Social Media as an Innovation Driver

Two heads are better than
one. So what about 200 heads? Or
2,000? Two million? The reality today
is that social media gives you access to
more people and more ideas than ever
before. And that means a powerful new
driver for what may well be the most
important dimension

In some ways, ‘social innovation’ goes against our idea of the solo genius – the Leonardo or Einstein who disappears into a dark room and emerges later with the answer. But in truth most of us sit a little below the genius level. In the real world, we all could use a bit of help if we’re going to generate new ideas for products and services or simply new ways to solve our customers’ problems.

It’s time to tap in to a smarter social crowd

Back in 2004, James Surowiecki’s fantastic book, ‘The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few’, showed that, by harnessing the collective thinking of a large number of people, we can make smarter decisions and more accurate predictions. In the book, he set out four conditions for a “wise” crowd:

  • Diversity of opinion
  • Independence
  • Decentralisation
  • Aggregation

Today, we can see that these conditions almost exactly match how social media works:

  • - There’s no shortage of diverse opinion
    One glance at any group or forum tells us this.

  • - While many people are connected, the vast majority of these are “weak ties”
    Think of all the “friends” you have on Facebook that you almost never see. This leads to a high degree of independence.

  • - Social media is, almost by definition, decentralised.

  • - The real challenge is aggregation
    That is to say, how do you determine the final answer from all the group’s ideas? Here, there’s still a role for an individual with the power to say yes or no.

So how does this work in the real world? In this article, we’ll look at three areas:

  • 1. Internal collaboration
  • 2. Customer feedback
  • 3. Crowdsourced innovation

1. Internal collaboration: the right people with the right ideas

In every company there are the go-to people. The ones everyone asks. But there are also the ones no one ever thinks to ask who, quite often, are precisely the people who can provide the most value and the deepest insights.

Of course, in traditional businesses, finding these people is essentially a hit-and-miss affair. You may remember a project they worked on. They may overhear a problem and offer an idea. But with today’s workforces becoming ever more flexible and distributed, this has become less likely.

Fortunately, social tools hold the answer:

  • Collaborative wikis give everyone in the organisation the opportunity to share knowledge, building up a valuable, searchable resource
  • Private online project management services (eg ) allow your people to collaborate on specific projects and track progress
  • Private social networks such as Chatter enable colleagues to create skills profiles, form groups and get real-time alerts when their thinking is needed

Ultimately, these tools give everyone in your organisation access to the people they need and the ability to connect to them quickly and easily.

2. Customer feedback: the innovation megaphone

Where do great ideas come from? Sure, there are plenty of occasions when someone in a garage comes up with something brilliant. But most new ideas come as a result of trying to fix a problem. And who is it that has these problems? Customers.

Today, of course, one of the first places customers go with a problem (especially an unresolved one) are their social networks. This can be to complain – #FAIL – or to ask for the help they didn’t get from the manufacturer. And while this is an excellent opportunity to deliver outstanding customer service it is also a powerful stimulus for innovation within your company.

Listening is key. Unless you know what’s happening, you can’t do anything about it. Listening platforms such as Radian6 can help you better understand what customers are saying, where they’re saying it and the underlying sentiment behind their remarks. As you notice patterns emerge – either among your own customers or those of your competitors – you can begin to look for ways of solving them.

This results in three major innovation benefits (above and beyond the customer service ones):?

  • You’ll learn new ways to keep customers happy
  • You’ll harvest new product and service ideas
  • You’ll be able to test new ideas before investing

Of course if you’re not yet ready for something as sophisticated as Radian6, there are other ways to begin listening too. You can use Google Alerts, regularly monitor key forums and run searches on Twitter – you’ll be amazed at what you find.

3. Crowdsourced innovation: where will your next great idea come from?

The process of crowdsourcing – ie. opening up tasks traditionally kept within the company to a wider range of people is quickly becoming established as a great way to get new thinking into a business. mobile-social-media-round-up-4
Dell, for example, runs a programme called IdeaStorm where they actively solicit new ideas from social
communities to help develop their products and services. To date, Dell customers and community members
have submitted over 16,000 ideas (Dell also has EmployeeStorm for their staff and PartnerStorm for, you
guessed it, partners).

Social media gives you access to passionate customers willing to help you deliver better products and
services (after all, they benefit in the end). Tools such as collaborative wikis, social networks and online
forums enable you to quickly and easily collect, moderate and engage with new ideas. But how do you
make it work?

In an interview on The Next Web, Paul Pluschkell, CEO and founder of crowd innovation company Spigit offers five best practices:

  • 1. Set goals
    Articulate the problem and give your audience a specific challenge or clarity around the end goal.
    Framing the questions is vital to success.
  • 2. Practice cross-fertilisation
    Executive sponsorship is important at the onset to gather crowds, but don’t limit participants to a single area of expertise or department within a business. Bringing together different thinkers results in bigger, better ideas.
  • 3. Make it fun.
    There needs to be a social recognition and a game quality to make what is ultimately a problem-solving task attractive to participants. Integrate game mechanics and voting, or prizes to motivate the crowd.
  • 4. Be committed.
    Be prepared for a continuous feedback loop – to provide an answer, take action or just simply acknowledge the crowd’s contributions.
  • 4. Allocate back-end resources.
    On the front-end, things like communication and motivation are critical. Once the ideas start rolling in, there needs to be curation and filtering, along with plans to put the contributions into action.

(In addition, see Dell’s FAQs for more on how they manage the IdeaStorm programme.)

Actions steps

3 things you should begin doing right now

Hopefully we’ve whetted your appetite for exploring how you can use social tools and networks to collaborate better and innovate faster. If so, here are 3 things you can start doing today:

  • 1. Begin collecting details on your employees’ the skills and experience
    bring this together into a searchable resource such as a social intranet.
  • 2. Set up Google Alerts and Twitter searches for key phrases that highlight customer dissatisfaction
    (see our Mini-guide to Social Customer Service for more on how to do this).
  • 3. Find a small innovation project where you can begin to test crowdsourced innovation
    Select a small group of your best customers and invite them to participate. Learn from the experience before widening the programme further.

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