Co-Creation - How social media changes everything

By Stefano on 12 January 2012

After reading several 'top trends for 2012' lists, we can't help but notice the amount of times crowdsourcing, co-creation or 'social content creation' came up; MSNBCTrendWatching and Huffington Post, to name a few. This is a clear indication of how social media is increasingly determining how brand experience has reached a deeper level of interaction by reaching us in our personal spaces, consequently emphasizing the reliance on us for value-creation

By looking at the many available examples, this area has clearly transformed from initially minor aesthetic competitions to important identity-changing campaigns, bringing to life futurist Avlin Toffler's 'prosumer'; the blurring of consumption and production through the mass production of highly customised products or services. In other words, giving consumers the opportunity to contribute and ultimately 'co-create'. A few simple examples are German football club VfL Wolfsburg asking fans to choose their 11/12 home kit or Walkers 'Do us a flavour' campaign.

How does social media change things?

Today, brands are directly connected to their audience in real-time. Facebook, Twitter, you name it, are massive places that allow people to talk about brands - a YouGov study found that 61% (out of 4080 people) of consumers prefer social media over 'traditional' methods when talking to or about brands. The conversations, at times, are unhelpful, but with such a diverse range of people and large volume of discussion, there will always be valuable information lying around. 

Over the years we've seen the gradual evolution of co-creation, from a simple Q&A or poll into a lasting experience. Notable examples include Sweden handing control of its Twitter account to citizens to give viewers a deeper insight into Swedish life, the Simpsons asking fans to create a character for an episode and Pepsi, Doritos and Chevrolet asking fans to create Super Bowl ads, adding significant value to the relationship between a brand and its fans. 

This has become more evident thanks to the boom in 'spinoff' social sharing networks, notably Instagram, YouTube, Lightroom and Foursquare, that heavily rely on the larger networks (e.g. Facebook and Twitter) to maintain visibility. But what's interesting is how brands have begun using these apps, which are essentially networks within larger networks, to reach out to fans. A recent example is Levi's using Instagram to find a new face for its 2012 campaign. To the consumer, this shows a genuine and innovative attempt to democratise the way they are involved in the decision making process. To Levi's, recruitment and R&D costs are likely to be cut, its image will benefit and its consumers are willingly handing over all their ideas and desires.   

How should(n't) you do it?

Let's not forget the cases where significant damage has been made to the relationship between a brand and its audience. As Forbes.com writer Simon Graj stated, social media is "giving brands a real-life identity... and a larger than life accountability as well."

Italian notebook maker Moleskine ran a competition back in October, asking fans to design a new logo for its blog. With a huge creative industry following, fans were outraged at the fact that the copyright to each entry was kept and that they were basically working for free. Angry comments were posted on Facebook and Twitter, and Moleskine responded with "If you don't like it, don't enter", then deleted angry comments. 

Gap debuted a new logo in an attempt to "look more contemporary". This lead to over 2,000 angry comments on its Facebook page in a short time, with fans questioning the design and decision to move away from the much loved traditional logo. The company quickly reverted to its old logo, then ran a new logo contest, but the damage was already done.

Although innovative and often successful, the Swedish Twitter campaign has had some strange results, including "I'm taking over this goddamned account for a week! Expect bad sex and slapstick" (You can read more here). Too much autonomy to users and little to no control meant potentially damaging Sweden's image. 

One thing that's common among the above fail moments is the lack of understanding each brand showed. Getting involved through social media requires commitment, clear goals and research, or you risk devaluing the brand. Brands that "do not embrase co-creation principles are likely to see an erosion of value" (Gouillart & Ramaswamy). An interesting piece, by Janet Meiners Thaeler on the American Express Open Forum, rightly states that one of the biggest mistakes is getting "involved in social media without actually getting involved.... like getting a phone but ignoring every call". This is often down to being impersonal, not devoting enough resources to social media or ignoring feedback (here's another helpful piece by The Drum). In many instances (like Moleskine), brands don't take advantage over their offline followers, or leave out their core audience when entering social media. 

When brands like Levi's and Ford are seen using new channels like Instagram, their success is largely due to their strong communities on the established social networks. They have strong tie-ins with their offline activities, they know their audience and know they'll get a return. Another success story is Starbucks, often portrayed as evil, who embraced social media and offline feedback to change everything from its supply chain to food menus.

Will co-creation benefit my brand?

By opening your brand up to your core audience on the right platform using the right collaboration tools, can and will increase the value of your brand. "Brand meaning and value emerge from stakeholder engagement" (Ind & Bjerk in Branding Governance), and according to Prahalad & Ramaswamy (The Future of Competition, 2004), only if the following four building blocks are present: dialogue, access, risk assessment and transparency. Brands must "stop thinking of individuals as passive recipiants" that they deliver to and see them as "active co-creators in defining and delivering value"(Gouillart & Ramaswamy). 

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