Mar­ket­ing depart­ments and prod­uct man­agers are always lis­ten­ing to cus­tomers’ reac­tions to gauge the suc­cess of their lat­est hits, as well as misses, when launch­ing, tweak­ing, and repo­si­tion­ing prod­ucts and ser­vices. Most man­agers know the tune, but those who also know the words, lis­ten­ing to the mes­sage in the music, have an advantage.

In a recent inter­view with Jeff Lash of Sir­ius­De­ci­sions, Jeff and I dis­cussed the impor­tance of focus­ing on the mar­ket, as opposed to the cus­tomer, to make impor­tant mar­ket­ing and prod­uct man­age­ment deci­sions. At first blush, that might seem to be out of tune with cur­rent trends empha­siz­ing customer-centric mod­els. In prac­tice, it is actu­ally complementary.

Lash hit the nail on the head: under­stand “the why behind the what” in order to move for­ward on impor­tant mar­ket­ing and prod­uct man­age­ment deci­sions. Learn­ing what your cus­tomers are really ask­ing for may run deeper than the lan­guage of their ini­tial requests, and requests that seem dis­parate on the sur­face may find a com­mon solu­tion after per­form­ing obser­va­tional research. The chal­lenge for man­agers, Lash says, is to lis­ten, but not just to indi­vid­ual cus­tomers singing a sin­gle request.

While every cus­tomer is impor­tant, suc­cess­ful mar­ket­ing and prod­uct man­age­ment efforts come from lis­ten­ing to the entire choir, even those singing in an entirely dif­fer­ent key. In other words, you can often learn as much from some­one who doesn’t use your prod­uct as you can from cur­rent cus­tomers. Indi­vid­ual sopra­nos should be keyed into the col­lec­tive mar­ket voice for a big pic­ture view that pro­vides per­fect mar­ket­ing pitch and in-tempo opportunity.

Most com­pa­nies dream of top­ping the charts with that next big hit, the next iPhone or the next Henry Ford Model T, but there is no magic bul­let for cre­at­ing such a sce­nario. Lash notes that the essen­tial ingre­di­ents for good mar­ket­ing and prod­uct man­age­ment are simple:

  • Frame­work: the right processes and the right prod­uct man­age­ment model
  • Peo­ple: a focus on detail, design, and tech­nol­ogy, bal­anced with unmet cus­tomer needs
  • Tech­nique: obser­va­tional research ver­sus surveys

Lash con­cluded that judg­ing suc­cess by how many fea­tures were added to a prod­uct is not the right approach. Nor is assess­ment by the num­ber of indi­vid­ual cus­tomer requests addressed. Obser­va­tional research proves its worth in col­lect­ing, assess­ing, and stream­lin­ing the needs of the over­all mar­ket through inno­va­tion ses­sions that deliver a rep­re­sen­ta­tive sam­pling. Such research need not involve masses of peo­ple in order to hit your targets.

I believe there is a good guide­line here from one of my recent reads titled Inno­va­tion Games: Cre­at­ing Break­through Prod­ucts Through Col­lab­o­ra­tive Play  by Luke Hohmann. Hohmann indi­cates that lis­ten­ing to 15 peo­ple, cho­sen for the right rea­sons, will return sam­pling results rep­re­sen­ta­tive of 70–75 per­cent of your mar­ket, and 30 will be rep­re­sen­ta­tive of 90 per­cent of your mar­ket. We at Adobe are in the process of set­ting up some inno­va­tion ses­sions with cus­tomers in Utah, as well as the San Fran­cisco Bay area, to assess and com­pare results. Look for posts on the out­come in the near future.

Lis­ten­ing to the entire mar­ket helps build a frame­work aimed at pro­vid­ing more than what cus­tomers have asked for, cre­at­ing a new par­a­digm. The result often launches inno­v­a­tive prod­ucts that cus­tomers do not even know they want but find use­ful and con­ve­nient. In turn, it teaches them to sing the song of your brand. And that’s what it’s really all about.