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What A Detroit Supper Club Teaches Us About Co-Creativity

A social movement is underway in downtown Detroit. Each month, 100 or so individuals pay $5 for admission to a loft, where they eat a dinner of organic soup (and other foods) prepared by volunteers. Diners share ideas and connections, hear presentations from artists who are working on projects aimed at improving the city, and then vote on which project will receive proceeds from the evening's dinner. Detroit SOUP organizers call the gathering "a democratic experiment in micro-funding," but it’s much more than that: It’s an example of the power of co-creativity, and it represents the way forward for organizations that want to remain relevant and reach consumers in an authentic way.

In recent years, crowdsourcing has become a trendy tactic for soliciting input and engaging consumers, but in reality this approach is nothing more than an open call for submissions. As an ever-expanding number of products, messages, and mediums clamor for the attention of an increasingly distrustful and time-deficient American consumer, crowdsourcing has become about as strategic as throwing a handful of spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks. Of course, in select cases—such as voting on the next Threadless design—crowdsourcing is appropriate. But increasingly, it's a quick answer to a problem that deserves a more open-ended solution, or an excuse to outsource expertise to an unqualified or too-large crowd (a la the Doritos ad snafu).

Yesterday, businesses succeeded through industrial or technological expertise, with little need to converse with consumers. Today—thanks to fast and accessible technology for everything from photo editing to event planning—we're all creative types, and there is no such thing as a one-way conversation. Welcome to The Age of Co-Creativity.

Marketers are beginning to understand that it's no longer viable to work in a vacuum, and that seeking consumer input by casting a wide net into an anonymous pool won't suffice. And even empowering consumers to express themselves via their connection to a brand ignores the fact that today's consumers are already connected to each other through shared passions, desires, and common interests in collaboration and doing more with less.

Real co-creativity occurs when organizations reach out purposefully to a specific community in order to create an ongoing conversation that fosters feelings of impact, belonging, and brand loyalty that don’t just come from Facebook likes. This is where Detroit SOUP gets it right: the crowd, while varied, is collectively interested in local issues, art, innovation, and urban improvement.

Sounds simple enough, right? Well, not really. The gap between theory and practice remains wide and the reality is that, even for the most well-intentioned marketers, co-creativity is tough work that involves significant resources, time, and energy. The difference between doing it wrong and taking the time to get it right is the difference between enhancing your approach and cheapening your brand. Or, to use examples: the difference between Motrin Moms and Walmart Moms.

So, how do we make sure engagement efforts fall into the co-creativity camp instead of the crowdsourcing one? Here are four tips gleaned from BBMG’s time in the trenches:

  • Authenticity, authenticity, authenticity. This especially holds true when presenting a challenge to consumers. Instead of assigning a too-general homework assignment, focus on a specific issue, idea or need that will help improve the brand or—best-case scenario—society.
  • Invite a real community. Focus on quality, not quantity. Spend time cultivating a community of loyalists, experts, and like-minded folks who are passionate about presenting ideas that will ensure mutual success. They’ll appreciate being invited in to the process and help spread your brand’s message and good will. And they will invest time in presenting thoughtful input and solutions, instead of treating the process as just another online sweepstakes.
  • Facilitate honesty. Discussions need to be respectful, constructive and goal-oriented. Ask questions. Be prepared to hear—and respond to—negative feedback or ideas you never would have thought of on your own. Be transparent about your goals and clear about your expectations.
  • Reward participation. Incentives can come in all shapes or sizes, and need to be tailored to your audience—whether that's discounts, invitations, events, free gear or something else entirely. The most successful online collaborations focus on shared value creation, and fairly compensate community members for their submissions and feedback.

Back in Michigan, Detroit SOUP co-founder Kate Daughdrill is putting these principles into practice: "We're figuring out how to engage civically, how to be engaged citizens," she explains. "We've been excited to create this practical experience in democracy."

Brands that embrace this mindset will experience deeper engagement, richer collaboration on innovation opportunities and the gratification of shared value creation. And, the outcomes are concrete: greater consumer loyalty, accelerated sales, new market growth, reduced costs and greater long-term prosperity.

[Image: Detroit SOUP]

Raphael Bemporad is a practical idealist, sustainable brandophile, Collectivite and ambassador of co-creativity. He is the Co-Founder and Chief Strategy officer of BBMG, a brand innovation firm that specializes in the intersection of branding, sustainability and social purpose.