Future of Engagement #5: Co-creation Communities

Brands and people partner to bring in a new renaissance of creativity.

What are Co-creation Communities?

Co-creation involves organizations, entrepreneurs, artists, experts and people coming together people to create new artifacts including books, movies, music, art, software, products and solutions. Artists, entrepreneurs and organizations benefit from the contributions of community members, while contributors showcase their insights and creativity, and get rewarded in terms of recognition or prizes.

The rise of co-creation can be attributed to three broad trends. First, millions of people all over the world are expressing themselves not only by posting blogs, photos, and videos, but also by hacking software and hardware, and making art and craft. Second, people are increasingly thinking of themselves as creators, showcasing their creations in online portfolios (Behance (video), deviantARTSoundCloud), and selling their creations in peer-to-peer online marketplaces (EtsyCafepressZazzle (video), BandCampLulu). Third, people are teaching each other how to create things (HowcastInstructables (video), Skillshare (video), Craftsy (video)), and learning by making things together, in online (DIY.org) and offline (MakerFaire (video) communities, often building upon easy-to-use open-source kits (Arduino). Author Patricia Martin calls this cultural movement “The Renaissance Generation“.

As a result, we are seeing a number of platforms focusing on different aspects of co-creation. Threadless (video) invites its community members to submit t-shirt designs in theme-based challenges. HitRecord invites artists to upload their creations, remix others’ creations, and participate in collaborative projects. Quirky (video) and Ahhha (video) invite wannabe inventors to collaborate with the community to convert their ideas into products. Cut On Your Bias (video) invites fashion enthusiasts to collaborate with new fashion designers on their upcoming collections. Other platforms, like OpenIDEO (video), which we have covered in our report on collaborative social innovation, focus on bringing together businesses, governments, non-profits and changemakers to co-create innovative and sustainable solutions around a shared purpose.


In the public consciousness, co-creation communities are best known for the free user-created encyclopedia Wikipedia and the free and open source operating system Linux, but they have also resulted in books (The MongoliadBusiness Model Generation), movies (Life in a Day (video), Britain in a Day (video), The Cosmonaut (video), CollabFeature (video)), music (Genetic Music Project) and art (The One Million Masterpiece).

Some of these co-creation platforms and projects have had significant impact. For instance, Threadless’s community of 2.3 million members have submitted and voted on 260,000 t-shirt designs and won $7.1 million in awards. National Geographic and YouTube received 4,500 hours of footage in 80,000 submissions from 192 countries for Life in a Day and the YouTube channel has been viewed 34 million times.

Life in a Day

The success of co-creation platforms like Threadless shows that people don’t only desire to express themselves creatively, but they also want to create together with likeminded creators, in online and offline communities. Equally importantly, the success of co-creation projects like Life in a Day shows that it’s possible to break down big creative endeavors, like making a movie or creating a product, into small tasks, inspire thousands of contributors to engage in the task, then aggregate the contributions back into a meaningful artifact.

How do Co-creation Communities work?

Co-creation communities can be classified across three important dimensions: the relationship between initiators and contributors, the possibilities for participation, and the nature of collaboration.

Typically, the platform owners, or their partner organizations initiate co-creation projects (ThreadlessCut On Your BiasOpenIDEOLife in a Day), but community members can also initiate projects (HitRecordQuirky). On many platforms, community members retain the right to their own contributions, but winners usually give over their rights for prize money, or licensing fees. In some cases, the initiators share the ownership of the project by releasing it under a Creative Commons license.

Most co-creation platforms enable community members to submit contributions, activate their social networks, and rate, vote and comment on contributions. Some also provide gamification features like points and levels to encourage community members to participate more (OpenIDEOQuirky). A few platforms also enable community members to collaborate with others and form teams. Some platforms are more restrictive, and only allow community members to vote on options (Cut On Your Bias).

Most co-creation platforms rely on challenges to attract contributors and encourage participation, so community members often end up competing with each other. However, many co-creation platforms incentivize community members to support others’ contributions by rewarding them with social influence (OpenIDEO) or cash (Quirky), or creating a culture of quid-pro-quo collaboration (Threadless).

In essence, all co-creation communities are designed around four dynamics: connect, catalyze, crystallize, and celebrate. First, platforms need to connect community members around a shared interest so that they have a context to engage with the platform and with each other. Then, platforms need to catalyze contributions, often by running time-bound challenges. Next, platforms need to synthesize these contributions into meaningful artifacts and products. Finally, platforms need to celebrate the most powerful or popular contributions by rewarding them.

Co-creation Communities for Brands

“Consumers are beginning in a very real sense to own our brands and participate in their creation… we need to begin to learn to let go.”
– A. G. Lafley, former CEO and Chairman of P&G

Branded co-creation communities can be classified into three models: branded challenges on niche crowdsourcing platforms, branded co-creation challenge platforms, and ongoing co-creation communities.

In the first model, brands run short-term public or private challenges on niche crowdsourcing platforms to tap into their specialized communities: designers, developers, animators, filmmakers, engineers, or scientists. Challenges typically have phases for entry submission, community voting, and selection of winners by jury members. Creativity-driven challenges related to creative designs, branded videos and animation films (ZooppaPopTent (video), Tongal (video), Eyeka (video), MOFILMSpringleapTalenthouse) are typically public, and winners are often selected based on a combination of community voting and jury judgment. Solution-driven challenges related to software applications, product innovations, and business solutions (Top CoderKaggle (video), Local Motors (video), Innocentive (video), Jovoto (video)) are sometimes private and winners are sometimes selected based on objective technical criteria.


In the second model, brands create their own co-creation challenge platforms to engage their community members and crowdsource branded videos (Doritos Crash the Super bowlPepsi Halftime (video), Tata Indica Xeta Shootout) and product innovations, including limited edition designs (Nescafe Dolce Gusto’s Euro Design ContestCitroen You Like It We Make It (video), Heineken Your Future Bottle (video), Nike ID (video)), new food and beverage flavors (Mountain Dew Dewmocracy (video), Lays Do Us a Flavor (video)), Domino’s Australia Social Pizza (video), McDonald’s Mein Burger (video), Lec Ice Cream), new product designs (Fiat Mio (video)) and business solutions (GE Ecomagination Challenge (video), GE Healthymagination ChallengeGE Imaging Innovation Challenge). Some brands host the challenge on niche crowdsourcing platforms to tap into the community, but also promote them on their own branded destinations (GE Quest (hospital videoflight video), Domino’s Ultimate Delivery Vehicle (video)). Other brands need to create their own branded destinations to provide sophisticated dashboards to community members to pick and choose product options to customize their product (Nike IDMcDonald’s Mein BurgerFiat Mio). Some challenges offer separate community prizes based on community voting, and jury prizes based on jury selection, and some reward community members who offer constructive comments and feedback with prizes.

Fiat Mio

In the third model, brands build and nurture their own co-creation communities and encourage contributions through a series of challenges (Heineken Ideas Brewery (video), Domino’s Think Oven)). The most successful of these co-creation communities, like Nike ID (video), not only run a series of challenges but also create value for consumers between challenges, by enabling them to customize the products on an ongoing basis. Other co-creation communities, like LEGO CUUSOO (video), rely on the almost unlimited passion of their brand fans to sustain engagement, and only need to regularly review popular submissions, and launch them as new products. Several brands have invested heavily in ongoing ideation platforms to co-create the brand experience with their customers and launch product and process innovations based on customer ideas (BarclayCard Ring(video), My Starbucks IdeaDell IdeastormBest Buy IdeaX). These communities rely less on challenges and rewards, and more on community engagement and customer support, to sustain participation from community members.

Nike ID

All the three models need brands to incentivize community members to submit and support contributions. Incentives can range from social influence and gift cards on one extreme, to a Super Bowl TV spot (Doritos Crash the Super bowl), a million dollars or 1% of net revenue (Lays Do us a Flavor), or a $10 million commercial contract (GE Ecomagination Challenge).

Future of Co-creation Communities

Co-creation challenges around crowdsourcing designs, videos and stories have already become the norm for adding a social media component to brand campaigns, and many creators are becoming fatigued with them, forcing brands to support them with bigger paid media budgets, more attractive prizes, and celebrity endorsements. We foresee that, going forward, the best way to run such challenges on a small budget would be to partner with a niche creative crowdsourcing community like Jovoto or MoFilm. We also expect such creative crowdsourcing communities to specialize by country and language, with Neocha Edge in China and Brandfighters in Netherlands being early examples.

At the same time, we expect more brands to run higher order co-creation challenges focused on product innovation and incentivize contributors with a percentage of revenue (Lays Do Us a Flavor), and even create ongoing co-creation platforms to invite ideas from customers (Dell Ideastorm) or enable customers to customize their products (Nike ID). We also expect third-party product innovation communities like Quirky to create end-to-end new product development solutions for brands, beyond ideation.

Author Nilofer Merchant lists co-creation as one of the 11 Rules for Creating Value in the Social Era:

“More and more companies embrace consumers as “co-creation” partners in their innovation efforts, instead of as buyers at the end of a value chain. Consumers, traditionally considered as value exchangers or extractors, are now seen as a source of value creation and competitive advantage. This collaboration shares power between the participants as we start to recognize value creation as an act of exchange, not simply a one-way transaction. As an exchange, all parties need to do it sustainably as each must have equilibrium to stay viable.”

We also expect that more organizations will follow PepsiCo’s example in replicating co-creation best practices across brands (Mountain Dew Dewmocracy, Doritos Crash the Super bowlPepsi Halftime) and countries (Lays Do Us a Flavor), and run them over multiple years (Doritos Crash the Super bowlLays Do Us a Flavor) to maximize the benefit from them.

Even as white label co-creation solutions like MSLGROUP’s People’s LabBrightidea and Spigit mature, we expect more players to enter the markets with niche offerings. Some of them will specialize in platform-specific co-creation apps (like Napkin Labs for Facebook), while others will specialize around use cases (like product customization). We also expect more niche crowdsourcing communities like Zooppa and Innocentive to offer specialized white label solutions for brands to host both short-term and long-term co-creation communities.

Finally, we also expect crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter to differentiate themselves by adding features and incentives to encourage community members to not only fund projects, but also co-create them.

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This is a chapter from a MSLGROUP report titled “Now & Next: Future of Engagement” that I wrote with Pascal Beucler and Nidhi Makhija.

The report highlights the ten most important frontiers that will define the future of engagement for marketers, entrepreneurs and changemakers: CrowdfundingBehavior Change GamesCollaborative Social InnovationGrassroots Change MovementsCo-creation CommunitiesSocial CurationTransmedia Storytelling, Collective Intelligence, Social Live Experiences and Collaborative Consumption.

In each of these reports, we start by describing why they are important, how they work, and how brands might benefit from them; we then examine web platforms and brand programs that point to the future (that is already here); then finish by identifying some of the most important features of that future, with our recommendations on how to benefit from them.

Future of Engagement report on SlideShare

Future of Engagement slide deck on SlideShare

Future of Engagement video infographic on YouTube

Future of Engagement infographic on Visually