The market research profession offers a variety of reactions to co-creation. At the negative extreme of the spectrum, some market research professionals reduce co-creation to a customer workshop technique close to ethnographic, observation-based research. Damning co-creation with faint praise, they’ll offer comments such as: “We’re all for co-creation; it’s like prose and we’ve been doing it for years.” We might call this the “defensive expert” attitude. Because the training of most market research people involves an expert paradigm – the PhD density can be quite high in the market research functions of large firms — it is hard for them to let go of the idea that they must “own” the science of market research.
At the opposite, positive extreme, co-creation is rapidly gaining ground inside the market research profession. In the early days of co-creation, say five or six years ago, market research departments were never sponsors of co-creation initiatives inside organizations. In the last year or so, though, some powerful agents of corporate change have emerged in market research departments. So how do these aficionados of co-creation describe the role of co-creation in market research? (By definition, co-creation is wider than customer market research, in that it also involves an economic point of view on the cost of interactions, or applies to other interactions than the interaction with customers, but we will limit ourselves in this blog entry to customer market research). These early adopters of co-creation usually point to four areas of difference.
The first difference has to do with who is targeted in the research. A co-creation workshop focuses on the interactions between at least two (and often more) populations. You cannot co-create by having in attendance, say, only the customers or prospects of a bank– which, by the way, is exactly what a traditional focus group does. Like for tango, it takes two to co-create. A bank co-creation workshop will have at least bank advisors and customers, possibly also call center agents who speak on the phone with customers. Participants will not be random customers with random advisors and random call center agents. They will be people who deal with each other in day-to-day live, i.e., real people who have interactions with each other. In other words, we want twosomes (or threesomes, foursomes, etc.) and want to start from their existing interactions, rather than proceed from an intellectualization of their future experience.
The second difference deals with how attendees participate in the workshop. The philosophy of traditional market research is to be as protective as possible of the customer’s natural habitat, “so as not to bias the answers”. This is where the one-way mirror concept comes from, as well as anonymous surveys and hidden camera filming. The basic assumption of traditional research is that experts should design those interventions, manage them to minimize the dangers of intrusion, and generate the insights which will then be communicated in distilled form to business users who will (hopefully) act upon them (some business people, usually quite junior, may attend the session behind the one-way mirror, or an occasional executive may be invited, but both are instructed not to say anything).
In co-creation workshops, we want to have as many company participants as customers, and we want them to be actively involved. The idea in co-creation is to shatter the one-way mirror. We don’t want company employees to be flies on the wall. We want them engaging customers all over the room. Co-creation involves having two parties share their experience and come up with new ideas on how to improve their respective experience. The experience of the bank adviser is as important as the experience of the customer, and customers can contribute as much to the bank adviser’s experience – once it is explained to them – as the adviser can contribute to the customer’s. For example, customers can do more than generate views on their own experience. They will for example routinely offer insights on how bank advisors could earn more commissions with their help, once they understand the bank’s performance measurement system. In fact, a significant portion of co-creation workshops involves sharing the inner workings of the company, a process called “making the company into a glass house”, to invite customers to imagine new experiences for themselves. As one can intuitively understand and mathematically prove, the quality of experience is deeply correlated between the two populations, hence the need to work on both simultaneously.
The third difference is one of analytical vs. analytical/emotional philosophy of change. The paradigm of traditional market research is an analytical one. Insights are meant to be powerful new views of the customer experience coming from an observed, documentable, and ideally quantifiable fact. Co-creation also builds a strong analytical case for the ideas identified, but generates a much richer set of new ideas through a deeply intuitive, emotional territory. The passion for a new customer experience comes from the excitement of one or two company executives participating actively in a new dialogue with customers. It originates from the sheer excitement of company managers being asked to “make up new stuff on the fly” with customers. Transformational ideas start from the enthusiasm or pain felt by one or more managers connecting with a single customer or company-facing employee. This emotional endorsement of an idea by internal managers is what produces sustainability in co-creation, not the brilliantly articulated PowerPoint presentation that may accompany it. Arguably the most distinctive characteristic of co-creation research is not in how it approaches the customer, but how it engages the internal organization.
The fourth and final difference is one of discrete vs. continuous process. Typical market research involves trying to generate insights through a one-time investigation. Most focus groups, customer surveys, and anthroplogical observations are one-time affairs. As my colleague Venkat Ramaswamy likes to say, “there is no feedback on the feedback”. Some advanced research departments conduct longitudinal studies and use permanent panels of customers, but they often limit themselves to tracking simple satisfaction measures over time, rather than engage customers in co-creation (with some notorious exceptions such as Procter & Gamble’s VocalPoint and Teen Tremor communities, for example). Co-creation is a continuous process where the external customer is made over time into an extension of the company’s staff. Not only does the company learn about customers, but customers learn more and more about the inner workings of the company, enabling them to contribute more. The first co-creation workshops typically do not lead to killer insights – co-creation is as much a journey as a destination, to use the cliché — but the longer the customer remains engaged in the process – usually this involves a series of workshops, followed by the putting in place of an electronic platform of some kind – the deeper the insights and their value.
Of course, all this requires a personal transformation of market research people themselves. Abandoning an expert view of oneself and moving to a “broker of co-creation insights” role is no easy task. Those who embark on the co-creation journey have a unique chance to make market research into a new force inside their organizations. The cards are being dealt as we speak.