Take an unofficial poll in your organization to see which department your employees think your online customer community benefits the most. Will it be marketing? Will customer support come out the winner?
You may be surprised that the dark horse in the race is the group whose use of your private online community can have the biggest impact on your organization's revenue and future—product management.
Many business people only associate online communities with sales, customer care, and internal collaboration. However, your existing product strategy and processes for collecting and analyzing market data to create new products and enhance existing offerings is the foundation on which all other departments exist. It drives how your products and services are brought to market, sold, and delivered. It determines how your customers are supported, your partner strategy, and your profitability.
For decades, product managers have engaged their communities to uncover market problems to solve, validate ideas, and test prototypes. Private online communities have made product strategists' ability to collect and evaluate data from customers, prospects, and non-customers more efficient than ever by making feedback more accessible, keeping customers around the world engaged, and enabling secure collaboration around sensitive ideas.
I recently discussed about how companies use online communities to improve products and services with product management veteran, Steve Johnson, on the ProCommunity web series. Here are 6 secrets that came out of our conversation.
Executives will be pleased to know that they don't have to learn a new way of developing product strategies when utilizing online communities of customers, prospects, and partners. The elements of creating great products and services remain the same.
Qualitative (e.g. discussion forums) and quantitative (e.g. surveys) research are still the foundation for developing any product strategy. The difference is that online communities empower organizations to conduct these activities in less time, with a smaller budget, and more often.
There was a time when national or global companies had to carve out sizable budgets to fly customers in for quarterly customer advisory board meetings. Today, online customer communities allow product managers to use secure online groups and easy-to-use collaboration tools (along with proactive community management) to have conversations about market problems and get feedback on ideas through the product development process.
Online communities only help innovate products and services if companies listen to their community. Similar to offline product management techniques, the most important component of listening and probing online is discussions. This includes customer forums and comment threads associated with files, videos, product ideas, and blog posts. These online conversations form the basis for understanding market problems, the competitive landscape, why you win deals, and why you lose.
With the introduction of ways to listen to users 24x7, keep customers engaged, and get a consistent stream of data from your market, comes an onslaught of unstructured data. Organizations must be ready to consume and process this information.
Every organization will treat this challenge a little differently. The bottom line is that product managers need to be prepared to handle this valuable information in a way that is most usable in their planning and development processes.
Your online customer community is giving you more data from your market. It is also allowing you to have discussions and validate product concepts more efficiently. Now what?
An important step, often overlooked by businesses, is setting up processes to get the information that you are collecting and analyzing to the right people in the organization at the right point in the process. This usually means finding ways to effectively and consistently answer questions from your product development team throughout the development process about what the market wants and needs.
Like most social business initiatives, starting small allows companies to grow buy-in, minimize risk, and work out the kinks in the process. A great way to get started using your online community to improve product management is to validate existing product ideas. Take your top features planned for the next version of your product or service and have a targeted customer group or advisory board vote in your online community on their top picks and explain their votes in the comments.
You can also start small by validating the problems that you are hearing through your offline product management efforts. Start a product discussion in your user community by asking to hear some stories about a specific set of problems. From that discussion, you can briefly describe a solution and ask how it would help. Use informal language like, "Tell me a story about this feature and how you would use it" to yield invaluable data for your product planning process. Don't forget to share what you learn with your sales, marketing, and executive teams.
Partnering with customers to improve existing products and create new solutions to problems that your target market is facing is the unheralded power-play in social business. Use the tips mentioned above and the product innovation tools outlined previously to create an online customer community that gives your product management team the discussions, tools, and relationships they need to develop market-driven product strategies.