Companies that succeed in the evolution from co-creation to structural collaboration have 5 things in common. These 5 pillars are the insights from the research project of myself and Tom De Ruyck about structural collaboration.
5 pillars for structural collaboration with your customers
Based on our interviews, we concluded that there are 5 crucial pillars if you want to be successful in the evolution towards structural collaboration.
1. Fit with the company culture
During our interviews, everyone mentioned company culture as a very important pillar to evolve from co-creation to structural collaboration. It is easier to collaborate with employees and customers if your organization is characterized by an open and positive culture.
However, this does not imply that collaboration is only possible in certain companies. Collaboration is possible in every company, but the current culture determines where you can start. To be successful with collaboration it is important to select an approach that fits the current culture. Don’t try to change the culture through your first collaboration projects. For example, if you have culture where low cost is key, make sure the objective of the collaboration is to reduce costs of other expenses (e.g. doing less ad hoc market research). If you are a company that has connection with its target group high on the agenda, add consumer connectivity as an objective.
In other words: let the collaboration objectives and way of working (duration, intensity and level of involvement of different departments) fit with the existing culture. This approach will allow you to start.
2. Select the right participants
There are two types of customer collaboration possible: an open online platform where everyone can participate and a closed online community where you select the people to join in.
In the large open communities you have little direct control over who joins in and who doesn’t. The members come together in a very spontaneous way to discuss particular subjects that are of their interest. Your role with regards to these people is simply to listen. This will allow you to discover a series of unfulfilled market needs, which may eventually lead to new products and services. Of course, you are also free to ask them questions, but you must always remember that these are open communities – anyone else might be listening to their answers!
Companies that want to involve the customer in more strategic decisions and who have a need for in-depth feedback, tend to work with a closed online community with a limited number of relevant customers. If you want to solve a specific management problem, it is better to discuss possible solutions with a smaller, closed group of between 50 and 150 of people with a keen interest into your category. It could also be a group of your most ardent fans, fans who you have carefully vetted and selected yourself. The major advantage of this approach is that you have everything in your own hands – and this is advisable when you don’t want the whole world to know what decisions are being taken.
It is important to acknowledge that not every customer will be able – or is suitable – to help you solve management problems. To give your company access to the right advice on a daily basis, you need to listen to the right (and relevant) people. For your communities seek to attract people who can offer an added value. The minimum condition is that they must have a clear commitment to the company and what it stands for. They might be an expert in the sector, a knowledgeable and enthusiastic amateur in the sector or just a big fan of your brand. Research has shown that without this kind of emotional commitment people seldom have enough interest to contribute effectively to an online community.
In other words, you need to talk to people who are interesting and interested. If they don’t have an opinion or the natural motivation to take part is missing, your community will not achieve what you want it to achieve. But it natural engagement not enough, in order to make your community a real success you need to manage it well. A number of things are important: be open and transparent about the goals of each project, listen in an active way (allow participants to put their issues on your agenda too), make it a fun experience (after all people are doing this in their spare time) and give enough feedback on what you did with their answers.
3. C-level involvement, support is not enough
One of the critical success factors is the involvement of your top executives. To implement collaboration in a credible way to the market, there is need for tangible proof of the results of the collaboration. Consumers want to see a new product, change in service or communication. If they feel there is no impact of their efforts, they will drop out. Consumers participate in this type of projects to get recognized by a company, not to get rich.
In order to make sure the feedback of consumers is used during implementation, the involvement of your C-level is necessary. Top management support is actually not enough. Based on our interviews, we conclude that the most successful cases of collaboration are all stories where the CEO has an active role: both internally and externally. Internally, he or she leads by example: consumer feedback is used to make important decisions. To the external world, they are the face of the company who reports back on decisions that have been made.
CEO’s who invest in collaboration want to add consumer-feeling to the gut-feeling of the organization. Many organizations don’t have a clue about what the consumers thinks. As a consequence market research is needed for every small step. The moment your organization gets a consumer-feeling, managers can look at the world through the eyes of the consumer, which increases speed and decreases costs of ad hoc research.
4. Internal communication is not enough. Internal = External
Managers show more interest in a project or approach that gets external credits than in a project with a sole internal focus. In other words: make sure your structural collaboration is not completely taking place behind the scenes of your organization.
Sharing your collaboration work with the whole organization and the rest of the world has a number of advantages. Next to an increase in motivation of your management, it will also increase the motivation of the participants of your communities. Further, research has shown that consumers have a higher trust level towards and a better perception of brands that co-create. So, there is also a commercial benefit to leveraging your efforts externally. There are a few communication tactics you can apply to increase the internal and external impact of your collaboration process:
- Meet-up with participants: Collaboration occurs on a digital platform but it is an interaction between people. To increase the interaction and the emotional bondage, make sure your employees meet-up with these people in the real world as well. Show them around in your company, tell them your challenges and treat them like part-time employees.
- Go for tangible results: If you work together with your consumers on a structural level, make sure you have concrete deliverables. These results (e.g. new products, insights, advertising, packaging…) should be shared with the world to make the collaboration aspirational for the market and for the involved manager.
- Bite size & creative reporting: share the results of your collaboration in a short, compelling and creative way with your employees. Make sure it is easy to digest and to share.
- Apply content marketing techniques : don’t communicate 1 or 2 times about your collaboration, but talk about it on a more frequent basis. Use three levels of content: big content campaigns (e.g. when you have BIG news: launch of an initiative or showing the end result), content projects (e.g. a theme that you talk about for a few days/weeks) and content updates (small, daily updates with relevant information).
5. Measure impact
To keep the collaboration flow going, there is need for evidence that the approach works. Therefore we advise to use a number of clear success indicators that you can measure during the implementation of structural collaboration in your organization. There is no standard list of KPIs to use; they differ from company to company, as they are closely linked to the company culture and the company’s (long term) objectives. There are a few KPIs that apply to all companies to follow up on the impact of structural collaboration:
- Success of innovation, impact of communication and improvement of customer service: by involving customers early in the process, your company will take better decisions. Product launches, new advertising campaigns and so on, should have a higher success rate than before the collaboration was implemented.
- Cost reduction: by integrating the voice of the customer in the entire decision making flow, the cost of ad hoc market research could be reduced. Next to that, by creating better products and service based on the input of the market, the impact of word-of-mouth will increase, which may lead to lower media budgets.
- Consumer feeling of the organization: you can measure to what extent your management has a better feeling of the attitude and behavior of your target market. The goal is that managers can think as consumers and improve their performance through this new required skill.
- Brand perception: listening actively will humanize your brand and make it more popular.
Tomorrow we publish our last post about this study. Here is the full paper that you can read/download: