Co-Creation and the One-Percenters:

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Note: I just wrote this piece as an editorial for Corante, but since it applies to this blog, I decided to post it here as well. Enjoy:

Hail the one-percenters. The rabid fans. The most hardcore users. Apple has them. Harley Davidson has them. Porsche. VW. BMW. Ford. Corvette. Marlboro. Cartier watches. Yves St. Laurent. Weston shoes. Pinarello bikes. Speedo (no, really). Rudy Project. Calvin Klein. Tommy Hilfiger. The New York Times. Fox News. Canon. Nikon. Michelin tires. John Deere. Hincapie Sportswear. Mavic wheels. The New York Yankees. The Atlanta Braves. Turin's Juventus.

If your company has rabid fans, you're already on the right track. If you learn how to listen to them, you'll stay on the right track for years - and decades - to come.

Via Johnnie Moore, Ben McConnell (co-author of the well-read Church Of The Customer blog points us to a great piece on the importance of the "One Percenters":

"It would appear that small groups of people often turn out to be the principal value creators of a democratized community. Over time, their work fuels widespread interaction that engages the non-participating community and attracts new ones. If continually nurtured, the community can become a self-sustaining generator of content and value." - Ben McConnell.

That being said, here's what's really going on in most organizations:

"It's easy for organisations to stigmatise the one-percenters. Marketing types often sneer at fanatical customers for their lunacy in being more passionate about the organisations' product or service than the professionals are. Focus groups exercises tend to average out the views of a wide customer base rather than looking at the core enthusiasts. New business drives focus on acquisition of the new rather than enthusing with the existing customers.

"Seems to me that this is a mindset worth reviewing." - Johnnie Moore.


To illustrate his point, Johnnie points us to the case of how Harley Davidson (arguably one of the most widely recognized and iconic brands in the world) turned its fortunes around by embracing - rather than marhinalizing - its one percenters:

"On our trip to New York we met Richard Wise, Chief Strategic Officer at Agency 16, modern marketeer and a very saucy fellow to boot. He has paid close attention to that great US company Harley Davidson and the history of its brand. He explained that at one point the bikers that are so closely associated to the epic motorcycles were quite reviled by the company's management. So much so that they were referred to as the one-percenters - as in the one percent who spoil it for everyone else. HD's mindset was that it was best placed to decide what its customers wanted. The management were shocked when...

"...tattooed-hooligans started taking their beloved bikes apart - or chopping them - to meet their own warped 'hog' desires. It was only when the company's worth hit rock-bottom and a younger member of the HD clan took control of the business that that view changed. The company embraced the one percenters and reframed their destructive tendencies as a guide to what their most hardcore and loyal customers wanted. As a result, the company's fortunes were reversed and its value soared. This struck me as a great example of open source marketing and the value of a co-creative approach. Hells Angels as lead-users - what a great notion." - from the Modern Marketing Blog's January 16, 2006 "Why Hells Angels Know Best", by James Cherkoff.

Not to put any limits on the concept of co-creation, but perhaps a good place to start for most companies is to focus on the one-percenters first... and then, after a while, graduate to full-on co-creation. By focusing on customers and users who already understand your product as well as (and in some cases better than) you do, you can keep customer-generated input manageable and focused. You can learn how to integrate co-creation into your product development process without drowning in "noise".

Perhaps more importantly, by learning to listen to the one-percenters first, it's pretty unlikely that you will be tempted to gravitate towards the seemingly safe, boring, soft, generic middle. This is a topic often covered by one of my favorite bloggers, Kathy Sierra, who routinely reminds us to stay away from the boring "middle" in favor of the edgy... well, "edges" of design. The worst thing a company can do when it comes to building a powerful brand is to try to be all things to all people. It just doesn't work that way. Looking for the fat middle is a sure-fire way of becoming instantaneously "generic." (Not that there's anything wrong with being generic, but when the object of the maneuver is to create a strong - or I'll say it again - "iconic" brand (is there any other kind?), being "generic" is the complete opposite of what you are shooting for.

Per Johnnie:

"To some marketers, the polar opposite of the 1% Rule -- the Law of Big Numbers-- might doom any decision to dedicate resources toward a democratized community. Should it? Not necessarily, although any community organizer should be prepared to accept the reality of slow, incremental growth, not a big, Hollywood-style opening." - Ben McConnell.

The fear in many executives' minds is this: We know the 80/20 rule works. Will listening to the one-percenters really pay off? Will the other 99% of our customers adopt changes made by our 1% of insanely loyal and passionate users?

If your business is based on producing generic products or on simply providing a quality-light substitute for other products at a lower pricepoint, no. If, however, your goal is to differentiate yourself from would-be competitors, to develop a strong brand, to lead your company into a market leadership position or to help it become as iconic as Apple, Harley Davidson, Nike and Canon, yes.

Remember we're talking about listening, here. What you choose to do with what you see and hear is entirely your business. You don't have to act on every suggestion. But when it comes to focusing your attention on a particular segment of your customer base, you could do far worse than starting with the one-percenters. It seems counter-intuitive and yes, it's a bit of a leap of faith when you've been told for decades to follow the big numbers, but these are the people who hold the key to your brand. Listen to them. Learn what makes them tick. Let them help you stay relevant. It worked for Harley Davidson. It worked for Apple. There is no reason why it won't work for you.

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