Three Ways Marketers Can Drive Innovation

January 2, 2014 Stephen Benson

When you think of innovation, you probably think of the latest gadgets, the newest apps, and the hottest toys from the Silicon Valley. Or perhaps you think of flying cars and time machines. Regardless, innovation has been an R&D or a product problem, with IT playing a supporting role.

Due to recent social, technological and economic factors, the innovation challenge has now fallen into the marketing court.

Whether brands like it or not, customers are already driving the innovation process—and there is no slowing it down. Jeremiah Owyang’s work on the collaborative economy demonstrates how consumers, corporations, and start-ups increasingly sharing ownership of and access to ideas, products, and services. The impact of the sharing economy on corporations can be severe now that people can bypass corporations to get on with their daily lives.

While marketing’s initial reaction may be to put on the boxing gloves and fight for relevance in this new economy, wise marketers are jumping on the opportunity work hand in hand with their customers. In the sharing economy, marketers are in a unique position to help drive innovation and add tremendous value to their organizations through co-creation and other techniques by creating and not competing.

So, how can marketers be successful in today’s new sharing economy? Here are three quick tips.

1. Enable customers to share

One of the biggest implications of the collaborative economy is that consumers are progressively sharing with each other. Airbnb connects travelers with apartment owners directly, bypassing hotels for their accommodation needs. Quirky enables end users to invent new product ideas together and sell those inventions directly to other consumers, eliminating the need to buy from big-box retail websites.

Marketers were once at the front lines when social media burst onto the scene and changed the way organizations communicate with customers. Marketing is once again in a solid position to align their organizations in this new era of sharing. From collaborating with emerging start-ups in their industry to providing a platform where customers can talk to each other about products and services, marketers can use existing communication expertise to empower customers to share and collaborate.

2. Get marketing involved early

Traditionally, marketers have been tasked with selling products that R&D conceived and manufactured. Consumers would then buy the product that someone else decided they need. Marketers were only looped in once a new product or service was almost ready to go to market.

The new economy calls for customer engagement early on in the process. As a consequence of this new type of economy, the power in the buyer-seller relationship has shifted to the consumer. “If I can’t get what I need from you, then I’ll get it from another company or now from another consumer.”

That shift in power is reason alone for marketing to be involved in the innovation process—and why their proficiency is required early in the product development cycle. Today, the most successful brands place consumers in the driver’s seat, giving them ways to add value right from the start.

3. Engage the right group of people

Many marketers lump customer engagement with social media as if the two are synonymous with one another. This approach would have worked a few years ago, but brands are starting to realize that to maximize the use of consumer insights, they need to engage the right people at the right time for the right challenge.

As the collaborative economy matures, the brands that will thrive are those who understand that engagement is more than just about social media. To be useful, customer engagement needs to accomplish business objectives—that’s why engaging with everyone under the social media sun seldom result in ROI.

The result? An iterative development of the space where organizations involve and engage customers. A few years ago, crowdsourcing was the craze and companies started realizing that they need to tap into the knowledge of “the crowd” for better ideas. While in theory a great idea, crowdsourcing casts a very wide net that assumes all humans are creative equals, making scaling information and gaining useful insights difficult. All of that information caused companies to experience the phenomena of “crowd chaos” and “crowd noise.”

Due to this “crowd chaos,” a new process has evolved where the call to action is not to create an open forum for anyone and everyone but to form a smaller group of individuals with specialized skills and talents. Folks in this group are smart, switched-on and articulate, and they are often totally engaged with the brand. Still, a problem remains. These groups become restrictive in their output, lacking a real diversity of perspectives and thinking. And often in this setting is where great ideas that reside on the periphery are overlooked.

To remedy that issue, a next-generation approach to crowdsourcing emerged and is rooted in the belief that engaging the right consumers at the right time for the right innovation challenge is where the most organizational benefit and value can be derived. Since the challenge is relevant to the participants, the result is less noise and more signals—and it’s a process that collects and refines customers’ creative ideas in a more systematic way.

While experts have been arguing whether innovation is dead, the more important and more actionable question for brands is: How can we tap into the collective power of the right folks to produce groundbreaking and useful products and services?

The good news for businesses and their CMOs is that even CEOs recognize that customers should define new products and services. So while it is true that innovation is more complicated today than before, the time is ripe for marketers to step up to the plate and capitalize on this exciting collaborative economy.

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