From the December 2011 issue of Entrepreneur
Ben Wills of Ontolo used Napkin Labs to harness customer feedback.
Ben Wills of Ontolo used Napkin Labs to harness customer feedback.
Photo© Don Cudney/Wonderful Machine

Just because you're a search engine optimization guru doesn't mean you always know where or even how to find the answers you're seeking. Ask Ben Wills, co-founder and CEO of Boulder, Colo.-based startup Ontolo.com, which supplies a suite of automated link-building tools and data-prospecting services targeting SEO consulting firms, web marketing agencies and other small businesses. More than three years after writing the first lines of software code that now makes up the Ontolo platform, Wills knew the time was right to expand the business by introducing new features and tools to help clients further improve the quality and quantity of their web traffic. The catch: He didn't know what additions and enhancements customers wanted most, or even how to most effectively solicit and collect their feedback.

"We felt we'd built our product as far as we could conceptualize it," Wills says. "Now we had a list of potential new features with 100 things we could build in. But we required feedback to know what we needed to build in next. We wanted to have a dialogue with our customers."

Ontolo started working with Boulder-based Napkin Labs, a crowdsourcing platform that enables businesses and marketers to create online consumer "labs"--i.e., branded, embedded environments that function like virtual focus groups, complete with research questions, curated content and related interactions. The Ontolo Feedback Community lab, launched in late September, actively encourages clients to help shape the SEO toolset's ongoing evolution, complete with a suggestion box, a voting mechanism and a scoring system for replies.

"We're directing conversation around the specific feature ideas we think people are going to want," Wills says. "Our customers are the ones doing the work day in and day out. We want to learn from them."

The Napkin Labs Solution
The Napkin Labs Solution
Essentially a virtual focus group, a napkin labs "lab," like the example above, drives dialogue with customers.

$99 Cost per month for Napkin Labs' small-business-centric Pro plan

Pro plan includes support for 1,000 customers, plus branding options and a messaging/invitation system

That give-and-take is what Napkin Labs is all about. The solution seeks to eliminate the barriers separating businesses from their customers, putting Facebook followers and social media fan bases to work for the benefit of both sides. "We want to enable companies to use their consumers as a kind of external brain to help them come up with ideas and drive more focused conversations," says Napkin Labs co-founder and CEO Riley Gibson. "So much work is spent on creating something new instead of creating something that solves an actual need--now you can ask [customers] what they struggle with, and how your company can help."

Napkin Labs' small-business-centric Pro plan costs $99 per month and includes custom branding options, a messaging/invitation system and support for up to 1,000 customers or fans. In addition to focused feedback on new products, services and marketing campaigns, crowdsourcing options might include collaborative brainstorming sessions with employees or vendors, as well as activities designed to foster deeper engagement with your brand, website or social media presence. The Napkin Labs platform also enables clients to roll out interactive challenges and points-based gaming tools developed to galvanize the conversation and reward consumer insight.

"There are so many interesting questions to ask, and so many conversation starters," Gibson says. "It's not only a way to understand your customers better, but you might end up with three ideas for products that could drive your business to the next level."

That's what Wills is hoping for. Although the Ontolo Feedback Community is just starting, he's already seeing the possibilities--and the benefits.

"We want our customers to tell us what we don't know," Wills says. "There are so many parts of our business where we can really use their help. This community is going to facilitate the feedback we need."