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Innovation and Social Media

By Dr. Gary Schirr
Assistant Professor at Radford University

In June 2010, I wrote a blog post for Social Media Marketing Magazine predicting that social media marketing will drive product innovation. Since I authored that piece, I have heard plenty of anecdotal evidence from people involved in innovation that social media is indeed improving innovation efforts.

Several researchers—such as Abbie Griffin of "voice of the customer" fame—have shown that every step of a new product (or service) innovation process benefits from increased customer/user input. By facilitating ongoing discussion among users and producers, social media should logically help the innovation process in multiple ways.

Kalypso, an innovation consulting firm, recently released a white paper entitled "Social Media and Product Innovation: Early Adopters Reaping Benefits amidst Challenge and Uncertainty" that details the results from a survey of manufacturing and service companies. More than half of the companies surveyed are using social media in product innovation. The survey found that some firms already were making use of social media in all phases of product innovation, but that most were early users, didn't have a formal plan, and were initially focused on the "front end" of innovation.

The front end of innovation, or "ideation," would indeed seem a phase that could greatly benefit from enhanced user input and engagement. Much attention in innovation research and practice has focused on uncovering knowledge and generating ideas from users. However, standard tools or methods of market and customer research are inadequate. Innovating firms need to uncover the deep needs of users—information that is often "sticky" or contextual and hard to discover from surveys or focus groups. Ideal ideation tools would help expose deep information and knowledge gained from users and engage them so that they continued to support the firm's innovation.

The two dimensions used in the mapping of user research methods (see Figure 1 above) are 1) access to deep knowledge and 2) needs and degree of user engagement. It is vital that a user research method uncover the deep needs and knowledge that can lead to really innovative solutions, and it is desirable that the users become engaged in the process, as their cooperation should help the endeavor and has been shown to lead to greater loyalty and involvement in follow-up innovation efforts. These two dimensions therefore create the four quadrants.

Some traditional customer research methods fall in less-desirable quadrants without access to deep knowledge. Customer surveys are low on both deep knowledge and engagement. It is hard to uncover knowledge not known in advance in a multiple-choice question, and answering a survey does not generally engage respondents or make them want to continue to support an innovation effort. So surveys are in the low engagement/low deep knowledge area (Quadrant 1).

Focus groups and customer brainstorming engage participants and give them a stake in the group's results. Unfortunately, research has consistently shown that the same group dynamics that engage participants also kill the number, quality, and originality of ideas generated—no deep information here! (These results are discussed on my blog.) These group techniques are in Quadrant 2—high engagement but still low in access to deep knowledge.

Innovation researchers and practitioners have developed new approaches to undercover deep needs and generate more innovative ideas and solutions. User site visits, in-depth voice of the customer interviews, and ethnographic techniques borrowed from anthropology have been found to undercover deep needs. These techniques define Quadrant 3, which uncovers deep knowledge but doesn’t necessarily engage the customers going forward.

Finally, in Quadrant 4 is the best of both: a set of methods that uncover deep knowledge while also encouraging engagement with the users. Three methods are co-creation—users and firms working together to develop new products, probe-and-learn, and hurrying just-good-enough products to the market to facilitate rapid innovation from real-world feedback and effectuation, a market-driven approach to constantly experiment while limiting losses.

Depending on the goals of the firm, co-creation can involve typical customers or the most demanding users (lead users) to focus on more innovative solutions. Effectuation is usually associated with startups, but established firms often mimic the conditions of startups to encourage innovation.

The methods in Quadrants 3 and 4 require careful management and often even relocating employees to access client workspace. Social media could contribute to ideation by modifying the trade-offs in existing user research techniques, reducing the management burden on deep knowledge techniques and creating new methods with attractive deep knowledge and engagement characteristics.

Social media and online techniques already have modified traditional customer research methods. Online surveys have lowered the cost of conducting each survey and made it easier to constantly create new surveys and modify old ones in response to changing conditions or new information. Thus, surveying may gather more information per dollar, but it hasn't become more engaging or accessed deeper knowledge. On the other hand, online focus groups and user brainstorming actually could allow change in the depth of knowledge and engagement. By having some of the ideas generated outside of the group, online focus groups and user brainstorming can experiment with trading some group engagement for deeper knowledge and better ideas.

More exciting is access to deep knowledge—the action in Quadrants 3 and 4. Social media has led to new emerging sciences of online ethnography and social media data mining. By scanning users' blogs, their comments on Twitter and Facebook, and interactions with the firm's site, analysts can uncover surprising, deep information. Social media ethnography would belong in Quadrant 3 and not necessitate placing staff in a user's physical site. Firms may create sites where people can design or modify products and services to also tap into their creativity.

Crowdsourcing is the best-known social media technique that is in the most desirable Quadrant 4—deep knowledge and engaged users. The "threadless model," reaching out to all consumers, is being modified as firms seek innovative communities of manageable size or perhaps with special qualifications, such as a lead user. Figure 2 below shows how the user research methods are already improved by social media.

Despite the effects shown in this illustration, this process is still in its infancy. Totally new tools will be developed to enhance innovation. Existing methods will be modified to the point that they are no longer recognizable by current innovators. A modified form of customer brainstorming that accesses deep knowledge but still encourages user engagement will evolve. Social media ethnography and experimenting will advance. Firms will facilitate or cooperate with a variety of creative user communities on social media.

There will be important operational, legal, and ethical issues—such as privacy, access to data, intellectual property rights, and even power or control over the innovative effort by user communities. These issues will be contentious for years to come. But ultimately, firms will be able to more deeply understand the users of their products and services and draw on their creative energies.

Social media will change many of the existing processes and rules of user research and engagement. The firms that master the new, emerging methods will enhance their innovation—the process most vital to their ultimate success.

Gary Schirr

Dr. Gary Schirr is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Radford University. He has a research focus on innovation, user engagement, co-creation, and social media. Gary has taught undergraduate and MBA courses in professional selling, entrepreneurship, and international marketing. He has had two articles accepted by the leading academic journal of new product development, JPIM, and has written for several industry publications. Before beginning his academic career, Gary worked in finance and served as a marketing consultant to a number of startup firms. Gary has a Ph.D. in marketing from the University of Illinois at Chicago, an M.S. in finance from Carnegie Mellon University, and a B.S. in mathematics from Miami University.