In the age of Apple, the importance of great products that surprise and delight has never been so top of mind. Meaningful products are the personification of a brand and the essence of a company.
Although most great products are still locked up in company "real estate," i.e. retail stores, content databases, and e-commerce stacks, the lucky ones have been set free to thrive and explore the web, thus creating marketing opportunities while also altering the traditional dynamics between companies and their customers.
Today, the evolution of the Internet and smart devices has created an amazing fabric of connected lives and now weaves together people's connections with things. Products are starting to "participate" in social media in new and meaningful ways; they're taking on personas and social statuses all their own; they are igniting conversations, eliciting emotion, engendering loyalty and evangelism, and even forming new ways for individuals to express themselves.
To generate this activity, a product persona must be inherently social. For brands, great products are the most authentic form of marketing content because they ARE the brand. They can be released, tracked, and with the right tools, managed across the entire social graph. As they've learned from early experimentation, retailers and brands understand they can't simply move their catalogs to Facebook and inundate fans with the same old direct marketing messaging. Social products need to live their own existence on the social graph.
The most innovative brands are creating product personas that embody characteristics of a strong social product. They are:
- Simple. Online consumption patterns for social are short-format, activity-stream-oriented. Products that have multiple dimensions are harder to build a social experience around. Complexity from multiple options for color, size, version, pricing plans and so on can reduce impulsive sharing and purchase. The Pebble E-Paper Watch is an example of a simple social product, a great product set free to live and grow in the social world with 84,000 Likes on Facebook and $7.7 million in funding raised on Kickstarter and growing...amazing.
- Emotional. Products or product experiences that create emotion with customers have better odds of developing a social identity and building momentum. Social products must be memorable and present a great experience. Kaenon's G. Love & Special Sauce-inspirted sunglasses are a great example.
- Beautiful. Sharing is self-expression and expression is more powerful with images than with words alone. The explosion of Pinterest has proven that social consumers love to express themselves through rich product imagery.
- Valuable. In the broadest sense of the word, valuable products mean something to their owners, whether it's a $30 Lego set that delights a 3-year-old or a $1,200 Sonos system that fills a home with music. Value does not necessarily mean discount. Products derive value when people trust the direct recommendations of people they know, whether explicit or implied through sharing. Value is a far larger driver of purchase decision than price.
- Special. Products that resonate with social customers tell stories that are limited, different, new, or interesting. Nike, for example, has built a special experience around its Dunks shoes.
When a person recommends a product, it says as much about them as the clothes he wears or the car she drives. These interactions become a form of self-expression; brands need to understand their customers in this context and ask: What does it say about a person when he or she shares, wants, or owns a brand or product? What is the value of being the friend who discovers a great new product that delights? How can a customer provide value to their family, friends, and colleagues around a product? Is a customer depositing to, or drawing from, their social equity bank when they connect with a product?
In addition to the marketing outcomes, social interaction activities generate incredibly valuable insights. With so much referral, recommendation, and social proofing activity now happening online, retailers and brands have true visibility into person-to-person purchase influence as well as share reach and frequency. Imagine a world where a marketer not only can identify which customers are their most valuable commerce influencers, but also can identify which products have the most influence and virality. With the right tools, this is possible.
Stephen Colbert might be upset to hear that companies are not people on the social web, but great products can be. When set free, products with personas contribute value, express emotion, connect to people, influence purchase decisions, and drive ROI.
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. Let's looked at ways how social media techniques can be applied to the process of product creation. 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 To Interact "Product" and “Social”
There are three main ways in which we can create new or better products through social media techniques.
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 media can be integrated 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.
Consumer electronic devices are now designed 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.