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The Power Of The Super Consumer

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The Power Of The Super Consumer

I was working last week with the marketing directors of a multinational biotechnology company. It manufactures a device that alleviates the symptoms of a commonly occurring affliction.

We were running five groups of patients to identify whether the device was working to their satisfaction and to learn more about their perceptions of the condition. But it was clear from the outset that something was very, very wrong with our focus groups.

Our trained moderators lost control of the groups within minutes. We expected, indeed hoped, that the groups would set the agenda, but this was ridiculous. Each group was interrogating their moderator about the company, its planned products, business strategy and, in one instance, a recent corporate acquisition.

Even worse, despite the fact that our moderators were all company employees with years of product experience, many of the patients appeared to be much more knowledgeable than them. Within 20 minutes most groups were on the verge of breakdown.

It was only later that evening, as I reviewed our recruitment strategy for the groups, that I was able to confirm the problem. We had invited participants to attend from a list of patients supplied to us by a leading charity and inevitably this list and those who responded to our mailing were skewed away from typical patients and toward lead users. Lead users are ‘super consumers’. They occur in every market, usually arriving at the head of the adoption curve. They have a much greater degree of product expertise and develop stronger brand relationships with the manufacturing organization. They also have an incredible influence on the rest of the market, which tends to perceive them as experts and values their opinion higher than any other source of information.

As my focus group experience suggests, lead users can be tricky. For example, they are being blamed for the poor performance of movies at cinemas. Ten years ago a big, but bad movie, was guaranteed only a 40% drop-off in sales from its opening week to its second week. Now that figure is rising well above the 50% mark and lead users with phones are to blame.

Movie studios were once able to ‘buy their gross’, meaning, as Miramax chief operating officer Rock Sands once admitted, “You could buy your gross sales for the weekend (with advertising) and overcome bad word of mouth, because it took time to filter out into the general audience.” Now, apparently, lead cinema users who attend first-night showings are texting their friends in the mass market to warn them away from imminent turkeys.

Of course, lead users can also be a positive. For a decade 3M has actively courted lead users in its various markets. It uses research (and its innovation center not to understand these consumers, but rather to find out what they would advise 3M to do next. In many instances 3M simply learns how a lead user has already modified (and thus improved) an existing product. It then adopts these insights directly from the lead user in order to increase its appeal to the mass market. A case of 3M, quite literally, leading by example.

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