How to involve customers in your product innovation

19th of Jul 2015

Michelle Bourke


“Build it and they will come,” said no smart product innovation marketer, ever.

How about, “build it, test it, build it, integrate feedback, test it…and they will come AND return.”

Ok, definitely not as catchy, but WAY more lucrative and sustainable.

If Eric Ries and the lean startup methodology has anything to teach marketers, it’s that listening to your customer early and listening often, are major contributors to customer acquisition and retention success.

This is true, but listening is only half the story.  All that listening needs to be converted into action – to feed, or even change the business model an organisation is built upon. If it needs changing, of course.

Unfortunately one of the difficult things about being a marketer in a larger organisation is that you may not own the entire marketing puzzle.

Remember the “4 Ps” from university?  “Ah,” says the seasoned marketer, “if only I could control ALL 4 Ps.”

In many corporates, pricing and product are placed in silos away from the CMO, making it difficult for real change to occur because managing these is simply not a part of the average marketer’s job description.  They only get to look after the “promotional” P.  But what a shallow P that is on its own.

Imagine if marketers could provide vital information to product and pricing teams that helped shape the future direction of the underlying business value proposition.

How can you do it?
There is a myriad of ways you can listen to your customers and act on what they tell you.  Here are my top picks:

1. Social Listening

Production innovation doesn’t have to happen amongst a 4 person focus group behind closed doors. Your customers are talking about you online.  And not just on Facebook.  If you’re in hospitality, they’re talking on Yelp or Zomato.  If you’re a publisher, they’re talking on Amazon.  If you’re a product or service provider they’re talking on or womo.

You have an opportunity to harness their thinking, not just about you, but also the things they’re saying about your competitors, to gain deep insights into what makes you different, or what makes you better.

Social Listening Product Development

2. Social product innovation

This is something that a lot of tech and software companies do, but it doesn’t have to be exclusive to the IT industry.  Companies like Starbucks do it too.  Here are some examples of companies giving their customers a voice and a say in their product innovation pipeline:

Starbuck Product Development

3. Open Roadmap communication

Communicating which features and ideas have been taken on board and are in development is even better.  Teamwork or Office 365 do this with their Roadmap. Existing customers feel validated and loved and new customers see trust and credibility.  Sure, your competitors see it too…but your openness and honesty will win more than hiding your features.

Open Roadmap Product Development

4. User experience testing or interviews

In the context of web development this is referred to as UX.  What I like about UX testing vs. focus groups is that it’s a quick and easy way to get feedback.  The rule of thumb is that with feedback from about 8 users, 85% of your experience problems can be identified.

You don’t need a fancy shmancy research company to tell you that the latest product that was 2 years in the making sucks because the battery life is terrible.  You could learn it in a few half hour sessions, having real, open conversations with your customers.  Sure there are biases, but it’s better than nothing, right?

User Testing For Product Development

5. Market trends provide inspiration

Sometimes genuine product innovation is more than just listening, it’s taking social, fashion or other market trends and stringing them seamlessly into what you already do well.  There are ways this can be done really poorly – like when a movie producer exec says, “change that line we need to say something about the latest app like Snapchat,” when it doesn’t  fit the storyline.

There are also some great examples where this is done well.  For instance, when American work boot company, Red Wing, noticed people weren’t buying their boots to wear as work boots but were wearing them as a fashion statement.  In response, they created an official new line called “Heritage”.  This line now generates more revenue than their original boot.

6. Collaborate with someone different

Sometimes, for real new product innovation, you just need fresh ideas.  A great way of getting these can be to take product designers or marketers from one industry and collaborate on a project together to help inject new life into your work. Been working with the same agency for the last 5 years?  Or the same type of agency?  Maybe it’s time to get a bit experimental!

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