Dear CMO:

The burdens of office weigh heavily upon you. Your shoulders slump like you’re carrying an anvil in your golf bag as you wonder aloud how you can keep a compatibility guide alive, staff an inbound customer contact center, and still manage to drive a little demand now and again with the paltry funding you get from the jackals in finance. This, against a buzz-word infested corporate landscape of BPO and social media. It’s enough to make you want to buy an apiary or something.

Fortunately, our futuristic new world has given us productivity enhancing tools like self-generating networks and flying cars to shoulder some of the burden. Well, not the flying cars part. But the networks part has promise, doesn’t it? We’ve read Ben and Jackie’s Citizen Marketers (and our book report has been logged in), so let’s pull on this thread and see where it leads. Can we combine all our fears and outsource the demands of our end user knowledge bases without spending a nickel? In other words, can we use our customers as our R&D lab?

The blogosphere, of course, says “Yes, of course you can!” Realize, quoting Jackie and Ben again, that this chorus of bloggers represents the 1% who not only have something to say but actually put pen to keyboard to say it. The vast corporate landscape doesn’t do blogs and certainly doesn’t fully embrace the “customer as R&D lab” idea. This might be because it’s a very new idea and hasn’t hit critical mass, or because it’s hard to do, or because it’s very hard to do over again if it doesn’t work the first time. Perhaps it’s because the implementation feels a bit flaky. Most likely, it’s because we just don’t trust the Wikipediazation of our own product support, which isn’t a bad reason to push back, by the way.

So you, dear CMO, are left in a bit of a quandary. You’d like to free up more money for demand generation, but you’re tied up with “need to have” support costs. How then do you intelligently test the waters? Here’s a few thoughts:

Tim Manners at Reveries, an excellent online aggregator of smart marketing case studies, pointed us to Netflix a few weeks back with this idea: “Today, Netflix … is offering $1 million for an algorithm that does 10 percent better than its current system for predicting whether a customer will enjoy a movie. So far, the Netflix challenge has drawn 15,000 entrants from 126 countries.” Can the customer be your R&D lab? In this case, the brand has asked for help and the community has responded.Citizen Marketers points us to both Treo and Tivo as examples of end user generated blogs that do a tremendous job of trouble-shooting devices, entirely staffed and updated by “the community.” Can the customer be your technical support lab? Here, the community has risen up, powered by a small number of super-enabled and passionate users, to tackle a problem that the company also spends money to manage.

I think it may be fair to say that there are some emerging best practices here that at least make some logical sense, from companies that still hold the reins tightly to those who have cast them to the crowd. None work for all, it’s probably fair to say, but lessons might be learned from each of them.

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Key Takeaways:

> For a brand tightly holding the reins, the use of contests aimed at highly passionate and involved users creates excitement, rewards with high prestige value, and can ultimately solve significant business problems. This is smart business, if aimed in the right direction. Might not work for the Stride Gum marketing team, but for Netflix? A good bet.

> For a brand with an increasingly sprawling customer support need – think a compatibility guide that has just gone international – relying on the channel or the customer, self-policed and peer-reviewed, in a wiki type of environment, may be a robust and workable solution. Do my headsets work with a new Hwawei terminal used primarily in the PRC and in Africa? Beats me, we don’t have that switch here in Santa Cruz – but we can point you to a guy in Shenzhen who’s figured out the dip switch settings.

> It might be difficult to throw the car into reverse on this topic: if you’ve been a tight rein-holder all these years and all of a sudden toss the onus of responsibility to those who up until now have been your passive customers, expect some confusion. Implementation and execution is all. Testing an area, over-communicating your need for their expertise and local market guidance, and meaningful social proof all might make the transition smoother, but planning this part out is a “need to do” activity.

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Clearly, I’m not putting forth new thinking here – Citizen Marketers, Tivo, Treo, Netfilx, Reveries, and a few million bloggers staked their claim to this long before I jotted this down – but I think it’s very important to discuss how a bright idea like this might actually get done, instead of quoting theory. Some are doing an excellent job at this and I’m sure several have screwed it up terribly because they misunderstood the importance of their community, either by underestimating the community’s intelligence or overestimating the engagement they have with them. If you have a “company blog” that has no comments (and no traffic), you might raise your hand here.

We all need to decide how and where we can venture out onto the thin ice of a new idea like this; how you communicate, where you choose to test it, and how you police it will likely determine your success.


Copyright (c) 2007 Stephen Denny