Some of the biggest flops in my career began and ended in the laboratory of my mind.

It starts with a spark of brilliance, then a rush of enthusiasm, followed by product creation and finally ends with “I don’t get it, that should have been a game changer, why didn’t it sell?”

Most product and service disasters occur when we create things people “should” want rather than what they do want.

Increasingly, the secret to success is collaboration – creating new offerings with our customer rather than for our customers.

Launch and learn is the new order.

In order to take advantage of the incredible insight available from a market you’ve got to be brave enough to face your customers or prospects with something that may be little more than an idea and a willingness to learn.

Now that doesn’t mean you simply build the inevitable “Frankenstein” that a customer committee might concoct, but it does mean that you must be prepared to alter, customize and personalize your original vision based on actual live feedback.

This is doubly important for the small business who may only get one shot at getting something right. If you wait to perfect it you may simply create something that people perfectly have no interest in.

There are many ways to execute this kind of customer discovery. I often poll a handful of customers based on the outline of an idea and then grab a group to beta test something more fully developed. Participants test things out for little or no money and I learn what works and what doesn’t.

Research giant Nielsen recently launched an app aimed at pushing out interesting trending data to consumers based on their research on things like movies, books, television shows and music.

Nielsen TOPTEN

In an effort to create some uptake for the app and increase brand awareness Nielsen took the app on the road to a number of university campuses. They rolled out a bus loaded a with college student focused tech, music and graphics and stopped by ten campuses hosting a social media infused party event that included downloading and trialing the app. (You can see some of the tour event photos on the TOPTEN Facebook page)

The app, named TOPTEN, is likely a potent new way for Nielsen to supplement its data with the highly mobile consumer, but according to Nielsen staffers the tour was eye opening in terms of developing an even better experience.

By getting direct, face to face, user experience with the app, they were able to understand not only what users wanted, but how they wanted it, what didn’t seem as intuitive at it should and what they liked best.

Okay, so you don’t have the budget for t-shirts, DJs and a brand wrapped tour bus? This kind of “prospect” tour can be done by any size business and can turn up invaluable data while helping a brand bond with its customers. Invite a handful of customers to lunch, do a Google+Hangout or partner with a non profit to host a meaningful local event.

I have no idea what Nielsen will end up doing with what they learned, but my guess is that the app will undergo some informed revisions based on meaningful customer input.

Experience tells me that any organization that puts collaboration front and center in the product and service development phases will discover innovations that far outstrip anything that can be created in the meeting room.

So, how can you put on your own tour, gather customers for informal launch and learns or create beta innovation groups? How do you collaborate?

FYI: Daughter #3 works for Nielsen and provided me with some background for this example.

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John Jantsch

John Jantsch is a marketing consultant, speaker and author of Duct Tape Marketing, Duct Tape Selling, The Commitment Engine and The Referral Engine and the founder of the Duct Tape Marketing Consultant Network.
  • What a great dose of truth: …”you’ve got to be brave enough to face your customers or prospects with something that may be little more than an idea and a willingness to learn.” Thanks for making me think, John.

    • Thanks Stephen – so the next question is what are you going to do with the truth? 🙂

  • David Eberhart

    Our little operation is going through this right now in a big way. We call it “listening for pain points” and it led to us launching two businesses in less than three months. Those “pain points” are everywhere–especially in these days where companies are trying to run as lean as possible.

    • Thanks Dave – would love to hear more

  • Blake Robison

    This is a great post John, I really like the idea of “Launching and Learning” in terms of using customer data to recreate a product to match the customers needs. It will be interesting to see what Nielsen does with their data. Have you ever considered Q&A platforms as a resource for collaboration or post launch customer interest/response data?

    • Yes I have, but you would need to tightly control the process and those aren’t very good for that – I like to start with known subjects who already understand your value proposition.

      • Blake Robison

        Understood. Perhaps a private collaboration solution where the process can be controlled to specific subjects would function more efficiently.

  • Gregg Senechal

    Great article! This can and should be applied to all business sizes.

    • Thanks Gregg – I agree it’s a really powerful tool in the hands of a small business that can actually act on the information immediately

  • Great stuff. Again,Make sure that your business has an established procedure for dealing with customer and that it is known to all your employees and it should be involve courteously and sympathetically.

  • Ray James

    I think a big mistake many people make when considering a new idea is to cherry pick the customers they intend to ask for an opinion. Customers who are also friends and family are on the one hand the easiest to access and on the other the absolute worst for this exercise. They will invariably be supportive and tell you it’s your best idea yet. They’re not being untruthful it’s just very difficult for them to react any other way. So my advice is randomly select a batch of customers and ask away. Quite often the responses you get will lead you to the real next big thing for your business.