Friday, August 22, 2008

The Social Product - How Social Media Can Enhance the Product Experience

Yesterday we discussed how Web 2.0 concepts can be conceived by taking an immediate need or opportunity and asking, "How can I improve this by making it social?" I know it sounds deceptively simple, but answering this question forces you to consider Social Media from a limited and helpful perspective:
  • Instead of trying to understand the wide and ever-changing breadth of Social Media tactics and tools, you focus on how a particular need or opportunity can be enhanced by engaging people;
  • Rather than consider technology or tools, you start with ideas based on sharing and community; and
  • Instead of imagining how or if a Social Media program fits your brand or need, you instead start with a need and consider how Social Media can furnish benefits to both you and your audience.
This question isn't only pertinent to marketing and communication efforts but also to the product itself. Of course, there are the obvious benefits to involving your customers in the product development process--doing so is an excellent way to gain insight into their needs and wants--but I want to explore how Social Media can become an inseparable and important part of the product experience.

For example, watching video online didn't start social; consumers visited a site that offered clips, watched them, and perhaps sent a link to friends. That was the online video-viewing experience until Google and others asked, "How can I improve my online video site by making it social?" Now, it's hard to imagine enjoying online video without the social aspects--the comments, video responses, ratings, view counts, and ability to embed movie files have become inseparable from the very idea of online video.

Maybe Web video seems like too easy a target for socializing a product, so here's an offline example: Check out Facecard, a new debit card that merges the financial aspects of a debit card with the social tactics of Facebook. Facecard allows cardholders to create a profile that identifies their favorite retailers, and those brands can provide "prewards"--cash available to spend only at the particular retailer--to acknowledge, thank, and encourage visits. Also, the card and web interface are designed to make it easy for consumers to transfer cash to each other.

The lines between service, support, marketing and product get grayer when Social Media is merged with the product, and this is a positive thing for the consumer's product experience. Here are some ideas for how other sorts products may be made more social:

Launching a new car? "How can I improve this by making it social?"

If the vehicle is focused on the youth modder market, promote meet-up events where people can share their modifications or create a place online where consumers upload photos of their customizations. Offer an online design tool where consumers can plan their modifications and share their virtual creations in order to receive feedback. Give enthusiasts an online place to share tips or brag about their modifications.

Or, if the auto is a hybrid, create a community where people can upload their mileage and gallons per fill, thus creating a history of their fuel efficiency and a means to compare their gas mileage to others. Want to make this easy? Give consumers a small cell phone application to upload their data, or better yet furnish consumers the ability to allow their cars to upload the data using EV-DO access. Then encourage these green-minded consumers to post widgets to their sites that brag to others about their efficiency, cost savings, and mileage.

Launching new B2B software? "How can I improve this by making it social?"

Allow consumers to support each other with an online Q&A forum. Perhaps users could give permission to allow the software to anonymously report information the community can use for benchmarking, such as the amount of time spent, money saved, or transactions completed. Maybe the software's boot-up screen could pull and display data or helpful posts from other users of the software. Perhaps every screen within the application could contain a field for entering questions or tips that are automatically posted and shared with others in the community. Or maybe users could participate in IM-like functionality that allows them to instantaneously connect with other users for tips, assistance, and ideas.

Launching a line of pens or pencils for artists? "How can I improve this by making it social?"

Allow consumers to post their artwork to a community site. Permit visitors to vote on the artwork, and prize the winner with the top-rated artwork each month. Encourage purchasers to share videos that reveal techniques and tips. Create a widget so that the best artwork can be displayed on sites throughout the Internet, and if an artist wishes to sell their artwork, people can purchase or express an interest right from the widget.

The goal of making products more social isn't just to sell more but to increase engagement, add value for both consumer and brand, improve loyalty, spark Word of Mouth, and encourage reuse and repurchase. These benefits--and the social product features that create them--aren't short term in nature. In many cases, consumers may come to rely on and expect the Social Media plus-ups as much as any physical product feature, so care must be taken to plan and manage expectations.

The idea of making products more social is certainly new and untested, but as Social Media changes consumer expectations, brands will be tested to use Social Media for more than just marketing. If we can avoid focusing on Social Media just as a marketing strategy and instead think of it as an experience strategy, possibilities are endless.

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