Special Coverage

Management Briefing Seminars

TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Google Inc. has a novel idea for auto makers desperate to innovate: Listen to your customers – and your employees, suppliers, dealers and other clients you work with in a business-to-business relationship.

“It’s not a new idea,” says Jim Lecinski, Google managing director-central region.

Speaking at the 2008 Management Briefing Seminars here, Lecinski points to “The Wisdom of Crowds,” a book by James Suroweicki examining how information from groups can prove more accurate than any single person.

He also refers to anthropologist Sir Francis Dalton, who in the late 19th century famously found a state-fair crowd that could estimate the weight of an ox better than butchers and livestock brokers.

“We at Google do not advocate that the wisdom of the crowds can be applied to everything,” Suroweicki assures. “On the flight up here from Chicago, we would not have wanted to navigate by the wisdom of the crowd in the back of the plane. Certainly there is a role for experts and an important one.

“But I would ask: Are you maximizing the use and the application of the crowd – of the folks sitting on the airplane, people driving your cars or using the products you make for cars?”

For example, he says, people use the Wikipedia website, a collaborative information community, more than the Encyclopedia Britannica’s site at a rate of 18:1.

“(Britannica) comes to our office and asks, ‘We don’t get Wikipedia. Who wrote that article? Albert Einstein wrote our article.’” Lecinski says. “People want to be involved, and in this case to the tune of 20 times more. Involvement will pay you back.”

When Hyatt Corp. sought to name its new hotel in Trinidad, it leaned toward Hyatt Port of Spain. But in addition to off-site brainstorming meetings, Lecinski says the hotelier leveraged the product “Google Trends” to determine the popularity of certain search terms. Trinidad consistently scored ahead of Port of Spain among most-popular Internet search terms.

“And I will guarantee you in that off-site meeting there was someone vehemently arguing that calling the hotel Hyatt Port of Spain was highly innovative,” he offers. “But the wisdom of the crowds would tell you otherwise. And sure enough, to this day that hotel is called the Hyatt Regency Trinidad.”

Google does the same when it names its products, says Lecinski. For example, staffers do not produce every “Google Doodle” adorning the company’s logo on its cover page.

Art for the logo’s current Beijing Summer Olympics theme resulted from a contest Google conducted earlier in the year, and the winning work from 20 grade-school students will appear over the 20 days of the event.

“So when we say we need to get more innovative with Google Doodles, we don’t organize an off-site or a brainstorming meeting,” he says. “We tap the wisdom of the crowd, just like Hyatt did. Just like Wikipedia does.”

Google executes a similar strategy to a portion of its Google Maps and Google Earth product development. Google released the software code underlying the products to software developers around the world for further innovation.

MasterCard’s marketing group used the code to build on its “Priceless” campaign, incorporating it over the top of Google Earth, Lecinski says.

The Las Vegas Convention and Tourism board matched photographs from visitors to Google Maps, and students at the University of Colorado at Denver constructed a 3-dimensional image of iconic campus buildings for Google Earth.

“On Google Earth, we can’t figure out the best to way to make 3-D models of every single building around the globe, but we turn that code loose” to developers and users, he says.

As additional examples, Lecinski points to burgeoning websites, such as CrowdSpirit.com and RedesignMe.com, which both seek to improve on the user-friendliness of consumer electronics.

“Literally, companies like Proctor & Gamble Co. submit their projects and products here for the crowd, not design companies, not computer scientists, but just individual end users to redesign,” Lecinski says.

Dell Inc. soon will offer a backlit keypad for its computers that came out of a similar appeal to end-users.

But the only idea Lecinski could find within the auto industry came from Fiat Automobiles SpA, which sought inspiration from bloggers for its new 500 world car, “instead of having internal decisions drive what features, colors, models and bundles are available.”

However, General Motors Corp. last year conducted an Internet poll to determine which of the three minicars it unveiled at the New York International Auto Show in 2007 should be produced for the North American market.

How can auto makers and suppliers rely better on the crowd for innovation? Look to the data, which beats opinion every time, Lecinski says.

“How many of you look at, or have ever looked at, Web logs on a regular basis?” he asks attendees of their data diaries documenting the habits of website-page visitors.

“What’s happening on your websites certainly can affect your marketing program. It can be, and should be, a tremendous source of innovation, because what people are looking at on your website is what they are interested in.”

Google, for example, used its Web logs to develop the cover page for its Picasa photo editing and management software. In short, the company assumed a photograph would help provide the most innovative interface for users, but its Web logs proved otherwise, and today a version appears without a picture.

“Data beat opinion,” Lecinski says. In fact, it drove better than 30% more downloads as Google researched which version worked best.

“There are lots of (Web-log) tools out there, and you can use any one you want, but I would say you need to tap the end-user and your data,” he says.

“In particular, look at the pages where people hit the back button. That’s what we call bounce rate. If people hit the back button, you’ve probably got some work to do there.

“And if people are not hitting the back button, you’re doing something right. So double down on what you’re doing right and work harder on what you’re not.”

Lecinski also advises to examine the choke point, or where users bail from a website altogether. “If you find a choke point, you need to be more innovative, and perhaps you should tap the crowd.”

GM used a similar approach prior to the marketing launch of its redesigned-for-’08 Cadillac CTS sports sedan, he says.

The auto maker produced a batch of Web videos, and instead of making an opinion-based decision, it examined the Web logs to learn what people were viewing, for how long and when they were exiting.

“(GM) found that three videos, in particular, that used a concept around intrigue were really resonating with their end customer. So that’s what they built on. And that’s what the campaign continues to be built on today.”