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The Voice of the Emergent Customer

Certain customers are better than others at giving giving new ideas.

Are some customers better than others at developing new concepts? Professor Donna L. Hoffman1 at the University of California Riverside thinks so. Emergent customers have a unique ability to “wrap their head” around a new concept and improve it. She created a scale to identify them so companies hear the voice of the “right” customer during new product development.

Emergent customers are better at imagining how concepts address latent unmet needs. Dr. Hoffman describes it as a “unique constellation of personality traits and processing abilities that enables such consumers to engage in a synergistic process of visualization and rationalization to improve product concepts.” Those characteristics are:

  • Openness to new experiences
  • Reflection
  • Experiential and rational processing style
  • Verbal (rational style) and Visual (experiential style)
  • Creativity (self perceived)
  • Creative personality
  • Optimism

The study included 1124 respondents and compared performance of those identified as emergent customers against those of lead users, early adopters, and a control group. The emergent customers significantly outperformed the other groups.

How would you put this to use?

  • Market research firms could use the scale to screen research candidates. Emergent customers focus on improving concepts, while “non-emergent” customers judge marketplace acceptance.
  • Companies could learn about their emergent customer's behaviors and beliefs. Do they buy more, use more, or pay more for certain products? Do they use products in a different way? Do they influence other customers?
  • Companies could set up advisory panels of emergent customers to watch for opportunities and threats.

How would emergent customers perform using a structured innovation method? It is tempting to assume they would do better using methods like S.I.T.. These people are more motivated and optimistic. They are more hopeful about the output of innovation workshops and are likely to push harder. Star performers “Google” their mind to make innovative connections and associations in rapid fire fashion. This relates to Dr. Hoffman’s factor of “experiential and rational processing style.”

For innovation workshops, try to include a mix of emergent and non-emergent participants. Perhaps the ideal scenario is pairing them together. As the emergent thinker pushes ideas into new territory, the non-emergent thinker can offer quick feedback. Innovation is a team sport after all.

Researchers have long noted that the “voice of the mainstream customer” is not that useful in developing new products. Instead, finding the Voice of the Emergent Customer could be a new source of competitive advantage.

1Hoffman, Donna L., Kopalle, Praveen K. and Novak, Thomas P., The 'Right' Consumers for Better Concepts: Identifying and Using Consumers High in Emergent Nature to Further Develop New Product Concepts (June 9, 2009). Journal of Marketing Research

Copyright 2013 Drew Boyd

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