Co-Creation: The Real Social-Media Revolution

Harvard Business Review

We're in a social business bubble. CIOs are buying social software by the pound, hoping internal managers will figure out how to use it. Interactive marketing departments are frantically accumulating fans and followers on Facebook and Twitter, praying the CEO will not ask too many questions about value produced. Even sedate HR people are lobbying for social enterprise initiatives because it is about people, isn't it? And of course, large hordes of software suppliers' salespeople are calling on everybody, promoting the new distributed power of cloud and mobile technologies, and stoking the collective fear of missing out on the Big Data opportunity.

Unavoidably, the bubble will burst. When it does, the true revolution inside the bubble will be revealed: the new connections developing between internal employees on one end and customers, suppliers, and partners on the other that are allowing them to co-create new relationships and offerings and reinvent the operating model of each firm.

The problem is that this co-creation requires some a priori conceptualization of which internal and external people need to work together, what they want to do together, and what value they will create as a new community. This is no easy task since by its very nature, co-creation requires mobilizing people across department and company boundaries. Sadly, most social business initiatives are naïve, technology-driven ones without any planning or cross-organizational mobilization. The result: a disjointed flow of mediocre ideas, leading a large number of social projects to be dead on arrival.

To avoid this unenviable fate, a good place for companies to start is to connect their internal sales and service people with customers and their communities on social media. Burberry, the iconic British luxury-brand purveyor of clothing, fragrances, and fashion accessories, offers a good illustration of this strategic yet pragmatic approach. Angela Ahrendts, Burberry's CEO, has a grand vision of her company as a social enterprise where all employees, customers, and suppliers share the same experience of the Burberry brand, whether through physical stores or digital platforms ("Burberry World").

Beyond the lofty vision, the heart of Burberry World is a suite of applications developed by Salesforce.com that allows stores' sales and service people and customers to re-invent their interactions as a mini-community. Through a software program called Chatter, sales and service people not only have access to traditional CRM transactional data, they can also see an aggregation of their customers' social media activities and can comment, in the store or remotely, on customers' recent Tweets or blog entries. All of that's from the store staffer's point of view.

But customers can also engage on their terms: They can have their personal Burberry portal and initiate conversations on a variety of lifestyle issues (music and fashion are big). Not coincidentally, portals also generate business for Burberry: Customers use them to make store appointments to check out a new collection item or to replace a lost belt or button.

Both parties are guided by self-interest. They are as engaged as they wish to be (many are; some aren't at all). Use of the platform by the store employee is driven by her perception of whether it helps her generate leads and close the sale. Customers decide whether the Burberry portal enhances their personal brand. The platform unleashes mutual emotions and generates data useful to both parties.

The scope of co-creation is not limited to the sales and service interaction. Customers can remotely participate in fashion shows and order items directly off the runway. They can suggest designs for the next trench coat. Most importantly, Burberry's entire marketing is increasingly the aggregation of all these conversations between employees and customers — a kind of bottom-up community marketing (although Burberry's own voice remains powerful in influencing the community's perception of the brand). In addition to monitoring everything that gets said about its brand, the firm pre-tests many aspects of its marketing and communication content through another piece of Salesforce.com software called Buddy Media, making the brand itself increasingly co-developed with the community.

The social platform is a key enabler, but the ultimate power of the Burberry model resides in the co-creation forces it unleashes between the firm's internal sales, service, and marketing people and the firm's customers. Burberry is demonstrating that human co-creation is the true revolution.
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