"We don't have time to ask consumers; research takes too long for our business."
How often have you heard this? And how much innovation effort is wasted because of a lack of consumer input? Too often, professionals think they don't have the time or assume it can't possibly be meaningful at such short notice.
I beg to differ.
Last week we did an experiment to show that any rapid innovation process can include consumers - with ideation, qualitative refinement and quantitative testing all possible in as little as three hours. The results of that experiment not only demonstrate the value of consumer input, but showcase the 4 best practices that contribute to successful customer engagement in innovation.
At the BIG Business of Evidence Conference in Brighton, I ran an innovation workshop that invited 12 conference delegates to address a hypothetical challenge: working in two groups of 6, the delegates had to develop a new business idea for grocery retailers Tesco and Asda. The concept could be anything - a service, a new technology, an entirely new subsidiary - but it had to be a big idea, with the potential to generate significant revenue.
Each 6-person group had an initial 30-minute period to develop their concepts. The Asda group came up with Asda Community Connections (a support service for elderly and disabled customers) and the Tesco group created Tesco Butler (a refrigerator/store cupboard monitoring device and smartphone shopping app).
As soon as the 30 minutes were up, we uploaded these concepts into an online qualitative forum discussion so that grocery shoppers were included in the ideation process almost as soon as it got underwayÛ_before our hypothetical decision-makers got too invested in a particular concept or vision.
After 30 minutes of qualitative discussion, workshop members refined their concepts with consumer feedback and submit them for quantitative assessment. 90 minutes later, we had results from a robust base of 300 Asda and Tesco main grocery shoppers - allowing us to pick a clear winner (see results below).
Including consumer input should not be considered a luxury when you're confronting this kind of challenge, whether it's hypothetical or real. Engaging customers in the ideation process can help you:
- Initiate the co-creation process
- Refine and build on the ideas you generate
- Kill "blind alley" ideas that seem clever in an internal ideation process but don't resonate with consumers
- Ensure your ideas are actually what consumers want
- Avoid missing something fundamental or important to consumers
- Sift and sort between competing ideas so that the good stuff comes to the surface
- Prevent costly mistakes by misreading your market
To make this kind of engagement feasible under time pressure, here are some best practices to follow:
- Pre-recruit your inner circle of consumers. Identify those who are in the target market (ie brand / category users) and will be likely to engage energetically in your ideation process. (If you have an insight community, you already have a community you can draw from.)
In the case of this workshop, we had pre-recruited a total of 40 community members (20 primary Asda shoppers and 20 primary Tesco shoppers); these groups reviewed and critiqued each concept separately. They discussed what they liked, what they disliked and made suggestions for changing and improving the ideas. Workshop members reviewed the feedback and decided if and how to amend the ideas consumers had generated.
- Pre-recruit your "outer circle". In addition to your inner circle, pre-recruit a larger group who will provide more structured feedback. We had invited around 2,000 people we knew were Asda or Tesco shoppers to do our study, and a total of 300 respondents completed the survey over its 90 minutes in field.
- Communicate clear expectations on timing. When you are working with tight timelines, you can't afford to be fuzzy about when and how you will need people to engage. Qualitative participants knew they had to log in to the discussion between 4pm and 4.30; survey participants had been asked to be available between 5 and 6:30 pm.
- Specify the requirements and benefits of involvement. If you are counting on a certain amount or calibre of consumer input in a limited amount of time, your participants need to know exactly what will be expected of them, and exactly what they will get back in return for their contribution. In this instance, we offered a clear financial incentive; but in other cases, feedback on the project or continued involvement in the process can be enough to motivate consumers who are highly engaged with your brand or category.
The results of our experiment provide a compelling illustration of why it pays to include consumers in your innovation process, even when you have very limited time to do so. Based on the input of their inner circle consumers, the Tesco team substantially re-wrote their proposition: it became Tesco Food Mood a menu and recipe suggestion tool. This concept emerged because consumers didn't really respond to the refrigerator/cupboard monitoring device, which was seen as too unpredictable to work. Instead, consumers latched on to the recipe ideas component of the initial concept, which then became the basis of the final concept.
Similarly, in response to shoppers' feedback, the Asda concept team made some small but important enhancements to their concept to emphasize security. Participants in the qualitative feedback process raised concerns about the volunteers who would help old and disabled shoppers, which led the Asda group to improve their concept by integrating the idea of vetting volunteers to ensure the security of customers.
While this workshop imposed an artificial time constraint on consumer input, it provided a very real demonstration of both the feasibility and the value of gathering feedback under pressure. After all, businesses often face urgent innovation challenges, like a product failure that will turn into a media crisis unless the company uses rapid innovation to come up with a credible solution. Or the emergence of a surprise competitor product or campaign, which presses you to get something into the market as quickly as possible.
As our experiment demonstrates, time pressure is no reason to leave consumer input out of the innovation process even when confronted by situations like these. In fact, as our results show, it's quite the opposite: the more urgent the problem, the more you need your customers at the table, to ensure you come up with the very best solution.