FEATURE1 June 2010

The people movement

Looking to come up with the next big thing? You could start by tearing up the research rule book, argue Doron Meyassed and Tom Hoy.

A question we frequently hear from our clients is: “What product is going to be the next big thing in my market?” Our instinctive answer is: “We don’t know what the next big thing is, and neither do your customers, but together we can create products which provide value to both them and us.”

The whole idea of ‘the next big thing’ assumes that products are somehow out there already, waiting to be found and harnessed by those who know how. Research is thus the process of deduction, of isolating variables to reach the ‘truth’ of what will succeed.

Our response, on the other hand, comes from a belief that innovations have never existed independently of people. The creation of the next big thing is an inherently social process, because the value of any given product only exists in the collective views of those who behold it.

Furthermore, it is people’s participation in creating something which allows us to appreciate its value. This is why many trends – from dubstep music to fixed-gear bikes – are culturally specific: the rest of us don’t truly get it because we are not embedded in the social spaces from which these trends emerge.

When we think about innovation, therefore, nothing is guaranteed. The difference between success and failure is often tiny. The impulse of research has always been to control and minimise this risk by attempting to map out society and then project products on to it.

But the world is changing. We are increasingly sceptical of the ability of traditional research tools to create value within these dynamic spaces. We believe the only way to give yourself a chance of success is to follow the rules of the people who create these spaces. The process of creating the next big thing is therefore not to guess and validate, but to build it organically with the people who will bestow its ultimate value.

If you’re looking for the next big thing you are more likely to succeed if you follow the rules of people rather than the received rules of research. It is from this foundation that we developed the idea of private co-creation communities – online spaces in which producers can collaborate with groups in a creative conversation.

The received rules of research
For businesses seeking to develop the next big thing, the appeal of science is obvious. It offers predictable rules that help us establish order out of chaos. Because market research is understood to exist within this wider edifice of science, it carries with it the same methodological habits.

1. Thou shalt remain anonymous. Typically we shy away from telling our respondents who they are speaking to, because we assume that if they know what the brand is, it will bias their responses.

2. Thou shalt not use the same people more than once. There is a fear that the more consumers spend time with a brand, the more they ‘go native’.

3. Thou shalt not explain the logic behind the questions you are asking. Participants know that their behaviour being watched, so to get around this we try to hide our motives. If consumers understand that the question is merely a trick to get them to reveal some hidden aspect of themselves they will manipulate their response.

These three research rules are explicit, but there are also implicit rules dictated not by the academic view of research but by a state of mind.

4. Thou shalt ask consumers for their opinions, not their creativity. In traditional research we tend to focus purely on consumer opinions. We never ask them how they would improve the product – let alone allow them to create it from scratch. There is an assumption that consumers are shortsighted, unimaginative and technologically naive.

5. Thou art the expert. Thou shalt identify the implications thyself. Most research efforts today follow a structure whereby we get opinions and views from consumers, take them back to the lab and interpret their meaning and implications. It is unheard of to ask consumers to interpret the results.

The five rules outlined above are, of course, a caricature of the actual rules most people follow in their research endeavours. Nonetheless they illustrate the mindset that dominates most traditional research efforts.

While this approach has its place in theory, in practice it often leads to the opposite of what we need to achieve. Firstly, it creates a situation where your respondents simply do not care. Our view is that respondents who really care think more deeply about the challenge, applying creative thinking and coming up with more considered suggestions. If you can get your participants to care then even responses to ‘likelihood to purchase’ surveys are more valid because answers have been genuinely thought through.

Secondly, the traditional rules of research leave us no time to go deep. We never spend more than a couple of hours with the same consumer, and when we do it’s often in an unnatural social setting of strangers with little in common. These encounters can be limited to a relatively shallow exchange of views, opinions and feelings.

Thirdly, opportunities to engage great minds are missed. A typical innovation process sees creativity as the preserve of creative people – we often forget that the consumers sitting in our focus groups may also be restaurateurs, economists, accountants, and journalists. This diversity of views and professional know-how is a severely under-used asset.

Towards the rules of people
In an attempt to achieve more effective results we have used our co-creation communities to experiment with and actively undermine these traditional rules. These communities have allowed businesses to establish a relationship with consumers that reaches far beyond that of any other methodology, in both length and depth.

We have identified five alternative rules, which we call the rules of people, which we believe provide a more effective route to the next big thing.

1. Tell them who you are. From day one, introduce your team. Suddenly participants know who they are helping and are motivated by it. They also have some context by which to evaluate your innovation.

2. Build a real relationship. We’ve seen that when consumers interact over an extended period of time in a community they are no longer strangers. This means they are willing to open up to one another and reveal their private thoughts with ease. There’s also time to ‘live with’ new ideas, so that the community can operate more like real life.

3. Explain what you are doing and why. If we have any chance of engaging the audience it is vital they find the challenge intellectually stimulating. In our experience, explaining to consumers the underlying challenge turns a dull yes and no survey into a stimulating challenge. The outcome? Hundreds of consumers engaging with the process, thinking about your questions carefully and collaborating to help you reach a solution.

4. Ask for their creativity, as well as their opinion. Consumers can produce creative ideas – all it requires is a little time and training. Communities provide a fertile training ground because they allow the consumer to live with the challenge and to think in a new space. Doing this we have found that, suddenly, consumers have a surprising capacity to invent new products.

5. Have consumers help us to understand the implications. Because of their iterative nature, communities allow us to take our results back to consumers and ask them to help us understand the implications. This is immensely powerful because it is the people who know the category best who are making sense of the evidence.

Lots of our clients have put these new rules into practice. The National Lottery Commission is one of the first public bodies to establish an ongoing public engagement programme, using a community that is broadly representative of the nation. Projects have ranged from strategic brand questions to specific operational issues. Head of insight Ben Haden said: “We’ve been able to answer questions across a range of issues, which is important to help us make sure the National Lottery is run in the public interest.”

Tata Global Beverages, which owns brands including Tetley Tea and Good Earth, has established a community of UK and American consumers, allowing it to have an ongoing conversation with customers. The community has worked on several global product development projects, from ideation through to the refinement and positioning of the final brand.

Getting used to the new rules
Innovation isn’t a stop-start process; it is iterative. Ideas are not lying out there, waiting to be found; they exist in the collective conscious, changing as people change. The quest isn’t to seek change out but to facilitate it. New techniques such as communities harness this democratisation of creativity, channelling collective thinking into tangible and actionable forms.

It is important to state that applying the ‘rules of people’ does come with its own set of risks and challenges. It can involve sharing your business objectives openly, or posting the results of an evaluative study in an online community. And, of course, biases exist: it is important to keep in mind that the ‘owner’ of an idea will feel a sense of attachment and is more likely to support it.

Overall, however, these rules feel far more in keeping with our changing times, offering flexibility and recognising the social nature of innovation. In doing so these rules enable businesses to align themselves with the people who ultimately sustain them, their customers.

So if you’re looking to develop the next big thing but remain sceptical about relying on ‘the rules of people’, we suggest you experiment first. In your next focus group why not try telling the respondents the business objective you are trying to achieve and then ask for their help. You’ll be impressed by the response.


Promise Communities is a co-creation consultancy that builds, manages and facilitates private online communities for insight, innovation and brand strategy. Doron Meyassed is managing director and Tom Hoy is a consultant

1 Comment

10 years ago

The first set of 'rules' seem to be talking about robust, rigorous market and social research. The second set of 'rules' seem to be about product/brand development and consumer preference research. I can't see how these 'rules' are in conflict. Applying the first set of 'rules' to the second task is as absurd as applying the second set of 'rules' to the first task - or have I just explained Research 101.

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