Not all of us want to chat with every vendor we have for the stuff around the home, let alone the number of products I interface with at work. However, being in touch with a few key vendors would not only be acceptable, it could be helpful if I could influence product design or learn of unique l promotions to save money.
But to get there, the company has to first build trust and not immediately look like all they are interested in doing is mining my pocket to make their quarterly numbers. More important, before you can really engage me, you need to do a little work to find out who I am and at the very least get my name right. To do this the focus has to be on quality not quantity, unless the population is relatively small.
This suggests a proxy model, one where a few relevant customers become proxies for their peers and help guide both the conversation and future product developments.
In effect, much like it is in market studies, you establish a core group of people who represent the larger population, make sure they are representative of their related segment, and use them to help model your world.
It strikes me that care should be taken to make sure the hard connection between these folks and both the product and version they are using is maintained. Otherwise their feedback may cause bad decisions.
The really powerful part of this is that you actually get real customers you can site when some idiot executive wants to do something stupid. Not that this happens very often in most companies, mind you, but in those rare occasions that you have a clueless executive it helps to cite actual customers.
There may even be opportunities to use the tool to test the opinions of real people and possibly either prevent a bad decision or better refine a good one. In todays world you shouldnt have to wait to put together a focus group or full study to get a reasonable answer. If social networking is played right, you should just be able to ask for a response.
Now be aware that customers do have limitations as well. Customers are people and generally better at refining an existing product than in creating a new one.
Im convinced that if the iPhone had been described to the Apple customer base in technical terms it would have been rejected outright as too expensive, too difficult to use, and way too large. But once Jobs pitched it they got what made the product interesting and lined up to buy it.
This suggests that how things are presented has a great deal to do with how they are received. And care needs to be taken to not overly bias the sample in either direction if you want an accurate response.
Finally, and this is true of focus groups as well, this kind of thing cant be used to the exclusion of all others.
Customer feedback is best on historical events and not on future trends. This is because they seldom know what is coming from you or others that may color their view, suggesting analysis remains a major portion of a successful social network project.
We are at the beginning of understanding how to use Social Network effectively as a company tool. Whats clear is that it is the Social part of the tool that is the most important.
This social aspect needs to be nurtured if the tool is to have any long-term value. Done right this could lead to better product decisions, stronger customer loyalty and advocacy, and a vastly better understanding of the changing world we all live and work in. Done wrong this becomes a drag on the brand, an eliminator of trust and business, and problem to overcome.