The Mio illustrates not only a pent-up demand for alternative forms of urban transportation, but also the popular appeal of helping to create a car, which can be one of the most visible forms of self-expression (BMW's Mini understood this years ago). It provides the company with useful information about leading edge consumer preferences. However the people using the Mio website are likely distinct from the great majority of carbuyers, and participants will probably be proudest if their input results in something that is obviously different from the norm. This is typically the case with crowdsourcing. Pepsi's Mountain Dew DEWocracy program recently sought input on a new flavor -- enthusiasts opted for a clear formulation that would stand apart from other Dew offerings. The insight from this kind of program lies in what it says broadly about changing types of demand, and occasionally in the originality of some individual suggestions. The actual product resulting from the effort is something that will appeal to participants, but perhaps not much further.
- Fast changing popular demand -- In industries where the nature of demand quickly shifts (fashion, telecom services, gaming, etc.) crowdsourcing can provide immediate input on what is appealing
- Deep participation in the program -- Quick reactions to concepts are unlikely to provide truly novel or meaningful inputs. Unfortunately the Mio program has become this sort of voting-oriented initiative, which isn't very distinct from traditional voice-of-customer research. Deep participation would involve discussion of how products fit into everyday lives, not voting on the color of a vehicle's trim. As Henry Ford famously said, "If I'd asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse"
- Broad mandate for what is being created -- Fiat asked participants to create a concept car. Just in that mandate, the company biased the program toward existing ideas of cars. Mountain Dew asked for a new flavor, not a new idea of energy on-the-go. This approach is fine if firms are seeking product enhancements, not ideas for new markets
- Focus on use of product vs. its design -- Fiat's emphasis has been on details of product design. Given that the car's unveiling is just a month away, their focus on these details is understandable. Still, we are unlikely to learn much from what people desire in the product's paint trim. An alternative would have been to seek more input on how a two-seater fashion statement would be used. This could have led to insights that product designers could have leveraged into a variety of development efforts
Too often, crowdsourcing can be a PR gimmick rather than a source of important business insight. While online voting has its place in industries catering to fickle popular tastes, the right kind of crowdsourcing can go far beyond selecting paint colors to generating substantive input into changing markets. Fiat's Mio seems to have gone half-way to this destination.
This post was written by Steve Wunker. Click for more of New Markets' thinking on innovation capabilities.