Higher Logic Blog

How a Major Corporation Crowdsources Product Innovation (And How You Can Too)

Written by Julie Dietz | January 9, 2018 at 1:30 PM

Starbucks. You’ve heard of Starbucks, right? It’s one of those iconic brands that crosses generations. Everyone, including my grandmother and youngest cousin (she’s three and loves a Starbucks white hot chocolate) knows of and has tried at least one.

They’re massively popular and older than you might think – Starbucks will celebrate its 47th anniversary in 2018. So how have they managed to stay current, keeping their customers and winning new ones for almost 50 years? How do they come up with their offers? Their signature drinks?

Some of it is baristas, years of experience, and market research. The rest? It might just be their customers.

How Starbucks Crowdsources Their Menu

Starbucks is one of many companies that’s using crowdsourcing to take innovation directly to their customers. They created a modified online community that allows everyone, including non-customers, to submit ideas and suggestions via a simple forum at Ideas.Starbucks.com. Using this straightforward customer portal, Starbucks has been collecting and reviewing customer suggestions for years. If enough people want something and it fits their brand, Starbucks implements it.

That’s exactly what happened recently, in 2015 and 2016, when Starbucks introduced coconut milk and almondmilk as part of their regular menu. Customers made their requests, which were then voted on by other patrons to determine their popularity before Starbucks put them into production.

The result? Huge approval from customers, dozens of articles on both releases, and increased penetration into a market where nearly half of customers prefer non-dairy alternatives.

Starbucks’s online crowdsourcing community has a direct impact on its customers’ daily lives and purchases, making it a valuable tool for innovation as well as driving profits. There’s no secret as to how they were so successful, either. Starbucks followed a few best practices that you can implement using your own customer community.

4 Steps to Crowdsource Product Innovation at Your Company

1. Provide a Dedicated Place for Suggestions

Starbucks has a simple form that anyone can fill out to submit an idea. That’s ideal for B2C companies, but other businesses, such as B2B businesses, may want to receive suggestions only from their customers, not the public at large.

To provide a more secure feedback channel, ask customers to log in to a private online community. Once logged in, they can use discussion forums to post ideas for new features, product enhancements, or general suggestions. You could also allow customers to email community administrators privately if they don’t want to publish their suggestion to your entire customer base.

2. Encourage Upvoting

Starbucks receives a mind-blowing number of ideas from customers and employees every year. To determine which ones will resonate most with their market, they ask customers to vote on them. Coconut milk, for instance, was added to the menu after receiving over 84,000 votes.

Your company can choose top ideas in the same way by allowing customers to comment on their peers’ discussion posts. Would that enhancement be useful for them? They can reply to the post. Is there something that would make it better? They can add their feedback. We see this often in our own user group community, with customers *bumping* the suggestions they would love to see put into production.

3. Create a Product Plan

Just because you receive a suggestion doesn’t mean you should implement it as is. Before adding almondmilk to the menu, Starbucks spent time creating their own recipe to complement their hot and iced beverages (that’s why almondmilk is a single word and capitalized when branded as Starbucks Almondmilk). You can now get the same rich, creamy, frothy beverage with almondmilk as you can with regular dairy milk.

Adapt your customers’ suggestions so they fit your products and the direction your company wants to take in the future. Create a process for this, including how you choose your top suggestions, review them internally, and pass them along to production. A formal process will make customer suggestions easier and faster to implement, especially if it helps you work with multiple teams like community management, marketing, production, and QA.

4. Promote What You Implement

Did Starbucks quietly add coconut milk and almondmilk to their menu? Of course not. They published articles on their dedicated news site, news.starbucks.com, and put out press releases so customers knew they were releasing a better product – and because it was their idea. By getting the news out and highlighting customers’ impact, Starbucks clearly demonstrates how much they care about feedback.

Show customers you’re listening and take their feedback seriously by publishing the ideas you implement on your website, online community, or via media outlets. You could also send personal thank you messages to customers who submitted and commented on the idea, so they know just how large of an impact they had. This will improve the customer experience and help customers become more invested in your brand.

Create a Community that Improves Your Customers’ Daily Lives and Jobs

It was only a few weeks ago that a staff member emailed us about how Starbucks Almondmilk fit his new health plan. He appreciated that other customers had submitted feedback that Starbucks implemented, which then directly impacted his life for the better.

Almondmilk was released over a year ago and is still delighting customers and improving their lives on a daily basis. It proves the impact a strong customer community can make if brands provide an outlet for feedback and support top ideas.

And Starbucks is far from the only example of crowdsourcing and the power of customer communities. What other parts of your everyday life do you think have been influenced by communities? How can you tap into your customer community and empower them in the same way?