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Exploring characteristics and motives of consumer innovators: community innovators vs. independent innovators: because community users tend to reveal more information more freely than do independent innovators, user communities may offer a valuable resource for firms searching for new product ideas.

The late Steve Jobs once said, "A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them." (Reinhardt 1998). That statement is only partly true. Actually, there are users who know exactly what they want and innovate to solve their own problems. These "user innovators" can be consumers or firms that expect to benefit from using a product or service.

User innovators can potentially serve as a significant source of innovative ideas for firms. Studies have found that user-generated products tend to be ahead of trends and may later be widely adopted by other users (von Hippel 1976; Luthje 2004; Oliveira and von Hippel 2009). Among whitewater kayakers, for instance, user innovators have developed most of the important innovations--and their innovations are frequently more cost-efficient than corporate innovations (Hienerth, yon Hippel, and Jensen 2012). Firms that can foster user innovation or integrate users into their development process enjoy the advantage of understanding users' latent needs (Eisenberg 2011).

While some users innovate on their own, to solve an individual problem or meet a need, others gather in communities focused on a particular activity, such as white-water kayaking or open-source software networks. In the late 1990s, as the Internet became more generally accessible, cooperation among users developed in online communities focused on particular interests; by the early 2000s, researchers began to focus on innovation in these communities, exploring users' activities in them and their motives for product development (Lakhani and Wolf 2003; Franke and Shah 2003). This early work suggested that community user innovators innovate not only out of necessity--because available products do not fulfil a need--but also for other reasons, such as enjoyment and reputation (Raymond 1999; Jeppesen and Frederiksen 2006).

These earlier studies did not explidtly explore the differences between community innovators and lone user innovators. However, they do suggest that some differences must exist. Where individual user innovators innovate alone, community users collaborate with one another in shaping their ideas and developing products, and they are willing to reveal their innovations in the process. Moreover, the emotional motivations researchers identified in community innovators have not been observed in users who innovate on their own.

Our work intends to fill this gap by comparing the motivations and behaviors of community vs. solo user innovators. This perspective is important because it offers an empirical comparison between the two types of user innovators, which can inform firms' decisions about the type of users they should collaborate with and which approaches are most appropriate to motivate user innovators to engage with firms.

Research Background

Reports of the active role played by users in the innovation process began appearing more than 35 years ago (von Hippel 1988). Since then, several studies have investigated user innovation in both industrial products and consumer products, such as sporting equipment (Franke and Shah 2003). Nevertheless, most user innovation research is based on case studies or small-sample studies (Bogers et al. 2010).

From May 2010 to March 2011, we designed and conducted national consumer surveys in Japan and the United States to document users' innovation activity in a wider range of product categories. Then, we compared the results with a national survey conducted in the United Kingdom. In all three countries, approximately 4-6 percent of the total population created or modified their own products. For many, this involved investment of a substantial amount of money and time (von Hippel et al. 2011; Ogawa and Pongtanalert 2011). However, only small numbers of users' product innovations (5-17 percent) were adopted by enterprises or other users. Exploring further, we found that most of the innovators whose creations were widely adopted shared one characteristic-they belonged to communities or clubs related to the areas of their innovations.

Reviewing existing literature, we found that users who belong to communities exhibit specific characteristics. First, community users tend to collaborate with and assist one another (Franke and Shah 2003; Raymond 1999). Second, they tend to share information with other members, including information about innovations they have developed (Morrison et al. 2000). Finally, they develop innovations for a variety of reasons, ranging from enjoyment or ego satisfaction (Lakhani and Wolf 2003) to a desire to help other members (Wasko and Faraj 2000). Some community-based user innovators also seek recognition or financial rewards (Jeppesen and Frederiksen 2006).

Although extensive research has been done to explore the characteristics and motives of community user innovators, little is known about the innovative potential of community users compared to that of independent innovators. This study sheds light on the differences between the two groups and provides ideas about how companies should collaborate with community-based user innovators.


In order to gain deeper insight into the differences between independent users' and community users' characteristics and motives, we conducted a large-scale online survey in Japan in September 2010, with a sample size of 21,027 respondents. The distribution of our panel samples correlates with that of the Japanese population in age, residence, education, and employment. This suggests that our samples are representative of Japan's population.

The questionnaire comprised three parts. The first part collected demographic information, such as gender and education. The second part asked about respondents' experience in creating or modifying products in the previous three years. The third part solicited details of respondents' innovation processes, including questions about the costs of innovating, membership and participation in relevant user communities, and motives for developing products.

In all, 2,000 respondents claimed that they had created or modified products for their own use. In order to select user innovators, we purged the sample in two steps. First, we used screening questions to eliminate responses that described activities that did not qualify as user innovations, focusing on originality and innovativeness. We tested originality by asking respondents whether they knew of others who had developed a "homemade" product similar to their own or if they knew of an equivalent product available on the market. Products for which respondents replied "yes" were excluded from the sample. With regard to innovativeness, we asked respondents to rate the new features or functions and the level of innovativeness of the products they created. In cases where respondents reported a creation or modification did not have new functions beyond those of an existing product, or where the performance gain was less than 10 percent over the existing product, we eliminated that innovation from our sample. The next step was to appraise the free-format responses. Three members of the research team examined and discussed these descriptive responses, rejecting a number of responses that lacked novelty, such as "I created a tutorial book for crane driving. I added some pictures for better understanding," as well as responses that indicated a job-related driver for the innovation, such as "I created a website customization program because I was asked by my client."

A significant number of qualified respondents (17 percent) described multiple innovations; however, we count the number of innovators, not the number of innovations. In the end, only 29.3 percent (n = 585) of respondents met our criteria and were classified as consumer innovators. (1) We divided this sample into two groups: community innovators and independent innovators. Community innovators were those who belonged to communities related to the areas in which they innovated, and independent innovators were those who invented independently, without participating in such communities. On the basis of screening questions, 7.4 percent of users (n = 43) were identified as community innovators and 91.3 percent (n = 534) as independent innovators; 1.3 percent of users (n = 8) who replied they did not know whether they belonged to communities or not were excluded, leaving 577 respondents in the sample for analysis.

We conducted chi-square and t-test analyses to investigate the differences between community and independent innovators across demographic variables, behavioral characteristics, and the diffusion of innovations. Both groups exhibited similar demographic characteristics, except in marital status and age (Table 1). Single people were more likely to develop products in communities while married people were more likely to be individual innovators, and the average age of community innovators (37 years old) was lower than that of individual innovators (46 years old).

Questions regarding innovation quality and the behavioral characteristics of innovators yielded mixed results (Table 2). We asked the respondents to rate the originality and innovativeness of their own products, with similar results for both community and independent innovators. However, community and independent innovators had different rates of adoption for their innovations; 86.0 percent (n = 37) of community innovators' products were adopted by other users or organizations, whereas only 62.9 percent (n = 336) of independent innovators' products were adopted. The result of the chi-square analysis indicates that community innovators' products are more likely to be adopted by firms than are independent innovators' products. Behaviorally, community innovators reported seeking and receiving help from others more often than did independent innovators, and they more frequently said that they shared details of their innovations with others.

Community innovators tended to report different motives for product creation or modification efforts than independent innovators, as well. While respondents in both groups reported taking on development activities out of necessity, because no existing products could meet their needs, community innovators tended to identify a broader range of motives beyond need (Table 3). They told us that they developed innovations because they enjoyed doing so or because they wanted to improve their skills, help others, and gain respect.

In line with these motivations, community innovators tended to reveal their innovations to others for specific reasons--because they wanted to be accepted or recognized in the community, they wanted their ideas to be developed further, they wanted their ideas to be accepted by others, or they expected some reward (Table 4). Independent innovators, in contrast, tended to reveal their innovations without a strategic plan or specific expectations. They reported revealing ideas because they "seemed useful to others" or because "other people became interested and asked me to reveal."


Our data revealed that community and independent innovators are demographically similar and report similar levels of innovativeness and originality, although they exhibit marked differences in behavioral characteristics and motivations for innovating. The adoption rate for community innovators' innovation was higher.

Ultimately, community innovators are significant for firms researching and developing new products for a number of reasons. First, user communities can provide a platform for innovators to share their inventions and help one another during product development. Community members listen to community innovators, share their thoughts on their ideas, and help solve problems in the innovation process. Thus, community innovators' products are more viable candidates for adoption by firms because they have already been tested, discussed, or modified by other community users. Independent innovators' products may be equally innovative, but these solitary inventors do not have a chance to expose others to their innovations during development, so the innovations are less well known and less likely to be tested by others.

The participation of the community in the innovation process also offers other advantages for practitioners. The community's reaction to an innovation can help firms predict the market size and commercial attractiveness of user innovations. An innovation with a high level of attention from other members is more likely to be welcomed in the market as well. Ultimately, it is far less risky to commercialize a product that is already approved by community members in the relevant market. An independent innovator's innovation may be unique and attractive, but its success in the market is more difficult to predict.

Communities also offer a sustainable source of ideas. Our results show that user innovators as a group innovate once a year on average. This is similar to independent innovators, who are limited, by time and other resources, to one or two innovations per year. However, given the number of users in a community, although each user might develop a new product or idea only infrequently, there is a high possibility that someone in the group is engaged in developing an innovation at any given time, particularly in very active communities.

Collaborating with Community Innovators

Community innovators know their needs--and those of their fellow community members--and develop novel products to meet those needs. Collaboration with these individuals offers firms unique opportunities to understand user perspectives and access innovative ideas and products. But to deliver value for the firm, collaboration with user communities and community innovators must be approached thoughtfully. Three points must be considered: finding consumer innovators, managing the collaboration process, and motivating community innovators to continue collaborating (Figure 1).

Finding Community Innovators

There are several avenues for identifying community innovators: companies can look for existing communities to tap, establish their own communities, or make contact via third-party platforms or intermediaries.

The most general approach is to look for existing consumer communities related to the product brand, to a product in the same category, or to related activities. Internet search engines are useful in identifying fan pages or online communities. Product-related magazines, seminars, and clubs are also plausible resources. Nike used this approach when its staff asked for product feedback from members of Niketalk, an independent online community of Nike fans. The fans were enthusiastic and willing to share their thoughts for shoe designs free of charge. Eventually, one of the leading members who continually published his own shoe designs to the community was hired as a basketball footwear designer at Nike (Ffiller, Jawecki, and Muhlbacher 2007). In this exchange, Nike gained not only a productive, engaged new employee but also unbiased feedback about its products and ideas for new product development.

The second approach is to establish a community, such as an exclusive club or an online platform focused on the product or brand. A number of well-known brands such as Starbucks and Harley Davidson host their own communities. However, this pattern is not limited to famous brands. Venture companies or small businesses can also establish their own communities. The key success factor is to specify the right target groups and provide attractive content and incentives for participating. Tamara Monosoff developed a device to prevent her children from unspooling toilet paper from the roll and successfully commercialized her invention. Although her product attracted a lot of interest from the media, she struggled in developing her own business. Realizing how hard it is for a mother who has an idea but doesn't know how to create a business, she established, an online community for mothers who invent products and want to be entrepreneurs. Monosoff promoted her community through social networks such as Twitter as well as press media aimed at her target market and also published a book, The Morn Inventors Handbook: How to Turn Your Great Idea into the Next Big Thing. By using both online and conventional tools, she attracted about 20,000 mothers to her group. Members exchange tips and provide support to each other; Tamara provides market information and business advice and helps inventors commercialize their products. Products developed by members, offered under the Mom Invented brand, are currently sold in over 9,000 stores in the United States.

The third approach is to collaborate via third-party platforms or websites that offer users tools for product development or an opportunity to share ideas. and are examples of online platforms that collect users' ideas and turn them into real products. These platforms serve as connectors between companies and users. They can be good partners when companies want to hold idea contests or discussion forums with target users. For instance, Nestle Japan worked with to solicit new product ideas for Kit Kat. In Japan, Kit Kat is popular among students because the brand name sounds similar to the Japanese phrase "kitto-katsu," which means "surely win." Students eat Kit Kat before exams for good luck. Since 2009, Nestle Japan has targeted students through its annual Student Innovation College (S-college) project, which challenges university students to create new product ideas for Kit Kat. Participants post their ideas on Nestle's site; other users rate and comment on posted ideas. After elaborating their ideas, participants ask other CUUSOO users to order the product. Ideas are evaluated based on the number of pre-orders and the presentation of the idea. The creators of winning ideas work with the Nestle marketing team to elaborate and commercialize the products they proposed. One of the products that was commercialized was Puzzle Kit Kat, which packaged the candy with a twelve-piece blank puzzle that buyers could write good luck messages on and send to friends, who would have to complete the puzzle to read the message. So far, three products have been commercialized in limited editions and all have sold out.

Managing the collaboration process

Different types of innovations call for different approaches to and mechanisms for collaboration. At the simplest level, companies can monitor appropriate communities to keep informed about users' feedback in their industries as Nike does with Niketalk. This can yield valuable ideas, as users may use products differently from what companies expect or approach products from a perspective that companies have not previously been aware of.

The next level is to seek user input via questionnaires or polls, idea contests, or participation in online communities. Local Motors, the first crowdsourced automobile company, collaborates with community users in building cars. The company posts projects on its own online community. Community members submit designs or vote for other members' designs in a monthly contest. The company collaborates with winners to design and assemble their cars. Local Motors' community collaboration has enabled the company to design new automobiles five times faster with 100 times less cost than conventional methods. MUJI is another brand that is enthusiastic about involving innovators in their projects. Since 2002, the company has collaborated with to host a community platform where users submit their ideas or designs for designated products, such as furniture or a clock. If the idea wins a specified number of supporters in the community, MUJI will ask for interested users to preorder the product. If the number of pre-orders exceeds a minimum level, the product is developed as a MUJI product. The company has commercialized a number of user-designed products, including a beanbag sofa, a bookshelf that doesn't damage wails, and a portable lamp (Ogawa and Piller 2006). The sales of these products were 2-6 times higher than sales of similar, company-designed products. The beanbag sofa, first offered in 2002, has become a longstanding top-five seller and continues to sell well.

Ultimately, firms may select outstanding community innovators to collaborate in product development on a long-term basis (Antorini et al. 2012). LEGO invited high-skilled users from the community to participate in a complex, long-term project to co-create LEGO products. Some software companies recruit outstanding members from communities such as the Apache and LINUX communities. As these lead users are opinion leaders in their communities, collaboration with them can generate market acceptance and diffusion (Hienerth and Lettl 2011), as well as bringing expertise to the product development process.

Motivating community innovators

Community innovators develop products for various reasons. Some invent for pleasure, while others seek recognition or simply want to be of help to others. Community innovators who reveal information about their innovations have more specific expectations than do independent innovators. Firms would be well advised to tailor incentives for collaboration to these motives and expectations.

Companies may use a range of mechanisms to motivate community innovators to collaborate (Table 5). Users in brand-centered communities, such as those that have emerged around LEGO and Nike, are likely to be motivated to participate and reveal their innovations by a desire to be recognized by the firms. Communities where users create content such as music or apps may provide enjoyment and reputation benefits to users. In open-source software communities, users share their innovations to build reputation or simply to help others. Some third-party platforms such as Innocentive provide monetary incentive for users to offer ideas.


Previous user innovation studies have found that user innovators are a significant and promising source of ideas for firms. We found significant differences between the characteristics and motives for innovation among community innovators versus independent innovators, and these characteristics and motivations affect the diffusion and adoption of innovation. Compared to independent innovators, community innovators are more likely to receive assistance from others in the development process and more likely to share information with others or firms. Further, community innovators' products tend to be adopted or copied by other users and firms more often than those of independent innovators. These characteristics exist in general consumer products, and not just in specific market categories such as software and sports. Thus, communities represent a potentially valuable source of innovation for firms.

Every company seeks to staff its R&D department with talented inventors with a passion for the brand and its products, a stream of new ideas, and the ability to provide unbiased feedback on product ideas. Our study indicates that community innovators can be those ideal figures. If they are properly motivated, they will enthusiastically collaborate with firms in exploring new ideas and developing innovative products that customers want.

The authors are grateful to Professor Christina Raasch, Professor Johann Fuller, Professor Frank Piller, and Professor Eric von Hippel for their insightful comments and helpful suggestions. We also appreciate suggestions from four reviewers and the editor. The research project was generously funded by Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research no. 22330130 from the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology.



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Susumu Ogawa is a professor of marketing at the Graduate School of Business Administration at Kobe University in Kobe, Japan. He holds a PhD in management from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His research area is marketing and innovation management.

Kritinee Pongtanalert holds a Master's degree in marketing from the Graduate School of Business Administration at Kobe University. She currently serves as a lecturer of marketing at the Faculty of Commerce and Accountancy at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand.

(1) The differences between invention and innovation have been debated. Economists and business scholars define innovation as the process of bringing invention into commercial use. Invention, in contrast, refers to the development of a new idea for a product or process (Godin 2006) and is thus an act of intellectual activity without economic impact (Schumpeter 1934). In other words, invention may be considered a purely intellectual exercise unrelated to problem solving, or it may be seen as an early step in the innovation process.

We use the term "innovator" because the respondents included in our analysis did not just invent things but actually implemented their creations or modifications, and some of them diffused their ideas to others or organizations.

TABLE 1. Demographic characteristics of community innovators and
independent innovators

                                Community    Independent
                                Innovators   Innovators
                                (n = 43)     (n= 534)      p-value

Gender                                                     0.339

Male                            44.2%(18)    49.4%(264)
Female                          58.1%(25)    50.6%(270)
Marital Status                                             0.002

Married                         46.5%(20)    70.4%(376)

Single                          53.5%(23)    29.6%(158)

Education Level                                            0.229

Undergraduate level or higher   62.8%(27)    59.6%(318)
High school or beyond           27.9%(12)    36.1%(193)
Less than high school           9.3%(4)      4.3%(23)

Type of Education                                          0.524

Science/Engineering             37.2%(16)    30.1%(161)
Social Sciences                 34.9%(15)    43.1%(230)
Others                          27.9%(12)    26.8%(143)    _

Employment                                                 0.063

Employed/Self-employed          48.8%(21)    47.8%(255)
Retired/Other                   23.3%(10)    36.5%(195)
Student/ Unemployed             27.9%(12)    15.7%(84)

User Total Monthly Spending                                0.369

Less than $300                  53.5%(23)    58.1%(310)
$300 to $700                    30.2%(13)    32.4%(173)
More than $700                  16.3%(7)     9.6%(51)

Family Total Monthly Spending                              0.082

Less than $3,000                51.2%(22)    66.5%(355)
$3,000 to $6,000                37.2%(16)    27.9%(149)
More than $6,000                11.6%(5)     5.6%(30)

TABLE 2. Innovation quality, adoption rate, and behavioral
characteristics of community innovators and independent innovators

                                 Community    Independent
                                 Innovators   Innovators
                                 (n = 43)     (n = 534)     p-value
Innovation quality

New features or functions        83.7%(36)    76.8%(410)    0.70

Level of Innovativeness
(Significant extension of
existing capability)

1. More than 25% better than     32.6%(14)    39.3%(210)    0.12
existing products

2. 10-25% better than existing   20.9%(9)     9.9%(53)

3. 0-10% better than existing    18.6%(8)     12.2%(65)

Adoption rate                    37.2%(16)    10.1%(54)     0.00

Behavioral characteristics

Seeking assistance from others   44.2%(19)    9.6%(51)      0.00

Sharing innovations              86.0%(37)    62.9%(336)    0.00

TABLE 3. Community vs. independent innovator motives for innovating

                                Community    Independent
                                Innovators   Innovators
I createaimoamea a product      (n = 43)     (n = 534)     p-value
oecause ...

I needed it myself.             60.5%(26)    53.7%(287)    0.395

I enjoyed doing it.             55.8%(24)    34.6%(185)    0.005

I wanted to learn or develop    34.9%(15)    12.0%(64)     0.000
my skills.

I wanted to help someone else   18.6%(8)     7.9%(42)      0.016
with the item created.

I wanted to improve my          9.3%(4)      2.6%(14)      0.015
reputation or gain respect.

It was less expensive than      23.3%(10)    31.8%(170)    0.243
purchasing an existing market

Firms or others could not       9.3%(4)      10.5%(56)     0.807
fulfill my needs.

TABLE 4. Community vs. independent innovator motives for sharing
                                 Community      Independent
I shared the details             Innovators     Innovators
of the product because ...       (n = 37 (a))   (n = 336 (a))   p-value

I wanted my idea to be           54.1%(20)      16.4%(55)       0.00
accepted (admired) by others
or firms.

I wanted my idea to be further   48.5%(18)      16.0%(56)       0.00
developed by others

I expected my idea to be         24.3%(9)       6.0%(20)        0.00
accepted by others or
firms and that I might receive
some financial reward.

I had benefited from others'     18.9%(7)       9.8%(33)        0.09
ideas before (fairness).

I created without any            29.7%(11)      52.4%(176)      0.01
particular reason (i.e.,
without expecting any

I had other reasons.             2.7%(1)        18.8%(63)       0.01

(a) Analysis for this question includes only innovators who reported
sharing information about their innovations.

TABLE 5. Examples of incentives for collaboration

Brand                  Product Category    Types of Incentives

Hatsune Miku           Online              Recognition/Reputation

Foldit                 Game                Recognition/Reputation
(Cooper et al. 2010)

Quirky                 Consumer products   Recognition/Monetary

NASA (Lakhani and      Science             Recognition/Monetary
Tushman 2012)                              reward

IdeaFetch              Pet-related         Recognition/Monetary

Mom Invented           Baby and child      Skill improvement/Monetary
                       products            reward/Recognition

Kit Kat                Food                Skill improvement/Enjoyment

Brand                  Description

Hatsune Miku           Users can upload designs on the community site.
                       Others can "like" designs or send messages to

Foldit                 Online puzzle game about protein folding
(Cooper et al. 2010)   launched by the biochemistry lab at the
                       University of Washington allows users to attain
                       scores, status, and rankings for successful
                       protein folds. The highest scoring solutions
                       are analyzed by researchers.

Quirky                 Users submit ideas or designs for new products
                       on the website. Quirky selects the best ones
                       and develops them into real products. Users
                       earn payment as percentage of the sales
                       determined by their contribution.

NASA (Lakhani and      Contest executed in collaboration with
Tushman 2012) solicited ideas for space
                       equipment and offered monetary reward of
                       $30,000 for best ideas.

IdeaFetch              Contest solicited ideas for pet products,
                       offering a $40,000 prize for the best idea,
                       which would be developed and commercialized.
                       Other community members voted for the best

Mom Invented           The company offers business advice to mothers
                       who want to start a business. Successful
                       products are commercialized by Mom Invented,
                       with inventors receiving a share of the revenue.

Kit Kat                "S-college" project challenged students in
                       Japan to develop new products for Kit Kat.
                       Students posted their ideas on the contest
                       website and talked with consumers to shape
                       their ideas. They gained valuable experience
                       in working with the Nestle professional
                       marketing team.
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Title Annotation:FEATURE ARTICLE
Author:Ogawa, Susumu; Pongtanalert, Kritinee
Publication:Research-Technology Management
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:May 1, 2013
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