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.