Show Them You Are Listening

Profile scraping and usage tracking is one technologically advanced way to leverage online community behaviors, but interactive technology also makes the direct human approach more efficient. Marketing firm Passenger has erected what it calls a "customer collaboration" platform that major clients like Mercedes-Benz, ABC, Adidas and Chrysler have used to watch and listen to their customers in more contained and controlled environments than the typical social network or message base. Co-founder Justin Cooper recounts some of the experience with that model and the willingness of customers to help brands build better products and marketing. It is not good enough just to listen. You have to let customers see you listen and learn.


Behavioral Insider: Your company talks about 'customer collaboration.' Is this an advanced sort of market intelligence?

Justin Cooper: Intelligence is certainly one of the benefits of customer collaboration. There is an opportunity to talk about the things that are important to those people. It is about focusing, capturing that insight as well as the opportunity of thinking about this as foresight. We often talk about customer collaboration as giving our clients the ability to tolerate change.



BI: The Passenger platform lets clients bring consumers into an online environment where they can talk to them about any program or topic. How is this different from a standard Web forum?

Cooper: The difference is really about a purpose. There is this shared value proposition there, where the brand is benefiting from direct conversation and direct insight coming from these conversations with their customers. The customer of the client is able to directly impact the decisions that are being made within these organizations.

That is the incentive that drives these engagements. It is not about giving people an open forum to talk to one another. It is really geared toward giving customers direct access to people that can influence the decisions made in the organizations.

Mercedes really wanted to understand how to serve an underserved target for them, Generation Y. This is a group they never have been focused on. A Session is where hundreds or thousands of people can concurrently log in and have real-time conversations around any sort of content they might be viewing. They might be seeing segments from advertising campaigns or new product renderings from the design engineering group. Or they might be seeing something related to the retail experience and talking about improving that.

But ultimately, these conversations are very purposeful and focused on discussing the things that need attention. It might be capturing new ideas and innovations. If you can capture new ideas from customers and then work with thousands of customers to refine that idea and bring it to market, then the chances of success are much greater than they have been.

BI: How do you establish purpose and the right mix of people?

Cooper: We are invitation-only engagements. All the communities we host for clients are private. The exclusivity of it actually helps drive the participation levels and the quality of the insight and the content exchanged within.

In ABC's case, they simply put invitation links on the Web sites of their shows and asked if users were interested in shaping the future of these shows?

You go through a very quick screening process for COPA compliance, etc. And some want to manage the composition of the community. In the case of Mercedes, because they wanted to specifically engage with a target that has traditionally been underserved for them, they wanted a majority of non-Mercedes owners. I think that is something exciting. I had not seen communities formed by companies looking to talk to people who are not yet actual customers.

BI: With ABC, how does consumer collaboration work with entertainment products?

Cooper: They have the opportunity to engage their most passionate viewers across their program matrix to understand how to shape the future of the character, plot, storyline, and development for things like 'Lost' and 'Desperate Housewives.'

We have seen producers at 'Lost' collaborate directly with their viewers to determine which segments are submitted for Emmy nominations. We have seen them in a situation where they thought they had to reshoot some key scenes only to talk to their viewers, who thought the scenes were great. These guys have seen 44-minute long cuts directly from production and they can talk about them as they see it live through the platform. Producers are taking that input and making refinements.

BI: Is the opportunity to be an insider enough for participants?

Cooper: In over three years of doing this, we never had a client have to incentivize anyone to take money or rewards.

BI: Is there an ideal group size?

Cooper: It is geared towards where you gain value. For some clients it might mean a few hundred people. We had a fashion client who went live last Friday -- and by the following Monday they had 4,200 women that have registered and set up a profile with the community.

BI: What is the nature of the conversation itself? Real-time events or on-demand experiences?

Cooper: It is both. Many times users just want to dip their toes in and observe. You might come home at midnight and have an idea to share or initiate a discussion topic. The CMO of Chrysler engages in a dialogue directly with typically around 200 of her Chrysler customers. You can imagine, at a time where the auto industry is in this place, there are a lot of people with a lot of questions for her and a lot of ways she might think about solving the problems she has. It is those counterintuitive things, the things she might not have thought to ask or didn't know she didn't know, that can really help her see her blind spots in the auto industry. The things you don't see coming until it is too late are the kinds of things customer collaboration helps you uncover.

BI: What form does the output take for clients?

Cooper: Through the discussions there is the collaborative filtering techniques we employ to make sure the most important things surface to the top. We can weight different input and see how people ultimately are influencing the discussions. There are also things called Activities where clients provide customers assets they can works with. We have a major apparel client who wants to understand what their customers' lives look like, so they had them send in pictures and videos of their closets to showcase all the shoes they were excited about.

So there is a variety of ways the client can interact with the customer as well as ways for the customers to network with one another and form micro-groups. At ABC, we have seen people form affinity networks around specific shows. We saw something called the 'Grey's Girls' for 'Grey's Anatomy,' and these folks met offline. They might go back out to Facebook and share information firsthand, because the brand gave them direct access to that content.

BI: What are the customer expectations here? What validation does the brand need to exercise?

Cooper: You don't have to act on everything they say, but you need to show them you are listening. J.C. Penney told customers that they heard what they were saying about a line and decided not to pursue it at the moment, but here is why. And that is enough for these customers. But if someone doesn't say anything and just hopes these people will continue to come back and give them insight -- that it is not the case. You have to show them you are listening and recognize their contributions publicly within the community itself.

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