Stepping Stones: The product blog by Obo

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Are Idea Portals a Bad Idea?

Feb 3, 2020 6:13:00 PM

In theory, idea portals are great. Your customers (and others) can enter and vote on ideas for your products, and voilà—you’re customer-centric! What could possibly go wrong?

If you’re not careful, your idea portal will miss the mark and steer your product roadmap off track.I applaud the intentions of idea portals: crowdsource ideas from your customers and others, track idea submissions, and keep people happy by automatically notifying submitters when the status of their ideas changes.

But here are just some potential downsides:

  1. Seemingly popular submissions can steer your product roadmap in the wrong direction.
  2. PMs can waste precious time reviewing overflowing, overlapping, and repetitive ideas that won’t contribute to product success.
  3. Customers get frustrated when you don’t deliver on their requests: Idea portals give them proof that you aren’t delivering to them.
  4. Your next innovation is unlikely to come from your idea portal.

I’ve talked to PMs at companies whose idea portals primarily contain suggestions for incremental product tweaks that won’t get implemented as requested. Or they’re filled with big requests to address market segments that aren’t profitable for the company. Meanwhile, some companies have “runaway” idea portals, with thousands of ideas sitting in them and insufficient resources to even review what’s there.

So use idea portals wisely. Consider the purpose of your idea portal, and figure out how you’ll manage it and respond to ideas. Here are some solutions to avoid common pitfalls.

Seemingly popular submissions can steer your roadmap in the wrong direction.

Product ideas don’t exist in a vacuum. The problem lies in determining which ideas are the best ideas and how to craft them into useful solutions. How do you know which ideas are the best? Keep in mind:

  • Customers who submit and vote for ideas probably don't represent your most important customers or your target market. So which votes count?
  • Like online reviews, votes are easy to game (that’s what friends are for). The proverbial “squeaky wheel” can easily wrangle more votes to grab your attention to an idea that isn't worth building.
  • Idea submissions and votes, like online reviews, tend to skew to the extremes, both negative and positive.

Solution: Make sure that the idea submissions you consider align with your company and product strategy and address significant needs of your target market.

  • Develop a market framework (segments) so that you can judge: Is this idea good for our large enterprise customers? Or for young adult consumers? What value proposition will it enable or accelerate or extend? These are important market questions that can’t be answered with “well, a customer said it, and others voted for it, so it must be true.”
  • Validate ideas with target customers and market segments, as well as internal stakeholders.
  • Evaluate ideas from the customer portal along with ideas from other sources and your backlog side by side, so you choose the best of the best.
  • Determine the best approach to triaging, evaluating, and responding to ideas so that you don’t end up with frustrated customers who don’t believe you’re listening to them.  

"Creativity comes from a conflict of ideas." - Donatella Versace

PMs waste precious time on ideas that won’t contribute to product success.

Idea portals can quickly overflow with a massive amount of unvetted, stale data. As a PM, you want to prioritize your time to maximize the chance of your product’s success—and your professional success. Depending on your product and your business, time spent scouring your idea portal may not be useful.

Don’t let the idea portal become an excuse for customers and your support team to relentlessly hound you to respond.

Solution: Focus on what matters and keep the big picture in mind. Carefully consider who should own the idea portal and is primarily responsible for ensuring customers get responses—PM? Customer Support? Customer Success?

  • Be sure that ideas you’re considering align with your company and product strategy. make product choices that are most likely to lead to your product’s success.
  • Proactively get input from your Customer Success and Support teams on high-priority issues and defects.
  • Use technology to reduce time spent scouring the idea portal, such as natural language processing to group, tag, de-dupe, and trend.

Customers get frustrated when you don’t deliver on their requests.

Idea portals set customer expectations, and automated responses don’t cut it. If you’re not taking action to address customers’ submissions, you run the risk of customer frustration and potential negative backlash. From the customer’s perspective, it’s like calling your company and waiting on hold while listening to a recorded voice repeat, “Thank you for being a valued customer. Your call is important. We’ll be with you shortly.” But nobody answers the call.

Your idea portal can give your customers proof that you don’t care about them and aren’t delivering what they want.

About a year ago, I voted for and added a comment to a request on a popular product’s idea portal. The original request was submitted two years prior, but the company still hasn’t taken action. Every couple of months I get an update from another irate customer asking for the same thing. Not exactly a confidence booster. Clearly I’m not a valued customer, my call is not important, and I’m still on hold.

Solution: Customer issues and requests, along with notifications to customers, belong in your CRM. Managing that frustration is what your customer success and support people do for a living.

  • Automate the connection between your idea portal and your support systems, so that you can shift issues that belong in your CRM there, while ensuring the customer that submitted the issue gets a response in a timely fashion.
  • If possible, your support team should triage your idea portal.

Your next great innovation is unlikely to come from your idea portal

Most PMs don’t expect to discover their next great innovation in their idea portal. Brilliant product visionaries aren’t hanging out on your portal handing out their intellectual property. Your best ideas come from the people who know your market and products best, and who can craft innovative solution to needs your customers and market may not even realize they have.

"The important thing is to not stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing." - Albert Einstein

Solution: If you’re looking for the next great innovation for your product, get out of the building and out of your portal. As Albert Einstein said, “The important thing is to not stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”

  • Identify market and customer needs through discovery techniques that uncover needs and wants that trigger innovative ideas.
  • Validate them at scale using online surveys to your stakeholders, customers, and target market.
  • If you can, go on “field trips” to see customers and prospects in their environments rather than via web/video conferencing.

Make your idea portal work.

Idea portals can be an important and useful way to engage with your customers. They can also create a sense of product community. But they need to function well both for customers and for your company. To do that:

  • Clarify process and responsibilities—such as triaging and managing idea submissions—among product management, customer support, and other teams.
  • Don’t rely on your idea portal to learn what your most important customers and your market want and need most. Instead, start a customer advisory board or create an idea portal just for your top customers.
  • Be willing to respond to and explain why you haven’t addressed upvoted ideas.
  • Look for innovation “outside.” Share and validate your innovative ideas on your portal.

Try a different approach.

Idea portals aren't the only way to get customer input on new ideas or features for your product. Use depth interviews to discover and understand needs. Use surveys to get representative input at scale from your internal stakeholders, customers, and your market.

Jackie Holen
Written by Jackie Holen

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