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How and Why Online Consumers Get Creative, and Why It Matters: A New Article With a Set of Frameworks

C3PONo, this is definitely not Andrea Hemetsberger pictured here. In my last blog posting, I wrote about Andrea Hemetsberger and the rest of the faculty at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. Andrea and I have been talking about our research interests for at least 5 years, planning various projects that are now beginning to come to fruition.

“But what does this have to do with everyone’s favorite golden gleaming android and authority on human-cyborg relations,” you may ask, fanboys and fangirls? You’re going to have to read on….

Last year at the European Association for Consumer Research meeting in Milan, Italy, Andrea and I presented a paper we were working on that offered a typology of the way online consumers create in communities. We were working at that time with a number of different ideas, but were trying to organize some of the key terms and research findings in the area of open source and creative consumer online communities, such as those I’ve studied in the areas of fandom and entertainment, food, and automotive products. We ended up with a presentation based around a 2 X 2 matrix that captured some of the key elements of creative online communities.

We’re seriously lacking in terminology for this new and growing field. There are too many words in some of these terms. So at least for today I’m calling them…..C3PO: Creative Consumer Communities (3 C-words) Producing Online.

After we had presented, we began talking with Hope Schau of the University of Arizona. Hope has been working in areas of online consumption and online creativity for all her career. She had lots of great insight and examples to contribute.

My Schulich colleague Detlev Zwick was co-editing a special issue of the Journal of Macromarketing about ICT: Information and Communication Technologies. He and his co-editor Nik Dholakia invited us to contribute something and we thought immediately of building the C3PO typology. And then we thought about collaborating with Hope and building an article out of it.

As the paper moved through the revision process, it gained a lot from the contact with the Journal of Macromarketing. The journal, if you aren’t familiar with it, says that it “examines important social issues, how they are affected by marketing, and how society influences the conduct of marketing. The journal typically concentrates on these topics:

  • How markets and marketing systems operate
  • Classical and nontraditional examinations of the role of marketing in socio-economic development
  • The origins, growth, and development of marketing history as an activity and marketing thought
  • The marketing of products, services, or programs to enhance the quality of life for consumers, households, communities, countries, and regions
  • Explanatory theory, empirical studies, or methodological treatment of tests for topics of greatest interest to macromarketing scholars, including competition and markets, history, globalization, the environment, socio-economic development, ethics and distributive justice, and quality of life.”

This orientation is quite unique, and it means that the journal published papers that broaden market out to its social implications-offering an interesting sociological and macroeconomic spin on marketing topics.

The article we wrote, and just published in the December 2008 issue offers up a way to understand how online technologies help to spur different types of online community innovation (and yes, I’ll say it again, just for the fun of it, C3PO).

Here is an extended abstract for the article.

If you look at past theories of consumer innovation and creativity, you will find that they have been devised for an age before the emergence of the profound collaborative possibilities of ICT. With the diffusion of networking technologies into consumers’ lives, collective innovation is taking on new forms that are transforming the nature of consumption and work and, with it, society and marketing.

In this article, Andrea, Hope and I theorize, examine, dimensionalize and organize these forms and processes of online collective consumer innovation. We look at Manuel Castells’ ideas and theories of informationalism, and extend them. Then, we follow this macro-social paradigm shift into grassroots regions that have irrevocable impacts on businesses and society.

A central proposal in the paper is that, in this early and initial phase of our understanding of this phenomenon, business and society need categories and procedures to guide their interactions with this powerful and growing phenomenon. That’s how theoretical understanding will move forward.

To serve these needs, we build on past literature and terminology, and also broaden and open up some definitions of our own. We classify and describe four types of online creative Crowds, Hives, Mobs and Swarmsconsumer communities-Crowds, Hives, Mobs, and Swarms.

  • Crowds are large, organized groups who gather or are gathered together specifically to plan, manage, and/or complete particular tractable and well defined projects, such as those who will gather to compete for a million dollars in this year’s Crash the Superbowl ad content, or to get paid more than professional designers to create T-shirts for Threadless
  • Hives are online communities whose members contribute a relatively greater amount to the community, but who also produce innovations specifically to respond to particular challenges or to meet particular project goals such as those at Niketalk or
  • Mobs are communities based around the contributions of specialists who speak to a relatively homogenous affinity or interest groups, and whose contributions are oriented to a communo-ludic spirit of communal play and lifestyle exchange. An example would be the individuals who create, contribute to, and maintain, or the Huffington Post, or the Slave to Target blog
  • Swarms are the often large and multitudinous communities that produce individually small individual contributions that occur as a part of more natural or free-flowing cultural or communal practices, such as the typical Web 2.0 communities working to benefit Amazon, Flickr, Wikipedia or Netflix

Our conclusion is that there are a variety of In the age of online communities, collective innovation is produced both as an aggregated byproduct of everyday information consumption and as a result of the efforts of talented and motivated group of innovative etribes. Marketers and social pundits need to make distinctions, stratetize, plan and draw conclusions accordingly.

The full article is available free to my blog readers using this link to the “Wisdom of Consumer Crowds: A Journal of Macromarketing Article.”

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