Is Collaboration Right For Your Product?
Did you know that Canva went from 0 to 60 million users in less than 10 years. Notion went from 0 to 4 million in 6 years. And Figma went from 0 to 4 million users in 4 years, decimating Adobe, Invision, and Sketch in the process.
So, how and why did these products win? Sure, things like their price point and their marketing advantage played a role. But collaborative features like annotations, comments, page presence, and notifications are their real secret sauce.
This begs the question: can other B2B SaaS companies benefit from adding collaborative features like this to their product? Hell yeah! This is especially true if…
✅ Multiple people and teams (or even multiple companies!) work together in your product, often with different skills and varying levels of expertise
✅ Graphs, data, and other complex information is shared in your product
✅ Stuff is written, reviewed, edited, and approved in your product
Sound like your product? Then keep reading…
Before we dive into use cases for collaboration, the benefits for end-users, how to measure the Return on Investment (ROI), and how to actually get rich, real-time collaboration into your SaaS tool, let’s start with an important question. What do we actually mean when we say “collaboration”?
What do we mean by “collaboration”
Google the definition of collaboration, and you’ll get something like this: “the action of working with someone to produce something”. While this seems pretty straightforward, there’s an almost infinite number of ways people can and do collaborate at work.
It could be a designer and developer mocking up and building a new website.
Or a sales leader, CEO, and ops expert setting revenue targets.
It can also extend well beyond just one company. A customer success manager and engineer at Company A could be helping a client get set-up with a new feature at Company B.
Shoot, collaboration today isn’t even just limited to people! It could be an AI chatbot, marketing lead, and three junior marketers brainstorming topics to write about.
Importantly, and as Kevin Kwok very eloquently describes in his must-read essay, Arc of Collaboration, the way we think about collaboration has drastically changed with the shift to software, and then the cloud.
Collaborating via email
While email was a mahoosive step forward from carrier pigeons, snail mail, and fax machines, it still has never been a terribly productive way to collaborate.
One person works on a document. They send it to their co-worker. That co-worker then has to review, edit, re-save the document, and send it back. And so it goes until the two have agreed on a “final” draft to share with their boss. This happens over, and over, and over again.
This pseudo-asynchronous process creates all sorts of problems with version history (we all remember when things were saved as FINAL_FINAL_FINAL_7) and - in general - is painfully slow.
Then came the cloud.
Collaborating on the cloud
Tools like Dropbox made it easier to share and store documents. But it didn’t allow for people to work on them at the same time. That means email ping pong was still required to get anything done. Better, but not truly collaborative.
Then came tools like Google Docs, Figma, and Notion.
Collaborating directly in the products you’re working in
More and more apps have collaboration built in natively. This way, their customers can get feedback, ask questions, troubleshoot issues, brainstorm, and give approval without ever having to leave the application. No context-switching. No email ping pong. No issues with version history. Not lost feedback or input. Just simple, seamless, collaboration.
In this new world, collaboration is no longer external to productivity. As Kwok says, “collaboration and productivity are two sides of the same coin for any team with more than one person”. And he’s right.
What are the benefits of collaboration for end-users?
Without collaborative features, end-users using your product might have to take a screenshot… annotate it… switch to Slack… find the right channel… write a message… and wait for a response before they can actually get any work done.
After all that, they’ve almost certainly lost their flow and their focus.
Especially if there’s back and forth (which their almost always is…), end-users are often stuck in an endless cycle of waiting for new messages and ⌘+Tab-ing between the app where they’re working, and the communication tool they’re collaborating in. It’s no wonder context-switching costs global businesses $450 billion a year.
But, if collaborative features exist within the app they’re working in, the tool becomes a central node for their workflows. That means feedback loops are shorter, they can stay in-context and in the zone, and co-creation is more seamless.
And (yes, there’s more!) when you collaborate in context, the conversation has a home. That way, when you go back to a particular report, or project, or deal, the conversation about it stays there. It’s attached to it, like an audit log of why and how a particular decision was made.
I think we can all agree this is better than digging through Slack channels or email, trying to find a particular message by guessing search terms you think were related to that particular discussion.
What could users do with collaborative features in your product?
There are several different components of collaboration. As we mentioned before, this includes things like annotations, chat, page presence, and notifications. But how users interact with these features depends on your product, their job, and who else they’re working with. For example…
Use case: Collaboration in MarTech
A Content Manager at a start-up uses an email marketing platform to share company news, content, and special offers with customers and prospects multiple times a month. Before hitting “send”, they have to get assets from a designer, QA the email with an Operations Executive, and get final approval from their boss, the Head of Marketing. And this doesn’t even cover the reporting they do after each email drop…
We know what this process would look like without collaborative features (see above). But with collaboration, our Content Manager would be able to invite everyone into the email marketing platform and:
- @mention the Designer exactly where assets are needed. This way, they can see the request in-context and have easy access to important information like dimensions.
- Track feedback from the Head of Marketing, resolve suggestions, brainstorm subject lines with the help of an AI Assistant, and get final approval.
- QA the email in real-time with the Operations Executive, using page presence to see who’s working where, and when
- At the end of each month, they can even annotate reports to highlight which emails generated the highest open and click-through rates, and @mention Customer Success Managers and Account Executives to alert them if a customer or prospect has engaged with a particular piece of content. They could even upload a screenshot of a relevant reply.
No need for Slack. Or email. Or DropBox. Or Google Docs. Or a separate tab for ChatGPT. Everything happens directly in the email marketing platform.
And that’s just one example. Imagine how much easier life would be for a Revenue Operations Manager if they could communicate with a VP of Sales and Director of Demand Generation directly in their Customer Management Platform (CRM). Or how much time Product Managers, Engineers, and Designers would save if they could report, assign, and resolve bugs all in the same place.
What about built-in collaboration in the real-world?
Spendflo uses collaborative features to streamline communication between customers and account managers with real-time support. trumpet uses collaborative features to help simplify sales outreach, and keep everyone connected. monday.com used collaborative features to keep teams talking in their new product, Canvas.
But it’s not just their customers who benefit from these features.
How can you measure the ROI of adding collaboration to your product?
While it’s nothing new for businesses to measure the success of a particular decision by looking at the ROI, this metric is especially important given the fact that so many businesses are tightening their belts in reaction to the economic uncertainty we’ve experienced over the last 12+ months.
The good news is, collaboration pays off big time.
💰 Customer acquisition
Collaboration is the Unique Selling Point (USP) that’s helping many SaaS products attract and delight more customers. As Figma demonstrated, collaborative features are an incredible differentiator that can give even a “new kid on the block” an edge over seemingly untouchable competitors.
We’ve said it before, but we’ll say it again, that’s because these features shorten feedback loops, make it easier for people and teams to work together, and reduce context switching.
📈 Seat expansion
In a world where team members work in one product, then communicate in others, it’s likely that only the Content Manager and Operations Executive would have an account with the email marketing platform. All other “collaboration” takes place on Slack, over email, and in disparate docs and decks for review, feedback, approval.
But, if that Content Manager could simply tag the Designer, Head of Marketing, Customer Success Manager, and Account Executive directly in the email marketing platform…everyone wins, including the email marketing platform which gets another few users on board.
We call this team-led growth™.
😃 Customer retention
The cost of acquiring new customers can be five times or higher than the cost of retaining existing customers. To keep customers on board, you have to improve the quality of their work life, and make it hard for them to imagine using another product. Collaborative features do just that.
- They drive use and engagement, helping you improve product stickiness
- They make your product not just unique, but indispensable. If they switch tools, they leave all of their conversations they had within it behind
- They expose more people, across more roles, departments, and even companies to the value of your product. That means you’re not relying on one “champion” to advocate for you. You have a village in your corner.
Given the benefits for your customers, the ROI, and the undeniable success of products like Figma, we wouldn’t blame you for wanting to add collaborative features to your product STAT. But how do you actually go about doing it?
Buying vs. building collaboration
To buy, or to build, that is the question. And it’s one that every product manager grapples with.
While we can’t help with every buy vs build dilemma (sorry!), we certainly can help you decide whether or not you should build collaborative software from scratch.
Cord’s Co-Founder and CTO Jackson Gabbard has talked about this in incredible detail both on our podcast and on our blog. Check out Part 1 and Part 2 for an in-depth explanation of how to pick your team and what actually goes into building collaborative features (there’s more to it than you might expect…). You can also keep reading for the TLDR version 👇🏽
Make room in your product roadmap
The first step in deciding to build your own collaboration software is the standard tradeoff – what else won’t my team be able to deliver while we’re building collaborative features?
If you’ve got customers and a core product offering, you’ve certainly also got a product roadmap. Those customers want the features that they’re already paying you for. And they want more, new, better features, too. What features are you willing to put on hold while rolling out collaboration?
Want to learn more about how to evolve your product roadmap (especially in times of economic uncertainty)? Check out this blog.
Pick your team
Building collaboration is a team sport. Here’s a rough overview of who you’ll need to add to your roster:
- Frontend engineer (or two)
- Operations engineer
- Server-side engineer
- Product manager/lead
Find out what’s required from each team member here.
If you opt to build vs buy, you’re looking at anywhere from 6-12 months of intense work.
Most product teams start with some sort of chat feature – a comment thread, for instance. Your designer will need to mockup what the chat thread will look like. They’ll have to think through things like different operating systems, fonts, screen sizes, screen resolutions, and browsers. Especially for screen sizes, you’ll have to be pretty thoughtful about how much screen real estate you’re going to devote to the chat thread.
Your first week or so will be all about prototyping in Figma and thinking about the implications of different design choices. It might seem like a long time, but building the wrong collaborative features is much, much more expensive.
And that’s just step 1…
From there, you’ll need to solve for things like user identity, chat composers, chat thread UI, storing messages, how, when, and where to trigger and display notifications, discoverability, and (a lot) more. Take a deeper dive here.
Or, you could buy an SDK like Cord.
With Cord, you don’t need to put other features on hold or spend 6-12 months building. Implementation is easy-as-pie, and you get sophisticated chat features out-of-the-box. Yep, including screenshots, notifications, in-page annotations, and file uploads. And, bonus: our customizable CSS allows you to set fonts, colors, and sizes to match your look and feel.
And, because collaboration is our core competency, we spend all of our time tinkering with and evolving our components to be the best they can be…so you and your team don’t have to.
Our happy customers include monday.com, ThoughtSpot, BILL, Stoplight, and trumpet. With the addition of collaborative features, they’re enabling their customers (like Netflix, Chili Piper, and Twilio) to do more in their product.