The consumer is more powerful than ever. With a multitude of social networking sites and discussion forums, consumers can quickly, freely and easily express their opinions online. So is the way forwards to use technology to put the consumer at the heart of every decision? While this can bring advantages, there are certain dangers brands must be aware of before letting their consumers run loose. This article explores how brands can make the most of the consumer as a co-creator, tester and product supporter through technology. We track the consumer journey noting some key considerations that should be taken into account at each stage.
Stage 1 – Consumer as a resource: ideation and co-creation
It is traditional to use market research to explore consumer habits and preferences before creating a product or proposition. However, increasingly manufacturers are using technology to unearth the potential of the consumer. At a basic level, manufacturers can use online polls and topic leads in online forums to ask consumers outright about their preferences. However, the degree to which consumers’ latent needs or desires are truly exposed through this online method is debatable. Responses are often constrained and contextualized by the questions being asked of them.
On a deeper and more engaging level, manufacturers can use open source software (OSS) to create platforms (otherwise known as ‘sandboxes’) to enable consumers to experiment with ideas. One such example is from toy manufacturer Lego which, through its ‘Cool Creations Feature’, asks consumers to upload pictures of Lego models they have made at home. The incentive of having their creation actually mass produced and sold made for them by Lego sees toy enthusiasts competing to accumulate the most votes. By using its consumers as ‘co-creators’, Lego.com facilitates a two-way relationship: its consumers are incentivized by the prospect of having their own designs displayed on the site (and some actually produced), while the company itself receives ideas for new product designs as well as increasingly loyal customers.
However, there is a difference between customization (in which consumers make versions of already existing objects) and true, unprompted innovation. Although, in truth, it would be almost impossible to stimulate an idea without familiarity, online virtual worlds (such as Second Life) enable consumers to escape the constraints and realities of real life. Their fantastical nature diminishes most principles and regularity, thereby facilitating a more ‘outside-of-the-box’ type thinking. Coca Cola did just this by running a competition where users had to create a drinks machine within a virtual world. The winner created a ‘magic coke bottles’ game where users had to unlock puzzles in the shape of coke bottles to reveal a unique experience and prize, an idea that arguably would not have emerged within an office or home setting.
- Do people really know what they want? – a valuable lesson can be learned from American animated sitcom The Simpsons when Homer followed his gut and created a ‘monstrously strange car’ with a number of bizarre features including three horns that played la Cucaracha. The car was clumsy and was too expensive to sell, consequently causing his brother’s business to go bust.
- Would it work in the real world? A man who built a magnificent boat in his basement and afterwards he realized he had forgotten to consider how to get it into the water.
Stage 2 – Consumer as a product tester
Whether it is an actual product or advertising campaign, virtual worlds provide an environment for manufacturers to test their ideas amongst a geographically dispersed group of people. Automotive manufacturers Mazda and Mercedes have launched cars in virtual worlds first to allow a larger base of consumers to test drive their cars. Meanwhile, Aloft Hotels (a brand of hotels based in North America) created a mock-up hotel in a virtual world so they could make changes to the virtual design before encountering any costly risks from changing the physical building.
- Who are we actually talking to? While anonymity reduces influence amongst respondents, how do we know consumers are who they say they are online and are virtual world users representative of a ‘normal’ consumer? Testing with the wrong demographic could lead managers down a false path.
Stage 3 – Consumer as product support
Many managers are now including online communities within their websites to encourage consumers to interact and become ‘product supporters’. Marketers of robust online brands understand that consumers trust other consumers more than advertising and so build features in their sites to facilitate this. Lego.com has built a ‘customer reviews section’ so that consumers can see how products have been rated by consumers, based on ‘play experience’ and ‘value for money’. Additionally, it has been found that the more similar and the higher the expertize a person has making a recommendation, the more likely a consumer will trust them. Lego.com uses this knowledge to effect: users can view the ‘age’, ‘customer type’ and ‘building experience’ of reviewing customers. 
- How do we stop negative brand mentions? Opening up your website to consumers can attract as many critics as supporters, so it is worth thinking about ways to monitor and combat any brand insults.
Thanks to technology an array of discussion forums and social networking sites have created the potential for the involvement of the consumer in every step of the product/brand journey, from ideation to support. While addressing consumer needs is important, managers must be aware of obstacles along the way that may in fact hinder, rather than support, a brand. Instead, brands must work alongside customers rather than for them.
 This was suggested by Nambisan, S. (2002) Designing Virtual Customer Environments For New Product Development: Toward A Theory, Academy of Management Review, Vol 27 No 3, pp 392-413
 von Hippel, E. 1988. The sources of innovation. New York: Oxford University Press. In Nambisan, S. (2002) Designing Virtual Customer Environments For New Product Development: Toward A Theory, Academy of Management Review, Vol 27 No 3, pp 392-413
 Kohler, Matzler and Fuller (2009) Avatar-based innovation: Using virtual worlds for real-world innovation Technovation 29 395–407
 Brown, J Broderick, A.J, Lee, N. (2009) Word-Of-Mouth Communication Within Online Communities: Conceptualising the Online Social Network Journal of Direct, Data and Digital Marketing Practice, Jan, 2009, Vol.10 No 3, pp 290-308