Social media in business

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The argument that customer needs must drive product development has long been won. Doing it this way increases the certainty that targeted customers will buy when the product reaches the market and that manufacturers will make a profit.

In the main, manufacturers have now mastered product development techniques for capturing the right set of customer needs, and then using them to shape the product definition using quality function deployment (QFD), focused group approaches, customer surveys and other techniques.

But nothing stands still

Competition is relentlessly increasing and customers are more demanding; they want the latest innovations in their new products now. At the same time, markets are becoming more segmented and age, geography and culture are diversifying the total requirements more than ever.

It’s almost as if everyone wants their own unique product to suit their specific needs. And with global internet access, individuals can search with a wider net and more quickly for product detail, availability and the mechanics of purchasing where ever products may be sold.

All of this can provide manufacturers with huge commercial opportunities if only they can address the wide diversity of customer needs and build global products around them.

Manufacturers have previously published impressive claims, such as halving product development time and cost through continuous improvements to their development process.


However, these days just collecting the diverse needs of global customers can extend the previous time saved and negate gains from any previous improvements at a time when the market demands maximum responsiveness from manufacturers.

The challenge is clear – manufacturers need to address global markets if they are going to maximise commercial success. In doing so, they must capture the immense potential differences that exist globally, and that would almost certainly push the product launch beyond the window of opportunity in the market.

Enter social media

It is reported that the current top eight social media sites have over two billion global users who are publically exchanging comments at a rate of 50 billion per day.

One thing is clear – it is a rapidly growing channel of potentially useful information. Several million of these exchanges can contain views about new products or services, ideas that can direct innovation, sentiments that indicate feelings and preferences, and it can offer product experiences in the users’ own words.

In order to join and start to exchange comments, users must have an on-line public profile. This provides demographic information, age profile, and other key details which are tagged to every comment.

Comments can be analysed, interpretations identified, they can be grouped by relevance and their relative frequency identified.

Social media undoubtedly contains a rich source of the latest product needs, expectations and issues, as directed by the customer. It can potentially highlight what competitors are doing, or feedback how well a new product is being received within the market, or whether it has become dated and needs to be retired.

Tools to help

IT tools that can automatically scan through mountains of publicly available, unstructured information that has recently been entered from all points of the globe are increasingly available.

Some tools can be trained to interpret slang and abbreviations, incorrect spelling and grammar, and deduce the meaning of comments by understanding context. By utilising the user profile which relates to each comment, the deduced meaning can be automatically added to ‘like groups’ and prioritised into themes or similar content.

All of this can be done on a global scale in a fraction of the time taken by conventional methods, thus giving the product team the right information early enough to be useful.

Using this classified information, manufacturers can also shape their product structure to include the parts which should be standard and those which should be set as features and options depending upon the market to be addressed.

There will undoubtedly be some options which don’t make commercial sense and will help to prioritise the addressable market early on.

Problems with social media

This all sounds great but there are still problems with using social media which need to be overcome.

One major weakness is that a percentage of the comments can be meaningless. Some studies have placed this figure around 50 per cent. So is this social media information not reliable?

Assuming that these meaningless comments are evenly spread, the product team can fall back on relative sizing, based on the number of comments captured, rather than exact count. This in turn can influence priority and highlight the most important customer needs.

The other main concern relates to whether you can trust this public information to influence, say, a £4 million development programme.

Many of the companies using social media in this way do not depend upon this method alone.

They sample the results using other market techniques to gain quick confidence. In a number of cases, companies may use up to five or six independent methods to validate the social media information they’ve collected and analysed. In fact, social media is being positioned as a way to quickly create a customer needs hypothesis that is then spot checked and validated using other techniques.

There is still much to be learnt about using social media methods to mine customer needs. Undoubtedly companies will gain confidence through analysing case studies but one thing is clear: product teams face difficulties in linking the Voice of the Customer on a global scale to product requirements, and social media offers some hope in achieving this without destroying the time to market performance.

The pros and cons of social media as marketing tools for design

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