their experiences. As cited above, Gilliam of TeleTech refers to the mood of customers. Verint say that they apply metrics of customer feedback regarding effort and satisfaction while Nice use text and speech analytics to extract useful information on the content of interactions.

Key issues in improving customer engagement that professional services providers recognize as crucial are reducing customer effort and lowering friction between channels. Effort and struggle by customers may arise during interaction in a single touch-point but furthermore due to frictions experienced while moving between channels. Behind the scenes, companies should work to break down walls between departments, better co-ordinate functions within marketing and with other areas (e.g., technical support, delivery, billing), and remove silos that separate departmental data pools and software applications. These measures are necessary to obtain a complete view of customers. At IBM they see departmental separation of functions in a company, and their information silos, as a major “enemy” of capturing complete customer journeys. Ken Bisconti (29 May 2015) writes in their blog Commerce on steps that can be taken, from simple to sophisticated (e.g., integrated mapping and contextual view of customers across channels), to improve their performance in selling to and serving customers across channels, increase their loyalty and reduce churn. Genesys see the departmental separation as a prime reason to discrete and disconnected journeys; continuity between touch-points has to be improved in order to reduce customer effort (solution: omnichannel Customer Journey Management). Piaggio (Nice) suggests that input from CJMs can help to detect frictions and reduce customer effort; she also relates to the need to reduce silos and eliminate unnecessary contacts. Last, TeleTech also call in their paper on “Connecting the Dots” to break down walls between customer-facing and back-office departments to produce a more channel-seamless customer experience.

  • Technology and analytics firms compete on their software (in the cloud) for mapping customer journeys, the quality of journey visualisation (as pathways or networks), their analytic algorithms, and their tool-sets for interpreting journeys and supporting decision-making (e.g., Nice, Verint, Teradata, TeleTech while IBM intend to release their specialised solution later this year).

Varied approaches may be taken to define a journey. From the perspective of a purchase decision process, multiple steps involving search, comparison and evaluation up to to purchase itself may be included, plus at least some early post-purchase steps such as feedback and immediate requests for technical assistance (e.g., how to install a software acquired). In addition, a journey of long-term relationship may refer to repeated purchases (e.g., replacement or upgrade, cross-sell and up-sell). Alternatively, a journey may focus on service-related issues (e.g., technical support, billing). How a journey is defined depends mostly on the purpose of analysis and planning (e.g., re-designing a broad process-experience, resolving a narrow problem).

As use of digital applications, interfaces and devices by consumers grows and expands to perform many more tasks in their lives (e.g., in self-service platforms), we can expect reliance of CJMs on digital channels and touch-points to become more valid and accurate. But we are not there yet, and it is most plausible that consumers will continue to perform various activities and interactions non-digitally. Consumers also see the task they need or want to perform, not merely through the technology employed. Take for example physical stroes: Shoppers may not wish to spend every visit with a mobile device in hand (and incidentally transmit their location to the retailer). Don Peppers laments that companies have designed customer experiences  with a technology-first, customer-second approach whereas the order should be reverse. Undertaking a customer perspective is required foremost for effectively identifying frictions on a journey pathway and figuring out how to remove them  (“Connecting the Dots”, TeleTech). Excessive focus on technologies can hamper that.

Bruce Temkin (Temkin Group, Blog: Experience Matters) provides lucid explanations and most instructive guidance on customer journey mapping. However, it must be noted, Temkin advocates qualitative research methods for gaining deep understanding of meaningful customer journeys. Quantitative measures are only secondary. He does not approve of confusing CJMs with touch-point maps. His concern about such interpretation is that it may cause managers to lose the broader context in which touch-points fit into consumers’ goals and objectives. Temkin puts even more emphasis on adopting a form of Customer Journey Thinking by employees to be embedded in everyday operations and processes, following five questions he proposes as a paradigm.

There are no clear boundaries to the customer journey, and doubtful if they should be set too firmly — flexibility should be preserved in defining the journey according to managerial goals.  A journey should allow for various types of activities and interactions that may help the customer accomplish his or her goals, and it should account not only for their occurrence and sequence but also for content and sentiment. A viewpoint focusing on channels and touch-points, leading further to technology-driven thinking, should be modified. An approach that emphasises customer engagement but from the perspective of customers and their experiences is more appropriate and conducive.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

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It is increasingly evident that consumers no longer care to wait for companies to have their say on new products. Consumers want to be heard earlier in the process of developing products and exert more influence on the products they are going to use. The Internet, particularly Web 2.0 and its interactive methods and tools, is clearly playing a key role in facilitating and enhancing this mode of consumer behaviour.

The engagement of consumers in the process of new product development (NPD) can be viewed as a facet in the broader phenomenon where consumers are mixing production and consumption activities, known as ‘prosumption’. Tapscott and Williams contend in their book on “Wikinomics” (1) that many consumers seek to turn from passive product users into active users who also participate in the creation of the products they use and influence their design and function. But the type of involvement hereby referred to goes beyond the personal design of selected features of product items by consumers for their own use, as applied in mass customization; the contribution made by consumers (‘prosumers’) collaborating with companies in NPD is meant to positively affect many consumers other than themselves.  Tapscott and Williams suggest that companies should encourage their customers to contribute in more profound and significant ways to the design of products that may thereafter be marketed to many more users.

Agreeably, consumers differ in the extent and quality of contribution they are capable to make as function of their knowledge and skills in the domain of every product, and therefore consumers should be invited to collaborate in forums and with methods more appropriate for them. The forms of collaboration may vary from consumer participation in NPD research to generating ideas in social media forums and up to more extensive proposals of technical designs of product prototypes. As collaboration gets more advanced and significant it can greatly help — in addition to co-creating improved products — also to produce closer and more valuable relationships between a company and its consumers or customers. More advanced collaboration has the power to elevate relationships to a form of “partnership” and to increase the level of their strength and intimacy between a company and its more loyal customers.

In an instructive and interesting paper on Internet-based collaborative innovation, Sawhney, Verona, and Prandelli present methods which they classify by the nature of collaboration (breadth and richness) and the stage of NPD in which the given level of consumer involvement is applicable (e.g., front-end idea generation and concept development, back-end product design and testing)(2):

  • Deep-rich information at the Front-End stages: Discussions in virtual communities of social media that encourage exchange of ideas allow companies to capitalise on social or shared knowledge of consumers. Another method that relies on consumer-to-consumer communication is Information Pump, a type of “game” through which a company can reveal and better understand the vocabulary of consumers in describing product concepts vis-à-vis expressions of needs;
  • Reach a broad audience at the Front-End stages: Web-based conjoint analysis and choice techniques can be applied among consumer samples to gather and analyse relatively less rich but well-structured information about consumer preferences;
  • Deep-rich information at the Back-End stages: Web-based toolkits for exercising users’ innovation let the more expert consumers configure or design original product models of their own creation, working in a specially built environment and with computer-aided design tools — this approach relies on knowledge of individuals;
  • Reach a broad audience at the Back-End stages: Particularly applicable to digital products (e.g., software, web-based or mobile applications, video games) where prototype or experimental beta versions can be tested online; however, visual-simulated depictions of alternative virtual configurations of advanced prototypes can be applied to test and evaluate the acceptance of a wider range of tangible products.

In the virtual world of the Internet, unlike the physical world, there is a less rigid trade-off between breadth of access to consumers and richness of information (e.g., small focus groups versus surveys of large samples); this advantage is stated by Sawhney et al. “…Internet-based virtual environments allow the firm to engage a much larger number of customers without significant compromises on the richness of the interaction. ” This advantage is particularly demonstrated in social media forums.

It should be emphasised, nevertheless, that new methods of collaboration should not come in replacement of  NPD research methods; research-based methods and non-research methods of consumer-company interaction can wonderfully complement each other and should continue to be applied in parallel to answer different requirements of the NPD process for consumer informational input and aid. In a leading paper for the new age of NPD research, “The Virtual Customer” (3), Dahan and Hauser describe state-of-the-art research methods and techniques for different stages of the NPD process. They distinguish, for example, between (a) conjoint types of measurement techniques and models that are most suitable for guiding product design at an early stage (feature-based), and (b) a method applicable for testing the appeal and purchase potential of candidate prototypes (integrated concepts) at a more advanced stage of product development. The latter method in particular takes the advantage of displaying images of virtual prototypes (e.g., SUV car models) to consumers , supplemented by additional product and price information, in an online survey for testing  reaction (choice) before going to production. They also explain in great detail unorthodox methods such as the Information Pump and Securities Trading of Concepts.

  • It is noteworthy that most research methods concentrate on learning from consumers about their preferences without engaging them in proposing product designs; the User Design method, however, already gives more leeway to consumers-respondents to construct their desired products using a self-design tool similar to mass customisation.

Forums or personal pages in public social media networks are widely accepted these days as an excellent arena for companies to receive ideas from consumers for new products and gather information about their product preferences and expectations. However, it is likely to turn out as a formidable task to comb and pick-up ideas of real value and practical potential for implementation from these sources as well as user-generated-content in blogs. Some good ideas may also get lost in the river of postings or comments customers upload in a company’s page on service issues, billing etc.. Dedicating a special separate page for interaction with consumers on new products, goods or services, can help to raise the level of ideas formulated and to allow peer discussions on those ideas that can lead to their further progression. But even then, the ideas proposed in such a venue may be mostly initial concepts, vague or unfocused. Such a venue is a good place to start, allowing any customer interested to contribute. Thereafter, owners of more mature or promising ideas may be referred to a company-owned virtual forum on its own website where a more advanced collaboration with the consumers-contributors may be developed.

Managing collaborative activities for NPD in a company-owned website division can offer some valuable possibilities. First, it provides better control and capabilities for moderating discussions among users or interacting directly one-to-one with the originators of product-concept proposals; it would be an environment dedicated by the company and designed by it specially for interacting with users and among themselves. Second, performing collaborative activities in this environment is likely to attract users with higher level of knowledge, competence and interest in domains of the company’s products; greater proficiency of users demonstrated in their discussions frequently leads to natural screening-out of novice and less serious users.

Third comes the sensitive issue of security and protecting intellectual property. Companies do not tend to guarantee any protection for initial ideas brought up by consumers, not even in their own websites. Particularly in forums that are founded on sharing knowledge and discussion of ideas between users, information has to remain transparent and accessible to participants and to the company. Tapscott and Williams noted that consumers get excited by the creation of their own products and enjoy it even better when they can do it together (4).  However, companies can offer some better measures to secure information such as limiting access to discussions and materials (e.g., by password permission) and preventing unauthorised extraction of content. Where proposed designs of product models are meant to be shared, originators should get the option to credit their models with their IDs. Confidentiality and rights are offered for the most progressed technical designs that are planned to be adopted by a company for manufacturing and marketing.

Fourth, a company can provide an interactive toolkit for innovation on its website for consumers-collaborators who wish to take their ideas and concepts one step or more further. With the toolkit users can apply relevant design tools to sketch plans and construct virtual 3D product models. Depending on type of collaboration program and context, users can allow their proposals to be available to other users or to the company alone. Thomke and von Hippel proposed a complete process for customer innovation that includes several iterations of developing a design with a ‘toolkit for innovation’, building a prototype, receiving feedback from the company (‘test’), and return for revisions (5). Through early iterations the prototypes built by the system would be virtual, until the design is satisfactorily advanced to manufacture a physical prototype of the product. The authors suggest that the customer-led process is likely to require fewer iterations than in a ‘standard’ NPD process, save time and money, and free the company to invest more effort in improving manufacturing capabilities.

Different schemes have been devised for collaboration programs with customers:

  • The Open Innovation Collaborative Programme of Unilever, for example, is designated for highly skilled contributors with extensive knowledge in the domains of products for which they invite proposals (list of Wants, e.g., solutions for detergents). Collaborators are referred to a special portal for submission (in co-operation with a consulting firm yet2.com that manages the review process).
  • Other programmes are more popular in nature and appear suitable to a wider audience of consumers with varied levels of expertise. Take for instance the Create & Share collaborative suite by Lego on its website. More than a decade ago Lego cleverly realised with appreciation the creativity of its leading hobbyists and enthusiasts (adults included!) who invented original models based on existing parts and suggested new forms of Lego blocks; Lego started to accept such designs and offer new models’ sets and less conventional building parts. The online suite includes today a gallery of models built by fans, message boards, and especially the Lego Digital Designer toolkit application for constructing virtual plans of fans’ own models (unfortunately Lego has terminated last year its ByME customization program that allowed users to order their own physical models).

Consumers who collaborate with companies should be rewarded for their more significant contributions of ideas and products designs. On the one hand, the reward does not have to be monetary, cash-in-hand (some may not even want to be perceived as paid contributors/employees). On the other hand, companies should not get satisfied by relying on enjoyment of contributors and their feelings of self-fulfillment and accomplishment. Furthermore, a company should not appear to be relinquishing its duties in generating genuine ideas and developing new products to its customers. First, many customers will be happy to receive credit by name in recognition of their contribution in the company’s publications and websites. Second, contributors can be rewarded with special gifts or privileges in obtaining and using their own-designed products and other products of the company. Monetary prizes will probably continue to be distributed to winners in competitions.

Collaboration for innovation changes the relations between a company and its consumers or customers because it gets them to work together, co-creating new products that thereof better fit consumer needs and wants. Particularly activities that engage consumers in developing concepts and designing products have the better potential of narrowing gaps between companies and customers.  Research, collaboration in other ways, and internal development by professional teams within the company should be used together in integration in NPD activities.Collaboration shifts the balance of control more towards the consumers, but companies who learn how to share knowledge and competencies with the latter can gain in improving innovation practices, increasing value, and not least, enjoying stronger customer relationships.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

(1) “Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything“, Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams, 2006, Portfolio.

(2) “Collaborating to Create: The Internet as a Platform for Customer Engagement in Product Innovation”, Mohanbir Sawhney,  Gianmario Verona, & Emannuela Prandelli, 2005, Journal of Interactive Marketing, 19 (4), pp. 1-14 (DOI: 10.1002/dir 20046).

(3) “The Virtual Customer”, Ely Dahan and John R. Hauser, 2002, The Journal of Product Innovation Management, 19, pp. 332-353.

(4) Ibid. 1.

(5) “Customers as Innovators: A New Way to Create Value”, Stefan Thomke and Eric von Hippel, 2002, Harvard Business Review, 80 (April), pp. 74-82.

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