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"Successful innovators don't just ask customers and clients to do something different; they ask them to become someone different." - Michael Schrage,

Do customers adopt innovations, or do innovations influence consumers to adopt?

That's the key question explored in a Fast Company article published last year. As the quote above implies, the article argues that consumers don't simply adopt innovations. Instead, it's the other way around. Innovations ask customers to embrace new ways of thinking or new ways of doing things.

Schrage's argument is compelling, but it begs the following question: How can organizations come up with innovations that will alter consumers if they don't have an understanding of who they're trying to influence?

For many companies, the pursuit of breakthrough products is often tied to hiring better talent. The hope is that you'll attract the next Steve Jobs or the next Henry Ford. CEOs often understand the importance of R&D and do not shy away from spending money into this department.

Hiring the right people and sprucing up R&D are certainly important, but these are just a couple of factors that drive innovation. Knowing your customers' behavior is a better starting point than looking for opportunities through internal lenses. But even that isn't enough: If you want your customers to become someone different - if you want them to embrace new values and behaviors, as the quote above encourages you to do - then you have to understand the 'why' behind their purchasing behavior.

This understanding can only come from enabling a consistent, two-way dialogue between you and your customers. Transactional and behavioral data reveal what people do, but it is only by continuously engaging customers that you can use consumer insights to drive innovation.

I see at least 4 ways consistently engaging customers helps drive innovation:

  1. Get feedback from knowledgeable people

When it comes to engaging people in the innovation process, you'll save a lot of time if you talk to people who already know or who are aware of your brand or industry.

When people participate in platforms such as an insight community, they do so because they already have some knowledge of your brand or offerings. But more importantly, as users of the product or the category, they already have insights on the key benefits, unmet gaps and pain points of what you're offering.

  1. Implement smaller scale activities

To get people to change their habits, you first need to get them to participate. But with people's attention spans getting shorter, expecting them to do time-consuming activities at one sitting is unrealistic.

With an engaged community of consumers, you can iterate along the way instead of doing research projects that will take time for people to finish. Asking people to do little activities - validating and qualifying ideas along the way - is a good approach to getting people's feedback frequently without overwhelming them.

  1. Get a longitudinal view

If you want customers to adapt new values, skills, and vocabularies, it's imperative to have a deep understanding of who they are. And it's not enough to know about their current habits. By grasping how customers evolve, you have a better shot at influencing how they might change in the future.

This is where historical data can help. Having a longitudinal view of changes to people's attitudes and behavior, you'll have better insights on the different factors that make people's lives easier. More importantly, a closer look at longitudinal data reveals what it takes for people to alter their daily habits. Once you have this information, you can make better-informed decisions on which product or service features will actually make a difference.

  1. Close the feedback loop

Consumers are often asked for input, but how often are they informed of the impact of their feedback? For example, when people participate in crowdsourcing activities or when they respond to companies on social media, do they actually see their input having tangible results?

By engaging customers through tools such as insight communities, you can get back to people and let them know how their input shapes your new product or service. Through a newsletter or by posting a video to your insight community, you can inform customers what impact their participation is having in the company's decision making. When you close the feedback loop, people feel more appreciated and they are more likely to continue to participate and contribute.

If you want your next offering to be innovative, your number one goal is to figure out how to transform your customers for the better. And while customers are happy to share their thoughts, consistent engagement through social media, insight communities and other tools is necessary if you'd like them to trust you with their insights.

How are you enabling two-way conversations with your customers to help drive innovation in your company? Let us know in the comments.

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