Products + Social = Better Products

Product + Social = Better Products

Update: as part of this year’s Social Media Week, I hosted  one of the sessions at a free one-day event held at SAP Palo Alto on February 15th. Accompanied by a star-studded lineup of guests (meet the panelists) we discussed how companies can make better products using social media — here’s a link to the recorded panel session: Social+Products=Better Products

In this post, I’d like to share some ideas about why I believe that there are now fantastic new opportunities to improve all kinds of products using social media techniques.


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 carriage.

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

This tends to be true of all new technologies, of course. But for some reason there seems to be a bigger gap than usual – perhaps it is because the “trees” are so obvious (social media analytics, enterprise collaboration, etc.) that they tend to obscure the “wood”: the opportunity to sweep away existing bottlenecks in our business processes.

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

Why introduce something new? Why can’t we just keep doing what we’re doing today? 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.

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. The good news is that product creators can communicate with their customers more cheaply than ever: we may be naked, but we have a megaphone. It has to be used wisely. Honesty and credibility are essential values when talking about your products to the market.

Direct Contact With Customers: In large product organizations, there’s often a big communications gap between the people creating products and the people using them. The creators and designers of software, for example, have typically had to rely on other people to research the needs of potential users. The researchers then pass on that information in the form of “consumer profiles”, “personas”, or “ethnographic research”, which is used as a basis for creation. Something often gets lost in the translation, but is often seen as the only feasible way to operate.

Software engineers (for example), frustrated by this limited visibility, complain how hard it is to get access to customers, who are often protectively fenced off by sales teams (perhaps worried that developers might let too much of the truth slip out about product bugs or delays).

The advances of social media means all this can now change: 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. It’s clear, however, that there is still a lot to learn before these techniques become commonplace — in each section, I’ve added some of the questions I believe need to be addressed: again, any feedback you have is more than welcome!

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. Given the potential for better products, I believe we should be investing extensively in these new areas. Questions:

  • What valuable data is available now that wasn’t before?
  • What are the costs and opportunities associated with these new techniques?
  • How much time should product creators spend communicating with communities vs. creating products?
  • How do systems have to change to ensure that this type of research is consistently integrated into the product creation process?
  • What are the real-life limitations of such research? i.e. what kinds of important data can we not get with these processes?
  • What social research tools can we build into the product experience? (e.g. making it easy to invite others when using the product, and tracking success, or an online game maker tracking the price of different virtual weapons)

Ideation. One of the most painful parts of any product creation process is prioritization – we can never make a “perfect” product. There will always be some compromise in terms of functionality or cost. 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. Questions:

  • When is ideation not appropriate?
  • What types of products and features work best for ideation?
  • How can we motivate our customers and prospects to participate?
  • What level of transparency is appropriate?
  • How do we handle rejection of non-chosen products and features?
  • What are the dangers of competitors seeing the data, or gaming the results?

Social Prototyping. Basic ideation isn’t enough. I’m sure we can all think of an experience where we didn’t realize we wanted or needed a particular product until we tried it out. Product designers, after all, can have great ideas of their own, based on their deep market knowledge. One key problem today is that somebody in a company may what they believe is a fantastic idea for a new and different product. But in order to pursue the product, they need resources and permission of several layers of management.

Those managers may not have any real frame of reference to determine if the new product is a real opportunity or not, and may not be incented to take any risks. This can result in some combination of dissatisfied product creators (if the idea is rejected), wasted time (slow decision-making at each level ), or wasted money (if the idea is accepted, but the product fails). But 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.

The benefit is that it’s much clearer whether a product really does appeal to customers or not, helping the prioritization process. The car industry has long done this with “concept cars”, and SAP has tested these techniques with through its SAP Research Prototyping group. Ideas such as integration with Google Maps were shown to be extremely popular (and so were rushed into production) while some ideas weren’t interesting (and the person proposing the new feature had a learning experience). Questions:

  • How can we introduce more extensive prototyping and social feedback into our product creation processes?
  • How do we decide if a prototype is successful enough to productize?
  • Are there any other benefits to this type of process? (marketing, thought leadership, etc.?)
  • Does this approach cost more or less than existing methods?

Social-Enabled Products

We 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.

  • What are your favorite examples of social-enabled products?
  • How important is social enablement compared to other features of a product?
  • Do product creators have to be aware of new power-players in the social eco-system?
  • What other products should include social but don’t today?
  • What about the limits of social privacy when using such products?

New Products On Top of Social

There are opportunities to create new products “on top of” social networks, or as by-products of them. 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.

  • What are some other good examples of leveraging social networks to create new products and services?
  • Is this something that the rest of us even need to think about?


We’re a long way from “build it and they will come”, but we’re not yet at “come build it with us”. I look forward to your feedback!

Here’s a link to the recorded panel session: Social+Products=Better Products and the slides used during the panel


5 responses to “Products + Social = Better Products”

  1. […] Wednesday, February 15th, from 3pm to  4.30pm PST, I will be moderating a panel on the theme of Products+Social=Better Products as part of Social Media Day at SAP Palo Alto (and […]

  2. Christian Happel Avatar
    Christian Happel

    Indeed a great post!
    Especially the following questions are very interesting:

    • How can we motivate our customers and prospects to participate?
    This is highly depending on multiple things: your relationship to your customers, the culture your customers (e.g. depending on country etc.)
    • What level of transparency is appropriate?
    Personally I think the more transparent a company is better it will be perceived in the end. I know you can still build a great brand without being very social but just by having great products. But if you once will have some issues with your products, transparency absolutely necessary. I think a good example is Apple’s antenna problem with the iPhone 4.
    • How do we handle rejection of non-chosen products and features?
    This relates to transparency: There’s no question that you will have to reject some ideas, but not commenting (or maybe deleting them) is worse than openess.

    Social Prototyping
    I think Kickstarter is a great example of how easy it is to get to know if a new product really works: Let your potential customers pay you upfront. I know this doesn’t work if the user of your product (such as the user of enterprise software) doesn’t pay the invoice for it. But I believe that we will see much more in this direction in the future.

  3. Kuhan Milroy Avatar
    Kuhan Milroy

    I find it amazing how diverse the term ‘social’ can be, even within a single social+products category. Great article on showing some tangible applications of the term.

    As customer design ‘social enabled products’ or ‘products on top of social’, I still see many who keep to their own networks or work to create one. It seems like a question many companies still struggle with: What is the value of leveraging an existing social network? (or not even asking) Could Farmville have achieved over 70 million users if it had not been on Facebook? Companies, who want to connect with existing customers and gain new ones, can benefit by leveraging the social networks already in place. Of course in many situations, the tradeoff means letting go of holding their customers and going where the customers are.

    I’ll be attending Social Media Week, look forward to partaking in the discussion.

  4. Mark Yolton Avatar

    Great post, Timo. I enjoyed your recap of where we’ve come in pockets for a variety of companies embedding “social” into product innovation, your insight into areas of potential benefit and use-cases, and the forward-looking glimpse into the future. I’ll be joining you at the Social Media Week event at SAP in mid-February in the Silicon Valley and am really looking forward to seeing and hearing more from you and your guest experts.