Everything Else

Let customers do the hard work for you

Embrace the network and grow your business by letting your customers run your business

Imagine a crack team of designers, marketers, and researchers all working for your business. And let’s say you only pay on a performance basis. Does that sound like a nice idea? Well, it’s really another way of talking about ‘crowdsourcing’ or moving your business to embrace user innovation by letting your customers have more control over your products and services. If you let them make the big decisions for you, it could push your business into a new phase of life.

Business strategy is largely outbound product creation and sales. But Gen Y is coming on strong, and as digital natives, they bring a culture of participation with them. Their lust for social media and networks makes crowdsourcing an important concept in capturing and keeping their attention while harnessing their desire to be more than passive consumers.

One major website sells thousands of designer T-shirts each week without designing any T-shirts. Threadless.com acts as a community facilitator, letting users submit designs and vote on the designs they think should be turned into products. When a design is produced, Threadless pays the designer US$2000. Even buyers can earn credits by acting as freelance marketers, earning points for submitting photos shot wearing Threadless T-shirts. They’re combining the talent of users with the wisdom of crowds and making millions through the process.

Australian art and T-shirt website Red Bubble is doing something very similar, but with a more open product process. Anyone can upload and exhibit, and products will be made on-demand.

You find similar stories in photography (iStock Photo), news aggregation (Digg), music (Sell a Band), creative services (eLance), or manufactured goods (Ponoko). Even high-level business, science, and engineering research (Innocentive).

For many small businesses, an open innovation strategy can start by opening new and more channels for customer feedback, whether through website comments, running polls, or company blogs that directly ask users for input on what they like, dislike, or wish for. Taking that next step, where part of the business is handed over to real external control is rewarding these bold businesses.

In a less web-centric use of open innovation, Australia’s own Nudie Juice takes a cheeky approach in their messaging that encourages customers to engage with their brand, while being open to suggestions for ‘limited edition’ blends. A simple way to open the door to suggestions and see what customers can come up with.

The major win for some is the marketing impact on offer here. When customers feel wanted, even rewarded, you gain greater loyalty and a sense of community. Customers become evangelists, bringing new customers, and additional intelligence, to your business.

However you move to embrace your crowd, remember it is about allowing the smartest members of the group to be enhanced by, rather than blended with, the whole. Threadless doesn’t ask its crowd to create collective designs. It asks them to choose outstanding individual submissions.

Give your customers a reason to be outstanding on your behalf, and they just might invest their ideas in your business. #Seamus Byrne is is a technology journalist and the founder, director of creative, and host of Byteside.

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