Putting the Cart Before the Horse? Social Media for Innovation


Using social media as a tool to generate insights and innovation can be generative, or it can bog you down in mounds of data with no effective or resourceful way to do meaningful analysis. This was my biggest takeaway from the MIT Enterprise Forum panel From Social Insights to Social Innovation. The panelists included Betsy Aoki (Bing), Ekaterina Walter (Intel), Nathaniel Perez (SapientNitro), Marcus Nelson (Salesforce), and moderated by Francois Gossieaux (Human 1.0), and was peppered with social media anecdotes, a few swear words and a slight air of cyncism. Maybe cynicism is a strong word, but I walked away with the sense that in using social media for innovation, we're putting the cart before the horse. We're celebrating a solution to a problem that isn't quite understood.

 The panelists at the MIT Enterprise Forum's discussion From Social Insights to Social Business Innovation, September 21, 2011


The problem we are trying to solve is that we need to come up with great ideas faster, and these ideas need to be beautiful and more in-tune with consumers (because consumers are getting more thoughtful about design). Social media has played a key role in certain facets of product development and redesign. For instance, Betsy Aoki gave the example of eliciting user feedback through social media streams to help fix bugs in initial launches of Xbox Live. However, when the conversation came down to using social media for the purposes of innovation, we got some great one-liners like:

If you pay people $100 to give you ideas, you will get ideas worth $100.

It's death by committee...if you get a lot of ideas, you're going to get a lot of stupid ones you need to weed out.

Social media for innovation is, in its simplest form, an opportunistic use of a well-established and genius appratus for bringing people together. There is already a captive audience that has selected to rally behind your brand (friended you on Facebook, etc.), and to many marketing/design/user experience folks, it seems wasteful to ignore this captive audience. However, social media for the purposes of driving innovation is forgetting one of its foundational principles: the element of surprise! Maybe I'm biased, but I'm all about contextual research, which attempts to seek out those surprises that we could never get through a structured entity that opens the floodgates to data points (not real insights or great ideas). The biggest challenge to the panel is figuring out what to measure in the plethora of data they get through social media. As of right now, what they know they can measure is engagement (how many times people talk about the brand, engage with the Facebook page, etc.) But in terms of sifting through data to find ideas, it's still nebulous. 

Innovation or marketing ploy?

The panel briefly touched on some more successful attempts to reach into the crowd to get good ideas. I won't name names, but some big corporations with newfound interests in sustainability and responsible design have been using social media to reach out, pleading with customers that they need help solving 'big problem x.' Come to find out, many of these pleas have nothing to do with any arm of that corporation that deals with innovation, rather, they are just big marketing campaigns. This plea is just a way to get consumers ramped up behind the brand's new messaging and to test the waters for launching new ideas already created internally. Sneaky, huh? According to the panel, what makes engagement with these faux-innovation initiatives so successful is the fact that they have a dedicated purpose, often use a platform that reaches out to people full of good ideas and have boundaries (deadlines, rules). Sadly, many of these faux-innovation intiatives end up hitting a wall because they were created for the sole purpose of delivering a message, not implementing the crowd-sourced ideas.

So what's the big lesson? Is social media useless when it comes to gathering meaningful insights that could lead to innovation? I'm not yet convinced of its utility. But I do think we should stick with what we know about social media for now: it's a great way to get people to like your brand and want to get to know you. It's very human.


A side note...

As an aside, in this discussion, there was a lot of reference to 'early man' as an explanation for much of the social behavior that we've identified as interesting to design around. For example, the claim that "we humans love status and power" is interpreted from the archaic descriptive social behavior of "seeking out better mates and better food." We love to assert these claims because it gives us permission to be self-defeatist about our 'baser' pursuits. Does saying that we love status and power therefore allow us to pursue status and power with the same zeal that early man would toward better mates and food? I just wonder what's the point of looking backward to explain the contemporary, and possibly inform the future. It's just bad science: we define who we are today by looking at the past. But since we didn't live in the past, we can only understand the past if we've defined it...we're defining something which is based on something that's defined.