It makes sense that the customers purchasing and using your products should have a say in how they’re designed, right? Social media has given brands a direct line of communication to their customers, and it has played a big part in why the conversation between brands and customers is changing. Instead of brands telling consumers what they should be buying, shoppers are telling brands what their wants and needs are.

This topic was discussed at Women in Retail Leadership Circle’s On the Road: Los Angeles event last month during an “Influencer 2.0” panel. The panel discussion, moderated by Ivka Adam, founder and CEO of Iconery, a Heartbeat company (and a member of Women in Retail Leadership Circle’s Advisory Board), featured women who have started or helped build influencer brands using social media. The panel included Caitlyn Chase, founder, Caviar & Cashmere; Delali Kpodzo, head of marketing, Thrive Causemetics; Lindsay Wolf, director, brand marketing and public relations, Anine Bing; and Amanda Thomas, owner and designer, Luv AJ.

Adam opened the discussion by asking the panelists how they involve customers in product design and development. The panelists went on to each share insights into how they communicate with customers (usually on social media), collect their feedback, and then implement that feedback into their products. 

Chase explained that before she launched her own skincare line, she often received other companies’ products to review on her personal Instagram page. While reviewing these products, she was able to have conversations with her followers daily. “I was able to garner all of this feedback and information from the consumer and figure out what they wanted and what they didn’t want,” Chase said. “And that’s how I was able to figure out which products I would come out with for [my] skincare line. Even in the process of formulation and the package design, I was doing polls on my social media. […] I was basically designing everything from start to finish according to the conversations I was having in real time with the audience.”

Getting real-time feedback from the exact consumers Chase was trying to target with her skincare line was helpful. She wasn’t left guessing what consumers wanted or formulating products they weren’t interested in. She was able to ask her followers herself.

Kpodzo shared with the audience a program Thrive Causemetics launched called Thrive Lab. Thrive Lab features Thrive Causemetics customers across the U.S. who receive the brand’s products in advance. “We wanted them to try [our products,] we wanted them to use it, we wanted them to break it, to melt it down,” Kpodzo explained. “[We wanted them to] tell us everything that they felt about it: the smell, the texture, the payoff, the longevity of the cosmetic. The whole idea was to get genuine customer feedback, and to really understand how our cosmetics are playing in the real world, in real-world circumstances.”

Thrive Causmetics started Thrive Lab as a way to connect with its customers. Kpodzo explained that this eventually led to communicating with consumers on social media. All of Thrive Causmetics’ color cosmetics products are named after women, and the company actually asks its social followers to nominate women who inspire them to have a product named after them. “We actually encourage our customers and our followers on social to send in stories and nominate a woman who is meaningful to them,” Kpodzo said. “That was another way of how we started to fold in the customer experience, the customer storytelling, the customer emotion.”

At Anine Bing, Wolf shared that a few years ago the women’s apparel, accessories and footwear brand started crowdsourcing on Instagram to gather customer feedback. Similar to Chase, Anine’s founder, Anine Bing, would ask Instagram followers what types of products they wanted to see next. “[And then we took] that feedback and put it into action, creating whatever the audience had decided on,” Wolf explained. “I think that’s something we always kind of valued in developing our social strategy.”

Thomas also uses Instagram at Luv AJ, but focuses on the social media platform’s analytics as another way to listen to the brand’s customers. “On Instagram, if you have a business account, you can see how many people added to cart from a single post and you can see how many people saved your photo,” Thomas explained. “So, periodically I’ll just go through my feed photo by photo and I’ll see what photos got the most saves. Then I’ll say, ‘Alright, we’re going to shoot content that looks more like this.’” Thomas went on to explain that she was spending a lot of money on professional photo shots, when in reality her followers were responding more to photos that she took on her own iPhone.