Online Extra: Q&A with Hallmark's Tom Brailsford

The research exec hopes that observing target customers' Net chat will yield not only new marketing ideas but also entirely new products

The company that has long urged consumers to care enough to give the very best is now asking them to help figure out what the very best is. And Hallmark is using the Net to do it: In November, the greeting-card giant launched an online bulletin board where 200 preselected women, mostly with children under 12, gather to talk about their lives, hobbies, decorating ideas, and more. Hallmark mines their online conversations for product ideas and asks the participants to respond to queries about Hallmark's own product and promotion notions.

The company is so pleased with the result that it recently launched similar communities for grandparents and Hispanics. Tom Brailsford, Hallmark's manager for knowledge leadership, recently spoke with BusinessWeek's Faith Keenan about these idea exchanges. Following are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: What's the aim of these online communities?


We're trying to get outside the building here, trying to be connected to the marketplace. The principles of innovation are based on the belief that innovation occurs out there just as much as it occurs in here.

Q: What's an example of the questions Hallmark asks to either test new product ideas or elicit ideas from the members?


We asked them to respond to a certain idea and tell us what words and feelings and thoughts came to mind -- what brands, products, activities came to mind when they heard this particular phrase.

Q: What was the phrase?


We're not prepared to have that published. Some content came out during the community discussion, and when we started thinking about it, [we thought] it's a new branch that could be added to a strategic area. It's not cards.

Q: Is it decorations?


No. It's a product that doesn't exist yet because it's a strategic initiative we're thinking about. The community has informed us about that. This is something that's really a work in progress. It's not anything that has any kind of corporate approval. But for us in research, it illuminated an area we hadn't paid attention to. It came in response to a question we asked.

That's one of the purposes of the community -- for us to be able to do what we call directional or informative research very quickly. Part of the value of the community is informing strategic discussions as opposed to evaluating existing products.

Q: Have any products suggested by the community made it through the development process?


Everyone wants to know about the ROI [return on investment] of the community, how many products, the millions of dollars generated. The fact is, we've only had it up six months. No one has a product-development cycle that's that fast. If we had ideas, they wouldn't be in the market for a while. How much has it made in six months? Nothing. Does that mean we shouldn't have done it? I don't think so.

Q: How long might it take for an idea to pop out of the development pipeline?


It depends. [Questions come up like] can it be made quickly here, can it be outsourced somewhere else? Some things we've done: Our dot-com people have used it to evaluate designs in electronics greetings, coupons, and gift certificates. We're just in the process of figuring out how to use this internally with our internal clients. What types of questions is it good for? We don't know that yet. We're making this up as we go along.

Q: How is this different from other forms of online research?


Some sites have a button that says click here to take a survey. What we've done that's unique is: Women are talking to each other, they're initiating surveys and bulletin boards that we're simply watching. So we're getting an interesting look into a 24/7 research environment. No one else that I know of is doing it. There are lots of online research companies doing 400,000 members. That's not what we're trying to do here. We're trying to establish a dialogue with the marketplace.... We have an unprecedented view into their lives.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.