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Product + Social = Better Products

In this post, I’d like to share some ideas about the new opportunities to improve all kinds of products using social media techniques.

Introduction

social media is like a horseless carriageI believe that we’re still in the era of a “horseless carriage” version of social media: we added a motor, but kept the rest of the machine.

In other words, we understand how the new technologies work, but we still tend to bolt the new social techniques onto our existing processes, rather than fundamentally rethinking those processes in the light of the new opportunities.

Social media is too often a marginal activity that people are happy to leave up to a dedicated team elsewhere in the organization, rather than embedded in everything we do. This post looks in particular at how social media techniques can be applied to the process of product creation.

Social / Product Trends

Let’s start with some of the background trends:

Transparency: Whether you have a great product or an awful one, prospective customers can get the information they need directly from unbiased peers. This means that traditional product sales and marketing is being marginalized, and that core product quality becomes even more fundamental: it has to “talk for itself”.

A great product – one that customers are delighted to own and use, and talk about to other people – can now take off at lighting speed, with almost no promotional cost. And news about product problems or poor service can spread even faster.

Direct Contact With Customers: Product creators can now interact directly with customers and prospects, rather than having to rely on research carried out by others. Vast numbers of potential users are only a few mouse-clicks away, participating in industry forums, complaining about alternative products, or talking about their favorite features.

Network Leverage: There are now socially-enabled running shoes, socially-enabled cameras, socially-enabled toys, and socially-enabled enterprise software. Almost any product can now be “social”, and hence experience network effects that may outweigh the other product features.

Extended Ecosystems: By embedding more use of social techniques into product creation and selling, we’re inevitably creating more complex, interactive networks of ecosystems around our products, with customers, partners, suppliers of social networking, etc.

How do “Social” and “Product” Interact?

I believe there are three main ways in which we can create new or better products through social media techniques.

Social-improved products

First and most obviously we can use social media to improve the way we create existing products. New techniques include:

Social Research. It’s now easy to find data about new opportunities, such as customers complaining about business problems or competitor products. And it’s easy to get customer feedback on problems with our own products.

Ideation. Product creators always face tradeoffs when creating products. New ideation platforms, such as SAP’s Idea Place offer an opportunity to ask customers and potential customers to give their feedback directly on possible new features and what compromises to make.

These opportunities are not limited to software or technical products – consumer goods companies can run surveys on online forums, authors can ask online discussion boards for plot ideas for their next book, etc. This gets us closer to “crowdsourcing” the creation and improvement of products.

Social Prototyping. Product designers have great ideas of their own, based on their deep market knowledge. Using social media, it’s now much easier to create fast prototypes (mockups, concept version, wireframes, etc.), and then make them available to customers for testing and feedback — or even investment, using platforms like kickstarter.

The benefit is that it’s much clearer whether a product really does appeal to customers or not. The car industry has long done this with “concept cars”, and SAP has tested these techniques with through its SAP Research Prototyping group.

Social-Enabled Products

social runningWe can integrate social media into products to improve their usefulness or effectiveness. Games you can play with other people in your social network are more interesting that games you play on your own.

Our devices are increasingly wired to be able to share information – you can buy applications and shoes that share information socially on platforms such as RunKeeper. Runners can use the social-enabled devices to share data with a coach, boast of their achievements, embarrass themselves into improving their times, or let relatives track where they are during a marathon. And if you’re logged into Facebook when you visit the site, it will tell you which of your friends are already using the products.

Hybrid cars can keep track of your fuel consumption, so you can compete with your friends about who is the most sustainable driver. Restaurant guides can give us information based on the ratings given by our friends and other restaurants we’ve visited on foursquare or “liked” on Facebook. Enterprise software vendors can build collaboration into existing business applications, letting people apply social media techniques to supply chain collaboration or track the progress of sales deals. Even Lego is becoming social.

New Products On Top of Social

There are opportunities to create new products “on top of” social networks. Farmville has over 70 million users. Companies such as LinkedIn have been able to create new “products” based on the data gathered in their networks, such as “Talent Match” or “Jobs You May Be Interested In”.

New tools could help improve the success or failure of a big merger by analyzing the different social networks within the two organizations over time. Companies could develop more sophisticated “friends and family” offers for their products. Car-sharing services could leverage social networks to improve usage rates.

Conclusion

We’ve come a long way from “build it and they will come”, but there are now lots of new opportunities to say “come build it with us”.

As part of this year’s Social Media Week, I’ll be hosting a session discussing this topic at a free one-day event held at SAP Palo Alto on February 15th. Please join us by registering for the session or join via online streaming on the SAP Facebook page. The hashtag for the event is #SMW12. More details on http://timoelliott.com

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