Time pressure is no reason to leave consumer input out of the innovation process

the apprenticeWe don’t have time to ask consumers; research takes too long for our business.”

How often have you heard this? And how much innovation effort is wasted because of a lack of consumer input?  Too often, professionals think they don’t have the time or assume it can’t possibly be meaningful at such short notice.

I beg to differ.

We recently ran an experiment to show that any rapid innovation process can include consumers – with ideation, qualitative refinement and quantitative testing all possible in as little as three hours.

In an Apprentice (pictured) style commotion, 12 volunteers got together to address a hypothetical challenge: working in two groups of six, they had to develop a big idea for grocery retailers Tesco and Asda, with the potential to generate significant revenue, in 30 minutes. As soon as this time was up, we uploaded their concepts into an online qualitative forum of grocery shoppers for discussion. After 30 minutes, the volunteers refined their concepts with consumer feedback and submitted them for quantitative assessments. And 90 minutes later, we had results from a robust base of 300 Asda and Tesco grocery shoppers – allowing us to pick a clear winning concept.

Including consumer input should not be considered a luxury when you’re confronting this kind of challenge. Engaging consumers in the ideation process will sift and sort between competing ideas so that the good stuff comes to the surface, kill those ideas that seem clever internally, but don’t resonate with consumers, avoid missing something fundamental or important to consumers, and prevent costly mistakes by misreading your market.  To make this kind of engagement feasible under time pressure, here are some best practices to follow:

Get feedback from knowledgeable people

When it comes to engaging people in the innovation process, you’ll save a lot of time if you talk to people who already know or are already aware of your brand or industry. As users of the product or the category, they already have insights on the key benefits, unmet gaps and pain points of what you’re offering.

Communicate expectations on timing

When you are working with tight timelines, you can’t afford to be fuzzy about when and how you will need people to engage. By clarifying the exact time you wish to engage to your participants, you can efficiently collect information on an agenda that suits you.

Clearly define the incentives

Specify the requirements and benefits of involvement. If you are counting on a certain amount or calibre of consumer input in a limited amount of time, your participants need to know exactly what will be expected of them, and exactly what they will get back in return for their contribution. This can be financial, but in many cases, feedback on the project or continued involvement in the process is enough to motivate consumers who are highly engaged with your brand or category.

In my experience, the more urgent the problem, the more you need your customers’ opinions to ensure you come up with the very best solution; by creating an insight community (an online community which is created and maintained to conduct quantitative and qualitative market research) you can have them at your fingertips. An engaged community of consumers allows you to iterate along the way; regularly asking people to do little activities, validating and qualifying ideas to get people’s feedback quickly, and frequently.

Whilst this helps to generate feedback to drive innovation, it also encourages loyalty. Informing customers of the impact of their participation in the company’s decision making makes participants feel appreciated, and more likely to continue to participate and stay loyal to the brand. Debenhams created an Insight Community with Vision Critical in 2009. Senior Strategy Manager, Kate Parkinson said “Two-thirds of our members say they feel more positive about Debenhams since joining the insight community. It’s great to know that our customers feel more engaged in the business and more enthusiastic about what we are doing.”

So, time pressure is no reason to leave consumer input out of the innovation process. In fact, with consumers more informed, more changeable and more demanding than ever before you need to regularly engage with them to minimise risk. This will not only enhance your innovation process, but you may even make a loyal customer out of a casual one.

Mike Stevens is Managing Director of Vision Critical UK.