When I was a college student considering a career in business, I loved the idea of innovation—it was the secret sauce that helped new brands to stand out and established brands to reassert their power. I romanticized that lightning-strike moment of brand-altering inspiration that changed the way people thought about a product or industry. I’d picture myself having a brilliant idea while walking the dog and calling a meeting with the higher-ups, who’d pound their fists on the table with excitement and immediately shout, “Ship it!”

Clearly, everyone in my daydream would recognize the brilliance of my innovative thinking and want my idea out in the world right away. No need for research, testing or iteration—let’s just do this!

Imagine my dismay when I launched my advertising career and learned that literally everything, from photography and package design to campaign headlines and website fonts, had to be discussed, debated, tested, revised and tested again before it ever reached the outside world.

My romantic idea of innovation as something you could just recognize in your gut was out of sync with the tremendous amount of bet-hedging most brands needed to feel confident in a new product or marketing campaign. Certainly, major missteps are avoided with such a measured approach—but so are opportunities to create significant connections. The sharp, brand-defining edges of inspired ideas are often worn down in focus groups as innovation teams strive for mass relatability at the expense of deeper relevance with their desired audience.

But what if I told you there was a way to both validate and refute innovative ideas without diluting what makes them unique and authentic? The results would be electrifying, but also require us to listen carefully to our audiences, dismantle our current thinking about the process for validating ideas, and be willing to take risks and fail fast. In short: Be scrappier, and see innovation differently.

Get more out of research  

If you’ve been following Insights over the past few years, you’ve likely read how social listening can be a game-changer for every department of a modern business. Millions of messages, images and videos are shared publicly to social platforms every day, giving every brand on earth access to the unfiltered likes, dislikes, interests and desires of the audiences they spend so much time and money trying to understand. While there will always be a role in innovation for deep qualitative research, too often brands enter the research phase without a clear definition of what they’re trying to learn.

By using a powerful social listening tool to aggregate and parse all of that conversational data, smart brands can formulate and test hypotheses quickly and then pressure test those assumptions through qualitative research.

Let me give you an example: Years ago, I was the social lead at my agency working for a major Mexican beer brand with legacy, authentic ties to surf culture and the surfer community. We were building the brand’s first year-round social content strategy and wanted to better understand what our surfer audience thought about and did during the offseason. Our hypothesis was that they’d be into other adrenaline-driven activities, so we set up social media queries to test that theory. We were specifically looking for other “extreme” sports in which we could leverage the post-activity ritual of having a beer and recounting the day with friends. By analyzing the social data we captured through listening, we honed in on snowboarding as the surfer’s winter activity of choice by both conversation volume and sentiment. This allowed us to go into traditional research with a head start—a clear focus on learning how we could best incorporate our client’s brand into the snowboarding experience.

Without social listening to test and confirm our hypothesis, we would have spent countless hours and money using qualitative research to get to the snowboarding “aha” moment. Using the low-lift, low-cost data tools available through social listening, we were able to optimize the higher-value qualitative research budget to go deeper with our surfer/snowboarder audience.

Go deeper with your audience

You can probably see where this is going: Social data fuels innovation by allowing you to get a lot of the basic research out of the way so you can move more quickly and go deeper during your qualitative research. It also enables you to validate your qualitative findings and add additional context before putting them into practice in your innovation roadmap.

Take the classic example of a large CPG food company, like Kraft, that is considering an expansion into a new vertical. Kraft determined through traditional market research that they wanted to enter the grocery burger market. They also identified four main audiences, from entertainers and foodies to family cooks. The traditional next step was to convene focus groups with members of each audience to determine their likes and dislikes, learn about their daily routines and dig into their motivations when meal planning.

But smart brands like Kraft know that most or all of that persona-building context is available in the conversations shared on social media. As a result, they identified “mini burgers,” or sliders, as the one product that solved pain points across multiple audiences. From allowing entertainers to easily serve different flavors of burgers to helping home cooks customize dinners based on the individual tastes of picky children, Kraft found the throughline between diverse audiences and built its innovation strategy around the motivations they shared on social.

By developing social listening queries based on what you already know about an audience, you can test your assumptions about what drives them and uncover new insights, trends and commonalities you never even knew you were looking for. You’ll learn more about what makes your audiences tick, which means you can connect your truly innovative ideas to the emotional, social and other factors that compel them to buy. Instead of dulling the most interesting edges of your innovation to appeal to the widest audience, you’ll sharpen your offerings and lean into the distinct motivations of diverse consumers.

The passionate descriptions shared on social of what’s enhancing or detracting from the daily lives and routines of your (and your competitors’) customers may hold the insights you need to develop, launch and market a truly innovative product.
Lizz Kanneberg
Senior Creative Director

Find the competitive white space 

Virtually every industry is in an all-out race for the kind of innovation that establishes leadership and wins over new customers. There are leader brands and there are follower brands, and increasingly the leaders take calculated risks to fill the white spaces in their industries with new and differentiated offerings.

But simply bringing a new product to market isn’t enough to guarantee success. You must know what your audience wants, and one of the best ways to determine what they do and don’t like about your entire competitive set is through social listening data. Considering how less than 20% of consumers tag a specific brand or company in their social posts, analyzing the wealth of non-branded conversations is the key to understanding where your product or service innovation could fill an untapped need for consumers. The passionate descriptions shared on social of what’s enhancing or detracting from the daily lives and routines of your (and your competitors’) customers may hold the insights you need to develop, launch and market a truly innovative product.

Listen, learn, test, repeat

Not every product or brand innovation is going to be a winner, and there are certain parts of your product or service offering that you want to have the utmost confidence in before you launch. But by using the world’s largest and most open focus group—social media—to better understand your audiences and what motivates them, your brand will be better positioned to create, embrace and optimize those lightning strikes of innovation when they happen.

Looking for real-life, listening use cases across industries to inspire your own listening strategy? Download this guide to explore 40 unique ways to use social listening.