The New Innovation: How Social Media Informs Product Development

Richard Shaw
Marketing Insights
Current average rating    
Key Takeaways
  • Social media research is just one tool in a shed of techniques, but it’s powerful and has been underutilized for too long.
  • Rather than worrying about who is posting content online, it can be more useful to think about how behavior manifests itself.
  • Online content can kick-start innovation projects with a wider variety of ideas than you get from other research methods.
How social media insights inform—and improve—product development

The voice wasn’t my golf coach, my young nephew or even my partner. It was that voice in my head. The one with the Texas drawl that always perks up when my brain realizes that the thing I’ve been slaving over for days, even weeks, isn’t working.

It was 2010 and I was going through the text from a new product development discussion from an online community. We’d asked consumers all the usual questions: “Tell us about the problems you have when preparing food” and “How do you get around those problems?” The answers read like a Martha Stewart Living article—one that had already been written.

The responses we received were not the insights we were looking for, and  wasn’t the only one who realized this. We had fallen into the trap of asking unreliable witnesses to comment on their own behavior. Why didn’t we tap into the insights that consumers were already creating for us every day on social media?

A small but growing number of practitioners like Annie Pettit, author of the paper “I Will Tell You What They Want, What They Really Really Want,” companies like Precise and startups like Niice have started using naturally occurring online content to inspire, inform and innovate. The work that is being conducted in this space is not social media monitoring. It’s not about counting the number of online mentions, seeing who has the most followers or forcing sentiment analysis. These are approaches that use online content to understand the world rather than measure it. This understanding can then be taken to inspire new product development.

If the Internet is such a great tool for innovation and insight practitioners, why is it so underutilized? Businesses have tended to focus on using social media simply for reputation monitoring, or for marketing, with a mixture of success and failure. But using social media research as a foundation for new product and communications work has suffered from a number of problems: The analysis is time-consuming, the data is noisy and the sampling is misunderstood. 


Businesses have steered away from using social media for innovation research because there’s so much of it. Relying solely on counts and word clouds leads you to the most common and usually most obvious product ideas. At its best, this counting is useful for incremental innovation. The alternative high-touch approach, where a researcher reads through thousands of pieces of content, is an expensive and time-consuming, if not impossible, task.​​​​

The following article is available exclusively to Members and Marketing Insights Subscribers.


Author Bio:

Richard Shaw
Richard Shaw is vice president and DigiVisionary, and a member of BrainJuicer Labs, at London-based Brainjuicer Group PLC. He can be reached at

Become a Member
Access our innovative members-only resources and tools to further your marketing practice.