Monday, June 19, 2006

Users lead, marketers follow (sorta)

Companies increasingly realize that they haven't cornered the market on innovation, and many are looking to the very people they hope will benefit from (or at least buy) those innovations as a source of ideas - their customers. An excellent post appeared yesterday on Make Marketing History that comments on a recent NYT article about involving customers with brands by way of co-creation. The article quotes MIT professor Eric von Hippel who calls this phenomenon "lead-user innovation." As he describes, "This is not traditional market research - asking customers what they want. This is identifying what your most advanced users are already doing and understanding what their innovations mean for the future of your business."

This definition may put critics at ease who fear that this open-source movement means giving up all marketing functions to customers. According to the definition, these efforts draw advanced users (not necessarily typical users) for purposes of gauging trends (rather than current needs). It doesn't suggest going along with every idea that customers come up with on the product/service level. As one business owner put it in the article, he doesn't expect users to come up with new product lines, but rather to help define the brand through their participation. This is the point-of-view I'm coming around to as well. While we can and do find terrific, immediately applicable ideas from our patrons (there's a great example of this from the business community in the NYT article regarding, we also have to balance that input with our own expertise to make sure that our services best fit in the bigger picture for all parties concerned. What the NYT examples illustrate is not so much a shifting of marketing responsibilities as an opening up of the brand itself for people to make their own.

Along these lines, you many want to read another Make Marketing History post referenced about the value of market research, or lack thereof. This perspective is useful to think about as we assess users' needs and try to apply the data collected to our services. As I've mentioned, I'm studying marketing research right now, so this viewpoint hit home with me and it certainly has merit, but I'm not yet sure whether or not I share the same level of skepticism presented in the post (I'm still pretty unjaded :) ). However, there's no denying that it's impossible to rely on customers/patrons to directly tell you what they want because they don't know all of the possibilitiess available to them, let alone what it is they truly need most of the time. Nevertheless, I'm hopeful that by using the appropriate techniques, some market research can help to draw out unarticulated needs. It's an interesting issue I hope we all think about as we try to put survey results and the like to use.

Update: A Friday post from Modern Marketing has another take on user-generated content.

Categoriess: must_reads | neat_trends

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