I’m willing to bet that if I told you I had a way to predict the next big thing your customers want before your competition does, you’d sign a blank check for that ability. Because you know innovation is just that important. Whether it’s the next hottest video game, or a new snack item, companies stand to make – or lose – millions when trying to find their next innovative idea.

In this highly competitive age, innovators have to get creative when trying to conduct customer research. But there’s one technique that’s so obvious it’s almost too simple: crowdsourcing your audience.

Can market research really be as easy as just listening to your customers? Yes. And your community forum may be the most powerful and effective platform you have for engaging directly with them and finding out what they want to see next.

But it gets even better. What if I told you that you could continue to build on these interactions to create a new breed of community member… one who, through sustained engagement, becomes an informed brand ambassador that spreads word of your community to the outside world, while supporting your efforts on the inside?

Combined, these benefits derived from your forum create a knowledgeable, informed community that, if used properly, can help chart the future of your brand or product.

But you must know how.

Key #1 : Use Your Community Effectively

Many companies have ditched their older, more expensive focus group research techniques and are instead relying on crowdsourcing ideas directly from their community forum. That said, it isn’t as looking under the hood and seeing immediate results; just like more traditional means of research and development, crowdsourcing innovation requires a certain degree of management and finesse.

We’ve already discussed using your online community to help launch your video game. The good news is that this very same technique can be applied to almost any industry. It follows the same idea as crowdsourcing for funds, except that instead of money, you’re asking for ideas.

By getting innovative ideas directly from your brand’s fans, you can easily engage with active participants who want to see you succeed. Remember, forums foster a sense of community that connects the brand directly with the consumer. Your success is their success and vice versa. They’re on your side; they want to see you win.

Key #2 : Know What Can and Cannot Be Crowdsourced

So just what kind of intel, exactly, can be crowdsourced from an online community? The short answer is everything, and while that may seem vague at first, it’s true. Companies have had overwhelming success launching many different types of ideas, all thanks to their community, including:

  • Conferencing Opportunities
  • Product Enhancement Ideas
  • New Content Offerings
  • New Products and Services

If you can think of it, it can be done. So long as the ideas are farmed without tossing feasibility and management to the wind, there are numerous directions you can take your crowdsourcing efforts. But you must have some direction. Which brings us to key number three.

Key #3 : Know How to Begin

Ideas are intangible, so when it comes to product innovation, where do you start? The easiest way is to start big and then shrink it down to a more manageable issue. Many companies start with a poll asking what general area(s) their customers are most concerned with. They then filter out the most popular responses and begin focusing on the specific problems identified.

For example, if you’re looking to improve an existing product, you might ask what customers like or don’t like about its current incarnation. You’d want to ask what features or abilities your customers would like to see implemented or enhanced in the future.

For a new product or service offering, you could begin by asking your community whether or not the idea holds their interest, how they might use it, and even what they might be willing to pay for it.

It’s important that an open and honest discussion is started between your company and its customers. In an environment of transparency, ideas are easily exchanged, and tools such as polls and surveys can be implemented to narrow down the more popular needs and wants.

Key #4 : Focus on Collaboration

Let me clarify. This isn’t about just taking the ideas of others, but rather, collaborating with your customers to give them what they want. And if you put it your community this way, you’ll be amazed at the positive response you’ll get.

So how do you do it? One great idea is to invite the community to gather information with a user-driven wiki page. You could even have an area for user videos to be posted asking for help or guidance.

Through this collaborative effort between your company and your customers, users gain critical knowledge that can support both the company’s efforts and the community as a whole. We’ve talked in the past about building a knowledge base for self-service support in your community. This is one of the steps that can get you there.

So treat your community leaders well. By incentivizing them to participate, they gain knowledge that can then be shared with others. They are instrumental in maintaining the status quo in your forum, and will help you usher in new changes or directions for your community.

Their involvement is based solely on their connection to your brand or product, and a willingness to be involved. So be sure to make it worth their while. Perks such as early access to features, promotional products, or community rewards help build an active and engaged community of super fans and brand ambassadors.

Key #5 : Keep the Conversation Going

So now you know how to use your community effectively. You know what to ask, how to ask it, and who to involve. You’ve identified your community spokespeople and know how to nurture them. But how do you keep the conversation going?

Just continue to interact with your community. Gather feedback, develop ideas, and implement them. The process should be as simple and streamlined as possible, with interaction and feedback continuing between the brand and the users. Keep the dialogue open and develop a true partnership with your community.

Remember, your success is their success. Keeping users engaged throughout your product’s life cycle, through innovation and beyond, is what taking an idea from crowdsourcing to innovation is all about.