Back in the day, companies assembled focus groups to gather feedback on product prototypes. Changes were then made based on this group’s advice.

Today, the same kinds of opinions are being collected through social media, making prelaunch research vastly more efficient and cost-effective.

Trusted customers who offer their frank opinions often become valuable promoters of a product — before and after launch — informing their social media followers at no cost to its maker.

“Loyal customers who participate in product sampling strategies can generate disproportional benefits beyond what existed in past,” said Dr. Robert Ployhart, professor of business administration at the University of South Carolina. “Once these people give positive feedback to a company they trust and like, they’re more likely to spread positive word-of-mouth afterward.”

Gauging Public Opinion

Third-party validation of a product or service has come a long way in just a few years. Food and beverage manufacturers used to test the appeal of products by sending discount coupons to consumers in selected markets on the condition that the recipients provided feedback on the products to the company. Nowadays, companies aren’t just testing the appeal of particular products before full-scale introduction; they’re also gauging whether their planned marketing and advertising campaigns capture the essence of what they’re selling.

“Say a company is selling a new suitcase,” said Theresa O’Neil, senior vice president of marketing at PowerReviews Inc., a developer of consumer engagement technology for brands and retailers. “They reach out to their loyal customers and send a sample of the suitcase, asking them to provide their honest opinions on a specific webpage. The feedback indicates that the handle could be softer. The company now has two choices — revise the suitcase with a softer handle, or adjust the marketing and advertising to tout the benefits of a strong and durable handle.”

PowerReviews manages the soup-to-nuts product sampling and feedback analyses for its clients, which include more than 1,000 global companies. In selecting reviewers for a prototype product or service, the firm draws from a list of consumers participating in the client’s customer loyalty program.

“We look for individuals who are not only loyal in terms of their purchases, but also like to provide comments back to the company,” O’Neil said. “Depending on what the client sees as the primary market, we’ll further narrow the pool to people who have a specific demographic profile or live in a particular geography. More than 90 percent of the individuals we reach out to ultimately provide their comments and criticisms.”

One Too Many

Before announcing the launch of a new product or an upgrade, companies may decide to include customer comments in sales and marketing materials. They are positioned much like the reviews that accompany products sold on Amazon. Offering up third-party critiques before product launch can generate positive buzz, whipping up consumers to buy.

“The real genius in this approach is that a business is effectively letting the customer do the advertising and marketing for it,” said Ployhart. “People tend to give more credence to criticisms provided by customers.”

And if a new product or upgrade is subpar, makers typically don’t worry too much about the reviewer. Truly loyal customers resist broadcasting their dismay on social media; that’s just basic human nature, Ployhart said.

“Customers let down by the sample will still love you for having such a high regard for their opinions,” he said.