Ausgabe 6/2015, Seite 36 | 15-06-36-1

The Barbecue Experiment

Understanding lead users in online communities

Online communities are not longer just a platform for consumers to compare notes on products. They are an opportunity for companies to win insights and understand their customers. Koen van der Wal, Mariska van Brussel and Ruth Anna Wakenhut reveal why lead users are an important factor for success.

Jogging strollers, kiteboards or simply TippEx – quite a few breakthrough innovations are created by users. To catch such literally valuable ideas, companies reach out directly top their customers in order to understand what matters most to the people who purchase their products and services. A growing number of companies even go beyond traditional customer-centric approaches, seeking insights not only from customers but also from lead users.

The Impact of Lead UsersMost consumers can talk about what they know and react to what they see, but only a few can provide insights into how things could or should be: Lead users are seismographs for tomorrow's market. They have a natural instinct for the needs and products that will be relevant and successful in the future. They rarely innovate in isolation, but often participate in open online communities, describing their experiences with products and discussing solutions to problems or product modifications. In recent years we have observed the growing relevance of innovation communities. More and more, companies are discovering the opportunities of online co-creation and open innovation, particularly involving lead users. It seems that the integration of lead users in online communities is a promising addition to traditional lead user studies with visits, interviews and workshops. So what is the role of lead users – the crème de la crème of innovative customers – in online communities? What impact do they have on the output? To answer some of these questions, Metrixlab conducted an experiment. The goal of our experiment was to investigate whether lead users and non-lead users behave differently within the community. Specifically, we wanted to know whether lead users participate more actively and if the quality of their participation is superior to that of non-lead users. Furthermore, we investigated whether a financial reward would compel people to become a member of the community and whether a financial reward motivates people to keep participating actively. Using the software of Kernwert, we set up an online community about barbecuing where people could share their opinions and ideas. The community was online for two weeks, during which we posted a new individual task and/or a new discussion point nearly every day. In doing so, we used various techniques: We initiated polls, uploaded videos and asked respondents individual questions using different methods.

The Power of Extrinsic RewardsBefore we started, we came up with a survey to identify lead users in the panel of Metrixlab. We invited both lead users and non-lead users to participate in the barbecue community. We randomly divided
these respondents in two groups. One group received an invitation stating only that we were interested in their experiences with barbecuing. The other group received the same invitation but was also told that the most active participant in the community would win a course from the Weber Grill Academy and would receive a certain amount of money for each individual task completed. About half of the respondents who received an invitation participated, resulting in a community of 104 respondents. However, we observed that significantly more people joined when they were promised an extrinsic reward. This means that the reward is important in persuading people to become a member of the community.

Activity in the CommunityTo keep the discussion active, we asked some participants to clarify their answers or to give examples. We also sent an email to the respondents in the community whenever there was a new topic online in the community. Here we observed that some members were online very often and that they really liked to participate. They asked questions to other members themselves and also commented on their posts. Unfortunately we did not find significant evidence that the extrinsic reward stimulates the activity level. It does not appear to be necessary to give people an extrinsic reward for every task they complete in the community. Moreover, the fact of being a lead user or not does not influence a member’s activity level.

Quality of the PostsNevertheless, after analysing the posts in the community, we found that the quality of the posts is significantly higher for lead users than for non-lead users. Lead users come up with more valuable comments and ideas than non-lead users. They contributed long posts and very good ideas (some of which were also to help other people in the community solve a barbecue problem). For example, one of the topics was about inventions (whether people had any ideas for a new type of barbecue or whether they had changed anything themselves). A participant posted: ‘Take an old barrel and make a hole in the bottom so that you can put a flexible ventilation tube through it. Halfway of the barrel you place a wire mesh or something similar. At the top of the barrel you need to make a hole for ventilation. Connect the flexible ventilation tube to the barrel. You can attach the end of the tube to ventilation hole on the lid of the BBQ. Light the BBQ and put some meat or fish on the wire mesh in the cold part of the BBQ. The smoke of the BBQ goes through the tube. Nice crafting, nice food.’

Advantageous for CompaniesAbove all, we have learned one important thing from our experiment about lead users: Quality over quantity. Even though lead users do not participate more, the information they share is of better quality than that of non-lead users. Their posts are enriching, creative and insightful. Their innovative ideas and interactivity can have a positive influence on the community. Generally speaking it would be very advantageous for companies to have lead users in their communities.

Koen van der Wal has a background in technology and design. He is Senior Research Manager Product Innovation at MetrixLab.

Mariska van Brussel, MSc Marketing Management, is a researcher at MetrixLab.


Ruth Anna Wakenhut, Sociologist, is Head of International Business at KERNWERT, Berlin.


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