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Product forums are an indispensable way to help shape and develop your strategy for products and services. How can you maximize the return on your investment and why are some brands failing to get the best from their participants?

Our use of the word forum has changed, but its purpose is still the same, well almost....

Nowadays the word forum is recognized by pretty much all age groups. When we have a problem with our car we might go online and ask a question in a specialist car forum, or perhaps enquire on a computer games or cooking forum about tips and hints on how to improve the outcome of what we are doing.

The origin of the word forum is believed to originate from the Romans, and originally simply meant an outside public space where people gathered, often to trade. However, these important spaces had another purpose. To meet, discuss and debate. In fact today online forums are simply an extension of this principle, except most of the time you don’t know who you are getting advice from, and more importantly whether their experience or credentials are even real.

picture of the early definition of forum
Roman Forum

What have the Romans ever done for us? Well a lot really, and despite changes in the way forums are used, gathering in one place for a common purpose is still one of the most powerful ways to provide informed direction.

In today’s modern business world brands are always keen to make sure they connect with the customer. It is in one sense a direct dialogue with the people who you want to buy your product or service, on the other hand it is an open gate for those who dislike what you do to openly chastise the brand for whatever reason they see fit (imagined or real) . Trolls are real! No longer confined to the imagination of the realms Dungeons & Dragons. Forums are no longer confined to the restriction of basic platforms owned by enthusiasts either. In fact this is hugely evident from the success of platforms such as Reddit, which have become a centralized online location of authority for a multitude of topics.

The type of forum I want to explore in the article is, however one that seems to have become slightly maligned by business these days, but one I believe is not only important, but essential if you want to deliver the best products and services to your customers.

A product or strategy forum provides you (as a business) with a platform to not only ratify your plans and ideas but also enable the people who sell them for you to contribute and engage, evolving product features, and importantly establishing how to ensure the way you deliver them speaks to the end consumer.

Brands reluctant to engage in a forum might be averse, because they feel they don’t have the skills to turn debate into meaningful action. However I suspect in many cases the reason is often that they are afraid to open something which they feel will become an uncontrollable can of worms. Especially if they have any issues with the products or services they are offering to their customers. Either way a structured forum and the learning that it provides are undeniably one of the best ways of getting to the symptoms of whatever is limiting a brands growth. You just have to approach them in an open way.

Stand on your soap box and impress the audience (not).

The biggest mistake I have seen when attending forums is the one I actively try to avoid the most when hosting them. Presenting. For a product, marketing or brand director it is hard not to stand and extol the virtues of the projects you are working on, or the ideas you already think will be the next big thing for your brand and for the distributors or retailers who attend your forum.

someone using a bullhorn to shout at the person they are trying to communicate with
Listening is as important a talking

Don't be tempted into thinking a forum is your chance to pitch to your customers. Stay true to the principles of discussion and debate and NEVER talk AT your participants.

It is easy to get carried away with pitching what “we will do for you” and brush off criticism or negativity toward what you are trying to achieve. But here is the rub, if you spend your entire time pushing and pitching, defending and dictating, you have failed. Not only have you failed to make the most out of your investment in a forum, but you have failed to understand the very principles and purpose of running a forum.

Of course this is not to say you should not lead the event, in fact whomever is the most prominent and connected to the participants in decision making with your product should absolutely do so.

This is because they need to hear directly from the people who are going to be selling the product for you, and in most situations authorizing the paycheck to buy things from you.

Where you are fortunate enough to have both marketing and development representatives in the same room you should also divide your time, so that while one person hosts their part of the forum the other listens to what is being said without participating. Then, when it is time the roles swap and the presenter becomes a silent member of the audience.

It is important to separate such things in discussion because invariably a product director will want to defend something relating to the product. But if it is raised in the marketing segment of the forum then they are forced to listen and take on board what is being said, and can reflect on the meaning or reasoning behind it and vice versa for the marketing person.

So, no soapboxes, open questions and a “there is no such thing as a stupid question” mentality are all key to getting the most out of a forum. But how do you start?

Too many walls and barriers.

I have undertaken forums or worked with others who have done them for other brands. One of the biggest elements of feedback from distributors or retailers, seems to be that they feel that the brand they are selling doesn’t involve them enough. In some cases ignoring the information that they are trying to relay to the people in the brand delivering products, and instead go to market strategy.

I believe that this issue, unfortunately, is more common than most companies would choose to admit, and a lot of this lack of perceived value in distributor and retail level communication is because most companies have shifted their focus directly to the consumer.

As a result a vital link in the chain for delivering the product to market is lost. That’s not to say direct to consumer communication isn’t important- in fact it is vital, but feedback from retail and distribution provides more detail than a simple desire to add a new feature or change a colour on a product. As I write this I can already picture in my head the need for a counter argument explaining the difference between listening to a customer and understanding them!

The other big barrier is often brands feel that by engaging with a distributor they will be giving away their secrets or plans thereby putting them in a position of weakness, especially if the distributor also works with competitors brands in the same market. If your research and development team is on point and delivering in a timely fashion and your road map of deliverables is clear, then this really should not be an issue.

people sharing ideas

Select you participants carefully and don't be afraid to share ideas. Forums generate a sense of ownership for everyone who participates and can drive high levels of commitment to a product or service before it has even been created.

Of course if there are things that you don’t want to actively share because they are simply not tested, then you can always turn that element into a theoretical segment. This will allow you to explore your current development tasks before you completely unveil them.

Gathering information to inform your choices is important. The simple fact is that more and more brands are moving to direct to consumer models with their products due to an unfortunate move to claw back a chasm of margin lost in the last decade. This in turn creates a constant squeeze on the ability for a brand to re-invest in itself. While it might seem that eliminating the distributor and retailer provides margin (which it does) your strategy should not forget that it is important to make sure that the products and services reflect the wants and needs of the consumer, and unless you have an exceptional channel of communication with the consumer, then your current route to market contact points are always going to deliver more accurate data than a small sample of consumers.

The fine line of servicing retail and distribution and the consumer has become even finer, and more precarious. However if you use distributors and retailers the simple fact is you can not and must not ignore them.

If you reach the end of your forum and the majority of the participants are happy, positive and enthused about the results then you have won. If however they leave and have rafts of questions, “concerns” about plans or products then essentially you have “failed to forum”.

Lets get to know each other first.

An essential element when running a forum is ensuring that everyone in the room knows one another. Depending on your budget and timescales this could be done at the forum or in some form of pre-forum event, get together meal or activity day.

People are much more likely to be open and honest with each other when they have a sense of connection.

If you haphazardly throw strangers into a room and expect them to all face the same direction and participate. Then you will need do some groundwork and make sure that everyone is confident enough with one another, to be able to give you the best feedback without worrying about saying something they feel is not significant (and trust me when I say that it is often the thing that is perceived to be small and insignificant that can offer the most useful tool to develop an idea).

If you are confident everyone is familiar, or perhaps it is not the first time they have met, don’t overlook the fact that it is human nature to want to greet one another and have a quick catch-up.

YES the forum is on your dime and YES the event is about your brand, but no one likes going to a party where the host makes the entire event all about them. Are you sure everyone is sitting comfortably …. Then let’s begin.


I have seen forums and product meetings fall to pieces when hosted by other people, because the amount of preparation done in advance of the event just didn’t provide enough content to be discussed.

Other times I have seen forums become a Mobius Loop of one singular topic because there was seemingly no way to agree on a particular subject. There are techniques to ensuring this doesn’t happen and we can train your product director or marketing director in these as part of a consultation. However, the key to a successful and rewarding forum lays in the preparation and that begins months in advance of the event itself.

Before even suggesting a forum event you should really understand in your own mind what you want to achieve. If it is simply self-affirmation of your product road map or marketing strategy then don’t bother. As in its origins a “Forum” is a place where ideas and ideals can be discussed and exchanged. If you simply want to talk at people then send out a press release, it will be cheaper and just as ineffective.

In your preparation you should consider not only what information you want to discover, but also from where and who you want to get it. The choices should be made considering a multitude of factors. Your Sales Director should provide insight into which participant might be the most important from a monetary value perspective, they might also have insight from their dealings with buyers as to which people should be included to help them understand the brand and products, in other words people who need support.

Depending on your marketing strategy and if you have a centralized and controlled method to deliver content, then you may find that the best people to discuss product and marketing may be one and the same. If you rely on your distributors to provide full marketing support, you will probably find that you will need a specialist from the distributors team to attend.

In terms of content your preparation needs to consider a multitude of variables, and depending on your industry different ones will hold different importance. So establishing what you are trying to achieve at the end MUST form the foundation for those topics you are going to discuss. If you are holding a forum for the first time then try and get advice from someone who has done one before, we can help with that if you need.

Consider the people attending and get them involved early. Use a survey to gauge their level of interest and input in the topics you are thinking about discussing, and use those responses to help prepare the activities you undertake. Turning collated data from pre-forum surveys into info graphics and data charts, is a good way to start a discussion from a point of research rather than opinion.

Also don’t be afraid to have too much content and work to do during the event. In fact it is always good to have at least 20% more to do than you think can be achieved, because you might end up having to ditch some ideas mid flow.

This is especially true if you stumble upon something which in discussion you feel is headed directly for a solid concrete wall, or worse still is so inflammatory in its nature that the group you are working with start becoming distracted from the topic you intended to discuss.

A good forum should have a selection of show and tell elements and plenty of time for everyone to participate with their ideas and input, The more interactive you can make each part the better.

You have planned and prepared, now it’s time to perform!

It goes without saying the person you choose to host the forum should at least have the confidence to engage people in the room. While it might seem unnecessary taking some time to rehearse the forum, to some degree it will always help with the final execution, but it can also throw up some really interesting questions.

Sometimes rehearsal will highlight where a topic or exercise might be perceived as leading the audience to give you the answer your team wants, rather than an honest opinion.

As the host, your role (much like at a party) is to ensure that everyone in attendance participates. Some will enjoy participation more than others and some will want to push their ideals onto others. Its human nature and everyone is different, your job isn’t to be a teacher but just to observe and steer when things start to become biased.

party balloons, confetti and streamers

Remember your role as a host is no different from hosting a good party. Make sure everyone enjoys themselves, encourage quieter participants to participate and try to make sure the loudest voices don't spoil the event for others!

When something is being pushed in one direction and it feels like the rest of the room is losing interest steer the forum back to a neutral point, but also give the contributor the chance to participate one final time before you cut them off.

For Example:

One of the forum members is insisting that customers really want to be able to connect a product you make, to an app to provide app based control using a IOT service such as Google Home, or Alexa.

Some of the other people at the forum think the idea sounds cool but don’t think that it will provide any benefit to the consumer, yet the person in favor keeps pushing to see if this could be added.

In this situation it is important to consider the reasons “why” others are not convinced and “why” the person suggesting the idea is convinced that this type of feature is going to be a great USP for your new release.

Try using open questions to steer the conversation back key points and make sure both sides of the argument have equal chance to respond. It is OK to call out someone for an answer, but equally it is OK to challenge the proposer.

Questions you could ask the proposer could include.

  • The other markets don’t seem convinced this would work, what is different about your market that makes you feel this way? (investigative clarification)

  • Is this something that consumers in your market are doing with other products? (justification)

  • Do you / would you use this and how? (identification of personal bias / revelation of viability)

Questions you could ask people who do not support the proposal could include.

  • Why do you think people wont use this feature as it is suggested? (identification of personal bias / example of reasoning)

  • Do you think if the feature was included it would have a negative impact on the perception of the product? (justification of inclusion / revelation of other reason to omit the feature)

Refereeing this type of interaction takes a degree of skill, and it is easier if you know everyone in the room (hence the need for a period of introduction before you roll up your sleeves to start the forum) but it will allow you to either justifiably move on from a point.

Or, if you feel it is something that can’t be resolved in a forum setting allows you to simply acknowledge the point and move forwards with a polite “OK, we have a difference of opinion so this is something I will discuss with our product development and sales teams after the forum” and you should, because follow up after a forum is critical.

Keeping the wheels turning.

When I started doing product forums I think about 50% or more of those attending smoked cigarettes, including myself. This led to a natural break in proceedings for people to stretch their legs and pop outside for some “fresh air”. Of course that has changed dramatically, but if you want to keep people engaged then take schedule breaks and if viable take them slightly early or late depending on how the current element of the discussion is going.

Try not to break in the middle of a part of the forum where lots of people are engaging with each other, and if you have to split a subject between two sessions feel for the right moment to do so.

This is especially important when you are hosting international guests who arrived the day before, as you don’t want people to fall asleep or feel the need to check their phone or email during the session. Remember they are here to support you, but they have their day jobs to contend with as well, so a 10-15 minute break every 1-2 hours gives them chance to do what they need to do for their day job without distracting them from the purpose of the forum.

On a side note also avoid heavy carb rich food for your lunchtime break. I once made the mistake of ordering fish and chips for the group I was hosting only to find a large proportion of those with slight jet-lag had begun to slip into a food induced coma during the next session!

Having a published itinerary is also a good way of keeping proceedings on track. It will serve to empower your guests too, providing this to them in advance of the day allows them to do some superficial research, grab figures and be more confident in speaking up during a session. The itinerary doesn’t need to go into deep details.

For example, if you were wanting to explore how a particular mid-market product you want to refresh, and have some ideas that the line might need bigger handles and be lighter in weight so as to be more attractive to the consumer, you can simply add something like...

11:00-12:30 Mid Market product offering:

Exploring features and benefits of current mid market offering and perception based on initial research that portability is a barrier to segment growth.

By keeping it targeted but also relatively open you encourage the participants to enter the conversation with their own thoughts. From their perspective the response might be “add wheels” even though your direction was to use more expensive materials to increase the product appeal.

One last point about keeping the flow of a forum constructive is to plan each segment to have some correlation to the previous or next topic. Like telling a story, if you jump from one topic to another with no contextual link, you risk losing some thoughts that might spill from one to the other.

Congratulations you did a forum

If you want to increase the value from a forum year on year then simply undertaking one is not enough to build this valuable information source. You have to be prepared to act.

I have lost count of the number of times a distributor has told me that they had discussed something with another brand they worked with and there was no point because they didn’t listen.

It might be the case that something raised and debated simply isn’t possible to action in the weeks, months or even years after a forum. However if you don’t communicate back to the participants, then their connection to the event and willingness to participate on future occasions will be diminished.

So how do you get the most out of an event?

I have found the best way to get value from a forum comes from a two-fold approach.

Firstly record the event as audio, it provides the ability to listen back to exactly what was said and also the way it was said. A good portable recorder like a Zoom H4 is an indispensable tool for this purpose, just remember to hit record! and have some spare memory cards if your forum is more than a day long.

Being able to cross reference comments and interactions provides good solid data to work from. The audio doesn’t lie.

Secondly make your own notes, or have someone take them for you. These don’t need to be detailed just make sure you reference which topic they were said in and if you have any instant thoughts jot those down too.

Processing and turning the forum results into actionable points after the event is the obvious value of running one and there are methods to do that. But don’t forget to communicate back to the participants, highlighting key elements and MOST IMPORTANTLY thanking them for their contributions.

The most prudent way to follow up is initially with a simple thank you email, then give yourself a good 4 weeks to process the results and follow up again with a repeat email which explains some of the results and reasoning. You don’t need to be specific, but at least let them see how their influence and input will positively affect both their business and your brand.

Top 10 Check list for your forum

1. Have a clear understanding of your current strategy, product road map and

any limitations that might affect your business in the next 12-36 months

before you start preparing your event.

2. Do preliminary research in advance of the event to inform which topics might

be more relevant from the participants perspective.

3. Give participants time to prepare, set a date and place well in advance to make sure you get the attendance you need to gather meaningful data.

4. Let guests socialize before the event, it removes distractions and helps less confident participants or people new to your distribution or retail group to feel more engaged.

5. Make sure you have a structured and prioritized plan with at least 20% more activities than you believe you will achieve.

6. Don’t talk at your guests, help them participate. When you feel an exercise is becoming biased toward a single participant try to steer it toward neutral ground.

7. Make sure activities are fun and relevant.

8. Record and take notes for the duration of the event.

9. Take regular breaks to make sure people can focus.

10. Make sure you follow up with participants after the event to ensure they understand the value they have added to your brand.

From the author

I have run product forums in both the UK and Asia with probably some of the most colourful characters I have ever met in distribution and sales.

When I re-introduced forums for one brand the feedback from those who attended was exceptionally positive and the benefits did not stop once the event had finished. Forums are incredibly empowering for those people who work with your brand and getting input from outside of your organization is something that is of huge benefit, as it injects a more consumer focused mindset in what you are doing.

Hopefully the article has been interesting to read and has given you some ideas on what to do and expect from a forum but I realise that setting one up is not always self-explanatory.

If you are looking to undertake a product forum and want help and guidance of the best way to manage it then Ballistica can help you plan and even execute your event. We can provide ideas for exercises, pre-forum research and even help or host the event for you if you feel you don’t quite have the right level of experience to do so.

If you choose to use us we will also ensure your team is trained during the process so that you can repeat this type of event by yourself and reap the benefits for years to come.

If you are interested in more information or simply would like a tailored quote to understand the costs involved in undertaking such an event then hit “contact us” now.



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