There’s no doubt that social media is the way for businesses of all sizes to directly communicate with consumers. Going beyond this interaction, social media does provides direct feedback to businesses about their products, pricing, distribution, etc. Obviously, crowdsourcing, or social innovation, can be a powerful tool, however if you’re in the SMB category, collecting focused, valuable feedback from users, managing this data, and then deriving practical action points from it can be a bit more of a time investment than many have to make.

If you’re the person (or part of a team) that’s responsible for your organization’s social media outreach, chances are, you’ve already got a mountain of data sitting in your Facebook or Twitter stream. You’re monitoring what’s being said about your organization with a variety of tools. Instead of focusing on your output, let’s turn the tables and see what the output from your following community is. This is the very first step in crowdsourcing your company’s next move: Listen.

Listen

listen Go beyond traditional social media practices

If you’re doing your social media related responsibilities correctly, you’re acutely aware of what’s being said about your product, company, service, etc… But instead of just knowing this information, how about a formalized tracking system of it? Meaning, if you notice a question or comment frequently occurring, make note of it. You could create a spreadsheet, mind map, word document, etc. The format is up to you, so long as you’re actively tracking these questions.

Ok, so you’ve got a list of recurring questions, comments, etc., now what? It’s time to start formulating some responses. Are these questions something that can easily be addressed through an FAQ? A detailed blog post that you can point users to? Maybe a quick and simple video?

If these comments go beyond the customer service aspect, congratulations, you’ve just crossed over into crowdsourcing. If you’ve got raving customers, how can you leverage this excitement to further the revenues? Are there related products, services, etc. that you can offer users? Are there any areas where you can expand upon your current offerings? Is it time to take a deeper look at this specific product line and expand upon it?

Now let’s be honest, it’s not going to be all sunshine and unicorns. Users are just as apt to tell you what they do not like about your product. Seasoned pros take the obligatory 2 seconds to roll their eyes, and then dig into this negativity with a heapin’ spoonful of, “How can we make this better?” Remember, these negative comments are just as valuable to your organization as the positive ones. Sure, not in the public light, but in the company strategy meetings, these comments are the ones that can drive further success. If your product or service isn’t meeting customer’s needs, how can future versions solve this issue? Did your engineering team even know this was an issue? Is it time to start thinking about killing off a certain product or service? Remember that tracking mechanism mentioned above? Now’s the time to start looking at those numbers and talking to the right people within your organization about some change.

Don’t forget about the unexpected. You’re always going to have a few (or many in some cases) who will use your product in an unexpected way, modify it, hack it, customize it. Take special note of these innovators, and make sure you keep an eye on them. Does this modification have traction? Are other’s wondering how to do the same? Can you build something that will allow users to do the same in the near future?

The Competition

competition Go beyond traditional social media practices

Listening to your own brand and consumers is a good start, but you’ll also want to keep tabs on your competitors. I’m guessing that your TweetDeck (or similar) has column set up monitoring any @ mentions of your competitors. Likewise, either you or your “other” Facebook account are friends or fans with competitors, keeping an eye on what the other guys are doing.

Adding another column to that tracking spreadsheet, keep tabs on what others are saying about competitor’s products and/or services. Is there a specific service or product that they’re offering that your organization doesn’t? Could your organization build upon this offering, putting your own unique spin on it? Can you “one better” this offering?

Similar to your own monitoring, what are consumers not happy about with a competitor’s offering(s)? Does your product fill the void that consumers are displeased about with your competitor’s offering? If so, you’ve just crowdsourced your next marketing push. If not, is your organization agile enough to react quickly and build a solution to capture these unhappy consumers?

Coming full circle, what are some common questions that are asked of your competitor? Are these questions similar to those that you’ve noted? If so, wouldn’t it be fantastic if you/your organization were the ones to present the clear and definitive answer to this common question? Likewise, can your organization build or produce a product or offering that could simply a process that’s obviously confusing your competitor’s users?

The Big Picture

biggerpicture Go beyond traditional social media practices

Keeping tabs on your organization and your competitors is one of the fastest ways to give consumers what they want, but don’t forget about the overall, larger, trending picture. Similar to your Twitter monitoring mentioned above, don’t forget to add a few columns for the big picture, or industry keywords. For example, if you’re in the productivity SaaS biz, you’ll want to keep tabs on “productivity,” “getting things done,” etc. Lots of these tweets won’t be spot on, but by keeping your eye on this stream, you’ll be in the drivers seat when it comes to, “What’s trending, and what do people want?” category.

Keeping your eye on the bigger picture obviously allows you to think about, analyze, and with a certain degree of accuracy, predict the future needs of your consumers. If you notice a number of “How do I’s, or I wish there was a …” popping up in any one specific big picture category, this could be your next product offering in the waiting.

Likewise, is there something that a large number of consumers are doing and associating with your keywords? In the example case of productivity, are users discovering a new way to be more productive? Does your product offer this feature? Are you promoting it appropriately? If not, can you build it in to your next release?

Watching the overall, larger trends can also lead your organization to produce solutions that consumers do not even know that they want yet. Steve Jobs was the grand master of this method, and he and his company benefitted handsomely from it. Isn’t it time you joined this brain train?

Obviously, the critical question you’ve got to ask within the framework of the bigger picture is, “Does this make sense for our organization?” Is there a large enough demand for such action? Could you capitalize on it? If you answered no to either of these questions, don’t simply write the information off, keeps tabs on it, as what was a flicker today could be a scorcher six weeks from now.

Thanks to the advent and popularity of social media, organizations are able to gather feedback and innovate faster than any time previously in history. Chances are, your organization already has a social media presence, and is already interacting with consumers on a daily basis. By simply adding the “innovation” facet to that interaction, organizations that shape the direction of their offerings based in part through social media user feedback are far more likely to deliver offerings that truly resonate with consumers than those that don’t. Which side would you rather be on?