Social media platforms, blogs, smart phones, online video conferencing and a host of other technologies will facilitate revolutionary changes for brand research and innovation. Many companies are already leveraging these technologies for more traditional types of data collection, such as survey research. However, few have taken advantage of the real opportunity these technologies collectively provide: crowd-sourced research models for consumer-driven innovation.
The idea that power and control is in the hands of the consumer is no longer a revelation to most marketers. If it still is for you, this blog post is going to be increasingly uncomfortable as it progresses. Because it is based on the supposition that to achieve great things, brand researchers need to give up a great deal of control.
New technologies are enabling the real-time observation of the marketplace. Naturally occurring online dialogue is taking place within a virtual social context that mirrors that of the offline world. Traditional brand research methodologies, such as focus groups and survey research, are controlled by the researcher and take place outside of the consumer’s social context. But emerging crowd-sourced research models enabled by new technologies are shifting the power dynamic and allowing marketers to explore brand-related issues in powerful new ways.
Web-dot-whatever – combined with smart mobile devices – makes relatively unstructured, exploratory research in which the consumer has more influence on the nature and direction of the exploration far more efficient and cost-effective than ever before. Researchers have a newly realized ability to observe and interact with consumers within their social and cultural context.
Anthropologic studies, conversation analytics, mobile-driven online ethnographic studies, dialogic loops, semi-structured virtual focus groups, “viral” research, wiki-based research projects and game-based play research are methodologies forward-thinking marketers can leverage for crowd-sourced research insights and consumer-driven innovation. These approaches, as well as the unique strength of each, are described broadly in the following table:
Without exploring these emerging research streams in more detail, it is perhaps easy to overlook their profound implications. But consider the top-down control and the lack of social context associated with traditional brand research methodologies versus the bottom-up, community-driven and socially contextualized aspects of crowd-sourced approaches conceptualized in matrix below:
This visualization illustrates a fundamental shift for brand researchers. In many ways crowd-sourced research methods challenge fundamental principles of sound research design and scientific rigor. After all, controlling variables to objectively measure their effects is at the root of all scientific investigation.
However, this idea goes against the increasingly accepted notion that the consumer is in control. Brand research arguably lags behind the seismic changes that have occurred in marketing in recent years. Crowd-sourced research approaches enable brands to harness the collective brainpower of the marketplace to drive product and marketing innovation. The direction and flow of the research is largely driven by the crowd, not the researcher. It is an uncomfortable but simultaneously liberating thought.
Crowd-sourced research models open up a more natural and meaningful dialogue between brands and the culture in which they reside. They do not assume companies always know which questions are the right ones to ask. They treat consumers like people, not lab rats. They blur the lines between marketing and marketing research. They are meant to complement, not supplant, traditional research methods. And they allow brand researchers to peer into the consumer’s world like never before.
The possibilities are endless. The implications are more than a little frightening. And as difficult as it may be to accept, the collective ideas and insights of the crowd just might trump the brainpower of your brand’s marketing or R&D department – especially when it comes to coloring outside of the lines.
Consumers have always been talking. It is time for marketers to rethink how we intend to listen and actively engage them in the brand-building process.
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