As I’ve argued before, innovation is everything. Therefore, it’s important -no matter what you sell- to keep new products on the horizon. Not only does the simple fact of a product’s newness generate its own excitement, but a business that’s constantly seeking to better address customers’ needs is a business that keeps those customers for the long term. It’s the approach best articulated in Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup: staying in the game by staying fresh.
The challenge is in the execution. How can we constantly create and design new products? How do we decide what new products are needed? How do we know which are likely to sell? How can we be truly innovative, not just crank out ideas for their own sake?
The answer lies with the consumers. The best product ideas come from the people who will eventually buy them- whether they realize it or not. Often, even when asked, customers won’t directly describe the product they need. They will, however, describe what they want it to do. They won’t ask for a salad spinner; they’ll ask for dry lettuce. They won’t ask for a cupholder; they’ll ask for a place to put their coffee. They won’t ask for a selfie stick; they’ll ask for the inevitable downfall of society, presumably. Your job is to listen, and respond with creativity.
There are many places to listen. They’re accessible to every businessperson. All it takes to profit from them is the ingenuity to hear the sound of a product coming through…
1. Your Website
Specifically, your blogs. If you’re not blogging, you’re not innovating. This is because the act of blogging is the act of consciously tracking the progress of your industry. It’s an open journal through which you discuss your take on the industry, and prompt customers to share theirs. Blogs are where the conversation with your audience begins.
Use analytics to your advantage and track the response to your blogs. Which posts generated the biggest response? What was liked and shared? More importantly, what do the comments indicate? The comments section of an industry blog is really the first place consumers go to vent their feelings and express their opinion on what an industry needs, so read through them.
Try to get a sense of the consensus- is there something that most or all of them need? Is there a common complaint? Is there an existing product that you could modify or sell yourself in order to meet their needs? Look to your most popular blogs and start there. Look to the blogs of competitors. Somewhere among the people’s reactions is a request for a product.
Yes, that Amazon. One great thing about Amazon is its huge catalogue of consumer reviews. That information is a gold mine for the innovative entrepreneur, if he or she is willing to put the time in digging. It’s where customers love to vent, talk at length about their preferences, and (more importantly) articulate their desires.
Focus on 3 star reviews, as they’re likely to be the most objective (anything higher probably represents loyal “fan” or a customer too satisfied for you to help, anything lower is likely to be irrelevant). By reading reviews from those who aren’t exactly dissatisfied but are still looking for something better, you can get a sense of exactly what they need. Why didn’t they give that extra star? What could have made them do so? What did the creator of this product fail to provide that you can? The answer is somewhere in those last ungiven stars
This takes time, but it’s time well spent. Consider it research and development. As you read, record the patterns that you notice. Do many of the products’ shortcomings fall into the same category? Record the frequency of similar complaints to get a sense of what the customer base is crying out for. Find the gaps in the service they’re being provided, and ask yourself what product could fill them. Whatever it is, you can count on the fact that every one of those reviewers will be interested in buying it.
3. Facebook Groups
Facebook isn’t just for kitten pics and ill-informed politics. Search through any of the groups relevant to your industry, and get involved. Join the groups and interact. Answer questions, converse, and network. By establishing a rapport with a group, you expose yourself to a wellspring of their wants and needs- and a wellspring of product ideas.
In fact, you can start your own group, directing and maintaining a long-term discussion of what customers like, dislike, need and want. By tapping into this cyber-scene, you avail yourself of a massive resource: the customers’ expertise in themselves.
Finally, the physical world boasts a few places to cruise for inspiration. The best are conferences, featuring experts and high-profile figures in almost every industry. Going to conferences is like plunging yourself into the hive; the hotbed of excitement, enthusiasm, and dedication to a particular industry.
At the conference, keep your ears as wide open as you can. Listen to everything. Not just addresses, but conversations, even the idle ones. Engage with everyone you can, constantly listening for hopes, aspirations, and anything else that can help identify a need that a new product could potentially fulfill. At conferences, people tend to be far more open, loose, and up front about what they want. It’s your job to listen closely enough to pick up the threads that may lead straight to a product idea.
The key to new product ideas has less to do with conceiving and more to do with discovering. Business is about service. It’s about identifying and addressing the needs of a customers, not working up big ideas and then convincing people to pay for them. The best entrepreneurs aren’t geniuses at thinking up incredible products; they’re people who know their audience, who embed themselves into a community of consumers and understand their needs. They let their creativity and their drive be guided by that understanding.
The next great product idea won’t be something created for the purpose of making someone successful- it will be created to fulfill a need, and the success will follow. Identify the need, and you’re most of the way to a game-changing idea.