Listening to the Market in Lean Times

By Marina Gil-Santamaria December 08, 2008

Times are lean, no question about it. Organizations of all sizes are slashing development budgets and implementing severe travel restrictions. As a product manager, you probably have found that getting approval to visit customers and prospects has become “mission impossible.”  You might have even seen the end of programs that were quite established in your organization, such as Customer Advisory meetings or Beta site visits. And, of course, face-to-face meetings with off-site peers and distributed development counterparts are out-of-the-question in this financial climate. So what can you do to work around these constraints, and continue to listen to customers and prospects – a crucial aspect of performing the job you were hired to do? 

When I attended the Pragmatic Institute course “Requirements That Work” (now called Build) two years ago, I walked away with three main action items that have helped me enormously in becoming a better product manager:

  • Get out there and become a market expert
  • Identify user personas and problems
  • Work from home one day each week to more effectively focus on strategic thinking

In times of recession, a pledge to “get out there and become a market expert” is more crucial than ever. Consider this: estimates of new product failure rates range from 48% to as high as 90%, primarily because these new products don’t meet customer requirements. This sobering statistic underscores the importance of focusing development resources on those features, new products or improvements that will truly solve market problems, and will drive the most revenue for your organization.

Now is a good time to explore Internet-centric initiatives and Web 2.0 technologies, because they are opening up cost-effective and innovative ways for you to interact with and listen to your customers and target markets. You actually have several options to explore, so before you rush to adopt Web 2.0 in your organization, it’s important to consider your goals and options carefully.

The first area to evaluate would be your goals. Are you trying to engage with customers to better understand market problems, define user personas, or gather product feedback? Are you looking to engage with prospects to promote your products, or looking to identify top users for possible success stories? Are you part of a newly created Innovation team charged with investigating cost-effective alternatives for conducting customer advisory meetings? Regardless of which category you fall into, drafting an initial set of goals is an important step of your planning process.

Second, you should identify the user and buyer personas for your products to determine the best communication conduits for them, and identify blogs/sites/communities that they visit. Of course, your approach may be very different, depending on whether your products are being sold to C-level executives, IT professionals, students or physicians.

Third, you should evaluate where you are in your development cycle, and the type of product that you manage. Some customer-centric initiatives will be more helpful than others, depending on whether you are in the middle of a Beta cycle, working on a product roadmap, or defining product requirements.

Similarly, your Web 2.0 approach will be different if you are managing an established product versus a brand new product, since in the latter case, you can only interact with prospects. Other additional factors to consider are the desired frequency and type of customer interactions. For example, would you like to have continuous communication, which may be easiest in the form of unstructured Forum threads, or would you like to engage with customers at specific phases during your development cycles via a well-defined online Focus Group? It is also important to determine if you can align your market interactions with just your own project milestones, or if you need to plan customer-centric initiatives for the entire business unit. 

And lastly, you should gauge the budget that you have for Web 2.0 initiatives (if any), and if your organization would be willing to allocate additional incentives or prizes to drive customer engagement and participation. 

Once you have a clearer picture of your objectives and situation you can start examining Internet-centric options that you can best leverage: 

  • Google/Yahoo groups or FaceBook/MySpace/Squidoo: People with shared interests can meet and connect to stay informed through discussions, message posts, photo albums, or shared links.  Once you find the most appropriate groups for your market, you can tune in and listen to your prospects. You can join a group for free (some groups actually have thousands of member), read their messages, and ask questions to help you identify market problems. You can even get permission from the group administrator to send a mass mailing and promote your products for free.  As Empirix’s QAZone community manager (a testing-centric community which was later acquired by Oracle), I leveraged QA/Testing/Agile Yahoo and Google groups to post messages, send email blasts and promote QAZone and recruit community members. While Yahoo/Google groups worked well for us to grow membership, on the downside it was hard to keep members engaged, or gather in-depth market feedback.
  • Twitter: A free micro-blogging site where peers, friends and family can share bits of information and keep tabs on what everybody else is doing. There are a number of ways you can leverage Twitter. For example, offering exclusive content through “tweets” (text-based posts of up to 140 characters in length) from the conference floor at trade shows, and engaging with prospects and customers before, during or after an event. You can also encourage users to “follow you” on Twitter to receive exclusive updates and news about your products. You can even use it to build stronger ties with customers and community members, by, for example, sending updates regarding your future travel plans. Then, if other Twitter connections are on that area, or planning a trip there, you could easily plan face-to-face meetings aligned with existing travel plans.
  • LinkedIn: A business-oriented social networking site, LinkedIn allows user members to form sub-communities and groups around professional interests. LinkedIn has recently added some interesting functionality to upload and share documents, or recommend news and articles. You can create a highly-targeted group for free, invite your customers and prospects to join, discuss topics of interest, keep them posted about product roadmaps and plans, and facilitate networking opportunities. At my current company, Applied Marketing Science, we recently launched a LinkedIn group, where product and innovation management professionals can network and learn from one another about the latest developments in the field of brainstorming and ideation. Within two weeks of our launch, we had 100+ members but noticed members were not participating in our group discussions nor reading our news section. To spark participation and promote bi-directional communication, we invited our members to participate in an online IDEALYST game for two weeks. This online brainstorming game focused on gathering ideas on how we can make our LinkedIn group more valuable to members from a career development and networking perspective. In the future, we will continue to run periodic games, helping us interact more effectively with our LinkedIn group to incorporate their feedback and ideas into our product development processes.
  • Full-fledged online communities: You can build an online community using Web 2.0 frameworks such as those provided by Jives Software, Ramius, Leverage Software, ONEsite, Small World Labs, and others. Each vendor has a different business model and pricing (product and/or hosted solution, as well as different moderation models), so you should look for the best possible fit for your company. These Web 2.0 platforms enable you to build enterprise-class online communities for your customers and prospects, and offer advanced capabilities for sharing files, discussing topics of interest, posting messages, blogging, gathering feedback via surveys, collaborating on content via wikis, and building a sense of community. During my time as Empirix’s community manager, we found our community to be a priceless communication tool, and a great conduit for identifying power users and product champions, whose stories could be used to support our product marketing initiatives. While these platforms provide a lot of value for both organizations and customers, they can be expensive, so this type of initiative might not fit within your existing budget. While forum discussions will give you great insight into your customers and prospects, conversations can grow to become unmanageable as the number of threads increase over time, and discussion topics become too broad. In addition, the community tends to be continuously “chatty” – which can be disruptive during certain phases of your development cycles. 
  • Online Ideation, Panels and Focus Groups: You can use tools offered by Applied Marketing Science, iTracks, Vovici, MarketTools, and others to create and manage brainstorming sessions, online panels and focus groups.  These sessions are typically focused on very specific topics, providing a voice to customers, employees, and key stakeholders. There are some differences in the underlying philosophy behind each tool, so you will see differences in the length of interaction time, asynchronous vs. synchronous use, or the use of incentives, among other things. Since online panels, brainstorming sessions and focus groups are typically conducted on a much smaller scale, they are more cost-effective than building a full-fledged Web 2.0 community. In addition, you can choose to use them only during key phases of your development cycles, for example, when researching market problems, to support a Beta program, or when working on defining your product requirements. And since they are so cost-effective, you can run them independently of other customer-centric initiatives that may be happening in your organization, and get much more focused input to support your own specific goals.
  • Blogosphere and Industry Experts: You can also learn more about your target markets by identifying top industry experts and active bloggers in your space. You can reach out and engage them in valuable discussions about market and market trends, briefing them on your products, and leveraging their feedback and recommendations as you work on product roadmaps. Besides getting more visibility for your products, you can learn a lot from them. As I was building Empirix’s QAZone community, I found that industry experts and blogging sites were a great way to get more visibility for the community and recruit more members. You can discover whom to contact and connect with by using sites such as Technorati, BlogPulse, or BlogScope, which allow you to track blogs and interconnections in your space.

As you can see, there are many options for incorporating the voice of your customers, market experts and prospects into your development cycles.  These include free options, such as Yahoo/Google groups, FaceBook/MySpace/Squidoo, industry experts, Twitter and LinkedIn,. Intermediate solutions, such as online ideation sessions, panels and focus groups. And full-fledged Web 2.0 communities. Current economic conditions, travel constraints and slashed budgets shouldn’t be excuses for not becoming the market expert you were hired to be. Instead, look for creative and cost-effective ways to listen to your customers and prospects, and, listen “harder” than ever before!

Categories: Market Analysis
Marina Gil-Santamaria

Marina Gil-Santamaria

Marina Gil-Santamaria is a Principal Product Manager at Applied Marketing Science, Inc. (AMS). She oversees strategy and product management for IDEALYST, an online ideation and brainstorming tool, developed based on research conducted at MIT and Columbia University. She has held positions in development, product management, online community management, QA, and services at Computer Associates, Empirix and Oracle. She can be reached at

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