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Finding Emerging Needs

March 01, 2017

A variety of techniques can be used to identify emerging needs that may have an impact on customers in the future

As b-to-b product managers and portfolio marketers look to better understand customers and their needs, they must recognize that there are needs that customers do not have today that they may have in the future. Addressing these emerging needs provides organizations with an opportunity to be first or early to market and to establish a strong leadership position, which will contribute to future success and growth. In this issue of SiriusPerspectives, we describe recommended techniques for finding emerging needs.

Lead User Interviews and Observation

Lead users face needs well before the general market and are motivated to attempt to address them. They are industry pioneers with a history of being early adopters and innovators, often taking pride in breaking new ground and serving as an example for others.

  • Benefits. In many ways, lead users can provide a view into the future. While other approaches focus on emerging needs that may potentially exist in the future, lead users are real-life demonstrations of these needs and their impact.
  • When to use. Though it may seem counterintuitive, lead users are most beneficial in markets that are not fast moving. When needs progress slowly from lead users to the general market, this interval provides more time to validate the needs of lead users. Ultimately, a solution is created to address the emerging need before it’s even realized by a broader population.
  • How to use. Leverage media sources, firsthand research and analysis of existing customers to find those who have been historically early to adopt new approaches, processes or technologies. Conduct one-on-one interviews to understand needs that they’ve attempted to address themselves because no solutions currently exist. Conduct observational research to witness any solutions they’ve created and the impact that these solutions have on the need.
  • Pitfalls. Because lead users are not always existing customers, they might be unwilling to share information – especially in situations where the information is considered secret or confidential.

Trendspotting for Emerging Needs

Trendspotting is the identification of trends that could impact needs. Trends are often first identified in other industries and segments and driven by disruptive technologies, impending regulations, demographic shifts or changing behavior.

  • Benefits. Trendspotting allows the opportunity to identify needs that are not even currently on the radar of competitors. It can be done relatively quickly and inexpensively and without any outside dependencies.
  • When to use. Trendspotting is most appropriate when looking for visionary needs (i.e. needs whose existence or impact customers are not yet aware of) – particularly in the early stages of research, to identify potential needs to validate through other techniques. It can also be especially useful when trying to identify needs that could disrupt a market.

  • How to use. Trendspotting relies on looking outside of a selected industry or product category, identifying emerging needs and innovative solutions in other areas, and analyzing if or how they can be applied to the identified scope. As a starting point, look at specialized companies, Web sites and blogs that aggregate and publish trend data. Define the scope of trendspotting to better focus research (e.g. look for trends specifically related to the Internet of Things).
  • Pitfalls. Fully exploring trends in related areas can be an extremely time-consuming task with no guarantee of payoff. It’s also difficult to identify which trends truly have the potential to impact customer needs.

Customer Advisory Boards

Customer advisory boards (CABs) are groups that are set up to collect feedback and input on an ongoing basis from a set group of customers.

  • Benefits. CABs provide an opportunity to get input on future needs from multiple organizations and individuals in a short period of time. When an organization has a CAB already established and meeting regularly, it can be relatively easy and inexpensive to use the group as a source of insight. The CAB format also allows for discussion among the participants, which may provide unique perspective compared to one-on-one formats.
  • When to use. CABs are best for uncovering emerging needs when the following criteria are met: the companies represented are more forward-looking than average customers; the specific individuals participating are in a position to have insight into future needs; and the format and structure of the CAB provide the opportunity to dig into potential emerging needs.

  • How to use. Invite participants to consider emerging needs in advance of CAB meetings and set time aside on the agenda for each person to present his or her ideas. Ask individuals how needs in a certain area have changed and encourage discussion to see if those needs resonate with others. Break participants into small groups, assigning each group a specific area of need. Encourage them to project how they think that need will be different in the future, presenting their perspective back to the entire CAB. If potential emerging needs have been identified through other types of research, those hypotheses can be presented in a CAB meeting for the group to validate or reject.

  • Pitfalls. The specific participants in a CAB may not have unique insight into future needs. Also, the typically small membership in a CAB means that participants’ perceptions may not be broadly representative of emerging customer needs.

Third-Party Expert Interviews

In every industry, there are thought leaders, industry observers and subject matter experts (SMEs) who are monitoring progress in the market. These individuals may include well-known customers, analysts, independent consultants or others who have a perspective on the industry.

  • Benefits. These individuals are usually given the reverential title of “expert” because they’ve shown insight into a specific area, industry or set of customers, or they have the ability to influence changes in a particular area. They are usually already aggregating and synthesizing information, so interviews with them will produce insight they’ve gathered from a wide range of inputs, which makes these individuals an efficient and effective source for uncovering emerging needs.

  • When to use. Expert interviews can quickly identify potential emerging needs that can be further explored by other techniques. They also can be beneficial to validate needs that have been identified by primary research or to secure additional context around needs prior to prioritization.
  • How to use. Select experts with a history of successful foresight. To identify knowledgeable experts, ask customers whom they look to for insight. In discussions with these experts, ask questions specifically focused on future changes and trends rather than current products or competitors. For example: How is this industry different now than it was five years ago, and how do you think it will be different five years from now? What is the biggest change you expect to see? What risks or potential disruptions are you concerned about? Are there any major regulatory changes or technology trends that you’re monitoring?

  • Pitfalls. Be mindful of the potential biases (both conscious and unconscious) of experts. Their views about future needs may be self-serving to promote their careers or financial interests, or they may be excessively influenced by their own professional experiences.

Secondary Research

The search for emerging needs doesn’t need to start from scratch. In most cases, there is existing research done by various third parties, including sources such as government agencies, industry trade groups, not-for-profit organizations and market research companies.

  • Benefits. Secondary research can quickly provide a wide view of the market, often at low cost. The quality of the sources varies, but secondary research is often conducted by trained experts and provides a level of quantification that is not easily replicable through primary research.
  • When to use. Secondary research is best employed at the beginning of a research initiative to identify what is already known. It’s also particularly useful in areas that would be difficult to investigate through primary research.

  • How to use. Look for sources that have been shown to be particularly insightful or comprehensive in the past. Review secondary research to highlight emerging needs worth further exploration or to develop hypotheses that can be tested through other methods. Looking at the trends in research results over time can be beneficial; annual studies on industries or personas often compare changes from year to year, making it easy to identify emerging areas.
  • Pitfalls. As with third-party expert interviews, there might be biases built into secondary research. Additionally, once a need is obvious in secondary research, it is likely becoming an established need rather than an emerging one. Relying too heavily on secondary research can be problematic, as there are likely to be many areas that secondary research does not cover.

RFP Analysis

Requests for proposals (RFPs) issued by customers include specific criteria they are looking for potential vendors to meet. Although RFPs generally focus on needs that customers currently have, they often include known or suspected future needs.

  • Benefits. RFP analysis allows for needs to be analyzed across a large number of customers; this provides a level of quantification that is not found in other techniques. It is also more efficient than some other methods as the required effort is comparatively low.

  • When to use. RFP analysis requires a market situation where it is common for RFPs to be issued and where the organization has access to RFPs, either by being invited to participate or, most commonly for RFPs issued by governments, by having access to publicly available RFPs. There should be a large enough numbers of RFPs being issued so that patterns can be identified. Fast-moving markets where customers generally intend to retain a chosen solution for a long period of time provide the best chance of finding emerging needs within RFPs.

  • How to use. Review each RFP that has been received over a recent period (usually no more than six months) and make note of any apparent future needs. Catalog these in a central list – a spreadsheet may be simplest and most convenient – and include a reference to where the need appeared as well as relevant firmagraphic data. Once all RFPs have been reviewed, organizations can analyze the resulting data by grouping similar needs and counting how often each group was included in RFPs. Also analyze the results for overall patterns or needs specific to market segments such as industry or company size.
  • Pitfalls. RFPs may not always be an accurate indicator of future needs. If a competitor has helped a customer create the RFP, then it’s likely the competitor will have influenced the RFP to favor its solution, not necessarily to accurately reflect all of the customer’s future needs.

The Sirius Decision

Established needs are comparatively easy to identify and validate, as there is evidence of their existence. Emerging needs, on the other hand, carry some level of uncertainty and thus some level of risk. Product managers and marketers can mitigate this risk by employing a few basic guidelines. First, use a combination of the sources and approaches described in this brief to identify and gather evidence to support emerging needs. Second, be conscious of the time horizon for needs – the farther into the future one looks, the more speculative the projection becomes and the greater the risk. Third, be objective; it’s easy to get caught up in what may seem like an exciting future need and seek only to validate it, just as it’s easy to be skeptical about a future need that may seem far-fetched and reject evidence that supports its emergence.