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Get customers involved in innovations

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In her new book, "Outside Innovation", Patty Seybold tells how companies in all sorts of industries are harnessing customer innovation to create better products, more focused messages and stronger brands. These aren't necessarily high-tech companies, just ones that tap a rich new vein of online tools to deputize their customers as product developers. For example:

  • GE Plastics gives customers software to create plastics in custom colors and textures, which GE then produces for them;
  • National Instruments lets customers swap software programs they write to improve and extend the company's test and measurement equipment;
  • Staples designed the Easy Rebate program because small-business customers told the office retailer that lost rebates were one of their biggest frustrations;
  • FidelityLabs.com, which is run by Fidelity Investments, previews services the company is thinking of offering and asks customers for feedback.

These are only a handful of examples of how businesses—and b-to-b marketers—can involve customers in crafting products and marketing strategies. You don't need a lot of software or equipment, just free tools that are out there on the Web:

Set up Google Alerts and Technorati Watchlists for your company, your products and your executives. These will notify you of any new online chatter about these subjects.

Become familiar with del.icio.us, the shared bookmarking site owned by Yahoo. Read the tags and comments members are applying to your company's name. You may find the terms they use to describe you aren't what you expected. You'll also find fans and critics there.

Reach out to bloggers who are writing positively and negatively about your company. Ask what you can do better. Deputize them as an extension of your R&D operation.

Once you get comfortable listening to unvarnished feedback, leverage social media tools to ask for help. Set up a wiki, post your marketing collateral and invite business partners to comment. Offer a prize for the best ideas. Services such as WetPaint.com and PBWiki.com let you set up a wiki for free.

Engage a service like Communispace to create private communities where you can engage with partners and customers in an honest, ongoing dialogue. If your product has a computer component, consider opening up the code so customers can "hack" their own new ideas. Search for Google Maps Mania to see incredible examples of how customers have extended Google's brand—and its advertising business—by building hundreds of Web services on top of its map service.

Your best product and marketing consultants may be out there right now, for free, waiting to help you. All you need to do is let them.

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