Saturday, August 18, 2012

Adventures in Product and Consumer Development

Most people in business have heard of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software that helps vendors sell to and keep track of the needs and profiles of their customers and potential customers. Such tools give vendors significant power in tailoring marketing messages to prospective users and purchasers of their products. There is a new trend developing in response to this targeted and one sided power, VRM.

Since the advent of Google, customers are increasingly picky about where and when we (they) are contacted and would prefer to be reached only when we (they) are looking to buy. Vendor Relationship Management (VRM) is a growing suite of tools to help consumers control and communicate preferences to vendors.

One example of this is like "do not call" lists on steroids. Just as you go to the post office and request a change of address card, these tools make it easy to do the same with your email, shipping preferences, etc. A single update allows all of your favorite companies to switch simultaneously to a new communication channel with you. Customers are going from being herded like cattle with advertising and marketing prods to being in control, and its the next big thing.

What if when you buy a car, you get to decide on the features before it ever gets to the dealership? Some companies already offer this, but what if you also get a say in price, without dealing with a sketchy salesman? Product managers of tomorrow get to deal with the (welcome) headache and opportunity of dealing with a thousand variant requests and sets of terms. As customer advocates, they also get to help bring this customer-in-control culture to their company cultures, or risk getting left behind.

Dominos already has a system in place that allows you to order truly custom pizzas online that are far more personal and tasty than what a traditional menu could have room for. I can buy a wheat-free pizza with pepperoni, steak, fresh tomato chunks, three kinds of cheese, and four other toppings, and have it delivered with a mouse click. I'll never walk into a Little Caesar's again!

What does this mean for Hollywood? Studios already commonly hold focus groups to determine the perfect ending, but what happens when customers can selectively filter out trailers unlikely to appeal to them before even seeing them, from the whole Internet? For example, I might select "no movies with strong language." (Expect this control to be built right into your Chrome browser or Google account.) Will this begin to shape how Hollywood movies are made and what content is included? What if I only opt to hear about a film after three of my friends have bought tickets or "liked" the trailer?

As a consumer who has been bandied about by all sorts of advertising, I welcome the change, and, given the option, might even opt out of all advertising altogether.

Of course, I wouldn't mind more customization in my movie ticket purchases. What if when I buy my ticket on Fandango I can also order my popcorn and non-soda drink? (Maybe a Vitamin Water.) Of course, the whole purchase and redemption will be managed by my virtual wallet on my iPhone 6.

Some people even think the pricing system for tickets will change. For example, you might bid on tickets to get into a first screening. Prices may go up and down to maximize theater seat use, which helps theater owners the most since they have more people to sell popcorn to. What if you bring five people to a theater and each buys a drink? Could your ticket price change?

There is a great book that I just downloaded that appears to delve into some of these broad issues. It was just released in audio yesterday and is called The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge by Doc Searls. Find it on You get the book and someone to read it to you!

Another trend: Have you noticed that as Apple's products have evolved, so have its consumers? This is really the case in all industries. Apple both anticipates and responds to changes in consumer demand. Consumers don't always know what we want until some visionary shows us. Three months later, it's tough to go back!

If you trace the development of any product or category, it evolves in response to or in anticipation of people evolving. Not only have products evolved, but we have changed, too.

I'm not saying we are soon going to have three thumbs to help us deal with a new controller from Nintendo, but our sophistication seems to break new ground every time supply and demand play another round. I look at pictures of actresses from the eighties and wonder how anyone ever fell for a girl with hair like that! Apparently men were just as bad.

All of this leads me to one more question: Are consumer preferences doomed to change forever, or are there certain principles and styles and choices that are and will remain timeless? Audrey Hepburn seems to have avoided the eighties type hair disaster altogether, and is still considered stylish. Is there a golden mean of product development that industry may someday reach, or are people as hungry for change as we are for perfection? A walk through the woods or on a beach suggests that we are all fickle, and perhaps nature alone understands timelessness. At least there will always be something new to blog about!

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