Social media discussion forums and product innovation: The way forward?
First Monday

Social media discussion forums and product innovation: The way forward? by Piia Haavisto



Abstract
The purpose of this paper is to examine the potential use of social media discussion forums in product innovation. The literature shows the value of sport addicts and hobbyists as innovators in product innovation; hence this study is related to sports. This is an empirical study based on substantial data collected from 28 discussion forums. Altogether 2,178 discussions related to heart rate monitors have been evaluated for this paper.

Discussion forums can be regarded as a source of product innovation. However, due to the excessive amount of information in these forums, a planned approach in order to utilize these remarks is necessary. Sport addicts and hobbyists are very interested in product improvements and usage possibilities, forming a considerable resource. Social media discussion forums can replace focus groups, online surveys and panels, and it is easy to reach large groups, test ideas and secure feedback. However, the rapid speed in conversations and excessive need for interaction between individuals set high demands for organizations, as they should clearly decide how to participate, when and how to direct discussions, and how to effectively be present.

Contents

Introduction
Social media product innovation
Consumer integration into social media product innovation
Discussion forums as a source for social media product innovation
Conclusions

 


 

Introduction

During the last few years, social media has become very popular, appearing in newspapers, other media and conversations almost daily. New possibilities offered by its different applications are presented and success stories told. There is some interest in the corporate world in social media but, in some cases, organizations are unclear on how to effectively utilize social media. Success stories told by some companies and professionals are by their nature vague and leave quite much to the imagination. Most often, it appears that companies are interested in social media as a means to gather consumer feedback and to market specific products. Social media product innovation has been regarded as more complicated and demanding.

Social media can strictly be defined as media content that has been produced and shared to a specific community or collection of communities (Heinonen, 2009). Usually social media is linked with Internet–based applications that are targeted for conversation, socializing and networking online. Social media is often defined as being interactive, sharing information about something of mutual interest (Evans, 2008). The challenge to organizations is to offer interesting topics and content at a relatively rapid (in terms of the organization) speed. Social media applications are characterized by openness, participation, conversation, community and connectedness, and include, for instance, social networks, blogs, wikis, podcasts, discussion forums, virtual worlds and photo–, audio– and video sharing.

Product innovation is interpreted in this paper as the development of a new product (Trott, 2005), as a result of improvements made to existing products (Ulwick, 2005). Product innovation is an umbrella term which embraces improvements as well as radical alterations to what is produced or supplied (Johne, 1994). Innovations can be divided into radical and incremental, of which incremental innovations rely on continuous improvements to products (Hilzenbecher, 2005) or to products that have minor changes in attributes from the consumers’perspective (Hoonsopon and Tuenrom, 2009; Schilling, 2008; Reichwald, et al., 2007). These innovations might not be particularly new or exceptional; they might have been previously known and involve only a minor adjustment (Schilling, 2008). More than 80 percent of innovation initiatives are designed to develop incremental innovations that already have an established consumer base (Ulwick, 2005). The risks related to innovation tend to be lower for incremental innovations (Prandelli, et al., 2008). This paper concentrates on incremental product innovations as they seem to fit better into the nature of discussion forums. The main ingredient in discussions is their interactivity and unstructured communication. It is difficult to maintain a long discussion concentrated on a single topic. It would be a challenge to develop totally new products in discussion forums, but they offer a constant flow of ideas for minor improvements as well as insights into consumers.

Many researchers in product innovation have been interested in the later stages of the product innovation process and have already recognized opportunities that could be realized in practice. Less research has been devoted to early stages of the processs, partly because information gathered during later stages is seen as more reliable (Verworn and Herstatt, 1999) and therefore has immediate utility to many researchers and companies. On the other hand, if it is possible to specify a product clearly during the early stages of the innovation process, it will lead to cost intensive and efficient work during later stages (Reichwald, et al., 2007). Discussion forums offer a constant flow of ideas, but they are hardly usable at only an observational level: an intervention with specified questions is needed. With this strategy social media discussion forums are a way forward in product innovation.

Some research has examined the early stages of the product innovation process. For example, management of the fuzzy front end has been treated by Verworn and Herstatt (1999), while product innovation with consumers, and their integration into the whole process has been examined by Wobser (2003), Wecht (2005), Reichart (2002), and Lüthje (2004). In addition to product innovation management, several themes have been mentioned separately: idea competitions (Soll, 2006), toolkits (Bartl, 2006), community based innovation (Bartl, 2006), virtual communities (Herstatt and Sander, 2004; Jawecki, et al., 2009) and virtual worlds (Herstatt and Sander, 2004). Many of these studies are at a rather general level, concentrating on innovation management and pointing out the importance of consumer integration throughout the whole product innovation process. Virtual worlds have been seen as a very potential area for co–creation with consumers.

Some attention has been paid to different brand communities and online communities in product innovation. However, in general, discussion forums have been mainly studied only for advertising and promotional purposes as well as for gathering information. A closer link to this study was found in educational research, where analysis of the contents of discussions tied to the role of an instructor were studied. Thus, the possible significant role of discussion forums in product innovation is understood, but has remained unclear.

As social media and related phenomena are relatively new, many different experiments are typical. A relatively large amount of literature is very practice–oriented, in order to financially benefit from social media. In this sense, product innovation has not raised a great deal of interest, as immediate benefits in marketing are seen easier as more attainable. Weber (2009) argues, however, that community building focusing on a common interest of its members is one of the fastest growing applications on the Internet. Thus, discussion forums offer a remarkable resource for product innovation and a possibility to transform early stages of the product innovation process into new dimensions.

 

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Social media product innovation

Developing new ideas seems to be the starting point for innovation (Trott, 2005), especially the notion of “perceived newness” by consumers regardless of a given product’s “real newness” (Rogers, 2003; Robertson, 1971). New ideas are the starting point for innovation (Wecht, 2005; Dahan and Hauser, 2001; Franz and Wolkinger, 2003; Kettunen, et al., 2004) and as an important phase in creating a successful product innovation process. At a very preliminary stage, an abundance of ideas is important. Ideas are analyzed and evaluated several times, and only a few are seen as relevant for future development. Often ideas which are considered insignificant or irrelevant by those suggesting them are those which other members of the creative group find as innovative, inspirational or novel with respect to rest of the competition (Legrenzi, 2005). In this sense, discussion forums offer a good place for observation and a possibility to discover what consumers really think about a specific product.

Although activities in the early stages of the product innovation process are often considered generally chaotic, unpredictable and unstructured (Koen, et al., 2001), Dahan and Mendelson (2001) state that this uncertainty arises from imperfect information about consumers and markets, as well as undiscovered or untested product designs and technologies. The start of the innovation process presents one of the most remarkable opportunities for improving the overall innovation process (Koen, et al., 2001; Dahan and Hauser, 2001; Bragg and Bragg, 2005), if a given organization manages the execution and delivery of an idea design properly (Dahan and Mendelson, 2001).

Figure 1 presents an overview of the idea generation stage in the innovation process, emphasizing the importance of interactive skills, creativity, motivation as well as technical knowledge. As described in this figure, both consumers and corporate professionals are needed in the process of finding possible product opportunity gaps for new or modified products. As noted in the figure, simple observation is hardly sufficient; instead interactivity is needed.

 

Consumers and professionals co-creating in the product innovation process
 
Figure 1: Consumers and professionals co–creating in the product innovation process.

 

Among product innovation researchers, understanding and meeting consumer needs are amongst the most important success factors for new products (Wecht, 2005; von Hippel, 2001; von Hippel and Katz, 2002; Zirger and Maidique, 1990; Cooper, 1994; Day, et al., 1979; Hoffmann, 2007, 2006; Cooper and Kleinschmidt, 1986; Hauser, et al., 2006; Heyenga, 1997). The greatest challenge to product and service innovation is to identify existing, but also future, consumer needs (Soll, 2006). Therefore, accurate information on consumer needs and their context (von Hippel, 2001) are essential as well as knowledge about former experiences, expectations on how a product will be used (Rohracher, 2005) and its place in the market (Tinz, 2007; Heiskanen and Lovio, 2007). Here discussion forums can be a relevant source of information, if an organization has a specific plan to collect relevant information.

Social media applications have a clear advantage compared to many traditional methods: they are often free of charge or at least very inexpensive. It should be noted, however, that they are usually thought as a complementing function, not a replacement tp traditional methods. The interactive nature of social media demands time and thus resources from organizations, making them more costly than at first blush. However, the active involvement of consumers is essential and special attention should be paid to consumer integration in product innovation. Participants are motivated to interact in discussions either to order to resolve their own problems or to help others. In discussions, there are both very active individuals and those than that just seem to lurk. To achieve the best results, organizations should motivate participants to remain active in discussions; hence, a consumer integration plan would be important.

Typically for social media and interaction with consumers there is a need for intensity, anonymity and interactivity (Bartl, 2006). Experimentation with Internet technologies attract many organizations, as they are easy to implement, inexpensive and easily repeatable (Soll, 2006), and can reduce risks and market uncertainties (Füller and Matzler, 2007). There is no complete list of different methods, but the most common ones for idea development have been collected in Table 1. Organizations can choose a passive way to observe and manage discussions, asking for suggestions and feedback from consumers. A more active approach would be to interact with consumers, to strive for a deeper dialogue. Professionals and active consumers may also work together to develop special online platforms for product innovation and design.

 

Common methods for utilizing discussion forums
Table 1: Common methods for utilizing discussion forums.

 

Listening and monitoring are mainly suitable for incremental innovations and are easy to organize whereas radical innovations demand interactivity, identification of potential experienced consumers and building a focus group; hence they are found only seldomly (Herstatt and Sander, 2004). The role of the consumer is changing from a simple user of products and services to a co–equal partner, as the consumers are becoming co–producers and co–designers (Reichwald, et al., 2007). Conceptualizing the consumer as an active participant instead of a passive evaluator in the product innovation process has diminished the gap between consumers and manufacturers (Van Rompaey, et al., 2005): Consumers involved in the entire process, that is, integrated into the whole product innovation process (Wecht, 2005) as designers or stakeholders, have a different and more vital role, than simple commentators (Van Rompaey, et al., 2005).

Many of these methods can be used differently in different circumstances, if only the goals and reasons behind consumer involvement have been defined clearly. For instance, discussion groups are useful not only for passively analyzing, but also for sharing and developing ideas. The utility of information extracted from discussions depends on understanding their context (Hornitzky, 2010). Hence, interactivity need to meet not only the organization’s expectations but those of participating consumers in order to secure honest input and feedback (Füller and Matzler, 2007). Social media operates at Internet speed; hence, answers and comments need to be processed quickly within 48 hours at a maximum. This turnaround time exerts real pressure on organizations to maintain a constant presence. However, with careful planning and an open attitude, discussion forums can bring many benefits to a company in product innovation: the possibility to understand consumers, to hear opinions and ideas, and discover improvements to existing products.

 

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Consumer integration in social media product innovation

To succeed in consumer integration, companies should have clear methods and strategies to involve consumers (Soll, 2006): Which consumers should be integrated into the product innovation process? What contents should be regarded as the most relevant in the process? What methods should be used? What kinds of information will be forwarded to professionals that have no direct contact to consumers? (Reichart, 2002).

Successful consumer integration depends on finding innovative consumers (Bartl, 2006): especially those that are passionate and knowledgeable with a clear vision and understanding of the market realities (Seybold, 2006). Firms need to extent their ability to absorb consumer knowledge that currently is beyond their reach and influence (Verona, et al., 2006). Online possibilities for consumer integration have special value. As interaction between firms and consumers is very important in the innovation process (Verona, et al., 2006), special interactive methods for cooperation are important (Wobser, 2003).

The role of consumers and producers in product innovation is still not comprehensively conceptualized (Heiskanen and Lovio, 2007). How consumer orientation and integration can be included in the product innovation process is yet unclear (Lüthje, 2004). Conventional market research provides consumers with a passive role and does not view them as possible innovators, with companies seen as active and constructive (Hoffmann, 2007; Sawhney, et al., 2005). Where consumers have been actively involved in design processes (Rohracher, 2005; von Hippel, 1982; Scheier and Prügl 2008), such as sports and technology, have led to successful new products (Urban and von Hippel, 1988). In discussion forums, it is sometimes easy to identify the most useful participants as their comments are very often quite professional.

Companies are moving from closed, internal innovation towards more open innovation practices that promise relatively easy access to need and problem solving information and thus helps to create a better fit–to–market. For most companies, the possibilities and rules as well as research tools are still quite unclear, and the changing social media environment does not make it any easier for them. It is clear that the consumer’s role has changed, a consumer with a desire to contribute and innovate. Companies are faced with a challenge to interact, maintain dialogues and create contacts for consumers. Some research has supported obervational methods (Franke and Shah, 2003), while other research emphasizes the role of interaction and openness, even development of a two–way learning relationship with individual consumers (Prandelli, et al., 2008). Dialogue is challenging for companies: it includes an empathic understanding built around understanding the consumers’ experience as well as recognizing the emotional, social, and cultural context of these experiences (Prahalad and Ramaswamy, 2004). Companies should understand consumer needs and preferences, attempting to create consumer value in concert with consumers. However, companies should understand that not all of their participation in social media will be appreciated.

Social media has changed social and corporate environments. Earlier, the ability to create content and distribute it to an audience was limited to traditional media, whereas now everyone can contribute and participate (Mustonen, 2009). Social media are, by their nature, not bound by geography, moving at an accelerated rate on a global basis. Therefore traditional cultural differences might not have a significant influence on different threads under discussion.

Social media has given a great deal of power to consumers and thus present challenges to many companies (Mustonen, 2009). The popularity of social communities has created new and unforeseen social possibilities. Participating in online discussions, and maintaining them, can help companies to connect more deeply with their best consumers and gain valuable consumer insight (Vollmer and Precourt, 2008). The most successful companies participate actively online; provide ideas and advice on a wide variety of subjects and topics, thus gaining the trust of their consumers that in turn help with different problems (Scott, 2007).

The special nature of the Internet challenges companies: they must constantly offer interesting topics for discussion to encourage the consumers to return to forums (Antikainen, 2007; Buss and Straus, 2009). Discussion forums allow individual members to find others with similar concerns or areas of expertise, and to engage in discussions with them (Kosonen, 2008) as well as help them expand their networks (Buss and Straus, 2009). The open nature of messaging in discussion forums (Ravid and Rafaeli, 2004), with an emphasis on member–to–member interaction (Buss and Strauss, 2009) provides ample opportunities for all participants.

In social media, trust and reliability are regarded as extremely important. Hence it would be wise to start on a small scale, allowing participants an opportunity to develop a specific interactive space (Kim, 2000). Jawecki, et al. (2009) define discussion forums as places to gather information for product innovation. As soon as a creative member finds a solution, idea or concept, he usually presents it to others in the community for comment. However, without a moderator, a discussion can easily unravel with some commentary being ignored. Consequently, it is important to have an experienced moderator directing discussion and keeping it relevant and positive. With careful moderation, consumer views and needs will be more quickly and specifically brought to the attention of specific members of the corporate hierarchy and utilized specifically in product innovation.

 

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Discussion forums as a source for social media product innovation

A key notion in innovation success is to understand the voice of consumers, their needs and preferences (Urban and Hauser, 1993). Most difficulties from unsuccessful innovations are related to technical problems or inappropriate orientation to consumer needs (Reichwald, et al., 2007). Usually four benefits are presented in relation to active consumer integration: shorter time–to–market; reduced cost–to–market; better fit–to–market; and, higher degree of newness–to–market (Heyenga, 1997; Reichwald, et al., 2007). Companies integrating users appreciate their idea contributions in terms of originality, productivity and stickiness (meaning that they would not have come across those ideas themselves) (Skiba and Herstatt, 2008).

Discussion forums are the longest established form of social media, typically built around specific topics and interests. Each separate discussion in a forum is known as a thread, and typically many different threads are active simultaneously. Discussion forums are an expression of online communities allowing participants to post a topic for others to review. Other participants can view the topic and post their own comment in linear fashion. Most forums are public, allowing anyone to sign up at any time.

Discussion forums have not been studied specifically in terms of product innovation as their utility is considered by some to be time consuming and inefficient. However some companies voice an interest in their use, as they form an extensive and free database of consumers and their needs. However this extensiveness hinders many companies from using them, given the amount of information that can be generated over time.

Jawecki, et al. (2009), Lüthje (2004) and Tinz (2007), for example, have demonstrated the importance of sport addicts and hobbyists in product innovation. Therefore, for this study, Finnish sports–related discussion forums were examined, with ultimately six being chosen for further analysis — www.fillarifoorumi.fi, www.kiloklubi.fi, www.lenkkivihko.fi, www.nojatuolifoorumi.fi, www.potku.net and www.suomi24.fi. It was noticed that the most popular topic in them were heart rate monitors, with Suunto (http://www.suunto.com/) heart rate monitors invoking the most discussion (Polar (http://www.polarusa.com/) being the second). These threads were examined and the process continued with the analysis of Suunto’s forums with 22 different discussion groups. In total 2,187 discussion messages were analysed, first roughly in MS Excel and then more specifically in the NVivo programme.

As presented in Table 2, almost all of the discussions started with a concrete problem. Only some discussions were started with a voluntary piece of advice given to others or some form of company feedback.

 

Start of discussion
Table 2: Start of discussion.

 

Table 3 illustrates that a typical starting comment gained under 10 answers, and that most of the discussion was brief. Long discussion, with over 50 or even over 20 comments, was rare. Typically a long discussion was related to either reliable or accurate training results or a purchasing decision.

 

Length of discussion
Table 3: Length of discussion.

 

As shown in Table 4, most discussion was related to technical advice, such as connection problems between heart rate monitors and other devices such as foot pods, GPS pods and PCs, training results and computer programmes needed in conjunction with heart rate monitors and related issues.

 

Themes under discussion
Table 4: Themes under discussion.

 

The list of discussion forums studied and the amount of discussions in them is presented in the Appendix. A typical discussion is short, with less than 10 comments (88.6 percent) and is usually related to a specific problem. Once the problem has been resolved, the discussion ends unless someone asks a new question that continues the initial discussion. Thus the last comments in a specific thread can initiate a totally different theme. Consequently, it can be difficult to follow a specific discussion, as someone might not answer the immediate previous question, but instead refer to a remark made many months earlier.

Most of the discussions examined in this study were related to concrete technical problems. Hence, a corporation may investigate ways in which it can start a discussion around a perceived problem with a given product. Discussions related to technical problems are, by their nature, practical and instigate in turn comments about the practical uses of equipment related to product and performance improvements.

 

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Conclusions

This study illustrates that discussion forums can be regarded as a source for product innovation ideas. However, in order to secure relevant information, oreganizations should participate rather than just follow and observe threads, for there is a strong need for some direction in discussions. Discussion forums contain valuable content which can be secured through constant and involved interactivity. This interactivity needs not to be forced, but responsive to the community. In Suunto’s discussion forums, there were certain threads where the presence of corporate evangelists existed: they participated by toning down negative commentary, highlighting the positive, and leading discussion in new directions.

Discussion forums are regarded by some as relatively risky. On the other hand, they give organizations first–hand information about their customers. In social media, interactivity and timeliness are crucial, so there are costs to maintaining a presence in any flavor of social media. These demands could be challenging to many organizations.

An organization could see its role as a promoter of interactivity as well as offering technical and accurate information for its customers. It is important that social media “does not forget”, so there is little room or tolerance for errors. Therefore social media strategy and action plans are required in order to minimize mistakes.

To achieve the best results, an organization should establish a discussion forum of its own, or even more specifically several forums with well–defined and narrow themes. For example, Suunto had different discussions started for each product. To be successful, a company needs to attract motivated participants and knowledgeable consumers. With these participants, the level of discussion will be high and their length suitable for discovering new product ideas. These forums can replace traditional focus groups, online questionnaires and panels. Consequently, the best way to motivate participants is to keep the level of discussion focused, so that participants can find solutions to their problems, be able to interact with other participants and feel that their opinions and expertise matters to a specific organization. A key to success is a strategy and plan for consumer integration in social media product innovation. With this scenario, discussion forums can be used as a relevant source for product innovation ideas. End of article

 

About the author

Piia Haavisto is a Senior Lecturer at Laurea University of Applied Sciences in Hyvinkää, Finland. Her research interests are product innovation, social media and international business.
E–mail: piia [dot] haavisto [at] laurea [dot] fi

 

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Appendix

 

List of discussion forums analyzed
Appendix: List of discussion forums analyzed.

 

 


Editorial history

Received 6 March 2012; accepted 3 September 2012.


Creative Commons License
This work is in the Public Domain.

Social media discussion forums and product innovation — The way forward?
by Piia Haavisto
First Monday, Volume 17, Number 10 - 1 October 2012
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3984/3332
doi:10.5210/fm.v17i10.3984





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