Though most brands today have crossed that threshold intellectually, few have actually figured out what to do about it. Those who have are trying to learn how to better monitor what newly empowered consumers are saying about them in blogs and across the Web, and even seeking to get their brand involved in ongoing dialogues. A few in addition to that are attempting to open up new ways in which consumers can not only speak about but TO and WITH the brand, as collaborators.
One of the most interesting initiatives along these lines is Chrysler's Customer Advisory Board, a "collaborative community" developed by Passenger.
As described by Emily Gates, Group Account Director, Passenger, who oversees the auto and entertainment verticals, the project began in early 2008. "The concept behind it was 'Chrysler listens,'" she explains. "They began in early 2008 to organize what came to be called the Customer Advisory Board by soliciting volunteers on their Web site. That's where they got their initial base of hand raisers, and they received over several hundred sign-ups in the first 30 days. Over the past year they've recruited 2000 members, current, past and non-Chrysler customers, who self-identify as Chrysler enthusiasts." Each member fills out a profile and is screened with a battery of questions with the goal, of involving a knowledgeable and passionate group who are highly motivated, says Gates.
As opposed to the traditional focus group, "What's unique about one of these communities," she explains, "is that it's less formularized, less hierarchical if you will, and more of a two-way back and forth with customers that you can have an ongoing dialogue with overtime, vs. only once."
She adds, "There's the ability to get ad-hoc feedback on really pressing timely issues. So, if a CEO is preparing for a meeting, he or she could get a nearly real-time 'read' over 24 to 48 hours via a pulse of community participants about how they liked or didn't like a particular design change, for instance, and arrive to the meeting with customer quotes in hand. That sort of thing is possible with a functioning customer community of brand enthusiasts -- and very powerful. Think, on the other hand, about if an enterprise had to mount a focus group from scratch. It would take tens of thousands of dollars minimum and probably a few months time."
According to auto enthusiast and blogger Norm Layton (screen name Mopar Norm), a frequent contributor to the Chrysler site, "The CAB works like this: engineers and/or managers will have a concept or question about a particular item, be it headlights, door handle location or the quality of interior materials. They will post a poll or question on the secure CAB Web site, asking the members a few questions and then allowing open discussion between the members." He adds, "I think it is fair to say that these discussions can often go places that Chrysler did not anticipate, and sometimes result in comments and ideas that were not originally on the table."
As an example, he cites critiques the CAB has made on Chrysler's dealer network. "We've been tough on the dealer network, vehicle service and past management and focus groups, who allowed ill-conceived vehicles and option-package bundles to harm sales by limiting choices," he wrote in a recent blog post. "Chrysler has learned about our passion for the brands we care about and we have tried to give them a pass when it comes to past management. After all, this is a relatively new team in possibly the toughest business environment in 60 years."
Far from being an unintended consequence of the process, however, independent skepticism, even outspoken criticism are, or should be integral, Gates believes.
"What we've found," she says, "is that the people closest to a brand can be the most vociferous critics of the company. So it's important going in that brands don't expect sugar-coated comments because that's not what customer collaboration creates. Fortunately the most sophisticated brands understand this and encourage honesty and transparency as the way to yield real insights and value." Brands contemplating a move into customer collaboration, she cautions, need to be prepared to make a major cultural shift in their own behavior.
"Brands attempting to mount a community need to know that consumers who are making a serious commitment of their time can't be given fluff," she adds. "If a brand is serious about obtaining real value, they can't just have a PR spokesperson give a canned response. For customers, the value is in having a real voice in the decision-making process and a chance to speak directly with key members of the brand team."
There are a variety of formats that can work in setting up a collaborative community, Gates explains, from discussion boards where consumers can initiate topics and engage company representation, to "spot" polls on timely issues. Chrysler also uses is a regular monthly "executive session," a live chat with about 30 members, and a very senior-level company executive. For instance, recently Chrysler had a vice-president of design talk about some of the new design features the company was making and considering. It was at one of these sessions that Chrysler first released information about its ENVI electric vehicles, one of the best-kept secrets in the automotive industry.
The payoff, though not perhaps so easily calculated as click-through rates, conversions and other conventional ROI metrics, is in cultivating a dependable set of "other eyes" to reality-check decision-making.
"What brands have told us is that such interaction helps bring the customer voice into the process and allows them to show customers how they are listening, which we like to call 'closing the feedback loop,'" Gates observes. "One client said to me, 'It's amazing how often huge decisions, very risky, momentous ones, have been made on the basis of six people working in isolation.' Brands can very easily get into a bubble, which especially in the economy is very dangerous. One way to burst that bubble is to engage 30 or 40 of your best customers and ask what they think. "