Beyond the obvious characteristics of user-generated content, many-to many interactions, conversations with peers, raw and uncensored, etc. what are the defining characteristics of social networks that are not generally talked about? Why are they valuable?
YouTube is a top social network site; but why? Its technology is straightforward -- a place to upload videos, plus a 5-star rating system, plus a "flag as inappropriate" button. But with this framework, it enables the community not only to build up a massive "library" of videos, but also to vote up the best ones, and "vote off" the inappropriate ones.
In this way, YouTube grows more valuable to users over time. Users can go to the site watch only the highest rated or most watched videos as vetted by fellow community members. This contrasts with typical publishing, where a magazine or newspaper becomes outdated after it is published and decreases in value further over time.
The "up-to-date-ness" of the information is also vitally important. For example, Yelp.com is a review site that can show recent reviews -- e.g. "a user rated this restaurant a 5-star yesterday." Contrast this timeliness with Zagat's Survey, which is published once a year.
Some users have had the misfortune of going to a highly rated restaurant only to find that the owner and chef have changed since the time of the Zagat Survey.
Another example is RetailMeNot.com. It lists the same collection of coupon codes as DealCatcher.com. But a single innovation enabled the former to launch and quickly overtake DealCatcher as the leading coupon site. The innovation allowed users to give immediate feedback -- "Did the coupon code work? Yes | No." The collective work of the community clicking "yes" or "no" ensured that the coupon codes that did work, bubbled to the top and the ones that did not, fell to the bottom, making the site more useful overall to future visitors.
So for the data that social media deliver, more timely equals more useful. Contrast this to the typical research methodologies of surveys or focus groups, which are conducted periodically and which involve small numbers of people versus the tens of thousands of people potentially giving feedback through social-media channels.
Social media can be a bit messy, though. In fact, when you turn people loose to make comments, interact with each other, gripe or praise products, the responses will run the full gamut from haters to fans. And some of the content they submit is just not valuable. It's raw; really really raw. But the most successful social media frameworks also put in place mechanisms to filter and prioritize the good stuff, and leverage the collective work of the community to do so.
For example, Amazon has reviews of the reviews -- a simple "Was this review helpful: Yes | No." With this, the community will bubble down 5-word reviews like "I really liked this camera," and bubble up the well thought out ones that are truly useful to new potential customers. Furthermore, the hundreds of comments that follow a post on Slashdot become part of the value of the post itself, increasing the credibility and the detail of what was in the post itself, because the community vetted it and added details through the comments. These days, publishing sites that don't allow people to write comments may in fact be turning away or turning off visitors.
Recap: Defining Characteristics of Successful Social Media 1. Increases in value over time, from the collective actions/work of the community.
2. Provides real-time or near-real-time information in statistically significant numbers.
3. Leverages the collective work of the community to vet accuracy and relevance.
Leveraging Social Media for Innovation Now, how can companies use social media to speed innovation? MyStarbucksIdea.com was a well known example of asking customers for their ideas and letting their peer community vote-up what they also liked best. In this way, Starbucks rapidly rolled out the top idea -- rewards program -- in record time and without the need for further vetting through traditional research methodologies. They heard it from the people; the people corroborated the best ideas; Starbucks launched the top idea immediately -- a rewards program.
Intel, too, has formal programs where engineers go into the field to interact directly with IT professionals in places where they naturally "hang out" or do their purchase research -- e.g. TomsHardware.com, AnandTech.com, etc. This first-hand interaction between customers and the engineers who made the chip is beneficial to both parties, develops a deep trust relationship, and yields technology innovation ideas for the engineers.
A hotel chain read complaints about their air conditioning and found the complaints to not be about temperature but rather about the noise, and then acted accordingly. A computer manufacturer read an avalanche of complaints about their tech support after they outsourced it overseas. They quickly on-shored it again to prevent further harm to their brand and business.
The speed of innovation in marketing communications, product development, and even business strategy is a critical competitive advantage in a market landscape where customers are super-savvy users of information. Social media -- the collective conversations and actions of customers, evidenced online -- is a toolset, a sandbox, and a source of as-it-happens information that enables faster innovation. And so it is essential to competitive advantage and to survival.