Can You Crowdsource New Food Products?

Is crowdsourcing a feasible way to test new food products? The other day, as I was exiting the Harvard Red Line station, I was offered a new nutritional bar to try. I had the typical Boston response: put my head down and pretend not to see anything. But afterward I kept thinking about this experience. The small group that I exited the t-stop with also refused to take the new bar with them.

My own immediate response—to refuse the food—was actually strange to me. I am interested in pursuing a career in the food industry, and am particularly interested in products like Luna Bars, Balance Bars, and other healthy energy products. That made me think: if I, a person who actually is interested in creating my own food product, turns down a free sample in the product category that I want to be in, how many samples did they actually get out that day? And of the people who actually took the product, how many spent the time to actually fill-out online feedback forms that told the testers what they liked/didn’t like about the product?

As we have been particularly focused on crowdsourcing, it made me wonder: can you digitally crowdsource food market research?

Think about it: you follow a company like Clif Bar on Twitter. They tweet that they are testing out a new product, like a harvest-flavored Luna Bar in preparation for fall, and to direct message the company with an address if you would like to be a tester of the new flavor. Immediately you are creating a more efficient system of market testing then standing at the entrance to a T handing out free samples. Instead of creating test groups from scratch (expensive and time consuming), you are having people volunteer themselves as market testers.

As market testers will have digitally self-volunteered, I am hypothesizing a number of positive implications. There will be a higher percentage of people will give feedback—Twitter volunteers have already identified themselves as people who like to try new products. Rather then a random individual being given a product on the street, and the company hoping that they both actually try the food and give feedback on the taste, these people are already interested in being guinea pigs.

It will be easier to gather data—both on the product and the market testers themselves. Think about it: the company can track the package that contains the product sample, and once it arrives, send a link to an online feedback form to their Twitter direct message. You can have a daily reminder message that is sent if they don’t immediately fill out the form.

Also, you would be able to gather data on the sample market testers from their Twitter accounts. The implications for this are immense: you could start creating your target market based on the segmentation that you see within the market testers. For instance, say that you see, based on Twitter profiles, that the majority of the people testing your product are from the New England area, and follow a large amount of health food and exercise profiles. You can begin segmenting based on that few information alone, but could potentially get much more specific. Maybe you notice a significant number of your testers are bikers, as they are following specific professional bikers, companies, etc. This gives you insight into potential advertising avenues that would be the most effective (i.e. jerseys at the Tour de France, or specific websites).

You could potentially bring this much further: if Twitter was shown to be an effective mode of market testing, you could create a hashtag that was for product feedback (say for Clif Bar they could use #testingtheClif). Not only would this be another area for people to give feedback (for example “ready for fall: loved the new harvest flavor!! #testingtheClif”), Twitter users would be exposed to potential publicity, the new product could build up hype, the company would get free exposure (as other users who were following the company could see the hashtags), and you create an online community of dedicated consumers.

There are a lot of available avenues when it comes to the food industry and technology. Some companies in the restaurant industry understand the power that social media can have on their brand. Having restaurant fans upload pictures of their experiences, or replying via Yelp reviews for good (or bad) feedback. These are “market research” for restaurants: that were done for free. People like commenting, posting, taking pictures, talking, really sharing anything about food. Why can’t this be done in a concentrated fashion for food products as well?

 

5 comments

  1. s_courtney18 · ·

    As a former brand ambassador for Hubert’s Lemonade at BC, I have always been surprised by the reaction of students and potential consumers turning down an offer of a free sample, but a lot of times this is at least a somewhat effective way for brand names to become more recognizable. In regards to the part about food companies specifically, your idea of segmented crowdsourcing is a path that many companies should be utilizing because of the free marketing and customer opinions involved. Would you ever think that this is reaching such a specific crowd that the opinions received back do not accurately represent what a larger group would think? Yes, it does appeal to people that are already consumers of the product, but could this move also negatively affect new customer growth by only listening to people that are extremely willing to try the product?

  2. Actually, many companies have done that approach you suggest. The one I know most is Lego, which has a lego user group that continues to advise them on new product development. The downside, of course, is that you’re optimizing on the people that already like your product, which may not help you get new customers with your innovations.

  3. britt_hopkins4 · ·

    I loved this post. This is such a unique perspective that definitely works. I am one of the Co-Presidents of BC Relay For Life and at our event we have a lot of new food brands that come and give samples to the participants. This is a great opportunity for them to get their name out to about 2,000 students. It has worked really well. I have seen new brands becoming staples in the dining hall from this. But I do think that in this situation crowdsourcing does not apply. You’ll see half of a friend group get a sample and half not. So interesting.

  4. @scourtney18 this thought actually occurred to me as well- it reminded me of our in-class discussion where we talked about the requirements of effective crowdsourcing, one of which was that it had to be an uncorrelated, independent individuals or the results would be skewed. I agree with these comments! Another thought @scourtney18 @britthopkins4 @geraldckane: to deal with the issue of already marketing/testing with people who use your product, what if you created a new platform purely for the use test marketing? So people could sign-up via Twitter, Instagram, etc., and be randomly sent (by the third party company), food samples to test? Would that deal with the “random” factor needed for successful crowdsourcing, and expose people to new products? Or would the likelihood that people would actually participate and fill out questionnaires drop? The plus side of this would be that people could share on their feeds pictures of the new products, potentially exposing followers to new brands they had not heard of…

  5. Anna Copman · ·

    Great first post Lillian! Being able to tie your personal passions into this class is going to be incredibly impactful in terms of what you take away, so I encourage you to continue to think critically about how the content we analyze in this class applies to your own personal pursuits! In terms of formatting, it would be great to see some pictures/memes in future posts! Also definitely consider using the header formatting to break up content a bit! If you would like any help with wordpress accessibility, feel free to reach out to any of the TAs! Again, good post and keep up the great analysis and application!

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