The term "customer participation" is sometimes used interchangeably with "customer engagement," but to do so misses the mark on why the former is so much more than the latter.

What is customer participation, anyway?

The best way to understand customer participation is to see it as a higher level of customer engagement.

Customer engagement is an umbrella term for any type of communication between a business and its customer, and there are differing degrees of engagement. Some tactics, such as connecting with brand fans on social media or via e-newsletters, fall into the lower level of engagement, because they tend to be episodic and superficial.

Customer participation falls into the high-touch end of the spectrum, because it fosters ongoing collaboration and communication between the customer and the brand.

Participation is more than feedback and collecting insights/survey data. It's about actively involving customers in important aspects of the brand and business—from innovation to marketing.

Customer participation encourages brand loyalty because it makes your customers feel that their opinions are valued and that they are invested in the growth of your brand.

What does GDPR have to do with it?

The implementation of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2018 raised awareness about privacy concerns, including what brands are doing with customer data and how they're protecting the rights of consumers.

To comply with GDPR, many companies will simply revise a privacy policy and get consumers to consent through a double opt-in process, improve their email marketing practices, and enable a customer to withdraw their consent.

But that isn't enough: It's the bare minimum of how brands should respect and engage with consumers. Brands need to begin thinking above and beyond privacy and toward participation.

Instead of worrying about how to get customers to opt in to receiving marketing messages or completing surveys, the smartest brands—those that will not merely survive but surpass the competition—are the ones that truly understand how to create an experience that customers want to be part of, giving customers the opportunity to work with the brand itself to create together.

The Value of Co-Creation

Co-creation has been talked about for years by academics and business professors who have acknowledged it as the future of innovation. But by actually providing a platform for innovation, creativity, and collaboration...

  • You create an engaged community that customers want to be part of.
  • You can incubate ideas grounded in research that are vetted by a small army of brand fans.
  • Those fans will then be willing to put their passion, insights, and unique experiences with your brand into practice to help you.

Co-creation is a natural evolution of crowdsourcing—the practice of putting out an open call for ideas to an interested group. But crowdsourcing has its limitations, and that is where customer participation comes in.

Customer participation takes advantage of our propensity for always-on access and mobile and social connectivity, and takes from proven innovation and creativity methods, such as design thinking and creative problem solving.

It turns the process into a community experience that is interactive and thought-provoking, and it makes the customer feel as if they're part of the brands they admire. They become part of a team of equally passionate yet diverse fans where their ideas collide and feed off each other. Those ideas are built on and then implemented together, with the support of fellow community members and key brand employees and stakeholders themselves.

Protecting What's Important

What brands should really be protecting is not just customer data or their own authenticity, but rather the collective intellectual capital of their customers. It's about viewing customers less as passive consumers of products and ads, and more as valuable participants in innovation processes, helping to achieve overarching brand purpose and promise.

Co-creation creates more value for both sides than any social share or 10-second video view could. It brings together a community of fans who want to be there to see their ideas come to life, and to partner with organizations that share a common purpose and values.

Real products are being introduced into the market that customers have demanded and co-created in an environment where the community supported their favorite ideas. There's nothing more rewarding than seeing a product you designed now on the shelves—or, better yet, sold out. A great example is LEGO Ideas: 20 fan-designed LEGO kits have been produced and commercialized—each of them having started with an initial idea from a passionate LEGO fan. And LEGO awards the creators a 1% royalty on net sales.

Customer participation protects brands' relationships with their customers. It shows customers that you want to hear, and consider, their ideas on areas like product innovation and marketing.

How Customer Participation Builds Trust

If true engagement means caring, sharing, and being part of something, then customer participation through co-creation checks all those boxes. Customers will share more about themselves because they want to be there—to open up and share their ideas, insights, and experiences—and be part of the community and co-creation creative experience.

They're also made to feel part of an exclusive club of the most passionate, dedicated, and creative "prosumers" out there. They can be given early access to co-created products and benefit first from process and product improvements, including loyalty programs, that the co-creative community dreamed up and then implemented together.

Not to mention they can play a starring role in the marketing campaigns that bring those new products to the masses—campaigns and content that are also co-developed with real customers and fans.

How to Get Started

In today's competitive business landscape, the time to invest in customer participation is now. Customer participation trumps customer engagement. When you have built a community of passionate customers who get to co-create a better future with their favorite brands, it makes the next GDPR-like alarm a nonissue.

More Resources on Customer Participation

Five Ways to Ensure Customer Participation With Mobile Storybuilding

Engage Customers and Generate Leads With Interactive Content

How to Nurture the Five Stages of Customer Advocacy

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How Customer Participation Builds Trust in the Age of GDPR

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image of David Gardner

David Gardner is VP of marketing at Chaordix, a leader in customer-driven innovation and co-creation software, working with diverse global brands.

Twitter: @David11Gardner

LinkedIn: David Gardner