Last week I heard Guy Kawasaki speak at the JFSA Innovators’ lunch. (Thanks to Raquel Hirsch of WiderFunnel for the kind invitation.) Hearing Guy on the Art of Innovation reminded me of a blog post I wrote last year after attending a talk by Michael Axelin, V.P. of Softlines Design and Product Development at Target (and fellow Oberlin alum). Both talks helped me refine my own thinking on how social media can support business innovation — a key benefit of social media that is neglected in favor of a pure focus on marketing.

When I talk about social media innovation, I’m not talking about how you, your best friend and the geeky guy you sat next to in Stats 101 can create the next killer Web 2.0 start-up. (In fact, I think we’ve now reached the point where “killer Web 2.0 start-up” is an oxymoron.) What I’m interested in is how “normal” businesses — businesses who existed before RSS was invented, and may well be around long after it’s superceded by the next thing — can use social media to fuel innovation. It could be innovation in the kinds of products you make, the kinds of services you deliver, or the way you do what you do.

We’ve seen social media support innovation on all of those fronts. Guy’s framework, with additional insights from Michael, provides a great way of envisioning how social media can help you  become a world-class innovator.

  1. Make meaning. Do something that matters and adds value. If you’re only trying to make money, you’ll never be a true innovator.
    How social media can help: Use your social media presence to have a conversation with your customers about something that matters and reflects well on your brand. This kind of reflecting glory marketing can make a real social or environmental impact, and in most cases is the best way to get people passionately engaged with your brand.
  2. Make mantra. Stop worrying about your mission statement and find your mantra: the 3 or 4 words that summarize what you’re about.  This is a great application of Michael’s rule of simplicity, quoting Schumacher: “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex… it takes a touch of genius to move in the opposite direction.”
    How social media can help: Blog or Twitter your way into the truth of what your business is really about. There’s nothing like writing on a regular basis to help you figure out what you care about; find your voice as a blogger, and you find your voice as a company. With its 140 character limit, Twitter brings you even closer to Guy’s vision of the three or four-word mantra: our best summary is the one I twittered a few weeks ago after explaining Social Signal to our son: “We help people use their computers to make friends.”
  3. Jump to the next curve. Guy traced the evolution of food cooling from ice harvesting to ice factories to home refrigerators, and observed that none of the ice harvesting companies became ice factory companies, and none of the ice factories got into making fridges. His point: focus on the benefits, not the product, if you want to find that curve-jumping innovation. As Michael put it in discussing creativity, “defy convention to achieve greatness”.
    How social media can help: Start thinking now about how social media can kill your business proposition and embrace the threat. Newspapers will survive the challenge to print by embracing the web, not resisting it. If you sell content or services, how can you use the web to add social value to your services or I.P.? If you make a product, would it have more value if it were tied to a social context? Whenever you read about or try a new technology, you need to ask yourself how it could add value to your business — because if you don’t, your competitor will.
  4. Role the DICEE. Create products and services that are deep, intelligent, complete, elegant and emotive. It’s a great summary of the design focus that Axelin describes at Target: “Design is the core of innovation. Success depends on having a function, and appeal. Key thing is the emotional connection that gets established with the Target brand.”
    How social media can help: Engage your customers in designing your products or services and you’ll get more and better ideas — ideas that are guaranteed to connect with your customers emotionally, because they come from your customers. Ideastorm, Starbucks and threadless provide three different examples of how that can work.
  5. Don’t worry, be crappy. If you wait until everything’s perfect you’ll never get your product or service out the door. Michael talks about speed: Consumers want the latest thing now. You need to react quickly to design, market and sales trends by creating an organizational bias towards action that encourages people to get it done and get it done fast.
    How social media can help: Introduce internal collaboration tools to speed up your product development and sales cycles. Online project management and collaboration tools like Basecamp, Central Desktop, Salesforce and Yammer have become popular in the tech sector, but any company can speed up by collaborating through socially-enabled tools rather than endlessly circulating Word and Excel documents.
  6. Polarize people. You can’t make everyone happy, so focus on finding the niche that will love you. It’s better to be nine people’s favorite thing than a hundred people’s ninth favorite thing. Michael’s focus on observation can help you find that polarizing niche: ” By observing people in various environments you can see what they may not see themselves and all kinds of insights and opportunities can open up. Observation helps you identify problems that need solutions.”
    How social media can help: Use social media monitoring to find the problems people are complaining about — a lot. The complaints tell you there’s a problem that needs solving. Better yet, find a problem that people complain about, but disagree passionately on how to resolve: now you know you’ve got the polarizing potential Guy talks about.
  7. Let a hundred flowers blossom. Your greatest success may come where you least expect it; Guy points to the many examples of companies that start out offering one product but find themselves in another business altogether. The unpredictable, serendipitous nature of innovation makes it crucial to invite in a range of ideas. Michael talked about the importance of imagination and brainstorming: “Create a culture of idea acceptance not idea judgement…The more open the brainstorming process, the more likely that the next big idea will emerge.”
    How social media can help: Use online brainstorming tools to encourage creative collaboration among your team. Invite customer ideas, feedback and suggestions on how you can offer new or better value.
  8. Churn, baby, churn. Our version of this rule is “iterate”: once you’ve followed the “be crappy” rule, it’s time to create new & better versions, all the time. You can support this with the kind of collaboration Michael discussed: getting a whole team of people to pull together in focusing on how to realize an idea, and continuing to make it better and better.
    How social media can help: Use a good analytics tool, like Google Analytics, to discover the patterns in who comes to your site, how they get there, and what they look at once they’re there. You’ll probably discover that you have several different customer profiles: think about how you can create different versions of your products or services that appeal to these specific niches, and develop different marketing plans and promotions for each one.
  9. Niche thyself. Aim your business at the quadrant where you are unique in providing a high-value product or service.
    How social media can help: Be relentless in learning about your competitors and figure out what sets you apart. Use social media monitoring to track not only what people say about you but also what they say about your competitors: if there isn’t a clear and consistent difference, or worse yet, if they aren’t talking about you at all, refine your offering until it is unique.
  10. Follow the 10/20/30 rule. This rule speaks more to promoting your business innovation: when pitching to funders, present ten slides in twenty minutes, in a 30-point font (assuming that the oldest person you’re pitching to is 60, and dividing their age in half to get the 30-point recommendation).  I’d extract a more general guideline, too: whenever you’re selling, keep it short and to the point, and know your audience.
    How social media can help: Promote your innovative products and services to the people who care, by finding the communities and networks where they’re hanging out. When you’re pitching, keep it short and to the point: announce your contest, product or promotion in a couple of sentences, not a two-paragraph comment on someone else’s blog. And whenever you’re promoting yourself on another network or site, be sure your pitch engages with the community or content you’re piggybacking on (“Your comment about how hard it is to keep your hair tidy on the slopes made me think you’d like our new hair-friendly toque”) so that it doesn’t feel spammy.
  11. Don’t let the bozos grind you down. While you may get lots of useful ideas from your online conversations, you’ll also hear from lots of the “bozos” that Guy describes: people who may be smart and credentialled, but give you the wrong advice — not bad advice, but advice that’s wrong for you.
    How social media can help: Build an online support network that can prop you up when the bozos grind you down. It’s not the network you’ve created for marketing your business, it’s not a gang of yes-men, and it’s definitely not a place you post messages about how you’re feeling down. (Assume that whatever you post will always come back to haunt you.) What it is is a source of inspiration — the bloggers, Twitterers, photographers and videographers who inspire you and remind you why you’re doing what you’re doing. Dip into it whenever you need that boost and reinforcement.

Social media alone won’t make you a master of the Art of Innovation that Guy Kawasaki describes, nor turn you into Target’s next V.P.  But by adopting social media in ways that support innovation, you can ensure that your online efforts repay you not only with buzz, but with brains.