What does the future of co-creation look like? One could argue that that future is already here. Today’s youth has grown up being creative and generating digital content. Current technology enables this in a way that prior generations could never have imagined. We don’t need to look that far back to see how far forward we’ve come.

Looking Back to Look Forward

In 2010, IBM conducted a survey of 1,500 CEOs and the trend of innovation via co-creation was cemented, with a near tie to sustainability, as the most important corporate effort. Since then, innovation (achieved largely by co-creation) has emerged as the clear winner.

Until now, the product ideation decision makers have been populated by social media “immigrants”.   For previous generations (Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y), social media was something they adopted as they got older. And it’s not the same.  It’s like someone who picks up a second language well into their teens or twenties. Because they encountered social media for the first time as an adult, they just don’t have the ability to seamlessly communicate via this new method. They will always be social media outsiders to a certain extent, easily identifiable as non-native speakers in this realm.

For older generations, customer co-creation seems foreign, different than the passive forms of customer input they are used to. In fact, passive/reactive forms of customer input have stayed largely the same for the better part of a century. The techniques they are using are the same you see on the show “Mad Men,” but the tide is rising for customer co-creation. Product ideation teams are relying more and more on the input of millennials and Gen Z. When it comes to the issue of social reciprocity, these generations represent social media “natives”. This idea of social media “quid pro quo” is in their DNA, it’s how they grew up.

To Millennials and Gen Z, the idea of in-person focus groups or endless surveys seem as foreign as the sound of a dial-up modem: a quaint, but an antiquated approach to customer communication. Customer co-creation, with its roots in social reciprocity, remains a niche service. It is a disruptive concept, one that removes the shackles of passive, reactive responses from your customers and empowers them to create with you. Harness it, and you’ve snapped a golden ticket. Alienate the audience with the biggest spending power in history and your brand will incur the wrath of a scorned Millennial – all played out publicly, of course, on social media.

How are Millennials & Gen Z Different? Why is Everyone in Hot Pursuit?

Although there appears to be a general consensus that the term “millennial” spans too broad of a population, the definition of which age groups should be included in the classification continues to be debated. Millennials are largely considered to be those people born 1981-2001, defined as the group who will grow up in the new millennium. Opponents of the broad term argue that it is half Generation Y and half Generation Z with different societal experiences. Specifically, Gen Y was introduced to mobile phones and laptops whereas Gen Z has only known mobile technology, the cloud, apps and social media – clearly digital natives. Both groups have grown up creating digital content. It’s what they know and what they want to do.

What is interesting is that it was only a few days ago that a powerful voice in media spoke out in favor of the Millennials, citing that they’ve been brushed with too broad a stroke as “disruptors, lazy, self-entitled and without empathy.” It was The Wall Street Journal who openly suggested the term be narrowed and that reporters pull back on some of the disdain aimed so broadly at today’s youth. They (quite reasonably) offer the opinion that every generation in their 20s disrupts and rebukes societal norms and forges a path to create new ones. One of their hallmarks is active online engagement via social media where they constitute the majority in customer co-creation initiatives.

Why should we care? Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center published one of the first comprehensive reports on the spending power of Millennials. Pew estimated 2017 spending at about $200B. Next year, they are predicted to have the highest spending power of any generation – in history. More importantly, 62% of them say that they will show a brand loyalty but only if they are engaged on social media. It’s no surprise that everyone is vying for the attention of Millennials.

Customer Co-Creation Concepts – They’re Hot & Then They’re Not

Customer co-creation concepts have a sell-by date. As in, they are not consumable after expiration. You should look at customer co-creation as a hot stock. In a very short period of time, the next generation of product innovation decision makers will approach their role with a new mindset, one based on social reciprocity.

Today, there is a six-year-old commanding an $11 million annual salary reviewing toys on YouTube® and male teens influencing cosmetic giants. Periods, phases and fads all appear to be passing through on a more condensed timeline than the generation before. Perhaps that 15 minutes of fame has shrunk in proportion to the attention span of today’s youth who are online 24/7, fearless, creative and unstoppable. Customer co-creation has become the new standard in product design, which may be part of the reason for the rapid progression through each new fad. The appetite for “new” is seemingly insatiable with 200 billion Tweets per year, 5 billion videos watched daily on YouTube (Note: 90% drop off within 10 seconds), 150 million users on Snapchat® (that’s more than Twitter®), and over half of all corporate brands use Instagram® to promote their products to the 100 million users each month.  

It’s no longer your father’s linear approach to gathering insight (e.g. we ask the questions and you answer them). The new approach will be non-linear with open interactive dialogue. In fact, ever since Faith Popcorn of The Brain Reserve cited the trend, “consumers in control” about a decade ago, the customer has been the one asking the questions and the companies are the ones doing the answering.

The Future Benefits of Customer Co-Creation by Millennials

To maximize the benefits of customer co-creation, such as reduced costs of innovation, a more diverse perspective, a more robust product concept, and a built-in branding and awareness platform will entice Millennials. Doing so doesn’t take much. As a group, they’re comfortable using their voice online to communicate on social media platforms. They enjoy creating and only a small minority are motivated by cash prizes. In contrast, the majority seek status; they aspire to grow their own followings and seek out other creators with larger followings than their own. Challenge them to secure the most shares or likes in exchange for first dibs on an innovative product and you’ll have your blockbuster customer co-creation concept in no time!

Customer co-creation by Millennials has ever-growing potential. It is a wonderful, chaotic open-channeled path to disruptive innovation.

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