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Some business folks think that innovation just happens ÛÔÛÔ that a new product or concept arises because a light bulb went off in someone's head. Truth be told, we live in a very calculated day and age where risk and success are measured to the T. Hardly any Fortune 500 company decides purely by following their gut. Yet still, we see some obvious blunders that could have been avoided simply by making the right calculations.

While the world's largest businesses do research on product launches, store redesigns, ad buys and more, they might not necessarily be verifying those findings with a large representative group or sample of customers like they should be. So the question remains: how can Fortune 500 companies make sure they are doing right by their customers?

The answer lies in customer-driven innovation made possible by a new twist on age-old market research. While qualitative and quantitative research techniques have been around for a while, only recently has the industry started capitalizing on big data, crowdsourcing, text analytics, the mobile market and other consumer insight tactics.

Over the last few years, there's been an uptick in the demand for solutions that help drive business decisions based on customer feedback. Analysts and journalists have noted that we've entered the age of the customer and some have gone as far as to say that customer-driven innovation is a new essential. In this new age, companies are embarking on innovation management strategies that incorporate customer insights from the onset and ultimately lead to more successful consumer-facing results.

For Virgin Mobile USA, one of the most recognized pay as you go cell phone providers, customer-driven innovation during the last economic downturn proved to be a breath of fresh air. When the global economy faltered a few years back, Virgin Mobile needed to know how it would affect their customers' mobile phone usage fast - would customers stay loyal or active? The company went directly to their customers, asking a group of about 15,000 how they would react when times got tough.

Virgin Mobile USA found out that 68 percent of their customers would keep their cell phones, instead choosing to cut back on other expenses such as groceries. Thanks to a quick pulse check with their customers, Virgin Mobile discovered right away that their sales weren't at risk as far as cell phone usage was concerned and that they could continue to provide their customers with the same -- if not better-- products and services during rocky economic times.

For Fortune 500 companies, customer engagement is more critical than ever. As Virgin Mobile demonstrates, testing seemingly calculated decisions directly with a large group of buyers will help Mr. or Mrs. Fortune 500 sleep better at night.

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