Are idea portals a bad idea?

Idea portals aren’t a bad idea -- but they aren’t necessarily a good idea.

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’s the potential downside:

  1. Popular submissions can easily 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.

Popular submissions can steer your roadmap in the wrong direction.

Product ideas don’t and shouldn’t exist in a vacuum. The best product ideas solve the most painful problems for a segment of customers, help you do something better than your competition, and may allow you to charge a premium or sell more new products. The problem lies in determining which ideas are the best ideas and how to craft them into useful solutions.

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

If you take 15,000 ideas in your portal and say “we are going to implement the good ideas,” what criteria will you use to decide: Votes? Something else?

Keep in mind:

  • Idea submissions and votes are like online reviews: they tend to skew to the extremes, both negative and positive. Like 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.
  • Customers who submit and vote for ideas don’t necessarily represent your best or most important customers or your target market. So which votes count?
  • Customers may not know what they want or need or how best to use your product to get their desired outcomes. Figuring that out is core to the PM’s job. As Donatella Versace said, “Creativity comes from a conflict of ideas.”

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.”
  • Establish categories for idea submissions that align them with market segments, products, and business objectives. Use whatever organization your idea portal allows and encourage people to tag their submissions. Then validate needs and solutions with target customers and market segments.
  • 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.  

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 all that 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 idea submissions you’re considering align with your company and product strategy, and make product choices that are most likely to lead to your product’s success in your market.
  • 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. If possible, use technology like 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 growing customer frustration and potential negative backlash. From the customer’s perspective, it’s like calling your company for help and then waiting on hold while listening to a recorded voice repeat over and over, “Thank you for being a valued customer. Your call is important to us. We’ll be with you shortly.” But you don’t answer.

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 a couple of years, 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 own and 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 intellectual property. Your best ideas are going to come from the people who know your market and products best and can envision a truly 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 depth interviews and other discovery techniques that can uncover needs and wants that trigger innovative ideas.
  • Validate them at scale using online surveys to your stakeholders, customers, and prospects in your target market.
  • Go on “field trips” to see customers and prospects in their environments rather than just on the phone or via web/video conferencing.

Make your idea portal work.

Idea portals can be an important and useful way to engage with your customers and create a sense of product community. That can only happen if you set up and manage your idea portal 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.
  • Implement tools and automation to reduce the workload of reviewing repetitive submissions.
  • Don’t rely on your idea portal to learn what your most important customers 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. Surveys are a great way to get input from your internal and external stakeholders.

At Obo, we conduct surveys of our customers and targets to better understand their challenges and needs and our top users to get and validate new ideas and features. We recently added the ability for you to Survey Stakeholders with two clicks directly from your features table.

If you haven't had the opportunity to try out Obo, get in touch with us to learn more, see a demo, or start a free trial.

Validate for product success

No one likes the idea of pouring precious time and effort into...

Read More

5 steps to sell your product plan to your stakeholders

Getting agreement on your product plans can be an uphill,...

Read More

Lies, damned lies, and the 4 levels of validation

Dante’s Inferno has nine circles of Hell. Fortunately, product...

Read More

Have a comment?