There’s a lot more to social media than fire-fighting a wall of gripes

Although most companies’ experience of social media is as a feedback tool, its reputation as a driver of innovation is on the rise.

For most businesses, their first step into social media is using it for listening to what people are saying about them – the internet as a 24/7 focus group if you like. At the other end of the scale, for the most advanced users of social media, it is a tool that enables businesses to work with their customers to develop goods and services that better meet those customers’ needs. Along that spectrum there are a lot of variations, and different approaches that work better for some companies and markets than others.

One of the newest variants I’ve come across is a social game called Fantasy Shopper, which brings together a number of fashion retailers and allows players to ‘buy’ virtual items of clothing before they go on sale in the real world, giving those retailers a sense of what will be popular and what won’t. This is an evolution of an approach that New Look took when it set up an invitation-only community of fans on which to test each season’s ranges before launch. Boden, meanwhile, used the less formal method of consumer reviews to gather the same kind of information.

It was Google that popularised the idea of taking research and development, traditionally among the most secret of a company’s activities, and putting it in full view of customers. The idea of perpetual beta was enthusiastically embraced by the software industry, and variations have been employed by companies from L’Oreal to Lego.

But while it may seem self-evident that knowing more about what your customers want is a good thing, there are dissenters. Many quote Henry Ford’s remark that if he’d given his customers what they wanted, he’d have come up with a faster horse.

Leaving aside the question of whether Ford actually said this, it’s worth digging into its implications. It may be true, as Steve Jobs also reputedly insisted, that customers don’t know what innovations they want, but they probably do know whether they want something you already offer, but in a different colour. It’s also true that few companies are in the business of category innovation in the way that Apple is; most proceed by incremental development rather than introducing an entirely new kind of product, such as the iPad.

Rather than letting everyone loose on the problem, or even employing talented amateurs, co-creation tends to call for the input of specially selected groups of people in developing insights that then fuel creative work, either in a new product development or in communications.

As a result, crowdsourcing and co-creation have been adopted in a wide variety of sectors, from consumer goods to advertising. Experts in the field identify another category in between: content creation, and there are significant differences between the three.

Crowdsourcing usually means asking fans of your product for ideas, as Strongbow did for the endline of a recent ad campaign. However, the results can be unpredictable; a US beer company once asked drinkers for chat-up lines to print on the back labels of its bottles, but all the suggestions were too rude to use.

Content creation is a more sophisticated form of crowd sourcing. It used to involve finding people within fan communities who were also talented amateurs in a particular area and could produce something you needed. Lego is a great example of this approach – by working with communities of adult enthusiasts it tapped into a source of new product designs from people who only wanted to be paid in bricks.

Crowdsourcing has also famously been adopted by the advertising industry, although as time goes on the people producing the work look less like talented fans doing it for the love, and more like freelance professionals or wannabes looking for a break. The arrival of exchanges to link advertisers to non-agency creatives formalised the change, and at the same time cemented the impression that the process is as much about saving money as about sourcing radical new ideas or creating a closer bond with customers.

For brands looking to involve customers even further, the approach can be developed into co-creation. It’s an idea that has already been widely adopted in new product development; it’s application to marcoms is much less common but the thinking is the same. Rather than letting everyone loose on the problem, or even employing talented amateurs, co-creation tends to call for the input of specially selected groups of people in developing insights that then fuel creative work, either in new product development or in communications. These may be existing customers or other groups who can provide a radically different perspective. Brands that have taken this route recently include Activia, Barnardo’s and The Young Vic.

The irony is that many brands find their first use of social media is addressing problems raised by customers with their products or services. The response of social media experts is often to suggest that all the money being spent on fire-fighting might be better directed towards making better products. And the power of social media means that not only can you find people – fans, experts or others – to help build a better product, but the better the product, the bigger the resulting buzz.

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