Thursday, September 04, 2008

Groundswell Book Club Part 5: Embracing

This is the last week of the Groundswell book discussion, in which we've been looking at five strategies (listening, talking, energizing, helping, and embracing) for business use of social technologies, as defined by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff. Chapter 9 focuses on "embracing" the groundswell, or finding ways to involve users in the development of new products, services, and strategies.

Charlene and Josh define two distinct reasons why embracing audience participation is useful: to develop better products, and to develop them faster. The products get better because real consumers with real issues are telling the business what to fix. The improvements are faster because "innovation happens more quickly because you can iterate--make continuous improvements." You can get information from visitors anytime, and you can go back to them for more when you tweak things.

But getting information from visitors is not enough. How many museums have stacks of comment books that are only culled for the gushing quotes that belong on annual reports? How many educators scan program evaluations and cast off the suggestions for improvement as aberrant grumps who "just didn't get it?" How many exhibit evaluations happen after opening, with no significant money allotted to make changes that arise from research?

Why don't we use visitor feedback as a robust basis for continual improvement? Let's take the most generous view and suggest that it's because there's too much of it, and it's not targeted to our specific needs. Josh and Charlene spend most of this chapter talking about ways to prioritize and focus customer suggestions so that they form a useful basis for informed action.

Prioritizing Customer Suggestions

If you are looking at 15 suggestions from 15 different guests, how do you know which ones to pursue? Many businesses are putting the job of judging and prioritizing suggestions in the hands of their customers by allowing them to rate each other's suggestions. This has several advantages:
  • suggestions that rise to the top reflect the cumulative desires of many users instead of single suggestors
  • customers who are motivated to be critics but not to be creators are engaged in the process of offering suggestions
  • staff have a culled list of suggestions from which to determine strategy
Charlene and Josh discuss the path of, which created an "IdeaExchange" in which customers could itemize their priorities for software changes. Customers' judgments made for more confident, streamlined strategy discussions:
Before this, customers' ideas had fallen like snowflakes, enveloping the development process in an undifferentiated blanket of suggestions. Now the ideas were channeled and directed by the groundswell of's own customers. ... Half of the new features [in rollouts] now come from suggestions in IdeaExchange. Instead of holding big meetings to wrangle over features, developers can move forward knowing what people want.
The IdeaExchange and related programs use a Digg-like interface to allow users to promote preferred suggestions. This same process can also be applied to visitor-generated content. I've long argued that visitors should be able to judge and prioritize the comments, videos, and other media created by visitors in the course of a visit. Many staff react against this, saying that curation is the museum's job and shouldn't be reduced to a popularity contest. But if the content is laying fallow, reviewed by NO ONE, why not let visitors take up the mantle? If the suggestions are ignored because they don't carry the weight of many visitors' desires, why not let others add their vote and support to their priorities?

Staff and visitors who prefer to be spectators would benefit if the noise were culled by those with a predilection for judging. And then staff can spend their time where it's needed most--figuring out how to interpret and add value to those prioritized suggestions and visitor-created elements.

Asking the Right Questions

There's an interesting segment in the chapter about designing the right questions to elicit useful user comments and suggestions. The first point here is that the questions are designed with a serious desire for good answers. The questions are not designed as "activities" for customers but as ways to get substantive, actionable feedback... and that differentiates these questions from throw-away "What do you thinks?" that are often asked without true interest in the answer.

Look at your standard program evaluation. Are the questions written to really give you answers that you are ready and interested in acting on? When I work with non-professionals on exhibit design, I always require that they come up with prototype models or questions that actually answer design questions that they haven't figured out, not questions that give them what they want or already know.

Josh and Charlene give the example of a French bank that created a marketing campaign called "If I were a banker" (in French). They invited people to fill in the end of the sentence: If I were a banker, I would... Charlene and Josh argue that this wording was important to prime customers for good suggestions:
Instead of saying "Tell us what to do," it said, and the difference is subtle, "What would you do if you were us?" By encouraging the customers to develop empathy for the bank, even momentarily, Credit Mutuel gets much more realistic suggestions.
Would it make a difference if our evaluations asked "What would you do if you were us?" Josh and Charlene suggest that this empathic, hypothetical wording allows people to quickly get into the mindset and give a good suggestion, even if they haven't considered the issue explicitly before.

Closing the Loop

The final case study in this chapter is about a Canadian grocery store, Loblaw, that invites customers to review their store brand products and makes changes to those products (to recipes and packaging) based on the reviews. This is a great strategy for a grocery store because they have customers who are, in each visit, both repeat and new customers for different products. The reviews attract users to new products and give them a feedback loop for responsiveness on familiar ones.

The ability of Loblaw to demonstrate, publicly and continuously, how they are responding to customer suggestions, is a huge PR asset. As Charlene and Josh put it:
Everyone who shops knows that products have problems, but it's the rare retailer or manufacturer that actually fixes them. Loblaw has that reputation now, which means a lot to its customers.
Many museums claim to be (or desire to be) accountable to their local communities. What strategies can we pursue to actively receive visitor feedback and suggestions, act on that feedback, and make the whole process as visible as possible? And more importantly, how can these strategies be sustainable parts of our practice instead of one-time gimmicks or marketing campaigns?

Charlene and Josh acknowledge that acting on visitor feedback should not be the sole driver for institutional action. They talk about balancing humility and creativity in our practice. As service organizations (on some level), museums have even more of a responsibility than businesses to serve the needs and interests of the public and user communities. In the best cases, we can involve visitors as participants in ways that positively augment our practice for the benefit of all our stakeholders--participants, spectators, staff, and funders alike.

I admit that I have often jumped directly to "embracing" in exploration of how museums can become more participatory. Reading this book, I am now starting to consider the ways that participatory co-creation follows from a whole set of other actions and experiments, starting with listening to audiences. Museums are all over the map from listening to talking to energizing to helping to embracing visitors--and we can take new steps forward at multiple levels at the same time. You may decide that a progressive strategy is the safest direction for your institution, or you may want to pick and choose the strategies from different stages that are best fits for you. Either way, I hope that this book has helped you (as it has me) prioritize and explore the options available.

3 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

A voting system does seem like a good opportunity to let users be a filter for the museum, but perhaps the language needs to be one that states agreement (Do you agree? Sort of?, etc.) instead of rating from bad to good. Assigning to value to users' comments publicly seems like it might turn people off from contributing at all.

Nina Simon said...


Great point. Many of these systems allow people to "promote" their favorite suggestions but not to rate things explicitly or negatively.

Agreement would also help visitors have some empathy for others' suggestions and really try them out mentally.

Anonymous said...

When I read Groundswell, I was really intrigued by the Credit Mutuel experiment "If I were a banker, I would..." Just with that simple act of asking respondents to put themselves in your shoes, it encourages them to take their suggestions seriously. What kind of fascinating ideas would we get if we asked, "If I were Museum Director, I would..." or "If I were Curator, I would..."!