In the olden days (a.k.a. before Twitter), Product Managers would lament, “If only there were a way I could easily gather customer feedback.” How times have changed. Today, Product Managers are faced with the opposite problem: there is an abundance of feedback if you know where to look.

One of the first and most raw places to go to get a snapshot of what people are thinking is social media. “Social media” covers the huge spectrum of services and technologies ranging from the well known (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, reddit) to niche sites familiar only to enthusiasts and SMEs.

Where should you go if you want to tap into the social media zeitgeist to ask, listen, and have conversations with your users? How can you use it to take and keep the pulse of your community?

Collecting Customer Feedback Using Social Mediacustomer-feedback-social-media-800x400

What is Social Media and Why Use It to Gather Feedback?Customer Feedback Cocktails

“Customer feedback is your key to discovering and solving customer problems as your customers and product evolves,” and social media is a potent ingredient of the feedback cocktail. Social media has been broadly defined to refer to the many relatively inexpensive and widely accessible electronic tools that enable anyone to publish and access information, collaborate on a common effort, or build relationships.”

Social media is a potent ingredient of a customer feedback cocktail.

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Two distinguishing features of social media are that it is centered on user-generated content, and it is a “dialogic transmission system (many sources to many receivers).” Dialogic what-what? In plain English, individuals can use social media to share and amplify their opinions with a broad audience, and anyone can initiate and participate in that conversation.

As a product manager, you can tap into relevant conversations, choosing to listen quietly (lurking and taking notes) or to actively participate and become a part of the dialogue. The real strength of social media is you are able to have a more direct conversation with the people actively using your products.

conversation prism chalkboardBrian Solis and JESS3 created the conversation prism as a way to capture the breadth and depth of social media sites and the types of conversations happening on the web. They range from social networking sites (Facebook, LinkedIn) and microblogging (Twitter, Tumblr), to reviews and ratings (Yelp, TripAdvisor), to video (YouTube, Twitch), and niche forums (Stack Overflow, to name only one of thousands).

To paraphrase the fine folks at The Community Roundtable, social networks (and social media in general) serve to hold up mirrors, equalize access, and crumble barriers. While not all organizations are prepared to democratize their feedback loop, those who have the wherewithal to do it will reap enormous benefits.

What kind of feedback will it get you?

Types of feedback to get from social mediaOne of the main strengths and also a weakness of gathering feedback through social media channels is that it is often unstructured and anecdote-based. While a good way to gather feedback, look for trends, and create stories, it may be more challenging to turn this into hard data.

But, you are now hearing directly from customers. It’s unfiltered. It is not coming to you sanitized by Sales or Tech Support or biased by the latest potentially HUGE deal or the internal echo chamber of what users might want. (Yeah, right, this one minor improvement is the only thing stopping our current customer from spending even more with us. Mmmhmmm.) You can quickly understand what your customers are thinking or dealing with in the moment and infer the trends by passing over the middleman.

The Facts

Collecting the Feedback: Easy
Analyzing the Feedback: Difficult (requires specialized tools or expertise)
Reach: Broad and deep
Scalability: Medium / “It Depends” (While relatively easy to listen in on the social media conversation, active participation requires actually having conversations, which is very labor intensive unless your AI bot is really, really convincing. Not to mention the act of drawing insights from disparate data.)
Cost: Inexpensive to set up and run, but if specialized applications are used to analyze the data, there could be additional expenses. If you need a data scientist or specialized hardware, the costs go way up.

Pros…with Benefits

  • using community to innovateUncontaminated Voice-of-Customer feedback. As Don Peppers writes, “[O]btaining voice-of-customer feedback is not as easy as [polling] your customers to ask their opinions, because the act of asking the customer will contaminate your results… genuine voice-of-customer feedback is subject to its own ‘observer effect.’”
  • Innovation. Studies have shown that using social media in product innovation leads to “more (and better) product ideas and requirements, faster time to market, faster product adoption, lower product costs, and lower product development costs.”
  • Immediacy. You can ask questions of users and very quickly, with relatively low investment, gather useful, direct feedback.
  • Two-way conversation. Social media is dialogic (there’s that word again), so you can have an actual conversation, following up with the customer on specific items so you can understand them better. It makes it possible to interview someone, rather than just surveying them.
  • Taps into existing communities.
  • Provides users with a sense of ownership and a stake in the game. They’re more invested in the outcome… so if their request is implemented, they’re more likely to help promote it or buy more product because of it.

Cons…with Weaknesses

  • Biased samples. “It doesn’t matter how large your VOC sample is, if your sample is biased it will be far less useful than a smaller but less biased sample.”
  • differentiating between signal versus noiseDifficult to separate the signal from the noise. There is a lot of data and parsing through it to pull out the relevant nuggets can be labor and time intensive.
  • Biased, Part 2.  People who respond via social media may already be polarized, either loving or loathing the product or service. Case in point: rating on review sites often look like an inverted bell curve, with many ratings at the poles and fewer in the middle.
  • Provides users with a sense of ownership and a stake in the game. They’re more invested in the outcome…so if their request is not implemented, they may feel slighted and will air their grievance via (you guessed it) social media.
  • This is a very fluid market segment. In the time it takes you to read this post, it is a safe bet that one social media service will have disappeared, and 2 others will be on the rise.
  • social media privacy concernsReliability & Trustworthiness. It’s hard to know if what you read on the internet is true or if you can rely on a particular individual’s opinion.
  • Privacy. Even though a comment may have been posted to a social media service, some users still may feel their privacy is being violated if their comments are used for commercial purposes, or are used at all. Tread softly where privacy matters are concerned.
  • Conversations take time. Be prepared to have an ongoing dialogue. While listening is good, having a conversation is better. And once you start a conversation on social media, and solicit feedback, your customers will have expectations: “We leave feedback because we want to help you.” “We want you to do more than just listen.” “We want to know what happens with our feedback.” If you’re not prepared, you risk alienating the very people you are hoping to engage or may find yourself ill-prepared for the extra workload.

Using Social Media Throughout the Product Development Lifecycle

At what point(s) in the PDLC will this type of feedback be most useful?

The Product Development Lifecycle:

  • Phase 1: Conceive – imagine, specify, plan, innovate
  • Phase 2: Design – describe, define, develop, test, analyze, validate
  • Phase 3: Realize – manufacture, make, build, procure, produce, sell, deliver
  • Phase 4: Service – use, operate, maintain, support, sustain, phase-out, retire, recycle and dispose

Tapping into Social Media is helpful throughout the Product Development Lifecycle.

In the early stages of a conceiving a new product or feature (Phase 1), tap into your community using social media to brainstorm new ideas, prioritize existing ideas, stress test the ideas with users, and collaboratively create a near-term product roadmap. You can passively listen to social media, looking for recurring problems which are not currently solved by your product, and can actively solicit input from your followers about what to work on next.

pre-launch-feedback-396x395As you undertake translating the “What” of the problem into the “How” it will be solved, use social media to validate that the direction is correct and still meeting their needs (get out of the echo chamber). The team will likely be iterating on prototypes and working through early releases, so ask your community for feedback by providing them with early access to the work-in-process or sharing screenshots or other early functional prototypes. Take their feedback to heart.

Whether you are producing a physical or digital product, enlist your community through social media as the release date nears. Give them glimpses into the upcoming release and build anticipation while also helping them prepare for any changes which may be coming. This is also a fantastic time to understand which concerns they may have about the new release before they turn into full-on fear. It helps you anticipate potential roll-out problems and Fight The FUD.

Best Practices & Pro-tips

Listening & Monitoringsocial listening

If you want to hear what people are saying, you need to listen. Take advantage of the many tools available to monitor what is being said, or so-called “social listening.” A very simple first step is to set up Google Alerts for terms and keywords that matter to you: your product’s name, company name, competitive products or companies, trends you want to follow.  Use the advanced options to refine the frequency of alerts, sources from which the alerts will pull (news, blogs, etc) and quantity of results.

For a more comprehensive or systematic approach to monitoring your social media universe via social listening, take advantage of social media measurement tools such as Crimson Hexagon, Facebook Insights, HootSuite, Klout, and Mention.

monitoring social media for insightLooking for even more insights? Consider setting up a custom social media mining function within your organization. Bring on a sexy data scientist to glean insights from the ridiculous amounts of social media data at your disposal. As Karan Chaudhry wrote in Forbes, “While ratings tell you whether feedback providers are satisfied or not, they are too general to become highly actionable. If someone gives you a poor rating, you are often left wondering why. Hence, it’s important to gather and analyze open feedback to unravel specific trends. Text analytics technology can help with comment analysis.” Social listening requires more than simply putting your ear to the ground.

Actively seek out communities, blogs and niche sites which your customers might frequent, and observe what they are writing about. Are your customers into textiles? Check out PatternObserver.

robots having conversationMake it a Conversation

More effective than lurking and listening is to become a part of the conversation. Actively engage your customers in the social media environments they frequent. Ask them questions. Solicit feedback on upcoming product releases or potential new features. Host a focus group on Twitter. And remember Cialdini’s principle of reciprocity, which in this case means you need to be willing to give if you expect to receive. The conversation must flow in both directions, and shouldn’t be one where you only take from others.

Build a Community, Feed the Community

While experts like Don Peppers may argue that untainted customer feedback is the best, there is also a case to be made for building and nurturing a community. It could take the form of a Customer Advisory Board (more on that later in this series), but it could also just be an organic community with which you consistently, frequently, and genuinely engage on matters related to your products. You can do it in a forum such as twitter, or within the confines of your corporate blog or support forums. Just make it reciprocal, and don’t always take-take-take without giving something back.

social-listening-community-800x400Organizations such as The Community Roundtable and C Space can assist you with creating and nurturing a community, providing you with guidance and a framework which can be used to assess and improve your capabilities. There are also vendors who provide platforms that help you harness the power of your communities – be they customers or employees. (Ever heard of this outfit called UserVoice? Of course you have.) And consultancies like Kalypso are churning out useful reports about trends in social media and how to leverage them.


collecting feedback from social mediaSocial media sites and services are ubiquitous and a superb way to understand what your customers are saying about your product and to have direct conversations with them. While relatively easy to tap into social media, it can be cumbersome to draw insights from the vast trove of feedback. Make sure to monitor what is being said about your product and company, then have reciprocal conversations with your customers. Tap into existing communities or create new ones on which you can rely for honest feedback throughout the product development lifecycle.

How have you used social media as a feedback channel? Tell us in the comments! (Wink wink nudge nudge.)