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Michael Fruhling doesn’t like open innovation portals, in general. What’s his problem with them?

While reading the business news this morning, I noticed that Unilever has partnered with yet2.com to manage the former’s new open innovation web portal.

I don’t make it a secret that I dislike open innovation portals, in general. What’s my problem with them?

I’ll start by saying that I “get” open innovation web portals. Huge multinational consumer products companies need an efficient way to process and traffic thousands of external inputs. In that respect, they are a good solution. There is one big thing wrong with them, however. They don’t promote strong, collaborative relationships between external submitters and the host company. Quite the contrary. They make the experience extremely impersonal and unsatisfying for most submitters.

Many companies expend a huge amount of internal resources for what I expect is currently a very modest return.

Many top CPG executives comment pridefully about their company’s web portals. They cite the huge numbers of annual submissions received. What they don’t say is that these companies reject virtually all of these submissions (in fairness, for very rational and understandable reasons). Many companies expend a huge amount of internal resources for what I expect is currently a very modest return.

Another by-product of the web portal case handling process is thousands of discouraged and disappointed submitters who often learn their fate via a boiler plate rejection letter from someone they don’t know and who doesn’t know them.

So, given the extensive resource investment associated with web portals, it makes sense that Unilever has decided to offload a portion of the submission review process to yet2.com. And while I like and respect yet2.com, as an external submitter my reaction to this news was: “Great… Now, I’m even one step further removed from reaching an internal solution champion.”

My biggest open innovation successes with larger companies have come from direct collaboration with their representatives. Rather than relying on the outcome of an extended and impersonal vetting process to win a possible audience with an internal customer, my interactions with select corporate gatekeepers (notably, Unilever’s Gail Martino) are very friendly, rich and textured. Also, these submissions need not be a “direct hit” in order to merit their interest. Direct interaction can encourage collaboration and opportunity incubation of sorts, leading to even stronger solutions. Most importantly, the interactions are very intellectually satisfying. I feel that I am being heard, and that my submission is being seriously considered. I truly believe that most companies don’t really appreciate the huge benefits to them that can be accrued from goodwill earned with folks like me and others who feel that they’ve been heard. This is a big miss, in my opinion.

Another big advantage to these direct interactions is that they enable me to learn more about what is truly important to these companies and to cater to those interests. This, versus relying on the non-confidential “needs lists” that may or may not reflect real and current organizational priorities.

Is there an effective alternative to a web portal? I think so. However, it will require the company to apply a fundamental marketing concept: understand your customers and design the user experience to attract and encourage the ones that you desire and value the most. Call it a concierge service, or whatever. But don’t make it a web portal

By Michael Fruhling

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