Q&A: Riley Gibson, CEO and cofounder, Napkin Labs

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Riley Gibson
Riley Gibson

Riley Gibson, CEO and cofounder of Napkin Labs, discusses how brands are using the “crowd-sourcing platform” to conduct loose-format focus groups.

Direct Marketing News (DMN: It seems like what Napkin Labs allows is for brands to engage consumers without the pressure of doing so in a final, polished capacity that might invite negative feedback. Is that about right?

Riley Gibson: Exactly. So much of our focus is around, how do we facilitate a collaborative conversation between the two parties? We ran a lot of projects in the early tools like Twitter and Facebook. It's really difficult to have a focused conversation [on those platforms], and on Twitter especially you get both extremes, the lovers and the haters, but you're missing that massive chunk in the middle. So by making it more of a collaborative dialogue, brands can get much more rich feedback that's not against the brand but working with [consumers] to share insights and build better products.

DMN: I imagine the average consumer isn't going to want invest the time required by this program, but that may be the point. It filters out the average consumer for those who are likely to be more actively involved.

Gibson: Yeah. Part of our messaging is around accessing your influential customers and bringing them into this lab. So for some of the companies we've worked with, it's been a pretty cool thing, where they would create a lab that's more of a VIP, red-carpet [experience] for influential customers. There definitely is that influencer feel. But some other brands and organizations have taken it in a more open way, where anyone can come in and share ideas and feedback around challenges the company's running into.

DMN: I know Google used the platform for its Google TV product, which wasn't well received, to put it lightly. How did they use the platform?

Gibson: The Google TV project was a partnership with a couple companies. You mentioned that Google TV was not necessarily well received. So some of the companies working with and working off of Google TV's platform were saying, “OK, this is a little bit of a disaster. How do we very quickly reach a large group of influential young consumers to understand how Google TV missed, to understand where [those consumers] see TV going and in 10 years what TV will look like in their lives? So that's an ongoing dialogue that was interesting because it was pretty wide in scope, part damage recovery and part [market research].

DMN: So they used Napkin Labs after the product launched as opposed to during its development?

Gibson: Yeah, it was after it had launched, and some of the publicity had come out.

DMN: Now that Google's looking to update the Google TV operating system to have it include more applications, I'm guessing that was some of the feedback they received?

Gibson: I don't want to go into specifics, because some of the project was confidential. There was a lot of talk about TV platforms being more flexible and all that.

DMN: When a brand comes to Napkin Labs for this type of program, how are the consumers compiled to participate?

Gibson: There's a couple of different answers to that. When a company comes in, they can email out to customer lists or post to Facebook or Twitter and have customers log in through those platforms. There are definitely more open systems leveraging the communities they have already established on Facebook or Twitter. Other companies and organizations have really established communities, but are looking for better tools to engage them. One of them, the American Institute of Graphic Arts, has thousands of graphic designers in their communities but wants better ways to work with them.

DMN: Are you having any conversations with a company like Klout to connect companies with influencers in their databases?

Gibson: We're really interested in that whole world of influence. There's actually a company in Boulder [Colo.] called Spot Influence that has a really sophisticated system. So we're definitely interested in giving companies a way to see who are influential people and then invite them into the lab.

DMN: But Klout in particular, there's no working relationship in place?

Gibson: No.

DMN: No discussions either?

Gibson: We've talked to them, but nothing formal in any sense.

DMN: What are the best practices you've observed in the way companies are using Napkin Labs?

Gibson: That is the nice part of having this network of labs. We get to see a lot of what's going on. For us, the biggest thing is labs that are creating interesting challenges that tap into their communities in that two-way conversation. So there's some people who will get up and running in the focus group/survey mentality. So they'll ask very direct questions. But you get a survey and all the questions are created so you can't really give meaningful responses. So we've definitely seen that happen. But the brands that truly introduce a problem and tap into their community as a source for ideas, leveraging them to go on YouTube and figure out all the technologies that are relevant to this space and how other companies have done this in innovative ways, truly sparking a dialogue that taps into people in an intellectual way have been really successful.

DMN: Are brands able to incentivize the participation by giving consumers a coupon or free product?

Gibson: Part of our thought process going into this company was crowdsourcing the idea that has a ton of power, but the incentive systems behind it are somewhat broken because a lot of them are winner-take-all models: A thousand people participate with Brand X based on some arbitrary system of measurement; two or three people get an award, and everyone else is kind of left out of it. So if you're a brand trying to engage your users, that winner-take-all can be somewhat of a death trap in some cases. Part of what we've gone about doing is really trying to reinvent the incentive system. Behind our platform, [for] every lab that's set up you get a points system behind it, which runs off of an influence score. So it's not just saying how much are these people contributing, but it's saying how active are they and how influential are they within this community. Those users earn points, and then brands can issue awards based on those points. The idea is [brands] can see everyone's influence so they can reward everyone rather than just the top contributors. Sometimes brands will translate that to money. Other times it will go to T-shirts or something like that.

DMN: Do you keep a database of consumers who are registered with Napkin Labs so you can segment a relevant user base for a brand?

Gibson: We have a whole database of the users that sign up. We also give those filtering tools to brands in their lab. So if they sign up for a premium lab, they can filter down their community by age demographic, location and expertise. Part of it is also that you have all of these people on Facebook trying to give brands easier ways to tap into those communities to bring them in. So while we do have that greater database, a lot of our focus is on brands connecting with their own consumers and building relationships with them.


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