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Game Changer

Indigo gives its customers a SoapBox Add to ...

Indigo’s customers like to curl up under a blanket and read books. Unfortunately, the blankets the store used to sell were just a little too small. Customers couldn’t keep their feet warm.

So they logged on to the Indigo Ideas Facebook page and told the company the blankets needed to be longer. One customer started the flood with a suggestion; soon, there were two comments and 21 votes in support. Indigo seized the opportunity and started selling larger blankets.

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The last thing Indigo Books & Music Inc. wants is for its customers to get cold feet. As e-readers transform the book world, Canada’s largest book retailer is transforming, too, shifting from a traditional book retailer to a book-lifestyle store. The Toronto-based company launched its Ideas platform in late 2011 as a way to keep customers on board during the company’s transition from book retailer to “cultural department store” – and has since launched more than 50 initiatives based on their suggestions.

“Books are changing,” says Lance Martel, Indigo’s senior vice-president of digital innovation. “Indigo needs to become more than just a bookstore. We talk a lot about becoming more of a lifestyle store. ... A lot of that is changing the store to be more than just books.”

Blankets to keep readers cozy are one of the elements of the transition. Customers have suggested more than 400 ideas so far, and the store has seen more than 700,000 “interactions” with the ideas, including page views, comments and votes in support or opposition of the ideas. So far, the company has launched 56 initiatives based on these customer ideas.

Aside from blankets, other initiatives include making customer’s “Wish Lists” of Indigo products more accessible in-store, and a “buy three, get one free” program that expands beyond just books for the first time.

The Ideas platform is powered by an app called SoapBox. It’s the brainchild of Toronto company HitSend Inc., which is run by Brennan McEachran, a 22-year-old entrepreneur and Ryerson University business student.

SoapBox integrates with Facebook and official websites to allow customers and visitors to give direct, instant feedback to the companies and public figures that manage them. Its selling point is its intuitiveness: You don’t need to go to a separate website or form to reach out and get your idea across.

“We’re trying to bridge the gap between eureka moments and launching ideas,” Mr. McEachran says.

He came up with the idea for SoapBox after meeting with Ryerson University president Sheldon Levy to vent some frustrations. The student walked away with the concept for a platform that would allow all students to get the same opportunity to have their voices heard; SoapBox became available to the Ryerson student community last semester.

Two years ago, Indigo chief executive officer Heather Reisman was touring Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone, which houses many entrepreneurs connected to the school, when Mr. McEachran pitched the product. Indigo Ideas launched later in 2011.

SoapBox acts like a community message board. Suggestions are aggregated by keywords – once you start typing, the platform automatically suggests similar suggestions for you so that you can throw support to an existing idea with votes and comments, concentrating support for popular ideas and cutting out excess noise. Other users are welcome to simply vote in support or opposition of a suggestion.

Once a suggestion is posted, companies such as Indigo can quickly respond on their public SoapBox site. “We take those important ideas and intelligently route them to specific people in the organization who can make change,” Mr. McEachran says.

If the suggested idea already exists, the company can show the customer how to take advantage of it. If it doesn’t exist, they can flag it publicly for review or explain why they can’t take advantage of the suggestion. Once a review is done, the company can announce the new product or service’s launch in the same spot where the comment was originally left.

Among SoapBox’s other high-profile clients is Liberal leadership candidate Justin Trudeau, who features the service on the front page of his website justin.ca to get input on his leadership platform and feedback from Canadians.

In Indigo’s case, it means customers are an integral part of the company’s transformation. “We want to make sure as we go that we’re getting as much real-time feedback as possible,” Mr. Martel says. “We thought, ‘Let’s go where our most engaged consumers are and provide them a solution to submit their ideas and engage them on the transformation.’ Soapbox did that very well.”

The blanket suggestion shows just how engaged customers are, Mr. Martel says. “Those details are very important to them.”

The platform is for more than just short-term goals. “Some of these are things we want to do immediately, some we think about in strategic planning for next year, and some go on a road map for the future,” Mr. Martel says.

Keeping customers is crucial for a business in transition. Andrew Miller, a Toronto-based consultant who specializes in customer retention, says letting customers present their own new ideas lets them feel like they’re part of the process.

Giving them such a platform, though, can send a company down a slippery slope. “Feeling special because you gave an idea can only go so far. You have to create that emotional connection with the brand,” Mr. Miller says. “The emotional connection can only be created if the customer feels like they’ve been a part of a change that’s been made.”

Mr. Miller didn’t notice any sign of the Indigo Ideas platform the last time he was in one of their stores – which, he says, would be an “opportunity to get their salesperson, when you buy something, to let people know about this program.”

That could allow the hundreds of suggestions to boil into thousands, giving Indigo the chance to make its transformation even more customer-focused. “We look at it as innovation management for the Twitter generation,” Mr. McEachran says. “Let’s do things as quickly as possible, getting all the relevant things on one sheet and make those decisions happen quickly.”

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