At the heart of everything I talk about here is 1) increased engagement in production and consumption by consumers and 2) increased market awareness and customer feedback for business. Both may seem at first glance to be unequivocally positive things to strive for; however, a tension arises from both ends of the spectrum in that users may not want to be involved with production (“Just make the damn product for me! I don’t want to submit, vote, modify, or do any work on it.”) and companies may not benefit from listening too closely to what the customer is saying (Apple’s valuation is a testament to a strong vision and a closed product development process. And, of course, the old chestnut from Henry Ford: “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”)
As with everything else there is no clear answer but a spectrum of answers that will work for some companies in some situations and not for others. (Speciation and useless business advice)
Item: A recent contest calling for designs for Smart cars. A nice marketing exercise, but what came out of it? Did Smart gain any true fodder for new designs? Will any of them be made available? Likely not. Customers may feel a bit more affinity to Smart cars after participating, but the number of people interested in designing their own car exterior or paying to have one applied, I would contend, is extremely limited and niche. Perhaps the market is large enough to sustain several niche businesses such as Infectious which crowdsources decals for cars, phones, laptops, skateboards, and other objects. Or Ryz for shoes. Or Cardsink for greeting cards.
Item: 100×100. Daniel Schipper has a design up for a lamp that he would like to produce. He needs 100 preorders before it will be produced. This makes the process efficient for the manufacturer, but for the consumer it requires uncertainty and a lot of patience. Very cool, but, again, very niche.
Item: The king of co-creation, Quirky allows anyone to post an idea for a product for $99 which is then worked on by the crowd to decide whether to move forward with it and how to improve upon it. People who have the most influence on the product receive a certain amount for every item that is sold once a set number of presales are made. I haven’t seen anyone else come close to executing on this concept as well as Quirky has. They filter out a lot of crappy ideas up front due to the $99 posting fee, they provide a good monetary incentive for people to contribute, and have the expertise and industrial design experience to pull it off. My sense is this is a powerful platform but that it will be relegated to niche products and low volumes.
The key is eliciting and using feedback in the right situations and in the right way. After all, you only need a small subset or sampling of customers to provide feedback or help with co-creation to create value for the rest of the passive consumers. And from the other side, you need to understand when NOT to listen to your customers, who can provide great insight into the present but have difficulty with predicting the future.